What does the “typical” career of a scientist look like

I kind of hate this title. It’s horribly discouraging for young scientists to assume that there is a “typical” career path.  However, over the past 50 years or so, there has been an “expected” path for all “real” scientists to take.  All of the quotation marks are implying that this isn’t the case – it hasn’t really been the case for the past 50 years and it certainly isn’t the case now.  But there was an expectation from the senior scientists and colleagues surrounding you that this is the path to take. (note: this is coming from the point of view of a biology PhD, which I have experience with.  This may be entirely different for other science degrees like math or engineering)

You start with graduate school. Three to six (or seven or eight or nine or ten!!) years of working in a laboratory and writing a thesis.  Hopefully along the way, you’ve written a few grants and peer-reviewed publications.  You’ve networked with colleagues in your field and found great mentors that have helped you along the way.  Before the thesis has even been written and defended, you take all of this hard work, and wrap it up into a curriculum vitae to send to principal investigators (also referred to as a PI) of laboratories that you might be interested in working in as a postdoctoral fellow (also called a post doc). If the PI has space (meaning funding) and is interested in your work, they may invite you to interview. During the interview, you will give an hour long presentation of your PhD work and the rest of the day will be spent with the PI and others in his/her laboratory talking about what they do, how they do it and whether or not you’re a good fit for the lab.  Most PhD graduates go on multiple post doc interviews.  I went on three before I realized that I didn’t want to do a postdoc.

Once you are offered a postdoc, you usually move to a new state and a new institution. There is a stigma that doing a postdoc at the same place that you do you PhD, even if it’s in a different lab, will not provide you with a varied enough research experience.  You are encouraged as a postdoc (and as a scientist, in general) to be okay with moving around. If you’re married, you and your spouse have to figure it out. Have kids?  Same deal.

So what do you do as a postdoc?  You do research in a laboratory, but with more independence than a graduate student.  You are often responsible for writing grants and supervising undergraduate and graduate students.  You are expected to work just as hard – nights, weekends, whatever it takes.  And now, your goal isn’t to graduate, but rather to get enough publications in high profile journals that you can get a faculty position.

How hard can this be?  There have been a lot of articles on this topic, so I won’t rehash here (you can read more in a recent Nature article about the “Future of the Postdoc“) except to say that there are more postdocs than there are faculty positions – BY A LOT. So you really have to stand out. Plus, you have incentive to get a faculty position because postdocs are not paid very well – the NIH salary cap for first year postdocs is $47,000.  Keeping in mind that this is not a 9-5 job, but usually a 60+ hour per week job.

How do you know you’ve completed a postdoc? You don’t.  You either feel like you can start applying for faculty positions or not.  If not, you may want to do a second postdoc.  It’s not uncommon for people to do two 4-6 year postdocs before applying for faculty positions.

Now, I don’t have personal experience applying for faculty positions, but I have many friends who do.  The process of applying is like applying for many other types of jobs except there is an application “season” so that acceptances will come out in advance of a new academic year. Of my friends who have applied for faculty positions, the fewest jobs someone has applied for is about a dozen, but it’s not unheard of to apply for 40 or 50 positions with the hope of getting a handful of interviews.

Because this is so competitive, location is only a passing consideration. You may love Florida, but you’re moving to Minnesota if the best job offer is there. There’s also this fascinating phenomenon in science called the “two body” problem (see more in an interesting Scientific American article). This is when both partners are scientists and looking for jobs in the same place at the same time.  It’s an incredible challenge, and I know many people who have lived in different states from their partner for months to many, many years.

Although a faculty position isn’t the end of a journey – there still tenure, inventing something and start a company, moving to a new institution and all the other ups and downs that come with a job – this is the “typical” goal of many scientists. And it’s a wonderful goal.  It’s a hard road to tread, but without dedicated researchers willing to take the time and sacrifice needed to get to this point, there would be far less scientific innovation and discovery happening in the US.

On a personal note, when I was in graduate school, I distinctly remember a conversation I had with an unofficial academic mentor (thank you Bill Tansey for being so supportive all those years). I was getting close to graduating and he asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated, since he expected that I was applying for postdocs with the goal of becoming a faculty research scientist. I hadn’t once considered taking this typical career path (you can read more about my journey here). But I remember feeling proud that he thought that I could. It actually made me realize that even though I wanted to take a different path, that it wasn’t from lack of intelligence or academic ability. It’s just that we all take our own path, and mine wasn’t going to be “typical.”




Are you tired of people insisting you “find your passion?” Develop a life philosophy instead.

Everyone these days goes on and on about passion.  If you don’t have passion for something, you would be led to believe that you won’t get into college or medical school, you won’t get a job, you won’t be happy, and your life will be a failure.  I don’t buy into this. In fact, I’m tired of the word passion altogether.  To think that your life should be directed by an innate feeling called “passion” that is supposed to just exist within you and be strong and powerful enough to guide your decisions seems absurd to me. It’s like putting yourself at the mercy of someone else – let’s call him the “passion monster” – for your happiness and fulfillment in life. And if you are unlucky enough not to have a passion monster of your very own – well, you’re screwed.  Or you’re tasking with getting that passion monster back into your life.


By Matt Neale from UK (Greek philosophers Uploaded by NotFromUtrecht) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent many an hour writing college and grad school admission essays, job cover letters and award nomination letters that liberally sprinkle the word “passion” throughout.  However, over the past few years, I’ve realized that the feeling that I have for what it is that I do isn’t a passion monster, but rather the ongoing process of trying to fulfill a goal that provides satisfaction and meaning to my life. It is something that that even if I’m not happy every day going to work or while hanging out at home, I overall know that I am working towards something that is meaningful.  In other words, my life isn’t guided by passion, but rather a life philosophy.  I’ll give you someone else’s example of a life philosophy before I tell you about mine.

My husband is in the middle of getting his second bachelor’s degree as part of his 5th career.  Right out of high school, he went to boot camp and became a Marine and toured the world as an Embassy Guard.  He then went to college and got a degree in German (why not?) and nearly completed a second major in business.  After moving to Arizona, he worked in sales and then as a sales manager before briefly trying out financial advising.  I met him in between the sales and the financial advising.  He wasn’t happy, and once he started financial advising, he still wasn’t happy. So my question to him was “What do you want to do?  What would give your life meaning?  What would make you happy?”  In other words, what is your life’s philosophy.


My hubby doing his OB rotation about to enter to OR to watch a C-section

He was forced to explore this idea for nearly a year as I asked him these questions over and over.  He returned to his dream as a child of becoming a vet, but then realized that working with animals would break his heart.  He thought back on the satisfaction he had as an Embassy Guard and how it was meaningful to him to help other people.  He held on to this kernel of wanting to help others.  He thought about becoming an EMT but then realized that becoming a nurse would more effectively fulfill his life philosophy.  Being a nurse allows him to help people, but also be flexible as to where he works and what kind of work he does (and as he just told me, “the money doesn’t hurt either”).  Because his life philosophy is to “Help others, do good, make people smile, and leave the world better than what you came into.” So he’s now in nursing school and will graduate in December with his BSN, ready to become a trauma or ER nurse!

The best part about a life philosophy is that it can morph and change – as opposed to your passion, which is supposed to be as constant as a hundred year old lighthouse guiding your life.  Mine has changed over time as well, but currently is to “facilitate scientific understanding and discovery to help people through scientific research and education”.  This philosophy is reflected both professionally through my work providing tissue to researchers to better understand disease and personally through this blog to help everyone better understand science and their health.  I admit as I reflect on this that I should probably also incorporate something into my life philosophy about happiness and improving the lives of people around me, but for now I’ll leave that as the ultimate outcome of everything I try to do.

So what is your life philosophy? And keep in mind that since the passion monster is out of the picture, use your life philosophy not only to focus on your job or career but to guide any and all aspects of your life to help you find happiness.