Awkward pauses, tough questions and getting sorted: Brendan Connors, Systems Ecologist & Biology PhD on his alt-ac career path

October 20, 2014

This article is part of a series exploring professional paths for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that make use of or leverage academic training but are not limited to traditional faculty positions (#alt-ac). If you would like to hear more about Brendan's story and ask him your questions, come to our November 13, 2014 Alt-Ac Career Cafe.

“So, what are you going to do next?”

It’s the kind of question that mothers and chatty guys on the bus wearing way too much plaid always seem to ask. And if you are anything like Brendan Connors, it probably makes you want to put on headphones and crank the volume.  

Brendan graduated with a Ph.D. in Biology from SFU before holding a postdoctoral fellowship in the School of Resource and Environmental Management.

“I loved science and would have planned to pursue faculty positions in far flung places, but my wife’s career, family and a love for the coast meant we were not willing to uproot ourselves just to land an academic job.”  

That left Brendan in a difficult position,

“I felt like I was part of a club, an in-crowd and if I did not pursue a traditional career in academia I was letting down my peers and mentors.” 

As someone with a Ph.D Brendan also faced distrust from those working in industry, who as Kristoffer Palma described in the Office of Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Fellows' Alternative-Academic Career Panel, often assume that academics only consider taking jobs outside of the university as a much less desireable second choice. 

Despite this challenging situation, Brendan did what is described in a recent Naturejobs article as the most difficult but important part,  

“It’s easy to get distracted by cells that won’t fluoresce, or the latest gossip of who’s-dating-who… The best advice I can give a graduate student is to start asking yourself the hard questions regarding your career aspirations as early as possible.” 

Brendan made a decision to think outside the academic box and began exploring options in Government, non-profits and consulting firms by doing something many of his peers would consider to be scarier than that the abandoned tuna sandwich in the back of their lab fridge: network.

“I interacted with people and organizations that had interests similar to mine and whenever I went to conferences and met people working outside of academia in areas that looked interesting I would find a way to talk to them—buy them a beer, flatter them, whatever it took.”

Brendan confesses it wasn’t easy at the beginning.

“I had some awkward conversations, but those are bound to happen. You just have to get the first one out of the way.”

The work didn’t end there.

“There’s a lot of misperception about what someone with a PhD can offer. I didn’t just assume they would hire me based on my credentials, I did the translating for them on my resume and in interviews to highlight the skills I had developed and what can be done with them.”

Thanks to the connections and self-marketing he did, today Brendan is Senior Systems Ecologist at ESSA Technologies, a consulting company specializing in environmental and social sciences and decision support. And all because he didn’t keep his headphones on.

- Jackie Amsden, APEX Professional Development Coordinator

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