The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!
In our final episode of the season, we talk about careers outside of academia, with a focus on how to find what jobs exist, how to prepare for these jobs, and what to know when you transition.
Featuring Joanne Kamens, PhD, Senior Consultant, Diversity North Group; Kip Ludwig, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Ekemini A. Udofa Riley, PhD, Founder & President, Coalition for Aligning Science.
Transcript available at http://ninds.buzzsprout.com/.
[00:00:00] Lauren Ullrich: [intro music] Welcome to Season 4 of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke's Building Up the Nerve, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or "hidden curriculum" of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help. It's our job. [music fades]
Hi, I'm Lauren Ullrich, a Program Director at NINDS.
[00:00:25] Marguerite Matthews: And I'm Marguerite Matthews, also a Program Director at NINDS, and we're your hosts today.
[00:00:30] Lauren Ullrich: Last episode, we discussed succeeding as mid career faculty. And today we're going to talk about careers outside of academia with a focus on how to find what jobs exist, how to prepare for these jobs, and what to know when you transition. [music]
Joining us today are Dr. Joanne Kamens, Dr. Kip Ludwig, and Dr. Ekemini Riley. So let's start with introductions.
[00:00:58] Joanne Kamens: Great. I'm Dr. Joanne Kamens. I am a molecular geneticist by training. I was in pharma for 15 years directly out of graduate school and then spent a few years in for profit biotech. And then I was the executive director leader at Addgene, the nonprofit biotechnology company for, um, just short of a decade.
About a year and a half ago, I transitioned and, um, most of my career, I guess my hobby and my passion for the last 20 years has been inclusion work in STEM and in the workplace in general. I'm a founder of the Boston area chapter of the Association for Women in Science. And I've done a lot around mentoring um, around the world for STEM based organizations to increase inclusivity. So that hobby, I guess, has now become my vocation. And I'm professionally doing DEI consulting for, um, STEM based organizations, particularly around mentoring. I guess I call myself a scientist DEI consultant, which is an unusual intersection.
[00:01:57] Lauren Ullrich: That's basically what Marguerite and I do. So.
[00:01:59] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah.
[00:02:00] Lauren Ullrich: We're on board.
[00:02:02] Marguerite Matthews: Although we don't get paid extra for [laughs] that level of expertise. We're just kind of expected to do it because of the office we're in.
[00:02:10] Joanne Kamens: Yeah, I do a lot of work gratis because that's my, my kind of home base. That's how I always did the work.
[00:02:15] Kip Ludwig: Hi, I'm Kip Ludwig. I'm an associate professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I'm also the co-director of the Wisconsin Institute for Translational Neural Engineering. And honestly, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I actually went from an English political science major to bioengineering to industry, uh, to an NINDS program director, to the Mayo Clinic, to traditional academia.
[00:02:45] Lauren Ullrich: So that's why we had you, because you've seen it all.
[00:02:48] Kip Ludwig: Yeah. I, I have oddly worked in all sectors, including a not for profit, which is Mayo. So, um, I'm often asked questions about, uh, career transitions and strengths and weaknesses of working in industry versus academia, and really how you get back and forth if you want to do that as well.
My science is on neural engineering, which are, um, devices to interface with the nervous system for therapies, things like the cardiac pacemaker, spinal cord stimulators for pain, et cetera. And the cool thing is technology gets smaller, smarter every year. And these are getting to the point where they're injectable instead of invasive surgeries.
In my spare time, I'm a huge smartass. Um [laughter], that's probably the thing I most commonly do. Um, huge sports fan. I play piano. My son just picked up piano, so I play with him a ton now, and that's an absolute blast.
[00:03:37] Marguerite Matthews: Kip, I feel like you deserve most interesting man in the science world, uh, trophy. [laughter]
[00:03:43] Lauren Ullrich: Hi everyone, my name is Ekemini Riley and I'm the founder and president of the Coalition for Aligning Science, which is a strategic advisory firm that specializes in creating and implementing research programs. In my role, I wear many hats, but the one that I think most closely relates to NINDS is that I'm the managing director of the Aligning Science Across Parkinson's Initiative.
[00:04:04] Ekemini Riley: I am a molecular biologist by training and I'm energized by tackling scientific and field wide challenges, as well as designing and implementing creative and collaborative solutions to make substantial progress in a disease field.
So I'd say to that end, I work with funders that want to harness their capital and other resources to fill scientific and infrastructural gaps within the biomedical research system. So I'm really in my happy place. I'm hitting all the key points. Um, I lead a team that amongst many other things takes a real science forward approach to landscape assessment, where we look at the current state of a particular field, progress, success, challenges um, within a particular disease space informed by the literature and experts in multiple sectors. And I say this enables us to really identify key areas of unmet need and opportunity to create those solutions.
Prior to founding my organization, I was a director at the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy, where I helped to shape and co-direct the medical research strategy there. I helped to lead many due diligence efforts and, you know, that entailed pulling together multi sector think tanks to inform, you know, the strategic deployment of philanthropic capitals. I've sort of maintained that thread of informing funding with a science forward lens.
And I'd say first and foremost, I love traveling. Um, I do it a ton for work. I do some of it personally, but I love to see new places, you know, have new experiences. Now with two little ones, I love bringing them along, showing them the world. And yeah, I'd say that's the sort of biggest hobby that I have. [music]
[00:05:41] Marguerite Matthews: So can each of you tell us about your career journey? How did you end up where you are? And Kip, I know that may take up the whole rest of the episode [laughs]. So we'll try to see if we can just like narrow that one down for you. Um, and also talk about what drew you to the current career that you have, and maybe talk about what you like most about the work that you're doing now.
[00:06:05] Joanne Kamens: Okay, I can start. Um, so I, I had a baby in grad school. That was my first deviation from the normal path. Um, and I didn't, my husband was still a student and I didn't have enough money to postdoc and have a babysitter. And I'm not a stay at home mom kind of mom.
So, um, I told my advisor, uh, "Hey, I think I need to get a job." And they said, "Oh, okay, I'll get you a job." And they did!
[00:06:26] Marguerite Matthews: [laughter] nice!
[00:06:26] Joanne Kamens: So this was before the internet, you know, job ads were in the newspaper, so I cannot speak to what a search is like now, exactly, for that first job, but it was all about knowing people.
He introduced me to three people who were at companies here in the Boston area. I got two interviews. I got one offer. I took it. I worked there for 15 years, so, um, you know, it was great. I love being in pharma from that stage is like getting a whole 'nother PhD. So I basically got a whole 'nother degree in immunology and, really loved every, almost every part of it, I would say.
And then, um, moved on again through connections to work in a for profit biotech, fast moving RNAi, so cool. Um, never even interviewed, a connection said, "Hey, we're starting this RNAi company with Craig Mello. Do you want to come be the director of research?" I'm like, "sounds great. I want to do that!" So, so I did.
Um, and then, you know, as with many biotechs the research staff was laid off for clinical trial, you know, uh, doubling down. So I moved on, and that's when I went to Addgene, which was a fantastic job. And so I'm a non-profit-y kind of person, so 10 years in non profit, and primarily supporting not only, but a lot of academic research was really fun for me to go back to working primarily in academia again, although I was at an outside organization.
Um, and I did that for 10 years. And, now I'm doing my, what was my sideline, my avocation of, uh, working hard and advocating on a policy and individual level for inclusion in science, anti harassment, um, many different areas of that work. And I'm doing a lot of consulting now, a lot, particularly around mentoring and helping people with mentoring programs.
Um, and so my journey was all about knowing people, everything. You're gonna, you always hear this, it's just all, every transition has been about people who, who knew me. Um, and so gotta meet people, bottom line.
[00:08:17] Ekemini Riley: Nice. Okay. Well, I can jump in next. Um, so I'll just start by saying that I love all things science and beyond that I love learning, so I think my career journey is pretty emblematic of that. I started with, um, research in high school, continued that all the way through college and then, you know, hit graduate school and it was like, all right, you know, what are we going to tackle now?
And, you know, again, I love science. So I was really sort of into, um, basic science, gene regulation, understanding, um, how immune cells resolve infection, understanding how cancer cells migrate. The whole nine. While I was in graduate school I was in a lab that I truly, truly loved. Um, but then, of course, it became very clear that I needed to change labs.
So, of course, you know, once you get to the point of having to change labs, you're like, "oh, buckle up, we're in this for a while." Um, and so, again, I went to another lab, luckily enough, that I really, really enjoyed, and both of my mentors, um, all throughout graduate school were absolutely fantastic. But they all also knew that I did not come into graduate school with an eye towards academia.
And so like, while I didn't come in knowing that I would in any way be involved with philanthropic advising or program development or funding in any way, I knew that I never wanted to have a career in academia. And in fact, when I got to graduate school, I had this grand plan of leaving, going into industry and leading a large team. That was the, that was the North Star.
But I think I started to become really, um, driven to understand the factors that governed how science is funded and how decisions are being made at the highest levels and there's no blueprint for that. Right? And so there's that piece and then the other piece of, you know, just understanding all the various sectors in which a scientist's perspective I thought would be useful, right? I mean, so that's everything from federal, state, local policy, IP, patent law, elementary education, pharma, venture capital, you name it. And the goal for me was sort of nailing down in graduate school, you know, which area I really wanted to go in while getting exposure to as many things as possible.
And so, like Joanne said, you know, you need to get to know people. And while I'm not shy, I said, "well, how are we going to do this? While we're in lab all the time, how are we going to get out there and get to know people?" So I started looking up, um, you know, different organizations that I could be a part of.
And so Association for Women in Science, the Baltimore chapter was one that I really sort of threw myself into and I said, well, this gives me a nice structured way to really get exposure to a lot of different people, get out there, meet people, get comfortable, you know, talking to people that you don't know.
So I, I started in that way and just made the time to figure out going places and talking to various different people. I also, um, struck up an internship for myself, um, in the policy arena, because I really thought, you know, I'm getting really interested in this. I want to understand what it's like on the ground and I did that internship for three years alongside finishing up my Ph.D.
And while I loved it, I also said, you know, this is not the type of thing I want to go into. So I was actually really excited that I found that out early on. Um, and then most of it was keeping up with old contacts. I actually ran into my position at the Milken Institute through someone who I was in grad school with, um, and so that was one of the avenues. I had so many different irons in the fire, and that was one that, you know, actually lit.
[00:11:49] Kip Ludwig: So, I'll try to keep this as short as possible. I started off just realizing due to some, um, people connected to my family who had different medical conditions and seeing kind of what they went through and the suffering.
And some of them ultimately passed away from cystic fibrosis and other diseases that I really wanted to do something to address, um, longstanding human health conditions. And so I went into bioengineering, but bioengineering is actually a very weird undergrad; we were actually like the jack of all trades, master of none.
I got a graduate fellowship and still didn't know what I wanted to do. I was touring labs and I ran into a lab, Darryl Kittke's lab, that was doing what was called brain machine interfaces. This is for paralyzed patients where you actually record signal from their motor cortex uh, to try to discern their intent and have them control a robotic arm or reanimate their own arm. And literally I got to, uh, play a rat who had an implant that allowed them to play the video game Pong by thinking, um, as part of my graduate tours. And I'm like, "okay, I want to do that. That's the coolest thing I've ever heard."
-So I spent five, six years working on a PhD towards brain machine interfaces, and there had been some human trials at that time and some fantastic human demonstrations, but the companies that spun out went bankrupt. This is actually a very small market. It's a very expensive technology. And a couple of things struck me; uh, one that I needed to learn a little bit more about how, if I want to get things into humans, a lot of the practical constraints, supply chains, reimbursement, how to develop something. I noted that a lot of my academic professors who were teaching us neural engineering had never translated anything before.
So they never thought in this context. So although I was considering a postdoc in a traditional neuroscience lab, I got a job offer for a neuromodulation company that stimulated the carotid baroreceptors for hypertension and heart failure. And so I said, I will go there to learn how this is done, but always knew that maybe I could learn how this is done and then be that professor who has done it before and-- 85 percent of the students are going to go out to industry, and so to be able to teach them industry relevant things.
When I went, I came up with a new idea for stimulating the baroreceptors and it went from animal models to humans. I started realizing very quickly that there was a big jump from animal models to humans, and there's a lot of mechanistic things in terms of how they vary, how humans are intrinsically different than different animal models, that we don't research much because we don't have tools to research it. And we don't have structures to cross compare the variability of the human anatomy versus these very constrained genetic lines that we use a lot on our animal research.
And so that's where the idea of becoming an NIH program director became interesting to me because although it was great to take something all the way through FDA approval et cetera, which, which is ultimately what happened at CVRx. I thought we couldn't make it better without some foundational knowledge and there were some clear gaps in the system for translation.
So I became an NIH program director to say, okay, how do we develop tools, technologies, and processes to be able to understand the mechanism better, not just for how it might work in humans, but also how to connect the preclinical work a lot better in terms of, uh, predictivity, efficacy, etc. So I went, um, and got to work with great people at NINDS and got to work on things like the BRAIN Initiative and the SPARC Program. And honestly, it was absolutely fantastic. You know, I would even consider doing it again at some point in my career, but I still get spun up by ideas of my own. You know, I never stayed up till 4 a. m. as an NIH program director because I had a new idea for a program.
[00:15:32] Lauren Ullrich: You don't work for our office, Kip.
[00:15:34] Kip Ludwig: Yeah. [laughs] it might depend on your boss at NINDS. [laughter]
So, it seemed like an appropriate time to jump back into academia and kind of close that loop. I had now translated things and I can now bring that part into the educational program and really create the best of both worlds hopefully, which was an academic position that allowed me to pursue some things cutting edge outside of a business case. There's never going to be a business case to cure cancer for a penny with a pill.
Um, but then also develop things practically that do have a business case as well and translate them and honestly have some of the more stability that you can have from an academic position, um, and kind of a traditional tenured position than you can from the startups were very nervous, uh, in terms of,you know, they could shut down any six months if we don't get another round of funding as well. So that's how I got here.
[00:16:31] Lauren Ullrich: [laughs] And I guess I'm, I'm struck by so many of you have jobs that I didn't even know-- I don't know exist.
[00:16:42] Marguerite Matthews: Yep.
[00:16:43] Lauren Ullrich: Like I just found out that these jobs exist, right now.
[00:16:47] Marguerite Matthews: Today, years old.
[00:16:48] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, I was today years old. Exactly.
[00:16:51] Joanne Kamens: So first of all, like in every other career, people get their training and they go get a job. Only in like life sciences for some reason, is there this, like, you know, it's "alternate" and you have like three choices, like, you know, tech transfer, uh, pharma and consulting, you know, like, that's it, that's all there is, right? And I, so I once did this exercise where I was able to list a hundred different roles that I knew PhD scientists were doing.
[00:17:14] Lauren Ullrich: Oh, I believe it.
[00:17:16] Joanne Kamens: Yeah. So yes, it is diverse. It is wide. It is so open.
[00:17:19] Marguerite Matthews: And you guys have done like 98 of those jobs [laughs] just in this episode.
[00:17:27] Lauren Ullrich: Um, but so, so I just think back about myself, you know, I thought that I would go teach at a small liberal arts college, which is where I did my undergrad, but realized pretty quickly that that wasn't going to be for me.
But I didn't know what to do, I'm in the third year slump of my PhD, and just like on the phone with my mom, like one hand typing in Google, like, "what do I do!?" And, and just like not even knowing where to start. So, that is a long winded setup to my question, which is how did you even know that these jobs were available? Like, I like x thing and so I'm going to look for jobs in this kind of field? I mean, I know a lot of you said it was sort of, maybe people reached out to you, but do you have any thoughts or advice around finding out what even is out there?
[00:18:20] Joanne Kamens: I think y'all are so much smarter than I was, I want to say.
I'm a little generation removed, I think. Um, so for me, I loved bench work. I loved it --and not everybody does, that's not a universal grad school experience-- but I really love the bench work. So for me, it was a very natural transition to look for a job doing bench work, not in an academic institution.
Um, everybody says, what was your like career plan? I had no plan. I just needed money. I want to be honest. I wanted to be doing science and I wanted money and I knew I had good hands. I was a good, you know, good at the bench, right? So, um, so I basically went from the bench to the bench.
That was a pretty easy resume transition. Like I did this bench science and then I went and did bench science. But then once I got into pharma, oh man, there's so much to learn. And I like kept my head up, I volunteered for everything, I learned about every department. I once went to tour the plant in the back of the building where they made Humira because like, who doesn't want to see like 2000 liters of cell culture creating, you know, a blockbuster drug.
And I go back there and I like knock on the door and they're like, "no one ever comes to see us." [laughter] I'm like, I really want to see what it looks like, you know? So always learning and, Ekemini, I think you said this, right? That's what makes me a scientist is always wanting to be learning.
[00:19:36] Ekemini Riley: And so that's what makes work fun for me. So, I got to do many different things through my different jobs, even in one, you know, position. And, um, so I didn't know about all the things until I got into the things. I'd say, you know, at some points I would start with someone who had a profile that looked like what I wanted to be. That varied wildly week to week, month to month, but I started off my career wanting to be a reproductive endocrinologist, um, and trying to bring babies into the world for people who couldn't have them.
And then, you know, it was, okay, well, how do we get funding to places that don't have them? Or, you know, the common thread for me was how do we make things that don't look possible possible, but seem like they should be. Um, and so that covers a wide range of things. So, I mean, just like Joanne said, it's not that I had some like particular plan in mind.
I just knew that it needed to be science-based. And it needed to spark that, that curiosity in me of how can I make this thing happen? And then how can we sustain it? If it could answer those questions and really keep my interest that way, then it became fair game. Um, so, you know, at the time that I moved over to philanthropic advising, you know, I was looking at NIH, I was looking at, um, a postdoc at Novartis. I was looking at, you know, just a straight industry job and just going to be at the bench at a different pharma company. and there was just so many different avenues. And like I said, the big issue was how to whittle it down. I don't think there really is an easy answer. Um, I, I took the perspective of "I'll go find out. If I like it, I'll keep doing it and if not, we'll go to something else."
[00:21:24] Kip Ludwig: It's funny because you talked about having a particular plan, uh, or, and, and many people do not, and I almost went in planning for chaos, knowing that my career is going to be chaos because I realized I didn't have enough information to know if I'd like industry, government, not for profit work, etc.
[00:21:44] Joanne Kamens: Yes.
[00:21:46] Kip Ludwig: So that's been the most important thing for me is I went into each to get more information. I'm going to try it, but I'm expecting I may be leaving. And so I always tried to constructively do things to get more information, find out different things, take opportunities, but also create progression on a path to recognizable increments if I wanted to switch paths as well. If I wanted to go back to academia, if I wanted to be an NINDS program director, et cetera. I got a lot of, I think, bad advice. I was told coming out of grad school, you choose industry, you're industry,
[00:22:23] Marguerite Matthews: Mmhmm
[00:22:24] Kip Ludwig: you choose government, you're government, you choose academia, you're academia.
There's no switching back and forth once you're done. And I found if you know, it's normal to not know if you're going to like these things, and you're not held to that choice, as long as you're thoughtful about your planning, you can do it.
[00:22:41] Joanne Kamens: Oh, Kip that's so like, well put, because I think it just opens different doors for you.
You know, like for me, like working at Addgene was such a great match, but it put together all these different things I'd learned. Like you had to really know a lot about plasmids and molecular biology. That was like my, early career, you know, and then while I was in the biotech, I actually moved into the business development group and was doing like pitching to partners and did all these very businessy things. And if I hadn't done that, I wouldn't have been able to consider a role running a company because you need that business development experience to run a company, right? So I feel like, the pieces come together and lead to the next things and opportunities and you're just, you're just adding to your portfolio of skills and interests.
[00:23:24] Kip Ludwig: Well, it sounds like from both of you, and this is similar to my experience, even any one step you, you know, you came in to do one thing, but you were proactive about learning, et cetera. And even before you left that job, maybe you were doing something very different than when you were hired into it.
I know I never wound up doing the job I was hired in for at any of these places or doing just a little bit of it and something else that was passion driven became the largest portion of my job.
[00:23:53] Joanne Kamens: Oh, so so well put. And, you know, that's actually a tenant of the workplace now in our current, you know, whatever you want to call it, the great movement of people now, um, you know, that organizations that provide training opportunities for people is a way to keep people longer, especially people who are in STEM, because we want to be doing that learning and training.
So if you, if you stick us in a lab and we're doing the same assay a million times, and that's all that we do, um, we're going to leave because we want to do new things, you know.
[00:24:21] Marguerite Matthews: That's a really great perspective, this idea that you can still be curious, still want to learn more, still want to add things, um, to your toolbox, and I feel like most people who are in that space tend to do better when they are being nurtured in that way to, to be creative.
I mean, we don't often think about science in a creative way, I think, or at least I haven't heard creativity used to describe it, but that's really what it is. We use the word innovative, but I think the creativity really is, um, highlighted here in all of your stories about how you're able to think, "Oh, wouldn't it be cool to do this?" or "what if, you know, I took this perspective and, and did it in this way or used it in this way?" Um, That allows you to have some more of that. Um, I guess a breath of knowledge, skills, and career opportunities.
[00:25:13] Ekemini Riley: That's so right. Um, one, I just, I feel like creativity is not as embraced, but I see it in every project that a PhD student is doing, right?
That's, I feel like it's sort of the bedrock of what we do. Um, and for me in my world, it's, you know, being creative to see what could be possible and how can we make it possible and then embracing that growth mindset that Joanne and Kip have been talking about to kind of just keep learning and keep iterating and making things better and better.
[00:25:42] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, and I think that oftentimes like, um, people who are like enmeshed in that academic mindset, they say, "I have academic freedom and I don't want to leave because then people are going to tell me what to do," right? And like there, there is sort of this like framing of once you go work for a company, then you lose that, that flexibility and creativity.
[00:26:03] Joanne Kamens: That's an enormous misconception because you have to be doing research that can be funded and it actually could be more constraining than when you left academia or not left when you finished in academia. I don't like to say leaving, when you finished or taking a break in Kip's case, you know. [laughter] You know, it's really not the way it is.
There are constraints. It's a, there's a complete mythology that there's no constraints in, in academia that's different from research or even other types of, of the work outside of academia.
[00:26:32] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. You're always answering to someone, right? Like whether you're answering to your reviewers, or you know, whether it's of your grant, your manuscript, um, your collaborators, your chair, [laughs] there's always somebody to answer to.
And it's just the way in which you're answering to this person or the type of, uh, power they have over you may change. But yeah, I, I would definitely agree with you, Joanne, that you're answering to someone and that there's, there is creativity and opportunities to um, to, I guess, think outside of the box that are not just something that is contained in one sector.
[00:27:11] Joanne Kamens: I should say there is a commonality among all those things that many people don't think is common in terms of the sectors you can work, which is, uh, you always have to be able to communicate your ideas to get funding.
[00:27:24] Kip Ludwig: It doesn't matter if you're an industry, if you're an NINDS program director, or you're in academia. I know many people who shy away from academia because, "I don't want to write grants for funding." Well, then you're giving your ideas to a boss or a board to get funding, or you're going to a committee meeting at NINDS and having conversations and write ups to get funding. So...
[00:27:46] Marguerite Matthews: that is such a good point, Kip. It's true.
[00:27:49] Ekemini Riley: That is absolutely true. Yes.
[00:27:52] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah [laughs].
[00:27:54] Joanne Kamens: This is one of my dirty little secrets. I've never written a grant.
[00:27:58] Marguerite Matthews: Ahhhh, the collective gasp of our audience.
[00:28:01] Joanne Kamens: Right? [laughter]
[00:28:02] Kip Ludwig: But, um, no, it's one of my I've, I've written parts of some and I've helped and I, I know what a grant looks like, but I've never written one. So...
[00:28:10] Ekemini Riley: But, like Kip said, you have the experience threaded across multiple different areas of your career. So there you have it.
[00:28:16] Marguerite Matthews: So in, in speaking of having skills or, you know, gathering all these things as you've um, continued on in your careers, what skills do you need to, like, go outside of academia? I get asked so often when I give talks to trainees. What should I do? How can I, you know, improve my CV? What do I need to do to get this type of job or this type of job? Um, and it seems like they're so focused in this idea that they don't have any skills other than like the very specific niche knowledge that they have from working on their PhD, um, and not even recognizing how many things they have learned in their graduate, um, training or even those who are postdocs.
But can you guys talk a little bit about how your, your PhD training, um, maybe set you up for the job that you have now or some of the jobs that you've had in the past? And also, do you think there are specific types of things that folks can do to prepare to try another sector? Um, and do you think postdoc training is necessary for doing non academic research?
[00:29:22] Joanne Kamens: Yeah, well, I didn't do a postdoc. So, um, that's my answer to that question.
[00:29:26] Lauren Ullrich: Me neither.
[00:29:28] Joanne Kamens: I think, uh, I think a postdoc can be necessary if you don't have the network in order to make a transition. Uh, some jobs prefer you to have that extra polish of your experience and responsibility. But I, there are many, many jobs here in Boston for people who have never done a postdoc.
I have a lot of resources that we could never cover in this half hour on, on how your skills and things you can do during your graduate training or your postdoctoral training in order to prepare for any job. I want to say, the skills are very similar. Kip hit on the biggest one. Can you communicate well, you know, um, and there's so many fun ways to practice that communication piece, the writing, the speaking, the summarizing information, the writing grants, you know, so, um, I would love to, um, to provide you with some resources to kind of make that more concrete.
I will not take anyone ever saying "soft skills" or um, you know, "alternative skills" or "non tech"-- you know, these are skills. They're just skills. Just like they're just jobs. You know, you must be able to do these things in academia, not in academia. It doesn't matter. They're like, they're just like good navigation skills for the world.
So, um, I look forward to sharing some of that.
[00:30:37] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. Soft skills is, is really just a, it grates on me in a way that makes it feel like-- it is like it diminishes it. Like these are not important skills that, I guess it's nice to have, just like putting lotion on your skin to make that soft. Like what? It's not, I don't understand.
[00:30:53] Lauren Ullrich: I'm gonna say a lot of those skills are quite hard for some scientists. [laughs]
[00:30:58] Marguerite Matthews: Indeed.
[00:30:59] Joanne Kamens: You know when they're missing.
[00:31:01] Lauren Ullrich: Yes.
[00:31:03] Ekemini Riley: Um, I, I would say definitely communication in all of its forms. Written for sure. But definitely also speaking. Speaking, you know, with confidence, also speaking from a place of, you know, knowing what you know, and also knowing what you don't know. And trying to fill the gaps of what you don't know, and however form that might take, you know, whether it's diving into the literature, so, you know, this is where your scientific expertise comes into play. Um, But it doesn't have to be in like the specific area that you did your PhD in, right? Almost everyone moves away from where they did their PhD and goes into some other area. So this always comes back to, you know, the, do you know how to learn? Do you know how to take in new information, digest it, make sense of it, communicate it to someone else and, you know, keep it moving.
Um, so I would say communication from my point of view is key and learning where and how to get information.
[00:31:58] Kip Ludwig: For me, it's, whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, and this can be harder on introverts, you have to be proactive in multiple ways. You have to be proactive about your learning. You have to be proactive about your, your, your networking.
Um, and you have to recognize that everybody who's gotten more senior um, remembers being in your spot and is happy to give you information, is happy to talk to you. Everybody around you is a resource, especially if you don't know what you want to get into. You can talk to different people and they can help you.
I think one of the most formative experiences I had was the first time as an NINDS program director, I gave a public talk. Because I never really gave any as a grad student. I always felt really bad about going up to people at their posters and whatever and say, "hey, I want to talk to you because it's for my benefit." If you spend 5 minutes at a conference as an NINDS program director, you'll figure out really quickly that's the game. That there's a lot of people who come to talk to you because it's to their benefit to talk to you. And then once I kind of figured that out, I felt much more comfortable because people don't think badly of you for it. They recognize that's you being proactive and it's necessary.
[00:33:14] Joanne Kamens: I guess I'd like to say something about imposter syndrome for a second.
Um, I almost hate to say the words cause it like takes over, you know, the, the dialogue, like, but the fact is for many groups in science being not, I can't say minority because women are half of the people, you know, other genders are more than half of the people, if you include women and other genders that are not male, um, you know, when you are, um, actually being discriminated against and experiencing bias, it's not an imposter situation.
You are actually being disadvantaged. So, um, the new thinking about imposter syndrome is more around um, you know, building confidence to meet competencies and, and, you know, what Kip said was, was right on, you know, it's like, we're all bumbling around here.
We just have to try it and learn how to do a thing. And so, um, yeah, and there's things you will be better at for sure. I've pursued jobs where I'm going to be better at a thing, you know, than a thing I wouldn't have been good at, but you know, we can learn how to learn and that's what you need to focus on.
[00:34:15] Kip Ludwig: I should note NINDS also kind of helped me with my imposter syndrome, which I had. And then when you start meeting with people who have, you know, very big reputations who wouldn't have talked to me otherwise and realized that they're pretty full of it too. Um, [laughter] and so I realized kind of regardless of where they're at, how far they've gotten, to some extent, they're, they're not perfect either. They make mistakes. They don't know everything. And so instead of like saying, I'm an imposter for being in this position, I realized, no, pretty much everybody else is BSing it too.
[00:34:55] Lauren Ullrich: We're all just making it up.
[00:34:57] Joanne Kamens: Yeah, I'm thinking back to my graduate school where my graduate advisor was a student in the Mark Ptashne lab, who's kind of a famous lab.
And he was pretty, even then he was a pretty famous imposing guy. And so that's my like legacy. And so while I was a grad student, they invited me to come back and give lab meeting and speak in the Ptashne lab. Okay. And I was so nervous about this. I was so like, "how are they going to be interested in my research? They're not going to be interested in me. How can I possibly teach them anything?" You know? And I show up and I'm totally nervous. And I'm all of like, I'm, I'm, I'm barely five feet at this point. I weigh like 90 pounds. I'm like a little bit of nothing scientist at the time, you know, and I show up and I see that Mark Ptashne gets into his chair and his feet don't reach the floor, like mine never reached the floor. Okay, like he's short, right? And he gets in his chair and he kind of heists in and his feet don't reach. And I'm like, "Oh, I could do this." [laughs] You know, his feet don't reach! [laughs]
[00:35:53] Marguerite Matthews: I think so much of science is about, like, having a little bit of arrogance. Like, I have some knowledge on what's been done before, but I am now tasked with doing something that has not been done or generating knowledge that people aren't really sure about.
And so there has to be a little bit of an inflated sense of self to be able to say, "I can do this based on what I believe to be the way to go forward." And so often that gets couched in this idea of imposter syndrome, if you can't do it. And that's not really a knock or a negative, it's just okay, well, maybe you were a little misguided or you took a different approach because the tools aren't, aren't available yet for you to even really be able to answer those questions.
And I think that's what drives science is this idea that you're just bold enough to just try and figure it out. Um, and that could be in an academic setting, any setting, it's just this idea that I have to let people know that I have the confidence to do this, whether or not you really can, because you won't know until you do it, right? Like, you feel like you have to always get it right in order for you to to not be an imposter, right? And yet everybody pretty much is probably going to fail at some point and that's what? It just means a bunch of us are faking it? Maybe! Maybe a lot of us are actually faking it, but most of us are really just trying to get through to the next point, um, and I, I think that's what's the fun part about being around a bunch of scientists who like to know things and tinker around until they figure it out.
[00:37:22] Kip Ludwig: This reminds me of a quote, uh, it's an old quote, and I hadn't heard it until like the last five years, but it's, uh, "the secret of my success is that I'm almost as smart as I think I am."
[00:37:34] Marguerite Matthews: [Laughs] I like that.
[00:37:37] Kip Ludwig: Because you got to kind of reach a little, you got to be confident enough to reach a little.
[00:37:40] Lauren Ullrich: Stretch goal. It's called a stretch goal.
[00:37:42] Marguerite Matthews: Stretch goal. [laughter]
[00:37:45] Joanne Kamens: But you know, we're all going to make mistakes, right? I, I, I have, I have many large and small mistakes. You know, horrifying stories that I still, you know, turn over in my head. Like, did I really do that? You know, so I try, you can't get eaten up by it, but everybody makes mistakes. You just got to move on.
[00:38:03] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. So I guess another common misconception or common fear that I hear from trainees is like, "I'm going to"-- to use the term you hate, Joanne-- "I'm going to leave academia and then I can never come back and it's a permanent decision and then I failed to reach my goal of being a tenured professor." Um, but Kip, you definitely, your career shows that that is not true. Um, and I often counsel people like, first of all, you're not going to want to go back, but second of all, you can. [laughs] Like, I know people who have gone back.
Um, but did, did any of you feel that way? Like trepidatious about taking the path that you did? And, um, how would you counsel people who are feeling that way?
[00:38:54] Ekemini Riley: Right. I think, well, thankfully, you know, I didn't have the sort of anchoring feeling that to be successful was to be in academia, right? I wanted to be a scientist and you can be a scientist anywhere. Um, and when I met up with was people thinking that if you left academia, you're no longer a scientist. And that I will not abide. [laughs]
Um, so I think it's that that piece. I'm like a scientist first and I'm a scientist doing a particular job, right? And so that's always been where my mindset has been. When I talk to trainees, that's kind of where I try to center people. What is your science? What's your North star? How can you then apply that? If you want to apply that to academia and come back, there are pathways back. I'm not the one to tell you about that pathway because I have not taken it nor will I ever. However, there are people out there. You can find them. Um, and I mean, as Kip shared before, I think, you know, what I found is that, um, talking to some of the faculty who have been in other sectors and have come back, they have such a wealth of experience to draw from, um, that, you know, it's, to me, that's where the value is, right? Um, so I always encourage people to sort of, to keep an open mind and, and that pretty much anything's possible. You can make it happen.
[00:40:13] Kip Ludwig: Also this weird, this weird trope of like leaving academia that we have is like the weirdest thing. Like my kids, you know, engineering: job fair, get a job. You have an education. What are the million cool things you can do? My daughter business undergrad, right? You know, here's all the million things you can do with your degree, right? We're, like, I don't understand how we got to this place where the only measure of success is the thing that only some people will be good at. So I mentioned this when we were talking, I definitely want some of you to be academic professors and train the next generation. I believe in the mentorship, the apprenticeship method of science learning. I loved grad school. I'm all about it, right? But like, first of all, there aren't enough jobs for everybody and not everybody is good at that. That takes like some very specific skills. They were not the skills or strengths I had, why would I torture myself by having that be my goal? You know, [laughter] I just didn't understand so I just think, you know, you got, you have your training. You're a scientist. Get a job. Do something else. You know? I think unfortunately, there's a couple of things that make people feel that if they leave academia, that they're somehow failing. One is that , if you go the graduate school route, chances are your PI is a lifelong academic. It's not always the case, but... so that gives that impression.
If you go for a training grant through NINDS, traditionally, even if you want to go to industry, people would be coached to say, you want to essentially start your own lab and be tenure track and that was common at some point.
What's funny to me is that when you go to industry, um, there's a bunch of people who almost have the same bias against academia. That they think the people who started their own lab is because they couldn't work and play well with others. They can't work in a team environment to do things to actually help people. Um, so there's literally the reverse bias there. And the truth of the matter is there's probably a couple of examples in each case where that's true, but generally it's not.
[00:42:11] Joanne Kamens: Hundred percent. We don't want bias in either way. These are all important jobs, they just need different skills. You know?
[00:42:18] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, I think like you're not tied to being an academic researcher because you got a PhD. Your PhD doesn't even tell you how to be an academic researcher! [laughter] It just tells you how to study a very specific question. It helps you become more scientifically minded. You know, knowing a little bit more about experimental design, but it certainly doesn't teach you how to be, um, a manager of people, a manager of budgets, a manager of space, a manager of, you know, all sorts of things. It certainly doesn't help you become a teacher, um, or even a mentor. And so there's so much to do afterwards that, um, I agree with you, um, Joanne, that if you want to do this, especially, like, within the academic context, I would love to help people get there because I'm uniquely positioned at the NINDS to be able to do that.
But if you don't want to go that route, let's talk about some of these other things. Make sure that you do know that you have all these additional skills. And if you don't have those skills or those skills aren't something you had a chance to work on during your training, here are ways to enhance them or to strengthen them. You still have options. You're not, it's not, uh, all or nothing, or you're a failure if you don't pursue a tenure track, like, that doesn't even make any sense. Um, even if you applied, didn't get the job, you're still not a failure. It's just, it wasn't the right time, you know, any number of things could explain why you haven't received a job that you wanted to pursue.
[00:43:46] Joanne Kamens: I guess I would be remiss given my history and if people know me, you know, things I talk about, you know, to be really, um, intentional when you're choosing your graduate advisor, um, because you don't want someone who knows one thing. You want someone who will mentor you and let you find your wings. Um, you know, and you don't want someone who has a whisper network reputation of being a bully or a harasser, like don't go to those labs. A good supportive PI who will teach you, want you to work, but then support your career exploration, maybe will also support you in learning how to take the academic path and letting you write grants, put out bids for equipment, learn about the administrative burden, um, really get some skills that would help you be a better academic, you know, like some labs actually do that and that's the research you need to do when you're choosing your training lab, um, and really, really being more intentional about that.
The number of horror stories I hear where people choose a lab because of the science topic, and then they find out that the PI is, you know, there's, there's issues of all scales, is really, um, heartbreaking. You have a choice, give your work to someone who deserves it.
[00:44:54] Lauren Ullrich: Amen.
Um, and just, you know, I just want to pull on a thread that you kind of mentioned, Marguerite, where, like, if you don't feel ready or that you have gotten the training that you need to succeed in any of these careers, like, there are a lot of fellowships out there. Marguerite and I both did the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, which is probably the most famous one, but there are probably a hundred of these different kinds of fellowships.
And though they might say policy, they also include communications, program management, you know, analytics, um, and there's a lot of ways to kind of get that training if you feel like you're not competitive for a job, you know, right out of the PhD or right out of the postdoc. And they include a lot of professional development time and you're in this position where you're expected to continue learning, and it can be a nice, a nice little, um, on ramp to a very exciting career.
[00:45:55] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, I don't think, I never wanted to be a program officer; it wasn't really on my radar at all, and I love what I do now. And I did not plan to be in this position. Um, and so a lot of it is just, "wow, okay, I do like that. Let me kind of pursue that a little bit more." I, I wouldn't even say I thought I had the skills to do it. Um, so some, some of these things are sort of serendipitous or by chance, like you have a plan, you still are constantly learning, gaining skills, but it doesn't mean that you can only do one type of thing because that's, that is what you had planned on doing.
[00:46:33] Lauren Ullrich: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
[00:46:34] Kip Ludwig: It is interesting. My, my path to NIH program director, again, nobody told me this was an option in grad school, and then I got to work with people, you know, in DoE labs, in the intramural labs at the FDA and things like that, and there was a whole bunch of other different PhD jobs that I had never heard of, and I kind of didn't even know what I would need to set myself up in those jobs as well. So that's where things like this kind of being proactive and the outreach that you're doing through this podcast is great just to make people aware there are literally 100 different PhD jobs possible right now.
[00:47:11] Lauren Ullrich: Probably more, honestly, [laughs] but I mean, I, I think, like, the moral of the story is sort of: if you can even in your wildest dreams, imagine that a job exists, either it already exists, or you can make it exist, right? Like, you can found your own company. [laughs] I'm looking at you, Ekemini. Um, you know, like, if you have the art of persuasion that we talked about earlier, and you can convince people to invest in you and your vision, then you can make a job out of literally anything, right?
So, the, the most important thing, and theme throughout this season is, is knowing yourself and what you like to do and what fills your cup and gets you out of bed every morning. And if you, you know, if you can't find that job, you can make the job.
[00:48:00] Joanne Kamens: One great thing about the, the, the majority of jobs aside from a very specific academic track that Marguerite described is that, um, you know, it's not your last job, it's just your next job.
So, you know, if you're in academia, you may be heading for that tenured faculty position. You got to get there and you got to settle your family down. I like, you know, did this and then I did that. And then it's just the next thing, you know, and, and each time my skills from before helped me do the next job better.
So, um, that's, you know, don't be terrified to take a leap. Actually, that's one of the biggest questions I get is, you know, grad students or postdocs who are on that cusp of taking a job and they're terrified about this decision. And I'm like, it's not your forever decision. It's just the next job, you know, and so, um, that can take some of this, the pressure off.
[00:48:46] Ekemini Riley: Well, that and I would say also thinking about all these different opportunities as opportunities to learn. Right? I mean, by the time you get through job 2, 3, or 4 and look back and think about all the different skills you've amassed and all the new perspectives you have and that you get to bring that to the next place and next position. Um, I think that's where, that's where the magic is.
[00:49:09] Kip Ludwig: Well, and some of that learning is getting enough information to narrow down your choices. It's totally normal to not know what you want to do next. So I know for every incoming grad student, I said, do you know what you want to do next? You know, is it industry? Is it government? Is it academia? The majority of people don't know at your stage. But then that means you think about the process differently and going to a postdoc, you think about it differently. Are you gonna be in a lab that has a network in all, in all of those places? Are you you gonna be learning techniques that are relevant to all of those end goals?
Some labs actually have the ability, they do things that are relevant to industry and relevant to academia. Some are fantastic at doing basic science research towards, you know, Science and Nature papers that'll help you become an academic. That's also their network, but they might not be very good in terms of, um, training and techniques that are portable to industry, contacts, network and setting you up.
It's totally okay to be in a gray zone and need more information, but then you need to be very deliberative about your next step to say, "am I going to learn the things I need to learn to keep my options open, if I think I might not like this next step?" [music]
[00:50:15] Marguerite Matthews: Thank you all for sharing your wisdom with us today. Can I ask each of you for one last piece of parting advice?
[00:50:24] Joanne Kamens: I guess I would say, you know, I know what it is to be busy. I had a baby in grad school, so I get it. But don't ever stop meeting people doing a lot of different things.
Because the biggest problem , um, Kip, you mentioned this, the biggest problem with academic training is you only meet people who are in academia as part of your actual program. Um, with the exception of you who have had that more diverse experience, but not a lot of people have. So find some way, get involved. AAAS has people doing policy and government and all sorts of interesting things. You know, your local trade organization, we have MassBio here in Massachusetts, whatever your bio organization is, just get involved, do one other thing and meet other people. Um, and there's ways for introverts and extroverts that do that. We're going to share a link because I, I hear that, that pain, but if I could say one thing, it's meet people doing other stuff.
[00:51:14] Kip Ludwig: For me, I had mentioned, you know, being a proactive learner, uh, proactively network, you need to proactively be nice. That's really one of the most important things. If you're an introvert, it's actually a great way to create networks and-- these communities are small-- you know, you should be proactively nice and help people out just because it's the right thing to do, but you're going to find in terms of networking, et cetera, in terms of opportunities, people I took the time to help five years ago, a lot of them come back into my life five years later in a way where, um, you know, they're going to answer my email if I need an answer or they can help me out, maybe they can get my resume to the top of the stack or pulled out of the stack because they're at this company and things like that as well.
So be nice cause it's the right thing to do, um, take the time to do it, but that's been really important in terms of, you know, I am oddly a little bit more introverted naturally, but by doing that, taking the time to proactively help people, it's, uh, made it a lot easier for me to network ultimately.
[00:52:15] Ekemini Riley: I mean, Kip, absolutely. Joanne, absolutely. I think meeting people is what I, that's my typical answer, um, because it is part and parcel to every single thing that I do. But the other thing I'll say is getting comfortable with uncertainty, right? And being able to move in the space when you don't really know what you think you need to know and figuring out where to find that information.
I mean, and I think that touches pretty much everything that we have talked about in this whole segment, right? I mean, even if it's, you know, with meeting people, there's that uncertainty. How's that first interaction going to go? How am I going to keep this conversation going? You know, that in and of itself, you know, get comfortable with that. Just lean into it. You're going to have butterflies. Keep talking. Um, and when you're head down, you're working, you're like, "I don't know where I'm going to find this information." Again, lean on your networks, talk to people, and you know, lean also on all of the skills that you developed during your PhD in finding difficult information. And many, many times, making that new information, right, piecing things together and bringing something new into the world. Um, so I'd say, I think the thread through all of this is just being comfortable with uncertainty and finding your way through it.
[00:53:32] Marguerite Matthews: That's a good word.
Lauren, what's your advice?
[00:53:36] Lauren Ullrich: My advice is there are many ways to be successful as a scientist and you can find the one that sparks joy for you. I mean, I think both Marguerite and I, we've found our happy place. We love the work that we do and it's not necessarily what we thought it would be. Um, and I love that piece about uncertainty, Ekemini, because that was something that was very hard for me. But I am, you know, I'm much better at embracing it now.
And when I first started my job search, I kept hearing these stories that people found the job that they loved by accident or serendipitously, right? And I was like, how do I make serendipity happen for myself? Like, that's not something I can just do, right? It's like the culmination of all of the things that you've done, all of the people you've met, all of the opportunities you've said yes to. And so at first I was like so, like, it made me so mad [laughs] that it was out of my control. But then I looked at it from the other side, I said, none of these people did anything in particular to get the job they wanted, and they all got a job that they wanted. So as long as I'm just like doing stuff that is interesting to me, something will come along. And when I reframed it and thought about it in that way, it was kind of comforting. Like, there isn't a specific thing that I have to do to make this work. Like, it can just... It can just work. So I think that, that'll be my advice. What about you, Marguerite?
[00:55:14] Marguerite Matthews: [sigh] It's like, perhaps the one time this season that you've taken a thought out of my brain and said the thing I wanted to say, but I will expand a little bit on that.
This idea that there's a right way to plan your career, um, long term is probably a bit misguided. I'm sure there are a lot of wrong ways to go about it, but there's no one right way to do something. There are probably a million right ways to go about it, and I think the main thing is putting in the work.
And I think this idea that we have to do things the right way or that we should just sit back and let something happen to us is probably a bit more misguided in the sense that there's, I think you'll have more heartbreak that way, um, if you expect it to be a very specific way. But if you give yourself, um, a little bit more room to, to be uncomfortable, as Ekemini said, and also to set yourself up well, as Lauren mentioned, I think you're really well positioned to at least be in a job that gets you to the next thing.
If that job, you hate it, "I definitely don't want to do this." That's actually a great thing. It's a great thing to know you don't want to do X thing. I mean, I did outreach in my postdoc and I thought, I love working with youth. I worked with youth at my church. Maybe this could be part of my career."
And then I had to like run programming for the youth at my postdoctoral institution. And I was like, "I don't actually like kids. I don't want to be around them all the time. I can only deal with them maybe once a quarter. And then that's it. It cannot be part of my job." And it was so, it actually felt like a relief to know, "okay, I can't make that my full time job. So let me find something else that will allow me to still be able to dabble in that work, but that's not part of my job."
And don't take those things for granted, right? Like that, the things that you don't want to do or the type of people you don't want to work with, that's also extremely important, I think, to your happiness. Um, yeah, just allow yourself to be part of the process. But also never stop working towards the things that you think you want and make the adjustments as you need to. [music]
[00:57:24] Lauren Ullrich: That's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve, so thank you so much to our guests this week for sharing their expertise, thank you to Mariah Hoye and Ana Ebrahimi for production help, and thank you to Bob Riddle for our theme song and music. You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more resources on the web at ninds.nih.gov.
[00:57:50] Marguerite Matthews: Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NINDSDiversity and @NINDSFunding. You can email us with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. We'll see you... we'll see you when we see you. . . [laughter]
[00:58:14] Lauren Ullrich: That's a wrap. Season four.
[00:58:17] Marguerite Matthews: That's a wrap.