How my tenure-track academic position isn’t as scary as I once thought.

I presented my research and career path at my departments Graduate Research Seminar a few weeks ago.  I am always happy to share the story of how I got to where I am now so that students will see that it is not like I had this career path all planned out from the beginning.   I mean, lets be honest, I changed my major 4 times as an undergraduate before settling on Biology!  I was political science (I thought I wanted to be a lawyer), then accounting (sounded good and I imagined myself wearing cool glasses), then I was undecided (and enjoying being a freshman in college quite honestly!).  Then I got my grades.  Oh boy!  I had always been a strong student amongst my uber-smart peers at a very competitive public school in the burbs of NJ.  This GPA….right here…..NOT going to work!  So I sat back and tried to come up with a strategy for how I was going to get better grades.   Then it hit me.  Science….and math.   I was good at those subjects.  And they came pretty naturally to me.  I ‘got’ them and always found something interesting about those classes.  I seized on this as my ticket to A’s.  So I switched my major to Biology. 

Now. Sophomore year….. and I am a Biology major.  What the heck am I going to do with a degree in Biology?!  Because, at the time, I was only sure of one single thing:  I DID NOT want to be doctor!  Heck I had wanted to be a Vet forever as a child but immediately abandoned that idea once I realized I would have to see Sandy or Midnight possibly die in my care.  My own childhood dog died over Christmas in high school and I knew I did not have the emotional ‘control’ required to be able to experience that with owners time and time again.  I mean, come on, who was I kidding?  I once started crying over seeing a deer hung from a tree in a popular magazine.  These are pets! And an MD has to deal with actual PEOPLE.  MD for me?….thats a negative!   I’d say someone dying on the job is MORE than just a “bad day” at the office.   And then I have to look at the family and say that despite MY best efforts and ALL the advances of modern medicine, I had failed to be able to save/cure their great Aunt Sue.  No thank you ma’am.

Then a variety of experiences introduced me to biomedical research as a career.  A perfect fit! So after graduation I began the intense, challenging, and drama-filled journey of pursuing my PhD in Immunology & Molecular Pathogenesis at a very research-intense university.  It had its challenges, which I will save for another day, but overall I pushed through because at the end of the day research was IT for me.   Being in the lab and designing and conducting experiments was truly MY place.  I felt engaged, interested and inspired all the time.  During the 5.5-year process I attended ALL the “alternative careers in science” seminars that my university had to offer.  Why?  Because I knew an awful lot about what I DID NOT WANT TO DO with this degree (and not much on what I wanted to do with it besides designing and conducting experiments that would impact public health):

1. I DID NOT want to teach.

2. I DID NOT want to be an academic scientist at a research university!

3.  I DID NOT want to write grants and have the stress of supporting my salary this way.

4. I DID NOT want to be responsible for putting some poor PhD through the experiences my peers and myself went through during our graduate training.

5. I DID NOT want to be wholly responsible for forever generating the ideas behind the science done in my lab.

With all this in mind (and armed with all my helpful “alternative careers in science” seminar booklets), I settled on either being a research scientist in industry or government as the ideal fit….and began down that path.  Flash forward: While I did do my post-doc in a government lab at the NCI/NIH (and LOVED every minute of it), I have been an Assistant Professor at a research university for the past 3 1/2 years.  And guess what?  I DO every single one of those things I said I DID NOT want to do!  And guess what else?  I actually really like most of it!!  Seriously!

1. I DO teach…..and I LOVE it.  I figured this out while in my non-TT positions and was quite surprised by this fact to be honest.  Apparently I have a natural talent for teaching and communicating science to students and I took like fish-to-water on implementing all the latest and greatest tools in “active learning” and engaging students in STEM learning (clickers, in-class peer-lead activities, re-vamped non-majors Biology labs into “theme-based” versions, critical thinking through writing.  All of it!).  Who knew?  I certainly didn’t.  Until I tried it.

2. I AM an academic scientist at a research university…..and I LOVE it.  I love my research itself and, honestly, I wouldn’t be able to do the work that I do at a smaller school, with less infrastructure.   The other piece that I never appreciated as a student seeing PIs, is that you aren’t alone.  I collaborate and think about my research with other PIs at my institution.  Being at a research university means that I have access to a huge variety of other great scientists in my same institute but working indifferent areas of research.  The diversity of perspectives and approaches in this environment is something I probably couldn’t get in an industry position at a Biotech company focused on its pipeline products.

3.  I DO write grants, however, in an unimaginable twist on the system (perhaps a glitch in the matrix), I am NOT required to support my salary this way.  I am at a state university and my academic calendar year salary is covered by the state.   Yes, I am required to teach.  Luckily for me, I typically teach an upper-level undergraduate or graduate level course that I developed which focuses on my area of research (cancer immunotherapy).  Other times I teach the undergraduate non-majors Biology course (I love de-mystifying this subject for them and showing how useful a basic understanding of Biology can be in their lives).  I’ve been fortunate to get grant money to support my summer salary as well, however, if push ever comes to shove I won’t mind teaching to make my salary in the summer.

4. I AM responsible for guiding and motivating the PhD students in my lab but, I hope they agree, I try to support them in a positive way.  My main motivation is for them to develop into successful and well-trained scientists and I take this responsibility seriously and am thankful they have entrusted their training to me.  After all, THEIR success is MY success!  And the negative experiences I had along the way during my PhD training serve as a reminder of what I don’t want to happen to my students, and hopefully make me a better mentor to my students.

5. I AM wholly responsible for generating the ideas behind the science done in my lab….sort of.  I mean, I am responsible for what gets actually written and submitted in our funding proposals to external agencies.  However, what I have come to realize is that no one does science in a vacuum.   My students’ ideas and my own are a fluid and intermingling thing as we look at results, read papers and discuss new ideas.  Looking back on it, the science that my PhD advisor did originated in the ideas of us, her students in the lab.  Not sure how I missed that.

So what began as a naïve list of “I DO NOT” wants, that made me think I wanted to pursue one science career….actually ended in the career where all my DO NOT wants turned into I DOs. 

Perhaps, if I had taken the time to actually include self-assessment as a part of my career planning many of these things would have been more obvious to me.  (Know thy self… least I remained true to not pursuing an MD. smh). Luckily you can learn from my mistakes, and do just that by completing a myIDP plan at  This amazing tool will help you self-assess, explore more than 20 different PhD-scientist careers, and create a match between you and the best-fit career(s).  It will then help create concrete goals towards further preparing for that career.  I think all PhD students and post-docs should try this powerful tool today!  Maybe some of your DO NOTs will also turn into I DOs!

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