Mid-Career Advice from the CPOW Luncheon
A number of career-related topics were discussed at the annual Career Roundtable Luncheon at the 56th Annual Meeting in San Diego, California, earlier this year. As the session title indicates, participants sat at roundtables along with moderators, senior scientists who led discussion and shared advice. The 2012 moderators included: Ivet Bahar, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Ligia Toro de Stefani, University of California, Los Angeles; Al George, Vanderbilt University; James Weiss, University of California, Los Angeles; Shai Silberberg, NINDS, NIH; Harel Weinstein, Weill Cornell Medical College; Diomedes Logothetis, Virginia Commonwealth University; and Dave Piston, Vanderbilt University. Highlights from that session’s conversations are summarized here.
Getting the grant
Start your grant application early so you can take your time gathering the necessary preliminary data. Make sure that you have an important question to ask, and then ask yourself what preliminary results you need to obtain in order to submit a proposal. Don’t rush, particularly not on your first proposal. Present an overview of your research without getting bogged down in details of every thought process. Be wary of copying and pasting identical sentences within your application, as grants are screened carefully to throw out redundant and overlapping grants to minimize the time wasted on reviewing poor proposals. Strengthen your application by identifying and heading off pitfalls. Remember, NIH grant officers are there to help, so use them. When you receive reviewers’ comments, don’t be shy or ashamed about them. Respond to each point thoughtfully in your revision. Ask for help editing your revision—a mentor, good friend, or colleague you trust. Make sure to give your helper plenty of time (at least a month) to look through your revision and give a critical analysis. Take your time responding, but be efficient; don’t wait so long to respond that your proposal becomes obsolete. Look at your revised proposal with fresh eyes so you can start learning when to make a new proposal out of your old proposal and when to collaborate with other PIs.
Getting the promotion
Laying the groundwork for three major components of your career will help put you in line for a promotion: your teaching responsibilities, your research, and the service you give back to your university.
This is a vital component of your position, especially if you work at a primarily undergraduate institution. If you don’t know how to be an effective teacher, make it your mission to find out. Ask your department chair or your colleagues for teaching tips. Collect evaluations from students, a university committee, or third-party reviewers after every course you teach and implement the constructive feedback. Ask fellow faculty members to attend and critique your lectures. If there are any issues with your lectures or your teaching style, work with the university to improve them.
Though teaching requires considerable effort and time, your research will get you promoted. Show your ability to land a grant and administer it efficiently. Publish steadily at least once a year – solid publications, especially as a senior author, will convince your peers and superiors that your work should continue to be funded. On top of that, market yourself. Convince your peers that your research is important. Accept invitations to present a poster or give a talk. Once there, introduce yourself to other presenters and speakers to start building relationships. Host students in your lab for a semester or a summer. The experience will give them a valuable research opportunity, and put your name out there in a mentor capacity. Still unsure about how the scientific community perceives your efforts? Talk with senior faculty, your chair, and the promotion committee to see whether they can offer any advice. If you choose this route, get a jump on gathering advice well before the promotion deadline.
You must give in order to get. Fatten your service portfolio by getting involved in a university committee or special interest group; organizing seminars; attending meetings; or encouraging your postdocs to apply for fellowships. Find ways to contribute to your department that don’t require a lot of your time or energy—be mindful of your teaching and research commitments and find a balance. However, it’s important that you do something to give back and share your department’s service load. If you’re a good citizen and can show that you’ve contributed to your department in a meaningful way, the promotion should be within your reach.
Science as a team sport
Though once considered an individual pursuit, these days science is about teamwork: collaborations, co-authoring papers, working well with colleagues. The process of academic advancement is essentially being part of a team from the moment you apply for a job at a university. Admissions committees will look at how you fit into a department, not only based on your unique skills and techniques, but on your personality. Working well with others is the key to success. When it comes to publishing, you will have lots of co-authors, but you must diplomatically integrate their contributions while ensuring that you get adequate credit for your part of the work in a way that will be apparent to review panels. No matter what aspect of your scientific career, you can’t go it alone anymore, so make a team. Get people interested in your project or in a project you can work on together. Build collaborations.
From academia to industry—and back
It can be challenging to switch to an industry career if you’re trained in academia, but it can be even more difficult to switch back. Fortunately, there are tried-and-true tricks-including networking and diversification- that you can use to succeed wherever your career takes you.
Network, network, network. Talk to people at meetings and seminars with the intention of building lasting relationships. Follow up with these new contacts. Find a mentor who truly values your success and wants to help you get there. Build a network of people you can count on for support, advice, and collaboration across career sectors.
Diversify your experience
Don’t be afraid to try new things. Changes in career paths can provide demonstrated success for your CV as well as a broad mix of people you can add to your network. Proven success at places across sectors always looks attractive, to industry and academic settings alike. Showing that you’ve worked with a diverse group of people across disciplines can make you especially attractive. Those who have successfully combined disciplines through work and expressed this in papers and presentations constitute a different kind of researcher than those who simply created interdisciplinary departments. Papers carry weight between academic and industry sectors based on the impact factor. Additionally reference letters count, so make sure you have good recommendations.
The bottom line
If you don’t love what you do, do something else. Science is extraordinarily competitive regardless of whether you work in academia, industry, or government. You must do something that gets you excited and go where other people are excited about it, too. If you love what you do, keep your mind open to all possible career paths. Maybe your particular skills and disposition are more suited to an NIH program director position than a strictly research position. There are so many ways you as a scientist can positively impact the world around you. Call on your unique strengths to make your contribution.
Go to 57th Annual Meeting section in this newsletter for a teaser of 2013 mid-career program, PROMOTE your research, PROMOTE yourself.
—Gabriela Popescu, Thao Nguyen, and Teresa Giraldez, CPOW members
November 2012 Table of Contents