Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

How lingering on 'extracurriculars' led to a career

By Jane Hu

As a psychology graduate student, my main job was to conduct research studies. But over time, I discovered that what I really enjoyed was telling other people about scientific findings: giving talks at conferences, writing papers, or even just explaining my studies to participants.

As my interest in science communication solidified, I panicked about what this meant for my career. Grad students are trained for a career in research, and the path from grad student to postdoc to professorships is well-worn and straightforward. A career as a science communicator, on the other hand, was intimidating and full of unknowns. I hadn’t been trained in science communication; I wasn’t sure if it was a viable career option.

So, I decided to explore my options and hone my science-communication skills in my last couple years of grad school. I helped create the psychology department’s newsletter, PsychologiCal, and joined the editorial board of the Berkeley Science Review, a grad student-run science magazine featuring Berkeley researchers.

I also started working with Beyond Academia, a Berkeley grad student- and postdoc-led group that educates PhD students about non-academic career options. There, I met other grad students who also wanted to veer off the traditional tenure-track. Their encouragement and proactivity gave me the courage to forge my own post-PhD career.

This spring I won a Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship through the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I spent my summer at Slate Magazine in Washington D.C. as a science and health writer. It turns out that a lot of the skills I used in the lab and student groups translated well to writing about science for a general audience.

These include explaining complex scientific concepts succinctly; reading journal articles and talking to scientists; investigating new ideas; writing and re-writing drafts of a piece. And given all the weird skills I learned on the fly (planning conferences and making short video clips for babies to watch, to name a couple), even the new things I had to learn on the job seemed less daunting by comparison.

Moreover, I found that my science background was incredibly useful in reporting science news. Things I took for granted, like familiarity with academic publishing, made it easier to understand what types of questions to ask interviewees or how to track down additional info.

When I entered grad school, I expected that my lab training would someday be useful in my professional life. What I was surprised to find was how my involvement with student organizations – often seen as mere hobbies or, worse yet, a distraction from lab work – helped guide me to an alternate career path, and how much those experiences prepared me for non-academic jobs.

So, as students enter the new school year, I hope they let themselves linger on their extracurriculars. A hobby can turn into your career!