Escape of the Clones: How to Get a Non-Academic Job

This is a guest post by Bethany Johns, a former AAS John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow.  She has worked in science policy for commercial space flight companies and now works in energy, environment, and agricultural policy for the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America.

In grad school, my friends and I would joke that our advisors were trying to turn us into their clones.

Each year, the first lecture of the research seminar course was always on how to be a great and wonderful researcher.  The professor gave a funny and entertaining presentation and tried to hook the graduate student audience within the first few minutes by starting with a few statistics:

39,694 = number of graduate students in the physical sciences, includes astronomy, in 2011.

21 = number of faculty position in the United States on the AAS Job register as of December 2013.

A first order approximation—assume it takes about 5 years to graduate with a PhD and that the number of graduate students are evenly distributed with each year.

Therefore, you are competing with about 8,000 newly minted PhD graduates for 21 academic jobs in the United States.

I believe the moral of the lecture was to inspire us to work hard and be the best we can be.  However, I’ll never know what my professor intended because after these statistics my eyes glazed over, I zoned out, and started to panic as I evaluated my life and career choices.

Was I good enough to be like my professor?

Before me was my professor, who had been successful in graduate school, had great postdoc opportunities, and got a tenure track academic job.  I felt I had to be just like my professor in order to be happy and successful.  An academic clone.

I already felt disenfranchised as a grad student and worked as a volunteer during most of my grad student career to improve the lives of grad students and postdocs by creating a professional development grant and mentoring program, working with the university to creating grad student and family housing, improving grad student health insurance, increasing graduate student stipends to recruit the best and the brightest, and lobbying my state and federal government to invest more in STEM higher education.

Did I really want to be cloned into this kind of academic environment, where my passion for science seemed to be tempered by a draconian rite of passage?

My volunteer work helped me escape the clone wars and get a non-academic job pursuing my passion for science, advocacy, and policy.  I am currently in Washington, DC representing non-profit professional scientific societies in energy, environment, and agriculture science policy.  I started my policy career as the AAS John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow.

So now you ask, “How can I do what she did?”  Here is my strategy, in four easy steps, on how to get a non-academic job.

6 comments… add one
  • Ann Onymous Jan 13, 2014 @ 17:38

    “Therefore, you are competing with about 8,000 newly minted PhD graduates for 21 academic jobs in the United States.”

    I find these numbers highly deceptive to be honest. It is comparing apples with oranges. There are probably more than 21 academic jobs in the US every year and astronomy graduates represent but a tiny fraction of the 8000 PhD graduates. The paper of Anil Seth gives a good overview . In the years 2000 there was roughly a factor 2-3 between tenure-track positions and PhD graduates. The situation has certainly degraded much over the past 10 years but I very strongly doubt that the global pressure is 400. If I had to guess I would say that we are now probably closer to the situation of the early 90s.

    • Bethany Jan 15, 2014 @ 13:56

      Thanks for the response and the link to more info. I believe this is a white paper for the decadal survey and has great info.

      Please note the numbers presented are based on my recollection of my time in grad school. There are not necessarily meant to be the most accurate numbers, but a literary mechanism of reflection to convey that not all PhD graduates will be able to find an academic job they are being “cloned” for.

  • Reba Jan 14, 2014 @ 10:55

    Great video and advice! Question: is there a good place to look for the types of job adverts you were reading from? Those are potentially the kinds of jobs I’m interested in and one issue is I am not sure where to look for job ads of that type – project management, communications, policy development with a science bent either for the government or NGOs, for example. Thanks!

  • H Jan 14, 2014 @ 23:48

    I like articles like this! It’s good to know what other options are out there 🙂

    • Bethany Jan 15, 2014 @ 13:45

      Thanks, Please let me know if I can help be a resource and answer any questions that you think would be helpful.

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