Shelby Smith remembers feeling inspired and humbled the first time she attended the professional development panel at an annual CNS meeting. “There is just something about being in a room filled to the brim with other students where the only purpose of being there is to show you that you’re not alone and that there are so many people out there who are happy to help guide you in your career,” she recalls.
Now serving on the CNS Trainee Association Committee, Smith helps to shape the professional development panel each year. The goal, she says, is simple: to provide resources for students in cognitive neuroscience. “It can be so daunting entering the scientific world, and so we want to make everyone feel welcomed and supported,” she explains. “I think sometimes graduate students can feel isolated and lost — myself included — and so it’s truly refreshing to be in a place where you regain some hope for moving forward.”
We spoke with Smith, a doctoral student at the University of New Hampshire, about her experiences at past trainee events, challenges facing early-career cognitive scientists, and what she is looking forward to at CNS 2020 in Boston this March.
CNS: What do you look for in selecting speakers for the trainee professional development panel?
Smith: We try our best to meet the changing needs of students. Everyone on the committee nominates multiple people, and we generally have a solid pool of people from which to choose. The president and vice president of our committee then select 5-6 individuals. It’s important to us to try to have panelists who can speak about the academic realm — to answer students’ questions about their time in graduate school and a postdoc as well as the job market — and industry jobs — because there are so many types of industry positions available that many students are unaware of. We also try to have representation from women and other minority group members to academic couples and individuals with both academic and industry experience.
CNS: What can first-timers expect in attending the event?
Smith: Whether it’s your first time at CNS or your nth time, you’ll meet plenty of other graduate students and postdocs from across the world, meet future collaborators, and even potentially meet a future employer at our events. I’ve met so many wonderful people attending our events, from both before and after I became a member of the committee, who have really interesting research that I follow and/or who I still meet up with every year at the conference.
We have several committee members who have been going to CNS trainee events since they were undergrads, and now they’re in their last year of their PhD or are in their postdoc. Our events are different every year based on the individuals who attend, so there is always something new to learn and someone new to meet regardless of whether you’ve been before.
There is a very real pressure that us graduate students worry about everyday to not only meet high expectations during our training, but also to find a job at the other end of it. These worries sometimes make it difficult for us to find our place in this scientific world and to feel confident in the work we do.
CNS: What feedback do you get from other students about the questions they want to have answered in the professional development panel?
Smith: This varies by year, but I would say the two biggest topics students are interested in talking to the panel about are (a) what kinds of skills and experience they need in order to be competitive on the job market, and (b) how to navigate their graduate programs. Some of the students who attend either get little support from their mentors and/or program or they feel as if they have no one to talk to. Even if students receive plenty of support, many still come to get a second opinion from a different perspective.
There is a very real pressure that us graduate students worry about everyday to not only meet high expectations during our training, but also to find a job at the other end of it. These worries sometimes make it difficult for us to find our place in this scientific world and to feel confident in the work we do. Unfortunately, the academic job market is rough. There is such a wide range of industry jobs that cognitive neuroscientists have ample skills for, but I think so few students have access to information about these jobs and how to find them. We try to bring in panelists that can assuage some of these worries and address these types of common questions/concerns.
CNS: What is the overall CNS meeting like for early-career scientists?
Smith: I have met more students, postdocs, and professors at CNS than I have any other conference I’ve attended; I really value how accessible networking is within this society. The first time I saw Daniel Schacter talking to a student, who wasn’t his own, at a poster, I freaked out. I think it’s fantastic for students to be able to meet and get constructive criticism from the top researchers in the field as well as other amazing researchers and students. I also love the poster sessions at CNS. I remember I once went to a student’s poster and we got to talking about some really fascinating new ways to analyze her data, and she simply offered to send the data to me so that I could publish those ideas we talked about. I think everyone can benefit from the extremely collaborative nature of CNS.
CNS: In addition to the trainee panel, what else do you look forward to at the event?
Smith: Honestly, I love being able to meet up with my friends from undergrad as well as the awesome new people I’ve met over the years. I’m also excited that this year’s conference is back in Boston because it’s one of my favorite cities. Specifically, I’m super excited to hear Nancy Kanwisher speak, and I’m looking most forward to attending symposiums 4 (From Wikipedia Searches to Single Cell Recording: Uncovering the Mechanisms of Information-Seeking) and 6 (Moving from a Deficit-Oriented to a Preventive Model in Education: Examining Neural Correlates for Reading Development) because they relate to some of my past work as well as a project currently under development.
I also love going to the student social; I very clearly remember all the people I’ve met. It’s so nice to let down your guards for a second and just have a drink and meet people who are also in your shoes.
CNS: What do you think are the biggest challenges right now for early career cognitive scientists?
Smith: I’d say meeting the expectations for academic positions. This goes for graduate students, those who are on the job market, and those who are starting their careers. The standards for landing a position have drastically increased compared to faculty members who have been tenured for years — having to collaborate on multiple other projects aside from learning and juggling your own work plus actively working on grantsmanship, service, travel, and mentorship. But, beyond that, managing the first few years of being an academic is even more difficult. For example, my Ph.D. mentor is pre-tenure and co-runs our lab with another pre-tenure faculty member, and I watch them struggle to balance their careers and lives everyday. While they are both totally killing it and I admire them both so much, I truly worry that the expectations for having an academic career have moved past what is considered attainable and healthy.
CNS: How can interested student members get involved in the trainee committee?
Smith: We are always looking for dedicated trainees who want to gain some service experience and help make our events the best they can be for CNS students. Being a member is not a huge time commitment and it’s a great experience! Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out on Twitter (@CNS_TA) or Facebook to get in touch with us about joining our team!
-Lisa M.P. Munoz