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: