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Academic Careers

Career Advice from a Scientist-Turned-Science Minister

Last time I talked to Romanian chemist Daniel Funeriu, he was a group leader in chemical biology at the Technical University of Munich in Germany and vice-president of the Romanian presidential commission for science and education. This was 2009 when I was researching an article as part of a Science Careers feature examining how science had fared in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall some 20 years ago. 
Romania’s government had recently launched an initiative offering scientists with a foreign affiliation up to €1.5 million to spend half of their time at a Romanian host institution for 3 years. Back then, Funeriu called the initiative “a step forward” even though he noted that the application forms were “extremely unfriendly. … Many people are put off by the bureaucratic requests.” 
Funeriu got a chance to change the system from the inside when he became Minister of Education, Research, Youth, and Sports in Romania in December 2009. Today, he is Adviser to the President of Romania on education and science issues, a position he took in February 2012 following a change of government. 
During a session at ESOF 2012 in Dublin, Funeriu talked about his own career path and shared the lessons he learned from his unusual experience both as a researcher and politician.


Funeriu left his native Romania in the midst of dictatorship when
he was just 17, finishing his high school education in Strasbourg,
France. He stayed there for a Ph.D. in supramolecular chemistry in the
lab of Nobel Laureate Jean Marie Lehn. Upon graduating in 1999, he went
to the United States for a postdoc in biochemistry at the Scripps
Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He moved country again in
2002, joining the National Institute of Advanced Science and Technology
in Amagasaki, Japan, to work on microarray technology. Finally, in 2006,
with a European Commission Marie Curie Excellence Grant in hand, he set
up his own research group in Munich.

Funeriu told the audience that he wrote in his Marie Curie grant
application that he wanted to become research minister in Romania. He
initiated his political career in 2009, becoming a member of the
European Parliament. 

Some key career lessons Funeriu passed on during his talk:
  • Be clear about what drives you in life.

Before
he was 17, Funeriu wanted to drink coca-cola, wear puma shoes, buy
Levi’s jeans, and see the world. During his Ph.D., he wanted to make the
largest supermolecules in the world and become a good chemist. At
Scripps, he moved towards biology with the aim of developing techniques
for the study of the complexity of living things. He set off for Japan
feeling he had learned all he could from the Western world and would
benefit from understanding how other cultures function. He entered
politics to pursue his desire to change his home country.

  • You know you’re ready to leave your lab and supervisor when you’ve stopped learning new things.  

It
requires a lot of intellectual generosity for supervisors to train
young scientists for several years and let them go precisely when they
have reached sufficient scientific maturity to be really productive, so
many PIs encourage their young scientists to stay in the lab longer. But
when your supervisor doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know,
the time has come to say goodbye. 

  • When choosing a postdoc, base your choice on the institution rather than the supervisor.

If
you go to a good institution, even if you are unlucky and end up with a
bad supervisor there will be lots of good people around to learn from.
Wherever you are, avoid the “big trap” of forming an unhealthy relationship with your
boss. “Don’t become your supervisor’s slave because you’re good in the
lab.” 

  • Use your resources to improve your strong points rather than your weak points. 

If
you invest your resources into improving your weak points, you will go
from being bad to being average at such tasks. If you invest in your
strong points, you will go from being very good to becoming exceptional.
Remember that people choose you because you’re exceptional, not because
you are average.

  • Don’t count on your supervisor getting you a job. 

Young
researchers would like to have as supervisor a big shot who can call a
friend when you need a job. But it’s not their responsibility to get you
a job; it is yours.

  • Once you’re a group leader, go for gold.

When
you become an assistant professor, one way to progress in your career
is to continue the research you know you’re good at. But this is also
the stage when you have the power, the youth, the time, and the energy
to “try the research you’ve always wanted to try but never dared.”
Also consider changing tracks every 10-15 years by expanding and
diversifying your research horizons. It is risky, but rewarding. Don’t
be incremental in your research.

  • Constantly question yourself, but do not be insecure.

Life
is perpetual change and in recent times, the rhythm of change has got a
lot faster. Endeavor to go through the process without feeling too
stressed and under pressure. If you have a Ph.D., you can afford to be
courageous in your career. “A good scientific background gives you
access to virtually any job on earth.” 

Funeriu also reflected on what he achieved during his mandate as science minister in a Q&A with Science Now