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Ask Alice

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,

“In your job search, be smart and methodical.” —Alice

Q: I’m a postdoc in my second year, and I’ve just started exploring the academic job market. What I’ve found so far isn’t encouraging. In my first season, I only applied for a handful of jobs, but the best response I got was a rejection letter: no interviews and no expressions of interest.

This led me to research the job market, and I discovered a disturbing fact: It seems that applicants from top universities—and those from top labs run by famous scientists—have a big advantage over everyone else. Just a few programs dominate hiring.

I have a strong record, and both my graduate and postdoctoral training have taken place in good labs at good universities, but neither school is in the top 10, and neither of my advisers are famous. Furthermore, while my publication record is solid—I have a reasonable number of publications in very respectable journals, including several first-author publications—none of my papers are in Cell, Nature, or Science. I’ve always tried to publish in the journals that made the most sense, rather than the journals where I’d get the most credit. I’m now thinking that was naïve.

An objective assessment would conclude, I think, that my accomplishments (so far) are impressive, and in normal times I’d be competitive for the kind of job I’ve always wanted, as a faculty member at a university where I can focus on research. But in these times I’m not so sure; I’m losing my confidence. What can I do to be more competitive? Is it time for me to start exploring alternatives?


Dear Francoise,

A: You seem to be on track and, by your own assessment, you have a strong record of achievement so far. If you really are into the joy of discovery and teaching, you should remain confident and determined. Don’t let the experience of your first round of job applications deter you from your goals.

It shouldn’t surprise you that there is a hierarchy in science, just as there are hierarchies in other fields. Advantages—who your parents are, your gender, where you trained, where you have published—do matter. But in science, your innate ability and your accomplishments—your contributions—matter more than they do in almost any other profession. Promotions and rewards in science and technology are based on merit more than any other field I know. This is why so many foreign-born scientists emigrate and succeed in science and technology; even though they’re outsiders, their work speaks for itself. But that’s not to say all things are equal: You may need to contribute more, and you may have to work harder to make yourself and your contributions visible and appreciated.

In your job search, be smart and methodical. Try to engage the leaders in your field—the ones you most admire—by sending them your reprints and visiting the ones who work nearby; scientists are always eager to learn about new results in their fields. Get feedback on your work so that you can figure out where you stand. Be selective: Don’t apply for just any available position. Decide what kind of institution would be the best fit. Use your connections; your postdoc adviser should be helping you find a position. Reestablish contact (if you haven’t maintained it) with past mentors and people you got to know in the departments where you trained. Tailor your C.V., cover letter, and research statement to highlight areas likely to be of special interest to future colleagues at the institutions you apply to. Evaluate their needs, and show them how you would add value.

Meanwhile, attend professional meetings and present your research there. Even at the most prestigious meetings, a significant new result can sometimes be presented if the chair of the session is informed and 5 minutes is requested. Ask questions and make comments at meetings. Speak up and be noticed.

Your career may not follow exactly the path you anticipated or intended. Job searches often take more than a year; indeed, I’m seeing candidates with stellar CVs taking as long as 3 years to find good jobs. In such an environment, you may have to settle for a less prestigious first job than you expected, so take advantage of whatever opportunities you encounter. Wherever you end up, strive to do the best and most significant work you can; that will keep you on an upward trajectory. The challenges of a career in science are significant, but the rewards are well worth the effort.



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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