Expand Your Horizons

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Academia isn’t the only answer to a career path after PhD, though it may be the most typical one that comes into someone’s mind. As it turns out, the options are quite diverse and may involve industry, government, science policy, or scientific communication.

These options became apparent during a Stem Cell Trainee Career Seminar, involving Dr. Sheila Chari, PhD, the Editor in Chief of Cell Stem Cell, and Dr. Mike Pazin, the Program Director of National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

“We’re all different,” Dr. Pazin said. “We want different things. There is no one way to get to the right career or no one right career. And, what you’re thinking about may change over time. So, think about what you’re looking for, find what you want, and make sure that you get to where you want to be.”

The panel discussed the responsibilities of various government agency scientific journal editors and program directors, and offered pointers on how to pursue a career path in those fields.

The life of an editor

The day-to-day life of an editor mainly involves managing papers throughout the life cycle from submission to publication, according to Dr. Chari. Publishing a manuscript in a scientific journal follows a lengthy process, which involves editors at every step.

“You’re going from this position where you used to have your own questions that you were pursuing. And, when you become an editor, that is no longer the case,” said Dr. Chari.

Once a paper is submitted, the editorial team meets to discuss first impressions about the paper, the title, and the abstract. Then, the paper is assigned to a handling editor who presents an evaluation of whether the questions being asked and answered fit the scope and the interest of the journal.

After the paper is assessed by experts in the field invited as reviewers, the editors integrate all critiques and either invite the authors for revision or reject. Following the revision, the paper enters the final phase of modification.

Given the comprehensive nature of the job, an effective editor should possess passion for scientific communication, curiosity about an unfamiliar field of research, the ability to quickly understand it, and critical thinking skills. Finally, an editor should have a service mindset.

“You’re helping authors make their work better and then convey that to a readership,” said Dr. Chari.

Although the roles that editors play are mostly behind the scenes, there is a social aspect.

“One of the most exciting things that we do is [going] to conferences. You need to be comfortable networking with potential authors and reviewers and getting to know them,” Dr. Chari said.

Working at the National Institute of Health (NIH)

As the Program Director of NHGRI, Dr. Pazin primarily works with unsolicited grants and identifies institutes with missions that fit with grant ideas. In addition, he obtains funding for consortia like ENCODE and 4D Nucleome, appointing groups to perform the science, and managing the projects to ensure that the “science stays true to the vision of the original idea.”

Intramural labs at NIH and those at universities share similarities, but one important difference is funding.

“When you’re hired at the NIH, that comes with resources like lab space, supply money, and equipment money, so that's good from the standpoint of it giving you a minimum. But, very successful people at universities can apply for additional grants. A challenge you can face at the NIH is there's no mechanism to apply for new grants [because] if you’re at the NIH intramural, you’re not eligible for other grants,” said Dr. Pazin.

In the Office of Extramural Research, which administers awards to universities, companies, and small businesses, scientific review officers identify appropriate reviewers with expertise in each field and convene grant review meetings. The office also includes staff positions for financial or administrative work requiring minimal scientific expertise.

“We have policy and administration type positions as well,” Dr. Pazin said. “These are things like coming up with new human subjects protection policies, looking at workforce disparities, and trying to improve diversity.”

Oftentimes, the exact responsibilities of NIH staff can be mysterious and obscure to those outside of NIH. So, Dr. Pazin emphasized that those interested in working at NIH should contact individuals at the institute who can offer a straightforward and detailed description of the job.