Careers Column – April Edition
I arrived at my current position through a traditional route, which is doing a PhD followed by four years of postdoctoral training. I was fortunate to get called for a position as an assistant professor at the University of Alberta. Based on that I went for an interview and got the job. That got my foot in the door. I spent four years at the U of A and then I was recruited to the University of British Columbia. I was pretty fortunate to be sought out for that first position in contrast to the more common route; some of the hiring committees I’ve been on screen literally hundreds of applicants for one position. It can be very challenging to get a position as a professor. I was quite fortunate how it happened for me.
Describe a typical day in your position? What are some of your day-to-day activities?
It’s an interesting question because ironically, although I trained as everybody does in this profession by doing bench research, my job is actually not at the bench, but it’s in my office. I’m writing and reviewing grants and papers for publication. I’m doing human resources which involves recruiting people to the lab and managing conflicts and I’m strategizing what we should work on. I’m also teaching. These are the sorts of things that an academic really doesn’t typically get any training for. I also spend a large portion of time doing emails. In the good old days when people had to put pen to paper, they would think twice before contacting someone with a request. But now, because of email, it’s very easy for people to reach out. So I have a large amount of my day spent responding to emails. I think it’s an interesting point that what we do day-to-day as a professor is somewhat distinct from the training we receive.
What skill or knowledge set have you obtained during your academic training that has been most helpful to you in your current position?
Again, I believe there is a real disconnect between the training we receive and the actual day-to-day duties as a PI. Having served on hiring panels for new recruits at UBC, that disconnect can be quite obvious. There are some basic skill sets that one can pick up, but usually I think it’s an innate ability that someone has to fit with the mold of an academic professor. One key trait is communication skills. Did I receive training in that? Not really. But during my training I was able to pick up that skill on my own by seeing what I considered examples of both good and poor communication skills. The same would apply with teaching, another important skill necessary to be a successful PI. I didn’t per se get the opportunity to teach, but I certainly had the opportunity to see people teach and again I would pick up on things that I thought were good or not so good. Mentoring is also an important part of what we do. I didn’t receive any mentorship training, but I did obviously receive mentorship and again, I saw things that I thought were both effective and ineffective.
The sort of work we do is similar to managing a small business. I didn’t receive direct training in this, but I was immersed in an environment where these things were all happening around me. I was able to absorb all kinds of techniques and approaches that I thought worked and observe things that I felt didn’t work. That shaped how I do things in my own independent position. It is really important that people seek out opportunities to get experience in these areas where possible, get feedback and figure out what styles will be successful for them.
How similar or different is your work environment now to that of academia/grad-school?
The work environment in grad school was the laboratory bench and the work environment now as a PI is my office. They are very different environments and require very distinct skillsets. When you’re at the bench, you get an understanding of tools and techniques and how they can be applied to the research. As a PI, I need to be able to describe the appropriate tools and techniques for example, in funding applications.
What are the work hours like? Are they mostly predictable?
I would say in academia, aside from when you’re sleeping, you’re working in one way or another. If you don’t like to do that, then you’re probably not cut out for academia. The reason I say that is because you have to be passionate about the job. It is hard work and it’s not a 9-5 job. While not at work I am often thinking about the research and issues that may arise. The flip side is it’s a flexible job. So it’s easy to take a vacation, for example, when needed. You don’t have to book the time off long in advance. But usually even on vacations PI’s still take a laptop, check emails and work on various projects, manuscripts, grant applications, reviews etc. And that’s because we’re interested in the work, so we seldom complain about the hours.
Do you work largely alone or as part of a team?
The lab itself is a team. And also, I think it’s impossible for a single lab to do all the techniques that are necessary to fully address a particular research topic. It’s important therefore to collaborate with others who can bring a different perspective or a different tool or technique to the research that you’re pursuing. I believe that successful research is highly collaborative in nature.
How often do you travel for your job/ Do you attend any conferences?
Yes, I frequently attend conferences. On average I travel every month to give a talk or participate in a conference. It’s a way to network with colleagues and find out what’s happening around us. It is crucial not to do your research in isolation, but to keep up on the latest techniques and discoveries. And in our field, simply reading publications is insufficient because the work we’re reading about could have been completed two years ago as the publication process takes so long. Whereas at conferences, you can find out about work that’s in progress.
What advice would you give to trainees who are interested in working in your field or in a similar position?
Be motivated and get your foot in the door. You need to start building your pedigree. You need to have a diverse skill set in current methodology because it’s highly competitive to get a position in academia or industry. Get as many diverse opportunities as you can to build up your CV so that ultimately, you’re competitive. Publications are important to provide evidence of your accomplishments. If you are publishing as an undergrad and working in different labs, that will help you get a position as a grad student and studentships. As a grad student if you’re publishing and learning many different techniques that can be applied to different areas, you’ll be more likely to get multiple offers as a postdoctoral fellow and fellowships. Ultimately it is excellent productivity, experience and accomplishments, along with communication skills that will be needed to make you competitive for positions as you progress throughout your career.
To learn more about the research conducted in the Kieffer lab, check out their website https://kiefferlab.com/