“I don’t care what you do; just go be a rock star at it”

By Kirsten Block, American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, Alexandria, USA

This statement was my graduate advisor’s final nudge of encouragement as I left his lab to begin the next step toward becoming a professor: a postdoctoral fellowship. Perhaps he knew that academia was not where I would end up, or perhaps he was just trying to calm my nerves. After all, I hadn’t quite figured out my final destination, so a postdoc seemed to be the logical next step, whatever my eventual career would be.

Above all other conversations with my graduate advisor, I hold that one to be the most influential in my career.

“So, do you miss the lab?”

In the years since moving into association management, I have heard this question many times and in many variations. My answer is always the same: that if I did miss the lab, I wouldn’t be where I am. To be clear, I don’t regret my time in the lab. In fact, my PhD and postdoc have proven invaluable in understanding the members of my association, and I believe I serve them better specifically because of my background. For all that, I appreciate the twists and turns my career path took, but it was not always an easy journey.

Decades ago, it was all but certain that a PhD and postdoctoral training would lead to an academic career. Now, fewer recipients of a PhD go on to become faculty than enter into what were once termed ‘alternative’ careers. So, while my decision to pursue a career outside of academia was not necessarily unique, the approach I took to get where I am today was more trial and error than it was a standard part of my training. Frustratingly, career development through trial and error is also not unique, at least in part due to two related issues in graduate education:

  1. Access: The focus of a PhD student or postdoc is, first and foremost, research. Often missing from graduate and postdoctoral programs are requirements to explore interests and formalized opportunities to develop skills in addition to those acquired at the bench. Availability of these opportunities varies across universities, and while some scientific associations provide professional development opportunities to their members, student participation in these events or courses also varies. To best prepare students for the job market, graduate education must adapt to include training beyond the bench.
  2. Acceptance: There may be adequate resources available to a trainee, but if a trainee and advisor are not on the same page about the value of diverse careers, those resources will not be utilized effectively. Far too often in talking with fellow graduate students and postdocs, similar sentiments emerged. Either they were afraid of falling out of favor with an advisor or being judged by labmates if they showed any interest in non-academic careers. Whether these feelings were based in fact or imagined, the self-doubt that accompanied them stifled personal and professional development.

As I contemplated leaving academia, I probably would have had more reservations were it not for my graduate advisor’s parting words. Within the confines of traditional academic training, I forged my own path, and in doing so, I found creative ways to practice the ‘soft’ skills I now use on a daily basis. Whether it was organizing events through my university’s postdoctoral association or coaching local elementary school students in their science fair projects, I ‘focused on being a rock star’ at each opportunity.

One of the reasons my advisor’s words stuck with me is because his belief is not universally held across academia. For that reason, I strive to emulate him and similarly encourage every trainee I encounter. I know well that the resource that often times makes the biggest difference in a career is a mentor’s support.

KBlock - headshotAbout Me:

I received my PhD in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology in 2010. Currently, I work at the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy as the Associate Director of Research and Graduate Programs. You can find me on Twitter @kfblock.

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