Crafting a non-academic career path for a typical CAMB graduate student can be a complex balancing act of juggling never-ending hours of lab work, hobbies, and a personal life. Meeting recent CAMB alumni who have successfully navigated the real-life labyrinths to secure non-academic jobs can thus be refreshing and inspiring. Renske Erion is a recent alumna of the Cancer Biology subgroup who completed her Ph.D. in Amita Sehgal’s lab, where she studied mechanisms of circadian rhythm regulation. She is currently a project director for the Emerging Leaders in Science and Society (ELISS) Program in Seattle, Washington.
The ELISS program is a service-oriented experiential-learning organization that allows graduate students from the selected partner campuses to tackle real-world problems, Renske enthusiastically explains. For instance, 2016 ELISS fellows are responsible for devising better solutions for the future of safe, sustainable, and affordable drinking water in the United States. The ELISS fellows participate in a dialogue between the stakeholders within the community and the scientists, and then use scientific data to inform the policy. Importantly, by attracting PhD students from diverse disciplines, from health law and educational policy to mathematics and mechanical engineering, the ELISS program aims to create a powerful workforce that is not myopically attached to any narrow field of study, but can instead successfully operate in a larger societal context.
As the program director, Renske coordinates the daily operations of the ELISS program and strategizes future developments of this educational endeavor. “This entails communications with the public about the ELISS program as well as internal communications with our fellows and advisors to keep the operations running smoothly,” Renske elaborates. She produces the written and graphic content for the media, official program reports, and grant proposals. One can learn more about the ELISS program by visiting the website that Renske designed (http://elissfellows.org). Though she never considered herself much of a creative person, this recent venture into the sphere of web design has uncovered her previously dormant artistic skills and has been highly rewarding. As part of a small team, Renske has plenty of room to put herself into positions of responsibility and create visible impact. Renske’s experiences speak to the potential of ‘alternative’ careers not only to promote professional development, but also to foster continuous personal growth.
As early as her third year in graduate school, Renske began exploring a range of career options, gravitating towards science policy, STEM education, and not-for-profit career opportunities. Reflecting on the experiences that paved the way for landing her first job, Renske underscores the value of volunteering. Only with luck can you stumble upon an employer who might be willing to hire you without all the necessary qualifications. That same employer, however, might be more open to placing you into a temporary volunteering position. While such a volunteering gig might not add to your bank account balance, it can certainly boost your résumé and convince your dream employer of your motivation to pursue the career path of your choice.
Renske strongly encourages all CAMB students to take initiative to step outside of the lab and try new things, join professional communities, and seek networking opportunities. Renske has found that contacting people via LinkedIn to get advice on transitioning out of academia can be extremely effective. “If you don’t ask, they are not going to come find you,” she rightfully points out. The process of scientific discovery is central to the goals of STEM graduate education. The idea of self-discovery, on the other hand, is still a bit far-fetched within the academic circles. Renske has very simple yet powerful advice: “Whatever you want to do, it should be something that provides the most meaning to you.”