Two Heads of the Same Coin: Traditional and Non-traditional Science Careers

A few short days into my non-traditional science job, I was sitting in a meeting expecting some continued on-boarding. The goal of the meeting was to continue vetting plans for a new digital tool. A proof-of-concept webpage had already been created and feedback from scientific researchers who tested the site had been returned to the team. Overall, it was positive feedback but some questions were returned as well. Presently, the team was trying to bridge the gap between the questions and the current version of this proof-of-concept page. They were trying to envision what changes the researchers wanted to see and how these would meet their needs. I remember the moment when I realized I could bridge the gap because the missing pieces and additional opportunities would cure many of the pain-points I had as a graduate and postdoctoral researcher. With cautious excitement, I began to share some relevant inefficiencies that exist at various parts of the research lifecycle. I identified the ways the current proof-of-concept resolved some of these issues, and I provided descriptions and examples of a few missing functionalities that could (a) solve more problems for me (the researcher) and (b) make this tool even more successful for us (me, the manager).

These two goals are truly two sides of one coin and an example of the connection between traditional and non-traditional scientific careers. For the scientific research cycle to exist, progress, and to be applied to our lives involves not only the studies and experiments but the systems and entities that instruct, process, build, support and circulate information about these studies and experiments.

The traditional scientific positions are typically as academic teachers and researchers. The non-traditional positions cover a wide array of other areas and there are many places to find examples of non-traditional scientific positions.[i] Whether traditional or non-traditional, before you begin any job search you should make it easy for yourself; take steps to understand your own strengths and motivations, as well as your areas for improvement. You can then map these to current job opportunities. Dr. Lisa Balbes discusses this easy exercise in more detail in the article What Career is Right for you?[ii] This prep work is made even easier still with Individual Development Plans (IDPs). IDPs show you what drives you, highlight areas for growth, and help you set goals. You can take advantage of the new online tool available at chemidp.acs.org.

Now, if you are considering a non-traditional science position, it might be useful to consider some of the environmental differences. I have had a non-traditional science position for about 2.5 years and there are a few things I have observed, not all of which I had considered before starting. These might seem obvious on paper but to consider them as a change to your everyday work is worthwhile.

(1) Consider your figurative and literal proximity to the experimental research

Do you thrive in a research environment? How much will you miss conducting experiments, discussing and iterating on them, presenting, and publishing your own work?

(2) Consider how you interact with researchers

From the day-to-day interaction with your lab mates, to the challenging session chairs at symposia, what is the most enjoyable part of how and when you interact with other research scientists? Does it matter how frequently you interact with other scientists? Do you like working with the same people or do you prefer engaging with new scientists frequently and learning about new projects?

(3) Consider the role that communication plays in your life

You might be very articulate, succinct, and/or persuasive. However, there are always new tips to be learned from a communication class or a book [iii]. Additionally, how you relate to people who are currently your colleagues can often be different to how you relate to them in a non-traditional scientific position. Your current colleagues might become clients or part of a team you manage. Although the subject matter might be obvious, that little list of tactics in your back pocket can make your life easier.

Improving your communication can help in another way. In many non-traditional scientific jobs, you are considered a subject matter expert. That’s right, day one, you are an expert (jazz hands)! Companies want a person with a scientific background because you understand and can distill the science. Plus, you understand and can predict the needs of the researcher. However, spending time on communication can help you be conscious of things like:

  • When general or nuanced feedback is expected versus when technical detail is important
  • Similarly, how to adjust your feedback depending on the variety of departments you will interact with
  • When to share your expertise and when to turn it over to another colleague, so as to focus on the end-goals of the project
  • Most importantly, you will be a valued employee if your colleagues trust you with questions. So, you will want to cultivate positive relationships as you share your knowledge.

Recently an institution I am graduated from contacted me about a fund drive and updating my address and job. When I said I had completed my postdoc and was at a new job the call center student started speaking as she typed, “Okay. So, no longer a research scientist”. That was a little (comically) sad and sometimes I miss the hands on experimental side of science. However, when I provided my current job title, I was then presented with the very common question, “Oh, okay great. So, wait what do you do?!” I described the connection of the science to the experiments and the plethora of tools and entities that drive and support scientific research, and again find myself getting excited for all the projects I am working on to contribute to the research life cycle. If it sounds interesting, that’s because it is and you should investigate a few non-traditional science positions for yourself!


[i] The Best Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: Popular, Unusual, or Growing Fields,
Lisa M. Balbes, Graduate & Postdoctoral Chemist, 2015 2 (3), 8-10
http://www.gpchemist.org/graduateandpostdoctoralchemist/december_2015?pg=10#pg10

[ii] What Career is Right for You?, 
Lisa M. Balbes, Graduate &Postdoctoral Chemist, 2016 3 (1), 6-8
http://www.gpchemist.org/graduateandpostdoctoralchemist/march_2016?pg=8#pg8

[iii] No matter how specific the topic, the American Management Association’s website always has a resource. (http://www.amanet.org/individualsolutions/books.aspx?SelectedSolutionType=Books) They have organized an extensive list of books by topic. Most of these books are available from Amazon and some even on Audible.

Jessica Hoy, Ph.D.

Article by Jessica Hoy, Ph.D.

Jessica Hoy is a Journal Manager at the AIP Publishing, which has been publishing work across all the physical sciences since 1930 and is in Melville, NY. She received her doctorate degree in chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis and her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the State University of New York at Binghamton. She is an associate member of the national YCC on the membership engagement subcommittee, in the local and regional affairs working group.