In recognition of National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, Robin Patel speaks with the TWiM team about directing a clinical bacteriology laboratory, and how an observation made by a laboratory technologist lead to the finding that Ureaplasma species can cause a system metabolic disturbance, hyperammonemia.
This article was originally published in the Microbe Mentor column of the March 2016 issue of Microbe. Microbe Mentor is a career advice column where readers write in career questions and subject matter experts respond to them.
How important is it to do a postdoc if you want to pursue careers in science communication or policy?
This is an increasingly common question, so thanks for asking Microbe Mentor! The vast majority (~70%) of science Ph.D. students pursue a postdoc after graduation. However, you may wonder if it’s really necessary to do so if pursuing a non-research career such as science communication or science policy. To help answer this question, Microbe Mentor reached out to Erica Siebrasse, Ph.D., and Erika Shugart, Ph.D., for their insights.
Dr. Erica Siebrasse, the Education and Professional Development Manager at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, details how to successfully make the transition from academia to science communication or policy. Dr. Erika Shugart, Director of Communications and Strategic Marketing at ASM, explains what she looks for in candidates when she hires.
Both agree that it is not necessary to do a postdoc for careers in science policy or communication. However, it is necessary to have a solid plan and be passionate about the career path you choose.
In order to be competitive for jobs and fellowships, you need a strong application that demonstrates you have an understanding of the field and relevant skills and experiences.
Understanding the field.
Dr. Siebrasse strongly recommends conducting informational interviews with individuals currently working in the field. She noted, “Before I applied for fellowships, I spoke with over 40 scientists working in communications and policy. I gained three very important things through this process:
First, interviews gave me a better understanding of the fields. I learned what scientists working in policy and communications actually do on a day-to-day basis and the types of available jobs. I also learned that both fields are very diverse and broad, and I narrowed down the work in which I was most interested.
Second, interviews helped me decide the path I wanted to pursue, since I initially was unsure. By talking to scientists in different careers, I was able to better articulate my interests.
Finally, interviews formed the foundation of my professional network. While all of my interviews provided me with valuable information, some interviewees also connected me with additional contacts, sent me job notices and provided feedback on my applications.”
Gaining Skills and Experiences.
To be competitive for jobs and fellowships in policy and communication, you need to show that you can fulfill the position’s responsibilities. You likely already have many of the desired skills, such as the ability to work independently and manage multiple projects at once. However, there might be some skills that you don’t have and can’t learn in the lab. For example, communication and policy rely on excellent written and oral communication. One way to build these skills is through volunteering. “As a grad student, I volunteered with a K-12 outreach program, where I led projects and worked with community and university leaders. These became excellent, objective examples of my abilities to communicate with the public, manage projects and build relationships,” noted Dr. Siebrasse.
However, if you don’t have time to volunteer outside of the lab, Dr. Siebrasse suggested several other alternatives, including mentoring an undergraduate, managing an inter-lab collaboration, submitting articles to Microbe or other professional society publications, or writing letters to the editor, as one of her own colleagues did to strengthen his non-technical writing. Take advantage of your professional network by asking them for ideas and leads for volunteer opportunities.
Dr. Siebrasse advised, “Finding the right volunteer opportunities is critical, and this is where having a plan is important. If you know what your goals are and the skills you need to develop, you can seek out opportunities that will be most helpful to your career.” To gain more experience in science policy, consider applying to the Congressional Science Fellowship at ASM.
Tying it Together.
By doing informational interviews and gaining additional skills and experience, you will be able to craft compelling application materials and become an excellent candidate for a position in communication or policy. If you need help phrasing skills on your resume, read the Microbe Mentor article in the July 2015 Microbe issue.
Dr. Shugart has interviewed and hired many candidates for various positions related to science communication. Even though she’s hired people with doctoral or masters degrees, she advises that many jobs do not require an advanced degree or even a science degree. Dr. Shugart adds, “Journalism and communications degrees are quite common in this field as well.”
When reviewing resumes for a job opening, Dr. Shugart looks for two important qualities from an applicant:
- Passion – Most successful candidate have found time to do some form of science communication, whether it is blogging or volunteering in outreach programs, for several years. They show they are interested in the career path by finding ways to do it.
- Leadership – There are a lot of opportunities to participate in one off events, such as judging a local science fair or participating in a one day festival. Most of these... take very little effort on the part of the volunteer, so this is not a differentiator. A successful candidate goes beyond being merely a participant and takes a leadership role. Anything from organizing a seminar series to running a mentoring program in local schools can work.”
If you’ve decided on a career in science communication or policy, a postdoc is not needed. Instead focus on getting the right skills and experiences!
Erica Siebrasse earned a Ph.D. in molecular microbiology from Washington University in St. Louis. After completing a science policy fellowship with the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, she is now the Education and Professional Development Manager there.
Erika Shugart is the Director of Communication and Strategic Marketing for ASM. Prior to coming to ASM she oversaw the development of new digital media exhibitions, online experiences and programs as Deputy Director of the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences. She also directed the National Academy of Sciences’ Office on Public Understanding of Science and worked at the Office of Policy Analysis at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH. She received her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Virginia.