The past year in academic careers

Courtney Chandler
Dec. 22, 2023

I am approaching the end of my second year covering the academic careers beat for ASBMB Today, and it’s also been almost two years since I started a job outside of academia. Over that period, my perspective has shifted. I’m now on the outside looking in.

Luckily, I have been able to learn from many fantastic sources this year who have not only helped me stay informed but who also have shared their advice and wisdom for job seekers considering an academic path.

Here are some takeaways.

Undergraduate education

It may seem like many academic careers focus on research and teaching students who are pursuing advanced degrees. However, career preparation certainly starts earlier than grad school.

Undergraduate research opportunities are becoming increasingly common, although career resources geared specifically for the research-oriented undergrad seem harder to find. So this year I made it a point to focus on topics that could benefit undergrads and those working with them in and out of the lab.

I spoke to professors, research advisers and students themselves about skills undergraduates need, starting with how to prepare for conferences.

Conference experiences vary across all career stages, and the first conference can seem daunting to undergraduates.

To help undergrads understand how a scientific research poster is evaluated and how to prepare for a poster presentation, I talked to Jeremy Johnson, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Butler University, who has mentored undergrads and judged posters at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s annual competition.

I also asked undergraduates for tips and tricks about how to make the most of the conference, including taking advantage of networking events and seeking out booths and graduate students in programs of interest.

I also wrote about how to design an effective lab course. The main takeaway was to give students a sense of the whole process (failures included) with a focus on hands-on engagement.

Forward progress

As with most sectors, academia still has progress to make toward becoming more equitable, and some institutions are building programs to effect change. This year, I learned about the successes and struggles of one such program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

I talked to Jennifer Normanly, who is part of a cohort of faculty members at UMass Amherst who won a National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant, which aims to increase representation and advancement of women in STEM. Normanly offered tips for schools looking to copy her institution’s accomplishments.

I also was stuck by my discussions with several professors, most of whom were women, who described the silent toll of unpromotable work.

Although I didn’t have a word for it at the time, I distinctly recognized this kind of work from my years as a grad student and postdoc and appreciated the advice the professors shared to make sure you don’t overfill your plate (or, to get recognized for your work if you do).

Career advancement — and lack thereof

Lastly, I enjoyed covering some of the less tangible aspects of career advancement in academia.

If you were ever told not to ask a student when they’ll be done with their graduate degree (as I was when I started grad school, since graduation timelines are so unpredictable), take the same advice for postdocs. When a postdoc ends is variable at best, and the outcomes are innumerable. Many postdocs don’t end up in academic positions, and, if they do, the paths their will vary.

But to get to a postdoc at all, you may have to overcome a grad school slump. I’m not sure how universal this experience is, but I found it somewhat therapeutic to write about the hamster-wheel feeling of my fourth year of graduate school. If you’ve felt something similar, I hope this article resonates with you.

I hope at least one of these articles has provided a tip or trick you can carry into next year. Happy new year and stay tuned for more academic career advice in 2024!

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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