I am new to Bio Careers Blog. Excited as I am as a first-timer, I will set a rule for my blog: I do not intend to give out specific action items or tips to fellow job seekers.
You see, I am one of you. After many years of academic research, I am ready for a major career change. It seems like I have walked a long way to get here, and I know perfectly well that I am not alone. If you are thinking of pursuing a career in graduate school, postdoctoral training or staying on as a non-tenure-track research scientist, you may find this blog useful.
What I hope to do here is to have an opportunity to share my experience, both the pitfalls and good choices I made. I will write about my real-time job searching experience or that of close friends who are in the same position as the rest of us. At the same time, I want to hear what is on your mind if you either disagree or have more to say. By the end, I hope to help people make good decisions and successfully navigate to a career path that they believe in.
I have been working as a non-tenure-track research scientist in a university setting for the past six years. I am struggling to find my own niche because of what I desire to do.
While it may seem naïve to you, I had a great PhD mentor and a productive and short graduate school, which may play a big part in my long-lasting rosy outlook on basic research. I see scientific research resembling the process of reading a suspense novel, all the up-and-down leading to the final climax. I still go home fidgeting over exciting data after weeks or months of laboring in the laboratory.
Simply put it, I have been very passionate about what I do even knowing that this job will never bring a large salary or guaranteed stability. Only recently did I start to think hard about changes, and there are several points that I’d like to put forward as the first part of an open discussion.
I care and I have a plan
Many years ago when I started my first research staff position, after completing my postdoctoral training, I was assigned to an early discovery phase of a long-term project. When candidate genes came out of the picture, a more senior person wanted to cherry-pick the best. I resisted and suggested a panel discussion before moving forward with any decision. Later, I was asked, ‘Jane, what is your plan?’
The hidden message was that if you were not planning to pursue a tenure-track position, please move aside and give the goodies to people who are on their way to academic success. I was left dumbfounded…my goal was to do my best and get things done. I wanted to be taken seriously, and I wanted my work to be taken seriously.
Let me ask you, should we, research scientists, willingly work as behind-the-scenes supporters or should it be talent, or skill-based that the best person takes the lead even when publishing is not as critical to us as to people pursuing tenure-track positions? What is the long-term career goal for people like us? Can it be as simple as personal satisfaction and curiosity in exchange for quality work and vigorous scientific inquiry because by the end we’re hired to do the job?
There is a financial constraint for hiring staff scientists, and therefore don’t take “No” personally
Recently, I had a conversation with a former academic faculty member who had quit her job in order to be with her family. The conversation was intended for me to find out what the process was like during her transition from academia to industry.
She was very sympathetic when I told her that I had decided to leave academia. She told me that she had a good staff scientist in her academic lab, then she said ‘You guys are too expensive, and I can see my funding shrinking quickly within a year’. It is known that it has been difficult getting research funding in recent years and years to come. When research funding gets tighter and tighter, staff scientists are often the first to go. If you are asked to prematurely terminate your project, don’t take it personally.
Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, at a brief NPR on-air discussion, suggested that increasing the ratio of staff scientists over graduate or postdoctoral trainees could offset continuous over-production of qualified personnel into the biomedical labor force.
This shift could serve as a cost-effective approach to reduce the size of laboratories and subsequently, the funding to keep them running. Personally, I remain pessimistic on the time and effort required to implement this systemic shift. Micro-shift within a lab or an institute is possible.
For more information, please check http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/09/17/348998609/top-scientists-suggest-a-few-fixes-for-medical-funding-crisis.
And in the article published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111(16):5773-5777, http://www.pnas.org/content/111/16/5773.full?sid=1293d5e1-7559-4415-95bc-16340204ebf3.
And recently in the article published by Science 346 (6215): 1422, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/346/6215/1422.full.
Technical expertise might not matter much when it comes to productivity
Staff scientists are generally a highly skilled group of people. Do skill sets really matter when a principle investigator (PI) decides who to choose, us versus young graduate students and postdocs?
When I was recently interviewed at an academic lab, the PI asked me ‘Do you still have fire in your belly to take on this project?’ Naturally, the assumption is that staff scientists work less hard when they are getting older and therefore, less productive. There is some truth in that as we are getting older, we are unlikely to take a risky project and work for extensive long hours.
Even if we have great technical skills and trouble-shooting ability, this might not be as strongly valued as productivity under the current funding atmosphere. I would be curious to find out what is the net scientific benefit of maintaining a skilled research staff versus training two graduate students for the first one to two years before they become productive.
Based on my personal experience, managing a balanced the working relationship with my PI has posed a continuous challenge to both sides when it comes to managing the lab, prioritizing projects, writing papers/grants, and training students.
At this point, I am pondering, being a highly skilled academic research staff, is this career path sustainable?
Please follow me on my second half of the discussion. Your feedback is welcome.