Hunkering down


CREDIT: G. Grullón/Science

Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science.

Dear Alice, 

“I am considering whether I should apply to many schools or just stay at my current school.” —Amy

Q: I will be applying for graduate school soon. I am considering whether I should apply to many schools or just stay at my current school. I have worked in a research lab at my current institution for 3.5 years, and I have been fortunate to be the first author on two papers and co-author on three others. For personal and professional reasons, I’m thinking of staying in this lab for graduate school.

I am enjoying the research I am doing right now, and I would like to see a project come to completion. Also, if I stay, I would be able to finish earlier, because I already know about the project I would do my thesis on. I am happy and really like the atmosphere in the lab, and my principal investigator is more than willing to take me on as a graduate student. However, I understand that leaving to go to another school would enable me to gain more experience and widen my knowledge.

I would really be tremendously grateful if you could please offer me some advice about what I should do. I hope to hear from you soon. 

- Amy S., Florida

Dear Amy,

A: The usual advice is to go to a different university for graduate school, but every situation is different. You have many factors working in your favor where you are. You are part of an ongoing, productive research project in a convivial group at an institution that you like. So staying where you are makes a great deal of sense—but do plan on going to a new institution for your postdoctoral work. That’s very important.

Meanwhile, over the next few years, take advantage of all opportunities to broaden your knowledge and experience, including conferences large and small and course offerings and seminars outside your research area. Visit other labs and learn new techniques. Explore the offerings of other departments at your university. Work to develop new tools, such as oral and written communication skills. Seek out summer experiences, such as short courses or research at another institution. Be bold.

Still, I think you should apply to at least one other graduate school. Choose one that would be a reach for you. If you get accepted, it will boost your self-confidence, and you’ll have some time to mull over your decision. If you don’t get accepted, it will be a reality check, indicating how the outside world views your scientific potential. Hopefully, in that case, you’ll use that as incentive to raise your game. Good luck.

- Alice


Alice Huang

Dr. Huang is one of the pioneering researchers in molecular animal virology. She trained at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She has worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, New York University (NYU), and California Institute of Technology. She has served on the boards of the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University, and the Keck Graduate Institute at the Claremont Colleges, in addition to many other nonprofit organizations. She introduced vesicular stomatitis virus as an experimental model in virology. She carried out many of the initial investigations on the molecular biology of virion structure, replication, macromolecular synthesis, viral spread, and virulence. Her work on the virion-associated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase led to the grouping of many viruses as negative-strand viruses. Her studies on pseudotypes, especially between RNA and DNA viruses, demonstrate the spread of viruses to new host cells and provide important tools for genetic engineering.

As a teacher, Dr. Huang has taught and mentored undergraduates, graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral research fellows, and clinical fellows. She has guided junior faculty members and department chairs. As an administrator, Dr. Huang provided the vision and obtained support for beginning what is now known as “Silicon Alley” around the NYU neighborhood. She is a past president of both the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science Careers), two of the largest scientific societies in the world. She also dedicated 18 years to shepherding the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, together with Sydney Brenner and Chris Tan, into a successful center of research in what is now known as the Biopolis in Singapore. She continues to consult with research institutions and governments, sharing her expertise and practicing science diplomacy and policy.

Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science. She encourages thoughtful approaches to reforms in teaching, to attract students with diverse backgrounds and interests to become interested in and committed to careers in science. She has been honored for her advocacy as well for her research accomplishments. Her wealth of experience as a leader and team player in research, administration, and advocacy prepares her well to provide advice to those pursuing careers in science.

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