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Science Careers Blog

June 24, 2010

Tips for a Career in Academia

Last week, I attended a mini-symposium called 'Careers in Science: Life After a Ph.D.' that was organized by the Graduate Students Group at the Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology (IBMC) in Porto, Portugal. During the day I heard some excellent advice on how to be successful in academia that I'd like to pass along here:

  • Take Control of Your Training

Your Ph.D. really is the time to take charge of your own training. "Think about your own education. Don't rely just on your PI. It is important that you take control of it," and make it a continuous effort, said IBMC João Morais-Cabral, a PI at IBMC. And make sure you make the most of your interactions with your adviser. "Prepare when you go and meet your PI... to make the meeting [as] productive as possible... Say, 'this is the result, and this is what I think, and this is what I want to do next'," added Edgar Gomes, a group leader at the Institute of Myology in Paris.

  • Be Mobile

Nowadays, with good institutes all around Portugal, it is not compulsory for Portuguese scientists to go and train abroad. But going abroad is still a plus on your CV, the speakers agreed. From the perspective of a group leader, if a young scientist has been "influenced by different cultures and policies and has been successful all the way, it means something," said Jaime Mota, a PI at the Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica (ITQB) in Oeiras. "It is also normal that someone has a family life and wants to stay in Portugal, but I want to see a serious choice of career" in this case, Mota added. "Moving on is hard, but moving on is important," agreed Morais-Cabral. You get "different perspectives on doing science, learn different things. Staying in one place gives you all the defects of the lab, and every lab has some."

  • Choosing a Lab

When choosing a new workplace, it's important that you go and visit. "You have to talk to the people in the lab, what is the guy like, what is the lab like, because the gut [feeling] will tell you" whether this is a good place for you or not, Morais-Cabral said. Be aware that there are both advantages and disadvantages to going to work in a very young or very established lab. In the first scenario, your PI "depends on your success. If that person is bright and capable, they will invest [in you] and give you a lot of help," Morais-Cabral said. But on the other hand, "a lot of people don't make it, so it's a risk." In a well-established lab, often there's "a lot of money, lots of safety, lots of colleagues that are very bright, but you may not see your boss," Morais-Cabral said. In such situations, it is all the more important to "learn by yourself and from the environment where you are, from the people, from the seminars, etc.," Mota added.

  • Challenge Yourself

Maximize your training by leaving your comfort zone. Working in the U.S., in particular "was a culture shock for me, and it was fantastic," Morais-Cabral said. He found himself surrounded by people who frequently challenged each other to think on their feet, sharing their ideas and what they stood for. "I learned never to open my mouth without thinking," Morais-Cabral said. And always seek bright people to work with. "I think that you should always try to work with people who are smarter than you," Morais-Cabral said. "That scared me, but they made me better also."

  • Talk to People

Don't stick to the people you already know at scientific meetings. Building up a network early in your training will help you when the time comes to apply for a postdoc. An easy way to approach senior scientists is to ask about their research. This approach also allows you to "get to know who is interesting -- and they know you," Morais-Cabral said. That way, you won't find yourself sending letters to people who receive thousands of application letters from all over the world, with no particular reason to pick you over someone else, Morais-Cabral added. It is "very competitive to get a position. You have to sell yourself. Being very shy doesn't help. People don't have the time or the patience. They will not remember you if you are the shy one."

  •  Papers versus Contacts

"Of course, it is always better to have at least one paper, one piece of solid work" already published when applying for a postdoc, Mota said. "If you are going to apply for a postdoctoral position to someone who doesn't know you, you need something to attract the attention of this person. A paper is a good way," Mota added. But it can also happen that "your work was very good but you were stopped at least momentarily." In such a case, "you need to have some sort of recognition or somebody that will support you, that knows you, and that will recommend you for a postdoctoral position."

All three speakers felt that having a paper in a very high-profile journal was not necessary during your Ph.D., and it might sometimes work to your disadvantage. One concern for PIs is "ego. If the Ph.D. has a fancy paper, it might be a problem," Gomes said. PIs may also  question what a newly graduated Ph.D. student will be able to achieve without extensive support, Morais-Cabral said. "It is more important what [your references] tell me. You can ask if this person is good or not," he said.

The pressure to publish goes up during your postdoc. Try "to find something very cool and very novel" that's likely to make a broad impact in many areas, said Gomes, adding that one paper in Cell got him his current job. "You have to be known for something," he said. "It is great if you have a fantastic, sexy paper," Morais-Cabral agreed. Still, "I know people who are [PIs] at Yale who never had a paper in Science or Cell. But they had the recognition of all the peers... as clearly the leading people in the field," Morais-Cabral added.

  • Feeling Ready

Once you start getting nice papers, well-intentioned people may advise you to go after a group-leader position. But "It is important that you are able to define yourself" first, said Morais-Cabral, who delayed taking a PI position until he felt ready for it. He used his 5 years of Ph.D. training to define himself as a structural biologist, and his first postdoc to "completely define myself as a professional crystallographer," he said. He got bored with "just solving structures," and decided to go for a second postdoc, with a ion channel researcher who needed a structural biologist in the lab. "I am specialized in ion channels now," he added. "A postdoc can be a continuation of the professional definition, but choose your postdoc in a way that you can start differentiating yourself."

  • Explore Other Horizons

Deciding to do a Ph.D. doesn't commit you to a career in academia, Gomes said. If you're not sure it's the right path for you, give yourself some space to explore other opportunities. During the first two years of a postdoc at Columbia University in New York, Gomes took some business classes and helped a tech transfer officer by assessing scientific projects. "It helped me realize the fact that I enjoyed basic science," Gomes said. After some tough times, publishing his data in Science gave Mota "the confidence to stay in science and in academia, but still I had some doubts," he said. An interview for an editor position at an EMBO journal helped him realize that editing, "wasn't the type of thing I wanted to do after talking about their everyday job."

  • Allow Yourself Some Mistakes

Try and make wise choices, but follow your gut feeling. "You have to make decisions," but mistakes along the way are inevitable, Gomes said. "Don't look back [saying], 'Oh, I made the wrong decision. Maybe it was," he added, but that's just fine. "It's how it works."


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