Celia Fernandez: The Future of Science In the U.S. and Finding Where I Fit In

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

A lot has happened since my last post! In the wake of the recent U.S. presidential election, I have read article after article expressing nervous anticipation for the future of basic research in the United States. I suppose with every administration change there is always some anxiety from the scientific community regarding funding and policymaking. Most academic researchers depend on federal money to support their research, and regulations on certain types of research, for example stem cell research, make the scientific endeavor even more challenging than it already is. The NIH proclaims on its website to be the “largest public funder of biomedical research in the world,” and it’s never been easy to get an NIH or NSF grant; the success rate for the most common grants and fellowships has hovered around 20% for the past ten years. The prospect that it might now get even harder to receive funding for a research project is, quite simply, discouraging.

So, recent political events have just underscored my theme: Now, more than ever before, I felt the overwhelming need to look into careers outside of academic research.

In my quest to learn about non-academic opportunities for biomedical Ph.D.s, I registered for my very first career fair last month. I had always ignored career fairs in the past because I didn’t feel like I had the time to attend, as if such opportunities were merely distractions. In reality, a career fair is a solid opportunity to network and explore different careers available in various companies. To be honest, I really fumbled here. I didn’t know how to approach people without seeming too desperate, and I probably came off as your typical socially awkward academic. Before the fair, I scanned the websites of the companies I was most interested in to learn a bit more about them, and tried to think of questions I would ask the company representatives, but couldn’t come up with anything that felt genuine; so I went in with the rather generic “Tell me more about your company and why you like it” question. I tried to get over my nerves and talk to people casually, but it honestly was just so overwhelming and awkward. I did end up making a connection with someone and exchanged business cards – success! – and made sure to follow up with them afterwards. I’m not sure what else to make of it, but at the very least it was a good test run, and I’ll know what to expect for next time.

In addition to non-academic career exploration, I’m also trying to learn more about continuing on this academic path. I had the opportunity to attend a grant-writing and networking workshop hosted by the National Research Mentorship Network (NRMN). This was the first professional development workshop I’ve ever attended and, despite how much I’ve been questioning my career choices lately, it actually reinvigorated my desire to become a college professor. The NRMN is an organization dedicated to helping students, postdocs and early-career researchers navigate a career in science, and the networking advice I learned here would have been really helpful for the career fair. (It turns out that networking is really just making new friends, just in a professional context, and thinking about it in this way helped me get over the awkwardness I was drowning in before.)

I also recently attended a seminar about funding research at a liberal arts college. The two seminar speakers were alumni from my current institution, which is more of a “research-intensive/R01” university. While “liberal arts” tends to be code for a “primarily undergraduate teaching” institution, a “research-intensive/R01” institution emphasizes a professor’s research program and ability to nab large R01 grants. Professors at a liberal arts institution might have a heavy teaching load and may mentor many undergraduates in their research labs, while professors at an R01 institution might only teach one course throughout the entire year and may have more postdocs and grad students than undergrads. The undergraduate student population might be different at each type of institution as well; while an R01 university may have a more “traditional” student body, a liberal arts college might have more “non-traditional” or “commuter” students, who take more night and weekend classes and work part-time or even full-time jobs to support themselves. Having been a “non-traditional” student myself, the teaching component at a liberal arts college was very, very appealing, and it was refreshing to hear the speakers talk about how deeply rewarding their jobs are. And, while the speakers acknowledged how tough it can be to secure funding for their research labs, they reassured the audience that it was still possible – an important thing for me to hear at this stage in the game.

Attending all these career development workshops, seminars, and various other functions has been pretty time-consuming, which is why I never tried to attend these kinds of things in the past. But it’s important to be sure that either this career path I’m currently on is really something that will make me happy in the long run, or that there’s something even more rewarding out there that I can achieve. No matter what I land on, recent events have reaffirmed my belief in the value of basic research and the importance of science in our lives. It’s disheartening to think that our government wouldn’t want to invest more in all the innovation and discovery that basic research can provide. Maybe it’s still so soon after the election, but science advocacy is something I am finding myself more and more passionate about. Maybe a career in science policy is worth looking into, too!

 

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