Time for a new mission?

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,

“[T]hose short stints may suggest a mismatch between your field and your patience. Are you in a hurry?” —Alice Huang

“[T]hose short stints may suggest a mismatch between your field and your patience. Are you in a hurry?” —Alice Huang

Q: I'm on my third postdoc. After I received my Ph.D., I got involved in a high-profile mission for a couple of years and didn't get any first-author publications out of it (although I did have many co-authorships). I wrote a couple of grants with no success. I wrote more grants this past year. I have applied for many faculty jobs but have never been shortlisted. I think my lack of publications is part of the problem, although I did publish all three chapters of my dissertation and two additional papers since receiving my Ph.D.

I've considered a career change, but as a Ph.D. I am really best at doing research and teaching. It seems there simply aren't enough faculty jobs out there. So, do I postdoc forever? Should I try to learn new tricks?

There’s another complication: I have a wife who lives in a different state, so we’re trying to solve the impossible two-body problem.

—On a Mission

Dear Mission,

A: For employers, three different postdoc stints within 4 years wave a big red flag. Cautious employers will think either that you lack commitment or you that had other problems. Your use of the word “mission” suggests big science—the kind of science where projects can take years or even decades to complete. If so, those short stints may suggest a mismatch between your field and your patience. Are you in a hurry? In any case, in a field where long-term missions are the norm, those short stints are likely to look even worse.

Your final sentence has not been overlooked. It is difficult to live so far away from a spouse. Is it possible your frustration with your career is, in part, a consequence of this difficult lifestyle? Working out the two-body problem takes commitment and compromise. Some couples alternate priorities so that they favor each of you at different career stages—and they stay together. Focusing on areas with a high density of job opportunities can make it easier for the trailing spouse, whichever partner that might be at a particular time. Resolving the issue may require one partner to make significant sacrifices. Your training may be specialized, but you do have—or can create for yourself—other opportunities. So consider how committed you are to your work. Are you open to other possibilities?

The advice I can give is necessarily limited because I don’t have much detail about your circumstances. People close to you—senior scientists you work with—should know more. So I encourage you to talk to them; they should be able to help you think through these issues and, perhaps, suggest opportunities you haven’t thought of. They are also the ones who can provide the necessary references for advancement in your field. Talk to more than one: Advice from several different sources can be very helpful at this stage.

Meanwhile, here’s my best advice: Be patient. Stick with this last postdoc—and this field—for a while before you jump to a new position. Let your next job be the one you aspire to.



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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