Thursday, March 18, 2010

Career in science.

I still haven't found my blog voice (in my humble opinion) so I will continue practicing.

The question for today is what does it take to start a career in science. You have the PhD. You get a decent postdoc appointment. What should that experience be like? What does it look like?

The appointment should provide you with 4 things:
1. A mentor who will go above and beyond to provide opportunities for you to excel.
2. travel to conferences to present your work and network. Think 2 for 1.
3. The ability to rapidly publish.
4. A mentor:

Think of this person as a potential parent. They adopt you after you are all grown up and established. The job for them is to use you to further their career (think chores when you were 18-21 and came home from college for the summer). They are preparing you so when they kick you out of the house, you will be comfortably prepared for anything.

So, naturally, your job is to learn, publish, grow, and become confident as an expert. You also are using them to further your career. Therein lies the rub.

The choice of environment then is critical to success. You dont want a situation where you have to compromise any of those 4 needs. You need space and flexibility for creativity. Likewise you need structure to grow. The ability to give and listen to seminars, paper discussions, group meetings, and project collaborations. You also need time.

Time is relative.
1. Publishing takes time. To do original, meaningful research you need data at your fingertips. I typical 1 year postdoc should come complete with data. A two-year should come with resources to make data and have data be supplied to you by the start of the 2nd year. This gives you time to flesh out ideas and publish for the 2nd year.

2. Growing takes time. You have to be immersed in your field. Hear others speak about current issues and be at the forefront of those problems. This is likely where the money is. You also have to become well rounded in things related to your field.
A. reviewing papers or propoals.
B. giving seminars including those in an interview style.
C. getting perspective from other scientists about research styles, writing styles, personality styles, methods and strategies for conducting and publishing high profile research, etc.
D. learning computer techniques including software, hardware, programming, etc.
E. Learning to communicate at work, with your peers, and to people who don't know a damn thing about what you do.

3. Structure is not relative. This includes working on projects that have deliverables (on a timeline) that relate directly to you and your ability to publish. In this case the project is your structure. You can break it up into tasks to address a problem. You know whats expected, you can anticipate the immediate benefit to you (time is still relative here).

Consider these as general guidelines. The advice I have as I wander down this road is this:
"knowing the path is different than walking the path." It is very easy to be sidetracked on any of these, and it is unpredictable how good or bad the consequences will be. And most times, as I am learning now, different future employers are looking for different things. Some will say your body of work is great. Others will say that you aren't good enough. In a very real way, I am living out both of these outcomes.