With the uncertainty of government funding and shrinking research budgets, scientists need to develop a career plan that includes an exit strategy — an alternate career route that will pay the bills during transition periods while you refocus your career goals. I am not advocating that researchers flee from their current positions in mass exodus for fear of losing research funding; rather, I challenge each of you to regularly think about this scenario: What would you do if you found out tomorrow that the funding for your project was ending in a few months?
I faced this harsh reality in my first professional job after grad school. Being a naive newbie in the world of academic research, I believed that funding was secure for my lab manager position because I was told that the university had always allocated funds from an umbrella grant to our lab. But eight months into the job, the Dean demanded two publications by the end of the summer, which was only a couple of months away! Being the meritocratic-driven person that I am, I honestly believed that hard work would prevail, but three manuscripts later, the Dean still threatened to withdraw our funding, which left me desperately scrambling for another position.
In retrospect, I wish that I had better understood the financial and political nature of the lab’s funding situation by asking more questions of my supervisor. Even more importantly, I needed to have taken a more proactive approach to my own professional development by continuously networking across campus, exploring alternative career paths in my field and developing at least two possible career routes in science so that I remained flexible when positioning myself for a career transition. I learned a lesson the hard way that an exit strategy is an essential component of any career plan — even if you have a job, always be on the lookout for new opportunities in case your funding situation changes, you decide to explore other career avenues or you are just ready to advance your career to the next level.
An exit strategy will help you to avoid taking the first random job that is offered to you, a decision that you might regret if the position is not in line with your ultimate career goals. For early career scientists who are often temporary employees with a limited-term assignment, this “contractor” mindset will also help you to stay focused on your long-term career goals because you are strategically thinking about the next step in your career. In the end, you must always be prepared to support yourself financially and to maintain employment in lines with your professional career track during any transition periods that may arise.
If you are worried that a backup plan will make you look unfocused, you have the right to keep this exit strategy confidential. To start developing this plan, take a few minutes this week to think about your career exit strategy, and write down a few of your strong skills that could be used to generate revenue, while being transferable to your future dream job. Examples of such professionally acceptable activities include industry consulting, adjunct teaching and technical writing. Further, it is also a benefit to regularly evaluate your current position for growth potential and learn to develop the foresight in predicting when a position may dead-end — this way you can deploy your exit strategy before it’s too late.
Donna Kridelbaugh (@science_mentor) is a communications consultant and founder of ScienceMentor.Me. Her mission is to create an online field guide to self-mentoring in science careers. She offers writing, editing and marketing services for early-career professionals who are ready to advance their career to the next level.