September 2010

A Job in Career Development

 

Lori M. Conlan talks about path to her current job as director of postdoctoral services at the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education. (Titled "Helping the Next Generation of Scientists" in print version.)

Career-Insights

Lori M. Conlan received her bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and her doctorate in biochemistry and biophysics from Texas A&M University. She worked for several years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Wadsworth Center before transitioning from the lab to focus on career issues for the next generation of scientists. Conlan started as the director of the Science Alliance, an international career development program for graduate students and postdocs sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences. She now is at the NIH in the Office of Intramural Training and Education, assisting 4,000 postdocs.

What may have seemed to be a random series of career choices has become, in retrospect, a well-planned career path. I found a way to combine my love of science and desire to help people into one fulfilling career. During the past 15 years, I moved from bench work to career education and focused on the needs of postdoctoral fellows and graduate students in the life sciences.

Finding My Path

As an undergraduate at Michigan State University, I studied with William W. Wells, a prominent professor in the biochemistry department. The research was interesting, but, what I adored most was the interaction with my lab mates; they made science fun and exciting. This period began my fascination with how small the scientific community is and how much we all need to support each other to succeed.

I decided to go on to graduate school, though I had no intention of ever running my own lab. Although research was fun, I visualized myself more as an educator— applying my scientific brain, yet still with a “people component” to my career. I knew that a doctoral degree would open more doors for me. My time in grad school not only taught me how to do science, it trained me to think through a problem, to persevere, to stand up for my ideas and, it solidified my impression that members of the scientific community need to support each other to achieve success. My adviser, Cynthia Dupureur, encouraged me to interact with every visiting scientist who came to our department. She understood that I wanted to do something different, so she set up meetings for me with professors at liberal arts colleges, as well as a visit to our industry collaborators at New England Biolabs, where I met with everyone, from the patent lawyer to the bench scientists. While figuring out my career path, I discussed the options with everyone I met.

Building a Network

I was still searching for the career that fit me, so I used my position as a member of the school graduate student organization to coordinate career seminars for my fellow grad students. I looked to my network to find people who had used their degrees in a different way and invited them to give seminars on their jobs, all the while absorbing their information to help me decide whether one of these was the career path I was meant to follow.

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