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.)
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.
As my graduation date drew closer, I still had not picked a path. Plus, I was not yet ready to leave research. What I really wanted was to broaden my scientific horizons and to try something new. I carefully explored postdoc labs, as I really wanted to have a supportive mentor who understood that I did not wish to go into academia. I had forged a great relationship at conferences with Marlene Belfort at the Wadsworth Center and knew that her lab would be perfect. Marlene was a successful scientist who also understood work-life balance. Her lab had a genetic focus but also did traditional biochemistry. I liked the flexibility of projects and the camaraderie in the lab.
My turning point in choosing a career came in the summer of 2003. One day, I received two envelopes in the mail. The first contained the scores from my NRSA grant application, and the second was from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My grant had made the funding line, and AAAS was offering me a position as a program manager for Science’s NextWave, the precursor to the current ScienceCareers.org. I had a choice to make: continue to do research or move and take a job planning career events. My husband, also a scientist, had just started his postdoc. For his career, it was important for us to keep our postdocs, so I decided to take the grant.
Now, however, I knew what I wanted to do, and, more importantly, I learned that the type of job I wanted existed and was accessible! While planning all of those career talks, I found that my passion was career development. I planned the next two years of my postdoc wisely. I worked hard at the bench and published a few more papers. Papers are the currency in science, no matter what job you take in the end, and any employer would want to see demonstrated productivity, no matter what the field. In my lab, if you brought in your own fellowship money, you were assigned a technician, which gave me the opportunity to gain supervisory experience. I continued to be involved in the postdoc association, planning events and helping the new group get started. I followed what was happening in postdoc education by being involved with the National Postdoctoral Association, and, most importantly, I continued to build my network.
Helping the Next Generation of Scientists
When my fellowship ended, it was time to find a job. I relied heavily on my network and was eventually connected with a job at the New York Academy of Sciences, running their global career development program— Science Alliance. The job was amazing, and it really fit my personality and passions. I went around New York, the country and the world, giving talks to prepare postdocs and graduate students entering the job market. I was recruited to the National Institutes of Health a few years later to join its Office of Intramural Training and Education as the director of postdoctoral services.
My current job focuses on combining people and science. My scientific background gives me credibility and allows me to understand the challenges of working in a lab and searching for a job. I plan career events almost weekly on topics, both at and away from the bench. I give presentations that focus mostly on skill development: “How to write a CV/resume,” “How to succeed in an interview,” “How to manage a job search,” “Improving lab dynamics” and more. I also plan events on career exploration, inviting fellow scientists in all career fields to come to the NIH to share their experiences. Most of the talks I have given are archived on our website at www.training.nih.gov. My mission is to give postdocs the resources to find a career that will satisfy their ambitions.
Throughout my journey, I have kept my scientific network close. I rely on them to field questions from my fellows and to look for new ideas for novel career development content. I love to travel around the country giving career development talks and representing the NIH and its support for the next generation of scientists. Plus, all of the traveling gives me an excuse to connect with my network, in person, while I’m in town for business. Never forget how small the scientific community is, and use its size to your career advantage.