How to Transition From Academia to Content Design: An Interview With Dr. Ayala Sela

Dr. Ayala Sela – The Featured Guest: In an ongoing series of interviews with PhDs with diverse perspectives about academia and career pivots, I interviewed Ayala Sela. Dr. Ayala Sela is a Content Designer at Accenture Song. She graduated from the University of Geneva with a PhD in Plant Molecular Biology.

About the Interviewer: Ryan Collins, PhD is the founder of After your PhD. He graduated from Indiana University Bloomington in 2021 with A PhD in Media Arts and Sciences.

Note: This interview transcript was edited for readability and brevity.

Can you describe in your own words your current role and responsibilities?

Dr. Ayala Sela: The official title of my role is content designer. This means I write content for pharma companies when they do media campaigns or outreach projects or build new websites. The unit that I work in under Accenture, does marketing and communication for pharma companies. In many ways what I’m doing is in between marketing and science communication.

Sometimes it’s more marketing. Then there are some projects that I feel a little bit like fish outside water when I’m working with creative people and being super creative. Sometimes it’s very strict, like there’s a lot of regulation and I need to be the kind of science person that knows where the limits are.

I read on your Lincoln profile that you graduated with a PhD in plant molecular biology. Can you tell me more about your experience, between the end of your dissertation and where you are now?

Dr. Ayala Sela: I defended my PhD in the summer of 2019. Then I stayed for a very short postdoc just to wrap up my paper and have it published. I was also lucky to start looking for a job during COVID-19, just as Covid started. I’m extremely grateful for Switzerland. I’ve been here for eight years now and I was very positively surprised at how many systems they have to actually help people transition from academia to industry. So as part of the unemployment here, I got some money and unemployment support, which is a big deal. But there was also a lot of training that I could do, a lot of projects that they try and set you up with.

I did a course in project management and they helped me set up an internship in a science communication journal. So essentially I made the contact, I talked to the person who was from my university and had set up this science communication journal. But essentially the Swiss government was sponsoring me to get some professional experience outside of academia. Then my CV wasn’t empty anymore.

I don’t know if that’s a thing in the US, that’s amazing.

Dr. Ayala Sela: That is not a thing anywhere. So originally I’m from Israel and that is not a thing in Israel either. I think that translates also to how we as PhDs have to think about it in the same way Switzerland is saying, these people have all of these skills, we need to help them make this little step. Even if I didn’t have this as an internship paid as part of my unemployment, I would’ve said, can I do this internship while I’m searching for a job as a volunteer, just to have something to get to back up my claims that I have skills, I have the ability.

I was reading on your LinkedIn that you had some experience with a women’s rights non-profit group, I think it’s called Kulan. How did that prepare you for your current role?

Dr. Ayala Sela: This was the real game changer and it took me a long time to even understand that it is because essentially in the beginning, I didn’t write it up so much. I hardly mention it or maybe I had like a volunteer section and it took a long time for me to say, wait, I’ve done a lot of work outside of my PhD and I need to sell it.

I was doing project management, I was doing social media, I was doing content, and all of these things that in a way counted for nothing in my academic career. So I didn’t even realize that they count for something outside and I had to stop and think about it and say, okay, all of this stuff that I did as a volunteer, I spent a lot of my time on it. But this is where it comes in handy because I give my CV and there is something to catch the interviewer’s attention.

Do you have any advice for STEM graduates exploring careers in science communication?

Dr. Ayala Sela: Science communication is very broad. What I learned is that there are a lot of other types of science communication that are inside the industry. So a lot of pharma companies need people to do medical writing or regulatory writing. And a lot of these in essence are about explaining the science to different people, different stakeholders at different level. So I wouldn’t have said that my job in science communications half a year ago. Yeah. But the more I do it, the more I realize that in essence, it is, even if it’s a marketing thing, even if it’s somebody trying to sell something or convince you of getting something. Essentially my role is to explain the science.

How did you gain the skills to talk about science communication in a way that’s more easier to understand for the masses. Was there a course that you took or was there some other experience that helped you kind of develop the skill?

I think I did it backward. I was doing a lot of content and social media for the feminist organization. I learned how to communicate more effectively with people. How do you write an article, how do you get people to click on a link? Things like this. And that’s actually been quite helpful because you become a science communicator, you absolutely need to be a communicator and a scientist. It doesn’t work without both of them being really strong. I’ve always been very verbal, I’ve always been good at writing and it never occurred to me before that there is a job where both of these skills actually are useful in the same role.

– Dr. Ayala Sela

Is there anybody on social media that you follow that you’d recommend in the science communications sphere or just any academics transitioning that have a career in science communication?

Dr. Ayala Sela: No, nothing specifically for transitioning from academia, but I am really passionate about this. I immediately jumped to your post because I feel so strongly about this. I know a lot of people who ended up finishing their PhDs and realizing that actually, a PhD is detrimental to their CV because they need to get a starting position, but most companies would prefer somebody with a master’s degree and a lower salary. This is a challenge that a lot of people are experiencing.

Is there anything that I missed or anything that you’d like to add to this interview?

Dr. Ayala Sela: Speaker 1: So there is a systemic problem, right? There is some stuff that you can do or that I could do. Talking to individuals and bringing this a little bit to the consciousness of people who are doing their PhDs now and pushing them to look for additional things. There is an inherent problem with academia and this perception of academia being the one true calling a lot of supervisors take it as kind of an insult when a student says they don’t wanna continue in academia and not allow you to open up to two different things. And I think the trap is that a PhD means you get very, very specialized in one very specific thing. Yeah. Whereas getting a job means you have to branch out. Yeah. And you have to always resist this pressure from the system to be 12 hours a day in the lab coming every weekend and reading papers in your free time.

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