Three years into my postdoc, I started to wonder whether I needed a new career plan. After applying for more than two dozen faculty jobs, I hadn’t landed a single interview. I felt dejected but not particularly surprised. I was applying in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis, when many universities had instituted hiring freezes and faculty openings were scarce, and my publication record didn’t stand out. I could have spent another year or two as a postdoc waiting out the financial storm and building up my CV. But my future husband lived across the country and we were eager to close the gap one way or another. I needed a plan B—and a long dormant dream of becoming an artist began to stir.
I had once considered going to art school but had put that notion to the side when I decided to pursue chemistry as an undergraduate. In the years that followed, I kept up my interest in art by taking drawing and painting classes at night. My family was bursting with mathematicians, computer programmers, and engineers who pursued music and devoured literature in their spare time, so it had felt natural to have my daily life revolve around science, with art as my dreamy lunar companion.
But in the spring after my failed job search, that started to change after an office mate excitedly showed me proofs for a review article. She was wowed by what the journal’s scientific illustrator had done with her rudimentary sketches. “That would be such a fun job,” I mused.
I love that I get to combine my scientific and artistic sides.
- Mary O’Reilly
- the Broad Institute
I decided to test out a new career direction by volunteering to create similar illustrations for my institute’s newsletters. I spent my nights and weekends reading scientific papers and thinking about how to illustrate the results. It was a fun task—something that engaged my artistic, creative side and made use of my scientific training. I felt I was perhaps on the right path. But could I make a full-time career work?
Searching online, I tracked down people who had that kind of job. I found many had training through scientific illustration master’s degree programs. After living on grad student and postdoc salaries for years, I didn’t have enough money saved up for tuition, so I decided to get a certificate in digital design and forge my own path.
It was exciting to find a career that drew on my diverse skill set and would allow me to work as a freelancer from wherever my partner got a job. I did feel a sense of loss as I began to let go of my dream of becoming a faculty member, and I worried I’d be letting down the people and institutions who’d invested time and resources in me. But it helped to remind myself that my new career path wasn’t removed from science. I was harnessing my passion for art in the service of science. And some key early projects, which required me to thoroughly understand the research, convinced me that my background was a crucial part of this niche I was carving out for myself.
As I launched my fledgling career, I took an adjunct position teaching chemistry at a university near where we were living. The income gave me breathing room to get my freelance business off the ground, which wasn’t easy. I misguidedly spent much of the money I earned from illustrating on marketing to try to drum up business. But I quickly learned that word of mouth and online searches, not advertising, were the best sources of new projects for me. Fortunately, as my client list grew, so too did the referrals. It took more than 3 years, but eventually my business grew sufficiently large that I decided to stop teaching.
I now work as a visual designer at a biomedical research institute, where I spend my days working with researchers to communicate their work visually. I love that I get to combine my scientific and artistic sides and contribute to the dissemination of knowledge to the scientific community. And though I can’t in good conscience recommend my long and winding path to this career, I wouldn’t change a thing about the stops I made along the way.