side pose, Lynn Kamerlin folding her arms

Lynn Kamerlin, associate professor of cell and molecular biology at Uppsala University in Sweden

Mikael Wallerstedt

Promoting alternative careers: An adviser's responsibility

At this year’s EuroScience Open Forum in Manchester, U.K., the session on how trainees can engage their supervisors in their career development, whether they aspire to a traditional academic career or not, drew many eager young scientists. But even though advisers were key players in the topic, just a handful of principal investigators (PIs) were in the room. One of them was Lynn Kamerlin, an associate professor in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Kamerlin, who has won a European Research Council Starting Grant and served as chair of the Young Academy of Europe in the 6 years that she has been a PI, originally pursued a career as a concert pianist and is well aware of the need to better support young scientists in their career development. In an interview with Science Careers, Kamerlin discusses the current job market and her responsibilities to her trainees, her approach to promoting so-called “alternative” careers, and how apparent conflicts between PIs’ and trainees’ best interests can be reconciled. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What are the biggest issues in today’s academic job market?

A: There are too few faculty jobs. My group is usually about 15 people, but there will be only one job opening to replace me when I eventually retire. I don’t think that’s a reason to run away from academia, because clearly somebody will get that job, but one has to be realistic as well. It’s like being a top gymnast or a concert pianist: Some get to do it, but it shouldn’t be your only career plan.

One consequence of the tight academic job market is that nowadays, people are staying in postdocs longer and longer. I think this is really unfair. We can’t keep people in insecure short-term contracts for 5, 7, or 10 years after their Ph.D.s. These people should either have a faculty position or be encouraged to move on with their careers outside academia, rather than waiting forever for a promotion or job security that may never arrive.

For this, we need to change the academic culture. We have created a poisonous environment in which we brainwash everyone into thinking that the only job of value is being an academic. Rather, we should educate our young researchers on the broad range of nonacademic, professionally fulfilling job options that can be found out there. There are so many employers outside academia who would love to have someone with a Ph.D. in science, because it gives you training in logical thinking, advanced problem-solving skills, numerical skills, and so on. There’s almost no limit to the possible alternative careers that young researchers can have, and we need to promote these.

Q: How do you make sure that the trainees in your lab are aware of possible alternative careers?

A: I do basic research, but since it’s computational, the skills are highly transferable to biotech and information technology. So I am directly competing with industry employers in those fields, which makes it really easy for me to show my students and postdocs alternative career options. I encourage those who are interested in an industry career to go to conferences so that they can get an idea of what companies are out there and be seen by company representatives, even though doing so can mean that I lose some of my best people. 

Then, because I am involved in a lot of nontraditional activities, such as science policy and training networks with many different partners, my trainees get exposure to other things that they could do just by knowing what I’m up to. They could, for example, aspire to a policy job at the European Commission or a position in scientific publishing.

I also try to be welcoming so that people in my lab talk to me about their career plans. I have informal meetings with them, and at Uppsala, we also have individual study plans which have to be reviewed at least once a year. So right now, I have a pretty good idea of who wants to be an academic and who wants to go into alternative careers. This allows me to help them select appropriate research directions and advanced courses tailored to their particular career plans.

Q: Do you let students interested in nonacademic careers take time off to explore other avenues?

A: The big challenge is funding restrictions more than time. Often there are specific requirements and deliverables tied to grant money, and so I can’t use it to support my people to do something completely unrelated. But if any of my students gets a fully paid internship for 3 months or 6 months to work in industry or elsewhere, as long as this doesn’t disrupt their Ph.D. work too much in terms of finishing on time, then I’ll be fully supportive.

But I know that many PIs aren’t open to the idea of their lab members taking time off, because PIs’ productivity directly depends on their trainees’ productivity. We need to train PIs so that they understand that taking time away from the lab can be good for the trainees and should be supported.

Q: What factors do you encourage young scientists to consider before taking time off?

A: Whenever trainees take time off from their research to pursue other career avenues, or for personal reasons, they have to be aware that while I can guarantee that their job will be there when they come back, I can’t also guarantee that the project they were working on will still be there. This is not to punish my students. This is because the longer you delay your project, the higher your risk of getting scooped. If you are working on a project that is worth doing, then it is highly likely that you aren’t the only person in the world doing it. The likelihood of getting scooped during a 3-month leave is low, but if you are doing a Ph.D. in a fast-moving field, leaving for 12 months is like going into hibernation for 20 years.

Still, going away is not the essence of the problem: It can only be a good thing if this is something that they really want or need to do. But if they do take time away from their research, Ph.D. candidates and postdocs need to pass on their projects to someone else in the lab. It’s much better to have your paper published with one more person on it than having someone completely outside the lab publish similar work first, and get all the credit for the idea.

Q: You mention taking time off for personal reasons. Are there any further considerations that trainees in these situations should take into account?

A: I have one Ph.D. candidate who recently took a leave of absence for a few months for personal reasons. He did so at his own expense, and I thought that his request was totally appropriate, so I supported it.

Regarding taking parental leaves—and in this women are more strongly affected than men, although fortunately this is slowly changing—I think that the best time to have a baby is during your Ph.D., because even if you lose the project you were working on, you can still pick up another one and fix things at that point. I wish someone had said this to me when I was a Ph.D. candidate. I decided to wait until I had a secure position before I considered starting a family, but now I’m 35 and I’m still frightened to have children. With time, the problem just gets worse: The more senior you get, the harder it gets to become pregnant, and now I have other people depending on me that I would need to take care of during my maternity leave.

Still, it is important to note that, however disruptive it may be for women to start and raise a family, there are plenty of female scientists who have both children and brilliant careers. So it is not easy, but it is also not impossible.

Q: Coming back to alternative careers, what advice would you give to young scientists in other labs who want to start exploring their options?

A: If your PI is welcoming, then great; go and talk to them first. If you have a PI who’s not receptive, and especially a PI who can’t imagine a career outside academia, then this is sad, but it’s not the end of the world. Find out if your university has a good careers office and use it as your first point of call. 

It’s also always good for students and postdocs to seek mentors beyond their PIs. New PIs in or outside your department can be particularly good resources for discussing career options. They have probably spent a lot of time thinking about what they would have done if they hadn’t gotten academic positions, so they have fresh experience to offer.

Then, careers websites and blogs are really important resources, too. It can also be helpful to be in Facebook or Google groups to discuss your options and progress investigating them with other people who are in your situation or one step ahead. The information on alternatives is out there; it’s just a matter of tapping into it and being proactive.

Q: What was your own career path like? Did you ever think about leaving academia?

A: I originally wanted to be a concert pianist. So really, I was doing the Ph.D. for fun. But halfway through the Ph.D., I injured my hands. Luckily, I loved science as well. And when your first career plan is to be a concert pianist, you’re used to being stubborn in the face of bad odds, and so pursuing an academic career becomes a much less daunting prospect.

But just like in concert music, to make it in academia you not only need to be good and work hard, you also need to have a bit of luck. After 3 or 4 years as a postdoc, I actually started looking into alternative careers and considered going to law school. I see myself as lucky that I got my faculty job when I did, and this is one of the reasons why I care a lot about alternative careers for scientists.

Q: What advice do you have for young scientists hoping for academic careers?

A: First, it’s tough and depressing looking for faculty positions, because initially, you get rejection after rejection. So if you want a faculty position, you shouldn’t wait for just that one job in that one city; you should apply for everything everywhere in the world. And you will find that once you pass a certain quality bar in terms of the number of papers you have, the savviness of your research plan, and the sharpness of your application, you start becoming competitive and go from getting no offers to suddenly having plenty. The year I got my job, I was invited to interview for six different positions. So, even though I said you shouldn’t wait for 7 or 10 years as a postdoc looking for a faculty position, it’s a balancing act, because you do have to stick it out for a while. 

Then, there is a lot of pressure to only consider faculty positions at top-tier institutions as worth getting, but I think it’s important for young scientists to manage their own expectations and expand their horizons. Apply for those top faculty positions regardless of the odds, but do not count on getting one of them. Rather, have a contingency plan: There is a broad spectrum of other universities out there with academically rewarding positions to apply for. Also, consider taking a job in industry. Just because someone can’t get a top academic position does not mean that they can’t go on and develop a successful and productive research career elsewhere.

Q: In the current job market, what do you feel are the responsibilities of PIs toward their trainees?

A: First, it’s important for PIs to let their students see just how much they are working. Being a PI is not just about research. It’s also about administration, human resources, financial management, networking, promotion, and much more, and this keeps you working around the clock. But many PIs work quietly at home or do things in such a way that the trainees don’t realize just what it means to be a PI. As a result, many young scientists have a romanticized image of academia, and with so few faculty positions around, they may be killing themselves for a job that is not actually what they want to do with their lives.

Many PIs also don’t understand that it is part of their job to foster the careers of their young scientists, whether in academia or not. This is slowly changing, but we need to keep pushing to change the culture so that PIs think highly of not only the academic but also the nonacademic jobs that their trainees go on to take. If PIs see their alumni thriving—whether in academia or beyond—as a mark of glory, that might encourage them to help their young scientists pursue the careers they want.

Q: Do you have any other messages for PIs?

A: My motto is that happy trainees are productive trainees. If you create a good and supportive environment for young scientists to work in, they will give you much more in return. This will directly benefit your research, and you’ll have the added bonus of feeling good about having a positive relationship with your group.

It’s also important for everyone to understand that this holds true even if a Ph.D. candidate or postdoc wants an alternative career. These young scientists still have to do a good Ph.D. or a good postdoc, as employers in other sectors will also be looking at this. So, ultimately, it’s not only in the best interest of the young scientists to have their PIs help them pursue their career goals; it is also in the best interest of the PIs.

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