Positioning Oneself To Become A Tenure-Track PI In The Biomedical Sciences
October 11, 2009
Biochem Belle posted something interesting yesterday concerning her own training history as a grad student and post-doc and how it will position her for securing a tenure-track faculty position in the biomedical sciences:
When I made the decision to pursue a career in science, I was almost done with my BS and jumped straight into grad school. I didn’t take/have much time to explore areas outside of chemistry/biochemistry. I gravitated to biochem, but as a grad student, I was fascinated by more heavily bio/biomed-related research. Bear encouraged his grad students to keep up with what was going on in the literature outside our area of interests. I took that to heart. And I became intrigued by two fields that were quite far removed, in both content and techniques, from my graduate work.
Ultimately I chose one of those fields–immunology–for my postdoc work. Part of my reasoning was that immunology is constantly changing and evolving. There is really no shortage of questions and problems to work on. There is certainly a place in immunology for biochemistry and for tools emerging from chemical biology labs, which are not being widely used. I wanted the change work on something that was really important, to work in a field where a novel discovery has the potential to change medicine. And, for reasons that I can’t even explain to myself, it just felt right. Maybe that’s a poor reason to choose a new field, but it was one of mine, nonetheless.
Of course, that decision has brought a lot of things with it–like learning (obviously) immunology and, perhaps not so obviously, (re)learning cell signaling and physiology. I also realize that this choice all but guarantees taking a second postdoc before I start searching for my ‘dream job’. Even then, it could very well count against me with some search committee/study section members that I switched fields. No one is guaranteed success in science, but sometimes I’m afraid that I might have made it much more difficult for myself. [emphasis added]
She’s got this completely backwards! Having received training in multiple fields that one can then integrate to make oneself uniquely qualified to pursue an exciting creative research program as a new PI is exactly what search committees are looking for. Tenure-track faculty applicants who have always been working in the same field throughout their graduate and post-doctoral training are *less* attractive.
It is important to recognize that the biomedical sciences are currently at an inflection point. Over the last four decades, huge advances in our understanding of biology have arisen out of very fundamental conceptual and methodological developments in areas like biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics. And these developments–because they were so fundamental–were also extremely general: DNA is DNA, and cloning and sequencing and knocking-out genes is exactly the same regardless of what gene is being attacked, what sort of protein it encodes, and what biological processes it participates in.
Using these very powerful general approaches, we have now achieved a nearly complete picture of all the molecular and cellular players that work together within organisms to generate biological function. What we still know very little about, however, is how these players work together to generate cellular, tissue, organ system, and organismic function. This is physiology!
Individuals who have substantial training in the methodological and conceptual foundations of fundamental areas like biochemistry, molecular biology, biophysics, and genetics, but who also have substantial training in the application of those tools in complex physiological contexts involving cells, tissues, organ systems, and entire organisms are the people who are going to lead the biomedical sciences through this inflection point. And these are the people who are most attractive to tenure-track faculty search committees (at least ones that are not dominated by close-minded fuckups).