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Making the leap back to research

As careers move forward, so does life, and some scientists pause their research careers to accommodate. But that does not necessarily spell the end of their time in the lab.

Three scientists who have restarted their research careers in academia and industry after being away for several years credit their success to specifically targeted grant programs and fellowships. A Wellcome Trust re-entry fellowship helped Christiaan Van Ooij revive his dream of having a tenure-track faculty career after three and a half years working as a journal editor. The postdoctoral work that Monika Musial-Siwek did with the support of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) re-entry grant supplement propelled her into her current position as an industry scientist. Annalee Nguyen used the same NIH program to gather the preliminary data that went on to win her an NIH postdoctoral training grant. The Daphne Jackson Trust and National Science Foundation offer similar programs. 

Even with these awards, the journey back to research can be tricky. But, with support and perseverance, committed scientists can make it can happen.

Make the most of mentors

Nguyen left her position as an industry scientist when her first child was born in 2008. She planned to return eventually but did not have a timeframe. From time to time, her Ph.D. adviser checked in with her to gently nag her to return to research. He told her when her first paper reached 100 citations, just 4 years after it was published. Another time, he offered her a position at a company he was founding.

At first, Nguyen waved away his prodding. But she started to feel the urgency to take action when she reached her fourth year of being away from research. Soon she wouldn’t be able to convince anyone to give her a chance, she thought. “It gets really easy when you’re out of science and out of research to really start feeling like I don't have anything to offer anymore,” she says. The routine of being a mother at home didn’t stimulate ideas for new scientific questions Nguyen could pursue, she acknowledges. “You're in a different frame of mind.”

Around that time, her adviser asked for her input on a project based on her thesis work. She welcomed the morale boost. “Just the idea that someone would still come to me for advice on something related to science made me miss it,” Nguyen remembers. “It made you realize, ‘Oh, this is something I have a lot of skill in. And just because I've been out for a while doesn't mean it doesn't exist anymore.’”

Nguyen had settled in the same city as her undergraduate institution, so she reached out to her undergraduate research adviser to explore local options. She had already seen that this could work out well: When she was picking a Ph.D. adviser, she took her undergraduate research adviser’s suggestion and joined the lab of his former graduate student, becoming the lab’s first Ph.D. student and coming away with a prolific publication record and a strong relationship with her graduate adviser. This time around, her undergraduate adviser connected her with another former Ph.D. student, Jennifer Maynard, now a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. The timing was perfect. Maynard was looking for a postdoc. She knew Nguyen came from the same mentor family tree and invited Nguyen to join her lab as a research fellow. Having shared connections was crucial for getting her foot back into the door, Nguyen says. “That makes a big difference to them being able to trust that this is not a big risk.”

Students in her new lab probably wondered why the new postdoc asked so many basic lab technique questions, Nguyen says. “I felt pretty incompetent.” But she reminded herself that adapting to any new workplace takes time, and that the lab’s research focus wasn’t her area of expertise. She’s not sure whether the steep learning curve was because she had been away or simply because it was a new environment. Regardless, in a few months, her technical expertise was back to where it had been before her career break.

After going from being at home full time to having her own research award, she realized that she can chart her own path in science, she says. Her postdoctoral funding ended last year, but she has written a few grants with her adviser and is looking ahead to research professor positions. “You can work things out the way that you want,” she tells students in her lab. Even if the path isn’t well defined, “you can figure out your own way.”

Friends helping friends

Editing a microbiology review journal suited Van Ooij. He enjoyed whipping articles into their best form. He relished leafing through the print copy of the journal and seeing the final product of his team’s efforts. He explored parts of the world and met researchers he might not have had the chance to otherwise. He was learning more about the discipline and staying close to the science, even though he wasn’t doing the research himself. And the job had allowed him to relocate with his girlfriend to the city where she had found a faculty position.

But, after 2 years, he had advanced as far as he wanted. More senior positions went into the business of publishing and away from the science where he wanted to stay. He also missed research. He had left the lab after a second postdoc not because he felt done with research, but because he didn’t think he would be competitive for the tenure-track faculty positions he really wanted. Now, when he visited professors, he left their labs nostalgic for the hustle and bustle and quirky routines. He missed the sense of ownership over his work he had felt as a researcher.

When he caught up with his friends from grad school who had continued along the tenure track, he would tell them how he sometimes wished he could be a part of that world again. Then, a friend sent him an ad for a fellowship helping scientists who have taken a break from research restart their science careers. The program was reserved for those who had taken leave for family reasons, but it showed Van Ooij that a path back into research existed. He searched for similar programs, applying for and receiving a re-entry award in 2011.

Despite his excitement, deciding to actually take the fellowship was surprisingly difficult, he says. While it revived his dreams to lead a lab, it also meant leaving a stable job with decent pay for a position with an end date and dicey job prospects. But, when a friend noted that if he passed on this funding opportunity he might never get it again, he accepted the risks and took the plunge.

Coming back to lab was like coming home, Van Ooij says. His time away confirmed how much he loved doing research and running experiments—although, he admits, “I was quite rusty.” He mixed up materials for experiments and set up equipment incorrectly. However, he wasn’t discouraged. “Those are the kinds of mistakes you make once and then you remember how it’s supposed to go,” he says.

Skills Van Ooij picked up during his time away also proved useful. Managing the editors on his team had taught him to assign work that played to their strengths and kept them engaged. He also learned how to balance their judgments with his own. He applied similar strategies to managing the undergrads who worked with him, he says.

The journey was long, but the time payed off. As of February 2018, he’s excited to be an assistant professor of pathogen molecular biology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Now that I've finally gotten here, I just want to make the most of it and do my very best,” he says.

Persistence pays off

There was a time when Musial-Siwek wasn’t sure she would ever have a research career again. In 2007, when she started her postdoc at Yale University, her plan had been to embark on a faculty job search after 4 years of work. But 1 year in, her husband found a faculty position at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan and they decided to move their family, which meant cutting her postdoc short. She decided that she would try for faculty and industry positions once they settled. She might be job hunting for several months, perhaps even a year, she thought. But, she saw a silver lining: She could take advantage of her time between jobs to enjoy being at home with her two small children.

In the meantime, she found informal unpaid avenues to stay connected with her field. She asked her husband for copies of papers she wanted to read. She set up a collaboration with a colleague in her husband’s department who was working on a mathematical model of a biological process she was knowledgeable about. Thinking a university affiliation might help, she approached the chair of the biochemistry department at the local university about ways she could stay connected with academia. The chair agreed to bring her on as an adjunct professor. With the affiliation, she could attend seminars and interact with researchers in her discipline.

But most of her job applications went unanswered. It seemed that her efforts to stay engaged in science weren’t enough to convince employers that she could still do research. “I felt that people didn’t think that I would be up to the challenge or that I lost my scientific skills somehow,” she says. “I think unfortunately there's this belief that once you're out of the lab, you can't do science anymore.”

Over the next couple of years, she continued applying for jobs. She was finally invited to interview for an industry position, but the job didn’t come through. She got a part-time postdoc position, but then she and her husband decided to relocate again—to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Now 4 years out of research and feeling her chances of landing a job were very slim, she began offering to do research for free. The move was disheartening, but it worked. Labs immediately got back to her, inviting her to chat. One lab she emailed offered a paid part-time position as a lab technician. She was overqualified, but at least it was paid, and it got her back into the lab. After nearly 5 years of working her way back to research, she finally arrived.

Just 2 weeks after joining the lab, her new supervisor sent her a link to the NIH re-entry grant and asked whether she qualified. They pulled together an application that got funded. Suddenly, within 3 months of starting in the lab, a research career became realistic again. Although she had been away for almost 5 years, “the research part comes to you naturally,” she says. “You never forget how to do research.” After 2 years as a postdoc, Musial-Siwek went back on the job market, and an offer for an industry position came in before the re-entry grant funding ended.

“You feel unappreciated as a scientist when you’re out of work after spending so much time educating yourself,” she says of her challenges getting back into research. But advice from her husband’s friend who had a hard time finding a faculty position kept her motivated on her job search. “Just send out those applications,” he told her. “It will work out.”

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