Summer 2015

Careers in Academia: Advancing Research One Step at a Time

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an NQ series highlighting career paths for neuroscientists. Read the introductory article for an overview of the diverse range of career opportunities available to neuroscientists and how the field is addressing the evolving career and training landscape.

Every neuroscientist is motivated by a strong desire to answer one question: How does the brain work? The answer is revealed, one small piece at a time, through research.

Whether it’s at the bench or in a leadership role, a career in academia can support research efforts and advance our understanding of the brain and nervous system.

Magda Giordano, an investigator at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, didn’t get into laboratory research with the expectation that her work would solve neuroscience’s mysteries. “I just enjoyed doing it,” she said. “I enjoyed doing the experiment, gathering data, and writing it up. I enjoyed the process.”

Researchers like Erich Jarvis, associate professor of neurobiology at Duke University, are driven by the thrill of discovery. “I get joy out of being in an environment where I’m always learning something new,” he said. “As a scientist, you never really leave school.”

Before becoming a neuroscientist, Jarvis wanted to be a dancer, and he believes making that transition prepared him well for a career in science. “Being trained as an artist trains you well to become a scientist in that you have to have a lot of discipline, it’s not nine-to-five hours, you have to be creative, and you have to try and try again until you get it right.”

Creativity and resilience are the most important qualities of a bench scientist, Giordano said. “You have to be resilient because many times things don’t work out as you want them to work out,” she said.

Operating a laboratory is also more than doing experiments: It involves overseeing staff and managing money, akin to running a small business. “The sooner people realize that the better,” Jarvis said. “If we can train our graduate students and postdocs to think that way, the better off they’ll be in their own labs.”

Scientific fields are becoming more collaborative, making good “people skills” all the more important, Jarvis said. “Being collaborative means you have to work with people and you have to train more people in your lab. You have to be a psychologist as well and manage students who are trying to crack Mother Nature’s tricks,” he said.

In addition, a large component of an academic research career is communicating science to others, whether it’s delivering a lecture to students, writing a research paper, or presenting findings at conferences. For more information on the skills you need to succeed at the bench, refer to the Academic Research Career Path Guide on Neuronline.

Loving one’s research is key to being happy at the bench. “You have to fall in love with your work because this is not an easy career,” Jarvis said.

Having a general interest in the field of neuroscience, while necessary, is not enough to keep someone content at the bench, Giordano said. “I would recommend a career at the bench if someone is enthusiastic about a particular question and they know that they want to work at it,” she said. “If you don’t have that question that’s gnawing at you, it’s hard to keep going.”

Someone with a broader interest in the field might be better suited to a career in teaching or academic administration, she added. In addition to running her own laboratory, Giordano has also taken on administrative and leadership roles at her research institute. Being involved in academic administration “makes you look at research from a different angle,” she said. “You become a little more sober in your thinking and less critical of others in an administrative position because you realize how hard things can become when you have a lot of people involved and you have money matters in the mix.” It’s a good career choice for people who “want to promote research in their institutions and help their institutions become better,” she added.

Of course, a career in academic administration comes with its own set of challenges, the biggest of which is learning how to deal with people in a positive and effective way. “You realize very soon when you get into a major leadership role that a lot of people’s careers and lives depend on you,” said Michael Friedlander, founding executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. The successful administrator is a good listener who can understand people’s needs as well as their career aspirations, he said. He and Giordano also stressed the importance of persistence and finishing everything that you start.

For administrators who choose to maintain an active research lab, there is the added challenge of juggling lab work and administrative tasks. “It’s not for the faint of heart and it’s not for people who need a lot of relaxation time,” said Friedlander, who, in addition to holding a variety of leadership roles, also runs a lab and teaches.

Managing what time you do have is an essential skill for dual careers in the lab and the office. “Everything you take on stretches you thinner, so you’ve got to manage your time better,” said Tom Carew, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at New York University. Having a strong staff is crucial because it allows you to delegate responsibilities for other people to carry some of the load, he said.

Academic administration work offers the opportunity to help other neuroscientists advance in their careers, Friedlander said. “I really enjoyed seeing other people’s careers go forward, and then I found myself in the position where I’d be the one helping them get resources and clear barriers to enable them to do what they do well,” he said.

By supporting the work of other neuroscientists, administrators are helping to answer the fundamental questions of neuroscience, bringing us closer to understanding how the brain works. As an administrator, “you can see other folks doing well because you had a little hand in it and you gave someone a leg up,” Carew said. “That’s a fulfilling way to make a living. That’s why I do it.”