Boarding the academic career train at any age


5 min read
Boarding the academic career train at any age

Success in any career can be boiled down to three key ingredients: putting in the work, having the right team, and hoping with a little luck that the timing is right. This last ingredient can be unsettling, especially in academia: life happens along the way and it’s often not feasible for everyone to transition smoothly and linearly along the “typical” career path: from undergrad to grad school to postdoc status and then to professor.

Academia is a fast-moving train and finding ways to board this train can be challenging for early career researchers, which is probably why many academics encourage their peers and mentees to start this process in undergrad (or even earlier in some places!). But how do you get on this train? And what checkpoints do you need to pass through on this journey?

Checkpoint #1 is really just getting your foot in the door - I remember in high school trying to look for a summer job in waitressing (having never done this before) and finding that every advert required at least a year's prior experience working in a restaurant. Luckily for me, someone eventually took a leap of faith and decided to give me a chance. My journey  in academia was similar. I attribute a large part of my initiation into research to my first mentor (for tips on finding a mentor, look here and here) who looked past my underwhelming CV and saw an eager and curious learner willing to work hard. She never faltered to loop me in on email threads with other PIs, tell me about lectures that might spark my interest, or share insight on other research projects I could get involved in.  When I made the decision to start grad school, she was the first to give me a recommendation letter (which she actually wrote!).

Having a supportive mentor is critical, but you still need to put in the work to pursue your research dreams, which means you need to cross checkpoints 2 and 3: building your CV and getting funding. There are scores of funding opportunities out there, but you still need content on your CV that will help you stand out from your peers and show your commitment to research. I was fortunate in my undergrad that I was involved in two projects that landed me first and second authorships. I actually didn’t plan this at all or even negotiate this authorship (as a first-gen university grad, I barely understood the academic process until about 2 years into my graduate degree) but I do suspect these undergrad experiences played a large factor in my successful Master’s funding application that year. And once you’re in the funding system, it’s much easier to continue on that track. Publications are not the only way to build a CV that will get you funding. Volunteering in a lab or outreach program, contributing to a new software in the spirit of open science, or participating in a local poster session with preliminary results, even if they are far from manuscript-ready, are all worthwhile endeavours that funding agencies will value.

What about obtaining funding as an independent investigator? One study has shown that narrowly missing out on a grant hurts you in the long run, whereas another argues it can motivate applicants to work harder on their next application and ultimately surpass their peers that just barely made the cut-off for the grant in the initial round. Whenever I apply for salary grants, I apply for as many opportunities as I can to increase my odds, and find that this actually really helps me look at the “big picture” of my research from all angles, since different applications target slightly different audiences. This is where your mentor(s) can also help guide you.

The fourth important checkpoint on the academic train is publishing. There are certainly strategic moves you can take here. A recent article in Nature reported that authoring papers early in your career with “top scientists” helps you continue to publish with top scientists, and in turn, increases your likelihood of becoming a “top scientist”. The need to publish with top scientists for the sake of getting more exposure can be disconcerting to some - while it may work for the majority of researchers in the paper cited above, once again, it isn’t the only determining factor. In my publishing experience, I have found it helpful to simply get to know who is working around you. I often go to departmental seminars and talk to the speaker after their lecture about potential intersections between my work and theirs - this has actually resulted in a few collaborative papers for me. I also offer a lending hand in meetings on projects that might be outside of my main focus, and I find that you’ll always surprise yourself in how much you can actually contribute to these spin-off projects. I can’t guarantee that every one of these interactions will land you an authorship, but it will grow your network and give you more exposure in broader academic circles.

Timing can be very crucial in all of the checkpoints I’ve described above. Being a “young investigator” undertaking my first postdoc, I am constantly on the lookout for financial support to kickstart my independent research career and anxiously trying to avoid being part of the “postdoc pile-up” (aka being a postdoc for 6+ years). There has been a push in academia to address an unsettling statistic surrounding the increased difficulty and length of time for ECRs to acquire their first grant. Thankfully, this has been met with many new funding opportunities geared towards ECRs to help accelerate the transition between postdoc or junior faculty to independent investigator. Further, institutions and funding agencies are acknowledging non-linear academic paths in their application guidelines. For example, people may take longer leaves of absences to raise a family or handle other personal circumstances, which are taken into consideration in many applications. Even conferences are following suit, offering childcare and professional development sessions.

So how can we help each other board the academic train and stay happy onboard? Firstly, I strongly believe that grad students should be made aware of many of the points I touched on above before they even enter grad school, especially for their institution of choice. I certainly was learning a lot on the fly in grad school, and these unexpected twists and turns can add a lot of stress (like my PhD midlife crisis where I first learned the percentage of PhDs that actually go on to become faculty). If the facts are laid out beforehand, students will be much more empowered in making decisions about their next steps, whether that involves staying in academia or not. Secondly, senior PhD students and postdocs could help build the CV of junior undergrads and grad students by offering co-authorship (given a certain level of work of course) to help them get their first grant. For those that have been in academia long enough, we all need a humble reminder that we were once in these junior trainees’ shoes, and likely got to where we are with the help of others (especially mentors!! I really can’t underscore the importance of good mentors enough). Finally, mentors and supervisors that have successfully boarded this train should help their trainees get on it and sponsor them: pay it forward, folks!

Of course we can’t only rely on others to get us through this journey; it still takes hard work to stay on the train, but knowing the right steps to take to make your boarding faster and easier may make all the difference in your career satisfaction. I can’t emphasize enough that everyone’s career trajectory is very unique and there is no one right way to become an academic. At the end of the day, academics beget academics - so let’s help others board this train and enjoy the ride.


About the Author:

Carolina Makowski is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California San Diego, working on projects at the intersection of brain imaging, genetics, and psychiatry. She is also an ecrLife editor. Follow her on twitter @carolinamak15.

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