Exploring Options to Rediscover Your Passion for Academic Research

Exploring Options to Rediscover Your Passion for Academic Research

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.

You still have work to do. You must understand the landscape, what you can offer, and what your value is.

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 mentorsknow 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.


Brian (Founder & Editor-in-Chief)


Exploring Options to Rediscover Your Passion for Academic Research

by Uyen

As a McNair alumna I am invited each year to talk to the current McNair scholars on campus about the process of applying to graduate school. The McNair program is designed to prepare undergraduate students who are traditionally underrepresented in graduate education for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. These discussions were helpful for me when I was applying for graduate school. Thus, as a postdoc, I was happy to contribute my insights to help the future generations of underrepresented students.

At past McNair events I was often asked why I chose the field of pharmacology and what were my criteria for selecting a lab for my thesis research. My answer was that I had always wanted to be a pharmacologist and the laboratory I chose would provide the research experience for me to build a scientific foundation in pharmacology that I was seeking to obtain.

At this year's event, I decided to expand my small group discussion about graduate school to include careers post-PhD. I shared with my small group of students who are interested in obtaining a PhD in the biological sciences that my reason for obtaining a PhD was not just for the sake of furthering my education, but also to pursue a tenure track academic position in the future
For me it was not easy to arrive at this decision.

My discerning process took about two years and began prior to finishing my thesis work and up until the first year of my postdoctoral training. When I started my exploration of career paths outside academia, I attended career-oriented seminars and talked to individuals in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, government, individuals engaging in health policy, entrepreneurship, consulting, and science writing.

And all throughout the career soul-searching process, I approached it with one question in mind: Will I be happy as a _______?

I recognized that career satisfaction for me is linked to the opportunities that a particular path offers for continued learning and teaching. Therefore, an academic position seemed to fit the bill.

It was difficult to ignore factors such as the instability of the current funding situation for basic science, the pressure to earn a living, the job prospects for those pursuing tenure track position to just focus on myself and what I actually enjoy doing. In the end, however, I have decided that being a professor will make me happy.

Once I had set my sight on the tenure-track path, the first thing I did was I let the individuals around me know about my plans. We often forget that by opening up to those around us about our dreams and goals we are accountable to achieve them. The other thing I learned about opening up is that those who can help will see to it that you achieve those goals.

Next, I sought formal feedback from my mentors and those I have worked with in the past about my strengths and weaknesses. Through this exercise, I learned about the steps I need to take in order to become a competitive candidate for an academic position.

The process was not only a humbling experience but also brought me closer to the individuals whose opinions I respect. 

Finally, I had to revisit the decision I made years ago to pursue pharmacology as a scientific area of interest for my graduate work. I have come to an understanding that the purpose of a graduate education is more than just training one to become better at critical thinking or problem solving. Although those skills are essential, our technical and scientific knowledge has to be the foundation upon which we build our career. Otherwise, I could have obtained a PhD in sociology.

I speculate that the disillusionment some graduate students and postdocs suffer from may be due to the lack of interest in the research they are working on. It was certainly the case for me. As an undergraduate student, I knew I wanted to be a pharmacologist someday because I was interested in how drugs affect the body. While I was able to obtain the training in pharmacology as a graduate student, I lost track of who I was during my postdoctoral training.

Now, I am exploring opportunities to continue my postdoctoral training, but am approaching my next postdoc as a platform to build a career as a pharmacologist specifically in the exciting area of pharmacogenomics.

However, instead of just joining a lab, the plan is to define research questions I am interested in pursuing and secure funding for the research before joining a lab. 

Before my process of career discernment, I was uncertain about which track would make me happy. After meeting individuals who have followed career paths outside of academia I am able to put things in perspective, make a decision, and just go with it.

If you have not figured out what you want to do post-PhD, I hope the message from this fortune cookie gives you some encouragement to start carving out your own path while you can in graduate school or while you are in your postdoc. It is likely that you will not have much freedom to do so when you have a “real” job, but hopefully you do not have to because it is already your dream job.


About our contributor:

Uyen earned her Ph.D. in Pharmacology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011. She is currently a PhRMA Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working on the identification of novel compounds that enhance cardiovascular functions. Her research expertise spans the areas of medicinal chemistry to protein biochemistry of membrane chaperones.

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