Junior researchers must abandon the notion that an academic science career is the only one that counts, says Sharon Milgram, director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. At the same time, she says, it is also crucial to know how to reach out to others and how to talk with them one-on-one, and how to develop and maintain resilience.
Milgram, who spoke at NIH’s 10th annual Career Symposium in May, says that junior scientists, including graduate students and postdocs, need to become active participants in their career development, and that a chief component of that participation is talking with people about various career paths. “Talk with them — and learn from them,” she told her symposium audience.
Part of that learning, she said, is to reframe your belief about what comprises a successful scientific career. It is not a faculty job by default, said Milgram, who left her tenured position 10 years ago as a cell and developmental biologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to accept her current NIH post. “Even now, people whisper, ‘I don’t want to be a PI (principal investigator),’” she said. “Why should there be any stigma around any science job? It’s old news to think that one career choice is better than another. No career outcome is better than the other – a big part of the career-development messsge has to be, ‘They are all good outcomes.’”
Junior researchers need to ban the words ‘alternative’ and ‘non-academic’ from their thinking, she added. “It’s all just career.”
Another missing part of the US scientific career-development arc, she says, is training junior scientists in resilience. Most early-career researchers learn the opposite. “We don’t learn stress management,” she said. “We cannot do the job once we get there unless we’re healthy and intact. But we take pride in being miserable – and that may be part of what’s wrong with science. If we don’t change, we will cease to be the great scientific enterprise.”
It’s up to the individual early-career researcher to reframe and tweak their own narrative, she says. “Write the most positive, happy, energetic story you can,” she said. “And make a commitment to make one change.”
It’s sage advice, no matter your discipline, career path or career stage.