Science, You Stole My Heart
ThePostdocWay Advice Series: Taking Charge of Your Career
Many postdocs in the biological sciences spend endless hours at the bench working hard to further their research. They are motivated by the thought that by working hard, writing grants, and publishing manuscripts, a tenure track academic faculty position is waiting for them. Asking these very motivated postdocs to leave the bench for a few hours to attend professional networking mixers, career development and exploration events, entrepreneurial soirees, communication workshops, or postdoc education seminars is akin to asking for one of their arms.
Why is this?
Now, if someone told me there was a significant chance that, with headphones on blaring music, walking through a train tunnel to get home would likely result in me getting hit by a train, I would change the path I was walking on, become more aware of my surroundings, and map out a new way to get home that did not depend on me walking through a train tunnel. These are important steps to taking charge of your path and questioning the assumed 'path of least resistance' that gets you 'home'.
Postdocs need to take charge of their careers and communicate this with their mentors. One cannot assume that because you earned your Ph.D. and are four years into your postdoc that you are entitled to a job.
After all of these years of training, how many postdocs can succintly tell you what their research is and the global importance in less than one minute? How many of your postdoctoral colleagues have started writing their transition to faculty awards before their second year, let alone an NRSA? How many of your colleagues know what else they can do with a Ph.D. outside of academia? More importantly, how many of your colleagues, or their mentors, know anyone outside of academia?
Taking charge of your career is not a passive action and it requires you to constantly be in motion, developing and mapping out your plan just as you would any critical experiment that will be added to your next Cell manuscript.
In this blog series titled, Taking Charge of Your Career, I asked some of my colleagues to describe the steps they have taken to prepare for the next step in their career. I hope you enjoy.
Science, You Stole My Heart
I Love Science. I never doubted, nor any of my relatives, that I would grow up to be a scientist.
How many 8 year old children do you know with a subscription to Nature?
At one point in elementary school, I was the proud owner of three microscopes. The first was from my parents, the other two from ill-informed, but well-intentioned relatives. My free time was spent making “science experiments”, reading books on biology, and exploring the flora and fauna at and around my parents house outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Following the Academic Path and Igniting the Fire
A surprise to none, I did my bachelor’s degree in biology, with a chemistry minor, at Utah State University. Utah State is about 90 miles north of Salt Lake City in Logan, Utah. Nestled on the east foothills of beautiful Cache Valley, Utah State was far enough from my parents to satisfy my desire for independence but close enough that I could readily return home for skiing and fly-fishing with my brothers.
Dr. Peter Ruben was my comparative physiology professor in the fall of 2004. A true gem of academic instruction, he aptly introduced me to the world of electrophysiology. I began working in Peter’s lab the following semester as an undergraduate research assistant studying the ill effects of sodium channel mutations. Only a month in my first semester working for Peter, my mom suffered a ventricular fibrillation.
I vividly remember the night it happened. I had just finished an indoor soccer tournament in Logan and was excited to tell my parents back home the result. The sun was down, it was maybe seven or eight o’clock on a weekday so I was sure my parents would be home. I called them first as I was pulling out of the parking lot. The phone just rang and rang. I hung up and tried again a few minutes later. My youngest brother, Dylan, answered the phone. His voice sounded distraught. I asked what was wrong. He struggled at first, then, almost crying and in a total panic he said, “Mom is having a heart attack. The paramedics are here.”
“I am coming home,” I said. Then, I hung up the phone, turned my truck around, and headed for home.
A coma, two months at the hospital, and an implantable cardioverter-defibrilllator later, my mom was home and I decided on a PhD in cardiac electrophysiology.
The Importance of a Great Mentor and His Lifelong Impact
Peter and I connected both as scientists and as friends. During my mom’s recovery he provided unending emotional support and a much-needed escape from the fallout from my mom’s fibrillation.
We spent our weekdays pursuing science and our weekends chasing either trout or fresh powder in the mountains that surrounded Logan.
In 2006, Peter took a position as director of the kinesiology at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, BC. He invited me to pursue a PhD with him in his new lab. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Good chemistry with your supervisor is critical to success. Peter and I had great chemistry. Graduate school, and your post-doc for that matter, is hard enough. There is no point in suffering through an ill-fated working relationship while putting in endless hours in the lab.
My chemistry with Peter allowed me a highly productive PhD, and more importantly, it was a great time. From my undergrad and through my five years at SFU, Peter was a thoughtful guide in my studies and also demonstrated patience and compassion when I was experiencing difficulty outside of school. In this, Peter embodies the ideal mentor.
One experience will always stand out to me. I was halfway through my PhD and my application to renew my Canadian study permit had stalled. While waiting for approval my current permit expired. My wife and I were allowed to stay in Canada under something called “implied status” but if we left the country we wouldn’t be allowed back in until the application was finalized.
Our questionable immigration status eventually led to suspension of our health insurance. This was especially problematic because my 6-months pregnant wife had just been diagnosed with gestational diabetes. With some wrangling on our part our insurance was conditionally reinstated. All medical expenses would be reimbursed pending my permit approval. If the permit was rejected we were financially responsible for any medical expenses incurred. As we approached our son’s due date the medical expenses increased and tensions were high.
Peter was our greatest champion. There are only so many options for a young graduate student when faced with immigration issues, all of which my wife and I quickly exhausted. It was Peter who ultimately convinced the Office of the President at SFU to personally come to our aid, a turning point in our Lemony Snickets series of events. Using contacts provided by the University we finally isolated the issue. Canadian Immigration had made a clerical error, but was unwilling to admit their mistake. Peter and his wife, along with the University, went so far as to pay for several hours with one of Vancouver’s top immigration lawyers. With the permit approved, our first boy was born a month later and I was able to get back to work.
Finding Inspiration in the Face of Difficulty
Thanks to Peter’s guidance and unwavering support I graduated three years later with my doctorate. My wife, our two boys and dog (aptly named Indiana Jones) and I have since moved to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for my postdoctoral appointment.
The funding rate for NIH grants is roughly half what it was a decade ago and it continues to decline. Put bluntly, the funding climate sucks.
Everyone is strapped for research money. (If your lab has money to spare then keep it to yourself. The rest of us don’t want to hear about it.) With low funding comes intense competition, perhaps higher than it has ever been.
As a young postdoc, the odds of getting a tenure-track position often seem insurmountable. I have seen too many great scientists change plans and head for industry, or elsewhere. It is too bad. They all had great ideas and if given the chance they would have made great professors. In a different era, perhaps, but so are the times.
I love science. I love doing things that no one has done before. I love learning things that are COMPLETELY new. I get really excited when I make a breakthrough. It usually involves running around the lab and joyful shouting. My colleagues don’t always appreciate this but I just can’t help myself.
Now in my second year at Madison, I work long hours for low pay in the hopes that one day I can make the jump to professor.
I want to be a professor so I can help inspire students the way Peter inspired me.
Parting Words of Wisdom
I want to discover new things and share my passion for discovery with others; helping young adults achieve their goals along the way. If I can get a job that lets me do that, I think I will be a lucky man. If it means paying my postdoc dues for a few more years, so be it. It will be worth it!
About our contributor:
David graduated with a degree in biology from Utah State University in 2006 and completed his PhD in biomedical physiology at Simon Fraser University in 2012. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lives in Madison with his wife, two boys and dog, Indiana.