We had recently started talking to people who are scientists by training and successfully launched their careers after finishing their studies. Here, we mostly got our hands on fellow scientists who managed to gain foothold in industry, which is why it was about time to recall that the rocky road of academia might also be an alluring prospect. When hunting for potential new interview partners, my friend and shoe enthusiast Dr Elvira Mass walked right into my trap. Her name might sound familiar to many scientists from this region, since Elvira’s Alma Mater is the University of Bonn. Elvira studied biology in Bonn and continued with her PhD thesis in the lab of Prof Michael Hoch, co-founder of the LIMES institute and rector of the University of Bonn since May 2015. Here, Elvira worked in the field of developmental biology and focussed her studies on the role of the Creld (Cysteine-Rich with EGF-Like Domains) protein family in heart development.
Today, Elvira is 30 years old, works as a Postdoc at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, New York, and has published first author work in Cell and Science (-insert space for spontaneous applause-). That sounds… awesome! Because cases like hers are eligible and, yet, rare I think it is particularly interesting to learn how Elvira managed to get that far in academia. “I originally wanted to study medicine when I finished school but didn’t get a place to study”, Elvira smiles. As for many others, biology then sounded like the lesser evil when considering to still switch courses to medicine. “I started to study biology but also visited seminars for medical students. All I can say is that it was boring!” Fair enough! Because of that, Elvira continued her studies in biology and got entangled with the field of developmental biology. In her opinion, doing a PhD after the Diploma was just the natural way to continue: “I couldn’t think of a job that would have suited me well with “just” a Diploma, so I continued my studies and did a PhD”.
Highs and lows – the academic path
Since life, and especially a PhD student’s life, is paved with highs and lows, things got complicated during Elvira’s second and third year doing a PhD. “There were times when I didn’t want to stay in science. Everything was just too frustrating and I thought about escaping and rather going into consulting than academia. I even visited job fairs”, Elvira remembers. But then, after her third year, Elvira gained self-confidence, which was also reflected in her project, and the possibility of doing a Postdoc was back on the table. “When I’m really into something, I don’t mind working 24/7. This fact made me re-think to continue the academic path.” But, as it is often the case, experiences and support from others can have great impact on personal decisions. “My biggest influence was working together with Dr Dagmar Wachten (Minerva Max Planck Research Group “Molecular Physiology”, research center caesar, Bonn). I really thought that I didn’t “have it in me” to be a good scientist, whatever that “it” is. Back then, I talked to her and when we started to plan experiments together I re-considered my point of view regarding academia”, Elvira says.
Next stop: Postdoc!
When thinking about doing a Postdoc, Elvira first thought about the new field of science that she aimed to conquer. “I wanted to work in immunology and, if possible, combine that with developmental biology. At first, I preferred to look for Postdoc positions in Scandinavia since I really love the Scandinavian countries and stayed in Sweden for seven months in the past. But then, my husband and I decided to go to England, since London was a city we both liked.” Elvira first browsed the internet and looked for available positions online but also collected information about labs that were known for doing good science. “I got the advice that it can help to look for working groups which recently were awarded with big grants like “Wellcome Trust” or founding provided by the European Research Council. And, of course, I also asked some PIs for their advice and whether they knew some groups that I could apply for”, Elvira recalls. In the end, there is always a little bit of luck involved when finding the right position at the right time: “I applied for Postdoc positions in six different labs in London but only got invited for a job interview by the group that I’m currently working in. My PI was looking for someone to fill a Postdoc position but my email was most likely one of hundreds on that day. He sometimes doesn’t even see the emails that I write to him nowadays so in the end I would say that I was really lucky.” During this fortunate job interview, Elvira directly felt that this lab was the one for her and did not apply for any further positions. By that time, Elvira also got to know that the whole lab would move to Manhattan, New York, and was excited about her future abroad.
A tiresome topic: Funding
A topic that swirls around regularly is the funding of Postdoc positions. In Elvira’s case, funding already came along with her Postdoc position but she applied for her own money anyways: “It is really important to be financially independent. I’m the only scientist with a fellowship in my lab and PIs generally prefer Postdocs who bring their own money”. What else is there to consider? “Meeting and working with more experienced scientists helped me to consider things more critically than during my PhD. If somebody can recommend you to a possible future PI, your chances to get the position are normally manifold higher. Today, I rarely meet Postdocs in big and successful labs who applied for open positions. These labs simply don’t have to advertise themselves because people want to work with them and not the other way round”, Elvira describes. This might sound repetitive to our constant readers, but talking to people who are an inherent part of a good network helps when applying for positions in a certain (and new) field of science.
A careful glimpse into the future
So, what does the future have in store for Elvira and her pursuing career abroad? “First, I have to finish my Postdoc, which will take me at least two more years. I really need this time to publish as many papers as possible, because my field of science is very competitive. It is not sufficient anymore to have one good publication in journals such as Cell, Science, or Nature to apply for PI positions.” Well, luckily Elvira can already check off the first two of her to-do-list! Is there any advice to all the others who do not find their names in pole position of work published in such high-class journals, yet? “Even though there will always be some “hot spots” for excellent science, the country one lives and works in doesn’t really matter as long as one is happy with the situation and the job itself. Being critical, especially with oneself, in my eyes is one of the keys to pursue a promising career.”
Hence, this is a message to our Readers et al. (2016): Start tackling your future today, either by networking or just by improving your good scientific practice by adding the right control to your experiment next time!
“There is no substitute for hard work.” (Thomas A. Edison)