Once you decide that you are going to make a career transition, you are going to have to answer the question Why, “why make the transition?” And sometimes that will be worded as a skeptical “Why not stay?”
Having an answer to this question matters because it helps others understand where you are coming from, and where you are going. And it’s also very easy to screw up. This is true for those who have decided to transition into government roles, or leave science altogether, or even just switch disciplines in their postdoc.
In my own job search, I have faced that question a number of times. Often, when my background comes up with someone new, they give an easy “Wouldn’t you like to be a professor?” In interviews, I have been asked directly if I am considering a particular role “just until a faculty role opens up.” And I’ve certainly been blindsided by the philosophical “Shouldn’t someone like you stay in science then?” any number of times.
It’s tempting to come back on the defensive. Ha! Do you know anything about NIH paylines right now?… But unless you want to be known as a defensive cynic, it’s better to come up with a more positive response.
One approach is to offer that information before you get asked the question. That way, you don’t feel you have to be defensive, and can add any context you need up front. Try to slip in the short version to questions like, “What brings you to our networking event tonight?” that might be headed that direction regardless. This can be a comfortable time to say something like, “I’m wrapping up my training as a graduate student, and looking for a way I can bring my science training to my other interest, which is journalism. This seemed like a great event to meet people like you in those types of careers.”
Let me give you a good example. I recently was having dinner with a colleague who manages trainers at my company. He mentioned that given his vast experience training, there was a part of him that was always itching to get back to the classroom, because he loved to see his trainers in action, and to be a part of learning. So I had to ask, “Do you miss being a trainer? Why the management role?” And he very naturally smiled and said (something to the effect of ) I love training and I always will, but given my experiences and interests right now, managing this program is the best way for me to express and develop that. I loved this answer for several reasons.
1. It acknowledged that his previous interests were valid and sincere.
2. It acknowledged that his interests changed, and that he had grown professionally.
3. It demonstrates how he brings his experience to bear in his current role.Contrast that to less inspiring answers to the question “Why leave the bench?”
- My postdoc wasn’t what I expected it to be, and now I just want to find a job closer to my family.
- I got totally burned out in medical school, so I am looking for a role with more stability and less stress.
- I never got the support I needed to make a splash in the academic job market, so I am just trying to make the best of my education and experience.
Yikes! Even if those answers are (painfully) true, you still need to find a way to focus on the positive aspects of your transition, and specifically what you can bring to a new role. Consider these revisions:
- My postdoc helped me develop as an independent scientist, but my true passion is still the field of my graduate work.
- I am looking to bring my immense knowledge and expertise to a non-clinical role, because I see real opportunities to improve health there.
- After assessing the skills I have developed, I am anxious to get into the job market now.
OK, maybe those sound like a white-washed version of the truth. It can be very tempting to feel like the reason you are transitioning is because you were wrong about what it means to be a scientist, and that your best hope is to distance yourself from that and start again.
But this misses out on the opportunity to identify how your past has helped you develop as a professional, even if it is a professional with different interests than the ones you held dearly a few years ago. And it’s ok to change your mind in the face of new information.
I find that when I am really engaging with someone, I often give my quick easy response to why I no longer work at the bench and, if need be, that leads to a more critical discussion of my path, my struggles, and the challenges in the job market. I don’t mean to keep that as a secret. I really did spend a lot of time thinking my career was headed in a number of different directions. What’s important is that I still don’t feel bad about where I ended up, and I don’t want to give the impression that I am in my runner-up career. I do want to give the impression that my training as a scientist helped shape who I am as an educator and writer for the better.
So what’s my answer to that question, “Why did you leave science?” Well, I got into science because I love learning. When I finished my graduate work, I decided I wanted to do work with a more broad focus. I found I’ve had success working in education and instruction, and in my current role, I get to bring my analytical bent to my work. It’s a great match for me!
Bottom line is, if you are going to make any major career transition, you are going to have to answer questions about why make the transition. Spend some time polishing a response that is honest, positive, and will help other see how you can be successful in that transition.
Sandlin Seguin, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in molecular biology in 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. She currently is an eLearning Specialist at Tableau Software. Previously, she has worked as is a Curriculum and Faculty Development Specialist at the Life Science Informatics Center at Bellevue College.