Career paths are not always straightforward. Choosing a scientific vocation can involve challenging and unanticipated decisions, often with no tour guide to follow. Some scientists may hop from the lab bench into industry while others progress up the academic research ladder. Others decide to leave research behind and explore science communication, teaching, setting up their own business or working in technical roles outside of the lab.
While a love of science can lead to varied and fulfilling careers, it may be lonely trying to evaluate the next step to take. Recently, initiatives such as “This is what a scientist looks like” and the #IamScience discussions, have shone a bright light on scientific career trajectories. In our latest Soapbox Science series, we focus on some interesting examples of scientific career transitions. We will hear from different contributors, all of whom use their scientific background in their current jobs, asking each of them the same questions: how did you decide on your career path, what are your motivations, and what does the future hold?
In this post Josh Witten talks about his transition from science degree to PhD to a post-doc position.
Josh Witten is a biologist studying post-transcriptional regulation at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He earned his PhD in Molecular Cell Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, was a pretty good rugby player, rode Shamu, and disappeared twice with the assistance of David Copperfield. When not in the lab or convincing his children to eat/sleep, he is co-founder of the online science pub, The Finch & Pea, contributes to The Paltry Sapien, and tweets as @joshwitten.
Career Development Fellow
What is your scientific background?
My mom says I started my scientific training with the Charlie Brown Super Book of Questions and Answers series, which I read until they fell apart. My first real job in science, however, was washing dishes and making apple juice plates for Richard Fehon’s fruit fly lab at Duke University. At Duke, I majored in biology with minors in history and, accidentally, chemistry. After Duke I played rugby for a season at Avon Rugby Football Club in Bath, UK before going to Washington University in St. Louis for my PhD. I studied genetics variation in yeast and humans with Barak Cohen in the Department of Genetics. I also continued to play rugby for the St. Louis Bombers, which may have been considered by some to have been a distraction.
What is your current job?
My current job is as post-doc researcher in the lab of Jernej Ule studying the regulation of post-transcriptional processes, like alternative splicing. The most consistent activities in my day are trying to keep my cell lines happy and drinking coffee (not at the same time). Otherwise, my daily activities are variable. The details of my next experiment quite often depend on the results of the current one. It keeps things fresh, but the options can also be overwhelming at times.
Work-life balance is a challenge. There is pressure from a variety of sources to work longer and harder. I have also found that the scheduling of many work-related events creates conflicts between the career/social benefits of participation and family responsibility. Feeling like you are being a bad dad and partner in order to get to an event, or do another assay kind takes some of the fun out of it.
Can you detail the steps you have taken to get to your current position?
The interesting story was not how I got to my current position, but how I even heard that it would be available. My poster at the Cold Spring Harbor Biology of Genomes conference was next to Duncan Odom’s from Cancer Research UK. With less than a year left before I completed my PhD, I was actively looking for post-doctoral positions. Duncan put me in touch with Jernej Ule. After several discussions by phone and e-mail, I visited Cambridge to give a seminar, meet with the lab and interview with several LMB group leaders. Within a year, my family was moving to Cambridge, all because of the poster number I was assigned by conference organizers.
Where do you see your career in the future?
“Scientific stories now exist in an online network of diverse viewpoints and levels of expertise, rather than individual articles. Traditional methods, like press releases, are becoming less trusted.”
I see my career evolving to focus more on science communication. Scientific stories now exist in an online network of diverse viewpoints and levels of expertise, rather than individual articles. Traditional methods, like press releases, are becoming less trusted.
“Trying to reach people where they live is why I write about Disney movies”
Individuals who participate in innovative research and are also able to convey their work to diverse audiences, will become essential in academia, industry, and journalism. My personal opinion is that we reach wider audiences by converting science from a specialty item, into something that is integrated into their lives. Trying to reach people where they live is why I write about Disney movies, and The Finch & Pea also features a science inspired “Song of the Week” (chosen by Marie-Claire Shanahan from the University of Alberta). I also contribute to the non-science blog, The Paltry Sapien and I advise the radio show/podcast, Skeptically Speaking.
Do you have any advice to other scientists considering a career in your area?
When choosing people to work with, focus on relationships. Social dynamics in a lab have a huge impact the quality and creativity of the work produced.
Apply for funding as often as possible. A track record of funding will make you stand out.
Call your mom (or other non-scientist relation). Try to explain your work. It is very good practice.
Sit on a porch and blow bubbles when you have a bad day. Also, stay hydrated. Go for walks. Eat lunch outside. Read the fiction recommended by Mike White.
For more career transitions, check out Ian Mulvany’s post, Paige Brown’s post, Alom Shaha’s post and Rebecca Caygill’s post. You can also follow the conversation online using the #Transitions hashtag.