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Science Advisors Part 1: Starting Out

"In general, scientists--that includes me--are often very bad at distinguishing good from bad advice, and then worse at taking any advice at all." So says Francis Barr, an independent junior research group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany.

Barr is one of eight EMBO Young Investigators (see box) who agreed to offer some academic career advice to Next Wave readers. The European Molecular Biology Organization's Young Investigator Programme aims to identify Europe's most promising young molecular biologists who are within the first 3 years of starting their own independent research groups, and supports them with mentoring and money. In the 3 years that the programme has so far been running, EMBO has 'adopted' 103 such researchers. Their average age is 34.6 years, and on average they spent just 5 years as postdocs--interesting statistics for anyone who believes that finding an independent position is impossible these days.

Nonetheless, the academic job market is a tough one. So Next Wave asked some of these rising stars to share the secrets of their success, and with such excellent credentials, you can be sure the advice they have to offer is worth taking.

Love What You Do

"I still don't know if I am successful, but I sure like this job," says Christian Fankhauser, "if you don't love it, leave it!" According to these young investigators, such frank self-assessment is crucial. "It is a difficult career so I would advise women in particular to make sure they really want it and are ready to make all the necessary sacrifices before starting," warns Isabelle Mansuy, although Anu Suomalainen-Wartiovaara wants to "encourage young female scientists--as a mother of three--by saying that family and science do not exclude each other. I know that in Scandinavian countries women are better off in this aspect," she continues, "but the change can only start from women themselves."

Nonetheless, a sign of someone likely to make a success of an academic career is "their willingness to put their life into their job," says Mansuy. "I like my work and put a lot into it, and I hate to give up," says Barr. "The people that make it are often the ones who just won't give up, and still keep motivated even if things don't work out--which is of course often."

Our Panel

Francis Barr, a junior research group leader at the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry, studies protein transport. He followed his PhD (1992) at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory with a postdoc in London and a research fellowship in Glasgow before taking up his current post in 2000.

Maria Dominguez is a developmental biologist and deputy director at the Instituto de Neurociencias of Alicante, Universidad Miguel Hernández, and CSIC, Spain. Her PhD (1993) at the Autonomous University of Madrid was followed by postdoc appointments in Zürich and Cambridge, UK, before she became a tenured scientist at her current institution in 2000.

Christian Fankhauser is an assistant professor at the Swiss National Research Foundation, University of Geneva. After obtaining his PhD working at the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research in 1994, he spent 5 years as a postdoc at the Salk Institute in San Diego, USA. He uses Arabidopsis to look at light signal transduction.

Isabelle Mansuy studies brain function as an assistant professor at ETH in Zürich, Switzerland. Her PhD research was carried out at the Friedrick Miescher Institute in Basle and the Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg in her native France. From 1994 to 1998 she was a postdoc at Columbia University in New York City.

Andrea Mattevi is a professor at the University of Pavia, Italy. He did his PhD (1992) at Groningen University in the Netherlands, and then did a postdoc at the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. His research focuses on understanding the mechanism of enzyme catalysis.

Francesc Posas became an assistant professor at Pompeu Gabra University in Barcelona in 1999. He was awarded his PhD in 1995 from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (AUB), and in between was a postdoc at Harvard University and the AUB. He studies osmosensory mechanisms.

Kay Schneitz is an associate professor of plant developmental biology at the Technical University of Munich. His PhD research, completed in 1992, was carried out in Basle and Zürich. He then did postdoctoral research at Harvard University, and back in Zürich, before being awarded a Swiss National Science Foundation START fellowship in 1998. He moved to Munich in 2002.

Anu Suomalainen-Wartiovaara became a group leader and Academy of Finland research fellow at Helsinki University last year. She stayed on as a research scientist at the National Public Health Institute in Helsinki after completing her PhD there in 1993. Then in 1998 she went to the Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada for 3 years. Her research is into mitochondrial disease and biogenesis.

Further information about all the EMBO Young Investigators' career paths and current research is available from the EMBO Young Investigators catalogue.

If Francesc Posas "had to bet on someone [becoming a successful academic scientist] I would say that he or she has to be a hard worker, clear minded, with great capacities to learn." Patience and perseverance are also qualities frequently mentioned. Fankhauser advises, "when you do research at the bench always remember that at the end of the day YOU are the one who is going to make things happen. No one is going to make it for you, don't blame others for lack of success."

But don't bang your head against a brick wall. "Do not stay in a project or environment if you feel miserable, it is not worth it and you will not give your best," says Maria Dominguez, even though changing direction can feel like a personal failure. But it's clearly sound advice given that "enthusiasm!!!!!" is the most important quality for a young researcher to have, according to Andrea Mattevi.

The Predoc/Postdoc Phase

So having decided that you love academic research, what steps can you take early on in your training and career in order to increase your chances of later success?

"The most important thing in choosing a group is its active, productive, high-quality science, and not the specific issue they are interested in!" suggests Suomalainen-Wartiovaara, and this applies to your choice of both PhD and postdoc labs. "Active, productive groups are the likeliest to provide good research education and projects that result in high-quality papers. It is not the number of papers, but the quality," she asserts.

You should try to "become familiar with diverse methods and scientific fields," according to Mattevi. Dominguez echoes this advice, based on her own experience: "One thing I regret especially is that I didn't take advantage of the opportunity to learn molecular biology from the very good laboratories I worked in Madrid and Switzerland. Unwisely, I always regarded molecular tools as secondary to solving the 'genetic' problems I was interested in." And Barr highlights, "It is important to know how to do things yourself, or at least understand how to do things," which is why he advises learning "as much as you can from people who really know what they are talking about--that is usually not the person who talks the most in the coffee room."

"If you are looking for a job with lots of teaching, you also need to participate in teaching activities," says Fankhauser, who suggests that you "try to get a young scientist to work for you to practice managing a 'minigroup.' " These people skills are important, points out Dominguez, because "being an independent researcher does not mean that you have to do it all on your own. The recruiters offering you a job will want to know that you are able to collaborate with other scientists in the institute where you will be working," she continues, "so learn to work in a team! And keep your friends during your postdoc and PhD. They will be your 'competitors' in the future, and it is better that they are your friendly competitors."

Finally, Posas recommends "reading a lot of literature" in order to learn to critically assess experimental design. Dominguez agrees. "Reading is essential to success in science, so try to get time for reading the literature in your field at least once a week!" she advises. And don't just read "the latest journals but also the old papers," she continues. "Knowing the literature, you increase your chances of identifying 'your' problem, the one you want to solve as an independent scientist."

Find Your Niche

"My experience," says Dominguez, "and what I know from my friends, is that we all got our first independent post because we were already working independently for some years as postdocs. We all had our independent lines of research, and we all knew what we wanted to do in the future. If you are convinced you can work independently, it is easier to convince a 'selection' committee that you will succeed."

"Seeking independence early on is very important," agrees Mansuy, and the way to do it is to "develop your own theme of research, get your own funding, for your salary for instance, to show ... your ability to convince funding institutions." And Barr advises, "as a postdoc, take a bit of a risk and choose something you can make your own and which doesn't just end with one big paper. Look for more open-ended projects." Kay Schneitz says that means choosing "a postdoc and project that covers not 2 years, but 10 years, of your career." You need to consider how long you can live off it, and whether you will be able to "take some of it away and build up your own lab," he explains.

For Schneitz, taking a bit of a risk and developing his own line of research meant changing direction with his first postdoc. "I knew I wanted to do developmental genetics/molecular biology," he says, and he knew he wanted to work on a model system. But he realised during his PhD that the model system he was using at the time, Drosophila, was a bit crowded. He knew he wanted to become a professor, and in Switzerland, and he knew that the chances of a Swiss institution hiring another Drosophila expert were low. So despite having "zero education in plants," he entered the Arabidopsis field. It was "a bit more crowded than I thought," but there was still "much more room" than in Drosophila research, so--eventually--his gamble paid off. "Just go and grab your place," is his advice to young scientists in a similar situation.

Editor's note. In part 2 our panel will offer advice on squaring up to a selection committee and reflect on what being a group leader is really like.