You want to do what? Explaining your nontraditional career to the world

Several conversations with people I just met have gone something like this:

Don’t be surprised when people give you a blank stare after you tell them about your nontraditional career plans. Photo credit: flickr user lungstruck

So, what did you study in college? Chemistry. Wow. I hated chemistry! You're in grad school now, that’s cool… What are you studying? Chemistry. Huh. So... what are you gonna do after you get your Ph.D.? Become a writer. (Blank stare).  Hmm... how does that work?
At this point, I go on to explain how I’m super-psyched to use my background in chemistry to communicate science in fun and down-to-earth ways so that anyone can understand. I'm sure other non-traditional careers folks out there have had conversations like this. I suppose blank stares are to be expected, since we’re going after careers that are not typical for people with our background. Before I stumbled into the world of non-traditional science careers, I certainly didn't have the framework to grasp that you could take your science degree and waltz into a seemingly unrelated career path.

Don’t be afraid to be different and pursue your passion, even if you’re going against the crowd. Photo credit: flickr user Ben Heine

I’m happy to be pursuing something that I love, even if it's atypical. Grad school equips you with a bunch of transferable skills that you can take with you wherever your heart (and job opportunities) lead. So you should never feel boxed in. Like so many of the people I’ve written profiles about for this blog, I love pursuing my passion! I have never been as excited about a future career prospect as I have been since discovering science writing. Most people find my non-traditional career goals interesting. Some wonder if I feel I'm wasting my time getting a Ph.D. in chemistry. I tell them I don't feel grad school was a waste at all. I've learned a ton, both about science and about myself. I've grown and matured and am better prepared to confront the challenges of my future career than I would've been straight out of college. That's not to say grad school is for everyone, or that if I'd do it all again if I could go back knowing I wanted to be a science writer from the start... I'd like to think I've left an impression on some people I've talked to (or perhaps other students out there who read this blog), and that some have walked away encouraged to think outside of the box and let themselves dream a little, too…

Author: Christine Herman

Share This Post On


  1. Convincing people you’re not crazy is a long term project. Like the Colorado River carving out the Grand Canyon, every day you produce, you wear just a little bit of the resistance away. When I started doing what I was doing, I got a lot of funny reactions from people I knew, like they thought I was biding my time for something better to come along. Now, they probably still think it’s crazy, but have stopped forwarding me ads for job openings. If you’re doing something you think is worthwhile, what does it matter what your old friends and colleagues think?

  2. For forty years, the best jobs have been in the cracks between fields. I went from biochem to molecular biology, from mol bio to analytical chem, from a-chem to instrument design and gas sensor development. Sometimes this made folks scratch their heads, but I’ve never bothered to explain myself.

  3. I know that I’ve been really inspired throughout your blog! Thank you! Those blank stares are always so hard to get around, but it is nice to hear that it is not just me.

  4. @Dangerous Bill: Thanks for sharing about your path– sounds like it’s been quite an adventure.

    @James, @STEM_Wonk: Thanks for empathizing! What careers are you currently pursuing?

  5. You could always cite Isaac Asimov, John Casti, Philip Ball and Simon Singh, all of whom got their Ph.D.s and then became science writers.

  6. I absolutely agree with @Dangerous Bill

    It’s the cracks and seams where all of the most interesting and most profitable activities occur. I could list my own career path (most “jagged” than even Bill’s) but you’d probably never believe it was real. LOL!

    It’s always worth the look on their faces when they check a reference and discover another bit of what I claim as a career history is 100% true. A mixture of awe, admiration, respect and sometimes fear.

  7. I want to be like Leonardo when I grow up… I’m actually 50. BSc in Biology, MSc in Biochemistry, ScD in Chemistry, SCUBA diver, Environmental Risk Diploma, MIT MediaLab Diploma, Mexican Space Agency collaborator, and promoting science to Kindergarden and elementary kids. You can do whatever you want. Just keep walking!

  8. Agreed. I am a chemical patent attorney so I get the stare often. I can’t stand the stare so I take the time to explain what I do: obtaining patents on chemically relevant inventions and improvements. I really enjoy what I do and I hope other non-traditional chemists will consider patent law. I am enjoying it so much that I am seeking a PhD in Analytical Chemistry.