In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, our intrepid hero reluctantly does something completely senseless: he leaps off a cliff “from the lion’s head,” into a bottomless chasm to prove his faith and get to the Grail that he’s been hunting. (If you somehow missed the movie, the scene is here.)
Of course, since we can’t have the hero dying before the closing credits and the inevitable sequel, the leap doesn’t lead to certain death. Instead, Indy’s foot thuds down onto a perfectly camouflaged walkway across the rift, which he could not see from the narrow opening where he was standing. Once he safely crosses the walkway himself, he covers it with pebbles so it’s easier to see for the people following him.
If you’re currently in a traditional research environment, moving onto an alternate career path can feel like that first step into the big empty. The path is there, but from where you’re standing, it’s very hard to see. Most of your colleagues will be just as mystified as you are because they’ve also spent their work lives in the research-and-teaching ecosystem. (I changed careers recently enough that I still remember the feeling of exhilaration and relief when I felt my own feet hit that invisible walkway.) How can you find the guy with the pebbles, who can make the path clearer to you?
I was reminded of this leap recently when I attended a local mini-conference on the commercialization of biology research. It’s a clever event in that it tries to attract both basic researchers and industry people to encourage cross-fertilization between the communities.
During the conference, a few grad students and postdocs who had heard about my background asked me to suggest ways to explore non-academic career options. They had a good sense of what they wanted out of their careers, but it was just very hard for them to see how to get from where they were to where they wanted to be. Here are a few of my favorite pebbles, which you may also find useful.
As you might expect, conferences such as the one I attended are an excellent place to test the waters for several alternate careers. Being in industry means paying intense attention to marketability, patent law, logistics, and other areas that are counterintuitive or irrelevant for many in the academic ecosystem.
For example, the need to control disclosure ahead of a patent filing is very difficult to manage for academics who live in a “publish-or-perish” world. The people at those conferences understand those issues quite well, and you will learn a lot about moving between these work worlds by listening to how the attendees have dealt with these problems.
Just a little reminder for everyone. If a presentation sounded especially compelling to you, track the speaker down during the coffee break. These events are built for networking, and most people with these interests are current or former academics themselves. They’ll probably enjoy the mentoring opportunity.You should also observe which skills are most interesting to the people in your target industry. At the conference, there was a competition in which scientists could present their “commercializable” ideas, and attendees could “back” them with plastic coins. The winner was a grad student who had invented an automatic shutoff tool for a gel box. It detected when the dye front had reached a particular point on the gel, and then automatically turned off the power.
Other competitors’ concepts were more technically sophisticated, but this one had been developed. He didn’t just have an idea: he had a prototype, an estimated cost of production, a marketing plan, and a roomful of “customers” who had accidentally run sample off the bottom of the gel at one time or another. Takeaway message? A good awareness of potential markets and the entire development process is going to be a pretty attractive skill set.
If you are specifically interested in devices and instrumentation, which are the main focus of this blog, I also cannot recommend another resource enough: your local makerspace or hackerspace, if you have one. You probably do as there are thousands of them all over the world, and more are appearing every year.
My local makerspace, the Tech Valley Center of Gravity in Troy, NY, is a magnificent amalgam of artisans, engineers and science types, both kids and adults. It’s far more than a hobbyist space. It is home to several startup businesses, and it regularly hosts events that bridge the gaps between basic art and science and the rapidly developing ecosystem of custom machining and electronics. It is a superb place to learn about technologies that might help you solve some design problems, or to listen to people describe the challenges they experience in their work lives and how they set about creating solutions.
More importantly, you will have the chance to interact with a large number of enthusiastic people who have very different professions. As intellectually stimulating as academia is, it can be something of a monoculture, experience-wise.
At a makerspace, on the other hand, you might bump into a biochemistry grad student who is using a wireless-connectivity platform to remotely monitor his bioreactors, an inventor who is using the space as a low-volume manufacturing facility, a small-business owner who likes to use the wood-shop tools as a hobby, and an engineer and a writer who are collaborating on a hands-on tech book for elementary-school students.
These people probably want to talk about their projects with you, and they’d love to hear about yours. The makerspace vibe is very much about mutual support, and other Makers would almost certainly enjoy being a brain-trust for you as you make your first steps toward building your own devices or getting into marketing. Heck, for all you know, they might have a few hours of work they need a biologist for!
My last suggestion to my tinkering-minded readers is Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book Shop Class as Soulcraft. Crawford has a Ph.D in political philosophy, and divides his time between a think tank and his motorcycle repair shop.
The book is a stirring defense of intellectually difficult manual work, and it also does a wonderful job of showing how a trained scholar might enter and interact with the commercial world. It kept me up far past my bedtime, and I still think it’s one of the most important influences that led to my career change. There’s an element of romanticism to it as well, but clear-eyed practicality leavened with a little romanticism isn’t a bad way to build a career. Give it a look, and follow it up with Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution if you liked what you saw.