Bringing Your Research Closer to People


Dear CareerDoctor,I am coming towards the end of my PhD in the immunology of arthritis, which involves in vitro work and examining patient samples. I really enjoy my bench work and want to stay in research, but would like to have more people contact. I also want to be involved in something that has obvious clinical applications, rather than basic science.Do you think industry is a better bet than academia? Where do I start?Cassie

Dear Cassie:

It sounds as though you have spent some time developing your ideas about what you want from a career and, as a result, have developed a strong set of criteria against which you can measure possible careers. So I'm going to focus on your options as an immunologist, especially in light of your expressed wish for more "people contact."

My first suggestion for you is to click on the Immunologist in close-up section of the Prospects Web site. There you'll be able to find out about the roles and jobs immunologists may have, compare the working conditions in academia and industry, and get some information on salaries and career progression.

If you'd like to explore a broader range of sectors, you can find a series of profiles of immunologists in academia, industry, the National Health Service (NHS), and publishing in a careers brochure produced by the British Society for Immunology (BSI)-- Immunology--a career for the future .

This is a good start, but networking is also essential. It is the best way for you to find out what the typical activities and responsibilities of scientists are and what specific organisations are like to work for. I'm sure you will find many of people to talk with and make some useful contacts within the BSI if you can go to one of their meetings. I attended last year's annual congress myself and found they are all friendly people genuinely interested in supporting the careers of their members.

I'm sure you'll find these resources and contacts inspiring as the consistent message from them seems to be that immunologists in all sectors find their work fascinating and worthwhile. But in order to find the right "fit" for you, we need to consider your wish to work more closely with people, both in terms of personal contact and clinical application.

Very few scientists can work in complete isolation, so contact with people will be an element of most jobs. However, it is true the nature of this contact may vary hugely. Academic research may feel a bit lonely in that it gives an individual freedom to pursue research in areas of personal interest (subject to securing funding), so as a consequence it is not very common to share a specific goal with other researchers. Still, an academic career will involve interacting with people, particularly if you progress into holding a lectureship--in which you'd be involved in teaching and departmental administration--or into running your own research group--where you would direct the work of students and postdoctoral researchers. But such people contact could be several years down the line, and as a postdoc you might find that you only discuss your work routinely with one person--your supervisor.

If you prefer to have contact more closely tied up in your work then you might prefer an environment in which research goals are shared by team members who all work together and regularly discuss developments and obstacles. This approach is common in industry, and in a large pharmaceutical company you might find yourself working with physiologists, pharmacologists, chemists, and scientists from many other backgrounds. Although this type of research will be applied and will thus suit another of your preferences, you must be aware it will also be highly commercial and take away some of your freedom. Projects that aren't living up to expectations will be shelved in favour of others with more potential, and you may have to work on products or diseases that are not your first choice.

Alternatively, perhaps by "people contact" you mean that you would like to apply your research through direct interactions with clinicians and patients. In this case, a career as a clinical scientist might be most appealing--you can find out more about what this job is like on the Association of Clinical Scientists in Immunology Web site. And you can get more details on recruitment and training for clinical scientists on the NHS Web site. I'm afraid you have missed the first closing date for this year's recruitment, but do not despair--unfilled vacancies will be advertised on the Web site from 1 July 2003.

Another field that might appeal to your desire to work in a role with clinical applications is that of clinical trials. This is the organisation and management of trials to determine the effects, risks, and benefits of medicinal products. A recent Next Wave feature "Clinical Research Careers" will give you a better picture of your options than I can here. The feature includes advice on breaking into the field with a purely academic background and an inspiring tale of developing a satisfying career that meets personal demands and professional ambitions.

Immunologists may also work in the Scientific Civil Service. In addition to doing scientific work, staff there must also secure contracts with external bodies by developing products and services that can compete with those of other commercial organisations. Their work therefore involves liaison with clients and scientists in the universities where their research projects tend to be based. Be aware it is a popular choice--their Web site states that due to excessive demand there are currently no scientific vacancies available on their graduate development scheme.

This is just an overview of the options that fit both your qualifications and preferences. You'll quickly discover once you start talking to people that a PhD in immunology leads to a variety of interesting careers in many different working environments. There are big differences in culture between organisations in the same sector, so you will need to do some more research into the areas in which you feel have something to offer to you. I hope that your existing self-awareness and these resources will help you to find the one that gives you as much satisfaction as the other immunologists I have met.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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