Careers in Science Communication & Outreach (feat. Rachel Weintraub-Brevda, Saranna Belgrave, & Maria Strangas)
Alumni Aloud Episode 65
This is a special edition of Alumni Aloud that was recorded at our virtual Careers in Science Communication & Outreach event in February 2021. The panelists were Drs. Rachel Weintraub-Brevda, Saranna Belgrave, and Maria Strangas. Rachel received her PhD from the Graduate Center’s Psychology program in the Cognition, Brain, and Behavior subprogram; Maria got her PhD in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program; and Saranna earned her PhD in the Psychology program’s Behavioral Neuroscience subfield. At the time of the panel, Rachel was the Education and Outreach Program Manager at NYU Langone’s Center for Cognitive Neurology, Saranna was the STEM Research Manager at CUNY K16 Initiatives, and Maria was Manager of the Science Research Mentoring Program at the American Museum of Natural History.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, our panelists tell us about how to incorporate outreach experiences into PhD life, the importance of continuously expanding your colleague, mentor and job search networks, and the translatable strategic planning skills PhD students have.
This episode’s interview was conducted by Carly Batist. The music is “Corporate (Success)” by Scott Holmes.
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Careers in Science Communication & Outreach (feat. Rachel Weintraub-Brevda, Saranna Belgrave, & Maria Strangas)
VOICE-OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
CARLY BATIST, HOST: I’m Carly Batist, a PhD candidate in Biological Anthropology here at the Graduate Center. In this episode we’ll hear from Drs. Rachel Weintraub-Brevda, Saranna Belgrave and Maria Strangas. Rachel received her PhD from The Graduate Center’s Psychology program in the Cognition, Brain & Behavior subprogram. Maria got her PhD in the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology program. And Saranna earned her PhD in the Psychology program’s Behavioral Neuroscience subfield. This panel was originally held in April 2020. At the time of the panel, Rachel was the Education & Outreach Program Manager at NYU Langone’s Center for Cognitive Neurology, Saranna was the STEM Research Manager at CUNY K16 Initiatives, and Maria was Manager of the Science Research Mentoring Program at the American Museum of Natural History. Can each of you introduce yourselves, your current position and what that entails?
MARIA STRANGAS, PANELIST: Hi, I’m Maria Strangas and I was a CUNY PhD student based at City College in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. I graduated in 2018 and I am currently the Manager of the Science Research Mentoring Program at the American Museum of Natural History, which is a program where high school students work with scientists and do scientific research for a year. So we do some course, we do workshops with the scientists and with students. That’s I guess a quick, brief summary.
SARANNA BELGRAVE, PANELIST: Hi, my name is Saranna Belgrave. I am also a CUNY baby. I did my undergrad with CUNY at Hunter College and I did PhD work in Behavioral Neuroscience at the GC. My home school was Hunter though, that’s where my lab was, that’s where I did all my work. Currently I’m a STEM Research Manager for K16 Initiatives which is a unit that’s based at CUNY Central Office. I run a program called STEM Research Academy that is geared towards giving high school students the opportunity to do research during the summer and to also take a College Now course during the spring. I also wear a couple of other hats. I teach introductory biology courses at Hunter College as well.
RACHEL WEINTRAUB-BREVDA, PANELIST: Hi, I’m Rachel Weintraub-Brevda. I did my undergrad at Brooklyn College and then I did my PhD at the Grad Center in Psychology in Cognition, Brain & Behavior. I graduated in 2017 and I started working in administration in education. So I was supporting grad students and postdocs who were doing their neuroscience degrees at NYU. And then just recently I switched over to the Center for Cognitive Neurology and I’m working on building the training community here as well. So I’m working with clinician scientists now as well as students and postdocs and also doing some outreach. So working with people in the community to try to expand our reach.
BATIST: Could each of you trace the path from the PhD to your current position? How did you land where you did and did you initially want to go into academia or not?
BELGRAVE: Sure. Just a little bit of background. I’ve been in research since about 2003, I worked in a research animal facility, worked in different labs all in neuroscience before I even applied to a PhD program. So by the time I finished my program, I was tired of benchwork. I love it, still love it, but I needed a break. So I sort of did a jump in a completely different direction. I had a great bio foundation but I also have a pretty significant psych foundation in terms of my content knowledge. So I was able to get a postdoc in a psychiatry department at Downstate Medical Center. And that was a huge learning experience for me, working directly with patients. That was sort of like my first step out of the PhD. Learned a lot, I loved it. But I learned that it’s not necessarily a field that I wanted to continue in. So I stayed there for about 2 years and then my next jump was into higher education administration.
Because throughout the course of my PhD even to know, I loved teaching. I started out as being required to teach for the PhD program which was terrifying at first. And then I realized that I really enjoy it. Being in front of a classroom and engaging with students, I love it. So I decided to sort of go in that direction. Since the market for full-time faculty positions is challenging in New York, it’s almost like trying to find a pink unicorn. *laughs* To find a full-time faculty position. So did higher admin, moving back into the CUNY world, into a slightly lower-level position then where I am now, where I got my feet wet with higher ed, science education administration and program management. Which I found is something that I flourish in specifically when it comes to bringing science to students and people that are not necessarily scientists. I really enjoy sharing my spark with them so yeah, that’s where I am now. So I started in a position at CUNY at K16. I’m helping to run a science fair that is a regional science fair in New York City that caters to high school students as well as coordinating the program that I currently manage. So I’ve been there for about three and a half years and I love it.
WEINTRAUB-BREVDA: For me, I realized at some point during my PhD training that I didn’t want to stay in academia in sort of the pure sense. Similar to Saranna I realized that the lifestyle maybe wasn’t for me. And so along with some friends, we put together this panel of people to talk about how they had a PhD but chose other fields. And it kind of got me thinking about other opportunities that I might be interested in. Working in NYU at the Neuroscience Institute, which was my first job out of my PhD. It was great, I realized that what I really liked to do was to help people figure out what they want to do as well, whether that’s academia or consulting or working with students. And I was there for a few years, it was really great and I learned a lot. And I learned that there are all these transferrable skills we have that we get during our training and that we hone during our training in the PhD. So being able to prioritize different projects, being able to eloquently write an email. All of these skills I felt like I developed during my PhD training I thought were really helpful in my career trajectory. Now I’ve switched over to a more clinical department where I work with both clinician scientists and basic science researchers interested in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. And I do a lot of grant writing, which is also something you develop during grad school. So all in all I would say, figuring out the transferrable skills during grad school and seeing what makes you happy. As Saranna said, where your happy place is.
STRANGAS: So I entered the PhD not sure that I wanted to go into an academic career but also not completely decided on what I did want to do. So before going into the PhD I had been working as an afterschool teacher for 5th and 6th graders for a couple years and knew that I liked that but wanted to explore other things. And then during my PhD I really found myself being drawn to outreach opportunities and to teaching opportunities and to all these little side things. And I liked the research that I was doing and was really enjoying many aspects of that research but also found that there was something that wasn’t satisfied in the research and that I really kept looking for these other paths on the side. What I really liked about the research was coming up with cool new ideas and the autonomy that I had to pursue them and all that. And I made my way through the more technical things but it wasn’t where I got that spark that Saranna mentioned.
And so I found that I kept doing these volunteering for the New York Academy of Science and volunteering for this and doing that. And at some point I was part of group that started up a Women in Science group at City College and that I felt like matched a lot of my interests. I started up a Women in Science mentoring program within that. I think that helped me really solidify that that was the kind of work that I was interested in doing. So led me in a clearer path than I had had before into my current job. Which when I finished, well actually before I finished my PhD, I started this job and overlapped for a couple months which was chaos. I don’t recommend if you can avoid that, it’s a nice problem to have but it was exhausting. But yeah, so building up some of the research skills and the collaboration skills and understanding the importance of a lot of these technical sides but also finding that I really, really enjoyed that outreach component.
BATIST: Great. And what did the job search process and interview process look like for each of you? Where did you find these positions, how did you approach tailoring your documents and how did you navigate that whole job search and interviewing process?
STRANGAS: So as I said, I overlapped, which I was very fortunate and felt very lucky to have that opportunity. And I initially heard of this job that I have now first through word of mouth and then that led me to the American Museum of Natural History’s website and I found the applications there. But first somebody told me about it because it was actually a couple months before I was getting really serious about my job search. So that was great and the position, it required a PhD and then it required all this knowledge of mentoring and science education. Which, even though that wasn’t my research focus, those were the things I had been doing on the side. And the interview process. I had a phone interview, I had a Skype interview and then I had a four-hour in-person interview where I met with a lot of people. So that was the interview process for my current position.
WEINTRAUB-BREVDA: So as I was sort of nearing the end of my PhD, I actually had a baby while I was writing my dissertation. So thinking about juggling lots of things. A lot of sleepless nights and writing my dissertation. So I tried to juggle writing my dissertation while also looking for a job because I wanted to work and have a paycheck. I looked everywhere. There was word of mouth, I actually found my job through Indeed. I looked at different groups I was a part of to see if anyone posted one. I really tried to search for lots of different things. Knew what core things I was interested but in terms of like where I was working, I was open to different possibilities which for me was helpful. It’s good to keep an open mind because you don’t really know always what you’re interested in doing. I interviewed at a few different places to get a sense of also like what I was looking for, to really hone it down. For NYU there was a phone interview, and then there was like a half-day or full-day marathon of meeting lots of people and interviewing with lots of different people.
And I mean I would say because I was looking at lots of different places, the thing I would say when applying is to look at what the job application says and try to modify your CV to match it as best you can. Your cover letter to match it, to really emphasize what they’re looking for. So for me, I can say that similar to Maria, a lot of my side projects were what got me this job. So I know that my boss had said that she was really excited about the fact that I put together this panel of people who had a PhD and went on to do other things because that was similar to what I would be doing in the current position. So I know I emphasized that because it was an education role. When I was applying maybe for like teaching positions I would emphasize my teaching history. If it was like a writing position, the writing fellowship that I had. So there are just different things that you can emphasize about your career path depending on where you’re applying. I guess my advice would be just keep an open mind because you don’t always know what you’re going to be excited by. And similar to Maria, my position, they said it was PhD-preferred. Having it is definitely helpful and sort of gives you a leg-up. My background is in Cognitive Neuroscience and I was moving to a place that I was working with students and postdocs in neuroscience. So I could relate to them I could understand the lingo. It was also really helpful to be able to create events for them, now I’m writing grants in that realm. So it’s giving that background that’s really important.
BELGRAVE: So I utilized two paths. The first job that I had out of my PhD at Downstate was through my network. I ended up reaching out to some of the other people in my cohort and I let them know that I was on the hunt for a position and I was ready. And one of my cohort members was part of this team and referred me to the person who would be my boss. So that interview process involved a phone interview and then a follow up in-person interview which was followed by another one. So I had a one on one with my immediate supervisor and then I met the team. So that was pretty standard, I used my CV in that process. And since it was a referral, I think a lot of that initial filtration process that a lot of CV’s and resumes go through, I was able to sort of like hop over it, which was a benefit. So I am a big, big advocate for pulling on your network. If you know people in your field or you have met people at conferences or you are familiar with people who know other people. There’s no harm in asking and I’ve learned that throughout the course of my career trajectory, it’s a closed mouth that doesn’t get fed. Ask. So I’ve held onto that but pulling on my network was something that I lean on all the time.
For my current position, I went through the traditional interview process. Very much like you did Rachel, I found my position through an online platform, the RF CUNY job listings. I also had set up alerts on a lot of other platforms that would alert me to jobs that fit a specific description or had key vocabulary in the title, so that I could apply to those. I also was very regimented in the way I was doing it. I set up folders with different versions of cover letters and different versions of my CV or if a resume was necessary. To do much of what Maria and Rachel spoke about-tailoring what you are presenting or selling yourself with your experience with certain things highlighted or emphasized based on what the position in. And something that I learned a little late in the game but I implemented was not only trying to tailor your cover letter and your statement of purpose or these sorts of narratives that you submit. Also it’s really key to include the vocabulary that is used in the job descriptions. Because there are certain things, certain terminology, certain jargon that are very specific to the positions and if it’s relevant to your experience, absolutely include that exact verbiage. Because there are some places that actually use computer tech to screen. You want yours to ping. So including those is something that’s really important. The interview process for my position was sort of panel-style. I came in after a phone interview and met with all the people that I would be working with. That was the general style of it.
STRANGAS: I just want to echo and to amplify what Saranna said about using your network. One of the greatest pieces of advice I got when I was starting to really think deeply about what came next for me was “When you figure out what you want to do, make sure that everybody around you knows it.” Because if they just know what you’re looking for they might happen upon it randomly and just send it on to you. And you can do the same for other people as well and really build those connections. But just tell people if you know what you want to do or if you have an idea of what you want to do, let people know. And then using your network in all kinds of ways. I didn’t mention, but when I was in the interview process I also leaned on my network a lot to try and understand what this job really was. Because job postings are short, they don’t tell you everything. So I leaned on people that I know that already worked at the museum so that I could highlight the things that I had done that were relevant. And sometimes it feels like cheating to lean on your networks and it is an inequitable thing. It is a problem. Try and expand your networks so that we can connect more and more people in that way.
BATIST: Yeah, absolutely. When is the right time to start applying? How do gauge when you should start the job search and writing up but also looking to something in the future?
BELGRAVE: So I started looking when my mentor and I were seeing eye to eye on when I would defend. We all know there can be huge differences of opinion on when the defense can and should be. So once we sort of like a timeline of when I would be defending-ish, I started looking not aggressively to apply but looking to see what was available. What were the job descriptions available that matched the interests that I thought I had so that I could see what they were looking for and what I’d already built as a foundation for myself, translated into that position. So once I had an idea of my options I started applying to positions that I thought that I wanted which was roughly about 3 months out from my defense date. Something that I learned which was sort of a hard lesson but a necessary lesson, is that it is not easy. And having stick-to-it-iveness and persistence is absolutely necessary. Not to say that I was positive the entire time but I kept at it. I maybe applied to 50 or 60 positions to be quite honest. And there were weeks where I was like “I’m doing this, I have my 20oz coffee with an extra espresso shot and I’m going to get a ton of these out” and I did. But then there were weeks that had lulls because I just didn’t have the mental real estate to do it. But you cycle back and you keep doing it so over the course of those 3-4 months.
WEINTRAUB-BREVDA: For me, I gave birth in April and I defended in September. And it was an interesting time. I think back on that time and I kind of set myself a schedule where I would apply a job a day. I needed to like put myself on a schedule because you have those times when you’re just feeling very dejected. For me my process was to just get something out so I could check it off my box that I did that for that day. But there were lots of things that came, opportunities that happened because of that. So find the process that works for you. It won’t be the same as it is for other people. But find something that works for you, I think that’s really critical. So that was my process. But one thing I will say now that I work with a lot of grad students and trying to help them figure out their pathway. When you start looking will oftentimes depend on factors for you. So certain fields like postdocs, you start looking for very early which is different then if you’re going to work in administration let’s say which would be a shorter turnaround. Similarly if you are a foreign national student, there’s a lot of differences with visa status. The advice I would give you based off my own experience as well working with so many other people is to figure out what your personal conditions and to figure out a schedule and system that works for you and your career path.
STRANGAS: I’ll just add a little piece which is that…something that surprised me was that a lot of academic positions and postdocs, there are deadlines associated with them. A lot of jobs not in academia, if you see it you apply. So the strategy that Saranna’s talking about having cover letters ready, having CVs ready is a really powerful one. Because you don’t know how long that’s going to be up. You don’t know when it’s going to be filled. So if you see it you should just apply. So when I applied I was like in my early stages of starting to browse and look at things and I saw things and though “oh cool I’ll keep that in mind.” It’s like, no you can’t just keep it in mind you have to apply now if you want to do this thing. Which thankfully several people in my network pushed me to do. Because I was like “ok cool that looks like a good option I’ll get back to that.” That’s not how it works, you have to go for it.
BATIST: Definitely. A couple are asking what key words would you suggest looking out for or that you used for your alerts? What kind of key words or buzz words should you look out for that maybe aren’t directly science communication?
BELGRAVE: Think about what your field is or the bigger sort of umbrella area that you’re looking for. And read a few descriptions so that you see what sort of jargon is relevant currently. Because the jargon will change over the years depending on what’s current and what’s important at that time and what the current initiatives are at that time. Especially if you’re looking at outreach or very student or pedagogy or workshop-based program things, it changes. So do a bit of the homework first before you try to identify exactly which terms you’re going to use. The ones that I currently use are STEM advocacy, program development, curriculum development, program implementation. These sorts of things describe the things that I do and the things that I like.
So they’ll most likely be included in positions in terms of the skills needed or the expectations for that position. So that’s how I would frame thinking about what sort of verbiage you’re using. And honestly, be old-school about it, make a list. You can sit and think about it but as you move through the world, you talk to people, you go to conferences, you attend classes, you read articles, you listen to the news or current events or podcasts…keep some sort of list and add to it. So that when you’re in the moment pulling together the resume or tailoring it or customizing it, you have this resource that you’ve built for yourself over a time to lean on. Because sometimes in the moment it’s difficult. Make a cheat sheet for yourself.
STRANGAS: And I think there are the words that you search on Indeed or things like that, which I think this list that Saranna is talking about is ideal for that. And then there’s what words you put in your resume. Because there are a lot of companies that use these resume screeners and I think that those words, they’re based on the job description. So read the job description really carefully. If they keep using the word “mentorship,” put mentorship on your resume. If they keep using “mentoring” put it as mentoring. Like even at that level.
WEINTRAUB-BREVDA: I think education was definitely there. I think in thinking about the type of job that you want, the words will kind of come to you and you’ll start searching them just because you’re looking at your own history and your own resume and you’re like “Oh I really like writing” or something like that. And so I think the words, they will come naturally to you when you’re looking through your own resume for things you enjoy doing. But they do change over time so definitely recommend updating them. The other thing that I would add is that as much as I did use key words in the search, I also really loved expanding my network by just randomly connecting with people on LinkedIn. And the reason why I did that was, I would message and say “Oh we have this in common.” But I also did it with people I didn’t have things in common with because they post for their positions. So if I had an opening in my department I would share it, because I want someone to join my team right. And so if I’m interested in a certain field, I would start connecting with those people who are in that field because I would want to see when they’re posting something. And so that would be my recommendation. It is true that you can search on Indeed. As I mentioned that’s how I got my job but I also think you can use LinkedIn in a really good way to connect with people who might be posting things that you might be interested in.
BATIST: Yeah absolutely. Kind of about the non-research-related activities that you were talking about. Did you do any more structured like internships or anything? How did you find these other gigs? It sounds like a lot of you are saying that it was kind of those things that really got you the job. So how did you find those opportunities and fit that in with the rest of the PhD experience?
WEINTRAUB-BREVDA: There were a few different things that I did outside of my general research. The first one was, I mentioned before, I put together with some friends a panel of people to talk about their career paths after they graduated. So similar to what we’re doing now. And it was really helpful to meet those people but also to get the experience of organizing. And I mentioned when I applied for my job my supervisor told me that that was something that really stood out to her. So that was informal, it was just something that we did sort of on our own. And so you can have those opportunities that you can create. I also volunteered in mental health settings because for me when I was working in the lab it was isolating at times. So I wanted to feel like I was giving back and I started volunteering with a mobile crisis team and I just tried to find different ways of working with people in a clinical setting. And I think that has been really helpful in my current position where I work in a clinical department and that really stood out to them.
So that was more formal where I had to reach out to an organization and request to volunteer and there was a more formal process for that outside work. I also took advantage of the CUNY Writing Across the Curriculum fellowship, which really helped my writing skills and tutoring skills and all of that. And I also taught a lot. Much like Saranna I really enjoyed teaching so I normally took advantage of the CUNY system for that as well which was also a more formal process. So I would say there was a mix I think of formal and informal opportunities that I tried to take advantage during graduate school to see what other things I might be interested in. And all those, not only did they help shape what I’m interested in but they also gave me that leg-up in different environments.
STRANGAS: Yeah I also did a lot on the side and part of that was because my advisor was really supportive of that and I know that if you’re advisor is not supportive of you doing extra things on the side that can be really, really tough. There are ways around that but I know that that makes it a lot harder. We live in a city that has a ton of science outreach going on. So a lot of places are looking for volunteers and a lot of places are looking for people in paid part-time kind of gigs. So carving out time for that is a challenge. For me, I felt like I needed to do that to stay motivated in my research. It was extra time but it also made the research possible in a way because sometimes it feels like, “Why am I doing a second job on top of my PhD so I can get another job.” And I do want to stress that while these side things put at least for me in a good position for my job, the work that I did in the research was also relevant. So you know, leaning into collaborations and coordinating fieldtrips and all of the things that go into doing a PhD. Like those are also relevant.
And there is an art to how you present that to connect with the jobs that you want. So it’s not all about what you’re doing on the side, though those things help. And with those things on the side, some of them I created like through the City College Women in Science group. I got very active in 500 Women Scientists, which is another organization. And I think through that I got my name out into the community I wanted to get my name out into a little bit more. So finding things that you care about and enjoy and then finding the things that you care about and enjoy and then doing those things in a way that makes you better at them. Because that puts you then in a position to do better jobs doing the things that you enjoy. So recognizing that “I like this” but also “I want to be good at this thing that I like” and following that path.
BELGRAVE: I just wanted to add a little bit to what both Maria and Rachel were saying. Something that I found useful because when you’re doing a PhD, time is so valuable. You devote so much time to actually doing the research, doing coursework, reading. There’s so little time for other things that I found it really necessary to use what time that was left over as purposefully as possible. So what I found was helpful also is the time that you’re actually doing the things that are structured and required of you whether you’re in a class or you’re at a job. If you can find opportunities within those that can help you grow and flourish in the direction that you want to go, that’s also really valuable. You’re using your time effectively and you can take that experience and include it on your CV or your resume that can better what you present to the positions that you want.
For instance, I spent a lot of time in the lab and I love to teach. And with that comes mentorship in a lot of ways so during my lab time I spoke to my mentor and told her “these are the things that I like to do.” And I had a very supportive mentor so she allowed me to teach more classes and also to take high school students into our lab and train them. So it was obviously great for her because she was applying for grants that facilitated that relationship in the lab, gave her support for her research but also support for this sort of outreach. It also allowed me to be able to flex those muscles, to build those skills, to build those relationships with students. And that not only helped me in the context of my research and being a mentor, but it also helped in the soft skills that I was able to flex constantly in my teaching. Which, like you said, it’s sort of like a feedback loop. You’re building these skills with the intention to use them or apply them in other areas of your life and it feeds on each other. So that’s something that I think is really, really valuable. And also wanted to echo volunteerism. It’s so big. And it’s so good. My very first lab position ever, I was offered because I volunteered for a year. And at the end of a year I was offered a paid position full-time.
BATIST: So you all kind of touched on these things a little bit but what kind of translational, transferrable skills that you got through the PhD that are applicable to any kind of outside of academia position? And how does that fit into your day-to-day tasks now?
WEINTRAUB-BREVDA: I think multi-tasking and one of the pieces of advice that my PI gave me was to have projects at different stages. So you’d have something where you’re designing an experiment while you have something ongoing while you have something in the writing stages. So you can focus on different things and if you get sick of doing one thing you can switch to something else. And I feel like that’s been really helpful here because I like coming up with new ideas and being creative with my programming. So I can have lots of programs for different groups and thinking about them in different ways. So this sort of multi-tasking has been really helpful. Being organized while doing it is very critical.
I also think data analysis has been really nice. So we tend to think of oh you’re working on one experiment and you know how to do that but you’d be surprised the skills that you pick up while doing that sort of data analysis and how you can transfer it to other things. So I started analyzing data on things that I had no experience with because I know how to do data analysis from my PhD. So I would say that is another transferrable skill. And then writing, writing is always really nice. Those are some of the things I would recommend. Also emotional intelligence, really, really important. That’s not necessarily something you can hone as you would with data analysis but I think it’s really important.
STRANGAS: And with emotional intelligence the collaborating and navigating complicated co-authorships and collaborations and the teamwork that comes in to all projects. The skills that I built there have been incredibly helpful for the work that I do now. But also the data analysis comes in in kind of surprising ways sometimes. Just in terms of being able to very quickly understand what is going with our location demographics or our school breakdowns. Stuff like that…not what I was doing before at all but it’s a lot easier because of what I did before. I’ll say that long-term planning…you mentioned multi-tasking. It’s multi-tasking but also being able to think many, many steps in advance. It’s almost strategic planning, it’s not called that but it is really similar to strategic planning.
BELGRAVE: So definitely that long-term thinking, that multi-tasking, that sort of multi-modal thinking. You’re trained to critically think about things but you’re also trained to function in a way that…a lot of the times you are the central cog and you need to keep many things going at the same time with feedback from that loop. And I think that’s something that’s really valuable in any career path that you take. Something that I found to be really valuable also is no matter what your content area, we sort of have been trained to aggregate information, understand it, analyze it, and sort of synthesize a way in which to express it to show value in a lot of ways. And I think that that sort of general framework works in a lot of fields. Having been trained to do that during the course of my PhD directly speaks to the way I formulate my lectures and my lesson plans for courses. Because that’s essentially what we do, we distill information from larger more complex sources to present it in a way that’s manageable. And that also directly speaks to the outreach that I do because of the populations that I target, which are people that are typically not scientists or they have interest in science. So distilling that sort of super complex, heavy, jargon-based information into something that’s palatable is something that we are intimately trained in doing during the course of our PhD. And it’s invaluable throughout the course of like no matter where you go or what you’re doing.
BATIST: Yes, absolutely. What is your favorite part of your current position and what is something that is a bit on the other end of the spectrum and challenging to face?
STRANGAS: Well one of my favorite parts is directly working with the teens, the students. That’s a lot of fun. And the same stuff that I loved about research is the like brainstorming, coming up with new ideas of who we can serve our audiences better. And that big-picture thinking is something that I’ve always enjoyed. Something that I am not thrilled is…I work at a really enormous institution and it’s different from CUNY but we all know that CUNY has its bureaucracy. The museum and most places do as well. And navigating that is my least favorite part.
WEINTRAUB-BREVDA: I would say my favorite part is working with the people I work with. So working with students, postdocs and really seeing that I’m helping me. It just feels so nice. So I just think working with people is what I love doing. That’s part one. And part two is being creative. So I can do the stuff I know how to do, but I love being able to flex the muscle of thinking about what I want to do next. And so having the space to do that is really nice and the independence, the autonomy. Some of the things I don’t love is I work in a large place and of course there’s bureaucracy. And so sometimes it’s fun and challenging to navigate and figure out…it’s like a maze almost. Like how I do I get to where I need to go. But sometimes it’s really frustrating when you are supporting other people and you’re working in a large organization, that’s just bound to happen.
BELGRAVE: The things that I enjoy about what I do…I love seeing my students grab on to something and be excited about it. Like I live for it. When there’s a student that comes up to me and says “I did such and such and I went into the field and oh my god I touched a worm and it was nasty but it was great.” I live for those moments, that’s literally my fuel to get through the not so savory bits. So that student interaction, that student rapport, that relationship you build with them. Absolutely love it, that’s one of my favorite things. And also the second part of it is similar to Rachel in being able to flex creativity. So I am regimented in many ways, as a trained scientist you have to be. But I love being a creative, not just being creative but a creative person. So I get to pull some of that into the way I teach, the way I present information. I’m able to pull that creativity in to the way I design programs and curriculum and present it to grab the attention of perhaps a granter or funder. So that aspect of being a creative in the position that I’m in now is also deeply satisfying.
BATIST: How did you approach talking to your advisor, other mentors that you had in academia about leaving academia. It sounds like a lot of you had supportive mentors. If someone maybe is anxious about that conversation, how to navigate that critical relationship with your advisor? Or find mentors outside to support you?
BELGRAVE: So my mentor found out that I didn’t want to stay in academia in an event very much like this one. It was one where I was attending about non-traditional use of a PhD. And I raised my hand and asked a question to the facilitator and I didn’t know that she was in the back of the room. And that was when she found out. Not the ideal, but we had a conversation later about it. And I expressed to her the things that I expressed to you guys-where my passions were, where my interests were. And I guess in my expression of what I wanted to do and what she’s seen me do because you know a PhD advisor is someone in a unique position in your life. You’ve been with this person for five years or more so they know you. So she understood and she supported me.
I did look for external mentors, not to replace but to add to my network of people and I was able to do that by just looking for people that were in positions that I eventually saw myself in way down the line. People that were directors of programs or directors of research centers and I reached out just like what Maria and Rachel were saying. Reaching out on LinkedIn to these people and I was able to get informational interviews. People love to talk, that’s why we get to come to these panels and if you show the interest, they’ll talk to you if they have the time. So I was able to build up my network in that way.
STRANGAS: For me, my advisor was very supportive. But this completely depends on your relationship with your advisor. If it’s possible, work it in early and in small steps maybe of like “I’m thinking about these other things” and kind of building it up. I will say on the informational interviews, definitely come prepared to those. Have a list of questions that you want to ask, you know, do your research. What does that person actually do? Don’t come in and just say “so talk to me.” Make it a little more structured.
WEINTRAUB-BREVDA: Yeah, just to add my own experience. My PI was really understanding. I did not put it in small steps it was kind of just like that meeting where I was like “this is what I’m thinking.” And I sort of laid out the reasons why I didn’t want to stay in academia at least in the pure sense because I still think of myself as working in sort of academia because I work with students and postdocs. But you know not having my own lab. And she was very supportive and it was very helpful to have that conversation and to know that I can sort of bounce back. Because you can talk to people in your life but to have someone where you really respect their opinion can also help you.
So it was actually a really good conversation but of course like Maria said it very much depends on the relationship that you have with your PI. Only you would know that but I would definitely recommend thinking about how to approach. The other thing that I would said, I think making sure that you have people that you could reach out to for different things is really important. To sort of expand your reach but also understand that you can’t get everything from the same person. You can go to your PI for certain types of help but you’re going to need other people. So you might want someone for emotional support, you might someone to write you letters of recommendation, you might want someone to give you access to opportunities. You want to expand your network to diversify it enough that you can get these different things.
HOST, VOICE-OVER: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud! I want to thank Saranna, Maria and Rachel for sharing their experiences working in science communication and outreach positions. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every two weeks during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe via Apple or Google and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also, check out our Twitter and Career Planning website at cuny.is/careerplan for more updates from our office or to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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