How did you plot your scientific career path?
January 4, 2012 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Biologists, biochemists, and microbiologists: how did you choose your field? I'm coming to the end of my undergraduate research year, and hope to apply for doctoral study for 2013, but am finding it very hard to settle definitively on a field and a lab to target. If you were a bright young thing about to start your research career in earnest, where would you hope to end up?

Details: I'm in Australia, and my research and work experience has been in protein engineering and biomarker discovery, so a lot of proteomics and nuts and boltsy biochem benchwork. My undergraduate education was in biochemistry and clinical microbiology.

There are a few fields that I've only slightly brushed up against, but am quite interested in: for example, a lot of neuroscience topics, especially neurodegeneration processes and neuropharmacology, as well as lot of viral stuff, like oncolytics. I feel like I lack practical grounding in these fields, but I'm not at all averse to a bit of a challenge.

I wouldn't mind continuing with my current avenues of inquiry, but I only really took on the projects I'm soon to complete because of some attractive grant packages - the ultimate purpose of the work I do is pretty mundane.

So, thoughts on fields that are interesting and expanding, and that can sustain a career for at least the medium term? Any tangential advice is also most welcome!
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Hmmm. I'm a computational neuroscientist, and I ended up here by choosing to go to grad school in physics to study string theory. Then a year and a half into my program I heard a really excellent talk by a biology professor and ended up doing my thesis project in his lab, modeling cell division processes. Then I decided I liked all the open questions in biology but wanted to be in an area where more questions were amenable to good treatment with mathematical modeling, so I sought out neuroscience labs when I looked for a postdoc. Would I have expected to end up here when I started grad school? Not in a million years.

The reason this all worked out for me was that I happened to choose a school where there were excellent people working in a large variety of fields, and where folks were friendly to interdisciplinary collaboration. I advise you and other bright young things to do the same if you can!
posted by wyzewoman at 10:39 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think there's much point to planning long-term, since research has a way of leading you down unexpected paths. (My graduate school advisor started his career studying DNA-replicating enzymes and eventually found himself working on antigenic variation in the parasite that causes African sleeping sickness ... go figure.) On preview, like wyzewoman said.

It's better to choose something that will take you through the next 5 - 8 years, including grad school. After that, who knows where you'll be? Neuroscience seems like the happening thing at the moment, but "the new hotness" changes every 15 years or so.

The skill-set you'll acquire in graduate school will be far more versatile than it might seem at the time. Basic techniques are vastly adaptable; the equipment changes but chromatography, electrophoresis, spectroscopy and the like will be useful for the foreseeable future. Also, the whole method of scientific research is a formidable skill (although the old one-variable-at-a-time model may not be applicable to complex networks ... it will be interesting to see what canonical method gets hammered out over the next few decades for network-type research).

Most importantly, focus on what will get you through grad school. Choose a school based on the quality of the department (and try to get a sense of how happy the other students are - grad school can be a miserable experience and if I could do it again, I'd go for a little more happiness and a little less prestige). Then just soak up the science scene and try to learn broadly as well as deeply.

Good luck, and may you be pleasantly surprised 30 years from now when you look back on your career!
posted by Quietgal at 10:49 AM on January 4, 2012

Start by finding a lab that has people in it you can see yourself working well with for the next 4 to 8 years. If you have a chance to do a rotation through several different labs, try it. But choose the lab that interests you intellectually AND has a good fit for you on a personal level. What your field is when you are done is likely going to change a lot, but being in a lab where you have the ability to get along and work well with your colleagues will help you no matter what.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:30 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest choosing large programs with a variety of faculty, at an institution that values collaboration. I'd particularly suggest programs that have their new grad students rotate through several labs.

Also, if I were doing a Ph.D. project all over again (perish the thought), I'd be sure that I was learning techniques that were in demand and applicable to a wide range of topics. It is not uncommon to switch to a different field when you start your postdoc; if you do, the particular research approaches and techniques that you learn are going to be primary drivers of the labs you have an opportunity to join after graduation. I'd particularly take the time to learn more math and programming -- computational/modeling approaches are really useful in pretty much any biological field.

Also, memail me if you want to talk -- I did a variety of biochem-type undergraduate research, went to grad school for neuroscience, switched fields after my Ph.D., and now I am using viral vectors in some gene silencing studies in collaboration with several other labs, one of which is a neurodegeneration lab.
posted by kataclysm at 12:02 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Like the other people in this thread, I'd also say go in with an open mind; focus more on finding interesting problems with good people, rather than existing subject matter. I'd even go so far as to suggest steering away from the proteomics things you've been doing. The most interesting science tends to occur at interfaces, and being the person in the neuroscience lab who knows protein engineering will position you to take on all sorts of problems and collaborations that wouldn't be as open to J. Random Cell Biologist.

Also, get as much experience with statistics and programming as you can, be it through courses, collaborations, or project work. Data volumes are exploding in biology, making statistical and computational literacy more and more important every day.
posted by penguinicity at 12:49 PM on January 4, 2012

My science path isn't specifically useful to you but I wanted to chime in to agree with others. Find someone you really like/get along with as your supervisor AND make sure, by talking to their current/previous students, that they are a good supervisor. Numerous people I know have crashed, burned out, dropped out, stalled out, whatever, because they didn't mesh with their supervisor. It seems kind of weird to consider personal issues when you're doing science but working with others can be inspiring and challenging (in a good way). If you get a good lab group, including the other grad students, you are going to be able to do some extra amazing work. Also, don't be afraid of making the lab group awesome - reading other people's drafts, watching practice talks, organizing a journal club - those are things that might point you in directions you hadn't thought about before.

I lucked into my first position and realized I loved the topic (seabirds), then I branched out to learn different techniques that I could apply to the topic (behaviour --> lab work), then I decided the topic was too limited and took a huge leap for my PhD (modelling and conservation). One thing that really helped me, that may not be applicable to you in Australia, was signing on to do a MSc - that allowed me to get some expertise and connections, and enough knowledge to realize that I wouldn't be happy following that path for the foreseeable future. I still work with the people from my MSc and keep up with the literature but now it's more of a side project that my focus. However, I wouldn't not say it was a waste of time (if you can publish something, it's never a waste of time).
posted by hydrobatidae at 3:47 PM on January 4, 2012

I second kataclysm on making sure that no matter what field you are in, you end up learning in-demand techniques in that field. Keep an eye on techniques mentioned in "scientist" job ads, and read Nature Methods. It sounds like you've already got the research experience thing down. You mention a lot of broad topics that you're interested in, and there's really no reason to try to be more specific at this point....make sure that wherever you apply has those things but no good biomedical research center is going to be lacking in at least several labs that fall in those fields.

Along with that and others' advice that you find an interesting lab and people that are good to work with first and foremost, make sure that the grad school you choose has a flexible program, wherein you can rotate in a variety of different labs and easily change programs if the course of study you land in steers you that way. When you interview for grad schools (and when choosing where to apply even) you can ask them about it. But don't just ask them if it's possible, ask them what it entails and whether anyone has done it recently (so you can then seek them out). Find out about core courses -- my gradschool required both core courses and electives. You spent the first year taking the core courses req'd for your program and the second year taking electives. Then, if you had decided in that first year to change programs, the first year counted as electives, so you wouldn't be behind. I did not appreciate this at the time.

I entered as a neuroscience student, not realizing that what really interested me about neurological diseases was the events at the molecular level, and left with my thesis done in molecular pharmacology. I wish I had learned more bioinformatics type stuff and gotten more in-depth experience with techniques that included instrumentation (mass spectrometry, NMR, FACS, etc.)
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:42 PM on January 4, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the advice, everyone - I'll do my best to research the culture of my prospective labs this coming year!
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 4:26 AM on January 7, 2012

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