So, You Want to Be A Scientist?

Jessica C. Taylor, PhD

Jessica C. Taylor, PhD

This week is National Postdoc Appreciation Week. Postdocs, short for postdoctoral fellows, are scientists-in-training and are vital to a laboratory’s survival. Postdocs generate tremendous amounts of data and are hands-on guides to graduate students in the lab.

Being a postdoc is one step on the road to becoming a full-fledged scientist. The journey begins in graduate school as a PhD student. On average, a science PhD takes five years to complete. Graduate students take courses and work with their mentor to find and focus their research interests on a specific topic. A question emerges from this topic, and the answer becomes a dissertation, the final paper for graduation. Laboratory training also encompasses learning research guidelines, honing writing skills and data analysis and becoming familiar with how laboratories operate.

After the PhD, then what?
This is a question faced by every PhD graduate. Traditionally, PhDs are guided toward postdoctoral fellowships, which turn graduate students into independent scientists. Newly minted PhDs work with a new mentor to build on the skills they’ve acquired in graduate school. Postdocs write grants, develop their research topics and establish their name in the field to become independent researchers.

Where do scientists work following a postdoc?
The traditional place is academia—for example, at a four-year university or a professional school such as medical or dental school. There, as professors, scientists start and run their own lab, do research and mentor the next generation of PhD students and new scientists. Professors also teach classes and serve the scientific community at their institution.

Scientists can also work in many places other than academia. For example, scientists can be researchers at pharmaceutical and medical device companies or for the government. Others become experts on legislation that affect science or educate the public about science through the media. The options are numerous, and a person’s time as a postdoc sharpens skills and helps find the right scientific path. To learn more about pursuing a career in science, check out this career article in Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology.

Jessica C. Taylor, PhD, is an assistant professor of physiology in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Miss.

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