S cience's Next Wave partnered with Genome Canada to host the "Alternative Careers for Scientists" panel discussion at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., on 1 May 2004. Lenka Fedorkova, Next Wave's North American program director, organized the panel and served as the program moderator. The panelists--five scientists and engineers, including men, women, whites, Latinos, and African Americans--demonstrated that careers in science are diversifying in more ways than one. Not only is the workforce growing more diverse; so are scientists' career options. Each of our panelists do different kinds of work, all discovered their current professions in unique ways, yet one common element emerged from the discussion or maybe two: All clearly love what they do, and all are eager to share their wisdom with young scientists, as they did during this panel discussion.
Do What You Love
"You've got to love your job," Marco Midon said. "I am one of these crazy people who almost live what they do." As a lifelong ham radio operator, Midon has worked with sound since he was a child. Now he is the lead NASA Goddard Space Flight Center radio frequency engineer on the team responsible for designing antennas and receivers for a solar probe.
As a child, Tracey Williams Thomas wanted to be a scientist. That single-minded determination almost prevented her from realizing her true love: science policy. When, eventually, she started researching science policy, Next Wave was there to help facilitate the transition. She is currently an AAAS Risk Policy Fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency, responsible for three projects on risk assessment for children's health care.
As it did Williams, a love of science always pushed Nadine Ritter. But after years as a lab assistant, a graduate student, and a postdoc, her love of the bench had disappeared. Her solution? Becoming a consultant to several medical and biotechnology firms specializing in quality assurance. In this new capacity, Ritter is involved in regulatory compliance and documentation for biotechnology and biology products.
In contrast to these other panelists, Derris Banks, the supervisory patent examiner for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, was less certain that his future lay in a technical field; indeed, if his undergraduate education in engineering taught him anything, it was that he didn't want to be an engineer. Banks's engineering background, though, is a great help when he collaborates with the European and Japanese patent offices to ensure consistency of intellectual property rights.
Harrison Wein, writer and editor in the Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health, had similar early doubts. Like many ambitious young scientists, Wein realized, to his chagrin, he was unlikely ever to be a Nobel laureate. So, instead of languishing as a good, but in his own opinion not great, scientist, he decided to explore alternative career options. A high school teacher encouraged him to look into science writing, but he didn't take her advice until later: It wasn't until graduate school that he seriously considered writing. Wein eventually got his start freelancing while he was a postdoc at NIH.
Mentoring and Networking
Wein credits that same high school teacher, along with other mentors, for enabling him to become a science writer. He had a clear answer asked by many science trainees considering away-from-the-bench careers; he thinks it's important to tell your advisor what you're doing because he or she is one of your best resources. He also suggested that young scientists take an active role in seeking out mentors for career guidance.
Wein wasn't alone; mentors played vital roles in other panelists' career development as well. Thomas is grateful to several mentors who helped her during her academic career, including some who "looked like me" and others who "didn't look like me." And even though her postdoctoral advisor was not "thrilled" with her choice of science policy over research, he encouraged her to pursue her passion.
Midon, who is visually impaired, had a mentor in college who converted equations to and from Braille and another at Goddard who drove him to work. He also recalled his teacher at the New Mexico School for the Visually Impaired sparking his lifelong love of ham radio. In turn, his interest and expertise in ham radio helped Midon, while an intern at Goddard, to make significant connections that proved important to his subsequent career development.
Indeed, such networking was another point of emphasis during the panel discussion. Banks noted that he networks almost everywhere, even his office's gym. He advocates what he calls "the four P's"--being "persistent, persuasive, polite, and positive" as a way of fostering good networking relationships. Wein suggested informational interviews--talking with people in a career field of interest about their work--as another effective networking tool.
Science's Next Wave panel addresses alternative careers for scientists At lectern: Lenka Fedorkova (moderator) Seated, left to right: Marco Midon, Tracey Williams Thomas, Derris Banks, Nadine Ritter, Harrison Wein
Preparing for the Random Events
Ritter paraphrased Louis Pasteur: "Chance favors those who are prepared." She urged young scientists pursuing alternative careers to strive to be the best at their current position while also preparing themselves for future transitions. Always do more than your peers, she suggests, because employers look at past work when evaluating candidates, no matter what job you're applying for. Ritter spent 4 years at a community college and three at the University of Texas as an undergraduate--while also working full-time as a lab tech. Those experiences taught her that "there are no shortcuts." She suggested reading Anne Baber's How to Fireproof Your Career: Survival Strategies for Volatile Times as a career development tool.
Despite some cautionary words, Thomas voiced an opinion shared by most of the panelists: Careful preparation is important, but sometimes you have to take risks. For one thing, noted Thomas, pursuing your passion is better than locking yourself into a career you don't enjoy, even if that pursuit carries risks. She implored everyone to disregard the scare-tactics often used to keep people locked into lab careers. All the panelists took risks to arrive at their current positions. To get "a big, important project" at Goddard, Midon pressed his supervisor, telling him, "If I don't get it, I'm going to law school." It worked. Wein is getting ready to take a new risk: He's taking a government-sponsored executive training course, in preparation for yet another career change.
Wein's advice: "Constantly question yourself." This simple recommendation expressed the sentiments of the entire panel. The process of self-evaluation and self-discovery has, for them, led to success and happiness in their alternative careers.
Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.