From PhD to Professional Association

If you’ve been to an academic conference, or if you’re a member of a society relevant to your field of study, you’ve interacted with a professional association. What some people might not know is that some professional associations have jobs that are a great employment option for PhDs.

I didn’t start out graduate school knowing that I wanted to work in the professional association world–in fact, I didn’t really understand this world existed until I was in it! But I did know from early on in graduate school that I preferred a non-faculty job.

Starting Your Job Search During Your PhD

In order to aid my decision-making process about what to do after graduate school, I asked myself–What parts of graduate school do I enjoy the most? What do I continually push off until later? I always found myself enjoying the communication aspects of science–writing, presenting, organizing outreach activities, and having big picture conversations about where my field was headed. Finding a job that allowed me to use these skills while staying involved with my academic field of study became my guide to my first post-laboratory job search.

When I first started to search for a job, I was surprised to see how many organizations were looking for individuals with a science or research background; some organizations were ones I’d heard of before and even attended their conference. There were job openings looking for candidates with experience in writing, communicating science, and organizing events–all things I had done, and enjoyed, while pursuing my PhD.

Getting Your First Post-PhD Job—And How It Probably Won’t Be Your Last

My first job after graduate school was a science policy and advocacy role at a professional society I belong to and had attended their annual meeting for many years. While I had very little previous experience with policy work, I had the subject matter expertise, and also had many skills necessary for the job–writing, communicating scientific concepts to nonscientific audiences, event planning, and others.

This job was also a great opportunity to learn about the vast variety of options in the professional association world–there were societies and associations for so many fields closely related to mine that also had jobs for PhDs. Some of the roles were policy oriented, focused on  government relations or policy analysis, and other roles were professional development oriented, geared towards creating educational or training resources for their members. There were also journal jobs, science outreach roles, and other roles depending on the organization and the field it represents.

My current role at the American Epilepsy Society involves working in grant administration and managing professional development for biomedical researchers and clinicians studying epilepsy. This role utilizes experience I gained during my PhD training, including writing, editing, grantsmanship, and project management. This role allows me to work with biomedical researchers and to use the parts of my graduate training I enjoyed the most.

One of the best parts of my current job is that I am involved with my scientific discipline (neuroscience) almost every day. My academic training is a valuable asset for my employers, and it allows me to engage with our membership with a deep understanding of their work. My role includes planning professional development programs, coordinating grant reviews, planning events for an annual scientific conference, and more.  I have the hands-on, day-to-day skills to do my job, while also having intimate knowledge of the academic research landscape. Plus, I get to facilitate giving researchers and clinicians grant money, which is a fulfilling role to have in the current funding climate.

Considerations for Leaving the Academic Track

If you’re looking to leave the academic track and transition to a professional association job, take steps to be sure you are choosing a career path you want. Figure out how to harness your strengths and interests in order to find a career that works for you.

Talk to as many people as you can. Reach out to people with a similar background to you who are working at these associations and request an informational interview. Use these conversations to learn about the work they do and inquire about suggestions for how to get experience related to their job. While I know it can be difficult to reach out to someone you don’t know, most people are delighted to connect and have a conversation.

Also, get relevant experience as early and as often as you can. If you are considering doing policy or grant administration, test it out! Your professional association may even offer opportunities to engage with these activities. Your university or other networks may also provide other opportunities. Within your own comfort level, say yes to everything once, even if it seems minor–attend an interesting seminar, write a blog post, or volunteer at an event. Not only will this help you figure out the type of work you enjoy, it could provide you with a resume line or a networking connection that is beneficial down the road. 

And take comfort knowing that if your first try at a professional association role isn’t a great match, you can always reassess and redirect later. The professional association world is full of engaging and evolving opportunities.

Jennifer Hill Day 2

Jennifer Brummet has a PhD in Psychology/Behavioral Neuroscience from Michigan State University. She currently works full time as a Project Coordinator- Research for the American Epilepsy Society, where she manages AES’s grant programs, coordinates professional development programs, and supports research and training initiatives.


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