March 2010

Chance Favors the Prepared Mind

How to Shape Your Future as a Science Administrator


Shawn R. Drew earned her bachelor’s degree from Spelman College in 1991 and her doctorate in biology from Howard University in 1998. She conducted her postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases. In 2003, Drew joined the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health as a program director in the Minority Access to Research Careers Branch. She also serves as the institute’s program director for the Biostatistics Research Training Grant program and is the chairwoman of the Committee to Maximize Representation for research-training grant programs. Prior to her appointment, she served as director of the NIH Academy, an intramural postbaccalaureate research training program, and was an adjunct professor of biology at the University of Maryland and Prince George’s Community College.

More than a century ago, Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” By this he meant that sudden flashes of insight don’t just happen— they are the products of preparation. Preparation, therefore, is the key to a successful and fulfilling scientific career. Whether you take the “traditional” academic route and become a professor or the “non-traditional” route and become a science writer, policy analyst, venture capitalist, etc., you should identify your career niche and prepare for it.

My Transition from Bench to Desk

I trained as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, but, at the same time, I did a lot of volunteer work. Because I enjoy doing outreach, especially to underrepresented groups, I gave presentations to middle and high school students, taught science courses at area colleges, wrote science curricula for my local church, provided laboratory supplies and gave presentations to students in Nigeria and mentored undergraduate students in my laboratory. One day, while I was a postdoctoral fellow, I read an advertisement for a science administrator position at the NIH and realized that many of the required duties and responsibilities were similar to the activities I already was doing. Thus, I decided to leave the lab and focus on science administration, incorporating my love of science and passion for training young scientists.

Currently, I work as a program official in the Minority Opportunities in Research Division at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. We administer research and research-training programs aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented minority biomedical and behavioral scientists. I get enormous satisfaction when speaking with students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty members and individuals in leadership positions at academic institutions across the country about our programs and their benefits. I often think, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!”

An Example: The Health Scientist Administrator

A career as a science administrator can take place in academia, industry or government. The NIH employs numerous science administrators to meet its mission of supporting research and training in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. The primary responsibility for planning, directing and managing the evaluation of these activities rests with health scientist administrators (HSAs). Typically, HSA duties include:

• organizing and managing peer-review groups to evaluate research proposals on the basis of their scientific merit;
• managing extramural research and research-training programs and identifying gaps in research and research training areas warranting either increased or decreased funding emphasis;
• developing funding opportunity announcements designed to elicit research and research-training grant proposals from the scientific community;
• providing technical assistance to applicants and grantees;
• conducting site visits to applicant and grantee institutions to determine the adequacy of research and research-training facilities;
• serving as a spokesperson for agency programs dealing with the scientific community, Congress and other federal agencies.

Typically, HSAs attend graduate school, do postdoctoral training, obtain faculty positions and create well-established laboratories before transitioning to science administration. Thus, they have both an appreciation for and the ability to work with faculty applying for research and training support. However, there are other means, albeit much less common, of transitioning to an administration job at the NIH. For example, I did not have a faculty position before entering program administration. Instead, my first-hand knowledge of the NIH helped me to land the job. However, people coming from outside the NIH with only postdoctoral research training experience may find it more difficult to transition to a HSA position before establishing a lab. Furthermore, regardless of the type of organization you join, the likelihood of getting a position increases with postdoctoral research training, as the experience, in part, is designed to develop your independence and leadership skills.

The Skills

The first step to preparing for an administrative career in science is conducting a self-assessment to determine the activities you enjoy, the skills you possess and the skills you lack. This information can help you determine whether a science administration position is right for you. You may want to ask family members, friends, colleagues and mentors to describe your strengths and weaknesses to help facilitate your assessment. Armed with this information, look at the position descriptions in science administration career postings. Are the duties and responsibilities appealing? Do you currently perform or have you performed some of the required duties?

You may surprise yourself and find that you posses the skills employers are seeking. First, science acumen is paramount: You must demonstrate competence in science and have proof of what you have contributed to your field of study. Other desirable skills that science administration recruiters seek include the ability to communicate effectively, leadership and management skills and the ability to work effectively and cooperate with others. Do you have these skills? Well, you may have them and simply not realize it. For example, if you’ve mentored people in the lab, ordered and organized lab supplies and equipment, organized data clubs, journal clubs or other seminars or worked with collaborators on research projects, you probably possess leadership, management and team-player skills. Other ways to obtain these skills include taking leadership or management classes, teaching science courses, editing research papers or grant proposals, attending career advice workshops and speaking with science administrators about their job duties.

Looking for a new job? Check out the ASBMB Job Board.

Now that you know what a scientific administrative position might entail and you know the skills involved, conduct your self-assessment to see if that career is for you. If so, try to acquire the training and skills you need to transition to a science administration position. The shift in focus from your specialized research area to guiding decisions that affect the allocation of research and research-training support is definitely achievable if you prepare yourself.


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