From the lab bench to the office – transitioning out of a research role as a scientist
Career Story by Melissa Badding, PhD, Toxicologist-Scientist at Exponent
Throughout my time as a Ph.D. graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, I felt that I was one of the few who actually enjoyed working at the lab bench. My expectation was to have a career in laboratory research, and I took the necessary steps to move in that direction…but what happens when your perspectives/goals change? How do you break away from the lab bench and into a non-laboratory, but still remain in a highly technical scientific career? Can you market the skills you have in an effective way to improve your visibility or professional footprint in the field and allow for a transition from academic science? In my short career, I have learned lessons along the way from working in academia, the federal government, and private industry and how to keep an open mind and be flexible.
About four and a half years ago, I graduated from the Toxicology Program at the University of Rochester. Although my degree is in Toxicology, I did not work on a thesis project related to that field (strange, I know). I chose the lab to complete my doctoral research based on my genuine interest in the work, the lab environment, and the mentor. At the time, these factors were more important to me than conducting a specific kind of research. I guess that even at this earliest stage of my career, I did not quite fit into a box of how things should be done and I did not know what I wanted to “do” in the long run. I’m sure this sounds familiar to some of you. However, thinking of my future and possible career paths, I wanted my CV to reflect my coursework and participation in the field of toxicology. Thus, I actively participated in my department, interacted with other toxicologists, and attended a toxicology research conference thinking I could maybe market myself as one when I finished my dissertation.
An opportunity to work for the federal government at CDC/NIOSH came to me towards the end of my degree. I liked the idea of a non-University postdoc, and the research projects would allow me to gain toxicology lab experience. About 2 years into the fellowship I realized that I had to figure out what the next step would be. Anyone who has gone through this can probably agree that it involves a lot of soul-searching, and yet, also basic gut feelings about what might make you feel fulfilled and happy in a job. Ultimately, it is your life and career, and just because you trained in a certain field or only have a specific experience (i.e., working in a lab), it does not mean that you have to continue down that path if you change your mind or if something different comes along.
I ended up accepting a position at a scientific and engineering consulting firm, where I have worked for the past year and a half. This kind of work is completely different from anything I did in my time as a trainee, and I was offered yet another opportunity to diversify my work experience. However, my 8 years of conducting basic science research has not been a “waste”, and in fact, has often been of tremendous value in determining solutions for clients in this new role.
Join me February 3rd to discuss switching careers and keeping an open mind to diverse positions that may not feel exactly like they match your degree or specific experience, along with some pointers on ways to enhance your visibility as a trainee and beyond.
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