There is every reason not to pursue an academic career in science save one – that you could not, in good conscious, do anything else.
— Jonathan N. Thon, PhD
This is the second in a series of articles. To read the previous article, visit the link below:
By definition, a career move requires direction, confidence, and genuine reflection of your life balance (timing). This is my story.
I began my career search 2½ years into my first (and only) postdoctoral fellowship. At this time I had published 10 manuscripts (four from my PhD and six from my postdoc) and had just recently begun working in my “free time” on an innovative (i.e., risky) new approach to studying our biological question, which was purposefully outside the scope of my principal investigator’s expertise, and which he reluctantly (at first) indulged. It should be noted that my decision to assume this “side-project” was not taken lightly.
A considerable amount of effort was dedicated to designing a project that would bridge the gaps between basic and bench-side medicine, which was becoming increasingly attractive to funding agencies at the time; was adequately broad to support a five-year career plan, necessarily streamlined to support collection of sufficient preliminary data in my next two years to demonstrate feasibility, and was suitably different from my supervisor’s work to support my independence from his lab, while close enough to my area of expertise to justify why I could be expected to see it through. Thereafter, it was an uphill battle to convince my mentor that this project was of value, and a full year later before I had collected sufficient preliminary data to reach the tipping point from where my mentor began to thoroughly embrace the idea.
I should emphasize that while my postdoctoral supervisor’s enthusiasm for my side-project was tempered at its conception, his support of me was absolute; continuously providing much welcomed input into its development, and never once withdrawing financial support of the project. When it became clear that this work was going somewhere, his support grew and we began an ongoing discussion of how to attract independent funding, how to take this project with me when I began my own group, and where we could continue to collaborate to realise our respective scientific goals (for which the lines had blurred significantly already in those first two years) while ensuring that I retained my independence.
I was certain of my career trajectory at this point, enjoyed writing grants, and had thankfully been given the opportunity to directly supervise (by the good grace of my mentors) a postdoctoral fellow, a visiting doctoral student, three laboratory technicians, six undergraduate/co-op students, and four summer students (all positive experiences); which, along with my track record, had helped cement my confidence that I could succeed in this profession. It should also be noted that my PhD and postdoctoral supervisors had always been very hands off with me, and (like my decision to defend my doctoral thesis) it became increasingly clear that my transition into a faculty position would need to be self-initiated. Nevertheless, their support was never in question and I took significant advantage of their open-door policy, experience, and counsel as I began collecting my resolve to take this first step.
Life balance (timing)
A third, particularly significant element in this equation was my spouse. I met Lauren at McMaster University and we moved together to the University of British Columbia to pursue our doctorates in biochemistry and biological chemistry, respectively. I graduated in 2008 (a year before Lauren) and came to join my postdoctoral mentor’s group at Harvard because Lauren had (after significant soul searching) decided not to continue a career in academic science without any idea of what else she was going to do. Boston, which she had visited briefly at a conference a year prior to my move, had a healthy mix of academia, industry, medicine, teaching, writing and law, and offered significant opportunity for any career she might ultimately decide to pursue.
That first year apart was a very difficult one for us. Lauren completed her PhD in 2009 and started as a medical student at Boston University later that year. As of commencing medical school in Boston, Lauren had a fixed graduation date of May 2013. My decision to begin searching for a faculty position in 2011 was prompted by Lauren’s need to match for residency in mid-March. Working backward, submission of her ranked list of putative residency sites was due in mid-February, residency interviews occurred in October 2012-February 2013, and applications were due in September 2012 (U.S.) and November 2012 (Canada). Consequently, I had little option but to get started spring of 2011.
While the crushing uncertainty of those two years from 2011-2013 was at times intolerable, the hard deadlines proved to be incredibly important in limiting my post-doctorate to 4½ years and ensuring that I met the necessary career milestones in a sufficiently timely manner to be competitive for the limited faculty positions available those years. Were it not for Lauren’s schedule, the genuine lack of clear opportunities for advancement, relative safety/security of my present academic position, and high level of competition I would likely have prolonged my postdoctoral fellowship considerably, waiting on that mythic last manuscript meant to put me over the top.
There is an expiration date on the suitability of a postdoctoral fellow for a tenure track faculty appointment, and in the biomedical sciences today it is roughly seven years.
For postdoctoral fellows interested in pursuing a faculty appointment in academic research, I strongly encourage the following resource, alongside which this article should be read: Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. Burroughs Wellcome Fund / Howard Hughes Medical Institute