Perspectives from Ph.D.s in Government and Non-Profit

March 27, 2019

Is a Ph.D. and postdoc necessary for a career in government and non-profit? How do you convince your graduate mentor to allow you to spend time outside of the lab for career development? What are some surprising interview questions you've been asked? Is there anything that you miss about academia in your current job? 

These questions were asked by students and postdocs at the career panel session at the Washington, D.C. Branch Meeting. The career panel had 3 speakers:
  • Katherine Lontok, Ph.D., Public Outreach Manager at ASM
  • Amy Kullas, Ph.D., Publishing Ethics Manager at ASM
  • Karelyn Cruz, Ph.D., National Program Leader at the USDA-NIFA
While each of these speakers had different experiences, their advice can translate to any career path. 

In this article, we provide the most interesting responses we got from the career panelists.

“If you know what path you want, then work backwards.” - Cruz

Trainees wanted to know whether you needed a Ph.D. or postdoc to work in government and non-profit. The answer comes down to - it depends on the career. The speakers recommended that students read job descriptions and talk to people in career paths that interest them and then work backwards to get the degrees you need for the career you want. If you are currently enrolled in a degree program, that’s okay too! You will need to learn how to communicate the skills you’ve learned that are applicable to a job posting in your resumes and interviews. 

“You don’t have to tell your PI about the career development activities that you are doing.” - Lontok

It’s only natural to feel the pressure and think that you need to discuss career development with your PI, but you don’t have to. If you need to be in lab during certain hours, try to schedule your informational interviews or find small projects that you can do outside of lab on your off hours. It also helps if you have your own funding. If you know that your PI will be supportive, then have the career discussion with them. If you don’t have a supportive mentor, then try to find other mentors that support your career development process. 

“I was asked if I was married and have children during an interview.” - Kullas

Asking whether you are married and have kids during an interview is illegal, and unfortunately it still gets asked. Kullas answered honestly and didn’t get an offer. Looking back, she believed it was for the best because the illegal questions may indicate a negative work environment. So how do you handle answering that interview question? There’s no right way. You can politely decline to answer and refocus the interview on the job itself. You can be honest and perhaps risk a job offer, or not. Maybe the interviewer was trying to be friendly or didn’t know it’s illegal to ask. 

“I missed being able to wear jeans and T-shirts in academia.” - Cruz

There are pros and cons to leaving academia but you need to ask yourself whether the pros of a new profession outweigh the pros of academia. This helps in making your choice of whether to leave academia. And how do you know what the pros of your new profession are? When you do your informational interviews, ask! 

Final Takeaways

“Always continue to grow and network, and learn about yourself.” - Kullas

“Take every opportunity you can to work on your writing skills. The ability to write well is both highly valued and extremely transferable.” - Lontok

With these tips, we hope your decision on what to do next becomes a little more clear. Thank you to panelists for participating!

Author: Shilpa Gadwal

Shilpa Gadwal
Shilpa Gadwal is the Career Resources Specialist at ASM.