The Training Page


2015 Career Symposium

There is no such thing as an “alternative career,” a term that is sometimes applied in a derogatory way to any career outside of academia, Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) Director Sharon Milgram reminded the audience that had gathered for the eighth annual NIH Career Symposium on May 15.

In fact, there are myriad career opportunities, all of them equally valid, for Ph.D.-bearing scientists. Many young scientists may not be aware of the variety of careers their doctoral degrees prepare them for. After all, they’ve been trained in academia and mentored primarily by advisors who have had personal experience only with the academic career track. The OITE has sought to remedy this situation by hosting an annual symposium at which graduate students and postdoctoral fellows can learn how to leverage their training into a career that is right for them, whether it’s in academia, industry, or other organizations, or in some arena far away from the bench.

This year’s daylong symposium, held at the Natcher Conference Center (Building 45), boasted more than 70 speakers and was attended by more than 1,000 trainees from the NIH intramural program and outside universities. Although the symposium panelists on 18 different panels discussed many different career options, several common themes arose. Speakers on every panel, regardless of their career path, stressed the value of networking in both finding and landing a job.

Patricia Dranchak, a research scientist at the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, urged the people attending the “Bench Careers in Unexpected Places” (such as nonprofit, private, and military organizations) panel to develop a concise description of their current work and career goals that they can use when talking to anyone. Some panelists recommended networking—including setting up informational interviews with people who work in the job seeker’s desired field—both to gain details about what the work entails and to make personal connections.

Panelists also remarked on how being a good communicator is essential to any career. Whether someone is a professor giving lectures to students, an industry scientist talking to a team about a project’s progress, or a science-policy analyst writing recommendations for legislation, the ability to communicate clearly is crucial. Panelists also recommended that trainees take an inventory of the skills and expertise they have and develop any that will be particularly important in the career path of their choosing.

Nearly all the presenters on the “Science Education and Outreach Careers” panel had gained experience through volunteer teaching or outreach, and those on the “Careers in Science Communications” panel had volunteered for writing and editing opportunities. The speakers said that for any career it is important for trainees to develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills as well as to put time and effort into making connections, practicing communication, and gaining any additional training or experience necessary to succeed.

Yong-Jun Liu, the senior vice president for Research and Development at MedImmune (Gaithersburg, Maryland), closed the symposium with a discussion of his own career journey through academia and industry. Following answers to scientific questions took him down an unexpected path, making him realize that careers can evolve in surprising ways. This idea was echoed in other panels. John Balbach (“Science Education and Outreach Careers” panel) told how he had left an academic position at George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) to teach physics at Georgetown Preparatory School (North Bethesda, Maryland) when he realized his passions tended more toward education than research. Robert Arch (director, Takeda Pharmaceuticals), who spoke on a panel about transitioning to industry, described how he moved from his academic post to a series of industry positions.

Many of the panelists discovered during their training that doing research was not their favorite aspect of science and abandoned their pipettes for one of a multitude of other science careers. The message from the symposium was clear: Young scientists should follow their strengths and passions because there is a wide world of opportunities for them, albeit sometimes in unexpected places.

To see write-ups of the individual sessions, go to For more information about the services and resources that OITE offers, visit


Contact Managing Editor Laura Stephenson Carter for details ( or 301-402-1449).