Friday, June 1, 2012

A Step in the Right Direction: The NIH Career Symposium

The NIH Career Symposium, now in it's 5th year, was held at the main campus in Bethesda on 18 May 2012. The crowd was mostly NIH postdocs, with smattering of graduate students from around the east coast. I personally talked to non-NIH affiliated graduate students from Hopkins, Maryland and Duke.

They expressed their frustration that an event like this couldn't occur at their home universities. Any 'career panels' available packed with academics, and maybe the occasional industrial scientist, not a true glimpse of the possibilities beyond the bench. Part dismissiveness by their respective faculties, for which bound cheap labor isn't really a problem per se. Part blissful ignorance on the behalf of students, until it's too late.

The tone was subdued, what I imagine addict recovery would be like. We're collectively admitting a terrible mistake - being addicted to science. And like any addiction, recovery is a long and painful process. I could feel a collective wince of the audience whenever a panelist laid the truth bare: for all but a few industrial research positions or the pipe dream of a tenure-track position at a research intensive university, a postdoc is at best a waste of time, and a worst an obstacle of the worst kind, a demon of your own making.

Alas, there is hope. The event was well organized. The panels diverse. The speakers engaging. My personal favorites were Fraser Brown, a PhD/JD patent attorney with Cooley, and Jennifer Kimmel, a protein chemist with Kraft. Dr. Brown was great because of his biting wit, cynical hilarity, and brutal honesty. Dr. Kimmel's optimism and informed enthusiasm were refreshing.

Since their words are better than mine, I've summed them up, transcribed the day of the symposium:
Symposium quote cloud...


I also noted down a few comments from people I spoke to afterwards:
...and a few comments.

Events like this need to be happening annually at every graduate school and postdoc employing research institution in the country. If not individually, then in local collaborations. They must be designed to reach three key audiences:
  • Undergraduates considering a PhD. They must have a more accurate idea of the abysmal job prospects within science, and how woefully under prepared most PhDs are for jobs away from the bench.
  • Graduate students in the valley of shit. They need to make an accurate assessment of whether to forge ahead or cut their losses and run. If they decide to stay, they must understand what is needed to adequately prepare themselves for the tough road ahead, a road in which their professoriate-centric network will be of little aid. The only consolation, a little time to weigh options.
  • Postdocs wanting to stop postponing their life in the blind hope of a tenure-track position. They need to sift their experiences and identify an area to transition to as quickly as possible. This will be painful. This will require a redefinition of their self-worth and self-identity. But it is a necessary first step to abandoning their long-held dream and spinning-up for a new career trajectory, one most likely very far from where they intended.
And to the NIH OITE, thank you. I hope to see an event with even more diverse speakers, more postbacs reconsidering a PhD and more local non-NIH graduate students at the trailhead of recovery.