There are No Alternatives

by Heather Thorstensen | Jul 08, 2015

This is a guest post written by Sigma Xi Past President Kelly O. Sullivan. Keyed In invited her to write the post based on a Twitter conversation

When I was in high school a friend’s father came and talked to our chemistry class about his career as a chemical engineer. It sounded interesting and thus I decided I’d major in chemical engineering in college and go work for a large company. That would be my career.

Then in college I found out what I liked about what he did was the chemistry and not the engineering part—I liked thinking about the fundamental question “why?” and so I decided I would major in chemistry and I would be a high school teacher. That would be my career.

Kelly O. Sullivan's Graduation DayThen I found out that I’d have to add a bunch of courses to my chemistry paradigm to get teaching certification and that I’d only be certified in one state. I didn’t want to live in one state forever and by this time I found out I was really fascinated by quantum mechanics. So I decided to get a PhD and become a college chemistry professor at a primarily undergraduate university. That would be my career.

I did go do that. For a while, that was my career.

Kelly O. Sullivan Entertainer Then I got an offer to join a national laboratory and handle the administrative arm of their internship programs. It was a new and interesting challenge and I accepted. Suddenly, I had an “alternative career.”

Over the years since I joined the national lab, I have changed positions and roles multiple times—building partnerships, managing our postdoc program, and now working on managing our internal discretionary investments and developing institutional strategy. All of these things build on the same strengths I had as a scientist. I can see the big picture and I can look at data and tell a story about what it means.

And over the years I’ve been invited multiple times to speak at conferences about my “alternative career” in chemistry. At first I agreed with the implied fact—my career was “alternative.” After all, I wasn’t a professor any more. Clearly I had moved out of bounds.

But then I really thought about it. If there are on the order of 25,000–30,000 new PhDs in science and engineering each year (true according to National Science Foundation data), where are they all going? 

There are certainly not that many academic positions each year. The majority of PhDs are working in industry. So why is that an “alternative career?” No doubt this perception is in part (possibly in large part) because we are trained by people who are in academia. Many (most, probably) of those people have been in academia their whole career; it’s what they know and consider to be “normal.” It’s what they model as the ideal career path. In fact, my advisor considered my move to a primarily undergraduate institution an “alternative” path because it wasn’t a major research institution.

New Faculty Positions versus New PhDs

New Faculty positions vs PhD

Graph reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: [Nature Biotechnology] (Maximiliaan Schillebeeckx, Brett Maricque, Cory Lewis. "The Missing Piece to Changing the University Culture." 31 (10): 938—941. doi:10.1038/nbt.2706) Copyright 2013.

After realizing all of this, I’ve stopped asking “where do you see yourself” kinds of questions when interviewing job candidates. Why? Because quite honestly ten years ago (or even five) I could not have answered accurately because I didn’t even know this career existed. Instead I try to learn people’s passions, and I think about how those might match up with the position we’re looking to fill.

I had a young postdoc talk to me once about the various options she had in front of her. She was concerned people would think less of her for the choices she made. I gave her the best advice I have probably ever given anyone and I continue to work towards this myself:

No matter what you do, someone somewhere will be disappointed. Make sure it isn’t you.

There are no “alternative” careers. There are careers. Make your own path and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Photos: Top, Kelly O. Sullivan, with her advisor Greg Gellene, on the day she earned her PhD. Bottom, the author when she was a professor and director of a chemistry demonstration show. “It was choreographed and set to music; we didn’t actually talk at all,” she said.

Kelly O. Sullivan is the interim director of institutional strategy at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. She was president of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society from July 1, 2012–June 30, 2013.


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