Professional Development Panel, Guest Post by Richard T. Ward and Selen Küçüktaş
Transition was a key theme that emerged throughout the CNS 2021 Professional Development Panel. Across career paths, research areas, and our personal lives, being able to adapt to the dynamic nature of our pandemic-stricken world and engage in new phases of growth is critical for ensuring our success, especially for trainees. Four esteemed panelists addressed this topic by providing trainees with insights and helpful strategies to navigate working in remote settings, considering different career directions, and highlighting skills when applying to the job market.
Where should we work and why?
Andreas Keil, a professor at the University of Florida, began the conversation by highlighting the importance of understanding why one wants to study a certain topic, or work in a specific area. Keil suggested trainees take time to understand what makes them want to pursue a specific path or question: “It’s probably a good idea to be deliberate about taking time to really learn profoundly the things that you care about- why you took that career, why you wanted to learn about the brain, the body, cognition and all these things.”
WanYu Hsu, a research scientist at Neuroscape at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and formerly a clinical scientist in a neuro-tech company, discussed differences between working in academia versus industry. She expressed that the key aspect of working in either sector is to continue conducting research and be a productive scientist, while being aware of how this differs across these careers: “In profit organizations, usually the research is to support the product development or to build something more profitable,” she said. Shu emphasized that, despite transitioning between academia and industry, the skills obtained during the time in one field “was not a waste of time in my career path. I did learn a lot from that experience”.
Learning the key differences in how research is conducted in academia versus industry, including roles researchers fulfill in these fields, is also important. “In industry, you need to be focused on something very specific within the whole study that is being conducted, which is different from academia where you need to be involved in every step in the research,” said Nina Thigpen, a research scientist at Oura, a startup to track sleep. Thigpen added that improving coding skills is crucial in order to obtain a job, especially in the industry setting. She also recommended starting with small steps, such as an internship in order to gather some experience and recognize whether you will like a particular job and want to continue working there.
Adapting during the pandemic
Christine Walsh, an assistant professor at UCSF, discussed novel ways research continues, despite the limitations in place due to the global pandemic. “There is a big push toward doing remote studies with humans and trying to think more about how you fit into that, and also trying to acquire large data sets I think will be a big move,” she said. Similarly, Keil highlighted how universities are developing new strategies for hiring employees. With the changing working conditions due to COVID-19, universities are looking for people who can fit into remote-work roles.
However, working remotely from home and sticking to a structured schedule does present some difficulties. Walsh suggested that joining virtual teams such as writing groups might be motivating and help increase productivity. Having actual meeting times and creating time chunks for certain tasks can also help time management. “I find it very helpful to keep it a little bit separate, work and life, and have little space carved out where I don’t work,” Keil said. He added that setting boundaries can help some people who feel overwhelmed due to the altering life conditions during pandemic.
“Over the years, I really think that the difference between people who really succeed in reaching some sort of happiness about their work in the end and who will not is the ability to penetrate what they are doing and take the ownership and really understand many more facets of that process.” -Andreas Keil, University of Florida
Highlight your skills
Trainees also raised questions to panelists about applying to postdoc positions. One question asked by trainees was the recommendations of panelists for gaining experiences during and shortly after graduate school. Panelists emphasized that being able to examine the foundations of your work and understand the impact your work has is crucial.
Researchers applying to postdoc positions should be confident in their area as a scientist and demonstrate a deeper understanding of their work. “Over the years, I really think that the difference between people who really succeed in reaching some sort of happiness about their work in the end and who will not is the ability to penetrate what they are doing and take the ownership and really understand many more facets of that process,” Keil said.
Improving technical and writing skills, and working with big chunks of data help researchers stand out in the postdoc applications. Walsh expressed that it is very important to show the ability to begin and complete projects, and added: “I think trying to master taking something beginning to end to develop your confidence in being able to say ‘I can do this’ without being obnoxious […] will be good in your future.”
Letters of recommendation can also be very informative by emphasizing specific skills an applicant may have that are not explicitly clear in their profile. While having published in high impact journals remains a key element in obtaining a job at a research university, other skills, such as grant writing and having replicable and fundable ideas, also boost an applicant’s profile.
Networking and reaching out to professors continues to be an important aspect for career progression and professional growth. However, this can be difficult to accomplish during the pandemic. Although we are not able to travel and join scientific events in person, inviting guest speakers to lab meetings or scientific seminar events over Zoom can make networking more feasible. Trainees should reach out to professors, postdoc fellows, or graduate students in a lab to gain insight regarding their research and the lab environment.
Panelists added that people in such communities care for each other and that most would be happy to help anyone who shares common research interests with them. Additionally, Thigpen said: “Don’t forget to just ask your mentors and ask the people who recently get postdocs and people who are 5-10 years ahead of you. Find those people and ask them what their experience was like. Most people are super willing to help you”.
Transition – whether personally or collectively – may seem like a frightening process before jumping in, but it is important to understand what one seeks to do and how to efficiently engage in these changes, whether that be in one’s personal life, career, or both. After taking these careful and calculated steps, transition becomes a more natural process, and one that yields satisfaction and growth. Junior researchers and trainees can successfully engage in transition by improving their skills and bringing up their own concerns about working conditions.
In academia, there is always opportunity to change research focuses in a new direction due to scientific curiosity. Sometimes, researchers may hesitate to try new methods or explore unfamiliar fields and concepts after graduate school. However, the panelists expressed that it is never too late to learn and study these new areas, even after obtaining a tenure position.
As with most aspects of life, academia and the research world are dynamic and ever-changing processes. What is considered important, how we conduct our work, and even what we research will continue to evolve over time, and we must learn to adapt. As our world becomes more inclusive with greater representation of people from diverse backgrounds, including women and underrepresented minorities, new ideas and perspectives will continue to foster growth and transitions. Being mindful of our passions and how to pursue our goals, while considering creative and novel ways to continue our work will lead to the transitions that need to be made to secure our future.
Richard T. Ward is a Ph.D. student studying affective neuroscience in Christine Larson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
Selen Küçüktaş is a Ph.D. student studying cognitive neuroscience in Peggy L. St. Jacques’ lab at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.