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.