Celia Fernandez: Should I Stay or Should I Go? Let’s Start Looking at the Options…

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Yeonwoo Lebovitz, Anthony Franchini, Megan Duffy, and Celia Fernandez will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday  for new posts.

Current position: Postdoctoral Research Fellow studying Cell & Molecular Neurobiology
Program start date: November 2015
Institution: The University of Chicago

Balancing multiple different experiments daily, seven days a week, learning many new ones, checking in with my postdoc advisor multiple times a week, giving talks on my progress, writing grant proposals, trying desperately to tie up one final paper from my thesis lab – life as a postdoc has, for me, been fast-past and exhilarating (if not exhausting). How could I even think of leaving right now, let alone carve out the time to dedicate to a thorough career search? I still feel as though I just started my project, and, being the only cellular/molecular person in a heavily biochemical/biophysical lab, I have quite a bit of creative freedom to direct my own project, so it’s not like I’m in a rush to leave any time soon. But, like I wrote about before, I owe it to myself at this stage to take a long, hard look at all the options available to me now, including staying in academia. So, I thought I’d take the time here to share a little bit about why I wanted to do a postdoc in the first place, and some concrete steps I’m taking to learn more about what the next chapter in my career could possibly be.

My postdoctoral lab happens to be at the same institution in which I completed my Ph.D., although in a different department. When it was time to think about what to do after graduation, the obvious answer for me at the time was a postdoc, but I really wanted to move into a field outside of my area of expertise. This was to: a) Get me out of my comfort zone after the grueling end of my thesis, when all I wanted to do was take it easy; and b) Push myself to learn something new, which is only going to make me a stronger scientist in the long run. Of course, I also wanted to study something I thought was interesting, with an application to human health and disease. Miraculously, everything I was looking converged in a new lab that had just started in the same university that my Ph.D. lab was it. I had never considered it before, but there are some caveats to doing a postdoc at the same place you got your Ph.D. Every institution has a slightly different culture, and it is helpful as a trainee to see how different people do things. You might find that one place has more of an emphasis on undergraduate teaching, and another might be heavily focused on public outreach. One institution might have excellent core facilities that are easily accessible, while another might have a better reputation for animal work. If you just stay at one institution your entire life, you’ll never know if there is a “better” way of doing something out there. Obviously, I ultimately felt that the positives outweighed the negatives. I know that I am in a place where I can grow even further as a scientist, even if my postdoc lab is still just across the street from my Ph.D. lab.

During this past year, I’ve learned a new field, applied for grants, learned new techniques, used my expertise from my thesis project to bring new techniques to the lab, and even contributed some data to a paper that was recently published, which I’m a co-author on. I’m really trying hard at this whole academic science thing! But despite my push toward becoming a P.I., the statistics on the academic job market are intimidating; and even if I were to get my own lab one day, the struggle wouldn’t end. I would need to convince my tenure committee I was productive enough and contributed enough to my particular field. Although I do still enjoy a good challenge, I’m beginning to question whether this particular challenge is one that my heart is really in.

Since the start of the current academic year, I have committed to “putting myself out there” to learn about different job opportunities. I attended an information session for a professional development program in industry, in which I learned a little more about what it might be like working for a pharmaceutical company. I signed up for career fairs (never been to one!), got business cards (free through my department!) and even bought my first suit (I’m finally a “real” adult now – not sure how I feel about that). I’ve also made the extra effort to attend weekly career development seminars, and was pleasantly surprised to find other postdocs I know in attendance as well, people who I never would have thought would consider anything different.

The first seminar I went to had a panel of Ph.D.s who were working in regulatory affairs in academia and industry. These are the folks who make sure a clinical study is compliant with state and federal regulations, for example. They help submit massive applications to the FDA to test a drug in human patients, communicate IRB expectations to faculty, and screen submissions to ensure compliance. In an industrial setting, they may interact with people across multiple disciplines, spanning engineering, chemistry and biology. They may even talk to patients receiving an experimental therapy, and have to be able to explain why and how.

Another seminar I attended was led by a former math Ph.D. who went into public policy. He wanted to do something “that matters” beyond the theoretical, and chose to pursue a career in which he could make a more tangible difference in people’s lives. He enjoyed explaining complex issues with people, many of whom held differing opinions and needed some convincing to vote a particular way. This reminded me of the time I needed to convince my advisor that a particular experiment was necessary in order to show a certain effect and support my overall hypothesis. All in all, these seminars have been enlightening, to say the least. Here are some common themes about how they felt their Ph.D. prepared them for their current positions:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving skills. It’s refreshing to know that, although I may have spent 6 years studying how a little protein moves around in a cell, the skills I developed to design and draw conclusions from my experiments are actually helpful in other areas.
  • Collaboration and breadth vs. depth. In your Ph.D., you develop a deep understanding of your particular area of research. For many of these non-academic jobs, even for research jobs in industry, you get the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of professionals, not just the experts in your field. This appeals to me quite a bit, because I like seeing the bigger picture and how different groups can come together on one project to solve a problem.
  • People skills! I’ve always hated the stereotype of the anti-social scientist. I like interacting with others and “geeking out” over some new scientific finding. It’s fun to brainstorm the implications of a particular experimental result with other people. It’s also helpful to be able to interact with people who disagree with you in a positive, constructive way (see next point).
  • Resiliency and responding to criticism. Scientists have to be critical of each other; how else can we be sure that targeting a specific cellular pathway will help cure a disease? Developing an ability to respond to criticism in a positive manner can only make you better, not only in science, but also in any field.
  • It takes a strong work ethic to get a Ph.D. That same ethic will help you succeed in any endeavor you pursue, academic or not.

One of the seminar discussants had a great quote: “If you want to leave your field, leave it for something better, something you enjoy more, but don’t just leave the field to leave the field.” I definitely don’t want to leave neurobiology and basic research, so that’s not where I’m coming from. But it would be almost irresponsible of me to not even consider the alternatives. I like working with people and I’ve found that I enjoy collaboration much more than being isolated on my own project. Maybe I need to find something more interactive… I’ll keep searching; meanwhile, I have to go split cells for an assay, purify a protein, write up my Specific Aims, finish tweaking that one figure for that paper…

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