Advice for new graduates

As the spring semester comes to a close, thousands of graduate students are preparing to bid farewell to the place they have spent so much of their lives for the past several years. For many new Ph.D. recipients, life after graduate school can be both exciting and daunting.

Luckily, there are many who have come before us and are willing to share their insight on this transition. We asked a number of members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, winners of the ASBMB’s recent awards and others to provide some advice for those graduate students who will be closing one chapter and entering a new and exciting phase of life this year.

Suzanne R. Pfeffer

Stanford University School of Medicine
ASBMB President (2010 – 2012)

Grad school has provided you with diverse skills that will serve you well in so many careers. In addition to perseverance and strategic planning, you can boast of training in teamwork, public speaking, writing, teaching and maybe even small-meeting organization. Ask your graduate adviser to help connect you with lab and department alumni, who surely will be happy to tell you how they chose and pursued their unique career paths. Don’t be shy to apply for internships that will give you a chance to experience something other than bench science. If you love it, great; if not, you can always apply for a more conventional postdoc position. Find your passion and take charge of your career!

Randy Schekman

Howard Hughes Medical Institute and University of California, Berkeley
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (2013)

Although there has been a lot of naysaying about the prospects for a meaningful career for Ph.D.s in the life sciences and repeated calls for a reduction in training programs, the opportunities now outnumber those that were available when I completed my Ph.D. in 1974. Back then, the options outside of a standard academic career were severely limited. The biotech industry did not exist, and few careers in law, government or publishing were open to scholars trained in basic biomedical research. The key is to remain flexible and to recognize that your analytical and critical skills have tremendous application in a variety of professional careers.

Cori Bargmann

Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Rockefeller University

The most valuable resource you have as a scientist is your motivation. Maintaining your enthusiasm is as important as any other aspect of your career.

Thomas C. Südhof

Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Stanford University School of Medicine
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (2013)

Follow your interests, and don’t try to calculate a career. Work on a question that you feel satisfying, that you like, that you feel is inherently valuable, and do not fashion your career after the fashion of the day. If you choose a professional path, this will be your life, and I believe it is better to do something you like but is not as well paid than something that is better paid but that you will dislike doing after a few years.

Joan A. Steitz

Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Yale University

My advice to newly minted Ph.D.s, especially women, is to not worry excessively about the far-distant future. If you love doing science, look at people one step ahead of you and ask yourself whether that seems possible; too many things change to make looking farther ahead very useful.

Zhijian “James” Chen

Howard Hughes Medical Institute
and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Winner of the ASBMB-Merck Award (2015)

It’s an exciting time to do biomedical research, with so many powerful technologies at your disposal – CRISPR, mass spec, genomics, imaging, etc. But the technologies are the means, not the end. The traditional way of doing science – identify an important biological problem and use whatever tools it takes to solve the problem – is still a tried-and-true approach. Whatever the approach, imagine how it feels when you are the first in human history to solve an important problem, discover a new molecule or find a cure!

Erica Ollmann Saphire

The Scripps Research Institute
Winner of the ASBMB Young Investigator Award (2015)

Go to Toastmasters. Being able to communicate clearly and effectively and to enjoy the process is essential to any biomedical career.

Jack E. Dixon

University of California, San Diego
Winner of the ASBMB Earl and Thressa Stadtman Distinguished Scientist Award (2015)

My first message is to love what you do and do what you love and have a true passion for. The second message is do not be afraid of failure. It is a part of life and can make you stronger and can influence your future path. The third message is that you should find good mentors all along your way. Finally, do not underestimate the influence you can have on others. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what you do for other people, how you help them and how you inspire them.

Vijay Pande

Stanford University
Winner of the ASBMB DeLano Award for Computational Biosciences (2015)

First, when one is young and has just gotten a Ph.D., one has the opportunity to take a risk to do something tremendously great and impactful; maybe it works or maybe it doesn’t, but doing something incremental isn’t something you look back at fondly at the end of your life, whereas trying something great and failing somehow always seems to lead to some other new open door. Second, in addition to academia and traditional industry, new Ph.D.s should consider startup companies. As a corollary of my first point, a startup can give the opportunity to change the world, albeit at some risk, but when one is a young Ph.D., that’s a great time to take risks to do something truly great.

Rachel Klevit

Washington University
Winner of the ASBMB Fritz Lipmann Award (2015)

Be self-reflective and think creatively about what aspects of being a scientist most excite you: being at the bench, writing, communicating, teaching, thinking about how to transform a discovery into something practical, etc. Use your insights to guide your decisions of a path to follow. The most obvious one may seem to be the path of least resistance, but a path less followed may be the one for you.

James Berger

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

I guess the advice that I would give to newly minted Ph.D.s is to work on something that they are truly interested in and passionate about. They shouldn’t feel compelled to default into a postdoc out of graduate school, but rather they should take some time to think about and identify their personal drivers and motivators. Whether they ultimately decide to pursue a postdoctoral project or switch into a different field entirely (e.g., law, business, public policy), the choice should be considered carefully and deliberately. The same advice applies to choosing a lab, discipline or project of future study. The world is an increasingly competitive place; only a real internal fire will see one through the trials that inevitably arise.

Kathleen S. Matthews

Rice University
Winner of the ASBMB William C. Rose Award (2015)

Think broadly, creatively and carefully about your long-term goals, and seek advice and mentoring from multiple individuals with experience in the areas of your interest. In sifting through this information, listen both to your brain and to your gut (your “second brain” – see the book by Michael Gershon and the Scientific American article)! Both internal resources can offer wise counsel.

Mariana Figuera-Losada Mariana Figuera-Losada is a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University. She wrote the briefs on Alber, Barbas, Heftmann, Lionetti and Swendseid.

Jen McGlaughon Jen McGlaughon is a graduate student in the molecular biology and genetics department at Cornell University.