During a special interest session at the American Society for Microbiology annual meeting that is being held in New Orleans, La., this week, researchers shared career preparation guidance for a variety of positions in academia and government. Before he became a federal employee, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Aaron Brault began his career in academia as an assistant, and then associate, professor at the University of California, Davis. While speaking to an audience of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty advisors, Brault said that when choosing which career path to take, researchers ought to consider how they might best balance their job with their lifestyle. To his mind, careers in government offer the most job security, careers in the ivory tower afford especially accommodating academic freedom, and those in industry offer the most competitive salaries, Brault said, though he added that each sector has its downsides and perks. No matter where they choose to pursue careers, he advised that the audience members "maintain a reasonable-sized lab," and not to let its size dictate their research directions. For example, should a new PI get grants and hire staff early on, that PI may be compelled to continue to maintain that level of funding — and even change the research trajectory to do so. Eventually, maintaining that lab would be "a beast you have to feed," Brault said. And in competitive funding environments, it can be tough to keep up. Overall, Brault said that it's imperative that researchers prioritize, collaborate and network, and "maintain an eclectic research portfolio."
A broad scientific background is what the Kent State University's Kim Finer says has been a boon for her career as a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution. Finer said that among the benefits of her position are flexible scheduling, competitive compensation, family-friendliness, and job security. But new-hire faculty at institutions like hers should not expect generous start-up packages and lab space; in fact, Finer said often then must conduct any independent research within the designated teaching labs and initiate extra-institutional collaborations should they desire access to additional research resources. "If you want to be a lead PI on a very big NIH or NSF grant, that's going to be really, really tough," Finer said. Professorships at primarily undergraduate institutions are not meant for those who have "dreams of winning the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. It's not going to happen," she added. Search committees seeking teaching-centric candidates typically look for people who are broadly trained, demonstrate patience and a passion for teaching as well as a willingness to adapt to new methods and technologies, and who display the characteristics of a valued colleague — a tendency to support others and a willingness to share and collaborate. Finer added that she will lead the search committee this summer for an assistant professor for Kent State's new baccalaureate program in biology that is set to launch during the coming fall semester.
Finally, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases' Melody Mills spoke of her experiences as both a scientific review officer and a program officer within the National Institutes of Health. Currently a program officer at NIAID, Mills said that her career away from the bench has afforded her exposure to a "broad swath of science" — more so than she experienced while investigating gram-negative bacterial pathogenesis in her own research. POs at the NIH are portfolio managers, scientific advocates, authorized federal officials, and extramural team members, Mills said, adding that her institute's scientific review division is currently recruiting. "I love my job. I'm never unhappy to go to work. I sometimes am there much longer than I need to be but it's because I love it, because I want to do it well," she said.