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The Path Less Traveled


Denise Bouvrette, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Missouri, thinks that after she completes her degree she might like to become a science writer or a liaison between a biomedical company and the public.

Funny thing is, a year ago Bouvrette didn't even know there were such positions — and she certainly wouldn't have known where to find one. After coming to terms with the idea that a career in academia didn't appeal to her, she realized that her knowledge of alternative scientific career options was woefully lacking. "I spent a lot of time online" looking into other paths, she says. "I realized that I could spend the next year trying to get all this information for myself."

There are a number of students and postdocs in the same situation — and, frustratingly, just as many scientists who are enjoying successful careers outside of academia and have plenty of expertise to share. The trouble is connecting these people.

Bouvrette and her labmates, including Emily Stagner, took their curiosity about alternative careers a step further than most students do. Bouvrette wrote a proposal for a training program that would bring in speakers to talk about their jobs and got "an overwhelming response" when she circulated it among other students and postdocs.

Stagner, who helped Bouvrette launch the program, says that "as grad students here in the academic culture, we're pretty well aware of what a professor goes through," but that when it comes to looking for a career beyond the university setting, "we're doing that blindly."
Next, Bouvrette did what any university member would: she formed a committee. Through a pilot project for the training program, Bouvrette approached people who were scheduled to speak on campus for other reasons and asked if they could give another hour for a career seminar. Speakers have included an employee from a small genotyping company, a patent attorney, and a genetic counselor. Students get to hear about a day in the life of these people, as well as how to search for that kind of job. The seminars have attracted as many as 50 students, and benefits were immediate: after the patent attorney's talk, for instance, a couple of students reported switching to a joint PhD/JD program to pursue science in a legal setting, according to Bouvrette.

Bouvrette and her committee followed up each seminar with a questionnaire for attendees; the positive responses from those provided even more ammunition to support the program, which they then shopped around to a number of science departments. The group needed funding to pay for the events and reimburse speakers for their travel expenses; several science departments have contributed.

With funding in hand, Bouvrette hopes that the program — now known as ACES, for Alternative Career Exploration in the Sciences — will be active long after she's gone. She remembers that early in her research into non-academic jobs, she was flummoxed even by job titles she saw in job listings. "What does that mean, director of scientific affairs?" she remembers wondering. "What's 'Scientist I'?"
Today, the program has seminars every other month; each seminar is paired with an informal networking session as well. That helps students "work on their networking skills, which a lot of us are not very good at," Bouvrette says. The events also give students contacts for future employment or even just to get more information about certain types of careers.



How to Start Your Own Program

Whether you're a student, postdoc, or established faculty member at a university, you too might find it valuable to help set up a career exploration program at your institution. Denise Bouvrette offers advice from her experience.

What do you want to get out of it? Bouvrette says the first step is to decide exactly what you're looking to gain from such a program, and devise a plan based on that. For the kind of glimpse-of-alternative-careers series she had in mind, seminars seemed like the best way to accomplish her goal. But other goals might be better served through other means, so be flexible and creative. Don't forget to identify your target audience and make sure you're serving their needs. A quick survey could help you stay on track.

Communicate like a champion. If you're a student, the grad school may be your best bet for an ally; if you're faculty, hit up your collaborators and fellow researchers to help start up a program. Let everyone know what you're trying to do and identify your assets — who's willing to help and what they can offer.

Check the university's mission statement. Bouvrette says a good break came in the university's mission statement, which included a section about promoting training for graduate students and promotion of economic development for the state. In her proposal and other program materials, Bouvrette used those items to her advantage, arguing that good career counseling for grad students was necessary to the university's mission and would encourage students to get jobs in the state. Showing the school how it will benefit never hurts, she advises.

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