Megan M. Mitzelfelt
Development Manager, American Physiological Society
Leaving research was, in my opinion, the best step I have taken for my career and life and has been for many of my friends and colleagues as well. A career change might be the right choice for you, too. But how do you know? And what steps do you take? In the following article, I summarize five signs that indicate you may be ready for a career change and provide concrete steps you should take to explore options and position yourself for a new career should you so choose to pursue one. Next, I tell the story of my leaving academic research to pursue a fundraising career and provide an overview of the fundraising profession. Finally, I address the elephant in the room: regret. Changing careers is not necessarily a sign of failure and, as in my case, might be the best choice you could make.
Signs You May Be Ready For A Career Change
The following are signs you may be ready for a career change.
1) Unhappy or Dissatisfied
If you find yourself dreading going to lab each day and you’ve felt this way for a long time – say throughout graduate school, your postdoctoral fellowship, and maybe even your first faculty position – it is likely time for a change.
Even though I loved coming up with new project ideas that I believed would help humanity, I found I was immensely unhappy slogging through day-to-day activities and experiments in the lab – both in graduate school and in my postdoc. This negatively impacted my research productivity and my home life.
2) No Longer Engaged or Interested
If you find you are no longer excited about research and are just going through the motions each day in the lab, it may be time to reevaluate your chosen career path. It may be as simple as finding a more engaging project or lab environment, or it may be that research is not right for you.
I had classmates in graduate school who, although they finished their PhD, were just never fully interested and invested in research and certainly did not want to be continuously seeking grant support for their own salaries. Many ended up choosing to pursue jobs in science-related sales/marketing or consulting and are again excited about their work.
3) Overworked and Stressed Out
If you feel overworked and stressed to the point that it negatively affects your life outside of work, it is likely time for a career change. No career is ever worth endangering your health and happiness.
For example, I had a friend who was so stressed out during his postdoctoral fellowship that he developed gastritis and ended up in the hospital due to stress-induced atrial fibrillation – in his 30s! After this incident, he decided to pursue a non-research career and has been happier and healthier ever since.
4) See No Growth Opportunity
If the job market is tight and you have not had or do not think you will have success moving “up the ladder,” it might be time for a change.
Knowing that after 5 years in my postdoctoral fellowship, there was an 85% chance that I would still not have obtained a tenure-track academic research position and that, even if I did, the chance of my being awarded an R01 was strikingly low, I decided to start exploring other career options and gaining experience in teaching and science writing, just in case.
5) Want a Different Lifestyle
If you want to a different lifestyle than your current career can provide (e.g., more time with your family, higher earning potential, to work from home, to more directly help others, etc.), then it may be time to change careers. Matching your lifestyle preference to your career is the best way to achieve satisfaction.
When deciding whether I wanted to pursue another postdoc, I determined that I wanted to instead have a more long-term position that provided set working hours each week. This was very important to me as a new mom.
Steps to Changing Careers
It might be that only one of the signs above apply to you and you are not certain whether a career change is in the cards. Or it may be that all apply and you are certain that you need to make a change. Either way, the five steps below will ensure that you have options.
Life is ever-changing, and you never know what may happen. For example, you may suddenly have to move because of your spouse’s relocation or a sick relative. Or you may lose your current position due to lack of funding. Either way, you need to be prepared for anything.
So, how do you prepare yourself for a career change?
1) Become an Extrovert
Networking is the key to success. Although many people find it difficult to be an extrovert, it is in the best interest of your career to get out there, talk to others, and make yourself known. But how do you get started?
Present Your Work. Attend as many scientific meetings as you can and submit an abstract for an oral presentation every time (if possible). Your oral presentations will make you known to others in your field and ultimately make it easier to develop personal relationships with those who can and will help you achieve your career goals. You never know who knows who and what relationships will be the most fruitful.
I orally presented my work numerous times at the APS annual meeting and at smaller regional meetings in Florida. These small meetings were particularly helpful to me because they fostered relationships that helped me obtain a postdoctoral fellowship.
APS has several smaller meetings each year. You should check them out because you never know who you will meet and what opportunities may be presented. APS often gives out travel awards to attend these meetings, particularly if you are a speaker.
Explore and Join Professional Associations. If you are interested in a particular field (e.g., science or medical writing, marketing, teaching, etc.) explore the professional associations that serve these fields and find out if you can join. Nonmembers also are often able to attend events, especially at local chapters, so get involved, learn about the field, and develop your network.
For example, I joined the American Medical Writers Association and National Science Teachers Association when I was a postdoc.
Attend Social and Networking Events. Go to any and every social or networking event that has even a smidge of relevance to your current field or one in which you have interest. These might include events held by your institution, local professional networking groups, or professional associations in which you are a member or are interested.
As a postdoc, I became interested in the medical writing field, so I attended some of the American Medical Writers Association local chapter events and presentations. These meetings gave me the confidence to pursue freelance science writing opportunities. Ultimately, I wrote articles for a vitamin magazine and coordinated the publication of a reference text on sex differences in physiology.
Serve on Committees. Explore and apply for volunteer opportunities, especially committee service, at associations in which you are a member. You would never believe the connections that you make through committee service.
My service on the APS Trainee Advisory Committee is likely to be the primary reason I am now working at APS and in fundraising. During my, albeit short, service, I was introduced to APS Executive Director Martin Frank and the rest is history.
2) Be Adventurous
Nobody will ever give you a job just because you want it. They need to know that you have the skills and expertise required to be successful; and the ultimate way to demonstrate this is through experience. So, be adventurous, particularly as a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow.
Volunteer. Volunteer to train undergraduates and/or new technicians in the laboratory to gain supervisory experience. Volunteer for your institutional postdoctoral association to demonstrate leadership and teamwork skills. Volunteer for a local nonprofit about which you are passionate. One place to find such opportunities is volunteermatch.org. The skills you learn and knowledge/experience you gain can be a great boon to your future career change.
During graduate school, I helped to start a nonprofit that raised funds to support research grants on the mechanisms and treatment of triple negative breast cancer. I gained experience in marketing and fundraising, both of which helped me to move into a fundraising career.
Search and Apply for Jobs. Always be searching for new job opportunities, even if you like your current position. You never know what may become available. You might even be able to find a contract job that provides you with valuable experience.
As a postdoc, I became interested in medical/science writing since I had always been quite a good writer. I applied for part-time writing opportunities and was given the chance to write an article for LifeExtension, a vitamin magazine you will likely find in a vitamin store. Although I did not really enjoy writing such articles, the experience gave me demonstrable writing and marketing skills that I could include on my resume.
Take an Internship or Course. If available at your institution, intern with an administrative office in which you have interest (e.g., technology transfer, communications and public relations, development, research administration, etc.). You might also take in-person or online courses to gain knowledge and skills in a particular area of interest.
For example, my husband interned for the Emory Office of Technology Transfer during his postdoctoral fellowship. His internship was instrumental in obtaining his first position in technology transfer.
If you are worried that these activities will take time away from your research efforts as a graduate student and postdoc, no need to worry. OMB and NIH have clarified that graduate students and postdocs supported by federal research grants are both trainees and employees, and are expected to engage in career development activities. If you’d like to read more about this policy, please see nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2014/10/10/defining-the-dual-role-of-graduate-students-and-postdocs-supported-by-research-grants/.
There is also the NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program. I highly recommend that you check it out at www.nihbest.org.
3) Create a Plan
After you have had a chance to build your network and gain some experience in an area that interests you, it is time to make a plan. But how do you do this?
There is a fantastic resource available to science trainees known as myIDP or individual development plan (myidp.sciencecareers.org). The individual development plan helps you in the following ways.
Determine your skills, interests, and values. These assessments allow you to reflect on what you are good at doing and what you enjoy doing the most. The ultimate goal is to align those two categories along with what you value in life and work to predict which careers will be a best fit for you.
Identify a career. myIDP will predict, based on assessment of your skills, interests, and values, which of 20 different science-related careers will fit you best. Careers include research, teaching, biotech, pharma, marketing, writing, etc.
Make a strategic plan. The IDP program also helps you create a strategic plan for the coming year to achieve your career goals and, if desired, will provide reminders to keep you engaged.
4) Be Flexible
Life does not always work out the way you had planned. That’s what makes it interesting. So be flexible with your career and life plans.
I had no plan to become a development (aka fundraising) professional. Even after my postdoctoral fellowship, I still desired an academic teaching position with a little bit of research included. My husband had no plan to become a technology transfer professional. But we were flexible, took chances, and in the end followed what made us happy and feel fulfilled. You should, too.
My Story: From Postdoc to Fundraiser
In fall 2013, the day before Thanksgiving and 2 and a half years into my postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University, I found out that my husband had been offered and accepted his dream job in technology transfer at the University of Maryland and that i was pregnant. Needless to say, life throws curveballs.
Not wishing to separate my growing family for long, I ended my fellowship after 3 years and moved to Maryland without a clue as to what my next career step would be. I interviewed for a community college teaching position and a postdoctoral fellowship at the NIH, but neither felt right. To stay in academic research, I would have needed to start all over again, and I already knew the struggle that lay ahead had I chosen to pursue a tenure-track academic research professorship. As a new mother, I was looking for something that was stable, had normal work hours, and would still contribute to science.
As luck would have it, a position in fundraising opened up at APS.
I was on the APS Trainee Advisory Committee, and, while attending EB 2014, I happened to speak with APS Executive Director Martin Frank and mentioned that I was moving to Maryland without a clue as to what was next. He informed me that a position at APS for a development officer would soon be opening up and suggested I apply. My first reaction was: “What is development?” So I explored a little further, discovered it was a position in fundraising, in which I had a little experience, and I applied. Although, due to my relative inexperience, I wasn’t chosen for the development officer position, APS opened up a support position in development, and I got the job.
I absolutely love fundraising because every day I work to better society and the world. Even more, because I work for APS, I can remain connected to and support the physiology research and teaching community that I have so come to love and appreciate.
What Do Fundraisers Do?
Fundraisers seek charitable gifts and grants from individuals, corporations, private foundations, and the federal government to support the work of a nonprofit organization. There are many different fundraising activities, including seeking annual gifts, major gifts, planned gifts, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, and federal grants; managing fundraising teams or campaigns; managing the donor database and performing prospect research; and much more. There exist positions specific to each of these activities, particularly in large nonprofits that depend on donated funds for the majority of their revenue. More general positions, in which you perform all activities, exist in smaller nonprofits and those like APS that have a new fundraising program and/or depend to a lesser extent on donations and grants.
Fundraising is a Profession
Fundraising is a full-fledged profession with academic degrees and research, professional associations, and certifications. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) supports the fundraising profession just as APS supports the physiology research and teaching profession. Should you have any interest in learning more about the fundraising profession, please visit www.afpnet.org. Opportunities within the field have been and continue to grow as the number of nonprofits and individuals with accumulated wealth have grown substantially over the past few decades.
I chose recently to complete the AFP Diploma in Fundraising Management in which I learned fundraising best practices and used academic research to inform and improve our fundraising practice at APS. I am working toward the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) credential, a preferred qualification for many fundraising jobs.
Researchers are Fundraisers
The best part is that you already have experience in fundraising. A huge part of your job as an academic research scientist has been to seek and acquire federal and/or private grant support for your training and research program. Grant writing skills are highly in-demand. Many nonprofits, including academic institutions, hire grant writers to acquire foundation and federal grant support. Also, it is a sub-field of fundraising that has its own certification through the American Grant Writers Association.
Because of my background as a physiology researcher, I brought experience with science-related grant writing and knowledge of the most likely federal and corporate funders (i.e., NIH, NSF, and pharma and biotech companies) to my current position. I also brought knowledge about the key issues within the physiology research and teaching enterprise. My experience and knowledge has been immensely helpful with identifying funding opportunities, tailoring funding requests, and being successful in acquiring support. Yet, I have also had to learn a tremendous amount, and APS has generously invested in my professional training.
On Regretting the Road Not Taken
People often ask me if I miss research. The answer is not really. I do not regret “the road not taken”—academic research—and I would say that most all of my friends and colleagues who have left research do not regret it either.
Regret is a risk that you should consider. I have encountered regret mostly in those who left academic research out of necessity and not choice. They often feel as if they are a failure. If you love research, it is what you should be doing and put all of your effort into making sure you succeed. However, if you think you could be just, if not more, happy in another career, then I am certain it is worth the risk of regret to explore and possibly pursue a new one. It is absolutely not a failure.
For anyone who is considering such a change, I’d be happy to discuss your ideas, answer questions, and address your reservations about changing careers anytime. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Megan Mitzelfelt is Development Manager at the American Physiological Society. She obtained her PhD in Medical Science with a concentration in Physiology and Pharmacology from the University of Florida in 2011. Megan completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University under the mentorship of Distinguished Professor and Past APS President, Douglas C. Eaton, in 2014. More details about Megan’s professional career may be found at www.linkedin.com/in/mmitzelfelt.|