PhD in Progress Podcast

PhD 019: Starting an “Alternative” Career Symposium at Your Institution with Mark Esposito

April 30th, 2015

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A very special thank you to Mark Esposito who also runs the Breaking Bio blog found at


Mark wrote a guide about creating the career symposium you heard in this show at

Discussion points:

  • Understanding your career path and constantly questioning your goals
  • Problems with tenure track positions as the default
  • How do we approach learning about “alternative careers”
  • Steps in initiating a career symposium:
    • 1) Raise money via internal and external grants or donations
    • 2) Connect with potential speakers/guests
      • Ask faculty
      • Use LinkedIn or call companies
      • Ask departmental office
      • Location can be important
    • 3) Logistics for travel arrangement, room availability
  • Career areas addressed at the symposium held at Princeton’s Department of Molecular Biology:
    • Policy
    • Education
    • Industry R&D
    • Law
    • Science Communication
  • Related Episodes:

A very special thanks to Mark Esposito. You can find some great, accessible science posts by Mark at We hope you can take some of his advice and start discussions of alternative careers at your school. He was nice enough to write up a summary and supporting materials that you can find at

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[Image used under Creative Commons licensing and adapted from original by US Dept. of Education]


I'm a Ph.D. candidate in an Archaeology program, and last year, I helped organize two panel discussions on alternative careers as part of my department's lunchtime talk series.  First we had three archaeologists who work in research outside academia, the Park Service, and our city's government, respectively, talk about their work and career paths.  Then, the next week, we focused on "alt-ac" careers with a reference librarian who has a Ph.D. in Classics, a university administrator who has a Ph.D. in Biology, and the head of our university's Writing Program (which often hires archaeology grad students and graduates as teachers).

When my friend and I first started talking about doing this, we were afraid of breaking taboos around talking about non-academic and alt-academic career paths: it just wasn't something that was discussed in our department.  We were both on the committee that ran the lunchtime talk series, so we went to the faculty mentor for that committee.  We were really nervous, but he was really excited about the idea, and it ended up going really well!  The two panels were well-attended and well-received!  Our six guests were also excited to come and talk to us.

PhD in Progress Podcast
PhD in Progress Podcast moderator

@LauraHeath That's fantastic! We're really glad you took the initiative to start such an event and didn't let potential antagonists slow you down. The focus on "alt-ac" careers in your second segment is also important. It seems that many students what to support the academic research done at institutions but are not aware of good ways to do so. 

Was there anything particularly challenging or did everything go more smoothly than planned?


@PhD in Progress Podcast @LauraHeath

Hey!  I just saw this - I was on fieldwork in Mexico for most of the summer with spotty internet and am now catching up on internet things.

The panels went super-well!  The only bumpy part was one of the panelists who went on and on.  I should've stopped her but was afraid to, so the other panelists that week didn't get as much time as hoped.  But overall, it was really smooth.

It was strange how little antagonism we ended up facing.  My friend and I had been so nervous, and then everyone was excited about it!  Having seen that, I think that the way we don't talk about alternative careers in my program has more to do with not knowing how to do so than with actual pressure not to.

PhD in Progress Podcast
PhD in Progress Podcast moderator

@LauraHeath That's amazing! I think nonacademic careers to those in STEM, in a way, seem more natural. For example, as a biologist, it is easy for me to imagine working at a biotech or pharma company. That is an obvious route, but sometimes there are slightly less obvious routes, especially for our non-STEM friends. 

Thanks for putting the energy into starting something that, I'm positive, was a great experience for your peers. I am sure they thank you as well. If you have the time and interest to relate this experience on this show via an interview, let us know.