Career Corner

Exploring Non-Academic Science Careers: Assistant Dean for Diversity Initiatives in the Natural Sciences in Princeton University

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a difficult question for many people to answer. Do you have a degree in science, but don’t know what your next career move should be? Are there any options outside academia? For reasons related to recent trends in funding and employment, the scientific community is looking for information regarding opportunities outside the traditional academic environment.

This series, called Exploring Non-Academic Science Careers, will highlight options that allow you to use your scientific expertise in ways that you may not know are out there! Our first and second post in this series highlighted the Presidential Management Fellowship and Peace Corps, respectively.

In the third post in our series, we interviewed Dr. Vanessa González-Pérez. She has had a very successful professional trajectory. Although Dr. González-Pérez works in academia, she has taken a non-traditional path. This is what she had to say about scientists interested in non-traditional academic science careers.

Dr. Vanessa González-Pérez currently works as an Assistant Dean for Diversity Initiatives in the Natural Sciences for the graduate school at Princeton University. She acquired a Bachelor’s in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras Campus and a PhD in Genetics and Molecular Biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH).

Dr. González-Pérez, why did you get into science?

It was an organic decision. I’m naturally curious and I love to learn. As a result, I spent much of my childhood playtime asking myself things like, “How do things work?” and “What are they made off?” and often seeking the answers in books, encyclopedias, or simply driving my parents crazy asking the question, “Why?” Thus, it was no surprise that when I was introduced to science in school, I was captivated by the thought of understanding the complexity of living organisms, how they work, and more importantly what science could do to improve human health. My interest for science was further increased while I was pursuing a college major in Biology and even more when I started doing undergraduate research, an experience that allowed me to discover new fields of study and to develop new skills. And, in case you are wondering–YES!–I’m still as curious and as hungry for knowledge as when I was a child!

What did you do after your Ph.D.? How did that help you decide what to do next?

I first did a short postdoctoral fellowship at North Carolina Central University, a small Historically Black College and University (HBCU) located in Durham, NC and then continued with a 2.5 year postdoc at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), both in the field of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Each postdoc opened up the possibility of continuing a career in academia. I was then exploring an exciting new scientific field, constantly keeping in mind how my trajectory and skills as a scientist would translate into life after a postdoc, while deciding whether my future would be in academia or industry.

Interestingly, my postdocs also provided me a new perspective on academia versus the time I was in graduate school. This time academia was different, mainly due to the lessons learned while in graduate school, including critical thinking and many scientific technical skills. It was also different because as a postdoc I was more confident and I was able to take control of my training, and I was able to identify and seek great mentors who helped me further develop as a scientist and empowered me to become my own advocate. That way, I learned how to establish professional boundaries, manage the expectations of a workplace, and believe in my true talents—all tools and skills I didn’t have while in graduate school.

During my training as a postdoc, I also developed leadership skills and a stronger professional network, which led me to co-found and co-chair the Minority Postdoc Alliance and to lead the 1,000+ members from the UNC-CH Postdoctoral Association. These volunteer roles were motivated by the need to help others, especially my peers who were seeking a sense of community, a safe and reliable platform to navigate traditional and non-traditional careers in science, and support outside of their research space. I started volunteering for the National Postdoctoral Association as a Diversity Officer and gained the additional perspective that the local problems I was familiar with were also national problems and that, as a peer and a leader, I was able to support the career success of others.

The combination of my growing research portfolio and leadership experiences while I was a postdoc led me to realize that academia needed more caring and passionate leadership to support scholars undergoing strenuous scientific training programs. I also realized there are great mentors who actually care and want to support those interested in an academic career, and I wanted to be part of that cohort. These are some of the reasons why I stayed in academia and pursued an Assistant Research Professor position at Washington State University and now serve as an administrator at Princeton University.

What alternate avenue from the traditional professoriate in academia did you take? Why? How did this make you feel?

I recognized early during my training as a graduate student and a postdoc that there was a need for leaders in administrative roles to support all trainees, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds. These leaders need to not only be willing to fulfill their yearly academic duties, but be knowledgeable of the scientific community to become an advocate and to go above and beyond to make a difference for the overall experience of young scientists. Thus, I recently chose to pursue a career in the administrative sector of academia.

This role makes me very happy. I’m happy that I will be able to inspire and support other students, and that in addition to or regardless of the conduct and behavior of others and how they contribute to a given campus climate, I can make an impact in the development and success of a trainee. It also makes me feel fulfilled that I’m able to share with others the tools and resources that I have collected over the years that have and will help me navigate my career development.

What are you currently doing? What does your day to day look like?

Currently, I’m an Assistant Dean for Diversity Initiatives in the Natural Sciences at Princeton University. My days are always different, but they typically include attending student group meetings and research talks, holding one-on-one meetings with students who are seeking resources to support their graduate career, engaging with research faculty and program administrators, and also participating in staff meetings for the graduate school to best support the strategic planning and initiatives set to strengthen our graduate student pipeline. My favorite part of the day is when I engage with the students and get to learn about their research, career goals, and dreams so I can find the best way to support them.

Any advice you would give to someone who is interested in pursuing a non-academic science career?

The most valuable lesson I learned throughout my career is to be yourself! Once you realize what makes you happy and learn to acknowledge your strengths and not your weaknesses, you will be motivated to follow your true calling. I also advise to never stop fostering your creativity, and stay focused on your goals and dreams. These are the kind of thoughts and desires that are going to help you stay strong and to succeed and more importantly to overcome the many challenges you will encounter in any area that you chose to develop your career into, even if it’s not in academia. And finally, I advise for everyone to seek out a mentor, which will help you both to build a support network and to provide guidance during your career trajectory.

Exploring Non-Academic Science Careers: Peace Corps

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a difficult question for many people to answer. Do you have a degree in science, but don’t know what your next career move should be? Are there any options outside academia? For reasons related to recent trends in funding and employment, the scientific community is looking for information regarding opportunities outside the traditional academic environment.

This series, called Exploring Non-Academic Science Careers, will highlight options that allow you to use your scientific expertise in ways that you may not know are out there! Our first post in this series highlighted the Presidential Management Fellowship.

In this second post in our series, we interviewed two scientists, Dr. Theresa Good and Dr. Stacy Kelley, who both work in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Both have successfully completed science PhDs and Peace Corps service. After a short introduction of Peace Corps, we would like to share their thoughts on Peace Corps service as an option for scientists interested in non-academic science careers.

What is Peace Corps?

Peace Corps is a US government agency founded by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship. Applicants who are selected for service, called Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), are US citizens age 18 or older with education, life experience, knowledge, or skills who are ready to live and work for 27 months in one of 63 countries.

You can learn more about Peace Corps, fill out an application, or read position descriptions here.

What do Peace Corps Volunteers Do?

During service, Peace Corps Volunteers collaborate with community members or organizations to build capacity at the grassroots-level. A PCV’s role during service is unique – defined by the overlap of their own interest and abilities with the needs and goals of the community, host nation, and Peace Corps agency. PCVs work alongside host-country counterparts in international development on a micro-scale by innovating sustainable solutions to large systemic issues like climate change, agricultural challenges, community economic development, health challenges (such as nutrition, HIV/AIDS, and water security), education and literacy, gender equality and letting girls learn, and youth development.

Each Peace Corps experience starts with training. PCVs live with a host family in their host nation while learning to speak one or more languages, core and technical aspects of their role, and history, culture, and customs for three months. Then, PCVs move to a host community where they live and work for an additional two years. PCVs who complete their 27 months of service are welcomed back as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV).

How Did You Hear About Peace Corps?

Dr. Theresa Good: I am the Deputy Division Director of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) at the National Science Foundation (NSF). When I was a graduate student at Cornell, doing a project on the mathematical modeling of E. coli back in the early days of systems biology, Peace Corps came on my radar. Cornell had some programs that seemed to attract RPCVs. It was hard not to romanticize about the idea of joining Peace Corps especially when you heard RPCVs’ stories.

Dr. Stacy Kelley: I am a Biologist in the Division of MCB. My husband first introduced me to Peace Corps. We both believe in public service, and loved the idea of living overseas. Some may see it as idealism, but we knew Peace Corps was right for us. The only question was when? I was in graduate school, teaching and conducting PhD lab research, with my sights set on a fulfilling career in academia. Stepping off of that well-defined path was frightening, so we talked with a Peace Corps recruiter to make a more informed decision.

What was the reason you decided to join the Peace Corps?

Dr. Theresa Good: I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with my research, or if I really wanted a PhD. As I was searching around, not sure of the relevance of my research, it seemed to me that while I was trying to sort out what I wanted to do, I could do something that “made the world a better place.” I never thought I was altruistic; I was just trying to find myself in a socially acceptable way.

I had suggested to the Peace Corps recruiter that as a chemical engineer specializing on growing bacteria in a bioreactor, I should be able to teach people how to grow fish in a pond. But instead, Peace Corps asked me to teach biology and chemistry in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It seemed like an adventure! But, I also had no idea what I was getting into.

Dr. Stacy Kelley: Talking with a recruiter convinced me Peace Corps was the right choice, so we filled out an application. The application and selection process was different back then. For example, it took us weeks to fill out the paper application, and now you can do it online in about an hour. Where we would be living and working was a surprise, but now you can request a specific country and position. We knew it took longer for married couples to be placed, so we applied and thought we would just fit it in to my scientific career once we were accepted. We had no idea that more than two years later, we would be asked to serve…just as I was about to graduate with my PhD. We can still remember the excitement of opening the envelope that said where we were serving!

What are the professional and personal benefits of Peace Corps service?

Dr. Theresa Good: I discovered I loved to teach and that I was good at it. There is something magical about that moment when students “get it”, when that the light bulb goes on. My village lacked electricity and running water. I will never forget when my students did an experiment for the first time in a chemistry lab with water we got from a stream using donated materials that were tucked away for years in a supply room. After adding metal to a solution, they noticed bubbles evolving and came running to me saying (in French, not English) “Miss, miss, is this a reaction?”…and they finally got what they were learning. Wow!

I also discovered how resourceful I was – you can’t actually survive for 2 years in the DRC without being resourceful. Being resourceful is a skill that translates to all areas of life.

Jim Olds, the Assistant Director of Biological Sciences, asks me periodically about my resilience as a leader. Peace Corps is a great opportunity to practice resilience – at least in my village, you never knew what to expect – so having a sense of humor and the ability to adapt (and thrive) in the midst of change – was important.

Finally, diversity is an important value at the NSF – we value diverse opinions, people who can work with diverse people, and people who come from diverse environments.

Theresa

Dr. Theresa Good (far right) talking with other Peace Corps Volunteers in Zaire.

After living for two years in an environment where I was the one who was different (the only white woman who some of the people in my village had ever seen), I gained a whole new appreciation for diversity. I also gained an appreciation for working with students from different cultures (whose English language skills might not match their intellectually ability in their technical area). I spent two years teaching in French (a language I had learned in high school, but was not particularly good at when I first got to the Democratic Republic of Congo), so I knew first-hand what it was like to be “really smart, but have language skills of a 5-year-old.”

I found by becoming more resourceful and resilient in Peace Corps, I became a better researcher in graduate school in Wisconsin. Resourcefulness and resiliency are both important skills in science when experiments fail or your proposal gets rejected. Really, when something “hard” happens now, I know it really isn’t that hard compared to some of the other things I’ve been through in Peace Corps service.

Dr. Stacy Kelley: I served in Youth Development working with youth, adults, and communities to improve the social, economic, and leadership opportunities available to youth. My husband served in Community Economic Development helping small businesses, teaching business and computing classes, and developing entrepreneurs. Though my work was not directly related to science, I found ways to incorporate my love of science into everything I did. For example, during Graduate School I taught college students about HIV infection in a lecture hall in English, and in Peace Corps, I taught high school students about HIV infection on a soccer field in Spanish. I used my scientific data collection and evaluation skills to co-create an online, monitoring and evaluation system that are still being used. My husband used science in his community project creating robotic tractors for agriculture. As a married couple serving in the same community, we often worked together on secondary projects including science fairs, murals, and teaching English and computing. These experiences uniquely round out my scientific resume.

After serving in Peace Corps, I have terrific examples for job interviews of overcoming challenges, working in a multicultural setting, developing and managing small or large scale projects, multitasking, and most of all – resourcefully innovating MacGyver-style with whatever you have or can find to make everything you need. Life in Peace Corps is an adventure – difficult, exciting, and filled with change – requiring me to find the best in myself and adapt quickly to challenges such as power or water outages, cold showers, long bus rides, earthquakes, or new social norms. I also found I was stronger than I knew – overcoming the personal sacrifices of missing my brother’s wedding, aunt’s funeral, and nephew’s birth. My husband and I are now more resilient – better able to make mistakes, laugh at ourselves, and handle challenging situations with greater ease.

Peace Corps Volunteers receive benefits and professional development. One of the biggest professional benefits for me was becoming part of an expansive network of diverse RPCV peers who generously help newly minted RPCVs find their place in the world. The training and experience you receive conducting data management, project design and management, grant writing, and managing budgets, combined with unique experiences that change your perspective on the world, are also highly valued by potential employers, including Employers of National Service who have committed to hiring RPCVs. If you are interested in working for the US Government, RPCVs are awarded one year of non-competitive eligibility (NCE) status that makes the hiring process a little easier. Being an RPCV, you also have the ability to apply for high-impact, short-term assignments called Peace Corps Response. Those with a medical doctor or nursing background can apply for Global Health Service Partnership positions.

Overwhelmingly for me, the benefits of Peace Corps service were deeply personal. My husband and I have countless, priceless memories of heartfelt moments with so many people – from those we only interacted with for a few moments while waiting for a bus on a dusty road, to those we saw everyday walking up green, mango tree covered mountains in the hot sun. In Peace Corps, we found a second family, a new home, and are now finding it harder to answer the question “Where are you from?” All this from taking a road less traveled, a non-traditional path towards a career in science.

Any advice you would give to someone who is interested in science and Peace Corps?

Dr. Theresa Good: There are so many more opportunities to serve in the Peace Corps now than there were in the 80’s. I was one of the few (only) chemical engineers that joined the Peace Corps – and while teaching Chemistry was somewhat relevant, there are more relevant projects available to Peace Corps Volunteers now. The Peace Corps is a great way to get some experience – but also grow personally and in leadership skills you might not have the opportunity to use in other “entry level” positions. So – if you find an opportunity that fits, are willing to explore a more circuitous path, and you have a sense of humor and a sense of adventure – go for it!

If you know of a great alternative way to use your science degree and want us to highlight the opportunity for readers, let us know!

Exploring Non-Academic Science Careers: Presidential Management Fellowship

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a difficult question for many people to answer. Do you want to pursue science but don’t know what options are out there? Do you have a degree in science but don’t know what your next career move should be? Are there any options outside academia? For reasons related to recent trends in funding and employment opportunities, the scientific community is looking for information regarding opportunities outside the traditional academic environment.

This series will highlight options that allow you to use your scientific expertise in ways that you may not know are out there! This is the first post of what we hope become the widely read Blog theme: Exploring Non-Academic Science Careers.

My name is Reyda P. Gonzalez Nieves. Since I was a kid, I had a passion for science. It was the one subject in school where I excelled. It was also because of science that I am able to be here today. Science saved my life, literally. Time passed and as I got older, I realized that I wanted to pursue studies in cell molecular biology. I got my Bachelor’s in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamon Campus and my PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology from Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda MD.

I have always believed that you should pursue what you are passionate about. Early in my PhD studies, I realized that traditional academia was not for me. But…what else could I do with a PhD in science? That question kept me up many nights. I didn’t want to be away from science, but I didn’t know what direction I should take. The thought of not pursing a post-doc was crazy in the eyes of others. I started looking into different options, but in all honesty it was really hard. I was scared that I would regret my decision. Most importantly, I was scared that the outcome was not going to be ideal. I wished I had more information or a person who made a similar step outside of academia to talk to.

During my search, I found the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF). The PMF program is administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. This program focuses on training future leaders in the federal government. It is prestigious and includes a two-year fellowship that, upon completion, offers you the opportunity to become a permanent federal employee. You will need a MA/MS, Ph.D., or J.D. degree in any academic discipline to be eligible to apply. Graduate school really trains you well for something like this, because it is a highly competitive process to become a PMF fellow.

As a PMF fellow, you have the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a government employee in all aspects. You have the ability to make a positive impact in the agency you are appointed to work in. It also provides you with an opportunity to participate on a detail assignment, which is four to six-months as a fellow in another office or agency outside of your primary appointment. Back in 2014, the PMF Program piloted the PMF STEM track with the goal of identifying and training future STEM leaders for Federal government service. You can find all the STEM degrees solicited for the 2016 STEM track here.

I was hired in April of 2014 as a Presidential Management Fellow in the Molecular and Cellular Biosciences Division at the National Science Foundation (NSF). I currently work as a Biologist. My position is completely different from my work as a graduate student. Now, I am able to see and contribute to the other side of grant proposals. As a graduate student I applied for grants. As a Biologist at the NSF, I help the Division and Program Officers with the proposal cycle. I work on special projects for Senior Management and Program Directors. I manage the Division blog, analyze statistics, gather data, mentor summer interns, assist Program Directors during scientific grant review panels, assist Principal Investigators with Sharing Science, and much more. I have the opportunity to take classes and attend conferences to further my professional development. It has been an amazing and rewarding experience.

My advice to those who are thinking about what to do with their scientific degrees is to pursue what inspires you. If it is academia, go for it. If it is not, that’s okay. My point is that there are always hurdles along the way, but if you are pursuing something you are passionate about, it will all be worth it in the end. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to pursue something that for others seems impossible. I am very glad that I applied to the PMF program. In the end, only YOU will know what is best for you.

There is clearly a need in our community for information about Non-academic Science Career Opportunities. Our goal with this Blog theme is to show our readers alternate avenues outside of a traditional academic path. If you know of a great alternative way to use your science degree and want us to highlight the opportunity for readers, let us know!