By Kirk Englehardt – Originally a Guest Blog Post on Scilogs.com 6/2014 – Updated 2/2017
Changing careers isn’t easy. Neither is giving up on one dream to pursue another, but I’ve done both with no regrets.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve made myself available for several informational interviews by students on the Ph.D. track considering diverting from their planned destination. I easily related to them because I understand the internal struggles involved when deliberating about a career change.
In working through their own deliberations about trading in a career in the lab for one in science communication these students asked me some excellent questions about how I started in communications and sought advice for getting started along their own path in communication.
There were many similarities between their stories and mine.
While I never pursued a Ph.D., I did pursue a dream career only to find out it wasn’t as “dreamy” as I’d imagined. I remember being an excited undergrad, thrilled to be chasing my dream of becoming the next world-famous radio talk show host. I studied the art, listening to endless hours of Neil Rogers, Phil Hendry, Howard Stern and others. They were my heroes back then. They made me laugh, and made me think.
I worked as a sportscaster at my college radio station and, as a student intern, I even co-hosted a Sunday morning talk show on a local commercial AM station. Admittedly, my partner and I were “let go” from the volunteer gig after five shows. It seems we were a bit too edgy for Sunday morning radio.
While it discouraged me, it didn’t deter me. I got my degree and before long I was working as a nighttime news producer for Miami’s top news radio station. I learned from the veteran reporters I worked with, and I gradually moved into the roles of daytime street reporter and fill-in anchor. Yet something was missing.
I stopped liking the industry I once couldn’t wait to be a part of. It was no longer something I was passionate about. I wondered how reporting on car accidents and murders made the world a better place. I felt as if I was expected to make the news exciting by sensationalizing it, even if the story wasn’t exciting at all. Was I providing value to anyone? Was I making a difference? Did I feel fulfilled? I couldn’t answer “yes” to those questions, so I decided to make a change – from media to communications.
Making that switch was, in many ways, like transitioning from academic research to science communication. I was asked, for instance, why I was going to be a “flack.”
In spite of the negative feedback, I remained resolute in changing course and got my first communications job as a media relations specialist for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. That experience led me to a master’s degree and some other great jobs with bigger titles, bigger teams, and bigger responsibilities. Today, with more than 16 years of experience, I find myself in my ninth year working in research communication at Georgia Tech. It took a while, but I can finally answer “yes” to those important questions I’d asked myself before I turned in my microphone.
If you’re considering a move to a career in communication, here’s my humble, unsolicited advice:
- Don’t listen to anyone who tells you communication is a “lesser” career than research. Communication is a science, an important one with real-world impact. Science communication helps build understanding and support for research.
- Don’t ever think that an advanced degree is a detriment. Some of the finest communicators I know have advanced degrees, and some have gone on to become outstanding communication directors in major organizations. Your curiosity and research methods are valuable. Your subject matter expertise gives you an edge.
- Science communication positions can be found in many different places. Look at universities, independent research institutes, government agencies, national labs, nonprofit and professional organizations, media, and even industry.
- Build your portfolio by writing as much as you can. Start a blog, be active on Twitter, engage with – and learn from – other science communicators. Don’t be afraid to become part of the community.
- Talk to others who have made similar career transitions; you’re not alone.
- Follow your passion so you’re doing something that excites you and makes you feel like you’re contributing to something greater. You’ll be happier in the long run.
It’s corny, but fitting, to conclude with a quote from one of my favorite philosophers:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” ― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!