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How lingering on ‘extracurriculars’ led to a career

Jane Hu, alumna (PhD, psychology) | September 3, 2014

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!

Comment to “How lingering on ‘extracurriculars’ led to a career

  1. Congrats Jane for your Laurels!! Psychology is not something easy and it needs lot of dedication and involvement into the work field as how you do. Continue to do this good job!!

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