Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Serendipity in Science Careers

 Yesterday I had an interesting experience that made me think about the seemingly minor twists and turns in one's career that can have massive consequences down the line. I realized that if I look all the way back to my initial involvement in research, I can think of dozens of examples where things have gone my way because I was in the right place at the right time. In most cases, I put myself in that place on purpose, but didn't know where it would lead. I think there is an important distinction between being lucky and appearing to be lucky because you find the right place to be.

I got into grad school in a pizza restaurant, over a couple of beers. That was the "interview" and it just so happened that the person I wanted to work with had money and I project I wanted to be involved in. It helped that I was coming with a couple of undergrad publications and a strong recommendation from a colleague he trusts, but it still may not have worked out.

Similarly, I fell into a postdoc after a talk I gave in another university's seminar series. The timing worked out that I was looking when my postdoc advisor needed someone new, but neither of us had talked prior to that point. I actually gave the seminar with the hopes of joining a different lab, but after talking with my (future) postdoc advisor about the project he was working on, we basically agreed that I would start a couple of months later. Again, no application, no search, just two people excited about the science they could do. BUT, if I hadn't presented a boat load of data from my PhD, that conversation likely would not have happened. 

I actually did apply for faculty jobs. For me that process worked out like everyone else - you interview at a couple of places and eventually there's the right fit between what you want and what they need. Granted, not everyone finds exactly what they are looking for, but even as much as I bitch about the particular peculiarities of Employment University, it fits much of what I was looking for. And even since taking the job, having a particular skill set and research that encompasses a wide range of subjects has allowed me to take advantage of several opportunities, including getting additional personnel in the lab, that have been the result having needed expertise and being in the right place at the right time. 

I'll be sending some things out today that have the potential to produce some data that will set us up for the next 6 months and will almost certainly result in some important publications for the lab, not to mention provide overwhelming "preliminary" data for grants if I still need to submit revisions in the next round. So? You ask. How is that related to the topic at hand? The answer is that I am having this work done at a large facility, but by working with the head of the facility, rather than having them work for me. Subtle, but important difference, because rather than paying a facility to just do the work and having to follow all of their strict rules regarding amount of material sent, etc., I am skirting some potential issues that would set me back a couple of months because the director of the facility was at a presentation I gave and is genuinely interested in the results. After chatting for a while after my talk, the director agreed to use some of their lab protocols and help us optimize the process, even if we could not easily provide the amount and quantity of material they generally require. Like I said, this is something that is going to save me months of time and substantially speed up the process of getting that all important first "independent lab" paper out and virtually ensures we'll have the data to publish the results in a broad-interest journal. Assuming this works...

So, have I been lucky up to this point in my career? To a degree, yes. But the interpretation of events would be very different if I wasn't busting my ass to produce the data that gets one invited to give talks, and then taking every opportunity to talk about my research with anyone who is interested (or doesn't flee fast enough). Sometimes you can make your own good luck. 


  1. This fall I am starting the first year of a PhD program, with the eventual goal of heading an academic lab in a faculty position. The impression I have gotten so far from completing an undergraduate thesis, working in labs as a technician, and reading various science blogs was that two people could be equally productive in their research and clever in their networking, but still one may go on to have a successful career and one may not.

    Your post may be read to suggest that hard work will prepare a budding scientist for opportunities, and if you do the legwork, are productive in your research, and stay connected to potential opportunities, then you'll likely be successful. Do you think science careers are "fair" in this manner, or do you think it is sort of a crap shoot? What happens when someone picks what seems to be a promising research topic but finds out later that the line of research was a dead end?

  2. Sara, I started writing a response and realized that I probably can't summarize my thoughts in the comments. My short answer is that I think the "crap-shoot" thing is, well, crap. I'll let others weigh in and flesh out my response in a full post shortly.

  3. I think its one percent luck, the other 99% is busting your behind day in day out to do good science, learn as much as possible, and make yourself as valuable as possible to your future employer. Universities don't just shell out fat start up packages to someone just because they can work hard and pipet accurately, cream rises to the top. Be ambitious, always strive to learn more and collaborate with as many other PI's as possible. But also be realistic, know your capabilities.