Why did I leave the lab? My career path.

I received a question over email about why I’m a program manager and no longer doing research at the bench.  You may remember how I originally got into science and why I love science so much, but ultimately I have decided to “leave the bench” (which is what scientists say when they no longer work in the lab or run their own lab) and transition into program management.  Here’s why.
The start of this transition happened during graduate school.  I loved working in the lab and the thrill of discovery.  I even figured out how to deal with the constant failure that I think all PhD students encounter in their experiments on a daily basis (but that’s a topic for a whole other post).  At the same time, I knew that I was a bit different from most scientists because I was very socHTial and enjoyed talking about science as much as I enjoyed doing it.  So during graduate school, I found different opportunities outside of the lab to see if I liked and was good at science communication. I wrote a few articles for the Harbor Transcript (my graduate school institution’s magazine – check out my article about my graduation here) and I interviewed researchers on camera for the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Annual Symposiums (you can actually still find these interviews online, for example here and here).  After I graduated with my PhD, I did a short research project as part of my postdoctoral fellowship (aka postdoc), but realized that I wanted to spend more of my time away from the bench.
This transition was initiated in part because of the experiences I described above in wanting to communicate science, but also because I realized that if I moved forward on the research path my life wouldn’t have the balance that I wanted.  To give an abbreviated idea of what this research path would be like, after one or two 4-6 year stints doing research in other people’s laboratories as a postdoc working every weekend, I would maybe able to get a tenure track job at a university where I could start my own lab.  I would then be responsible for starting a research program, finding grant funding, and publishing for my career survival and the survival of everyone who worked in my lab.  Just to clarify, I am glad that there are so many people (many of whom are my graduate school colleagues and friends) that take this route.  It works for them, they are amazing at it, and they perform the amazing scientific research that changes the world.  I just knew it wasn’t the path for me.

Me in the lab at Arizona State University

So when I went to look for jobs, I specifically looked for positions where I could be a part of a lab or involved in science, but not have to do lab work in the same way as I would if I were working toward that tenure track position.  That’s how I became the Scientific Liaison (essentially an awesome name for a program manager) for a biorepository of plasmids at Harvard University (before we moved it all to Arizona State University). This was appealing because I was part of a scientific center, so I could still be involved with the research, but I could also do so many other things! My job included writing grants, building websites, doing marketing and outreach, writing papers, giving talks, teaching undergraduate classes, working with the public to better understand science, doing strategic planning, learning how to budget, managing people etc etc. It provided me with a balance that I craved along with something new and interesting to do or learn every single day.  I’m now the program manager for a biorepository that collects and stores tissue samples for research at a hospital, and again, I love that I get to be a part of other people research but also do so many other things that I enjoy doing.

As a final note, often a PhD scientist who chooses to get a job doing anything besides having their own lab in a tenure track research position is said to have an “alternative career.”  I (along with many others) insist that these are not “alternative” careers, but rather just careers. Exciting, scientifically stimulating, important careers. As I look at my graduate school colleagues, many of them are successful researchers on the tenure track, but I have just as many colleagues who are in business development, consulting, marketing, editing and on and on.  All of them still use their scientific background and the skills learned in graduate school, like critical thinking, every single day in their successful careers.

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