“Put Your Science to Work”

On May 23, 2012 by Grad Forum

 For many PhD students, there is often a tension between the development of their skills as scientists alongside skills that can serve them outside of academia.  Peter Fiske, Chief Technology Officer of PAX Mixer Inc. and PAX Water Technologies, recently visited Dartmouth to speak with graduate students about career development options for PhDs.

In his column at ScienceCareers.org, entitled “Opportunities,” Fiske regularly provides practical career advice for young scientists, as well as tips on how to navigate relationships both in the academic and private sectors. After describing his own career trajectory after earning his PhD from Stanford in the mid-1990s, Fiske explained that while his career path has been “unusual” for a geophysicist, it has nevertheless been “highly stimulating and enjoyable.”

“There’s a great tradition of cooperation in the scientific community,” Fiske noted, adding that he benefitted from numerous mentors and received lots of sage advice that he relishes passing on.

While a life in science can be very exciting, Fiske said that most academic institutions unfortunately still tend to enforce many of the “older” characteristics of an academic lifestyle (passivity versus entrepreneurship; age over experience, etc.) instead of the valuable traits that appeal to the private sector.  Transferable skills such as the ability to function in a variety of environments and roles, the ability to teach skills and counsel others, independently conceive and design complex projects, and problem-solve are all qualities that PhDs possess that are highly attractive to potential employers, said Fiske.

As scientists, “we don’t get very good career advice,” explained Fiske, who added that nearly 80% of PhDs don’t stay in academia.

“[It’s] important to unpack the social and cultural stereotypes that exist for PhDs,” Fiske explained, so that graduate students can accurately address their perceived weaknesses from the ‘outside’ world.  In what he termed, “The Curse of Being Smart,” Fiske outlined certain challenges that PhDs face in a career transition from academia, such as the failure to appreciate other forms of intelligence apart from a high-level academic skill set.

“We tend to immediate discount people from different pedagogical backgrounds,” explained Fiske, noting the penchant for PhDs to overemphasize their skills sets over their interpersonal relationships or emotional intelligence.  According to Fiske, this “curse” of being smart comes from academics who are used to being exceptional and don’t like to be unsuccessful, and thus often fail to ask very basic questions.

“You spend your time being technical people,” Fiske told the graduate students.  “Learn how to be effective.”

Fiske’s “80:10:10” rule illustrates his insistence on graduate students taking the reigns over their own career.  For Fiske, the rule exemplifies the importance of learning “the art of selectively blowing stuff off,” and represents a way in which graduate students can prioritize their own professional development.  The rule advises devoting eighty percent of your work time to all of academic “stuff you need to do.” According to Fiske, the daily tasks of research should be accomplished during this majority portion.  Ten percent of your time should be focused solely on your own professional development, and on strengthening yourself as an executive and as a professional. The remaining ten percent of working hours should be spent attending conferences and building a professional circle through networking.  If this networking isn’t automatically built into your schedule, Fiske insists, “it won’t happen otherwise.”

While many PhD students are uncomfortable with the concept of networking, Fiske pointed out that informational interviewing is an extremely useful tool to learn more about a specific industry and typical career path. According to Fiske, PhD students can use these interviews to ask “sticky questions” about future trends on hiring, salaries, workload, etc. that might be inappropriate to ask during a typical job interview.  An additional bonus of a successful informational interview is that the person being interviewed becomes a part of your professional network—and could be a valuable contact when you do start your job search.

For Fiske, virtually every job search should start with an honest and frank self-assessment.  Asking yourself what your interests are, what skills you have, what type of work style you prefer, etc., can help you determine not only what you are good at, but what you actually enjoy doing on a daily basis.  To get started on this self-assessment, Fiske recommends that students make a two-column list of everything that they like and dislike about their academic career, and then assign priorities of what they value the most and the least.  According to Fiske, the exercise helps students tangibly see their own values, as well as how their interests and skill affect their work and the workplace.

“In general, we share the same positives and negatives, but our ranked lists are very individualized,” said Fiske, who notes that this distinction is important because it shows that academia’s tendency to try to make the same model of science fit for everyone is not realistic. In fact, said Fiske, the acknowledgement of these differences is critical to one’s personal happiness.

“If you don’t like what you do for a living, you probably wont be very good at it!” he noted.

But what about those graduate students who aren’t graduating any time soon?  Fiske advises that every student, regardless of what point they are at in their graduate career, construct a brief professional biography.

“Careers only look good in the review mirror,” said Fiske, noting that the process of thinking about your professional and academic highlights can enable you to hone in on and highlight your personal strengths. Students should also consider investing in quality business cards that can be distributed at professional conferences, talks and events, an undertaking that Fiske calls an “act of professional courtesy.”

According to Fiske, the purpose of a resume is to get an interview as opposed to a job, and stressed that it is more of a screening device than anything else.

As a description of those past experiences that are most relevant to the position being sought, a resume is as much about where you are going as where you have been. When applying to jobs, PhD applicants should post a resume and cover letter specifically tailored to each job opening.  Fiske advises applicants to use the actual words in the job description as often as possible in your own application materials, and to try to highlight your own experiences that best match with the stated qualities and background of the desired candidate.

When that coveted job offer finally does roll in, Fiske notes that it is important to consider a variety of options and factors beyond the salary. Factors such as health care, schedule of raises, bonus and commission plan, stock options, paid parking, amount of vacation days, relocation allowances, and employee education/tuition reimbursement, etc., are all ‘off-value’ terms that are often more easily negotiated than a base salary, which is generally more inflexible.

According to Fiske, the mere process of exploration itself is extremely empowering as a scientist, regardless of whether they stay in academia or not.

“I believe that technically trained individuals have enormous opportunity to improve the world,” said Fiske.

by Erin O’Flaherty

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