How to find personal fulfilment after being a scientist

Academia encourages experimentation and innovative thinking. Why not apply these skills to finding a more satisfying job? Greta Faccio explains how she hit on her hybrid solution

Greta Faccio's avatar
Independent academic
21 Jun 2023
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Working as a scientist is energising, engaging and certainly makes you feel like an active player in global science. It lets you leverage your passion for discovery and constructive discussions; it gives you visibility.

After years studying at university, a scientist can find herself engaged in different projects, collaborating with professionals of diverse backgrounds, and tapping into natural and acquired skills. Ideating new projects and estimating the required resources, while taking care of technical issues and preparing presentations and articles, as well as working with professors and students, are just some of the daily activities of a scientist in academia.

This certainly makes you feel involved and important; the discovery and results of a single day can change the knowledge of a particular topic for the whole community. No surprise then that the number of scientists had been increasing even before the pandemic hit. Unesco has reported that there are more than 8.8 million scientists globally, up 15 per cent from 7.7 million in 2014.

I loved being a scientist. But a career as a scientist has its downsides, such as unreliable funding sources, travel and an international curriculum, and its competitive nature.

So, in 2017 I left academia for a job in the private sector. I enjoyed interacting daily with experienced professionals who were developing products that would find their place on shelves and in magazines. After a while, though, the job was not as exciting as I expected. Sure, I had gained skills but it was not as fast-paced as being in science, and I was not getting the same personal satisfaction. 

Is a single job enough?

Was the job wrong or was it my approach to the situation? When is it the right time to leave academia? How would I find the same appreciation and engagement? Can a single job replace scientists’ adventures? I decided to experiment once more. I challenged the job market situation and my parents’ vision for what a secure job looks like, and I considered my personal situation as a mum.

When I transitioned from academia to the private sector, I tapped into my creativity and “why not?” attitude. I decided to apply my scientific exploratory skills to my job situation and career. I went through three major steps before I could identify the solution:

  1. identify your assets
  2. identify your skills
  3. analyse the job market.

What would I miss if I left academia?

For step 1, I asked myself a few questions that helped me to identify what made me unique and what I would miss from the job in academia:

  • What elements of my CV are not purely academic (for example, patents, popular publications, entrepreneurship)?
  • What did I succeed in?
  • What was special about my hobbies?
  • What came easily to me as a scientist?
  • What would I miss the most about working as an academic?
  • What excited me about the role of a scientist?
  • Do I like reaching out to other people?
  • Do I prefer working independently?
  • Am I tidy and organised? Or creative and apparently chaotic?
  • Do I prefer tackling one question at a time or working on many projects at once?
  • How do I relate to colleagues?

These questions helped me to identify what I missed – especially the speculative part, the problem-solving and the communication of findings in articles. I had benefited from public funding and I liked the feeling of sharing the results with the general public. I liked being part of a community and taking part in processes that had an international view. I liked the ambition of projects aiming to improve people’s lives.

In step 2, I identified skills that differentiated me from my colleagues, such as creativity and good communication and visual presentation skills. I remember when a picture of my lab bench was shown at a group dinner and people laughed because there were at least 20 bottles and various notebooks all around. People saw a messy table and probably questioned my organisational skills. I knew it showed the material ready to address many open questions in a short time.

Realising what I did not like helped also to exclude many possibilities that seemed good on paper and for my academic CV but would not have suited my personality. I asked many friends for their feedback to identify what came naturally to me so I knew what I could later leverage easily at work. It’s funny how others sometimes know us better than we know ourselves.

In step 3, I looked at how my assets and skills fitted into the job market. I learned that the private sector sometimes labels things differently (“results dissemination” rather than “scientific communication”, for example). Scientists’ management skills may need to be translated during job interviews – into the ability to meet deadlines, support colleagues and clearly communicate the project’s vision.

I also looked for role models and professionals with careers that inspired me. It was hard to find a single one, but many had a few features that caught my attention, such as volunteering activities, being a mentor and serving on a board, and many led out of the lab towards managerial positions.

Using creativity to shape your career

From the beginning, I could not find a single job title that could capitalise on everything I was good at. But I kept an open mind and admitted that a single position might not be enough. A job that offered me engagement in communication, such as a marketing position, might not leverage my strategic thinking; and a role that took advantage of my technical and analytical skills, such as a research position in an R&D lab, would leave me feeling limited and not part of a global community.

Scientists are known for their ability to analyse, question reality, and come up with unconventional solutions. This approach should also be valid when considering a job outside academia. My solution was to experiment and pursue multiple positions on a part-time basis. Luckily, in Switzerland this is an accepted solution, especially for women.

Then I realised that I had filed for a patent a few years ago and the intellectual property sector had fascinated me for its strategic role, one that can be neglected in academia. This ignited my curiosity. I contacted local companies and met leaders who recognised the value of a PhD and knew the effort it represented.

I now hold two positions and work as consultant in my free time for start-ups and funding agencies. I write articles with other scientists or professionals. These roles shape who I am and I keep learning from my colleagues. The exchange of ideas is daily and I know my job is making a difference again.

Greta Faccio works in intellectual property and is a scientific consultant based in St Gallen, Switzerland.

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