Christmas Wrap-up


Editor's note: Just in time for the holidays, the CareerDoctor reaches into the big red bag and delivers a few small packages to readers. She also drops a few hints at what she has in store for the New Year. Meanwhile, keep your questions coming in, and your eyes on the European event calendar for an opportunity to ask her advice in person!

Dear CareerDoctor,

I completed my Ph.D. three-and-a-half years ago and have since been working for a small biotech company as a researcher.

I have been thinking about moving on for a while now and have looked into medical writing. Having applied for a couple of positions, I have just been offered a job within a medical communications agency. However, this is a big career change and I am concerned that, if I then decide it's not for me, I'll find it very difficult to go back to a research career. Is this likely to be the case?


Dear Catherine,

Whether this is the right career move for you really depends on how carefully you have informed yourself about medical writing. If you have good reasons to think medical writing suits you better than research, then the only way to really be sure is to make the leap itself. You also need to be aware that a position in a medical communications agency may involve working on a number of projects that may not tap into "classical" medical writing, such as education programmes, publicity, and conference management, so you may want to view this job as a stepping-stone. Medical writing can indeed take many facets, and I am going to refer you to a past Next Wave feature for these.

If you do decide to go ahead with it, then you should plan to review your progress after about 6 months to confirm that you enjoy (or not) this job on the ground, and also that you are developing the skills and network you need to get closer to the type of medical writing you ultimately would like to do. The Institute of Biology offers an excellent generic Continuing Professional Development Scheme that will take you through this process. It would also be worthwhile to talk to professionals in the field, so you may want to get in touch with the European Medical Writers Association.

Should you decide after these 6 months that you want to return to the lab, you shouldn't have many problems doing so. I think the main hurdle will be explaining why you left academia in the first place and convincing an employer that your heart really is at the bench. It will also help if you present this time away as a positive experience, so start thinking now about what particular skills you will gain in your new job, and how they may benefit your performance as a researcher. These could be improved communication skills (essential for scientists), a broader perspective of research, and enhanced commercial awareness. A positive attitude about your decision to leave the lab temporarily will also benefit your current job search, as blaming your current employer for making you so disillusioned with research would make you look a little too desperate to leave!

Coming back to research will become trickier as time passes. However, there are ways for you to keep the option of a career in research open, and for these I will refer you to my upcoming column next February.

Dear CareerDoctor,

Last year I obtained my Ph.D. in neuroimmunology, and I'm currently working as a postdoc in the same research field. However, I am now having doubts abouti pursuing a career 'in the lab'.

Lately I've become interested in jobs that involve scientific papers and editorial tasks, and I would like to work for a scientific publishing group. But how should I present myself if I apply for such a job, knowing that I 'only' have experience in research? What qualities should I point out in my resume?

Thanks in advance,


Dear Anne,

First, let me reassure you that an academic research background is relevant to scientific publishing, and you will find many stories of people who made this very move in a past Next Wave feature. I've also found the profile of somebody who is now working at Cambridge University Press and has a similar background to you on the British Society of Immunology's Web site.

Now, if you are just at the stage of "doubting" a career in the lab, before you do anything else you should think carefully about the attractions of a job in scientific publishing. Do you have a passion for reading scientific manuscripts? Did you feel the need to get involved in a journal club in your current institution? Most importantly, are you really ready to say good-bye to doing your own experiments? If the answer to these questions is a resounding "yes" and you have a broad interest in your subject area, then this may be the right career move for you.

What you should be doing next is looking into boosting your employability in editing by getting as much practical experience as possible. Talk to your current supervisor or other researchers in your department about reviewing their manuscripts before publication. Get hold of the author guidelines for key journals and don't be afraid to talk to the relevant editors about what they look for. I would also take this opportunity to ask them directly for advice on how you may make the move yourself and about the possibility of setting up some work shadowing. This will give you concrete experience to put onto your CV as well as giving you a risk-free trial of the work.

You are totally right in thinking that the way you are going to present the skills you have gained during your research experience is going to be crucial when trying to enter the publishing world. Each vacancy should include details of the specific skills or knowledge being sought, but as a general rule, editors need excellent written communication skills, strong attention to detail, and the ability to meet deadlines. Now, for detailed advice on how to put these into your resume, take a look at a previous column I have written on marketing your skills when leaving academia.

A final point. While networking is crucial for anybody who is considering a career move (if you do not know where to start try and get in touch with the European Association for Science Editors and the Society of Young Publishers), I must stress that this is even more relevant to a career in publishing. Indeed part of your job will be to identify potential referees or expert authors, so this should better be something you enjoy!

Dear CareerDoctor,

I am writing up my Ph.D. and have a postdoc abroad lined up. The only thing is that, although funding sounds promising, at this point I have little realistic hope of starting my postdoc before next summer.

Meanwhile, I am considering taking a job in industry somewhat below my qualifications so that I have time to spend on my family, writing more grant applications, and finishing my thesis. My question is: assuming I can get a job like this for 6 months to a year, is it going to come back to haunt me in my research career?


Dear Rebecca,

You have an enviable choice ahead; the next stage of your research career sounds fairly secured, so you now have the opportunity to use the next six months how you wish.

You've mentioned industry: I don't think a junior position on your CV would come back to haunt you; in fact I think it shows evidence of your commitment to your career at a time when you could, say, go traveling around the world. Also, it gives you a chance to "try out" industry, and this may broaden your perspective as well as help you choose between industry and academia if the opportunity presents itself in the future.

Now, I would just like to make sure you are aware that there are other short-term jobs which could pay a dividend later in your career. If you aim to remain in research in academia, perhaps spend some time working in an administrative role in a local university or see if there is any work available with a funding or professional body. Although these posts won't develop your research skills, again they will give you a broader view of the sector in which you will be working and give you a chance to meet people in different roles who may be able to help you enhance your career later on.

Dear CareerDoctor,

I have recently completed my Ph.D. in immunology and am considering where to do my postdoc. The most interesting work and the biggest choice of projects seem to be in the U.S. However, I have heard many negative things about young postdocs working over there, such as bad pay, lack of respect (based on the fact that, as English Ph.D.s are much shorter, we start our postdocs younger) and an immensely competitive atmosphere. Is this really the case?

Many thanks,


Dear Cassie,

It is true that life as a postdoc in the United States can be tough. There is a culture of long working hours and few holidays, and U.S. labs do tend to be highly competitive. There may be many reasons for this. First, the research community in the United States, having the best reputation and being the best funded in the world, it is bound to attract highly driven people from all over the world. Second, research groups tend to be larger, on average, than research groups over here, so in some cases it may feel a little like a case of the survival of the fittest!

In any case, you should be prepared to compete with other ambitious scientists to work in the top research groups, and if successful, you should expect to have to prove yourself if you are going to have an impact. Now, you have to counterbalance these downsides with the widely held view that postdocing in the United States usually has a positive impact on your research career as well as being a fantastic opportunity to experience a different culture and country. Looking at the bigger picture, with academic careers becoming increasingly international, limiting yourself geographically would probably ultimately limit your career prospects.

So don't let your concerns about your credibility hold you back if the most interesting work seems to be happening overseas. Still, it is important you change your own attitude first. You may indeed encounter the perception that U.K. Ph.D.s don't have the credibility of longer research doctorates, but you can argue back that quality of research is more accurately quantified by publication rates. If you go there with these kind of concerns at the forefront of your mind, they would only stop you from asking for help or make you paranoid about what your colleagues may think of you! I'm sure that once you have settled into any research environment, your fellow scientists will judge your worth on what they see you doing and your contribution to your field.

To all our readers, Merry Christmas and good luck with your careers in 2005!

The CareerDoctor

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