Sarah Chobot Hokanson, PhD
Director, Office of Professional Development and Postdoctoral Affairs, Boston University
Sarah Chobot Hokanson, PhD, recently joined Boston University as the new director of professional development and postdoctoral affairs. Before her return to academia, she was the U.S. deputy director of science and innovation at the British Consulate in Boston, Mass. Sarah talks about her "risky" career move, its unexpected benefits and her newfound comfort in blazing her own career path.
When and where did you get your PhD? What did you study?
I earned my PhD in 2010 from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. I was studying a really complicated enzyme called Complex III by asking, what are the basic principles behind how electrons move? If we strip the protein down to a simple four-helix bundle, what does that bundle need to recreate functionality?
Where did you go after you earned your PhD?
I went to Cornell for a postdoc in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology where I did protein crystallography for two and a half years. Then I got a job at the British Consulate in Boston. I worked there until February 2015, which is when I started my new position at Boston University.
When you were looking for jobs at the end of your postdoc,were you specifically looking for something in the policy world?
No. I knew which skills I wanted to apply, but I didn't know necessarily know which jobs out there matched those skills. Between my PhD and scientific training, in addition to the English coursework I took as a part of my undergraduate degrees, I knew I was a good communicator and good at communicating science to a variety of audiences.
The Consulate job required all the skills I wanted to use and sounded like it would be an adventure. The thing that made it seem risky to me was that life after the job didn't seem predictable. I was definitely "jumping the track." But I felt it was a unique opportunity that I had to take.
You said the Consulate was kind of an adventure. What were some of the challenges in working there?
I'd say the biggest growth point was approaching science from a much broader perspective than the science itself. In other words, thinking about the foreign policy and economic implications of science - the parts that relate to the rest of the universe. The surprising thing was how little I had thought about those things while I was in the lab; they're so easy to forget when you're in the "plug and chug" mode of doing experiments.
It was interesting to work with a team where not everyone has the same training as you. In the lab, it's fairly homogenous. People may have different disciplines, but at the end of the day, everyone should be approaching their day job with the scientific method as their mindset. At the Consulate, people had all kinds of training and different ways to approach a problem. Some were analytical and some were not. Being put on a team of people who were very different from me while still needing to work collaboratively was difficult at times. It also meant that we had to balance our strategy and determine between all of the different departments whose goals were of higher priority. You'd be surprised, but science wasn't always at the very top! But, it was an incredible learning experience, and the longer I worked there, the more I was able to see the bigger picture.
So how did you transition from the policy world back to academia as the director of a postdoc office?
The nice thing about taking the Consulate position was that I didn't burn any bridges. I jumped the tracks, but it left a lot of career paths open. Part of my job at the Consulate was talking to life sciences companies, researchers in the lab and people in governance. I got my career training on the job in the sense that all the people I interacted with helped me figure out what I wanted to do next.
Those who I enjoyed interacting with and also felt that their jobs were really cool were university administrators. I didn't go into the Consulate job thinking "and next I'll take a job in a postdoc office." But from my time there I learned that I wanted to join the administration of a university in some way. So, I looked at the available jobs out there that matched my skill set. I didn't know what place there was for a scientist in the administration community that wasn't faculty. Fortunately, for this job, Boston University was looking for a PhD who had been a postdoc.
That's an interesting way to look at a job in policy - as a network-building opportunity.
I think people go into policy because they want to make an impact, but you can also go into policy to build your network. A government should be getting stakeholder feedback from a number of different groups and sectors in order to make policy.
At Boston University, you're looking to expand the postdoc office's presence on campus. What are some of your general goals?
In my new job, I want to be Boston University's postdocs' first point of institutional contact when they come into the university. I want to have yearly check-ins with them to see how they're doing. When they leave, I want to have a final check-in. In some ways, I want to be their "primary care physician" while they're here, doing preventative career care so they can succeed and get the job they want. I think I also have a very important role to play in influencing future university policies.
Think about your job right now and at the Consulate. Do you think you'd be able to do those jobs without your PhD? Would you be as successful without it?
For my current job, no, because they were looking for someone who had a PhD and was a postdoc previously. I think that makes sense; they wanted someone who had that personal connection. You could do this job without a PhD or a postdoc (and many people do and do it very well!), but I'm glad I did a postdoc so that I had the right qualifications to land this role at BU.
Wait, say that again.
Yes, in the end, I'm glad I did my postdoc.
I do think that the strategic thinking I learned during my scientific training made the Consulate job easier; I also think it lent a very nice credibility with scientists. Some of my colleagues who didn't have PhDs sometimes struggled to get meetings with researchers, whereas I never had that problem.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were looking for jobs at the end of your postdoc?
I think as grad students and postdocs, everyone learns about the different career tracks of academia and industry. I now know that you can throw the tracks out of the window; there is not one road to one career path. I haven't picked a lane yet, and I'm ok with that because it's thrilling and challenging.
I also know now that everything can be interconnected if you keep an open mind. You can take an opportunity that most people viewed as very risky, like my Consulate job, which had very little advancement opportunity, and make something of it. Then, you can jump to something else that on paper doesn't seem all that related.
So, for those postdocs who feel a little lost, like I did, and can't quite figure out what that right path is, it's soothing to know that you don't have to pick one. You can build a path for yourself based on what you're interested in. That's a powerful piece of knowledge, but it's scary. I think it's difficult for people earlier in their careers to take risks following paths that haven't already been identified as safe.
What advice can you offer to current grad students and postdocs?
For people who are sure as to what they want to do, pursue it. I would never deter someone who really wants to be a professor or wants to go into industry. But the percentage of postdocs that land tenure-track jobs is not very high. One quote I've heard is that people need to start considering academia as the "alternative" career!
For people who are in a position that hasn't turned out the way they thought, or who are unsure as to what they want, I would suggest keeping an open mind. Build your own path by examining yourself. What do you like and not like about your current position? By having that honest conversation with yourself, it can help you feel less lost.