Congratulations, you’re a scientist! Now what?

If, like me, you find something instinctively captivating about topics such as human cognition, or biochemical pathways or subatomic particles, chances are you’ve taken the long, arduous, academic path of becoming a scientist. Congratulations. I guess that means you’re either a researcher or a teacher… or does it?

What if what you want in your job doesn’t involve slaving away at a lab bench or scribbling on a blackboard. Do you have an exit strategy? Are there really alternate career paths that are right for you?

I recently attended the Alternative Careers in Science Symposium hosted by The Hospital for Sick Children, moderated by 2010 Premier’s Summit Award Winner, Dr. Janet Rossant. The array of experts there all started as researchers but ended up on different routes, the most dissimilar personalities of which included a patent agent, a global health program officer, a former consultant and an entrepreneur. While all of them brought their unique perspectives and experiences to the table and shared tips, there were some common themes. Entrepreneurs take note: some parallels can be drawn.

Think outside the box. When working in a lab for a number of years, it is almost impossible to exactly find a position that incorporates your specialized skills and research achievements in a non-related field. Solution: Don’t try to. Identify what your other strengths are, most important of which are transferable skills such as problem solving, time management and decision making.

Don’t be afraid to diversify your education. Consider programs that will complement your scientific background as opposed to reinforcing it. For example, pursuing an MBA or a program in journalism are excellent portals to fields that can utilize personnel versed in the scientific tongue.

Networking is the key. While you might be able to find that perfect job description on your own, it doesn’t hurt to know someone that knows someone who knows about a potential opportunity. It doesn’t need to be scary. Professional networking can take many forms: from a simple chat in front of Tim Horton’s to connecting via Facebook — done tastefully, of course.

Be persistent and stay persistent. You will fail. Most likely quite frequently. It’s all a matter of how you deal with failure, denial or rejection and identify what could be better. Most of the time, it’s out of your control, so don’t take it personally. Try, try again.

Ride the wave. When people comment on how they got their amazing position, some will boil it down to “luck”. But luck doesn’t have to be a magical, arbitrary force. The amount of opportunity is related to your expertise and whether it’s in demand. One presenter attributed his hiring to funding for and political interest in the Human Genome Project back in 2003. Following social trends and anticipating where expertise will be required is part of making your own luck.

Have a (career) map. It’s relatively easy to alter your mindset and conclude what your end goal is going to be. But while you can fall in love with the idea of transitioning from researcher to a scientific writer, the path getting there may not be as trivial as you expect. Take the time and make a map of what requirements, hurdles and personal milestones are involved so you can be prepared and stay on track.