Ditch The Lab Coat: Careers For Scientists Away From The Bench

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T

he white lab coat and tenured head-of-lab positions are holding less appeal for young neuroscience students, but many of them struggle to find alternatives. I’m speaking from personal experience here. Although I earned a PhD, I haven’t worked at the bench beyond my training. Instead, I found my way to a role as a staff scientist at The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. But I don’t consider myself any less of a neuroscientist than my peers working in labs.

I didn’t make the transition on my own. I had plenty of help from a multidisciplinary training program at the University of Pennsylvania and supportive mentors. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that this kind of support isn’t all that common.

Many young neuroscientists enter PhD programs with aspirations to run a university laboratory or work in industry. A growing number want to pursue alternative careers in science. A recent paper published in Neuron recognizes that what once was “Plan B” for neuroscience trainees — job opportunities outside the lab or clinic— is growing in popularity.

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“This growth poses new challenges for academic training programs as they prepare young neuroscientists for a more complex, competitive, and diverse career landscape,” write the Neuron authors, leaders in neuroscience including Todd Sherer, the CEO of The Fox Foundation, and Rita Balice-Gordon, the former chair of my graduate program who is now at Pfizer.

Although schools are rethinking their neuroscience graduate programs, the central dogma of scientific education — PhD program leads to postdoctoral training leads to faculty position — must shift first.

That hasn’t happened yet, as was evident in a recent Reddit “Ask Me Anything” forum with the Neuron authors. Trainees worried about getting program leaders to discuss alternative careers and offer skills training that would make more of them employable in nontraditional settings. As one Redditor put it: “Most graduate students feel a bit of ‘doom and gloom’ about their future career prospects. The positions in academia are obviously in high demand with low supply, and alternative options are not readily available or even presented to many graduate students.”

Our nation and our health depend on the continued contributions of a well-trained, vibrant, and diverse pool of scientists. How can we help more PhD students and postdocs become aware of the wide variety of ways that they can put their skills to work? I offer a few suggestions.

Training programs should be built on the premise that cross-field experiences are invaluable. Exposing young scientists to different but complementary disciplines, such as bioengineering and data science, vastly expands what they will be capable of doing. (My most cherished takeaway from my short postdoctoral fellowship was an understanding of how engineers think, speak, and solve problems.) Program directors should commit to moving students through curricula that make it clear how their scientific training connects them to a vast range of opportunities, from teaching high school to working in high tech, and expand their practical training to build skill sets for finding and thriving in careers beyond the lab.

Mentors should build a culture of respect for students’ desire to branch out, and proactively help them build networks to advance toward their goals.

Alumni of training programs who have followed the road less taken should “pay it forward” by providing guidance for PhD students and postdocs and spreading awareness of alternative career paths. I regularly go back to my alma mater to participate in career seminars and share my story. I want to help future cohorts get that “Wow, I didn’t know scientists could do that” feeling.

New approaches to doctoral and postdoctoral education will gain importance as our population ages, and we see increases in brain and other chronic diseases. Every young scientist should feel, as I do, that it is a dream come true to pursue his or her passion in a training program and then translate that work into making a real difference in an engaging career. Let’s make sure the next generation of biomedical scientists knows there is a big world beyond academia and the lab bench that needs their talents.

Catherine Kopil, PhD, is director of research partnerships at The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

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