Allison Mayle and Direna Alonso-Curbelo, postdoc research fellows at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and Ushma Neill, vice president in the Office of Scientific Education and Training at Memorial Sloan Kettering and editor at large of the The Journal of Clinical Investigation, recently hosted a forum centered on career advancement in science and on life beyond the lab.
As they write in the Scientific American Voice blog, they heard many pearls of wisdom. "If you don't love it, don't do it. And then don't apologize," for example.
They note that postdocs and other trainees have opportunities for career development that are directly related to applying for faculty positions, but the conversation always centers on logistics of the job search, application process, or actual job duties. "Few venues exist to discuss more sensitive career quandaries and vexations that also impact opportunities to climb the career ladder, beyond personal conversations with supportive mentors — and not everyone has one of those," they write.
Some topics are harder to talk about, they note, especially for women and minorities. Making yourself heard, achieving work-life balance, and overcoming biases are not issues are openly discussed. So they talked to three women and one man, all faculty members, with the goal of shedding light on such issues.
"As is often the case with faculty discussing any issue, we got multiple and often opposing perspectives," they write. "For example, when discussing communication styles, one panelist advised that she is 'always my authentic self,' while another recommended downplaying personal emotion in a professional setting to avoid being labeled strident or shrill."
When it came to work-life balance, the panelists said they also struggled. One said that it's good to define your goals, even if they are just short term, and to shift those goals based on new priorities. "In the end, what we appreciated most was that balance means something different to each of us, and striving for a perfect balance at all times may be futile. It's okay to accept that everything can't take priority and that compromise is not a four-letter word," Mayle, Alonso-Curbelo, and Neill write.
The discussion also highlighted the disconnect that can exist between lab heads and postdocs. When pregnancy was mentioned, the panelitst were surprised to hear that female students and postdocs were nervous about talking to their lab mentors. "This highlighted the importance of having this conversation in the open, as neither trainees nor mentors knew what the other was thinking," they added.
The discussion focused on several additional topics, such as salary negotiations and letters of recommendation, and how these can affect men and women differently. But beyond these specific points, Mayle, Alonso-Curbelo, and Neill write, "We hope that trainees will feel more empowered to start these conversations and that institutions and faculty members will recognize the value of open discussion in making the invisible hurdles in science career advancement more visible so they can be effectively tackled."