Néstor Sáiz, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, New York , USA
Néstor did his PhD in Developmental Biology at the University of Manchester. His PhD focussed on how cells in the early mammalian embryo coordinate their fate decision-making and their spatial arrangement. After his PhD, he moved across the Atlantic to pursue his academic career in New York. “I continue to work in academia because I enjoy having the chance to think about the general principles that underlie biological processes and to dictate the focus of my own research.”
His current role is as part of the Developmental Biology Program at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York. “I still use the early mammalian embryo as a model system, and I am interested in understanding how cells communicate and interact with one another to coordinate their behaviours and eventually generate a functional organism.” So, research area-wise, his postdoc has not changed much compared to his PhD. “The work is more demanding and seniority comes with more responsibilities and higher expectations that need to be met. On the other hand, I am more experienced and savvy too, so I do better work and I feel more confident than I did as a student.” Néstor also says that he as more resources so he is able to be bolder in his experimental approaches. “Of course, and especially these days, the job comes with a lot of instability and uncertainty, career-wise, which looms larger the deeper into the postdoc you are. It is something one needs to cope with and be very aware of.” After having heard from many of my friends who have left academia for various reasons, I was interested to know if this role meets his job satisfaction. “Pretty high, I have funding and my institution has plenty of resources for research and to support postdocs; but in my experience talking with colleagues, the satisfaction varies a lot among different postdocs and over time!!”
What’s Néstor’s advice for pursuing an academic career? “They need to really want to do it and be excited about the science. Don’t just drift into doing a postdoc: it’s a lot of work and a very personal investment. You will learn a lot, but you will get no degree at the end.” He also recommends reflecting on your PhD, on what research topic you’re really interested in and also on what style of mentoring suits you. “Then look for a lab that does solid science in that field and a mentor that fits your needs. Talk to people in the lab and the department (see if someone in your network knows an insider), and find out what their mentoring style is and the lab environment.” However, it is likely that you won’t be able to find the perfect mentor in your dream research area, “My advice is to prioritise a lab where you are going to get good training and mentorship, with colleagues that fit your style. There are many fascinating research topics, but you really want to learn to do good work, wherever your career may take you after.” Now that he has had time to reflect on his postdoc, he has further advice for any stage in your career, “Keep an open mind about your work and your career, talk to people in other industries, and learn as much as you can. Don’t be constrained by what others may think a career in science entails and in which direction it is supposed to go.”
If you’re thinking of doing a PhD, Néstor has the following advice:
- Don’t rush into it. Try doing research for a while before committing to it to see if it is something you would enjoy and to learn the basics – be it as a technician, a masters student, an intern…
- If and when you decide to do it, have a hobby and commit some time to it every week – no matter how busy you may be.
- Nurture your skill set. Take advantage of any training opportunities that come your way, even if they don’t seem related to your research.
- Think of the location. You will be living there for a very intense period of your life, make sure it is a place you will enjoy.
- Try to hang around some people who work on other things (other departments, other faculties, not in research). It will keep you grounded (and sane).