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Questions to Ask Before Playing on the Tracks: Job Security and Salary Considerations for Tenured and Non-Tenured Faculty Positions

Erika I. Boesen, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE

Tenure: a six-letter word for security, which simultaneously strikes fear into the hearts of new and prospective assistant professors. But should it? The concept of tenure was originally proposed in part as a means to ensuring academic freedom while guaranteeing secure employment. Along with keeping your job for as long as you want it, this has generally been taken to mean employment at full pay. But does tenure still mean job security and full salary coverage, forever? Aren’t universities increasingly doing away with tenure? Does having tenure or the opportunity to get it really matter to your career? Rather than trying to distill the secrets to securing tenure, this article will discuss what kinds of models are currently offered in terms of tenure status and salary, and some questions to consider if you are newly on the job hunt for a faculty position.

First, some basics, and a disclaimer: The information and commentary below focuses on full-time faculty positions at academic institutions in the United States. Academic ranks, career structures, and whether tenure or something equivalent even exists varies considerably between countries. Interested readers are encouraged to explore the European University Institute’s website for an excellent and growing summary of such information for Europe and beyond (1).

What is Tenure?

Tenure, as most people think of it, is essentially a guaranteed ongoing employment contract at an academic institution, continuing in perpetuity. Unless, of course, your contract is terminated for cause (yes, you can still be fired!), or if an extraordinary circumstance arises such as a fiscal crisis for the university. The criteria and expectations to be met to secure tenure differ between institutions and between types of positions (e.g., research-focused vs. educator tracks). There may even be nuances in expectations between different schools or colleges within an institution. Whether and how frequently your institution has an opportunity to reevaluate its commitment to you once you are tenured, in the form of post-tenure review, varies between institutions. Detailed information regarding tenure and post-tenure review can usually be found on the individual college or school’s webpage, or in the institution’s faculty handbook. Whether tenure also guarantees 100% of your full salary is a different matter. More will be said below on implications for salary, regardless of tenure status.

The Tenure Track and the Dreaded “Tenure Clock”

The terms “tenure-track,” “tenure-eligible,” and “tenure-leading” all indicate that someone employed in such a position could one day apply for tenure. And the default expectation is that they will indeed apply. If tenure-track faculty do not apply for and are not granted tenure in a timely fashion (i.e., before the clock runs out), usually their contract will be terminated, and they will need to find another job.

Typically, tenure-track faculty are expected to have amassed the appropriate research/scholarship, teaching, and “service” experiences, and to have achieved a level of productivity to warrant being tenured within approximately 5–7 years of their initial faculty appointment. This 5–7 years to prove why your institution should want to keep you around forever represents the time on your “tenure clock.” Often, people submit their application for tenure at the same time as their application for promotion to associate professor, although not always. At my institution, for example, you may apply for promotion and tenure at separate times; the two have overlapping but slightly different criteria. Some institutions reserve tenure for full professors only. If you are an assistant professor who is recruited by another institution as an associate professor, tenure might form part of the recruitment package but more likely won’t be granted straight away. In that case, you may be both eligible and expected to apply for tenure in a shorter period of time than if you had started there as an assistant professor (e.g., 3 years). At other institutions, tenure is not offered at all, regardless of rank.

At institutions with an “up or out” promotion and tenure policy, if you do not successfully apply for and are not granted promotion and tenure by the end of the allotted period on your clock, your contract is not renewed. People hired at the associate professor level who don’t make tenure in their abbreviated time frame may also be let go. Such all-or-nothing scenarios can make that clock tick very loudly. But before you break into a cold sweat at the thought, ask your prospective employer some questions. Is there a hard-and-fast timeline, and, if so, in what year do you need to apply and succeed? Is there flexibility on this deadline at the discretion of your department chair? Does your institution use the classical 5- to 7-year clock or has it been extended to 10 years under the more challenging funding conditions of modern times? Will you even be hired on a tenure-track basis in the first place, or does this designation occur later? If you join the tenure track later, how does that affect how long you have before you must secure tenure?

Career progress isn’t always smooth, and life can throw unexpected challenges your way. Ask whether your institution has a policy that allows you to “stop the clock” and be granted more time, if, for example, your career progress is interrupted by having a family, major illness, or other unexpected life events. A variation of this idea is to allow faculty to switch from tenure track to nontenure track, with the option of returning to the tenure track if the situation improves. Anecdotally, such offers tend to be made if funding is the main concern. If you ever find yourself considering this track-switching option, make sure you ask a lot of questions first. Just because it is theoretically possible to get back on the tenure track doesn’t mean that it is likely, and it could be easier to cut your salary and/or terminate your employment in the interim. Are there other consequences, such as loss of eligibility for intramural pilot grants or certain extramural awards if you go off the tenure track? Where would your salary coverage come from? How would your independence and general job duties be affected? What are the new expectations and what requirements must be met to restore your tenure eligibility?

Okay, So What’s the Deal With Non-Tenure Track Positions?

The defining characteristic of non-tenure-track faculty positions is that they explicitly do not come with the potential for a lifetime appointment. That isn’t to say that job security is necessarily poorer than for tenure-track positions. Indeed, non-tenure-track faculty may well enjoy more longevity in their positions than tenure-track faculty who don’t make tenure! Contracts may be for fixed terms or renewable indefinitely, provided that the need for the position and funds to support it remain available. This can mean very stable employment at institutions with consistent levels of student enrollment, healthy finances, and the like. Faculty positions at institutions that do not offer tenure are all non-tenure track by default, but different types of contracts may still exist within the same institution. Sometimes the opportunity for presumptive annual contract renewals or multi-year contracts follows a probationary period (e.g., 3 years). Advancement in rank can also be possible, provided you meet the relevant criteria set forth by your institution, although not all institutions allow this. Consult the faculty handbook, the fine print in your contract, and your department chair for details on expectations for contract renewal, procedures regarding non-renewal, and what level of due process you can expect. Frankly, this is prudent for faculty in tenure-track appointments too!

At institutions employing both tenure- and non-tenure-track faculty, expectations and job duties assigned to the two tracks are often different. For example, non-tenure-track research faculty typically aren’t regarded as fully independent, won’t be offered a startup package or their own dedicated lab space, and may not be expected to teach. Rather, they often work with an established investigator, who usually provides at least some salary support. In contrast, tenure-track research faculty are expected to develop an independent, extramurally funded research program, as well as teach (the amount varies widely), as well as provide service to the university, peers, and the public. Whether non-tenure-track faculty are afforded the same level of autonomy and respect, and the same privileges as tenure-track faculty, or included to the same degree in department-level decision-making depends on concrete factors such as institutional policies and potentially more flexible factors such as departmental culture and management philosophy.

As a faculty member rather than merely a staff member, some amount of service is typically expected, regardless of track. The amount may be minimal if you are research faculty exclusively paid for by a senior colleague’s grants. That being said, my service activities as a non-tenure-track research faculty member were not all that different in nature and scope to my current commitments as a tenure-track faculty member. Service opportunities abound, and where there is a willingness, someone will find a way to make use of you!

How Common Is It to Have Tenure?

Not as common as it used to be. Based on National Center for Education Statistics (3), of all degree-granting post-secondary institutions with a tenure system in the United States, there has been a gradual decline in the percentage of full-time faculty with tenure, from 56.2% in 1993–1994 to 47.3% in 2015–2016. According to the Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology 2017 Survey Results (2), of a total number of 945 faculty, 64% were tenured, a further 17.5% were tenure-eligible, with an almost identical percentage who were not tenure-eligible. This hefty proportion of tenured or tenure-eligible faculty may reflect the top-heavy nature of the academic ranks represented: 74% were associate or full professors (or chairs). Although these numbers are relatively high, the picture will undoubtedly change as institutions reconsider their approach to tenure, and as current tenured faculty retire. Some institutions are doing away with tenure altogether for new faculty hires; it’s not just private or for-profit institutions that are doing this but state-funded institutions too.

What is the Advantage of Having Tenure?

In this brave new world of the gig economy, tenure may seem like a dusty relic of a distant past to many people. But it has its benefits. Tenure bestows a far higher level of security in your ongoing employment than what is offered in most other professions. For many in academia, there will always be a sense of achievement and prestige associated with being tenured. Once you have tenure, it can serve as a bargaining chip of sorts if you explore an employment offer at another institution. For teaching faculty, tenure allows you to try out new approaches without fear that negative student evaluations will impact your contract renewal. For most research-focused faculty, tenure isn’t prized so much for its implied freedom to express controversial ideas or to speak truth to power. Rather, the key advantage is that it buys you time to turn your funding fortunes around if your grants run out. This has undoubtedly been a boon to many mid-career and more senior scientists, but while your job might stay safe, your full salary might not.

So, Tell Me More About Salary

Many institutions have a system to reward faculty for covering part or all of their salary with grant dollars, although such rewards may only be offered to tenure-track faculty. Rather than focusing on possible bonuses, let’s focus on your regular salary level. Here are four factors to think about, regardless of tenure status or eligibility:

What proportion of the year does your contract cover? Is it 12 months, or does the institution guarantee somewhere in the 9- to 11-month range? If less than 12 months of salary is guaranteed, are you expected to provide the balance through extramural grant funding, if research is part of what you do? For educators on 9-month contracts, is there an option for you to participate in teaching over the summer to make up the difference, should you want to?

Is 100% of your full salary guaranteed, or just some portion? If it is just a portion, is that a percentage or a fixed dollar amount? If it is a fixed dollar amount, is it the same for everyone or is it tiered by academic rank? Given your personal financial situation and the local cost of living, how comfortable would you feel about taking home only that fixed amount or only that percentage of your total salary? Seriously consider this question. Finances are tough in most academic environments, so dropping to that base at some point of your career is a very real possibility. One argument I have heard in favor of guaranteeing a fixed base amount and adding a flexible amount determined by extramural funding is that the total amount of money you are eligible to earn might be higher than if your salary was guaranteed but fixed. I should point out that the person putting this argument to me was a financial administrator rather than a scientist. Although a compensation plan including both fixed and variable components could be advantageous for very successful, often well-established investigators, would it be a good deal for you? And even if it is a good deal right now, will it still be a good deal if a current grant ended and it took a while to get the next one?

If you are in a research-oriented position, what percentage of your salary are you expected to cover through extramural funding? Is that expectation put in writing in your contract, or is it more of a friendly guide to keeping the dean happy? In medical schools and tier 1 research universities, expectations of upwards of 50% salary coverage are common. That being said, you might be interested to learn that the Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology 2017 Survey Results also indicated that, for reporting departments, on average only 34% of total faculty salary was derived from research grants (excluding fringe benefits cost) (2). Ask what the expectation is at your prospective institution and find out how rigorously it is enforced. Has this been a major factor in cases where faculty contracts were not renewed or people were not granted tenure? Be realistic about your chances for success in measuring up to the standard, whatever that might be. Less drastic consequences of not meeting extramural salary support targets could be an increase in teaching or clinical duties, or a pay cut, which brings me to our next point.

Can the institution decrease your salary? There used to be a presumption that tenure meant you kept 100% of your salary no matter what. Rules are being written or rewritten to change this. Indeed, lawsuits have been brought over whether a tenured faculty member’s salary can be involuntarily reduced for not meeting external funding requirements (4). Institutions of several faculty I spoke to already have procedures in place to reduce salary if targets for salary coverage are not met, for both tenured and non-tenured faculty. Do ask prospective employers whether salary reductions could occur, and if so, how rapidly and by how much.

How Secure is a Tenured Position, Really?

Most tenured faculty I have spoken to actually don’t view their positions as fully secure, especially if there is a loss of grant funding. The thinking goes, you might be tenured, but your work situation may become untenable. Incentives for faculty to investigate employment opportunities elsewhere include salary cuts, taking away lab space, being moved into a smaller office, and increasing unenjoyable administrative assignments or teaching duties. Under-performing “deadwood” is an often-cited downside to allowing tenure at all, with the larger salaries of senior faculty gobbling up funds that could be used to support other initiatives or younger, hungrier (and cheaper) faculty. Many institutions do have a process of reevaluating tenured faculty, called post-tenure review. How frequently or rigorously post-tenure review is applied varies. It might be on the books, but seldom used. At least until now. This is an area that university administrators are increasingly looking to as a means to provide more flexibility in how they handle tenured faculty who do not meet expectations, whatever those expectations are. Dissolving a department or program can also allow your institution to divest itself of tenured faculty assigned to that department. Tenure might not really be forever.

What About Losing Your Position if You Aren’t Tenured Yet, or Aren’t in a Tenure-Track Position?
As much as no one wants to think about being let go, do educate yourself on the circumstances under which this might occur and find out what the timeline and process would be. Untenured tenure-track faculty may be on a fixed contract or yearly renewal that would allow for 12-months’ notice prior to termination. Employment contracts of faculty who are not tenure track may allow for a much more rapid severance process, especially if the funding supporting the position runs out (90 days’ notice at my institution). Other faculty might be on 9- or 12-month contracts that their institution may decline to renew without explanation, and with much less notice.

Coming back to the “nicest” of these termination scenarios, having 12 months to find a new job is extraordinarily generous compared with most industries. However, if you are trying to find a new faculty position, this can be a slow process with limited openings and fierce competition. Depending on what time of year it is, there could be a long delay before a start date timed to coincide with the new academic year, or you might have missed the window to apply for positions commencing in the coming year. Community colleges running on quarter systems might offer shorter lead times on start dates. Of course, you could well use non-renewal of your academic contract as an opportunity to explore the world of possibilities outside the ivory tower!

If Tenure Isn’t on the Table, What Should You be Thinking About?

Several faculty indicated that factors such as how supportive the environment is are more important than tenure per se. If research is your primary focus, the ability to maintain funding for your lab is a far more practical concern than tenure in any case. Other practical concerns are the length of contract, expectations to be met for having it continued, and how much notice you will be given if the institution decides not to renew. If you are comparing similar offers from one institution that does offer tenure and another that doesn’t, are there any financial or other perks available to offset the lack of a possible lifetime appointment?

With the demise of tenure at some institutions, and implementation of stricter post-tenure review policies at others, institutions will need to consider the challenges that these pose to recruitment and retention of faculty, at least for as long as tenure remains on the table elsewhere and is perceived as valuable. Best of luck to all faculty who are navigating this shifting landscape, now and into the future.

Acknowledgments

I thank the many friends and colleagues out there in facultyland for sharing their insights and experiences with me during the writing of this article.

References

European University Institute. Academic careers by country (Online). https://www.eui.eu/ProgrammesAndFellowships/AcademicCareersObservatory/AcademicCareersbyCountry

Mangiarua EI, Lowy ME, Urban JH. Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology 2017 survey results. The Physiologist 61: 175–185, 2018.

National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics: 2016 (Online). https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_316.80.asp

Reichman H. Important legal victory for faculty rights (Online). https://academeblog.org/2016/12/20/important-legal-victory-for-faculty-rights/

Erika Boesen Biography

Erika Boesen received her BS (Hons.) and PhD in physiology from Monash University, Australia, before moving to the then Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, GA in 2005 to continue her research career in renal physiology and pathophysiology. After completing her postdoctoral training and serving as a research faculty member for 4 years, Erika was recruited to the University of Nebraska Medical Center as a tenure-track assistant professor in 2012. Currently an associate professor, Erika enjoys the juggling act of research, teaching graduate and health professions students, and providing service within and outside her institution. A past member of the American Physiological Society’s Career Opportunities in Physiology Committee, Erika is the current Renal Section representative on the Committee on Committees.

Tips for the Aspiring Physician-Scientist

Jeanie Park, MD, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA

For most physicians, the pathway to a career in science often appears ambiguous and uncertain. Although the trajectory to becoming a practicing clinician is clearly defined, with well-demarcated milestones such as passing the USMLE step exams and completing residency training, the path to becoming a physician-scientist is not clear-cut. In fact, most physicians are unaware of the steps involved in fashioning a career in scientific research or the rewards and challenges involved in such a pursuit. In addition, unless one has dual MD and PhD degrees, a physician without PhD training may feel like a “late bloomer” when pursuing a career in science and not adequately trained or prepared. We may feel that our PhD counterparts have been preparing for years throughout graduate school and postdoctoral fellowships for a research career, while we have been training for an entirely different type of career in clinical medicine and patient care. These and other obstacles have led to a relative dearth in the number of young physicians pursuing academic research careers. However, physicians may evolve into successful scientists with some planning and foresight, and enjoy fulfilling careers that combine scientific research with patient care and teaching.

What is a Physician-Scientist?

A physician-scientist is a practicing clinician who spends the bulk of his or her time doing research. Like their PhD counterparts, physician scientists conduct all types of biomedical research, including basic, translational, clinical, and population studies. Physician-scientists also engage in clinical activities, teaching, service, and administration. Unlike clinician-educators that usually spend a minority of their time pursuing scholarly activities, physician-scientists typically devote at least 50% or more of their time in research activities as a principal investigator funded by federal and foundation grants. Research activities include a variety of specific endeavors, with some variation depending on the type of research program. These include writing grants and papers, performing experiments, training students and research fellows, collaborating with other investigators, serving on study sections, and presenting at national meetings. Although physicians may have relatively less experience in these areas, such skills can be developed during fellowship and as a junior faculty member. In addition, physicians have unique perspectives and backgrounds, which include scientific and clinical expertise, both of which can be leveraged when competing for grants and establishing a research program. Physician-scientists identify clinically relevant questions at the bedside, study these questions in the laboratory, and then apply that knowledge back at the bedside.

Do You Have the Desire for an Academic Research Career?

Given our relatively late start as MDs, you may wonder whether you have what it takes to become a physician-scientist. Several resources list various qualities that are necessary to becoming a physician-scientist, including being hard-working, self-motivated with perseverance, capable of problem-solving and multi-tasking with the focus and ability to see things through to the end. I believe that, for the most part, physicians possess these intrinsic traits, since these are also the qualities necessary for surviving the rigors of medical school and clinical training. In my opinion, the essential ingredient necessary for success as a physician-scientist is the desire to pursue this career path, and the commitment to make it your goal. This commitment is crucial because it will ensure that you apply your skills and talents to establishing a scientific career with the same fervor that has made you successful thus far. This level of commitment is akin to the commitment made when completing medical school and residency; if one’s mindset was open to giving up and opting for an alternative career if things got rough, then many of us may have given up medicine during our internship when working long hours on call under sleep-deprived and stressful conditions. However, giving up was not an option. When this same level of commitment is applied to pursuing an academic research career, then you have an excellent chance of successfully establishing a fulfilling and rewarding career as a physician-scientist.

There are many advantages of a physician-scientist career that make it a very attractive career choice. I particularly value the variety of the work. On any given day, I may be treating outpatients in the clinic, conducting experiments in the lab, rounding on hospital patients with residents, discussing grant ideas with my postdoctoral fellow, attending a scientific meeting, etc. This type of variety allows me to use my creativity and exercise different parts of my brain in interesting and stimulating ways, as well as eliminate any threat of a mundane work life. Many physician-scientists also appreciate the constant learning and opportunity for advancement. After completing training and becoming an attending physician, some physicians are left with a sense of “what next,” which can lead to long-term job dissatisfaction. In academic medicine, there are constantly new goals to be met, and endless ways to grow and evolve. Flexibility and autonomy are also important factors that enhance job satisfaction. Not only are the work hours more flexible in general than in private practice, but the type of work, including the types of clinical activities and research endeavors, is also more flexible and under my control. These advantages lead to a deeply satisfying sense that I am contributing on multiple levels: directly to patients through clinical work, broadly to scientific knowledge through research, and to the education of future physicians and scientists through teaching.

There are also a number of disadvantages that should be considered when pursuing this pathway. The salary of a physician-scientist is lower than that of physicians in private practice, which can be worrisome for those with large amounts of student loans. However, programs such as the NIH loan repayment program help to decrease the burden by paying a substantial portion of medical school debt for physicians engaged in research. Second, a career as a physician-scientist requires a great deal of troubleshooting. Unlike the clinical training years, your career as a physician-scientist may not follow the trajectory and timetable that you have set in your mind. Technical problems will arise, experiments may not go as planned, grants may take multiple attempts to get funded, and papers will be rejected. This kind of uncertainty and rejection may be difficult to deal with given that physicians are accustomed to achieving each expected outcome within an expected timeframe. However, science does not tend to work this way. Troubleshooting and adaptability are part of the scientific process. In short, failure is an essential part of the journey toward success in this line of work.

Tips for Preparing for a Physician-Scientist Career

1) Choose Your Scientific Niche

For physicians, research training often begins late in the game during residency or clinical fellowship. Therefore, it is crucial to think long-term when choosing a research area. Choose an area that you are passionate about, while leveraging the resources and expertise at your given institution, as well as your own strengths and talents. Given our late start in scientific training, you want to avoid switching fields during or after fellowship, and establish a foundation for a continuous line of research. For example, I became interested in autonomic regulation and its role in the pathogenesis of high blood pressure and kidney disease during my Nephrology fellowship. I became passionate about human physiology research and felt that there was a critical gap in our understanding and approach to treatment in this area to which I could devote my career long-term while continuing to treat patients.

2) Seek Mentorship

There is a consensus that good mentorship is a critical component of research training that can determine success or failure. However, mentorship is not a passive process on the part of the mentee. The mentee is not a receptacle into which a mentor pours his or her wisdom and guides each step of the way. Rather, the mentee will gain more by being an active player in the mentor-mentee relationship. It is best to understand your training needs and then actively seek out mentors who can fulfill those deficits. To that end, it is difficult to find a single person who can fulfill all of your training needs; therefore, you may have separate mentors for your science, career development, work-life balance, etc. Therefore, your mentors may be outside of your division, department, or even institution. However, one common characteristic of your mentors should be an interest in seeing you succeed, and the ability to offer honest advice with your best interests at the forefront.

3) Write a Fellowship Grant

Having the experience of writing a grant during your fellowship training will be an invaluable asset during your first faculty position. Even if you are fortunate enough to be supported on an institutional training grant or have other guaranteed sources of funding, I would still highly recommend writing a fellowship grant. Why? The process of writing a grant allows you to formulate your short-term as well as your long-term objectives, and will serve as a useful springboard for your career development award application as a junior faculty member. Writing a fellowship grant will provide experience with formulating research aims and approach, grantsmanship and scientific writing, organization and submission process as the principal investigator, and responses to a summary statement. Submitting the first grant application is an arduous process with a steep learning curve; therefore, you do not want your first grant-writing experience to occur as a faculty member. Writing a fellowship grant will set you up for writing a much stronger career development award application as a faculty member.

4) Practice Independence

Practicing self-reliance during your training period will increase your likelihood of success when you are indeed independent. Although it may be easiest to go to your mentor with each problem or unexpected result, try your best to solve the issue initially as much as possible on your own. Doing so will improve your technical proficiency and troubleshooting abilities. Understand the nuts and bolts of every aspect of performing research, including IACUC or IRB process, data management, and safety monitoring. If possible, set up a lab or a new experimental protocol on your own. This experience will be invaluable when you start your first faculty job and need to set up your own lab. And importantly, don’t rush it. This training period is a golden opportunity to gain as much proficiency as possible before embarking on your own. As such, it is in your best interest to continue training until you feel sufficiently prepared to develop your own program.

5) Find the Right First Faculty Position

The criteria for determining the right first faculty position will depend on many factors, both professional and personal. For instance, you may be restricted to a certain city or state due to family reasons, or institutions with a specific patient population that you need for enrollment into your studies. There is not one single type of institution that will guarantee success, but rather many different institutions at which one has the potential to start a successful research career. What these institutions have in common is that the goals of the department align with your long-term career goals. For example, if the department’s goal is to recruit a clinician-educator but your goal is to establish an independent research career, then this is likely not a good fit, even if the institution is a top-tier research institution or promises you some degree of protected research time. If the department’s goal is to see you succeed in research, then it will be more open to providing resources and, importantly, protected time to develop your research program. At the same time, be sure to have a clear understanding of what you will need to be successful (lab space, clinical coordinator support, protected time, start-up funds, etc), and communicate those needs before you start the job. It is much more difficult to ask for these things after you have been hired.

Navigating the first faculty job and all of the new responsibilities will take time. Early on, invest your time into establishing your research career. You can always increase your clinical time later, but it is difficult to do the reverse. If possible, relate your clinical work and teaching to your research endeavors. In this way, your clinical work will inform your research, and your research will inform your clinical work. Moreover, you will further develop your scientific niche and your reputation as a leader (both clinically and scientifically) in your field. Be flexible and don’t give up. Remember that troubleshooting is part of the process. And lastly, don’t forget to enjoy your successes. They are well-deserved.

 

Author Bio

Jeanie Park received her BA in English from Rice University, and MD from University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). She then completed internal medicine residency at Washington University in St. Louis, and a nephrology fellowship at the University of Southern California, where she also received an MS in Biomedical and Clinical Investigations. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Renal Division at Emory University School of Medicine. She divides her time between caring for patients with kidney disease and conducting human physiology research in sympathetic nervous system regulation. She is a member of the Women in Physiology Committee for the American Physiological Society.

Further Recommended Reading

1. Cheung V. Vitalizing physician-scientists: it’s time to overcome our imagination fatigue. J Clin Invest 127: 3568–3570, 2017. doi:10.1172/JCI96939.
2. Eisenberg MJ. The Physician Scientist’s Career Guide. New York: Springer, 2011.
3. Feliu-Dominguez R, Medero-Rodriguez P, Cruz-Correa M. Women gastroenterologists in academic medicine: tradition versus transition. Dig Dis Sci 62: 13–15, 2017. doi:10.1007/s10620-016-4369-x.
4. Kalloo SD, Mathew RO, Asif A. Is nephrology specialty at risk? Kidney Int 90: 31–33, 2016. doi:10.1016/j.kint.2016.01.032
5. Kwan JM, Daye D, Schmidt ML, Conlon CM, Kim H, Gaonkar B, Payne AS, Riddle M, Madera S, Adami AJ, Winter KQ. Exploring intentions of physician-scientist trainees: factors influencing MD and MD/PhD interest in research careers. BMC Med Educ 17: 115, 2017. doi:10.1186/s12909-017-0954-8.
6. Martin K. Tips for Young Scientists on the Junior Faculty/Independent Investigator Job Search. Neuron 93: 731–736, 2017. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2017.02.012.
7. Mehta SJ, Forde KA. How to make a successful transition from fellowship to faculty in an academic medical center. Gastroenterology 145: 703–707, 2013. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2013.08.040.
8. Melnick A. Transitioning from fellowship to a physician-scientist career track. Hematology 2008: 16–22, 2008. doi:10.1182/asheducation-2008.1.16.
9. Milewicz DM, Lorenz RG, Dermody TS, Brass LF; National Association of MD-PhD Programs Executive Committee. Rescuing the physician-scientist workforce: the time for action is now. J Clin Invest 125: 3742–3747, 2015. doi:10.1172/JCI84170.
Where Academics Go to Die: Mentorship and “Alternative” Careers in Life Science

Emily J. Johnson
Providence Medical Research Center, Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital, Spokane, Washington

Excess generally causes reaction, and produces a change in the opposite direction, whether it be in the seasons, or in individuals, or in governments. – Plato, Republic

In 2002, mathematician and biologist Dr. Irakli Loladze argued that elemental changes in the earth’s atmosphere could alter the nutrient composition of plants at the base of the food chain (15). The idea was not incredible: reports of altered growth, yield, and micronutrient-to-carbohydrate ratios in rice and cereal crops grown in high-CO2 field conditions had been surfacing since the 1990s (5, 7, 8, 22). A rapid uptick in the pace of these reports has since removed any doubt that base food crops are susceptible to negative effects from excessive exposure to CO2, a prerequisite for photosynthesis (9, 12, 16, 20). It is, literally, an example of total ecological shift resulting from too much of a good thing.

In many ways, this story of excess and its repercussions parallels the recent history of the science job market. It is a story of evolution, market pressure, and adaptation, which all mentors and students must know in order to navigate the new landscape of science jobs.

The Science Bubble

It is no secret that the familiar economy of academia – a vortex that sucks in students and keeps them forever as professors – is struggling to keep up with the sheer numbers of scientists emerging from institutes of higher education. Due, allegedly, to the ever-swelling ranks of their peers, young would-be scientists and professors are increasingly failing to find and keep long-term employment.

Of course, arguing that this is due to the change in our numbers would require accurate tracking of the number of scientists over time, which is nearly impossible. (For what it’s worth, a hand-waving headcount of The School of Athens suggests that the original Akademia housed between four and five dozen scientists, not including Raphael, angels, and cherubs.) Regardless of how one might arrive at a serious baseline estimate, modern academia now has orders of magnitude more scientists. In 2015, U.S. institutions awarded 55,006 graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, topping the previous record of 54,070 in 2014 (1, 2). Meanwhile, the number of academic positions has plateaued. By one calculation, the reproductive rate or R0 of academic jobs tells us that this sector can employ just 12.8% of scientists (14). Put another way, 87.2% of scientists will have to find another home.

The public response to these numbers has been, at best, a little bit glum, and at worst, a dumpster fire of fear and indignation. Why You Shouldn’t Go To Grad School and similar articles reflect deep anxiety rumbling in the ranks of current and future researchers (3, 17, 21). Voices from within the scientific community have tried to counter the angst by arguing that the problem is overstated, inaccurately presented, or even imaginary (18). However, telling students that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself does not seem to be working. The admonition that science is on a kind of employment precipice continues to appear. The New York Times stated the situation bluntly, telling readers, “The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle” (13). Even the National Public Radio Science Squeeze program admitted that “most postdocs are being trained for jobs that don’t actually exist” (11).

These data cast a long shadow, and it is not pessimistic to ask questions about the future of science. Are there really too many of us? Will science be smothered by its own success?

As you might have guessed, I doubt it. There are indeed lots and lots of us, but I think the number of scientists itself is a red herring. No matter how you slice it, having too many scientists is not a problem. How could it be? An unprecedented number of scientists is a solution begging to be implemented.

There is another set of data, which receives less attention, and which very clearly points to a different problem. According to these figures, every Tom, Dick, and Harry scientist should have a job. From 2009 to 2015, the same period of time during which the U.S. awarded a record number of STEM graduate degrees, net domestic STEM-related employment grew twice as fast as non-STEM-related employment (10.5% vs. 5.2%), producing 817,260 new STEM jobs (10). Yet, in 2014, the proportion of PhD-trained individuals with “definite commitments for employment or postdoc study” declined, as it had for 4 of the 6 previous years (1). The same trend held for those who received doctoral degrees in the year 2014.

These data show that the problem with the academic job market is not just the number of scientists. The real problem, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has précised – not without expressing some puzzlement – is that the U.S. has too much of three things at the same time: science jobs, scientists, and unemployment in science (24).

Figuring out how these problems can exist at the same time ought perhaps to be left to economists, who have been conducting naval-gazing evaluations of supply and demand in their own corner for quite some time, asking questions such as, Does the Academic Labor Market Initially Allocate New Graduates Efficiently? (the answer is no) (23). One hypothesis, which uses the analogy of taxi queuing, says that the fundamental problem is timing. That is, the asynchronous appearance of scientists compared to science employers creates bottlenecks that result in apparent oscillations in employment (24).

Regardless of the mechanism, the bottom line is that we are facing a problem that should not exist. Are there too many scientists for the traditional ecosystem of grants and professorships? Yes. Are tenure and grant funding withering? Maybe. But is the number of scientists the root of the science employment problem? No. The root of the problem is that new scientists are not, apparently, very good at getting those 817,260 new jobs.

To me, the solution to this problem starts and ends with mentorship – realistic, career-oriented mentorship. In my opinion, the biggest barrier that mentors have to overcome is embodied in three little words that make every non-academically employed scientist I know say, “Goosfraba.”

The “Alternative” Career

In February of 2017, I left my postdoc for a position in clinical research at a community hospital. I love my new role, which is challenging, exciting, busy, and uses my education. But when I accepted it, many colleagues in academia thought I was making a bad choice by choosing an “alternative” career. “Once you leave, you can’t come back,” the apocryphal mantra went.

To this day, I am still not sure why this prodigal son narrative exists in academia. Calling every non-academic job “alternative” is so simplistic, it is almost meaningless. Imagine if the science of physiology recognized two types of species: zebra fish and non-zebra fish. The distinction is true, but useless for approximately 8,699,999 of the 8.7 million species of organisms on earth. Nevertheless, the idea of “normal” academic and “alternative” non-academic careers persists, and the future of life science may literally depend on how long we insist on approaching careers this way.

My argument is that good career-orientated mentorship is the answer to this problem. Certainly, it is the best chance we have to inspire the 87.2% of scientists who will not get academic jobs to break the industry ceiling.

First, the idea that the private sector is some kind of prison colony for people who are bad at Western blots must go. Obviously, the private sector is chock full of high-caliber scientists, but ex-academics still feel the need to defend against this prejudice.

“Regardless of not having an official faculty appointment, I consider myself a scholar, especially considering my training, my way of thinking, and how I approach and solve problems,” says Dr. Vanessa Gonzalez-Perez, Assistant Dean for Diversity Initiatives in the Natural Sciences at Princeton University. In her role at Princeton, to which she transitioned from a faculty appointment in 2016, Gonzalez-Perez focuses on student access and retention across 13 natural science departments, especially among historically underrepresented and first-generation students. Far from wasting her science education, Gonzalez-Perez feels that she is living her mission as a scientist every day. “I may not be in the lab designing experiments, but I am a still a scientist, and I definitely get to think of the problems we need to solve, design strategies, test them, and analyze the outcomes. I definitely have to use my critical thinking.” And she is adamant in combating prejudice about leaving science. “People think administrators are frustrated people who just ended up in these positions. I had a choice to stay in science or do this, and I chose to do this, and its highly rewarding!”

Ryan Schindler, a Manufacturing Technical Specialist with Genentech whose work spans biology and engineering, agrees that the scientific method does not belong only to academia. Ryan was trained as a biologist and obtained a degree in biotechnology from Washington State University. “My friends in engineering used to tell me, you’re basically an engineer.” But it’s all science, he says, and the application of scientific principles is more important than the specific facts he learned in his biology education. “My education helped me get the job, for sure,” Schindler allows, “but the scientific mentality – the hypothesis testing – is something I apply a lot more often than my knowledge of PI3K signaling.”

Some scientists actually leave academia to find inspiration. Dan Rodgers, founder and Chief Science Officer of AAVogen, Inc., ran a well-funded lab focusing on muscle-wasting diseases, but he left academia for an entrepreneurial venture inspired by his family. “My father died recently from cancer cachexia, and my nephew has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, two disease states directly related to my field of expertise,” says Rodgers. “I personally love the academic mission,” he explains, but eventually he felt that the private sector was a better fit for his mission. “I in no way regret my decision. Academia just wasn’t rewarding anymore – it wasn’t fun. Starting my own business? Now that’s fun!”

Heidi Medford, a technology licensing associate at Washington State University, also left science to pursue a career with bigger impact. “It’s becoming increasingly challenging to successfully fund an academic research laboratory,” says Medford, a previous American Physiological Society Minority Fellow. For a scientist who wants to make an impact on her field, Medford believes, this is discouraging. “It has been my experience that very few scientists make a large impact on their chosen field.” During her postdoc, Medford took a chance internship with her university’s Office of Commercialization, which eventually offered her a permanent position. Far from leaving science, she feels that she has finally found a niche within science where she can make an impact. Besides publishing, she says, “many scientists have a hard time delivering their research to the greater good.” But in her new job, she draws on her education to help scientists “bridge these gaps and deliver their discoveries to benefit mankind.”

Gonzalez-Perez echoed these sentiments. “I am a scientist, but my motivation in life is to serve others,” she said. Whether she does that by developing new therapies, pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge, or helping students get access to higher education, she is living her goals. In fact, she sees unity between her science education and her current role. As a first-generation college student and a Latina woman, she sees her job as an exciting platform from which she can lift the next generation of scientists.

The private sector also pays well, although this can be an awkward conversation for academia, where a good salary is still something that should be killed with fire. Private sector careers offer a real and viable way for scientists to work in science and also, for example, pay off the average $18–36,000 in student loans that college-educated individuals acquire, depending on their state, by their senior year of college (4).

Failing to communicate this to STEM students is, in my opinion, an ethical issue. In the millennial workforce, a little guilt goes a long way: despite their debt, one of the distinguishing features of the millennial generation’s job search is choosing meaningful causes and inspiration over paycheck size (19). In such a workforce, representing science as a bastion of (unpaid) holy stoicism might do more harm than good.

Even for successful professors, there is a pay gap between academia and industry. “I was a tenured full professor in an undergraduate department,” says Rodgers. “I had a respectable salary and established responsibilities. My job was as stable as one can get in academia. Although I now have much less job security, the prospect for financial success in particular is far greater.”

Although industry definitely has the edge financially, working in private industry comes with less freedom compared with most faculty jobs. Compared with her previous faculty position, Gonzalez-Perez notes that her current job has “a lot of structure, and end goals are less flexible, but there is also room for being creative, innovative, and resourceful.” A high level of individual freedom is one of the unique factors that makes academic jobs different from all other jobs. Scientists can expect a lower level of freedom when they join the industry workforce, where priorities are company-driven, compared with what they can do in faculty positions, she says.

Employees of a company like Schindler’s are expected to function within the larger company mission. There is, however, comparative freedom for an individual like Rodgers, who runs his own company, although such freedom tends to come with risk. As the founder of his company, all decisions rest with him, as does “all of the good and bad credit” for every decision he makes.

Breaking the Industry Ceiling

Whether academia itself is an industry is a touchy subject. “Education is by definition an investment, with short-term costs and long-term gains. It is not, nor will it ever be, a business. Treating it as one debases the academic mission,” says Rodgers. However, he acknowledges that the parallels between modern education and industry cannot be ignored, and the thin green line separating academia from industry is increasingly blurry.

“Both are driven by a bottom line,” said Gonzalez-Perez, “but maybe they shouldn’t be.” Medford is unequivocal about it – when asked if she considers academia an industry, she says, “Absolutely.”

Whether or not one considers academia an industry, since a transition out of academia is the likely career path for most scientists (14), breaking down barriers between academia and the private sector is essential for easing their way.

Mentors are uniquely poised to lead this change. Teaching students practical job-seeking skills, such as writing resumes rather than CVs, or even telling students that other careers exist, are good places to start. “I didn’t know that the industry I’m working in existed,” confessed Schindler.

Aimee Sutliff, a current graduate student in pharmaceutical sciences, expresses similar bewilderment. “During my time in graduate school, very little information has been provided about the variety of opportunities for a career outside of academia,” says Sutliff. “I don’t even know where to start looking for opportunities that are outside of strictly bench work in industry or faculty jobs in academia.”

Discussing private sector jobs with students as a primary option rather than some back-alley alternative, and explaining the incredible variety of these jobs, will also help the next generation of scientists find employment. Encouraging students to seek internships and do activities outside of the curriculum is fundamental for their future success, although this is admittedly hard to do in laboratory cultures where 60-hour work weeks are the norm. In this area, life science could benefit from taking a page out of the playbooks of computer science and engineering, which have always partnered heavily with industry. University-hosted job fairs for life science companies, for example, would connect students with potential employers and smooth the path for private- sector collaborations.

Additionally, although technical skills and publications are the currency of academia, it is critical for students to know that soft skills are just as important as technical skills in the private sector. In this arena, mentors can promote their students’ professional development by encouraging teamwork, collaboration, and communication skills in their lab groups. Above all else, networking may be the number one soft skill that academic programs can help students develop. “Knowing someone can help your resume get to the top of the stack,” Schindler advised. “Networking can be critical to getting a job.”

Networking also helps students stay abreast of market trends and current developments in their fields outside of the university environment, which can help these young scientists break into the private sector.

For students who are dedicated to their bench work, learning how to network can be an uphill battle. Sutliff says she is aware that some “invisible” jobs exist but is unsure how to find them. “I have been told that most people find postdoctoral fellowships through unconventional means—for example, being offered a post that was never even advertised,” she says. This gives the frightening impression that missed opportunities in grad school could ruin one’s chances of obtaining a postdoctoral fellowship.

Including some non-traditional classes in graduate curriculums can also give students a leg-up in the private sector. Indeed, “diversifying a graduate education” is essential in modern science, according to Rodgers. “Running a biotech company requires formal training in a relevant life science as well as business management. Very few universities offer such training (for example, a combined PhD/MBA degree program), although this is exactly what’s needed in the field.” He also argues that students should be trained in practical aspects of non-academic science. “Students interested in a scientific career in industry should include business development and management courses in their formal course of study. Actually, I think this is critical. All other students should be encouraged to do this as well, because one can never predict the future.”

The landscape of science jobs continues to change, but as physiologists, we can be prepared to adapt. By changing our vocabulary about “alternative” careers, reducing barriers in the academia-industry transition, and engaging in partnerships between academic institutions and life science industries, we can ensure that physiology survives and thrives. The stakes have never been higher: if we fail, the antiquated stigma about “alternative” jobs will be remembered as the meteor that killed the physiologists.

Emily Johnson is a scientific writer and project manager for Providence Medical Research Center at Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital in Spokane, WA. During her PhD training in pharmaceutical sciences, Emily was a Graduate Fellow of the National Science Foundation, President of the Washington State University Spokane Graduate Research Student Association, and a trainee member of the American Physiological Society Communications Committee. Emily studied pharmacokinetic natural product-drug interactions during her postdoctoral training from 2016 to 2017. In her spare time, Emily is a freelance writer and illustrator.

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Changing Careers: Are You Ready and What Steps Do You Take?

Megan M. Mitzelfelt
Development Manager, American Physiological Society

Leaving research was, in my opinion, the best step I have taken for my career and life and has been for many of my friends and colleagues as well. A career change might be the right choice for you, too. But how do you know? And what steps do you take? In the following article, I summarize five signs that indicate you may be ready for a career change and provide concrete steps you should take to explore options and position yourself for a new career should you so choose to pursue one. Next, I tell the story of my leaving academic research to pursue a fundraising career and provide an overview of the fundraising profession. Finally, I address the elephant in the room: regret. Changing careers is not necessarily a sign of failure and, as in my case, might be the best choice you could make.

Signs You May Be Ready For A Career Change

The following are signs you may be ready for a career change.

1) Unhappy or Dissatisfied
If you find yourself dreading going to lab each day and you’ve felt this way for a long time – say throughout graduate school, your postdoctoral fellowship, and maybe even your first faculty position – it is likely time for a change.

Even though I loved coming up with new project ideas that I believed would help humanity, I found I was immensely unhappy slogging through day-to-day activities and experiments in the lab – both in graduate school and in my postdoc. This negatively impacted my research productivity and my home life.

2) No Longer Engaged or Interested
If you find you are no longer excited about research and are just going through the motions each day in the lab, it may be time to reevaluate your chosen career path. It may be as simple as finding a more engaging project or lab environment, or it may be that research is not right for you.
I had classmates in graduate school who, although they finished their PhD, were just never fully interested and invested in research and certainly did not want to be continuously seeking grant support for their own salaries. Many ended up choosing to pursue jobs in science-related sales/marketing or consulting and are again excited about their work.

3) Overworked and Stressed Out
If you feel overworked and stressed to the point that it negatively affects your life outside of work, it is likely time for a career change. No career is ever worth endangering your health and happiness.
For example, I had a friend who was so stressed out during his postdoctoral fellowship that he developed gastritis and ended up in the hospital due to stress-induced atrial fibrillation – in his 30s! After this incident, he decided to pursue a non-research career and has been happier and healthier ever since.

4) See No Growth Opportunity
If the job market is tight and you have not had or do not think you will have success moving “up the ladder,” it might be time for a change.
Knowing that after 5 years in my postdoctoral fellowship, there was an 85% chance that I would still not have obtained a tenure-track academic research position and that, even if I did, the chance of my being awarded an R01 was strikingly low, I decided to start exploring other career options and gaining experience in teaching and science writing, just in case.

5) Want a Different Lifestyle
If you want to a different lifestyle than your current career can provide (e.g., more time with your family, higher earning potential, to work from home, to more directly help others, etc.), then it may be time to change careers. Matching your lifestyle preference to your career is the best way to achieve satisfaction.

When deciding whether I wanted to pursue another postdoc, I determined that I wanted to instead have a more long-term position that provided set working hours each week. This was very important to me as a new mom.

Steps to Changing Careers

It might be that only one of the signs above apply to you and you are not certain whether a career change is in the cards. Or it may be that all apply and you are certain that you need to make a change. Either way, the five steps below will ensure that you have options.

Life is ever-changing, and you never know what may happen. For example, you may suddenly have to move because of your spouse’s relocation or a sick relative. Or you may lose your current position due to lack of funding. Either way, you need to be prepared for anything.

So, how do you prepare yourself for a career change?

1) Become an Extrovert

Networking is the key to success. Although many people find it difficult to be an extrovert, it is in the best interest of your career to get out there, talk to others, and make yourself known. But how do you get started?

Present Your Work. Attend as many scientific meetings as you can and submit an abstract for an oral presentation every time (if possible). Your oral presentations will make you known to others in your field and ultimately make it easier to develop personal relationships with those who can and will help you achieve your career goals. You never know who knows who and what relationships will be the most fruitful.

I orally presented my work numerous times at the APS annual meeting and at smaller regional meetings in Florida. These small meetings were particularly helpful to me because they fostered relationships that helped me obtain a postdoctoral fellowship.

APS has several smaller meetings each year. You should check them out because you never know who you will meet and what opportunities may be presented. APS often gives out travel awards to attend these meetings, particularly if you are a speaker.

Explore and Join Professional Associations. If you are interested in a particular field (e.g., science or medical writing, marketing, teaching, etc.) explore the professional associations that serve these fields and find out if you can join. Nonmembers also are often able to attend events, especially at local chapters, so get involved, learn about the field, and develop your network.

For example, I joined the American Medical Writers Association and National Science Teachers Association when I was a postdoc.

Attend Social and Networking Events. Go to any and every social or networking event that has even a smidge of relevance to your current field or one in which you have interest. These might include events held by your institution, local professional networking groups, or professional associations in which you are a member or are interested.

As a postdoc, I became interested in the medical writing field, so I attended some of the American Medical Writers Association local chapter events and presentations. These meetings gave me the confidence to pursue freelance science writing opportunities. Ultimately, I wrote articles for a vitamin magazine and coordinated the publication of a reference text on sex differences in physiology.

Serve on Committees. Explore and apply for volunteer opportunities, especially committee service, at associations in which you are a member. You would never believe the connections that you make through committee service.

My service on the APS Trainee Advisory Committee is likely to be the primary reason I am now working at APS and in fundraising. During my, albeit short, service, I was introduced to APS Executive Director Martin Frank and the rest is history.

2) Be Adventurous

Nobody will ever give you a job just because you want it. They need to know that you have the skills and expertise required to be successful; and the ultimate way to demonstrate this is through experience. So, be adventurous, particularly as a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow.

Volunteer. Volunteer to train undergraduates and/or new technicians in the laboratory to gain supervisory experience. Volunteer for your institutional postdoctoral association to demonstrate leadership and teamwork skills. Volunteer for a local nonprofit about which you are passionate. One place to find such opportunities is volunteermatch.org. The skills you learn and knowledge/experience you gain can be a great boon to your future career change.

During graduate school, I helped to start a nonprofit that raised funds to support research grants on the mechanisms and treatment of triple negative breast cancer. I gained experience in marketing and fundraising, both of which helped me to move into a fundraising career.

Search and Apply for Jobs. Always be searching for new job opportunities, even if you like your current position. You never know what may become available. You might even be able to find a contract job that provides you with valuable experience.

As a postdoc, I became interested in medical/science writing since I had always been quite a good writer. I applied for part-time writing opportunities and was given the chance to write an article for LifeExtension, a vitamin magazine you will likely find in a vitamin store. Although I did not really enjoy writing such articles, the experience gave me demonstrable writing and marketing skills that I could include on my resume.

Take an Internship or Course. If available at your institution, intern with an administrative office in which you have interest (e.g., technology transfer, communications and public relations, development, research administration, etc.). You might also take in-person or online courses to gain knowledge and skills in a particular area of interest.

For example, my husband interned for the Emory Office of Technology Transfer during his postdoctoral fellowship. His internship was instrumental in obtaining his first position in technology transfer.

If you are worried that these activities will take time away from your research efforts as a graduate student and postdoc, no need to worry. OMB and NIH have clarified that graduate students and postdocs supported by federal research grants are both trainees and employees, and are expected to engage in career development activities. If you’d like to read more about this policy, please see nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2014/10/10/defining-the-dual-role-of-graduate-students-and-postdocs-supported-by-research-grants/.

There is also the NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program. I highly recommend that you check it out at www.nihbest.org.

3) Create a Plan

After you have had a chance to build your network and gain some experience in an area that interests you, it is time to make a plan. But how do you do this?

There is a fantastic resource available to science trainees known as myIDP or individual development plan (myidp.sciencecareers.org). The individual development plan helps you in the following ways.

Determine your skills, interests, and values. These assessments allow you to reflect on what you are good at doing and what you enjoy doing the most. The ultimate goal is to align those two categories along with what you value in life and work to predict which careers will be a best fit for you.
Identify a career. myIDP will predict, based on assessment of your skills, interests, and values, which of 20 different science-related careers will fit you best. Careers include research, teaching, biotech, pharma, marketing, writing, etc.

Make a strategic plan. The IDP program also helps you create a strategic plan for the coming year to achieve your career goals and, if desired, will provide reminders to keep you engaged.

4) Be Flexible

Life does not always work out the way you had planned. That’s what makes it interesting. So be flexible with your career and life plans.

I had no plan to become a development (aka fundraising) professional. Even after my postdoctoral fellowship, I still desired an academic teaching position with a little bit of research included. My husband had no plan to become a technology transfer professional. But we were flexible, took chances, and in the end followed what made us happy and feel fulfilled. You should, too.

My Story: From Postdoc to Fundraiser

In fall 2013, the day before Thanksgiving and 2 and a half years into my postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University, I found out that my husband had been offered and accepted his dream job in technology transfer at the University of Maryland and that i was pregnant. Needless to say, life throws curveballs.

Not wishing to separate my growing family for long, I ended my fellowship after 3 years and moved to Maryland without a clue as to what my next career step would be. I interviewed for a community college teaching position and a postdoctoral fellowship at the NIH, but neither felt right. To stay in academic research, I would have needed to start all over again, and I already knew the struggle that lay ahead had I chosen to pursue a tenure-track academic research professorship. As a new mother, I was looking for something that was stable, had normal work hours, and would still contribute to science.

As luck would have it, a position in fundraising opened up at APS.

I was on the APS Trainee Advisory Committee, and, while attending EB 2014, I happened to speak with APS Executive Director Martin Frank and mentioned that I was moving to Maryland without a clue as to what was next. He informed me that a position at APS for a development officer would soon be opening up and suggested I apply. My first reaction was: “What is development?” So I explored a little further, discovered it was a position in fundraising, in which I had a little experience, and I applied. Although, due to my relative inexperience, I wasn’t chosen for the development officer position, APS opened up a support position in development, and I got the job.

I absolutely love fundraising because every day I work to better society and the world. Even more, because I work for APS, I can remain connected to and support the physiology research and teaching community that I have so come to love and appreciate.

What Do Fundraisers Do?
Fundraisers seek charitable gifts and grants from individuals, corporations, private foundations, and the federal government to support the work of a nonprofit organization. There are many different fundraising activities, including seeking annual gifts, major gifts, planned gifts, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants, and federal grants; managing fundraising teams or campaigns; managing the donor database and performing prospect research; and much more. There exist positions specific to each of these activities, particularly in large nonprofits that depend on donated funds for the majority of their revenue. More general positions, in which you perform all activities, exist in smaller nonprofits and those like APS that have a new fundraising program and/or depend to a lesser extent on donations and grants.

Fundraising is a Profession
Fundraising is a full-fledged profession with academic degrees and research, professional associations, and certifications. The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) supports the fundraising profession just as APS supports the physiology research and teaching profession. Should you have any interest in learning more about the fundraising profession, please visit www.afpnet.org. Opportunities within the field have been and continue to grow as the number of nonprofits and individuals with accumulated wealth have grown substantially over the past few decades.

I chose recently to complete the AFP Diploma in Fundraising Management in which I learned fundraising best practices and used academic research to inform and improve our fundraising practice at APS. I am working toward the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) credential, a preferred qualification for many fundraising jobs.

Researchers are Fundraisers
The best part is that you already have experience in fundraising. A huge part of your job as an academic research scientist has been to seek and acquire federal and/or private grant support for your training and research program. Grant writing skills are highly in-demand. Many nonprofits, including academic institutions, hire grant writers to acquire foundation and federal grant support. Also, it is a sub-field of fundraising that has its own certification through the American Grant Writers Association.

Because of my background as a physiology researcher, I brought experience with science-related grant writing and knowledge of the most likely federal and corporate funders (i.e., NIH, NSF, and pharma and biotech companies) to my current position. I also brought knowledge about the key issues within the physiology research and teaching enterprise. My experience and knowledge has been immensely helpful with identifying funding opportunities, tailoring funding requests, and being successful in acquiring support. Yet, I have also had to learn a tremendous amount, and APS has generously invested in my professional training.

On Regretting the Road Not Taken
People often ask me if I miss research. The answer is not really. I do not regret “the road not taken”—academic research—and I would say that most all of my friends and colleagues who have left research do not regret it either.

Regret is a risk that you should consider. I have encountered regret mostly in those who left academic research out of necessity and not choice. They often feel as if they are a failure. If you love research, it is what you should be doing and put all of your effort into making sure you succeed. However, if you think you could be just, if not more, happy in another career, then I am certain it is worth the risk of regret to explore and possibly pursue a new one. It is absolutely not a failure.

For anyone who is considering such a change, I’d be happy to discuss your ideas, answer questions, and address your reservations about changing careers anytime. Contact me at mmitzelfelt@the-aps.org.

Megan Mitzelfelt is Development Manager at the American Physiological Society. She obtained her PhD in Medical Science with a concentration in Physiology and Pharmacology from the University of Florida in 2011. Megan completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University under the mentorship of Distinguished Professor and Past APS President, Douglas C. Eaton, in 2014. More details about Megan’s professional career may be found at www.linkedin.com/in/mmitzelfelt.