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Challenging transitions

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Science  04 Jan 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6422, pp. 24-26
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw2641

We asked young scientists these questions: Have you ever encountered a particularly stark difference between an old and new position in your education or career? What was the difference between the positions, and what advice would you give to someone making a similar transition? Here, respondents share the challenges they faced when they took on new responsibilities and roles, changed fields, or moved to new places. To others in similar situations, they advise: Be confident, prepared, and patient; communicate; and always ask for help when needed. —Jennifer Sills

Be prepared

The greatest challenge during my transition from a teaching assistant to an assistant professor in a large public university was the teaching responsibility. Whereas teaching assistants focus only on the subject matter and a small group of students, a professor must select textbooks, prepare syllabi, coordinate laboratory experiments, teach large classes, handle teaching assistants, manage the course website, and accommodate athletes' schedules and students with disabilities. By taking courses on teaching, I developed skills in communication, evaluation and assessment, education psychology, academic advising, and student accommodations. For me, preparation was the key to a smooth transition.

Niluka D. Wasalathanthri Department of Chemistry, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269, USA. Email: niluka.wasalathanthri{at}uconn.edu

Postdocs are expected to perform as experienced researchers. This can be challenging given the dependence of Ph.D. students on their supervisors for scientific ideas and experimental designs. To excel as a postdoc, I advise thoroughly reviewing the literature. Read the relevant papers completely, especially the methods sections. This will greatly enhance your ability to design your own experiment.

Syed Shan-e-Ali Zaidi Plant Genetics Lab, Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech, University of Liège, Gembloux, 5030 Namur, Belgium. Email: shan.e.ali{at}outlook.com

After juggling my experiments and managing a small lab of 10 members as a graduate student, I now focus solely on meeting the needs of a 75-person lab. Although I work far fewer hours now, I must work much faster in a shorter time frame. My excellent mentors and my management experience eased my transition. To succeed as a lab manager, I advise others to get as much regulatory, personnel management, and ordering experience as possible.

Elena Mahrt Center for the Genetics of Host Defense, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX 75390, USA. Email: elena.mahrt{at}utsouthwestern.edu

As a scientist, I could focus on research, but my transition to a professor role came with new responsibilities. Instead of simply reading a publication to plan new experiments, I now read with an eye toward how to explain the concepts to a student. A scientist might manage a group of 5 to 10 researchers, whereas a teacher manages students ranging from undergraduates to postdoctoral fellows. As a scientist, I could remain silent and work out problems internally. As a teacher, I have to talk constantly, yet remain calm.

Sudhakar Srivastava Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221005, India. Email: sudhakar.srivastava{at}gmail.com

The training of a physician focuses on the familiarity with medical knowledge and clinical guidelines, whereas solid statistics and a programming background are required to become a data scientist. To make the transition, I joined a Ph.D. program after medical school; spent 3 years taking classes on statistical inference, machine learning, and computational biology; and participated in programming contests with undergraduates. As a result, I benefited from both the medical domain knowledge and the quantitative skills I learned in my journey.

Kun-Hsing Yu Department of Biomedical Informatics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA. Email: kun-hsing_yu{at}hms.harvard.edu

Find community

When I transitioned from one field in biology to another, I had to acclimate to subtle differences between fields, such as strategies for collaboration and publication. Anyone who is planning to change fields should make sure that the new workplace has a good working environment. It would have been impossible for me to get started without the help of colleagues willing to teach me the nuances of my new field. In return, I taught them skills I had developed in my original field.

Karin S. L. Johansson Institute of Technology, University of Tartu, 50411 Tartu, Estonia. Email: ksl.johansson{at}outlook.com

After finishing my Ph.D., I made a career transition from aquaculture to entomology. I had to abandon a decade of fish research experience and start studying insects from scratch. Within the entomology community in China, however, a new researcher has little chance to get a research grant, and my career stalled. When our institute decided to launch a new aquaculture research program, I returned to the aquaculture field without hesitation and reconnected and collaborated with colleagues and old friends in the aquaculture community. To those transitioning from one field to another, I recommend being prepared for setbacks and maintaining connections to your original field.

Fengbo Li Zhejiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Hangzhou, Zhejiang 310021, China. Email: fengboli{at}gmail.com

When I transitioned from a master's degree program in Colombia to a Ph.D. program in the United Kingdom, I encountered cultural shock and language barriers. To address these challenges, I acknowledged the differences, maintained an open dialogue with peers and supervisors to ensure accurate communication, and tried to view setbacks with perspective. I also surrounded myself with other multilingual people who could relate to the process of learning another language and its frustrations, and I looked for academic role models who weren't native English speakers. Rather than compare myself to others who had different backgrounds or experience, I took pride in my ability to overcome obstacles.

Maria Fernanda Torres Jimenez Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, and Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre, Gothenburg, Sweden. Email: maria.torres{at}bioenv.gu.se

Be patient


As a premedical student, I focused on obtaining high exam scores and a competitive GPA. When transitioning to medical school, I realized that I was now studying for my future patients, not an exam score. The expectation that I would retain all the information I learned for a lifetime of clinical practice was daunting. I believe it is important for students making this transition to prepare themselves not just for the sprint to the next exam but for the “marathon” that is medical training.

Cody Lo University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z3, Canada. Email: codylo{at}alumni.ubc.ca

Transitioning from a dental school in India to a business school in the United States was tough. Looking back, I was not adequately prepared to appreciate the teaching pedagogy in a business school, which was in stark contrast to what I had been exposed to in dental school. Difficulties adapting to the surroundings, environment, and culture of a different country further compounded my problems during my first year of graduate studies. To those in a similar predicament, I would recommend being a good listener, setting achievable goals for each day, focusing on seemingly small activities, being detail oriented, and asking for help if you need any. You will be surprised at how much people are willing to help those coming from a different country.

Veerasathpurush Allareddy College of Dentistry, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL 60612, USA. Email: sath{at}uic.edu

When I transitioned from undergraduate to postgraduate (Ph.D.) studies, there was a substantial change in my effort-reward system. In high school and college, the harder I studied, the better results I would get. In contrast, as a Ph.D. candidate, substantial effort does not always mean a visible reward right away. I realized that outcomes do not depend on me alone but also on supervisors, available resources, and even luck. My advice is to try to find small, perhaps unexpected, rewards from that effort and to be patient because a long-term important reward is likely still to come.

Carmen Romero-Molina Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Seville, 41012 Seville, Spain. Email: carmin533{at}hotmail.com

Trust yourself

I transitioned from a position as a specialist in the pharmaceutical industry to a position as a Ph.D. student. I went from solving day-to-day tasks with short deadlines to doing research projects lasting for several years. Sometimes, when weeks and even months go by without results, I have to remind myself that I made the transition to challenge myself and develop my skills. Remembering the reason that I'm here helps me overcome frustration and setbacks.

Signe Mosegaard Research Unit for Molecular Medicine, Aarhus University, DK-8200 Aarhus N, Denmark. Email: signe.mosegaard{at}clin.au.dk

I left a research assistant position in a 20-member lab to do my Ph.D. as the sole member of a new lab. Our productivity depended on my effort, and I understood both the responsibility and the opportunity the position entailed. I advise others to start a Ph.D. with a secure and honest vision of what they want to achieve. Otherwise, all the distractions in the world will not be comfort enough during the difficult or unexpected moments.

Steven M. Heaton Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Biomedicine Discovery Institute, Monash University, Clayton, VIC 3800, Australia. Email: steven.heaton{at}monash.edu

Medical school was like drinking from a fire hose. There was so much to learn; the more efficient I was, the better. When I transitioned to graduate school during my M.D./Ph.D. training, the rules for success were less clear. My research mentor often tells me to be creative, but there is no textbook for creativity. Testing the boundaries of science requires experiments or techniques that you have never done before, and when you try new things, you often fail. The key, I believe, is to work on questions that truly interest you. Genuine scientific curiosity can form the foundation for sustained perseverance. Asking “Why?” can turn failed experiments into new opportunities. It turns out that graduate school is also like drinking from a fire hose, but the fun part is you get to choose what you drink.

Jonathan Joon-Young Park Department of Genetics, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT 06520, USA. Email: jonathan.park{at}yale.edu

For academics, transitioning to parenthood can be daunting. During the first years of my child's life, I experienced academia with a new perspective. We have traveled to conferences and field work all over the world. With the help of patient colleagues, supportive family and friends, conference day care, and a strong will, I have tried my best to be an active member of my scientific community. The more we participate, the more we serve as role models, push societal acceptance of equality, and improve conditions for future academic mothers.

Christine D. Bacon Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden. Email: christinedbacon{at}gmail.com


When I started my Ph.D. project, I depended on guidance from my supervisor. When I transitioned to postdoctoral work, I had to independently navigate my research schedule, including both long-term and short-term goals. It was up to me to stay engaged, focus on my goals, and change direction when appropriate. Self-navigation driven by intrinsic motivation helped me find success as a postdoctoral researcher.

Sha Yu School of Biological Sciences, Seoul National University, Seoul 8826, South Korea. Email: shayu{at}snu.ac.kr

When I first transitioned from Ph.D. to postdoc, the most challenging difference was the change in expectations. As a Ph.D. student, I benefited from my supervisor's helping hand and the understanding that my colleagues would tolerate mistakes. As a postdoc, I had to face the expectation that I could produce high-impact results with minimal supervision.

Emre Ozan Polat ICFO–The Institute of Photonic Sciences, Castelldefels, 8860 Barcelona, Spain. Email: emre-ozan.polat{at}icfo.es

Communicate effectively

When I left my position as a graduate research assistant in academia to begin work as a scientist in industry, I learned that industry requires complex communication skills. I have to engage and communicate with internal and external stakeholders with substantially different levels of expertise, expectations, and backgrounds on a daily basis. Excellent oral and written communication skills are essential to ensure that messages are delivered clearly, precisely, and efficiently. Understanding the organizational landscape also plays a crucial role in effective communication, and the academic platform does not provide that type of complex environment. Thus, I believe internships and industrial co-op positions are the best opportunities for postgraduate students who would like to get true exposure to the industrial atmosphere and to improve their soft skills.

Dhanuka Wasalathanthri Sanofi US, Fiskdale, MA 01518, USA. Email: dhanuka02{at}gmail.com

When I was a graduate student, it was natural and helpful to vent my negative feelings about incomplete tasks to someone in our group. After transitioning to a position as an adviser, I realized that I had to express my frustration more constructively. Expressing pessimism to the graduate students can affect them, sometimes more than we expect. Although I still share my concerns, I now try to lay out the problems and possible solutions without emphasizing my feelings, and I encourage the students to work together to solve problems.

Wei Wang Fujian Institute of Research on the Structure of Matter, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Fuzhou, Fujian 350002, China. Email: wangwei{at}fjirsm.ac.cn

During my Ph.D., I started a medical device company. The transition from scientist to entrepreneur was challenging because the business world was completely new to me. Young scientists in a similar position, conflicted between a comfortable academic trajectory and the unknown startup world, should not hesitate to reach out to those more experienced. You will be surprised at the insights a quick phone call, email, or coffee chat can generate. In graduate school, while you're learning about the scientific process of hypothesis design and testing, explore what it takes to translate new ideas into market-ready products. It is never too early to learn how to become a good salesperson. The ability to pitch an idea effectively will help you communicate your science more successfully in any setting.

Divyansh Agarwal Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. Email: divyansh{at}upenn.edu

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