Just as our minds can wander, so can our careers. ... I?ve always loved science, and I?ve always wanted to help people. With that statement to set the stage, let me tell you about my passions inside and, more importantly, outside the lab. Let me tell you how I got to where I am now, as the assistant dean for postdoctoral affairs and recruitment at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Let me also help you, through my story, define your career path.
So I?ll pause here for a minute and provide some general career advice. One way to help you define your career path is to do a self-assessment. During your ?free? time, sit down and write down answers to the following questions:
1) What are my skills? Start at the bench, follow with everything involved in being a scientist such as computers, writing, giving presentations, and then proceed with the rest of your life: family, sports, hobbies. Then ask yourself:
2) What are my interests? You may be skilled at tissue culture, but do you want to do that for the rest of your life? Do you like reading about the pharmaceutical industry? Do you like leading a sports team? Finally, ask:
3) What are my needs? Family? Financial? Geographical?
Use real guinea pigs
Let?s resume my story. Like I said--I?ve always loved science, and I?ve always wanted to help people. As an undergraduate I set my sights on becoming a doctor. But when I took a position in a diabetes lab through the cooperative education program at Northeastern University in Boston, I discovered RESEARCH. It was here that I decided I?d rather use actual guinea pigs--not human beings--as my guinea pigs; I wanted to become a Ph.D. scientist and not an M.D. ( Self-assessment note: I had good technical skills and I enjoyed being at the bench.)
I began my Ph.D. in immunology in 1991, where I worked on the role of staphylococcal protein A as a B cell superantigen. I was also engaged in activities outside the lab, like mentoring the early-year Ph.D. students and, as an Alumni Club coordinator for Northeastern, organizing social events. ( Self-assessment note: After being at the bench for several years, I wasn?t sure if it could provide me with the satisfaction that I needed. But I did learn that I enjoyed interacting with other students and organizing events.) Nevertheless, I was willing to give research one more shot.
So after finishing my Ph.D. in 1997, I began a postdoctoral position that combined my interests in type I diabetes and immunology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. It was the type of research that I had always wanted to do. During my time at Hopkins, I developed a passion for postdoctoral issues and, as an officer in the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association (JHPDA), I promoted them at both local and national levels.
Now everything was great, right? Well, not exactly. I realized that I enjoyed the JHPDA work a lot more than I did my lab work. ( Self-assessment note: I was doing the type of research that I had always wanted to, but I found I still couldn?t get the satisfaction out of it on a daily basis. However, I did receive immense satisfaction from dealing with other postdocs and administrators, as well as talking in front of groups about postdoctoral issues.)
During this time, I was still organizing events for Northeastern alumni. One day, an alumnus called to thank me for organizing an event and mentioned that I was so good at it that I ought to do it for a living, if I didn't already. So I did another self-assessment. [ Self-assessment note: I really enjoyed and was good at event planning. I still loved science, I enjoyed helping others (postdocs), and I was passionate about postdoctoral issues.] I decided it was finally time to move out of the lab.
The Next Wave experience
It was around that time that I received an e-mail from Science?s Next Wave. They were launching a new section of their Web site called the Postdoc Network  and wanted to use our JHPDA officers as a focus group to define what postdoctoral issues were most important. But I was more interested in the fact that they didn?t have a manager yet for that part of the site. So I offered up my resume. Unfortunately, I was told that another Next Wave staff member would be moving into that role. But that left open her position as program director. Was I interested? Yes, I was. I applied and was hired.
As program director, I helped graduate students and postdocs around the U.S. and Canada find their way in their scientific careers. I gave talks about careers in science, organized career panels, and was able to interact with lots of graduate students, postdocs, and administrators all around North America. This job allowed me to combine my love of science, my interest in helping people, and my passion for graduate and postdoctoral issues. It also utilized many of the talents I had recognized during my self-assessments.
A few years into this position, I had to do another self-assessment. ( Self-assessment note: My skills and interests were still compatible, but there was a new need in my life; his name was Zachary.) With a child, traveling so much was no longer feasible. I also had a daily commute from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. So I ended up resigning from Next Wave to spend time with my young son.
I didn?t stay unemployed for long. With the help of a former boss, I moved smoothly into a part-time consulting position with the New York Academy of Sciences. There, I helped organize career panels for the graduate students and postdocs of the New York City area. I also presented career-related seminars on a freelance basis at several universities on the East Coast. These freelance seminars were made possible by the contacts I had with graduate students, postdocs, and administrators around the country. ( Self-assessment note: I was using my skills and interests and still able to take care of my needs. Also note that maintaining my network helped to achieve this.)
During this time my husband--not a scientist--and I did a family-assessment. ( Family-assessment note: We wanted to move closer to our families.) So we moved back to the Philadelphia area. I also decided that I wanted to go back to work in an office. ( Self-assessment note: I was still interested in helping science graduate students and/or postdocs. I had organizational, communication, and leadership skills. I was also very interested in keeping the contacts that I had been building since my days with the JHPDA.)
A new position for postdocs
As I knew from my days with the JHPDA and the Postdoc Network, many institutions around the country were opening postdoc offices to help enhance the training and futures of their postdocs. Through my contacts at the University of Pennsylvania, I found out that Thomas Jefferson University was one of those institutions. Progress had already been made with the establishment of policy guidelines for postdoctoral fellows during the summer of 2003. One policy guideline was the establishment of an Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and the creation of the position of assistant dean. ( Career note: This position was never advertised. I was just at the right place at the right time, with the right contacts, the right qualifications, and the right motivations.)
My days as assistant dean for postdoctoral affairs and recruitment are long and varied. I organize career seminars, professional development workshops, postdoc orientations, and recruiting information sessions. I interact with graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and administrators. I share ideas with administrators around the country, many of whom I already know. I give my own talks about career and professional development issues and about the Ph.D. programs at Jefferson. I even do some informal career counseling. Most importantly, I set policies to make the training environment better for Jefferson postdocs. ( Self-assessment note: I get to stay involved in science, I get to help postdocs--and even some graduate students--on a daily basis; I get to organize events; I get to give talks about Jefferson while wearing my recruitment hat; I get to keep my contacts and network alive; I get to stay close to home and my family. Skills, interests, and needs ... all wrapped neatly up.)
It?s nice to have started out with a passion (postdoctoral issues) that turned into a career. If I can do it, so can you! Let your career wander.