Escape Velocity: Non-Research Oriented Careers

My career path over the years has veered in directions I never would have guessed. As an undergraduate, majoring in chemistry, I thought that engineering sounded completely unappealing because of all the math involved. I also refused to take a single biology class because my mother taught high school biology, and it amused me that my dislike of biology irked her. (That totally counts as rebellion, right?)

Well, a few years and one awful secretarial position later (I graduated into a poor job market), I found myself in graduate school, pursuing a PhD in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. I adored the coursework, math and biology intensive though it was, but when it came time get in the lab and get my hands dirty, it soon became apparent to me that I didn’t enjoy research. It took me a while to let go of my dream of earning a PhD (and to work up the courage to tell my adviser), but eventually I decided to leave graduate school because I knew that I wouldn’t be happy if I spent the rest of my life in research.

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Achieving escape velocity

When I decided to leave graduate school with my Master’s degree, I had a clear idea of what I didn’t want to do, but I didn’t  have a good idea of what I actually wanted to do, or what job options would be available to me. Fortunately for anyone else who may be reading this and considering a non-research oriented career, I have discovered that there are lots of options for the wandering scientist or engineer. Literally, tons of them.

In the course of obtaining a graduate degree, we develop a valuable set of skills (critical thinking, independence, resourcefulness) that prepare us for a diverse range of professions.  However, after making the decision to leave the bench, many of us are just trying to achieve escape velocity.  We want a transitional job that will move us away from the bench (and help us pay the bills) with minimal retraining required.  The first job doesn’t have to be the perfect job, there’s plenty of time to find that later.  So here are three fields that may enable you to achieve your own escape velocity.

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Non-research oriented careers for a quick escape

If you have an advanced degree in a scientific field, you can teach. Until you graduate, traditional teaching jobs may be limited.  However there are a number of less-formal teaching jobs out there that require less experience and less time.  In fact, while I was finishing up my thesis, I got a part- time job as a Mad Scientist (it involved teaching an after school program for elementary school kids and doing Mr. Wizard type experiments). My Mad Scientist job was great because it was part time, but paid pretty well by the hour- ideal for someone who needs to both eat and spend a lot of time doing school work. Combined with my experience as a teaching assistant in graduate school, it also afforded me a chance to apply for other teaching jobs after I graduated.

With a graduate degree in hand, you will likely be qualified to teach at a community college or a private high school. Private schools are not regulated by state governments and therefore are often willing to hire teachers who are not yet certified, provided that they are willing to work towards certification.  The requirements for obtaining a teaching certificate vary from state to state, so you should check with your state’s department of education to see what is required.

Industry is another a popular source of jobs for scientists and engineers.  When considering potential jobs in industry, don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone– there’s a lot of variety out there! I personally work in the Oil and Gas industry and really enjoy my job. I think the best thing about industry is that there isn’t a big gulf between the work I do and its application in the real world. I like working on a project knowing that in a few months, or at most a couple years, it will be part of something that is up and running.

I found my job opportunity through a friend from graduate school who graduated a couple years before I did, and it took about 4 months from the time I applied until I started working. It just goes to show you that the weird, ahem, I mean, totally cool, smart, and awesome person in the next lab over may be a valuable connection when you graduate and start looking for a job!

Scientific writing is another field for which you are likely already qualified. I do a great deal of technical writing as a part of my job (and stay tuned for another post on why writing and science go hand in hand), but there are several other branches of scientific writing that you may consider if technical writing isn’t your cup of tea. These include science journalism (think of all of the blogs, journals and websites you read- that’s a lot of writing!), editing (everyone from publishers to blogs can use a good editor), and public communications (scientists who write public statements and press releases for corporations, universities, and research institutions).

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If all else fails, go Hollywood…

Of course, if none of these paths are for you, you can always try to become famous. I’m sure many people who love science were introduced to it by Mr. Wizard, Bill Nye the Science Guy, or, more recently, Mythbusters.  When looking for non-research jobs away from the bench, don’t be afraid to take a chance – be bold!  In line with that declaration, this is the part of my blog entry where I shamelessly plead for hosts Jamie and Adam to hire me. Guys, if you happen to be reading this, comment and I’ll totally send you my resume. I’d be great! Honest!

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Shelly Gallender received a  Master’s Degree in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from Tulane University. Having achieved escape velocity from graduate school, she currently works in the Oil and Gas Industry. In her free time, Shelly is an avid runner, a decent cook, and a voracious reader.

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Read Shelly’s previous contribution: Poverty Nutrition II: Beans and Rice (And Their Infinite Variety)

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Recommend any other non-research oriented careers that are well-suited for a quick transition away from the bench?

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4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. clover

    wrote on August 18, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Once you know it's time to move on from lab, do whatever it takes to get out and start the next phase of your career. I agree with Shelly that waiting on the perfect opportunity is a mistake. The time wasted holding out could be better spent picking up some experience in the field you want to go into.

  2. orchidhunter

    wrote on August 18, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    This came at just the right time. Contrary to popular belief, I'm in love with research, not doing research. Especially in underfunded labs where every day is a struggle. I love writing and talking about science and would love a job in science communication. As soon as I graduate, that's what I'm pursuing.

  3. Hurdles to a Non-Research Career | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on August 23, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    […] undergraduate, graduate or postdoctoral work.  As MidSci commented in a recent discussion about Escape Velocity: Non-research Oriented Careers on the BenchFly Facebook page, many scientists find themselves asking “Once I get a degree, […]

  4. Science Career Development Resources | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 2, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    […] Escape Velocity: Non-Research Oriented Careers – research is not the only way to contribute to science- here are some easy transitions away from the bench […]

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