Circle of Science: Developmental Stages of an Academic Career in Biology-Department of Biological Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Circle of Science: Developmental Stages of an Academic Career in Biology

Our scientific careers mimic embryogenesis — we develop over time. We start as a simple embryo, like a graduate student, and transform into a complex adult, like an academic professor. Similar to all organisms, we have to make sure that we possess the necessary components for successful development as well as avoid deleterious mutations along the way.

As the renowned developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert stated, “It is not birth, marriage, or death, but gastrulation, which is truly the most important time in your life.” When this idea is applied to an academic career in biology, the last year of our Ph.D. becomes the most important time in our career. Prior to the last year, like a single-layered embryo, our time is spent in the lab conducting experiments, yet we are worry-free about grants and other responsibilities that our professors have. During our last year, we set up our three career layers like the three germ layers in gastrulation: publishing our Ph.D. work, finding a great post-doctoral position, and writing a grant. All of these layers have a major impact on our career.

Just as embryos don’t rest after gastrulation in order to form all of the necessary organs during organogenesis, we must also be productive and improve all of the skills necessary to secure a faculty position during our postdoctoral years. Like organogenesis, we need to further specify and develop previously established career layers, which means more publications and writing in a shorter amount of time.

After we struggle as an embryo, finding a faculty position is like opening our eyes to the world for the first time. We have our own lab and it’s time to grow. We need to learn how to balance our time between teaching, research, keeping up with meetings, and training new students. It is overwhelming, but like a little kid we are eager to learn and have the energy to do so.

When we finally reach adolescence, we are up for tenure! Like a teenager, we need to prove to everyone around us that we are a thriving independent researcher. We need to work hard to show our independence by publishing more papers with our name at the end of the author list.

Then, we enter the tenure years. We can now fully invest in our progeny: our graduate students. They will inherit everything from us for their own embryonic development. And the circle of life and science continues…

By: Ezgi Kunttas-Tatli, Ph.D. Candidate