Science or the family business?

Fish out of water
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,

“Doing work that is enjoyable is one of the secrets to a successful, well lived, happy life.” —Alice

“Doing work that is enjoyable is one of the secrets to a successful, well lived, happy life.” —Alice

Q: I have been a postdoctoral fellow for a year and a half, without any publications so far and do not see any in the near future. I have plenty of publications from my doctoral study.

My parents want me to join them in the family business because of my uncertain future in the life science field, and part of me thinks that it is a good idea, too. Am I being pessimistic or realistic?


Dear Kam,

A: It is not a question of pessimism or realism. By getting this far, you have demonstrated that you can do almost anything you set your mind to. To make a living should not be the primary reason to move into the family business. Do it only if it is something that you will enjoy. 

Some years ago, the French Nobel laureate André Lwoff and his wife, Marguerite, advised me to stay in science only if I loved it. If it should turn into something I no longer enjoyed, then I should do something else. Doing work that is enjoyable is one of the secrets to a successful, well lived, happy life.

So be honest with yourself. If you enjoy the intellectual challenges that science offers and cannot imagine doing anything else, then you should stick with science and find ways to improve your situation. You could find another postdoc, with a different adviser. A year and a half into postdoctoral training may be too early for making a judgment on your future success.

Furthermore, there are many different ways to make a living in science, not all of which depend on publications and extramural support. So if you do decide to leave academic research, you have other options; you may want to choose a career that is more directly related to your doctorate. There are plenty of suggestions in Science, both in print and online, demonstrating the many opportunities that will take advantage of your training.

However, if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing and cannot remember the exhilarating successes of your graduate training, then maybe it is time to find something you find more worthwhile.



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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