May 2011

How do you do that?

Going from foreign postdoc to science policy analyst.

Jonathan Gitlin is a science policy analyst in the Policy and Program Analysis Branch of the Office of the Director at the National Human Genome Research Institute. He received his Bachelor of Science in pharmacology from King’s College London and his doctorate in pharmacology from Imperial College London, after which he did postdoctoral fellowships at the Scripps Research Institute and the University of Kentucky. Gitlin also is a contributing writer for the online publication Ars Technica, and he taught international science and technology policy at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

When I started at King’s College London as a fresh-faced pharmacology undergraduate back in 1994, I had no idea my future would involve living in Washington, D.C., or working in science policy. Sure, I had an interest in politics, policy and how the world worked in much the same way that I had scientific curiosity about how cells or organisms or pathways worked, but I’m not sure I grasped back then that these interests intersected and that it was possible to make a career at that intersection.

While I was working on my Bachelor of Science degree, I spent a year working in a lab at the National Heart and Lung Institute, part of Imperial College, and evidently did something right, as I was offered a place in their graduate program. I still didn’t quite know what I wanted to do when I grew up, and a doctorate seemed like a good idea in general and a useful way to spend three years thinking about an answer. I did start to have inklings that being a research scientist might not be my ideal choice; the daily grind of repeating immunoassays and feeding cells was much less interesting than organizing collaborations with other groups or learning firsthand from some truly talented scientists. The most enjoyable part of the process was the months I spent writing up my thesis, a statement that still garners some strange looks from colleagues.

Although I’d learned quite a lot about vasodilator pathways, inflammation and cyclooxygenase during my time in graduate school, I still wasn’t much closer to discovering my optimum career. So I did what most new doctorate holders do at this point and found a postdoctoral position. I’d spent most of my life living in London and figured that if I were going to move, California seemed like a good place. I liked the idea of selling my car, packing a couple of bags and flying halfway across the world for a year or two and then coming back to make use of the new techniques I’d learned.

Coming to America

I accepted a position working on cardiovascular disease at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. Around that time (2002), there was a growing realization among postdocs in the U.S. that something was amiss with the postdoctoral experience, as evidenced by ever increasing numbers of scientists leaving the bench.

My research project had a lot of downtime waiting for mice to breed and so on, so I got involved with the Scripps postdoc organization, the Society of Fellows. SoF did a range of things at Scripps, from arranging a distinguished lecture series and research symposia to organizing social events. Back then, there was little official career development provided to the postdocs beyond workshops from faculty members on grant writing. This ought not to have been that surprising, given that our PIs were training us the way they’d been trained, but with so few postdocs going on to faculty positions, the career needs of everyone else were being underserved.

Taking matters into our own hands, SoF started organizing workshops and talks about nonbench careers for doctorates. Peter Fiske came and gave a talk on other ways to use your degree, and the take-home message was to work out what you most enjoyed doing and then match that to a career. It’s a theme that is echoed a lot in Career Insights, but it’s important advice. It’s a lot easier to wake up in the morning if you’re looking forward to your day rather than dreading it.


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