Early Next Wave Contributors Share the Lessons of Their First Post-Postdoc Decade

For most young researchers, the postdoc years are a time of intense learning. But some of the most important lessons only happen when scientists take their newly honed skills out into the job market. That, at least, is the message from four ex-postdocs who a decade ago wrote some of Next Wave's earliest essays and last month shared with Next Wave the lessons that the last 10 years have taught them.

Simple demography provides Lesson #1: Only a minority of young scientists will have academic careers. Our able and accomplished foursome includes only one academic, microbiologist Carol Berkower, who teaches and heads her own lab as an assistant professor at Towson University, a primarily undergraduate public institution near Baltimore. The other three have found challenge and satisfaction in jobs they never expected to hold back when they thought they were preparing for what physicist Laura Smoliar, CEO of a Silicon Valley start-up called Mobius Photonics, terms "the textbook research career." Physician Victor Sloan is senior vice president and medical director of Protalex Inc., a Philadelphia-area biotech start-up. Nathaniel Carter, also a physician, has a solo practice in neuro-ophthalmology and neuro-otology in Columbia, Maryland. Since completing their postdocs, each of this trio has worked for multiple employers in multiple settings.

These varied career moves illustrate Lesson #2: the importance of being, in Smoliar's words, "resilient to change." "Some of the things you do may be transient," says Carter, who interviewed for an academic post but chose instead to join a large group practice before going out on his own 2 years ago. "You go on to the next phase and try to create what is most ideal for you."

"Nothing is forever," agrees Sloan, who had an academic position before going to work for the international pharmaceutical company Novartis. "I've changed careers several times. If there's something you want to do, do it. If you're 2 years into it and you decide you don't want to do it [anymore], that's OK. It's not wasted time." One learns on every job, and, as Berkower notes, flexibility is key even at universities because "policies change over the course of a person's career."

The Need for Clarity
Finding one's way amid change depends on learning Lesson #3: "You've got to figure out what your [own] agenda is, and do it, because nobody's going to do that for you," Smoliar says. Keeping goals and purposes clear is also vital amid the competing demands of a traditional academic career, says Berkower. Although teaching and committee work may loom large on an academic's schedule, "even at a primarily undergraduate institution, ... your research productivity is your currency," she explains. "Whether ... you decide to stay where you are or go somewhere else, ... the only judgment that will really substantially affect your career prospects is research productivity."

A beginning or aspiring academic therefore needs to be "very, very clear when you go into a place what is the research expectation," she warns. For the best chance of meeting that expectation, research projects need to be "doable. Your expectations shouldn't exceed resources" or "the time remaining until the tenure decision," she cautions. At teaching institutions like Towson, "inevitably research takes longer--I don't have any postdocs," and researchers must depend for lab work on master's-level grad students and undergraduates, who, although bright and enthusiastic, need training, have many other calls on their time, and are often "in and out in 1 or 2 years." On the other hand, an advantage of doing science at an institution with "30 people in a department called biology" is exciting opportunities for research collaborations that don't come as easily in the highly specialized departments of major research institutions.

Berkower sees the hiring process from the institution's side, which leads to Lesson #4: Carefully research the jobs you apply for. "Invariably, during the interview, one or two people self-disqualify" through fatal errors caused by bad information, she says. They ask "for a start-up package that's inappropriate" or give a "seminar pitched at an inappropriate level." Even worse, some from elite institutions show a "level of arrogance. ... You've done Hopkins, you can do anything, anyone would want you, a place like Towson would be lucky to get you. ... If you think that's true, you are definitely out of the running."

To avoid such mismatches, Berkower advises job seekers to "know what it is you're looking for and not to waste your time or theirs ... by apply[ing] to a place that you really aren't interested in. ... The first thing you do when you see a job offer is to phone up the head of the search committee and talk to them. ... If you tell them, 'I'm calling you because I don't want to waste my time or yours applying for a job that is a bad match,' it will only increase their esteem for you." (Another strong advantage in the academic job market comes with teaching experience, she adds. Postdocs whose universities don't provide such opportunities might consider giving a course at a local community college.)

Knowing how your own personal goals mesh with the job you're applying for is crucial in any line of work, the nonacademics insist. "When you're interviewing for some position, it's really hard to tell what that position is all about," Sloan says. "It's important for you to talk to somebody who does the job and say, 'What is it that you do every day?' "

Preparing for Change
No one, however, can predict which opportunities will come their way, which leads to Lesson #5: "You have to keep your options open, not just narrowly define who you think you're going to be when you finish your training," says Carter. Scientists in training are wise to "broaden their vision of what they may be interested in doing. ... If you go into a rigid academic training in a major academic center, most people assume that you're going to go into academia." But if that doesn't happen, "people have to make sure they don't feel that they're not living up to their potential and expectations."

Smoliar, for example, "had her eyes opened" to nonacademic possibilities during her postdoc in the "incredibly entrepreneurial" scientific culture of Taiwan, where people are "much less judgmental" about career paths than American academics are. "I don't think the decision tree is, 'Can I make it in academics? No, I can't. Then I think I'll work in industry.' It's deeper than that: It's 'Where am I going to be happy?' " she continues. "Nobody ever sat down and talked about that in grad school. Being happy was not a criterion for anything. I had to learn that on my own."

"You have to make sure, whatever you're doing, that you're happy with what you're doing. ... People have to define their own niche," Carter agrees. And, as Smoliar and Sloan attest, scientists can find happiness in the many intellectually satisfying careers available in industry. "There's been a lot of public bashing of the pharmaceutical industry, but I can tell you that in my personal experience, we are scientists first," says Sloan. "I've heard people say that academics is very collegial, ... but [in industry] we [also] have great discussions. I started a journal club when I was at Novartis." A corporate environment differs in a number of ways from a university lab, but "just because you're in industry doesn't mean that you give up the ability to be collegial and discuss things," he says.

Industry science, in fact, is often far ahead of its academic counterpart, Smoliar says. "The funny thing is that when I was [working] in data storage, the stuff that we were doing was 10 years ahead of what the universities were doing. We couldn't share it" because it was proprietary. "Universities thought that they were the leading edge, and we would just humor them, but it was kind of a joke."

Wherever a scientist's career takes him or her, the quartet agrees, the qualities most needed for success are versatility and openness to opportunity and change. "Figure out, with whatever skills ... you're being taught, how you're going to apply them in other ways," Carter advises. "Being very narrow [is what] makes you very vulnerable when changes happen," Smoliar cautions. "The more you're exposed to, and the more open-minded you can be," the better you'll fare in whatever career you choose.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.