Contributor Aliyah Weinstein
The landscape of careers that one can pursue with a PhD in a scientific discipline is growing, but a career in academia remains the No. 1 goal for many. A reality check: landing and succeeding in an academic position has never been easy, and in the current funding climate, may be harder than ever. The May 20th Surviving and Thriving in Academia panel at NJCE Boston offered some sage advice for those with this path in their sights.
Speaking to an audience of postdocs and graduate students, three early-career academics shared their experiences and suggestions: M. Isabel Dominguez, assistant professor of Medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine; Mary Gehring, assistant professor of biology at MIT and member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.; and Daniel MacArthur, assistant professor in genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital and research affiliate at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.
Here are their key pointers for making it in academia:
Follow your passion. “We are meant to be discoverers,” said Dominguez – after all, most scientists found their way into research through curiosity about some aspect of the field. If you envision a career in academia, it’s important to not let external factors, including the current difficulties in securing funding, serve as a deterrent when times get tough. There are ways to adjust, said the panelists. “I don’t want to change my science just to get a grant,” said Gehring. “I’d rather have a slightly smaller lab and still do what I’m excited about.”
Expand your comfort zone. This encompasses both the academic and personal realms. Dominguez described how her early career research was on a topic that she found easy to learn: signal transduction. But towards the end of her doctoral research, she became intrigued by a new idea– that many of the same genes control both embryonic development and tumorigenesis — and realized that she needed branch out.
MacArthur highlighted the importance of social interactions. “I’m not a particularly social person,” he said, “but I pretend to be one.” He noted that effective science does not happen in a bubble and encouraged talking with other researchers who work nearby, as well as networking at conferences.
Whatever your specific challenges, the panelists stressed, it is important to work through them in order to become a well-rounded researcher — and individual.
Find an advocate. Dominguez carefully differentiated the roles of advisor, mentor and advocate, and reminded the audience that the people who fill these roles for you may be three different people. Your mentor may direct you towards the experiments you should perform in the lab, and your advisor may guide you through other requirements at your current institution – but neither may be the best one to give you career advice. An advocate is someone who will pull for your career, studies and research, who will support you fully and continuously no matter where you are currently working, and whom you trust to give you advice about many aspects of your life and career.
Your relationship with your advocate is arguably the most important of the three, and is a relationship that must be curated over time.
Establish collaborations. These are the key to getting science done efficiently; each individual can work best in his or her area of expertise. Collaborations may be formal, or simply a matter of working in a research environment “where you can really learn a lot from your peers, not just your mentor,” said Gehring. Collaborations also provide potential avenues to find future research positions, since you will have already worked closely with individuals in the collaborating labs.
Jump at opportunities. It’s important to keep your options open and not stay set on only one career path. There are many opportunities available to research scientists, and the best choice for you may not be along the path you originally envisioned taking. “I was totally prepared to leave academia,” said MacArthur. “I only stayed because I had the right opportunity.” Similarly, Gehring did not envision heading a lab at a large research institution– she saw herself teaching at a small liberal arts college– but decided to take the risk because her research had been going so well.
Hone transferable skills- ones that can be applied to different areas of research and at different career stages. Excellent communication skills were the most highly recommended by the panelists; other important transferable skills mentioned included programming and informatics, as well as managerial skills –such as understanding bureaucracy, handling difficult situations, editing and performing staff evaluations.
Build name recognition. This doesn’t mean you have to come from a famous laboratory. “At the end of the day, it’s you who is going to find a job — who you are and how you can explain what you want to do,” stressed Dominguez. If you can’t present yourself as a good candidate for a position, the name of your previous PI is unlikely to help.
Your application and interview are only a part of this: if you want a career in academia, it’s key to show productivity by having publications, conference presentations, and strong letters of recommendation. “People who know your name will spend more time looking at your CV,” said MacArthur.
Have a support system. For MacArthur, this meant having a supportive spouse who was willing to move from Australia to the UK, and then to the US, as he pursued his career — and who was willing to take charge of the family and be the primary caregiver to their two children. For Gehring, this meant working in a department that allowed her to bring her baby to work with her and later had a daycare facility on campus. Whatever your circumstances, succeeding in academia requires having people around you who are able and willing to help you to achieve both your personal and professional goals.
Luck! This bit is out of your control, but every panelist credited it as playing some role in them landing where they are today: simply having been in the right place at the right time.
If academia is where you would like to end up, these tips will help you get there. And when the going gets tough, remember: all careers after you get that PhD can be challenging — and fulfilling — not just academia!
Aliyah Weinstein is an alumna of Rutgers University and is currently a first-year PhD student in immunology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her scientific interests include cancer immunology and immunotherapy. Outside of science, she speaks French, volunteers with a Pittsburgh-based youth writing initiative, and enjoys baking. She writes about life as a grad student on her blog, Isn’t That Grad!