Contributor David Proia
A career in the life sciences can be incredibly rewarding, more so if you are in the right environment with a solid leader. We have all seen or heard of the student who changed labs in their fifth year because of poor interactions with their mentor, the eight year postdoc too afraid to move on, the senior research associate unable to progress to the Scientist level because of degree requirements, or the scientist pigeonholed into doing the same type of work day in and day out. Some of these problems can be eliminated by doing due diligence prior to joining an academic lab or industry position and asking some key questions.
In looking back at my career path, I wanted to share some of the things that I learned in transitioning from academia to multiple industry positions, and some of the questions that I learned to ask along the way. Like most things, it is best done with music.
Lose Yourself. If you want to know what it is like to be a scientist, you have to immerse yourself in it. In college, I worked as a research associate at a nearby medical school and spent a summer interning at a pharmaceutical company. Those experiences were extremely valuable in understanding what the occupation was like, and qualities required to be successful. I got my first taste for the type of leader I wanted to follow and, perhaps more importantly, the types to stay away from.
How’s it going to be? As a graduate student, you are at a rare point in your career where I believe you are very much in the driver’s seat – you have a large selection of labs to choose to rotate in. Put down on paper what you want most out of a lab, and speak to others (past and present grad students, postdocs, technicians, faculty) regarding their experience in the lab and interactions with the principal investigator (PI). Set up regular meetings with the PI and get to know them; record your thoughts. In several months you will need to make a decision and I think the number one criteria should be how well you interact with the PI. As for postdoctoral positions, determine the region on this planet you are willing to live and the area of science you want to explore. Think with the end in mind – if you plan on an industry career in the future, chose a postdoctoral position that will provide you with the appropriate training. From there, build a network of potential labs and email them to see if they have positions available. Ask hard questions and listen to what the current lab members are saying and not saying.
Communication Breakdown. Regardless of where you are in your career, the person you report to can have considerable influence on your growth. Early on, your mentor is essential in training you in experimental design and critical data evaluation, establishing you in the field, and serving as a primary reference for future employment. Later in your career, your manager will serve as your guide for appropriate projects, company goals, and how to lead effectively. Communicate with this person often, no matter what stage of your career you are in. Whether it is showing them an experimental outline, results (positive and negative), or ideas for new projects, do not be afraid to get their input. Ask for opportunities to present inside and outside your group, department, or company to gain visibility. Showing initiative tells your leader that you want to excel in your career. Discuss your career goals often and let her/him help you achieve them.
Working Man. The one piece of advice I would give someone who wants to succeed in this field, and life in general, is to simply give 100.1% – your all and then a little bit more. Show initiative, do without being told; generate hypotheses based on your results and answer those on your own. Let go of the safety net and just do. Do not expect that the person you report to will tell you what to do; they are busy doing their own work. This is a lesson I learned early on, in the classroom, in the work place, and most recently training for a marathon. There will always be those who do better on a single test than you. Being a consistent achiever will take you far.
Parting Ways. It may turn out that the type of person you report to is not who you thought they were, or maybe your company went through reorganisation and you cannot work effectively with your new group and/or manager. If you truly love science don’t let this ruin your science career. Consider a joint project with another lab or switch labs. Seek out help, be it from a guidance counsellor at the university or a leader within your company. I entered industry in a field completely outside my background. I learned a tremendous amount this way, not just about science, but about business in general. Once I learned all of the skills I believed I could, and there was no room for additional growth, I chose to move on. I think this can be a barrier for some people. In those situations I believe that, in order to grow, you need to go. Whether it is the position, your manager, or the people you work with – if you cannot resolve these issues or things get stale, don’t be afraid to move on. Once you do, make sure you think about points 2-4 to re-establish yourself, and apply lessons learned from your prior position to help identify and thrive in your next one.
Better Days. You have a job, you communicated effectively with your leader, you gave it your all, and you have gained visibility. Now you want more – participation in multiple projects, a chance at managing others, greater involvement in upper level decisions. Lean in and go get it. Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself. Once you get there an exciting road opens up – being the leader.
David will be on the Career paths in industry panel at the Naturejobs Career Expo in Boston tomorrow!