Image: Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories, Khartoum, c. 1920
Plenty of science Ph.D.s wind up in nonacademic careers. Vitae columnist Viviane Callier has been interviewing some of them for this series. This month, she talks with Rebekah Layton, director of training initiatives in biological and biomedical sciences in the graduate-education office at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Tell me about your career path.
Layton: Starting when I was 12 or 13, I was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol for about a decade, and, at 21, began mentoring cadets myself. That taught me about leadership, aerospace education, and emergency services. I also did ROTC for four years as an undergraduate, while I studied psychology and the history and sociology of science. After graduating, I considered plans to join the military or the Peace Corps — I wanted to contribute to the country. Ultimately, I decided to join the U.S. Army as a military police officer. I was active duty for four years, and deployed to Iraq and Korea for 15 months each.
After my military contract ended, I decided to pursue a graduate degree. My interests hadn’t change, just the context in which I wanted to explore them. I had long been fascinated by teamwork, leadership, and discipline, which became part of my research agenda. I went into a Ph.D. program in social and personality psychology at the State University of New York at Albany, and planned on pursuing a faculty career.
I participated in Preparing Future Faculty programs and was very involved in running professional-development activities for fellow grad students through my university’s teaching-and-learning center. I loved teaching, so as I reached the end of graduate training, I decided to apply for tenure-track positions at small liberal-arts colleges and see how the job market went. It was pretty slim pickings at the time but I wanted to see if I was competitive without a postdoc.
Was that when you started thinking about nonresearch careers?
Layton: I was a finalist for a tenure-track position but didn’t get it. So I decided to pursue a postdoc in the medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Doing social and personality psychology from a medical perspective was a new (for me) line of research that I thought would be really engaging. And it was — but I really missed mentoring, teaching, and spending time with students.
Once I realized that my priority, really, was to work with students, I had to make a decision: Should I tackle another faculty hiring cycle or look for other jobs that would use those skills? That led to a lot of soul-searching about what I wanted to be doing, day to day. Was that faculty title important to me? Or could I do the things I wanted in other contexts?
As I went through this career exploration, I reconnected with my interest in professional development, which turned out to be relevant across disciplines. Then I found out there was a job in which you get to do virtually everything that I wanted to do as a faculty member — mentoring, coaching students, running seminars, helping people through this harrowing transition — but with a different title. That's what I get to do now, which is amazing. I didn't know it was a job, nor would I have looked at it twice if someone had showed me the job description a year before that. It really took me being in the right place and mindset personally to be open to it.
What's your current role?
Layton: My position as program director has a lot of autonomy and flexibility. A third of my time is spent on programming and program design, inviting speakers. For another third, I work directly with students in groups or one-on-one. The final third is spent on administration. But I have a lot of freedom to distribute that time as needed. For instance, I've been involved in a research project on trainee outcomes, and I've been able to shift my other responsibilities to make time for data analysis and publishing the findings.
I've learned a lot from my own career-exploration process. When I work with trainees now, I try to center them on this question: What do you enjoy doing every day that you actually want to do and get paid for? I think sometimes that helps people see beyond the labels or preconceptions about the job they plan to do. My research background also is helpful because I have a lot of knowledge and empirical data about what works, and what doesn’t, in goal-setting. It's really refreshing to take research results and figure out how to apply them to actually help someone.
There are lots of professional-development opportunities available to me, too, in my position, which is another reason I love what I do — I'm constantly able to learn and grow. I'm developing more expertise in coaching philosophy, which is a way of interacting with people to help them solve their own career quandaries by asking them the right questions and helping them set their own goals.
What kind of experience is needed to do your job?
Layton: Anyone with an academic-research background can move into a program director’s position — especially if you have some experience in professional development as a graduate student. Involvement in learned societies or experiences that give you insight beyond the laboratory — such as teaching, organizing seminars and workshops, or planning and leading events — are skills that you use in this type of work. Gaining those types of skills as a grad student is a good investment of your time, no matter what career you choose.
What would you change about doctoral education to prepare people for careers other than just as a research scientist?
Layton: I think the most important thing is to make the conversation about alternative career paths more open, and to encourage professors to be more accepting of all careers. Getting postdoc trainees comfortable talking with their PIs about the job situation — without it feeling so awkward — is important. I think that is happening, but it takes time to change institutional culture. Specific programming and professional-development opportunities are important, but really, to me, opening that conversation is the first most important step.
What career advice would you offer grad students and postdocs?
Layton: Luck equals opportunity plus preparation.
I know many see “networking” as a slimy word, but it's important to get people to change their mindset. Having an authentic conversation with another person about a mutually interesting topic — that's all that networking is. Tangential connections are often way more successful for job seekers because those connections aren't the people who would already be calling you, so they allow you to discover opportunities that you otherwise would not have heard of.