The AltPhD Interview Series features conversations with scientists who have successfully transitioned into a non-academic aka an “alternative” career, and highlights the skills and career moves that helped them to achieve their current position. In the first interview of this series, it is my pleasure to sit down with Jacqueline Chretien, PhD, ELS who I met at a scientific meeting. She was part of a career panel and shared her personal experience in transitioning away from an academic research career. I am grateful that she agreed to take time and chat about her professional journey so far in this second installment of the AltPhD Interview Series.
Dr. Chretien is currently the Team Manager-Onboarding and Training at Research Square. She completed her joint BS/MS in Biology from Brandeis University in 2004. After a year ‘off’ (working in the lab where she had done research as an undergraduate), she began her PhD work at the University of California, Berkeley in 2005, and graduated with her PhD in 2011. She began working at her current company in January of 2012.
In this #AltPhD chat, she talks about her journey from an academic postdoc position into science writing, editing and management.
LP: Thank you for taking time to talk about your post-PhD journey and non-traditional career choices. Let’s start with talking about what does your current job currently encompass.
JC: I am currently a Team Manager at Research Square/American Journal Experts (AJE). I interview, hire, and coach MS/PhD-level scientists to become language editors at our company. We work with researchers who are mainly outside of the US who need help polishing their writing (or with other aspects of manuscript preparation) to get published in the best journals possible. Language editing is a unique job, and it’s challenging to find the line of getting the text to clearly convey what the author wants it to convey without interfering in the content or veering into authorship. My job is to help new editors use their field-specific knowledge to walk that line!
LP: Your current position requires an interesting combination of science writing as well as management skills. Related to this, I have a two-part question. First when did you decide to go into the job that you are currently in? And how did you shape your career trajectory after your PhD to get this current job?
JC: I have always been a voracious reader, and I’ve always really enjoyed writing and editing, so the idea of a career that could combine my love of bioscience and my love of the English language had been in my head more or less since my undergraduate days, if not high school. I made the decision to join AJE as a full-time editor not too long after graduating with my PhD, and I wound up in management after a little less than 2 years at the company (with some encouragement from my boss and several co-workers).
I was lucky to discover AJE when I was in graduate school. I began working as a contract editor (for just a few hours per week) while I was still in PhD program. I kept going after graduation — the flexibility of contract editing was ideal as my family moved back across the country to New Hampshire and got settled, and as I took some time to decide what direction my career would take. I knew the postdoc-to-professor path was not what I wanted to do, but I was considering a few options: freelancing as a pop science writer/blogger, putting out a shingle as an independent manuscript editor, or looking for work in regulatory or medical writing… I was also considering applying for industry or staff scientist jobs. Quite serendipitously, though, AJE happened to be looking for a full-time editor right around the time that we bought our house, so I thought, well, let me just go for that and get a little more stability, and it turned out to be a great fit for me.
LP: That is quite a significant amount of relevant skillset you gathered over the years in grad school! My next question is, do you think doing a postdoc is important to transition into the job that you currently hold?
JC: The PhD research experience has been critical to my trajectory. A postdoc would certainly not have hurt, but it wasn’t necessary.
LP: What skills that you learnt in your PhD/postdoc that are helpful in your current job?
JC: If nothing else, I gained a high level of empathy for the stressed-out researcher… knowing that I was working on something that someone has put five years of their life into always helped motivate me to do my best work! Of course, as an editor, I relied a lot on my understanding of research methods and concepts to understand what the authors were trying to do in a paper. I was also lucky that my PI was a terrific writer; she taught me a lot about clarity of argument and manuscript structure. As a manager, I draw a lot on the problem-solving and interpersonal/collaboration skills gained during graduate school. Giving constructive feedback to my team members has a surprising amount in common with critiquing a labmate’s meeting presentation!
LP: How was the interview prep/process like?
JC: In my case, extremely informal! I had already been editing with the company as a contractor for a few years, so I was a known quantity. There were just a few emails back and forth, and then I had the job! These days, it’s a more structured process — after the initial resume screening, we have applicants complete an editing sample to demonstrate their skills, and then multiple interviews to assess overall fit for the job and our team.
LP: How crucial was networking to get the position you hold? And your opinions on importance of networking in general.
JC: I did not do any formal ‘networking’ to land at my company or to move up, but I definitely benefitted from having positive relationships with my classmates and others in the field.
LP: What is the career trajectory that you hope to have moving forward?
JC: I really enjoy what I’m doing right now, and I hope to stay with it — I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy management and coaching, and I love that I can stay in touch with the literature and contribute positively to the research community in my position. As our company grows, I want to continue to help us find smart, thoughtful people to join the team, and I’m looking forward to ‘scaling’ my impact (creating more training resources, for example).
LP: Thanks Jackie, I am sure your experience will help many of our readers. Any final words of wisdom to PhD students/postdocs who are looking to transition into the job you currently hold and in general, transition out of academia?
JC: Don’t be afraid to try new things, and where there’s an opportunity to take a small step along path that interests you (e.g., contract editing, science writing, patent law or marketing classes, teaching afterschool elementary programs…), pursue it! If you’re genuine in your interest and do quality work, it’s very likely that additional doors will open. You just never know who you’ll meet or what other opportunities may pop up along the way.