Me: "So what are you planning to do after you finish your Ph.D.?" Final-year Ph.D. student: "Er ... dunno, probably get a postdoc somewhere."
During progress interviews with the students in my department, this exchange is all too common. The students I'm talking to are often committed to staying in scientific research, so how come they haven't thought in great detail about their next move?
One of the main reasons is that doing a Ph.D. becomes so all-consuming (especially when writing it up) that students forget to consider what they are actually going to do when they finish. In a nutshell, they are being reactive rather than proactive. Generally, this is not a good thing when embarking on a career in science, because even the most successful researchers can find their careers fraught with uncertainty. So once you have progressed to the level of postdoc or even started your own lab, you still have to think carefully about the direction of your career. Simply put: If you don't have goals, how can you plan to achieve them?
I am not so old and crusty (I'm 33) that I don't remember what it was like starting out in a career in science. I am a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow, and I have had my own independent laboratory, based in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Bristol, for the last 6 years. One thing that many people don't really understand (often including the powers-that-be at universities) is what exactly a research fellow is. When used by the major funding agencies like the Medical Research Council ( MRC) or the Wellcome Trust, this term means "an independently funded principal researcher." In other words, you are enjoying a fellowship that typically funds your salary along with equipment and additional salaries to run your own lab. In my case, the senior fellowship means my salary along with that of two postdocs and the equipment and other costs of running a lab for 5 years. But how did I get where I am today?
My career path is a reasonably straightforward one. I was lucky enough to be funded on a Wellcome Trust grant as a research assistant while doing my Ph.D. at the University of Southampton. My project was in neuroscience, working on a model of epilepsy using electrophysiological recordings from brain slices. Actually, I have to confess that at the end of these 3 years, I also had not made much preparation for my postdoc. Fortunately, my Ph.D. supervisor had extra funding for me, so I had the luxury of a year to decide on and arrange my postdoc. I successfully applied to the Wellcome Trust for an International Prize Travelling Research Fellowship (now replaced with the International Research Fellowship), which then provided 2 years' salary to work in a laboratory outside the United Kingdom, followed by money for a year's postdoc back in the U.K. I also applied to the Human Frontier Science Program but was less lucky with that.
To get one of these travelling grants, you have to find a host lab willing to take you and write a proposal with your potential new boss. Typically the grant application has to be submitted 9 to 12 months in advance of commencing your new position. It might seem like a long time, but if you have a partner and plan on working outside the European Union, it is important to find out well in advance what the visa and work-permit requirements are. The United States, for example, will only allow your partner to live and work there on your visa if you are married. Otherwise your partner has to obtain his or her own job and visa.
I chose to go to the University of California, San Francisco. I wanted to continue to study the hippocampus but change my focus to synaptic plasticity. I selected the lab carefully based on the research area, my supervisor's reputation, and his publication output. I also have to admit that I wanted to go somewhere warm and sunny with a full range of outdoor activities, so I was very keen on California. But it is particularly important to choose a productive lab for your first postdoc. If a lab is regularly publishing papers in high-profile journals, then you know it is well run, well funded, and contains talented people. Therefore, if you work hard in that environment, you also have a good chance of getting those all-important publications. Then things are snowballing: It will increase your chances of getting the next grant and your foot into another productive lab.
A grant such as the travelling fellowship I obtained allows you to pick your lab. The thing is, it is a very attractive package to potential supervisors: You bring your own salary (and some running costs) with you, and all the host lab has to provide is equipment and space. You can of course get a postdoc position without obtaining your own grant first by simply applying to job adverts in journals, but obviously you don't have as much choice as to where you end up.
The Travelling Research Fellowship is particularly useful when you are returning to the United Kingdom because it provides a year's salary and running costs to work in any lab here--again making you a very attractive candidate to most lab heads. This 1-year postdoc, which I spent at the Department of Anatomy at Bristol University, also gave me the breathing space to write my next grant--for a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellowship in Basic Biomedical Science.
This grant provides your salary, equipment, lab running costs, and, in my case, a salary for a postdoctoral research assistant. To apply for this grant, you need to find a university department that will sponsor you, i.e., provide you with space for your lab. Again, most departments are happy to sponsor such applications because you are essentially a free member and bring research money into the departmental coffers. It is also important to find a niche for your research. I chose to keep working on synaptic plasticity but to specialise in developmental mechanisms, avoiding a great deal of the competition with the big U.S. labs.
A research fellowship is very nice to have. You are entirely independent, you have your own budget to play with, and often you have a research assistant to do your bidding. But independence can also be quite scary. You suddenly have to worry about money and make sure you don't overspend. You also have to become a manager and look after the people in your lab. This is a very steep learning curve as you develop skills that, as a scientist, you have had no training for.
If you want to become independent, the main alternative to the research fellowship is to obtain a university lectureship. This has the advantage of giving you a permanent position (and salary). However, the disadvantage for a research-oriented individual is that, at best, a lectureship will give you a start-up fund that is not large enough to start your own lab. So the first thing you have to do is start writing grants to get your lab going. This can be a tough time because only about 25% of grant applications get funded, so you would typically need to write four applications before striking gold. The other problem new lecturers encounter is that they have to start teaching and administering courses straight away. This is very time-consuming because you have to write all your lectures and learn about the joys of administration. So all things considered, I would advise you to try to obtain some sort of independent research funding prior to getting your first permanent university position. A fellowship means that you can concentrate on setting up your research lab and getting some papers published--you can even spend a good proportion of your time at the bench!
As the 4 years of my Career Development Fellowship drew to a close, I applied to the Wellcome Trust for the next step up, the Senior Research Fellowship, which brings you up-to-date with my career. I also successfully applied for a lectureship position that came open in the department. This means that if ever I fail to get the next fellowship award, I can take up this permanent job in the department (so my family won't starve). Meanwhile, a temporary lectureship position was created for somebody else with my unused salary, and I do some teaching and admin (for free) to complement the full load done by the temporary lecturer. These nonresearch skills are useful to develop for my future career, so I don't find them too onerous. (Just don't tell my head of department.)
But you might be wondering what level of achievement you have to reach to follow a career path like mine. The key, of course, is a steady stream of research papers, with some of those in high-profile journals. In science the primary way to judge individuals is by their publication record. To give you an idea of what you should be aiming for, I came back from San Francisco with two first-author Neuron papers (a high-profile journal in my field, just below Science and Nature) and a first-author Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper. Armed with these accomplishments I applied for my Career Development Fellowship. I also published a last-author Neuron paper from my time in San Francisco. Then, during my Career Fellowship, my publications included two Nature papers (for one of which I was principal author), four Neuron papers (for three of which I was principal), and one Nature Neuroscience paper (for which I was principal). The Wellcome Trust's fellowships are intensely competitive because they are such good grants to have. Other agencies have similar schemes (e.g., MRC, Royal Society), and they are similarly hard to get. For the Travelling Research Fellowship, it helps to be going to a lab with impressive publications.
It is also important to develop your grant-writing skills so that you can produce well-thought-out and realistic grant applications. I benefited enormously from helpful colleagues who read and commented on endless drafts and also provided their services as collaborators on my proposals. And then you also need a bit of luck. Being awarded the grant for my postdoc in California even though I only had one very minor paper to show for my Ph.D. was my big break.
Don't delay in thinking about what you are going to do with your career because it's never too early to plan ahead. When some awkward so-and-so asks you that all-important question about your future, be ready with a well-thought-out answer.