July 2010

A Career in Research Administration


David Taylor explains how he ended up in a career in research administration at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute and why he finds his "strange new world" so appealing. (Titled "Going Full Circle: Taking a Leap from the Bench to a Career in Research Administration" in print version.)


David Taylor currently serves as the academic programs officer of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute. He also serves on the National Postdoctoral Association Board of Directors and functions as a career advisor on the Science Careers Forum. Taylor earned his doctorate from the University of Virginia, graduating in 2006 and did a postdoctoral fellowship at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He then transitioned into a research administration fellowship at Children’s Hospital, which led his current position with Children’s Hospital.

I was about three years into graduate school when a persistent nagging feeling took up residence in my head. For a while, I just ignored it. I was, after all, neck-deep in gel shifts and Western blots, trying my hardest to eke out that last bit of data I needed for a first author publication. But without fail, whenever I had a bit of downtime or was drifting off to sleep, the panicked sensation would return.

It wasn’t until about a year later, when I was home for Christmas on a well deserved break from the lab, that a simple question from my father led me to vocalize what I had been thinking for quite some time.

“So, what are you doing when you graduate?” he asked over dinner. It was nothing I hadn’t heard before— from my mentor, my classmates, my friends— but something about that moment broke open the floodgates.

“I have no idea,” I responded, a sinking feeling of shame and embarrassment settling into my stomach. Hearing those words come out of my mouth suddenly made it real, and I was frightened. All those years priming myself for a career in research and I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living. How could that be?

“Well, I wouldn’t worry about it,” my father said between bites of his meal. “You’re only 26. Most people don’t even know what they want to do when they’re 50.”

The History of a Love Affair

I first fell in love with the idea of research during my undergraduate days. As soon as I stepped on to my college campus during orientation, I pushed my way into a lab as the most basic of technicians. When space freed up, I started up my own project. In the backdrop of my college education, research stimulated an analytical part of my brain that had long been yearning for satisfaction. A travel award and a few recognitions later, I suddenly found myself in a graduate program at the University of Virginia.

Graduate school was even more my speed, albeit much more stressful. I loved my classes and learning across a wide number of scientific disciplines. Soon I found myself obsessing over pharmacologic pathways and G-protein coupled receptors. I was fortunate enough to find my way into a wonderful thesis lab, with a great mentor and a solid project. Nothing could have been better…or so I thought.

When classes ended and I joined the lab full time, something suddenly felt like it was missing. Was it the solitary atmosphere of the lab setting, somehow bereft of the camaraderie inherent among struggling classmates? Or, was it the feeling that I was leaving behind the global view of science afforded by my classes, forced to focus on one tiny little iota of the big picture? Either way, I began to feel trapped. This growing discontent loomed in my head for a few years, continuing through my thesis defense and a postdoctoral fellowship. As those thoughts took shape and form through a variety of experiences, I finally decided that it was time to make a move.

Taking Stock and Taking Steps

Taking that huge leap away from the bench is very intimidating. As scientists, we’re pushed day after day to follow specific protocols, where deviation can mean the loss of a day or week or month’s worth of work. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that veering sharply from the standard academic research career track can feel wholly unnatural.
At the time, my thoughts were quite mixed. I wondered if my past mentors would brush me off, suddenly branding me as a big waste of their time. I was afraid of what my friends and my colleagues would think about me “giving up.” I was afraid that my research skills were all I had, and that they wouldn’t get me anywhere. I felt overqualified for everything but had experience for nothing. Fortunately, a renewed sense of purpose helped me to send these concerns to the sidelines. I did need a career, after all.

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The number and quality of career resources available to me were amazing. I visited the campus postdoctoral affairs office. I looked to the Internet for advice and tips. I took stock of the skills I valued and the leadership I’d learned and drafted my first non-scientific resume. I was lucky. While I made a few missteps and went through my share of frustrations during the job hunt, my path moved forward fairly quickly.

One day, I happened upon a program called the “research administration fellowship” at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The listing said it would “provide the fellow with key experience rotating through a number of different areas within research administration,” including scientific communications, technology transfer, clinical trials management, strategic planning and many others. If there was something I was familiar with from graduate school, it was rotations. I timidly tossed in my application and waited to see what would happen.

About one month later, I was hired into the fellowship program. Man, was I in for culture shock!

A Strange New World

The strangest thing about having my first “real job” was just that: It was a real job. No more walking into the lab whenever I felt like it, wearing jeans and a ratty T-shirt. No more stopping by unannounced to idly chat up department heads. No more downloading music on my iMac when I had downtime (and no one was watching). Now, I was in a world of dress shirts and ties, appointments and hierarchies and overly regulated PCs. Funny thing is, other than losing my iMac, I found the whole thing very appealing.

Over the next year and a half, I took to my rotations with great enthusiasm. I worked with the communications department to hone my writing skills for nonscientific audiences, learned about human subject protections with the clinical trials office, participated in the strategic planning process for the research institute and teamed up with the compliance office to develop a proposal for creating a novel assent tool for pediatric research subjects. As I navigated each administrative group at Children’s Hospital, I found myself becoming an integral part of the community. I understood the research institute inside and out, from the perspective of the scientist and the administrator. And, as the fellowship finally came to a close, I was fortunate enough to successfully land a job at Children’s Hospital that matched all of my newfound interests. Call it a strange twist of fate, but I joined the office of postdoctoral affairs as an academic programs officer, responsible for providing guidance and programmatic support for research trainees much like myself only a couple of years prior.

Full Circle

My roles in the office of postdoctoral affairs are many: I’m a guidance counselor, project manager, web editor, hiring manager, program coordinator, event planner, career advisor, committee organizer, strategic planner, mentor and ombudsman. I have my hand in many projects and work in a collaborative team atmosphere with a common goal and purpose. I support all of our research trainees as they traverse whatever career path they choose.

Most importantly, I wake up in the morning and, more often than not, I look forward to going to work.

If there’s one tidbit of advice I can give to those seeking out their ideal career in science, it’s this: Find yourself a career that you love. I try my best to convey this to all of the postdocs that contact the office looking for advice. Inevitably, some will lament about being completely lost.

“You have the opportunity to explore a ton of career options,” I tell them. “Besides, you’re ahead of the curve. Most people don’t even know what they want to do when they’re 50.”

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