One Scientist’s Efforts to Promote STEM Career Exploration

Feb. 22, 2023

Jillian Socea, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in a public health laboratory. She previously received her doctoral degree in microbiology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. During graduate school, she realized that she didn’t want an academic career. She shares her story of how she planned a ASM Student Chapter event to explore career options in the sciences and resources she learned during the event.

When I was a second-year graduate student, I realized that the traditional academic research setting felt suffocating to me. I had an innate fascination with my research project, focused on the localization of a transcriptional regulator that's essential for virulence in Shigella flexneri (a bacterial pathogen that infects the gut), felt tremendous pride as I accomplished many of my research goals and became joyful at reading scientific papers that I could now understand. But the rose-colored glasses began to dull as I thought about my future, filled with endless cycles of applying for grants, while also questioning whether I had enough creativity to fuel a pipeline of fundable ideas. This was the beginning of my journey exploring other science and microbiology-related career options.

I learned that 16-19% of doctoral students in science, engineering and health go into a tenure-track position. Careers beyond the tenure-track are often referred to as "alternative" careers, which I think perpetuates a stereotype that such professions are back-up plans and can imply failure as a scientist. This affected my psyche and confidence. I overcame this challenge by communicating with many of my peers who harbored the same feelings. Together, we hatched a plan to learn about the breadth of available science careers.

Hosting an ASM Student Chapter Event to Explore Career Options

While attending an ASM Student Chapter meeting, I shared with my peers how lost I felt while looking for information on careers in the sciences and the skills needed to carve out a path to access those career options. These conversations planted the seed for the development of a science careers event. As part of the leadership team for the ASM student chapter, I, along with my colleagues, wanted to capture as many science-related careers as possible, while also providing opportunities for graduate students to interact and build a broader sense of community.

The 2-day event opened with a workshop on resumé building and responsible social media use, followed by a casual networking mixer between faculty and students to encourage conversation amongst scientists at all levels. The second day included 12 speakers across 5 panels that focused on science writing, public health/policy, biotechnology/industry, environmental science and clinical biology. There was a keynote address given by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program officer, who described the experiences that shaped her own career path. The event ended with a small vendor fair, where potential employers were available to give advice on resumes and share current job openings.

This event helped bring people together, allowing many to find similarities they never knew existed. It also created a network—a comfort zone—to help all of us find people with whom to communicate our challenges and dreams.

During the event, there were many students who spoke with me about the fun they were having, how great it was to be able to connect with professors in a casual environment and how impressed they were with the resources put toward helping students find a career path outside of a tenure-track role. One student said she had never had the courage to speak with a professor before, but she finally was able to during the networking mixer.

This experience solidified my interest in being an advocate for diverse career exploration. I still provide resources to students that I met from this event as they seek their own paths when nearing graduation. That is how I know I made a difference during my time as a graduate student. Others still think of me when going through their own scientist identity crises.

Currently, I am a post-doctoral fellow in a state public health laboratory with a focus on antimicrobial resistance. In my role, I get to lead instrument and assay validations, implement automated workflows for whole genome sequencing processes and learn about the vast contributions lab testing makes to public health. I hope to continue working in the public health sector, where I can consistently learn new systems and have the freedom to move within a constantly evolving discipline. Over the next 5-10 years, I hope to continue to engage with as many science students as I can, especially those that feel lost in the maze of figuring out what they want to do. I always thought I was different because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Now, I know I must continue to be a voice for others, so they know they are not alone and that they can find their path too.

Career Resources Shared During the Science Careers Event

In the 2-day event, I found there are many resources available online to help students navigate finding a career and joining the workforce. These include:

  • Taking a personality test to determine which careers best suit different working styles, preferred areas and life goals.
  • Applying for a fellowship to test out different sectors and gain experience.
  • Signing up for job alerts on many different platforms, including ASM Career Connections, Science Careers and Nature Careers.
  • Browsing LinkedIn for individuals who have job titles of interest. Learn about the paths they traveled to get there and see if those options are still available!
  • Exploring some of the major career search engines using key words and phrases for job titles that align with interests, expertise or future goals to get a better idea of what it takes to get there.

I encourage every student to take some time exploring career options in the sciences and pursuing professional development opportunities to gain skills beyond the bench. This will not only ensure the presence of scientists in diverse spaces, but also promote innovation in different science-focused sectors.