Getting a PhD opens up a world of opportunity

My first interview was with a PhD who transitioned to industry. This seems to be a more “traditional” transition from academia, but upcoming interviews might proveDSC_0109A otherwise.  Dr. Lily Raines is currently a Global Projects Manager with the American Chemical Society (ACS), and one of my closest friends. Over the years, we’ve shared many amazing experiences (mostly surrounding food and travel). I regarded Lily as the consummate academic…if she wasn’t “doing” science, she was talking about it. She is always genuinely interested in all aspects of science and scientific research. I even pictured her as a professor, running her own lab and mentoring young scientists. So, I was very surprised when I found out she was considering careers outside of academic research. In this interview, Dr. Raines will talk about how a PhD and love for science education can take you virtually anywhere in the world! I hope my interview gives you new ideas of what types of careers you can pursue with a life science PhD.

1. What does your position as a Global Projects Manager entail? Do you work with a lot of PhD scientists? 

As a Global Projects Manager in the Office of International Activities at the American Chemical Society, my job is to handle all aspects of 2 ACS programs : the Chemistry Festival and the BOOST program, and to help as needed with others. This year alone, my work has taken me to Brazil, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Mexico, Peru and Panama. My supervisor has a Ph.D. in education, but I am the only scientist in our 5-person office.

2. How did you get this position?

LinkedIn!!..When I began my job search, I didn’t know anyone at ACS when I applied, but I knew I wanted to work in science outreach and looked at the professional societies in Washington. DC. I found the job posting listed on LinkedIn as “global outreach manager”. The title changed to “senior associate” when I applied, and settled on “global projects manager” once I started the position.

3. Did you a postdoc? If not, why?

I didn’t do a postdoc because towards the end of my graduate training, I realized that I was not interested in an academic or industrial research position. Because I had done a lot of science outreach volunteer work,  I didn’t think more time at the bench would give me the experience I needed for this type of work.

4. When did you decide you wanted to move away from “academia” and how did making that decision make you feel?

I think I arrived at this decision around my 4th year. I began my graduate training with the plan to be a professor at a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution), so this decision was hard for me. At times, I felt like I had failed for even considering an “alternative career”. I also felt like I was going to be contributing to negative stereotypes about women in S.T.E.M by leaving when I well prepared to succeed. I was at a well known institution, in a well respected graduate program, having won an F31 fellowship, and with a very supportive advisor. If I couldn’t make it, who could?

After a lot of reflection, I realized that rather than being in the lab myself, I would be happier helping the institution of science, both by training scientists and translating what we as scientists do (for the public).

5. What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love working with scientists from around the world! The ACS has 16 International Chemical Sciences Chapters, and I plan to work with each one directly by the end of 2018. It is really inspiring to see how science unites us all and how people keep finding ways to do their research.

6. What do you miss most about being in an academic setting?

I do miss developing my expertise in one research area. In my current position, I’m more of a generalist and the “scientist-on-call” for my colleagues. I actually have a lot of creative freedom in managing my programs, I regularly get to watch ACS webinars and attend conferences. This gives me the opportunity to hear about the newest research and hang out with scientists, so in a way, I still get to experience my favorite parts of academia here!

7. What do you miss the least about being in an academic setting?

The uncertainty. In graduate school, my projects were very high-risk and while I do not regret pursuing them, it was hard for me to “fail” year after year and see no return for my efforts. In my current position I know that my programs will happen and the feedback we get from attendees help us to improve year after year.

8. Are there any skills you acquired as a graduate student that help you with this current position?

In addition to research and analytical skills, I think time management may be the single most important skill from graduate school. It is critical that we meet deadlines, particularly since we work globally with many people across multiple departments.

9. What advice do you have for graduate students who are considering careers outside academia but may not be interested in positions in industry?

I think the best advice for current graduate students who are not interested in academia or industry is to get involved and seek out leadership positions. You can direct a course, lead a volunteer group, write for professional society magazines and blogs. All of these experiences prove to future employers that you have skills and interests outside of the lab.

10. If you had to start your PhD all over, would you do anything differently?

No, I would not have done anything differently. I learned a lot during my Ph.D. and I feel like I really got the experience of doing cutting edge research. Even though it was very difficult, it was a great experience for me.

11. What is your career trajectory (where do you see yourself in 5 years)?

In the next five years, I would like to have a promotion or two and still be working for the ACS. I love my job and the organization. I hope to stay for a very long time! My ultimate career goal is to become an executive director at a non-profit that helps promote science.

12. What advice do you have for current job seekers?

I would emphasize that it is important to get as much experience as you can. During the summer of my 4th year in graduate school, I worked with the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).  It gave me a better understanding of what a career in science outreach could be, and confirmed that I would like it. It also allowed me to expand my network, which was very helpful as I was preparing my applications and looking for jobs. Even though I am no longer on the academic track, my experiences teaching classes as a graduate student helped me secure my current job.

13.  Any last words?

Although it can be scary to try to go in a different direction, you can find a way.  Also, don’t be afraid to apply for jobs even if you’re not sure they’re exactly right. I wasn’t sure I would be competitive enough for this job when I applied, but now I couldn’t be happier. Also, ask people in the field what salary ranges are appropriate for someone with your background. This helped me feel confident while preparing cover letters and negotiating for my position. Good luck!

To summarize some key points:

Once you realize you want to leave academia, look for opportunities that will give you the  experience and skills for your new career track.

Get involved, seek out leadership positions, volunteer!

Learn how to market the non-science skills we learn during graduate school (time & project management, writing, presenting etc).