A year in the life: from the lab bench to the writing desk

(originally published at naturejobs.com blogs on March 2nd 2018 http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2018/03/02/a-year-in-the-life-from-the-lab-bench-to-the-writing-desk/)

After spending nearly ten years of training in academia, I realized a year into my postdoc that this career path was no longer an option for me — I no longer wanted to be part of the vicious cycle of publications, grant money and experiment-bending to fit a bottom line.

However, leaving the academic dream behind after a decade of training also meant finding a new career path. But where could I go, and more to the point, where could I start looking?

Admittedly, I had spent very little time looking into other career options during my training. Finding a new path took a lot of time and effort. Ultimately — and ironically — using my academic training to research alternatives and develop an exit strategy was extremely helpful to me. This would also be my first suggestion for anyone looking for a way out: Use every career development tool you can get and then look into the job options they spit out — which ones can you see yourself doing?

Step one: what other jobs are there for me?

I always liked writing, so I looked into several jobs in the area of science journalism. I found the Naturejobs journalism competition and entered. As luck would have it, I won and was invited to attend the Naturejobs career expo in Boston and write about it as well — combining both networking and hands-on writing experience. For me, this was a great confidence boost: it convinced me that I might be able to write for a living.

Step two: try out your new dream vocation, network, and get feedback.

Knowing what you want to do, being able to do it, and being able to pay the rent with it are three very different things. One of the career talks I attended on campus said I would hear back from about 20% of applications, and 20% of those should offer me a job. Don’t listen to these statistics: the job market fluctuates; and if you’re transitioning out of a career path into a different one it will take time.

Step three: persevere.

Job applicants are always told not to take rejections too personally, which is a pretty useless sentiment in these circumstances. It is personal — you’re trying to sell yourself and your skill set. Try not to get too discouraged, though. Instead, use your network of co-workers and friends to crosscheck your applications or role-play interview scenarios. And perhaps most importantly: really spend time with each of your cover letters, craft them specifically for each application. Recruiters and HR personnel can spot a copy-and-paste cover letter a mile away.

Step four: use your network.

Changing career tracks requires a lot of adjustments: Having spent the better part of my adult life (thus far) in lecture halls and generally in a wet-lab environment, having to sit down in an office in front of a computer screen for at least eight hours a day was difficult.

In the lab I knew my way around the set-ups and experimental procedures — lab mates would ask my advice on certain topics, I’d ask theirs on others — we were equals with complementary expertise. In the office, I was the newbie. I had no formal training on how to be a writer or a science communicator. In short: I had to start all over again.

Transitioning into a new career track can feel like starting over instead of moving on at times. It’s daunting at first, but give yourself a few months to learn the new tricks of the trade — you made it this far for a reason!

Step five: adapt and adjust.

By now I have mostly adapted to my new life in front of a computer screen: I have learned to write for different text formats and how to tailor them for different audiences. I try not to be too precious with my texts and trust the editor to help shape the final product.

But for someone transitioning into a new career it’s easy to feel like a fraud. Sometimes it’s still difficult to keep my imposter syndrome in check. In my first few journalistic interviews with scientists, I would apologetically introduce myself as a former researcher who has “switched sides”, hoping my interviewee might take me more seriously if they knew this about me.

Time and a little experience have helped me to stop using my research background as a defence mechanism. Believing in facts and figures, being curious and skeptical are helpful attributes in both research and writing. And just because I left the lab does not mean I completely forgot my training or why I was interested in science and research to begin with: I believe in research and I’m genuinely interested in new results. And now, whenever I’m not writing about new research, I get to explore new cities and hobbies — something I never had time for in my academic life. Which brings me to step six:

Live a little.

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