Friday, 14 March 2014 00:00

Succeeding as a “Failed” Scientist

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lab benchPhoto Credit: Joshua NicholsonAre you a postdoc looking for an alternative career?
Have you considered tenure-track academic research?

This may sound funny on its face but the hard reality is nearly all science postdocs will go on to non-tenured positions, making academic research the real alternative career choice. What are postdocs to do when their goal of becoming a tenured professor begins to vanish in the mist? Is there really only one successful outcome for science PhD's? What about postdocs who decide the academy is not for them? Have they wasted their time? Are they – gasp – failed scientists? (More on that later).

The truth is good graduate and postdoctoral training programs develop skills that are highly transferable beyond the lab. You may be surprised to learn that your graduate training and experience can be successfully applied to careers in science journalism, funding, and policy among others. Unfortunately, most graduate programs have not provided opportunities for exposure to any of these choices. This is, however, beginning to change.

If NIH funding of graduate science education and postdoc training is viewed as an investment, then a successful outcome should provide value to all parties: The NIH, the trainee, the institution, and the public who is footing the bill. Traditionally, value was equated with the development of independent, NIH-funded, academic researchers. Yet, with decreased funding opportunities and available academic positions, many students/postdocs must choose non-traditional careers. Therefore, it makes sense for professional development at universities to reflect this reality and promote programs that define success more broadly. To achieve this, some graduate science programs are beginning to offer internship opportunities that provide training beyond the bench. Early exposure to non-traditional career tracks could steer some students away from postdoc positions that do little to advance their ultimate career goals. This approach can also serve to place talented, critical thinkers into productive, intellectually stimulating careers that make good use of their training – a positive return on investment.

Now back to the "failed" scientist business. You may have encountered less than enthusiastic support for your plans to explore careers outside academia. Some advisors can be downright hostile, perhaps reacting to a perceived failure on their part. You are not alone. Many successful scientists working in other fields report the "failed" scientist perception as a persistent problem. Why did you leave? How could you abandon your training after all those years? The insinuation is always the same – somehow, these highly successful individuals couldn't cut it in the lab. The "failed" scientist perception is pervasive in some departments and can be a real stumbling block to those considering non-traditional careers. This is not easily fixed and ultimately it will be up to you to face this problem head on. Remember, if you are not receiving the mentoring you require from the usual sources, you can and should look elsewhere. Often, scientists working outside the university are more than willing to provide informational interviews. Student organizations and postdoctoral associations can also be great resources.

During a career panel on Policy and Research Grant Administration at the 2013 ASCB annual meeting, Jeremy Berg, ASCB Public Service Award winner and a successful professor at Johns Hopkins before becoming director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, stood up to respond to questions concerning how to prepare for a career outside the lab. His advice was to be the best scientist you can. He said that every position he has held, inside and outside the lab, was due to his success as a scientist. Failed scientist? I don't think so.

Paul T. Mungai

Paul T. Mungai is interested cellular redox signaling during hypoxia and ischemia. He is currently studying how oxidative modifications to myofibril proteins affect cardiac function as a postdoc in R. John Solaro's lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Outside the lab, he is interested in early science education, scientist training, and science policy.

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