Students are drawn to science for the personal satisfaction that comes from finding solutions, a passion for exploration, natural talent, family pressure or a desire to make a meaningful contribution to society. The extent a student progresses in science largely depends on their personal motivation and innate personality. It is obvious that a career in science is intense and challenging, demanding an individual to develop critical problem-solving skills. However, a career in science can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling by providing a profound sense of achievement, cultivating a broad spectrum of skills and developing a can-do attitude.
Many individuals interested in a scientific career are curious to understand why others have elected to embark on this path and the motivators that drive the action figures of science. In searching for an answer students may neglect to ask an even greater question- how does a scientist progress their career?
Individuals whom chose to enter a career in science share a love for science. Dr. Elena Aikawa, Director of the Vascular Biology Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital chose to pursue her PhD simply because she loves science! Alison Taylor a graduate student in Dr. Leonard Zon’s lab at Harvard Stem Cell recognized her passion for science and decided to pursue a career in science early in her undergraduate studies. Although individuals are armed with a multitude of personal compelling reasons to explain why they entered into science- all scientists share an innate love of science and enjoy intellectual challenges.
Having a love for science does not imply a successful career. A successful research career requires one to actively understand how to navigate the scientific path and the distinct requirements of each level. The path to an academic research career has four distinct levels with opportunities to pursue alternative careers in industry, government or consulting at each level. The levels within an academic scientific career path are PhD, post-doctoral, associate professor and assistant professor.
A PhD is the starting line to a scientific career. The goal of a PhD program is to train students to do research. It is a time for students to learn the bedrock of scientific research—such as running experiments, learning techniques, interpreting data, planning out projects, figuring out how to execute projects and developing an approach to tackle any new technique or research question. It takes most graduate students three years to start thinking independently and five to six years to graduate. PhD students experience difficulty at some time in their program. For Dr. Hussey, a post-doc at Boston’s Childrens Hospital, it was learning how to write a manuscript. Dr. Karst a post-doc at Dana-Farber Institute experienced frustration in planning experiments. However, both researchers were driven by the prospect of becoming intellectually engaged with increasing critical sophistication in the study of a specific issue in their respective fields.
Once a student fulfills the requirements set by their respective institution’s graduate committee for a PhD, the student is awarded their doctoral degree. Being armed with a PhD allows a student to progress towards a research career either in academia, government or industry. Although many scientists desire a permanent academic position only 15% of PhD graduates will become faculty, with 65% entering government or industry and 20% pursuing non-science related careers. Student who chose to continue towards a career in academics understand academia is not the most lucrative career in the world. It lacks job security and demands long, arduous hours requiring personal sacrifices. But those attracted to a career in academia innately understand that there is something truly wonderful in discovering something that no one else has seen before and are driven by the hope that your work will somehow benefit people.
A post-doc position is usually used after graduating from a PhD program. A post-doc is a defined contract position used to develop into an expert in a specific subject. It is a time for a scientist to prove they can produce meaningful research while acquiring vital soft-skills such as managing students, giving presentations and writing grant applications. In contrast to a PhD, a post-doc can focus their interest and identify talents that display their ability to create ideas and attract funding.
Many post-docs describe their experience with feelings of accomplishment. They apply their skills and knowledge acquired as a PhD to a new research group where their expertise is valued. Dr. Carla Kim of Harvard Stem Cell capitalized on her PhD thesis work studying DNA repair defects in hematopoietic cells as a post-doc in the relatively new field of lung cancer stem cells. Her post-doc work opened into an exciting project connected to a rapidly advancing field with illuminating opportunities to create her discoveries. Dr. Kim successfully navigated her post-doc by publishing high impact papers and earning grants that positively impacted her career progression and strongly influenced her application for faculty positions.
The primary goal of a post-doc is to publish highly cited papers and earn grants to raise one’s profile. The quality of publications accrued, grants awarded and the prestige of universities attended largely influence a scientist’s career progression. An academic track post-doc will continue their career as an assistant professor. As new faculty, assistant professors are expected to manage teaching duties, carry out administrative while performing advanced research that makes high quality contributions to their field of interest, Assistant professor Dr. Sung-Yun Pai of Boston Children’s Hospital uses her interest in T-cell development to study the genetics of T-cell development and discover novel treatments for T-cell defects. Her efforts are aimed at building a translational immunology lab that strongly promotes collaborative efforts. Promotion to associate professor is based on evidence of an individual’s quality of research and contributions to their field of study, service to the university system and teaching record. Successful assistant professors have not only established a solid publication record, secured public and private funding they have also established their lab as a leader in their respective field.
The path to an established research career is a lengthy process requiring a strong sense of confidence, commitment to academic and personal excellence, quick intuition and a measure of good luck. Successful scientists are dynamic opportunists- they thrive on challenges and actively seek out opportunities for growth. They thrive on innovation and discovery and are easily bored by daily routine. Scientists make amazing discoveries and great contributions to society in government, industry as well as academia. Regardless of one’s ultimate destination- science is an amazing experience bringing diverse groups of individuals together to share their interests and skills in effort to improve society through greater knowledge.