'Job scanning' can help science PhDs apply their skills in the wider world. Natasha Loder hears how it is done.
Chandra Louise, the United States-based medical and careers writer, runs workshops on alternative careers for PhD graduates. For those seeking a change, she recommends working out what your skills are as the first step. The next step is to think hard about the diversity of career options available.
The secret Louise is keen to communicate is that in most areas of work one can find a niche where a science PhD is useful - if the search is made properly. Take Disneyland. Enthuses Louise, "I was on the water flume the other day. When a fine spray of water ended up all over my face I realised it would be a scientist who checks the water and makes sure it's OK. Somebody does this. Scientists do this. You can do this."
And, she adds, they need engineers on the roller-coasters and environmental consultants to landscape the exhibits. Life in the land of the Mouse may not be what you had in mind when you resolved to become a scientist, but the principle holds. A new approach will make new possibilities apparent. If you're really stuck for inspiration Louise suggests a simple start: look at the newspapers every day, take clippings of articles with scientific implications, and figure out how you fit into the careers you see exist.
She calls this "job scanning" and, perhaps surprisingly, it works. Clippings from the previous month include a large pile on genetically modified foods. One job-scanner might conclude that they would like to work for an environmental pressure group as a researcher, publicity agent or lobbyist. Someone else might think that there ought to be more scientists working in politics or journalism.
"Not everyone can analyse the DNA on a blue dress," says Louise, "but if you look out all the time you can keep ahead. Job scanning is a way of thinking." Mundane though it might be, job scanning does highlight interesting alternatives. Keep an open mind when looking through newspapers and you will get new ideas.
A look at British publications threw up these possibilities: science publishing, writing, journalism (including journals, newsletters and public relations writing), technical writing, web-editing, law, patent work, teaching, politics, fundraising (especially for private foundations that spend on research and treatment), public relations, communications, policy (in charities, institutions, non-governmental organisations, research councils and in government), the civil service, parliamentary research, science education (especially for charities and institutions), data manager, statistician (audience research, organisational research and trends analysts), project administrator, programmer, technology analyst/consultant and advertising (for science-based companies).
The next step is to research the job and the skills it needs. At this point, meeting someone already working in this area is desirable. Modern technology simplifies this procedure, relevant newsgroups being an easy way to get in touch. Researching the job is good insurance against wasting your time in the wrong new career. And, for those who find life outside academia difficult to imagine, Louise recommends working out what kind of company or institution you would prefer to work for. Size may matter.
If you face an unwanted and frightening change of career, take heart. In exchange for the intellectual freedom an academic career can offer, the compensations are substantial: better pay, a career structure and, if you choose well, greater career satisfaction.