A Day in the Life at UNMC

Finding Ph.D. possibilities off the academic track

Lisa Bilek, Ph.D., right, a UNMC alum shared a laugh at the UNeMed panel discussion "Alternate Careers in Science." With her is fellow UNMC alum Tyler Martin, M.D.
Lisa Bilek, Ph.D., right, a UNMC alum, shared a laugh at the UNeMed panel discussion “Alternate Careers in Science.” With her is fellow UNMC alum Tyler Martin, M.D. (Photos by Charlie Litton, UNeMed)

Looking for a job while you have an advanced degree sounds a lot like looking for a job without an advanced degree.

“I beat my head against the wall until something gave,” said Austin Jelcick, Ph.D.

And, as Dr. Jelcick said, “When you have your Ph.D., there can often be this odd chasm you have to cross,” in that you always seem to be either over- or under qualified.

Adam Ruben, Ph.D., a scientist and entertainer, told jokes, gave advice and signed books at a recent Innovation and Research Week show.
Adam Ruben, Ph.D., a scientist and entertainer, told jokes, gave advice and signed books at a recent Innovation and Research Week show.

And then there’s Adam Ruben, Ph.D., who noted that while you’re going for that degree, you spend your twenties overworked, exhausted, unappreciated, unacknowledged and barely paid.

That’s not uncommon. And if you can get someone to call you “doctor” by the end of it, you’re doing better than most.

But maybe there is one major difference for those who have a Ph.D. or its equivalent.

“You are trained by academics,” Dr. Ruben said, “to be an academic.” And any career option other than academic faculty member often is presented as a failure. That’s crazy, Dr. Ruben said: “It’s a completely false choice!”

Especially, since no matter how brilliant and hard-working each individual Ph.D. may be, collectively, becoming an academic faculty member is simply not going to happen for all of them. To put it in terms scientists understand, the data just doesn’t add up. Dr. Ruben cited the “insane!” statistic that for every seven postdoctoral scholars, there is only one tenure-track academic position up for grabs.

Michelle Eggen, right, and Shane Farritor, Ph.D., spoke on the "Alternate Careers" panel.
Michelle Eggen, right, and Shane Farritor, Ph.D., spoke on the “Alternate Careers” panel.

Good thing, during the recent Innovation and Research Week, UNeMed hosted a panel discussion on “Alternate Careers in Science” featuring a host of those who have found work success off the academic track. This included Dr. Jelcick, a UNMC alum now director of business strategy for Cyagen Biosciences.

And, Dr. Ruben, who in addition to being a molecular biologist, also serves as an author, TV host and science comedian (now THAT’S an alternate career), made a DRC auditorium crowd laugh cathartically with his presentation of “Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.”

But, in addition to the comedy, Dr. Ruben offered real-world advice to the dozens of future Ph.D.s. He said that finding a career outside of academia does not mean that you are being untrue to the person who started grad school with dreams of working at a university. No more than becoming a scientist was a betrayal of the 5-year-old self who once wanted to be a cowboy, or princess.

“It’s that, over time, you learn that there are other possibilities,” he said.

And, “Good scientific talent is hard to find and in demand right now,” said Michelle Eggen, who also sat on the “Alternate Careers” panel. She’s a medical writer who works remotely from Yutan, Neb.

“Almost every company in the world is starving for junior (scientific) talent,” said Tyler Martin, M.D., another UNMC alum, who is now CEO of Adjuvance Technologies, Inc.

Dr. Jelcick shared some hard-won wisdom during a return trip to UNMC.
Dr. Jelcick shared some hard-won wisdom during a return trip to UNMC.

So there are many, many possibilities out there for Ph.D.s.

But nobody’s saying it’ll be easy. It may take a mind-set re-set. It may take turning over every stone, and then one more. It may take beating your head against a wall.

“You can be blinded …. You’ve worked so hard for so long that you deserve to have a good-paying job when you finish. The fact is, you don’t deserve anything,” Dr. Jelcick said.

“You deserve what you make of it,” he said.

Looking for a job with an advanced degree is a lot like looking for a job without one.

But, anyone who has earned the right to be called “doctor” is probably off to a pretty good start.

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