Better late than never

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,

Should you enjoy the challenges of a research career, don’t let the current tight job market dissuade you from pursuing it.

Should you enjoy the challenges of a research career, don’t let the current tight job market dissuade you from pursuing it.

Q: I finished my bachelor’s degree 8 years ago. I wanted to pursue a career in neuroscience, but life intervened and I had to take a job in the environmental field, which I don’t enjoy. I still think about neuroscience all the time. Should I try to do something about it? Do you think it is too late? I worry a lot about my lack of experience in the lab, my age (31), and limited job opportunities in science.

Thank you so much.

—T. Solis

Dear T.,

A: Your interest in neuroscience has persisted for a long time even as you did something completely different; that suggests a real passion. As long as you’re passionate, it is never too late to switch to doing something that you have always wanted to do. I have seen people start medical school in their 30s and end up with rewarding careers.

Scientifically, neuroscience is exploding. There are many opportunities for you to become involved—even if you find that you are inept at doing laboratory work. Beyond traditional academic careers and the usual “alternative” science careers, there are “para-science” careers. These require a deep, solid science knowledge base but don’t involve doing research directly, or not in the usual sense. Examples include neuropsychology, neurological testing, neurological rehabilitation, genetic counseling, ethical and philosophical issues, psychopharmacology, and probably others I’m not thinking of. You can enter many of these fields in less time and with less training than a Ph.D. plus a postdoc, and they can provide as much satisfaction as research, teaching, or clinical medicine.

Should you enjoy the challenges of a research career, don’t let the current tight job market dissuade you from pursuing it. The limitations have to do with the tightening of government money to support research and the structural problem of academic scientists who continue to work well beyond the usual retirement age of 65. The structural problem should work itself out in the next few years, and research funding is being replaced in part by philanthropy and industrial sources. Academia will always need replacements. In the meantime, if you set your sights on careers outside academia, you will find many more opportunities.



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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