Monday, 22 June 2015

Grad Life: Is an Academic Career the Only Option?

HELP! I’m freaking out… and I know I’m not the only one. I am a PhD student in my last year… and I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up!

I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this and I’m hoping that my experiences from the past year can be a helpful comfort for those of who are in the same predicament. I’ve been exploring my options beyond the world of academia, and hope to share that process with you throughout the summer. 

Almost four years ago I was an excited new grad student, who was ready to become a scientist. At that time, I had done my homework and was pretty sure that becoming a scientist was my dream job. I had worked in labs as an intern, research student, and lab tech to gain experience. I had talked to graduate students and researchers to get their advice. I had done my research on research. This was it- I definitely knew what I wanted to be.

But now here I am nearing graduation and I’m not as sure as I once was. Seriously. And after 10 years of post-secondary… I’m getting a little freaked out.

I don't know what I'm gonna do with my life
Image courtesy of whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr

My foundation has been shaken, but not because of some life altering experience. I haven’t suddenly stopped loving science and research. I haven’t had a shift in my personal responsibilities. What is different is that I have begun to seriously think about the current realities of a life in science. More competition and decreased funding hasn’t made slaving away on grants appealing this past year. The trend for fewer tenure-track positions is also unattractive. While there are certain aspects I love about being a scientist, there are also many others that I’m not sure I can keep doing for the rest of my working life. And to make things more confusing… I’m not sure that I don’t still want to be a scientist. 

So last summer as I started questioning myself; I started to feel incredibly lost. I have put a lot of time and effort into training as a scientist with a very specific set of skills that are not obviously useful outside of a lab… or to put it another way, I am a Master Rat Behavioural Tester. It’s not exactly a profession in that’s in demand in the “real” world. 

So what else am I capable of doing? There must be something out there that relies on the skills and aspects I enjoy about science but with a bit more job security.

Look at me, I'm a grad student!
Image courtesy of whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr

Like the good little scientist I am, I started to do some research. I looked up blogs, articles, career resources, seminars, books, and so on. Still, I was daunted with this decision and while my supervisor has been incredibly supportive, his own experiences have been strictly academic. I really needed to talk to someone who had made that switch to the outside world but I didn’t personally know anyone who had done that. And then (just two days before their deadline) I read about the CAPS Career Mentoring Program. I thought to myself, why not try this? The idea of having someone there to help guide my exploration process was pretty appealing. Just knowing someone who’s successfully transitioned from one world to another and hearing their story is a huge comfort. And knowing that they might be able to provide me with both information and support was a major relief.

I no longer feel (as) lost and I’m definitely more confident and more optimistic about my near future… at the very least, I’m not as anxious as I had been a year ago. I have learnt a lot about myself and have realized that I am capable of doing more than I had originally planned. I might even actually get excited about graduation!

Over the past few months my mentor has been a huge support and has offered me some pretty sweet advice which I hope to share with you in my next post. I’ve also started to collect a listing of non-academic occupational options for PhD.s- and yes I actually have a whole Pinterest board dedicated to this, amongst my travel and foodie boards, so you know I’m serious. 

As daunting as leaving academia first seemed, I am starting to feel a whole lot better about considering this option and I hope that I can help calm and reassure any other graduate student facing the same dilemma.

----About the Author


Shannon is a fourth year graduate student in Neuroscience hoping to someday soon spread her wings and finally graduate from school. She loves learning about science and how it makes our world a better place but when not in the lab she can be found hiking mountains and playing some volleyball with friends! She loves sharing the awesomeness that's always happening at the U of A!

1 comment

  1. Hi Shannon,

    Would you like to jon a professional development group for graduate students at the U of A?



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