By Brandon Cochenour, Ph.D.
It would seem lately that a lot of the discussion around “alt-ac” are mostly “Variations on a Theme”…
Search for tenure track position
Receive tenure track position (or not)
Fall out of love with Academia
Figure out what the heck you’re going to do next
Indeed, there are some heroic stories and lots to learn from those brave enough to “make the leap” after you get to the last step. It occurs to me though that most of this discussion assumes that “alt-ac” is something that you only arrive at after all else fails. But why does this have to be the case? Why can’t “alt-ac” be the plan all along? Why does getting a PhD presume the only logical conclusion is landing a professorship? And why does it assume that being “academic” can only take place in “Academia”?
Some of this perspective may stem from my own personal experience. I went to work at a Navy research lab immediately after the undergrad, and only pursued graduate education to enhance an “alt-ac” career that was already in progress. Revisiting Academia provided me with the opportunity to develop and fine-tune skills I needed to be successful in my field, while my prior experience as a practicing engineer allowed me not to get lost in the Ivory Tower. It’s a path that’s served me well, and affords the opportunity to mix the best parts of “in-ac” and “out-ac” into a hybrid pathway.
But what can you, as a current or aspiring PhD student in a STEM field, do to develop your alt-ac skills and set yourself on a path that provides you with the most options after the defense?
To this end, I see two broad “alt-ac” career paths for us STEM folk. One is being an Academic…just not in Academia. After all, you know how to operate in a lab. You’re technically competent. Maybe you know how to code. None of this means a life destined to Academia. In my own experience, I’ve been able to do cutting edge research without having to be on the tenure track at a major research university. I can teach and mentor young engineers without the pressures of course loads and student reviews. I can collaborate with industry, small businesses, and start-ups to help bring new technologies to bear in my field. And, I have the work-life balance that allows me to pursue other passions outside of STEM, like my other ‘job’ as a jazz pianist. There are plenty of opportunities outside the University to maintain your scientific prowess, if that’s what you desire.
On the other hand, what if you end up wanting to leave the lab bench all together? Fortunately, I think we STEM folks are inherently well set up for success here too simply due to the nature of our studies.
Someone once told me that in the STEM disciplines, a B.S. student knows how to perform an experiment, an M.S. student knows how to design an experiment, and a PhD knows which experiment to do next. In other words, STEM PhDs, through their training, are placed at the forefront of the “state-of-the-art”. They’re able to use their training to see into the future and connect dots that aren’t yet connected.
In the end, we Scientists and Engineers are problem solvers. While our initial training may be in the nuts and bolts of a particular scientific field, there’s always some bigger picture. What solution does this science address? What are the implications? What are the potential real-world useful applications of this technology? Point being, once you zoom out from the textbook, the “alt” options become clear. Business Development. Public Health. Policy. Non-profit. Technical Communications/Journalism. Law. Tech Transfer (i.e. – Entrepreneurship or Venture Capital). Taking a 30,000 ft. view of the field may help overcome the initial obstacle of, “what do I do if I don’t do science?”. Remember, you’re the expert in your area!
In future posts, I hope to be able to share with you some practical ideas on how to start building these alt-ac skills while pursuing your STEM PhD, and how to leverage everyday Academic experiences to develop your “alt-ac” swagger.
Bio: Dr. Brandon Cochenour has served as an Electrical Engineer with the U.S. Navy since 2004. In his current role, Brandon collaborates with industry, academia, small business, and other federal labs to develop next generation laser imaging and communication technologies for ocean exploration. Brandon obtained his M.S. and PhD both while maintaining his duties as a Navy engineer, an experience that gives him unique insight into the worlds of academia, industry, and government service. Brandon is an avid supporter of STEM outreach, appearing before thousands of young students interested in STEM fields through classroom visits, science fairs, laboratory tours, and mentoring. He has twice been named Navy Scientist and Engineer of the Year, and is a Maryland Academy of Sciences Outstanding Young Engineer. On weekends, you can find him moonlighting as a jazz pianist in the Washington DC area. On the Twitter, you can find him moonlighting as @DocBrando.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not not necessarily reflect any official policy or position of the U.S. Navy or any other federal agency.
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Thanks for this post! I always thought the advice usually given in this blog is so centered to humanities that it ignored STEM fields (for a change, someone ignores STEM in the US!). Very happy to see this post. Thanks! 🙂
I’m trying to correct that! I have hired three new STEM post-ac consultants and in addition ask others like Brandon to contribute posts.
I’m glad someone wrote that. It’s relevant not only to STEM but to some so-called social sciences too. In Policy/IR/Development (which is what I am familiar with from doing my own PhD) it seems like the majority of PhD students plan careers as analysts in govt/military or to go into high-level jobs in NGOs/international orgs and never think of staying in academia (and this is an R1). High-level NGO/IO work is not easy to get but those going into policy analysis all seem to find good jobs quite easily. Think-tanks and public opinion research are other career paths I’ve seen people enter. The dept is actively supporting such career paths by inviting defence/policy people to various networking events.
We also have a number of mature students, mostly public servants, NGO workers or even one past elected official. There are many reasons why they are doing a PhD. Some want to increase their competence and skills in their primary jobs (and are often funded by their employer). Others want to use their experience to make a lasting contribution to the area they have worked in and maybe influence policy by making a good argument for/against something. Some want to be able to teach in addition to their primary job. I have also seen 2 retirees who view a PhD as a consumption good they can afford and are enjoying themselves, working on topics that they’ve had a lifelong interest in. I’d say that all these choices and reasons make sense and I was annoyed by the advice ‘don’t do a PhD as a mature student’ which did not take into account the diversity of motivations and situations in this group.
The dream of going into academia and the associated naiveté/denial so often discussed in this blog seems to be mainly a humanities thing. It’s interesting because social science is not real science and there are a lot of people doing pure qualitative work here, so it’s not about doing maths/statistics vs. not doing maths/statistics.
Thank you for posting this. I’m in a social science PhD program, not STEM, but my advisor and most of the faculty keep trying to steer me into academia when I repeatedly articulate that I want to work for a policy thinktank or government agency and do NOT want a teaching career. There are many career paths for PhDs, and not all involve a desire to teach.