Ivory Tower in The Rearview Mirror: Dr. Rachel Horak

We continue with our new column, featuring interviews with PhDs who have charted a course unrelated to the tenure track, putting academia squarely in the rearview mirror.

Our hope is that seeing and hearing from a wide range of PhDs who are celebrating their careers rather than settling for them will inspire every grad student, ABD and PhD to add the road OFTEN traveled to their list of options.

We are excited to hear and share your stories. If you have a PhD and are working outside of the academy and would like to share your experience with TPII readers, we’d love to hear from you!


Today we are pleased to feature Dr. Rachel Horak.

Twitter: @DrRachelHorak

Currently, I work at a professional science society, where I lead a community of practice for undergraduate biology educators. I lead several professional development learning communities around essential skills for academics, including writing grants, teaching, doing biology education research. I am the primary organizer for a yearly professional development conference for biology and microbiology undergraduate educators.

I earned my Phd in Biology from Georgia Tech in 2010.

I pursued a Ph.D. because I loved marine science, doing field work, and teaching undergraduates so it seemed a great way to do what I liked. Like most others who enter Ph.D programs, I was going to research and teach undergraduates when I finished the program.

I did a 3.5 year oceanography field-based postdoc at University of Washington and gained more research skills and mentored undergraduates — still thinking that I was going to be an educator at a PUI.

I didn’t really like some people in my research lab, so I found communities of people outside my lab to socialize with. It was essential to building a supportive community with the added bonus of developing skills other than bench and field research. I joined volunteer groups centered around education and outreach, and got more interested in education. And now, all I think about is education!

What really changed my direction was accepting a 1-year postdoc fellowship at the American Society for Microbiology (where I am now) where I promoted evidence-based practices to biology undergraduate educators. It got me involved with biology education research. Here, I developed myself a nation-wide network, learned an entirely new skillset of education research, and started working to promote good teaching at the national level. I learned to communicate with non-scientists on a daily basis, work as part of a team, be more accountable for actions or failure to respond to emails and work within a different management structure.

I took a few years off to have three kids after that fellowship, had a 1-semester VAP at a small PUI, then landed my current permanent position at the society. The best part is: I was able to negotiate a majority full-time work at home arrangement. My society is based in Washington DC, but I live in Boston area.

While doing my Ph.D., I wish I had known how few Ph.D.s actually get full-time tenure track jobs in academia — My spouse, brother-in-law, sister-in-law and I all have STEM Ph.Ds, and NONE of us work in academia — we’re all making more money than we would have been in academia, have arguably better quality of life, and are happy with our career paths.

Neither my advisor nor anyone in my research lab were particularly supportive. I wasn’t the most stellar Ph.D. student — I failed both my written and oral exams on the first try but I persisted. I don’t think my thesis committee thought I was going to make it in academia because I struggled through my Ph.D.  I found more support at the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech. I did several TAs at that center, won teaching awards and developed as an educator there. I found support in my future spouse and in friends I found doing extracurriculars outside of the lab.

My message to other Ph.Ds considering leaving the tenure track: Do it and don’t look back. Find yourself lots of mentors through networking with whom you can discuss other options. I have found that Ph.D. advisors just are not able to keep abreast of all the options out there beyond academia, and this is a major disservice to their students.

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Comments

Ivory Tower in The Rearview Mirror: Dr. Rachel Horak — 2 Comments

  1. What an incredible experience, Dr. Horak. This paragraph struck me: “Neither my advisor nor anyone in my research lab were particularly supportive. I wasn’t the most stellar Ph.D. student — I failed both my written and oral exams on the first try but I persisted. I don’t think my thesis committee thought I was going to make it in academia because I struggled through my Ph.D. I found more support at the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech. I did several TAs at that center, won teaching awards and developed as an educator there. I found support in my future spouse and in friends I found doing extracurriculars outside of the lab.” It is encouraging to read that Ph.D.s can find great support outside of academia. And with the often disconnect between scholarly research and the real-world problems of the surrounding community, there may be rising demand, and better pay, for Ph.D.s who can bridge/work in this gap.

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