Walking beside Academia and giving it a high five: My transition from graduate work to a position at Addgene

By Tyler Ford

Running screaming from the lab

Just over a month ago I finished up my PhD in Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Harvard University and entered a new role here at Addgene as an Outreach Scientist. I used to spend my days (and often my nights :D) engineering E. coli to produce biofuels in Pamela Silver’s Lab (plasmid page here). Now I spend much less time wrangling bacteria and instead help Addgene fulfill its mission of helping scientists share information and, of course, plasmids. My primary duties are to manage this very blog (you’ll have to let me know how I’m doing a few months down the line!) and to visit scientists in person to figure out ways we can make Addgene better and make scientists’ lives easier.

Why transition to Addgene?

So why did I join Addgene? Was I jaded by my time in academia? Did I run screaming from the lab like the cartoon on the right?!? I would love to tell such a dramatic story, but it wouldn’t be my story. I love academics. If I didn’t, it would have been unwise of me to join Addgene. This is particularly true in my position as an Outreach Scientist where I spend a large amount of my time meeting with and talking to graduate students, post-docs, and PIs. I won’t pretend that that there aren’t problems with the academic enterprise or that there weren’t some pretty hefty bumps during my graduate training. I particularly think that too many young scientists are led to believe that they can all end up in academic positions (I’ve even blogged about this here and here); however, simply put, I moved into this position because I want to help make the research enterprise work better and because I really like talking to people about and communicating science.

The path to science communication

This may come as somewhat of surprise to many of my high school friends. In my teenage years I was super shy - there was even a time when I was too nervous to ask store clerks for help at the mall. In undergrad I was forced to open up a little after I dropped myself into Boston University with none of my old friends to fall back on. While doing and presenting undergraduate research at BU, I realized that I’m energized by talking to people about science and that I love explaining things to people. When I started my graduate work at Harvard, I recognized that I would ultimately want to go into science communication but thought that I would be best poised to share the stories and difficulties behind great discoveries by tackling a research project and getting a PhD myself. To continue to foster my science communication skills, I took on TA positions, tutored fifth graders, made a blog and worked as editor-in-chief for the Science in the News Blog, a blog made by the Harvard graduate student group, Science in the News. While research experience is key to my current position, I think it’s largely my work developing myself as a science communicator that got me here!

Thus far being an Outreach Scientist at Addgene has been awesome. The process of writing, editing, and publishing blog posts runs its course more quickly than writing scientific manuscripts and, as one of my supervisors warned me, the swift gratification of publishing posts can be addicting. Even more satisfying, because Addgene is a non-profit, we can focus more on generating blog content that scientists will find useful and interesting than that will simply get people ordering plasmids. The need to keep content coming also keeps me on top of a variety of fields thereby broadening my knowledge. In addition, this position allows me to do another thing I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed: travel. I’m actually finishing up this post on a plane back to Boston from Kentucky where I spent a couple of days talking to researchers about their work, picking up plasmid deposits, and trying to learn ways Addgene can improve in its mission to make research easier.

I’m hoping my story demonstrates that transitioning from academia doesn’t have to mean abandoning it or running away screaming, but instead can involve walking alongside it and giving it a high five. While screaming can be therapeutic and I’ve certainly done my fair share of venting, I’m glad I did a PhD and even more glad that I thought about careers outside of academia during my graduate training. PhDs have many roles to play inside, on the outskirts, and entirely outside of academia. These roles can include positions, like mine, that help support academia but the skills researchers gain doing PhDs (i.e. technical writing, teaching, presenting, analytical thinking, time management, information distillation, etc) are transferable to many different fields. If you start thinking about preparing yourself for a career while still in graduate school, you’ll be well suited to follow your passion and land a position you’ll be happy in once you’ve finally acquired that PhD.

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Topics: Science Careers, Science Career Options, Early Career Researcher

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