Path of an Academic Scientist

The following is an outline of the steps it takes to become an academic scientist, along with some advice and observations I’ve collected along the way. Adapted from slides I made for a recent presentation to STEM-interested high school seniors. Hope it can also be useful to others considering this career path!

  1. Undergraduate
  2. Research Assistant (optional)
  3. Graduate Student
  4. Postdoc
  5. Professor (or Not)

Undergraduate

1. Take math and science classes, but also seek out a broader education. Science and humanities are not mutually exclusive!

  • Many great scientists have creative interests — visual arts, poetry, performance, architecture, design, etc.
  • The important thing is to find a passion for a subject that justifies continuing to graduate school (or not). Motivation to do science can come from non-science parts of your life.
  • No matter what you do, science or not, please take computer science and statistics classes. I promise they will serve you well in life.

2. Reach out and educate.

  • The best way to solidify knowledge is to teach. Outreach helps your community, while adding to your communication skills. Find opportunities to tutor, mentor, do classroom demos and more.
  • Outreach activities can lead to opportunities — good for your resume, good for networking
  • Scientists do a lot of research with taxpayer dollars. It’s important we learn early and often to communicate about this research to ensure the continuation of public support.

3. Get involved in research.

  • Get into a lab and try doing experiments as soon as you can! Approach professors you like, peruse lab websites to find interesting opportunities. Don’t wait for a job announcement — ASK. If someone turns you down, ASK AGAIN or ASK for a networking connection.
  • Remember that if you don’t like the lab you first join, or your interests change, you can switch labs later.
  • Never agree to do research for free. You should EITHER get course credit or get paid.
  • Get intellectually engaged. Don’t just do what your lab mentor tells you. Defer to them, but ask questions and understand the motivation behind what you’re doing. As you get more sophisticated, make suggestions.

4. Take your classes seriously…but not necessarily your grades.

  • The goal is understanding, not GPA (though both are nice).
  • Graduate schools don’t care as much about GPA as med schools do. They care much more about research experience and letters from your research mentors.
  • Ask if you understand the concepts. Try to think what experiment you’d do next and how, then go to office hours to see what your professor thinks of your ideas. Office hours are NOT just for struggling students!

Research Assistant (optional)

1. Do it only for a good reason

  • If you’re not sure about graduate school yet (want to try full-time research)
  • If you feel that you need additional preparation to be competitive for graduate school (not enough research experience from undergrad)

2. How to get the job:

  • Ask for referrals from your undergraduate research mentor.
  • Email labs directly to ask about positions. Pick carefully and look for good mentors in an area you are interested in doing your Ph.D. in. Personalize requests and send a nicely formatted resume with list of references. Make your career goals clear.
  • Look at postbac programs as well. The advantages are that you will come into a lab with funding and there may be programmatic mentorship. Check out Northwestern’s neuroscience postbac program IN-PREP: http:// www.nuin.northwestern.edu/postbac-program/

Graduate Student

1. Graduate school in science can be a slog

  • ~5–7 years in school
  • Stipends ~30K
  • Variable course and teaching requirements. Ask what these are for specific programs you are applying to.
  • Skill set required for success in research is very different from the skill set required for traditional academic success (this is why graduate schools care more about research experience than grades).
  • Pick your mentor carefully. Graduate school is still primarily about learning and you need a good, attentive mentor to do that. Your mileage in grad school will vary dramatically depending on the mentorship you receive.
  • Very little (especially positive) feedback on your work — build a good alternative/independent support network, practice self-care, and plan carefully for your long-term well-being and success.

2. Graduating from Graduate School

  • Primary expectation is that you publish original work in a peer-reviewed journal
  • There are many possible career paths after a Ph.D. — See Professor (or Not) section below. Think carefully about what you want and move on to a postdoc only if it’s required for your career advancement.

Postdoc

Postdoc is a high-pressure but refreshingly research-focused time

  • Usually no classes or teaching required — You can just do research!
  • Look for a mentor who can fulfill your current training needs (may be very different needs from what you had as a graduate student). In particular, a postdoc mentor must be fully supportive of your transition to independence.
  • Length of postdocs vary a lot by field. Be aware of norms for your field and of the track record for the lab you are joining. Consider how long you are willing to spend before getting a “real” job.
  • Keep grant deadlines in mind, as clocks often start ticking from the date of your Ph.D.
  • Primary expectation is that you publish original work in a peer-reviewed journal. For advancement at this stage, there is a higher expectation to publish in “high-profile” journals and/or become a more influential or known person in your field of research.

Professor (or Not)

1. It is unlikely you will become a professor.

  • Only a small minority of students who go to graduate school will become professors.
  • If you love research and think this path is right for you, you should absolutely still go for it!!! (see Point #2). But be realistic as you pursue this career path. You may not want to put all your eggs in one basket.
  • Although it is unlikely you’ll be a professor, overall unemployment rates for Ph.D. scientists are very low (~2%)

2. Being a professor is super great!

  • Flexible work schedule, essentially your own boss
  • Work with bright students everyday and shape the future of research
  • Finally, a real job with good salary and benefits
  • Get to think and ask questions and tinker around with technology for a living
  • Get to travel to cool places for conferences to talk science with world experts

3. Becoming a professor is not the only way to be a scientist

  • Industry (biotech, medical devices, data science, etc) — options at big and small companies, or start your own!
  • Staff scientist or lab manager positions in academia
  • Research at private foundations
  • Consulting
  • Policy work
  • Science communication and journalism
  • Patent law
  • Anything that requires systematic problem solving!