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Follow Your Heart


For some researchers, there comes a point when they realize that academia isn't for them. At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Karen Peterson, the director of career development, offers advice about alternative careers for scientists. Common alternative careers are as product managers or in technology transfer, she says, but others include science teachers, fundraisers, or even chocolatiers or vintners. GT's Ciara Curtin caught up with Peterson to talk about her own job path — she used to be a postdoc at the Hutch — and the advice she now gives. What follows is an excerpt of their conversation, edited for space.

GT: First, can you tell me about your own career transition?

Karen Peterson: I started at Fred Hutch as [a] postdoc. I knew probably about a year into my postdoc that I didn't want to follow the traditional academic career path, but I didn't really know what the options were. The first thing that everybody thinks of is, 'Well, I'll teach. I'll go into education and I'll teach at a small, private college.' So I started volunteering for outreach activities.

The director that we have now, Lee Hartwell, was — before he became director — senior scientific advisor for a year. He was doing all this stuff with this interdisciplinary program that he was starting up and looking for volunteers for that. I volunteered a lot to help develop courses and went to meetings where we discussed how do we get interdisciplinary research. I was looking around at what options there were for me [in Seattle]. I got a call from our HR department saying, 'Well, there's this new position out to help facilitate interdisciplinary research here at the center, why don't we get coffee and I'll give you the job description.' I was like, 'I should apply for this one.' I did apply and I ultimately got the job and what I did for the next 10 years was develop programs that facilitated cross-training in interdisciplinary research.

At the same time, I worked with a group of postdocs. This was the late '90s, and there was a really big transition going on with postdocs. It was this first realization that, 'Oh, not every postdoc is going to go on and have an academic career.' A lot of barriers came to be recognized to having a successful academic career. There was a group of postdocs who really wanted to try and do something here at the center to help them become more successful applicants for academic careers, and also help them explore what else there is to do as a career. From that, something called the student postdoc advisory committee, SPAC, was born. I became the SPAC advisor.

I was still doing the interdisciplinary program, though, as my primary job, but after five to seven years of doing that, I got bored. Then trying to decide what else I could do, I applied to one or two different positions and didn't get the one I really wanted. I decided, why don't I just propose to start up this office of scientific career development? That was approved and I became director of the office of scientific development in 2008.

Looking at an overview of the trajectory of my career path, I certainly went towards things that I was interested in, but I also took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves to me.

GT: What are the main concerns that students who come to you tend to have?

KP: Number one is: 'What do I do? I've prepared myself to be a scientist; I don't feel like I've been trained to do anything else.' A lot of people who have expressed an interest in management, for example, don't understand that they actually have management experience if they have managed things in a lab — it's just not formal experience, but it is some experience.

Oftentimes, I'll ask them the question: 'In a perfect world, what would you do?' Most postdocs are in their thirties and they know themselves better than they did in their twenties. They know their interests, which is actually a really good place to start when you want to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. Sometimes people think, 'Oh, I would be making beer' — I had someone say that to me — or 'I would be writing.' A lot of people are interested in science writing. What I can then help them do is give them information about the American Medical Writers Association or the National Association of Science Writers — there's local chapters of both — and get them into that network so they can talk to people who have gone through that same process and figure out how to do it.

Then there is a really interesting thing that happens. Once they've gone down that path, if it's truly an alternative career, there's a realization of 'Oh my God, if I'm a product manager, no one will see me as a scientist anymore.' There's a lot of stuff tied up in the image of yourself as being a scientist. A lot of people go though this psychological issue and it takes time to work through it and it takes time to work into the story in your head that you are still a scientist, you will always be a scientist, no one is ever going to be taking away that PhD, but now you are using your science to work as product manager.

When people come and ask about career counseling, usually they've already done quite a bit of thinking about it and they think, 'There's no way. I love beer-making and I love science and there's no way I can combine the two.' I point them in a direction of 'Well, maybe you can.' Because I've been doing this for 10 years, I know people who have gone in those directions — maybe not the beer making so much — but science writing, for example, I can connect them with people who have gone down that path. It's rare for a person to come into my office and say, 'I have no idea.'

GT: When someone has decided to make that career change, do you suggest internships or to speak with people?

KP: Yes and yes. I would say that the first thing that I recommend that people go do is informational interviews. I tell them to Google 'informational interview' and you'll come up with a ton of sites that have lists of questions and then they can pick and choose what questions they feel are the most appropriate. I could supply them with a list but I really want them to go out and do this work so they have ownership over it. Then I oftentimes will provide them with a list of people to talk to about whatever area they are interested in.

In terms of an internship, that's harder because most of the time, people don't feel like they have enough time for internships. That doesn't mean internships don't happen. They certainly do, but it really requires, at the very least, establishing a relationship with another person at the place where they want to do an internship and that starts with an informational interview.

GT: Have you had someone come in who might not be unhappy with the field in general but just with their particular project?

KP: Absolutely. That can be due to a wide variety of reasons. Either the project just doesn't suit them or the lab doesn't suit them or the PI doesn't suit them or their co-workers don't suit them. If the lab isn't a good fit for them, I will help them determine what would be a better fit, number one, and then number two, work with, for example, our scientific recruiter to find a better fit.

GT: Any other advice you'd offer?

KP: I think that a major thing that people considering alternative careers, people need to follow their heart and their gut for what opportunities present themselves. If they follow their gut and their heart, then they'll end up [doing] something that will make them happy.

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