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Science Advisors Part 2: Getting On

Editor's note: The academic job market is certainly tough, but some people make it. Next Wave asked some of academia's rising stars (see box)--marked out as such because the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) has chosen to award them its prestigious Young Investigator accolade--to share the secrets of their success. In part one they highlighted the importance of knowing that research is for you, and advised on the things you can do during your predoc and postdoc phases to boost your chances of success. Here they share their experience of selection committees and reflect on what it's like to have made it to that group leader position.

M obility

For a successful academic career, mobility is "absolutely essential. Going abroad is a must," asserts Andrea Mattevi. "Science is an international endeavour, and if you really want to make the most of all there is on offer then you need to be willing to move," points out Francis Barr, who has changed countries at every stage of his career. "It is also fun," he says.

For Isabelle Mansuy, "Going to the United States was critical. There, I learned another way of doing science, how to valorise my work and speak up." Similarly Maria Dominguez experienced that "different countries do sciences distinctly. For example, in Switzerland, you will surely learn to do your research in a very analytical way, working cleanly and methodically. In the UK, you will learn to think before you start your experiment, firstly what question you want to answer and secondly what will be the possible interpretations of the several possible outcomes, etc. Many times, you will think twice before starting an ill-designed experiment."

Anu Suomalainen-Wartiovaara's postdoc experience in Canada was "definitely" a prerequisite for her current position and, she says, "I enjoy fully my numerous international collaborations, the 'borderless' communication."

When it comes to choosing a postdoc lab, "we should not restrict our view to the science that is being done in the States," suggests Francesc Posas. "I think that now there are many excellent groups around Europe that are carrying out excellent research ... but it is essential to select the right group not only for being in Europe but for being a group of excellence," he highlights.

And it's not only in the early stages that mobility is an essential element of a scientific career. "If you have any sort of ties that bind you to one particular spot on the planet, it diminishes your chances to absolutely zero," warns Kay Schneitz, who knows from personal experience the difficulty of being half of a dual-career couple.

What Are Selection Committees Looking For?

When it comes to landing that all-important first independent appointment, what insight can our panel offer about what will impress the selection committee?

First and foremost is your publication record--something our panel cited over and over again. "Publication in high-impact journals is critical to stand out over other people with similar experience," points out Posas. But it's a door opener only: "Science brings you to the interview but then it is not the major issue any more," asserts Schneitz.

Indeed, because "selection committees can have very variable agendas," according to Christian Fankhauser, it's important to do your research in order to tailor your application to each job you apply for. "The trick is to apply for jobs that require your particular mixture of skills and the laboratory techniques you have mastered," says Dominguez. "So, first, you should research what they may be seeking for [in terms of which scientific skills and knowledge]. It is also good to look at the record of the different members of the selection committee, so that you can think what kind of questions they will ask you--at least this is what I did. Knowing this, you can present your work and your plans [in a way which] sells them best to this particular committee," she continues. But, she warns, "although it is important to 'remodel' your CV presentation to increase your chances in each particular job you apply for, don't pretend to be what you're not and never present data from others as if you have done it."

Establish Your Independence

Think you've got what it takes to run your own lab? A recent publication from the European Science Foundation* shows that, increasingly, applying for open positions is not the only way to become a principal investigator. The paper brings together information about more than a dozen fellowships aimed at giving outstanding young investigators the opportunity to create their own independent research team. Both international and national schemes are listed, and information is provided about the total grant available, the duration of the award, application deadlines, and selection procedures so that you can compare and weigh up your options. Most of the programmes provide the applicant's salary, plus money to hire postdocs and PhD students, buy equipment, and fund travel. About 250 to 300 fellowships are available through these schemes each year. So what are you waiting for?

* ESF is a supporter of Next Wave Europe.

The harsh reality is that "decisions are made not just because of the science," says Schneitz, "although the science has to fit, you have to fit into the group that's there." Barr agrees that "selection committees look for someone who carries out good research in the 'right area' and that they feel will be a good colleague." And Mattevi concurs: "I think the key factors are scientific record combined with a reasonable personality, in other words, the ability to work with people."

Mansuy points out that "after a postdoc, there is no way to judge someone's ability to manage a group or teach, even the postdoc her or himself does not know." Nonetheless, says Barr, if you're going for a university rather than a research institute job, "the committee will expect some signs of willingness to teach on your part," and "increasingly, this includes sacrificing some time to obtain additional qualifications related to teaching."

But largely it is your research that is on show, so a "convincing presentation of your projects and a realistic research plan" are essential, suggests Suomalainen-Wartiovaara. She believes that her "established active connections to good collaborators," both nationally and internationally, also strengthened her case when it came to getting her job.

Dominguez offers some advice based on her experience both as a candidate and as part of a selection committee. "Present your work with problem-solving strategies, rather than trying to overwhelm them with the vast amount of work you have done, or plan to do. If they are not experts in your field they cannot judge how long a genetic experiment or molecular biology strategy can take, and they may get lost in the details and simply think that you have formulated your research wrongly." But she adds, "Most selection committees want to know about preliminary results to emphasize that your design is the correct way to tackle the problem."

On Being a Group Leader

So having achieved an independent position, is heading their own groups anything like these young investigators expected it to be?

"At this stage, I am struggling more than when I was a postdoc, since I have to deal with a lot of things I was not trained for," says Posas. Similarly, for Dominguez, "My uncertainties are related to my limitations (which I know very well) and my lack of experience." She is supervising her first group of PhD students. "Knowing how important a good background is at this early point of their careers, I worry if I am doing the right thing. Am I being too protective? Would it be better if I gave them more freedom? Would it be better to concentrate on writing many grants to get more money or would it be better to focus on writing a single grant--less money versus more time for research and for the students?"

"What I was least prepared for was the difficulty of getting the right mix of people in the lab and judging [to whom] to give the few positions I had [available]. This is really different from being a postdoc, when you don't have to worry about much except your own project," says Barr.

"The hardest for me, probably because I'm still very inexperienced in this job, is to 'leave my research in the hands of others.' Previously I did all experiments myself which gives you a feeling of total control over the situation," explains Fankhauser. "Now I have to advise, troubleshoot, encourage, and trust (and hunt for money). When things move too slowly I feel like taking them back into my own hands and doing the experiment myself, but this is dangerous because by doing so your co-workers lose confidence and it is very important that they keep their confidence."

"Nobody can be prepared for the vast amount of paperwork that it involves," warns Dominguez. Suomalainen-Wartiovaara confirms, "Often there is a feeling that little time is available for real scientific thinking, and the days are filled with secondary management. Time management and organization become important." But although "doing admin is not why I did this thing," there are some aspects of it that Schneitz enjoys, such as being involved with search committees and selecting students.

And ultimately all the anxiety and paperwork is worth it. "I really feel privileged now," says Schneitz, because "I can really do what I want, research-wise." According to Barr, "The best part of running a lab is still the experimental work and the discussion that goes with it; it is just as a lab head you now have PhD students' and postdocs' work [to discuss], in addition to your own work--if you still work at the bench, as I do." Meanwhile Mansuy feels "satisfaction as a woman to have developed something on my own, to be independent and free." And Dominguez says, "After 3 years, I am starting to enjoy being a group leader. I am now blessed with wonderful, motivated students, which I am hiring with the EMBO YIP [Young Investigator Programme] money."


So would they have done anything differently?

"I would probably stay abroad longer, doing a postdoc in a lab doing research in an area that is different from my research field," ponders Mattevi, while Mansuy suggests, "I would join a MD/PhD program to learn medicine before doing a postdoc."

But Barr echoes a sentiment also expressed by Dominguez: "Without the mistakes I probably wouldn't have learnt some valuable lessons."

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.