STEM Career Paths for Life Scientists

STEM Career Paths for Life Scientists
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3 months ago

STEM Career Paths for Life Scientists

Science directs us to explore questions by having a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis and adjusting the hypothesis based on data. However, when it comes to career decisions, this seems to go right out of the window. It seems to be more of "oh this sounds like a good idea" and forging ahead with the first thing that comes along without collecting the relevant data type of process. My goal with this article is to encourage the use of data (information) based decision making around career decisions as well.

This is also a call to action. I really wish that career development and future planning were part of the graduate school curriculum, a required part, but this is not yet the case in most training programs. I am working at a systemic level to make good mentorship and career support more a part of the life science career training, but we're not quite there yet. You will need to pursue the data for yourself. The good news is, there are many ways to do this during your scientific training and during post-training years.

 

Changing the script

The number of PhDs awarded hugely outweighs the number of tenure track jobs available. There aren't enough tenure track jobs to go around, and nor do there need to be. I guarantee that many of you would not enjoy or succeed as an academic faculty researcher. I certainly would not have been successful in such a role so I moved directly to a job in pharma. My goal is to help scientists find the right position, whether that be to continue in academia or choose one of the many other options. This is not a criticism of the academic career path. I believe in the apprenticeship model of scientific training and loved every minute of my time as a graduate student. We need a diverse and inclusive academic training milieu and we need the right trainees to continue in their academic careers for that to happen.

Choosing a career outside of academia is not leaving academia. It’s finishing training and moving into the workforce like every other student does. You are also not “leaving science”. Scientist is something you are, not something you do, and you take your scientific training with you wherever you go. These negative tropes disincentivize pursuit and completion of scientific training. We need scientists in many diverse careers. If you're feeling internal guilt or pressure that you're “selling out”, please know that this is not true.

It’s important that you begin thinking about career paths (thinking about, not deciding) as early as possible. As stated, it’s unlikely that these discussions will be a formal part of your curriculum, and there can often be some conflict of interest with your lab and your PI around these decisions. Sometimes even the very best mentors are in a conflict-of-interest situation because of the way our advancement and credit systems are set up. If you find yourself in a work or training location where that is the attitude, I recommend doing everything you can to get yourself to a lab that supports and celebrates multiple career paths. There are many great mentors who do support their trainees in this way. It’s vital that you start taking ownership of your own career development and start doing the research for yourself.

 

My career path through four lenses

1 - Building relationships

The word “networking” implies a burdensome activity at which you meet strangers and exchange contact information. I prefer to focus on building real relationships. It is a fact that you do need to meet people and build relationships to fully realize a successful career. One aspect of this is the way relationships lead to job opportunities. For example, around 40% of hires come from referrals. This is because employers strongly prefer to know that the candidate is going to be a team player that others will enjoy working with. For example, two weeks after they started, one of my hires pulled a knife on someone in the lab who borrowed their pipette. If I had known people who’d known that person for a long time and could vouch for their character, I would have been more confident that they were a decent and pleasant person to work with before taking them on!

My first job was a result of a referral. My academic PI knew people in the pharma industry, and he helped me get my first job through direct introduction to his friend. My second job came about when I was hired by someone who I had worked with and known for almost a decade. When I went to Addgene it was both a referral and a direct contact. I recently joined a consulting firm with people that I've been working with for 10 years on diversity initiatives for women in STEM entrepreneurship.

Referrals and relationships will often get you that interview, or ‘foot in the door’, but what can you do if you are introverted or feel very uncomfortable about putting yourself out there socially? There are ways of making networking feel less daunting, such as getting involved on a committee, or using social media networking platforms such as LinkedIn. If events are not your thing, consider one on one interactions with others to build the number of people you know and who know you. Do what feels real and authentic to you but do something in an ongoing fashion. You can’t wait until you need a job or a favor to meet people. It is long time contacts that will be the most helpful.

 

2 - Professional development

Devoting time to your professional development will always be helpful for career progression. There are many skills you can develop to broaden your potential career options that are important for both academic and non-academic job prospects. The five key skill areas to consider are:

  • Communication
  • Technical knowledge
  • Teamwork
  • Managing people
  • Leadership

Leadership and people management are particularly useful if you do choose to stay in academia, because your goal is likely to become a lab head or leader of a group. Once you finish grad school and do a postdoc, you are fairly advanced in your career. There will be an assumption that you know how to manage people. If you have no practice or experience with management you’ll be at a distinct disadvantage, not just for securing jobs but for doing them well once you’re in the role.

Try to raise your hand all the time and take any professional development opportunity that comes your way. Even while you are still in academia, learn all you can whenever the opportunities arise. To this day, my one major regret from graduate school is that I could have audited any class offered at the university and I didn’t take advantage of this opportunity. During my time in pharma there were many opportunities for learning and training. Whatever anybody asked me to do that was new to me, I always said yes and I focused on learning as much as I could. For me, the definition of being a scientist is “always learning”, so professional development should be something you crave and enjoy.

 

3 - Immersion in diversity, equity & inclusion work

During one particularly busy week in the middle of my time in pharma, I realized that I had not seen a single other woman in any meeting I attended. I realized that most of the women senior to me had left the company or their careers altogether. In grad school my class was about half people who identified as women, yet the senior roles within my company were mostly filled by men. I could see that something was preventing women and people from other under-recognized groups from succeeding in science careers.

The fight for equality in science

Academia doesn't leak as far as gender is concerned, it gushes. Women are excellent students, and they make it through grad school sometimes at a higher rate than men, yet they do not advance. If you are a woman in science you're certainly experiencing this. For scientists with intersectional social identities, the problem is even worse. For example, if you're a woman and you're black, or LGBTQ+, have a disability or identify as Latina, opportunities to advance in science will be even slimmer. The inequities in science are having an incredible impact on the lack of diversity which in turn affects the world because science must be done by scientists of all backgrounds.

Accountability and consequences

Lack of inclusion is not just caused by harassment and bullying, although that is happening at a very high rate in academia and in the working world. Sexual harassment in academia occurs at the second highest rate of any professional industry. Similar harassment levels are experienced by people who are LGBTQ+ or non-binary. In a 2020 Wellcome report “What Researchers Think About the Culture They Work In” 43% of scientists said they had experienced bullying or harassment and 61% had witnessed such behavior. Only 37% said they would feel comfortable to report such an incident. We are not doing a great job solving this problem, but slowly, one by one we are starting to see perpetrators lose their positions, lose their funding, and the NSF and NIH are starting to take a harder stance on repercussions. 

Sadly, what we do see is just the tip of the iceberg, and what goes unreported are numerous microaggressions, incidents of exclusion and mistreatment of marginalized groups of people, and a general bias that leads to the wholesale inability for us to effectively diversify our science workforce.

How has self-education helped my career?

Self-educating is one of the best ways to start being an ally, so I urge you to get involved. The generation of scientists coming up now cannot ignore the fact that we have major issues of equity in science. I saw these issues and I got angry, I got active, and this action provided me with a strong network of like-minded people. These became very deep relationships because we worked together on something that was meaningful to us, and decades later it turned into a full-time job which is the work that I'm doing now. Also, this is the right thing to do. We all must work for inclusion for the balance to shift.

 

4 - Negotiating work and life

Pursuing career goals is rewarding, and we all must have the right to pursue non-work goals as well. Work-life negotiation (there is rarely any balance) is often perceived as an issue for parents. The truth is any one can have issues or desires around their personal life that demand immediate attention. It could be caring for elderly relatives, personal health issues, romantic life, the chance to pursue a lifelong dream hobby, or even the opportunity to volunteer for an important cause to help change the world. What's really crucial is that you pay attention to what truly matters to you and pursue these “extra-curriculars” with vigor.

Choose a lab (and a PI) with the right priorities

Something I hear often from scientists is that they’ve chosen a lab with advisors that have no understanding of work/life negotiation. In the old days, and it’s still prominent as a common structure today, the PI is often a man who has a partner at home who's taking care of the household. This domestic arrangement allows him to work all the hours that he wants. If you have a PI like that who is not embracing an understanding of a more reasonable work/life negotiation, it’s going to be difficult for you to prioritise your personal life over your work. Think hard about making good choices and do your research before you choose an advisor. Gather data. Don’t take a position just because you like the science, it should be because you like their mentorship and their style of managing the lab. We need to be choosing labs that make space for life.

How has a good work/life negotiation helped my career?

There has always been a lot going on in my life. I keep a strict Sabbath with no work on Saturday, ever. I have a lot of hobbies. I'm a voracious reader (I read about a hundred books a year). I have a granddaughter now, and I’m always going to need time to spend time with her. Great joys in one's life benefit mental health, fuel our passions and ultimately help us to have successful scientific careers. So please don't stay in a position that has no respect for necessary boundaries. Think about moving on if you have an abusive or unsupportive PI who doesn’t allow you to find the support that you need for life.

 

Do the research and reap the rewards

In conclusion, treat your career planning like a research assignment. Educate yourself and get data on career decisions. Just doing the bench work is not enough during your training. Every other field, every other career has career readiness as part of the training. You have to use that time to also prepare for your long-term career.

Activate your network and nurture it, and do it now because you can't just wait until you need a job to start building relationships. You have to start developing your network from day one because it's the people that know you well that will help you when the time comes.

 

Additional STEM career advice and resources

For more STEM career advice from Joanne, take a look at these fantastic webinars:

The Hello Bio blog also has a number of other articles and resources offering advice on STEM career issues:

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Watch Joanne's talk at the Hello Bio LabLife Conference

This article is based on Joanne's talk on 'STEM Career Paths for Life Scientists' at the Hello Bio virtual LabLife Conference in June 2022. You can watch the full video on the Hello Bio YouTube channel here:

 

About the author

Dr Joanne Kamens is a Senior Consultant at The Impact Seat, a consultancy practice which brings science-based DEI knowledge and practice to organizations. Dr Kamens received her PhD in genetics from Harvard Medical School and has had a varied career in academia, pharma, biotech and nonprofit. While Executive Director of Addgene, she experimented with practical ways to create an inclusive workplace. Joanne maintained single digit employee turnover for almost a decade at Addgene and collaborated with dozens of inclusion organizations to make the company a Best Place to Work in Boston for six years running.

Connect with Joanne:

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