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 Professor Sunetra Gupta talks about her parallel careers as a scientist and a novelist
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Princeton University (1987) and a PhD in Theoretical Epidemiology from Imperial College (1992).
What is your current job?
“I am also a novelist and it is a little bit frustrating that I cannot devote as much time to writing as I’d like, but I would never consider giving up science. “
My current job is a combination of research into infectious diseases and teaching. It does involve very long hours but I enjoy both activities enormously. I am also a novelist and it is a little bit frustrating that I cannot devote as much time to writing as I’d like, but I would never consider giving up science. I do not think being a scientist poses too many problems in achieving a decent work-life balance (especially as work tends to merge with life) but I have found travelling to be a problem when having charge of young children. What I have underestimated, is the pressure to be ‘visible’ and to maintain a network – which is impossible to fit in with having young children – and both my careers have suffered somewhat as a consequence.
Can you detail the steps you have taken to get to your current position?
I went straight from my PhD into a three-year Training Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust in 1992 and was awarded a Wellcome Senior Fellowship in 1995. I was appointed to my current post in 1999 and given the title of Professor in 2006.
Where do you see your career in the future?
“A key challenge for me is to overcome the resistance towards accepting that I have two careers: scientists tend to regard my writing as a ‘hobby’ while writers often assume that science is a dreary day job. “
I expect to stay in my current job but to expand my research in a number of directions. A primary focus of my work will be the empirical testing of some of the theories I have generated. I have always worked in close collaboration with laboratory scientists and clinicians but I would now like to drive some of the lab and fieldwork myself. As my children get older, it will be easier to travel to field sites and conferences, so I expect I shall be away more often. I am also working on my sixth novel and intend to carry on with some non-fiction projects such as a children’s book on women scientists that I am working on with illustrator Ted Dewan. A key challenge for me is to overcome the resistance towards accepting that I have two careers: scientists tend to regard my writing as a ‘hobby’ while writers often assume that science is a dreary day job. The truth is that I am passionate about both.
Do you have any advice to other scientists considering a career in your area?
I wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they try and juggle two careers unless they feel absolutely committed to both. It is hard work but also an enormous pleasure to be able to travel between both worlds.