IGERT meeting: what do grown-up interdisciplinary scientists do for a living?

One of the most interesting sessions at the NSF IGERT 2010 Project Meeting was a panel of men and women who participated in the IGERT program as students and are now working in a variety of different careers. The point of the panel was to hear about the ways that they felt their experiences as IGERT trainees prepared them for their current positions, as well as to identify aspects of their current jobs where more preparation might have been helpful.

The session was moderated by Judy Giordan (President and Co-Founder, Visions in Education, Inc.). The IGERT alums who participated in the panel were:

Fabrisia Ambrosio (University of Pittsburgh)
Abigail Anthony (Environment Northeast, a non-profit)
Edward Hederick (Congressional Fellow)
Lisa Kemp (Co-founder, Ablitech, Inc.)
Henry Lin (Amgen, Inc.)
Yaniria Sanchez de Leon (University of Puerto Rico)
Andrew Todd (U.S. Geological Survey)
Marie Tripp (Intel)

What helped you prepare for your current role?

Marie Tripp (industry): The rotations (in a national lab, a small company, and academia). Floating between different departments. And studying (and doing research) abroad. The insight this gave on what it's like to work and live in a foreign culture has been helpful in interactions with foreign-born colleagues in my current position.

Andrew Todd (government biologist): In-depth interactions with other students (including in Journalism and Political Science) gave useful information about how others perceive the scientific work and its broader implications. Networking with scientists and decision makers. Practice with cross-disciplinary communication.

Yaniria Sanchez de Leon (academic): Interdisciplinary research (not just doing it but being open to it). Taking a leadership role in interdisciplinary grant-writing. International experience (an internship in agricultural research added the breadth and the extra expertise that got me my academic job).

Henry Lin (industry): Interdisciplinary experience (removing barriers to collaboration). An internship in industry (helped me learn how industry works and is different from academia). Funding for conference travel (that let me network early and often).

Lisa Kemp (entrepreneur): Building a network. Developing communication skills (including in communications with non-scientists). Since the IGERT program at my school was essentially a start-up, this gave me useful start-up experience.

Edward Hederick (government, Congressional staffer): Networking. Interdisciplinary interaction and the ability to be a generalist (which helps with communicating policy). Outreach experience. International experience.

Abigail Anthony (non-profit): Internship experience with a non-academic partner (helped me understand how my dissertation could inform policy decisions). Experience working out how to engage stakeholders with disparate interests. Interdisciplinary problem-solving (and finding out how flexible you are about working outside your anticipated career environment).

Fabrisia Ambrosio (academic): Fusing different sciences to solve problems in very different ways. Developing a broad portfolio of collaborators (and confidence in approaching them). More formal mentorship (from lots of different perspectives and expertise).

There was a question from the audience about postdocs, especially how they are viewed by industry. The panelists noted that in industry postdocs are not generally counted as "experience". They advised using postdoctoral appointments strategically (not just as a holding pattern while you figure out what you want to do with your life).

What are the biggest challenges for new grads going into a job in your field?

Fabrisia Ambrosio: Creating your own niche. Funding.

Abigail Anthony: The perception that scientists shouldn't go into advocacy. (Exposure to science advocates helped with that.) Not many opportunities to do research and to publish in the non-profit world (e.g., op-eds, "gray literature").

Edward Hederick: Communication (and being an advocate for other people's science. Rapid assessment. Tolerance for ambiguity.

Lisa Kemp: Having basic business knowledge. Knowing how to pitch a project. Networking.

Henry Lin: Having the experience to get the job. (The right internship can help.) Not knowing what industry employers are looking for and what common problems they deal with. (Networking with them at conferences can help.)

Yaniria Sanchez de Leon: There's not much research area overlap within a department at a teaching institution (so it's good to have an ability to enter into interdisciplinary collaborations and to form interdisciplinary connections). Writing. Effective time management.

Andrew Todd: Integrating into old school science agencies. Avoiding being too narrowly focused. Finding permanent employment. (The government likes to date but not to commit.)

Marie Tripp: Figuring out what you want to do. (You get the job, but then you need to figure out where you want to go in that job.) The ability to come up with ideas and then sell those ideas.

* * * * *

While IGERT puts a special focus on interdisciplinary work of various sorts, I'm inclined to think that this kind of discussion about what kinds of training and experience can help science Ph.D. students to move into different kinds of jobs (not just academic posts in universities like the ones where they earned their Ph.D.s) should be happening everywhere Ph.D. students are trained. To the extent that being able to land a job and succeed at it might require more preparation than a single discipline can provide, all Ph.D. candidates probably need to be at least a little interdisciplinary. It's not about goofing off while one should be in the lab -- it's about being broad enough and competent enough that you can do something with your knowledge and research expertise.

Obviously, this kind of information from people outside the bubble of academia (or the bubble of a single department at a single university) could give trainees a much better sense of what they could be doing to prepare themselves for the kind of careers that await them -- not to mention giving them a broader idea of what kinds of work they might find fulfilling as scientists.

And, I'm guessing that if panels like this were to happen with some regularity at Ph.D. grating institutions, some of the people training scientists might begin to recognize that one's scientific life need not begin and end in academia.


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