I always loved school and learning and science. As a young child, I had already set my sights on getting a higher education despite the fact that this was not considered a high priority in my family. Supporting myself, I went directly to college in 1976 after graduating from high school. My goal was to go on to medical school. At the time, medicine was the only job I was familiar with that was scientific in nature. When I got to college, I soon realized that there was this unbelievable, exciting research enterprise in universities and my goals began to change.
During my sophomore year I changed my major from biology (premed) to psychology (not viewed as very practical by many, but it satisfied a long-standing interest in human behavior) and I graduated with a B.S. in 1980. Still uncertain as to what I wanted to do next, I went to work full-time at the emergency psychiatric clinic, where I worked part-time during my senior year. I also continued to take classes, some graduate psych as well as the necessary requirements to reopen the option of applying to medical school.
I continued to vacillate for several years about what to do next. I wanted to continue my education, but I remained uncertain as to the direction. I changed jobs in 1982 and started working as a lab tech in a neuro-pharmacology lab. I have always had a strong desire to do something to help people, but in this new setting I soon found I was much happier doing research with rats than working directly with patients. This got me thinking more about graduate school as an option, rather than medical school.
After a few years and several fits and starts with filling out graduate applications (most only read and never completed, much less mailed) for various programs, and some real-life adventures, I became serious about beginning graduate school. Thanks to two books, On Human Nature and The Genetic Prophesy, I decided human genetics was the field for me. In 1984 I applied for and entered a Ph.D. program in human genetics. I was especially glad I had taken all those biology and chemistry courses after receiving my B.S.; otherwise, it would have taken me at least a year of course work before I could have even applied.
I had ups and downs in graduate school, but I always loved my research. After working in a university research environment, I was convinced that there was no better life than being an academic researcher and professor. This became my singular goal. I defended my dissertation and went straight into a post-doc, my sights still set on the road to becoming a faculty member at a research university.
I was, however, not completely and blindly driven by doing research. It was not my life 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (more like 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week). Personal concerns played a role in my career decisions. Therefore, I wasn't always able to play by the normative rules of how to get ahead in academic science. Both of my degrees come from the same university and I stayed there for my post-doc as well, though in a different area and department. These choices, like all choices, have impacted my career, but not nearly to the negative degree conventional wisdom would lead you to believe.
My post-doc was going well, despite my suffering a great personal loss during the first year. I applied for and was awarded a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. My work was progressing and I started job hunting in the third year of my fellowship.
Even though two post-docs seemed to be becoming the norm in the bio-medical sciences, I aimed for my dream-a faculty job. I knew a position at a top institution might be unlikely, but I sincerely did not imagine I would have any problems landing a job in an academic research setting at a credible state school. It was now 1991, the alleged beginning of a Ph.D. shortage that had been predicted in the mid-1980s by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which should have translated into lots of unfilled faculty slots.
Unfortunately, the NSF's predictions didn't pan out for me. About half the universities to which I applied never bothered to respond to my applications, and those that did respond would state without fail that the position had attracted hundreds of applicants and that I should not take my rejection as a reflection of the quality of my work. I applied to get my fellowship extended, taking me into the fourth year of my post-doc.
In year four, the job hunting did not improve even though I started broadening my efforts to include industry research jobs and faculty positions at liberal arts colleges. I got a few nibbles for independent positions, but the only concrete possibilities were for second post-docs. I was becoming increasingly concerned about my personal future, as well as the future of the research enterprise. I just couldn't understand how the NSF could have been so far off the mark. I knew it wasn't just me: at more and more of the large national science conferences I attended I heard more and more post-docs, many with better academic pedigrees, telling the same bleak story.
This dearth of jobs, in the face of predictions by the NSF, led me to pay increasing attention to science policy issues. Much to my surprise, many leaders in the research community were not particularly interested in what was happening to younger scientists' career development. Quite frankly, I started getting angry about this and wanted to find a way to direct my energy and make a positive impact.
I Leave the Lab
Early in my post-doc, I had read in Science about science policy fellowships offered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At the time, I put the article aside thinking it was something I would try to do on sabbatical after I got tenure and had a well-established research program. As my job hunt failed to produce, and the thought of a second research post-doc continued to sound like an undesirable idea, I decided to apply. My rationale-it looked really interesting, sounded like a lot of fun, and if I had to take another temporary fellowship I was better off doing something that would give me more options than would staying in the lab. Also, the AAAS fellowships pay a much better stipend than a typical academic biomedical research post-doc. This translated to a 66% increase in stipend if I got the fellowship, certainly a good selling point. I submitted applications to several programs-I was offered a fellowship through AAAS to work at the U.S. Agency for International Development. I accepted.
Several faculty members at my academic institution tried to discourage me from taking the AAAS fellowship and leaving the lab. When it became clear I was going to Washington, D.C., many told me that I could get away with leaving the lab for a year and still come back, but that I would never survive 2 years out and be able to return to research without great effort. I should add, however, that not all reactions were negative, that there were several faculty members who were very supportive and a few who were even envious. I was excited about going to D.C. but equally scared. In my heart, I knew I wouldn't come back to the lab after a year because the only way to do that would be to take another post-doc. I knew I wouldn't do that unless it was the only option open to me. I was simply getting too old to continue in temporary positions with minimal benefits.
Before I go on, I would like to say that I think doing research is great, exciting, fun and a vital experience for a student of science. If a new type of senior post-doc position had been created in the academic biomedical sciences at that time-one that paid reasonably, provided real benefits, and offered some tangible level of stability and independence-I might very well still be working in a lab somewhere.
But I do not regret leaving the lab; what I do now is just as exciting and fun! I am having a great time and wouldn't trade my job now for a faculty position (even if it paid as much). I should also point out that the extra research experience I gained as a postdoc-4 more years of research, competing for funding, and learning molecular genetics-is critical to doing my current job well.
So off I went to Washington with very mixed emotions. My first night in town, I cried as I sat with my dog on the floor of my empty apartment awaiting my furniture delivery the next day. I called my best friend from grad school and told her what a terrible mistake I had made-I had ruined my life, because I knew I'd never be able to return to the lab. I wondered how I could ever be happy now. It was more than the loss from giving up a dream or vision of my future-I love science, research, and academia, but I felt my love was unrequited.
Obviously, my life wasn't ruined. And, in one of life's great twists, my friend is now doing an AAAS science policy fellowship herself. It took me some time and I had a lot of feelings to resolve, but I began to see new possibilities in using my expertise to make a meaningful contribution to science. Also, I confess, I kept my hand in the lab for about a year. On many weekends I drove the 100 miles down to Richmond to finish my last project and get one more publication out. However, I really enjoyed Washington and, in time, the drive to Richmond got longer and the drive home to northern Virginia shorter. Any doubts I had about leaving the lab disappeared, but I did still miss academia.
Overall, my Washington experience is one of the best mistakes I have made. My AAAS fellowship work included grants program management, as well as other good solid practical administrative experiences. There were many opportunities to meet and work with a variety of people. Many of the vast arrays of people I worked with outside of the government came from research foundations with diverse missions such as funding U.S. research; helping third-world nations develop their science and technology infrastructures; and informing health care and science policy. My grant administration experience and exposure to these individuals made me realize I should be including this sector in my job hunt.