Elaine Emmerson, Postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco, USA
Elaine started her academic career as a research technician at the University of Manchester. Six months into a project investigating impaired wound healing, she realised that academic research was her true calling and started a PhD a year later. After her PhD she was awarded a prestigious fellowship from The Healing Foundation, naming her the David Hammond Charitable Foundation Postdoctoral Research Associate. After her PhD, she made the transatlantic journey to UCSF as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Program in Craniofacial Biology.
Elaine is currently preparing to make the leap to academic independence. “I’ve known for a long time that becoming a principal investigator is what I want to do. That wasn’t the difficult decision, the difficult thing has been knowing what to do to make myself as attractive as possible to the funding bodies who financially support early career investigators such as myself. Science funding is at a real low and so there is clearly less money to support new investigators such as myself than there was, say, 10 years ago. This means that the funding that does still exist is in high demand and fellowships such as the Wellcome Trust Sir Henry Dale are incredibly competitive.”
I asked Elaine if there were enough help out there for encouraging women in science and she says, “Fortunately I’ve been very lucky at having some strong and driven women as my mentors [Elaine’s current PI only started her lab a year before Elaine joined her group]. This means that I have recently had some great advice from someone who has just ventured down the very same path only a matter of a few years ago, and has obviously, thus far, been very successful at doing so.”
What advice does Elaine have for others who are thinking of pursuing the tenure-track route? “The first piece of advice I have for anyone who wants to become independent is to carve out a niche for yourself. You need to have a research question that no-one else is considering. And of course, this has to also be a relevant and exciting question. This is easier said than done since up to this point you’ve likely been working with input from at least one advisor. Any ideas you come up with need to be distinct from what your current/previous lab and PI are working on. It would be very bad practice to be in competition with your former lab, and in all honesty, they’d probably succeed quicker than you anyway if you’re just starting out!” So how is Elaine tacking this? “In my case I am taking the knowledge and experience I have gained from my current postdoc and I’m applying this to the area of research I did in my PhD, thus avoiding conflict and overlap.” Her second piece of advice is to not waste time. “Don’t leave it 5 years and then think, ‘So, what shall I do?’ This is particularly important so you can start to network early on with potential collaborators and people who can help you and make yourself known at conferences and meetings, not only for your supervisor but you in your own right.” And last but not leat, she offers some practical advice for how to go about looking for funding. “Take the time to look at the priority areas of Research Councils, sources of funding, etc. You are far more likely to get somewhere with an application if your research strongly fits into a priority area. Science funding is in such short supply that you must show the clinical question/problem and the relevance to human health.”
Like many other postdocs have already cautioned, Elaine suggests that before you decide to step foot on this academia route, “Be certain this is absolutely the path you want to take. It is by no means an easy one, it requires a lot of work and dedication. And prepare to get a thick skin.” Because there is such a bottle neck and lack of funding in more senior positions in academia, a postdoc will most certainly face a lot of competition, and ultimately, rejection at some point. “In addition, since getting those high impact papers are also a big part of making yourself stand out from the crowd you will (and should) aim high. This also comes with a certain amount of rejection. It’s hard not to feel like a failure, but recovery is an essential part of this difficult path.”
Elaine also suggests that you get as many people to read your work before you submit. “Your peers, colleagues, supervisors, friends and even family are a great resource for picking up on things you’ve overlooked. Sometimes you’re just too close to your work to notice the obvious questions and problems. And they don’t all have to be scientists to help. It’s becoming increasingly important to ensure the general public can understand your science and many grant applications now include a lay summary section. If your family, for example, ask ‘what is a stem cell?’ or ‘what does characterisation mean?’ you need to dumb it down even further. As a scientist surrounded by (likely) many other scientists it’s hard to know what is or isn’t common knowledge to the rest of the population.”
And if it all goes pear-shaped? “I’d suggest having a backup plan of what you’ll do if independence doesn’t work out. Many numbers have been banded about in recent years, but the common result is that somewhere in the region of 15% of postdocs go on to get tenure-track positions. It’s admirable to be shooting for the stars and trying your best, but be realistic, you’ve got an uphill battle ahead and only a minority get there.” And what plan B does Elaine have? “My ideal backup plan would be a lectureship position. This path would predominantly involve teaching which is also something I am interested in, especially having worked as a part-time associate lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University for a number of years, with research as a secondary aim. However, although this path would provide the opportunity for my continuing in research it would come at a significant disadvantage in terms of time and (likely) resources available.”