By Jennifer Casiano
On May 11, 2017 I had the opportunity to assist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Career Symposium. I spent the day among wonderful scientists that shared their experiences in different scientific career pathways such as academia, industry, government and other non-traditional paths. This blog post is one of several in which I will be sharing my experiences and lessons learned at this event. One of the career panels that I assisted with was titled, “Staying Close to Science.”
In this panel, several scientists shared their experiences working in the public and private fields. From what I gathered from the event, many scientists want to stay at the bench forever, or want to be a Principal Investigator (PI), but do not want to be a professor within an academic setting. However, when looking for job positions, scientists often overlook some positions due to their titles, without noticing that those careers are actually close to their “dream jobs”.
A group of scientists discussed their experiences working as scientists at NIH or in private sectors. The group was composed of: Silvia Aredondo PhD., a staff scientist at the Center for Infectious Disease Research in Seattle; Rebecca Berman, PhD., staff scientist on the section of Cognitive Neurophysiology and Imaging at NIH; Ludmilla Kelly PhD., a senior scientist at BioReliance, and Uri Manor PhD., director of Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Core at Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Based on their experiences, they shared how a career change worked for them and also the obstacles they encountered. “Read the job description and if you love doing what is in the description, you should apply for it”, said Manor. “In some occasions, we didn’t even read the job description before deciding if we apply or not for a position; we decided if we apply or not just by the position title”, he added.
On the other hand, Berman mentioned that as a neuroscientist she felt that she was in a slow-moving field; in her case the Office of Intramural Training and Education at the NIH helped her in her search for a position as a staff scientist. Staff scientists, for those who are not familiar with the position, are senior scientists that have the responsibility of running experiments independently and working directly with PIs to achieve research goals. For Rutgers University students, the iJOBS program can help you explore career paths, whereas several other universities have similar programs.
Arredondo mentioned that, “Job hunting takes time. It can take three, six or even twelve months”. However, “you have to understand what the company is asking for and you have to sell yourself to fill that need”. – Kelly mentioned. In industry positions, it is common that someone with a broad scientific knowledge prevails over the “expert,” since their knowledge can be applied in different settings. Manor added that you must be prepared for everything: to manage, to network with experts in your area and to be confident that you can do the job.
As mentioned in a previous post, and confirmed by Berman and Arredondo, networking is very important to build the next step of your career. “That dream job, in which we wanted to “stay close to science”, is closer than we think if we build a good network and talk with our peers about our interests after this step. Let them know that you are in the “market” and that you are looking for a job in their field of work.”
They also described how a typical work day looks for them. Arredondo shared that she is an independent researcher. She takes the lead and has autonomy on which directions the project takes. Kelly added that her job is similar, as she decides which projects are accepted or rejected. Manor likes that he has guaranteed pay and funding and that he is constantly teaching others his expertise without being a professor. He is still working with collaborators, grant-writing and holding meetings with other faculty/students to discuss experiments. Berman mentioned that most of her days involve grant-writing and attending meetings.
A main takeaway from the panel for those who want to stay at the bench, but do not want to be a professor, is that there are plenty of opportunities outside of academia to become a PI, such as at government institutes like the NIH and private sectors like pharmaceutical companies. One of the main ways to find these jobs is through networking and communicating your interest to others. You can use networking platforms such as LinkedIn, career symposiums, and other extracurricular activities to sell yourself and communicate to others your interests. Whichever career path you choose, just remember that networking is key, especially if you decide on a non-traditional career path in the public, or private sectors. Good luck and keep your eye out for more posts from me on the NIH Career Symposium!