Monday, January 25, 2010

5 year rule - Rifat Hasina's Experience

I arrived in the US ten years ago as an immigrant postdoc with a fresh PhD in hand and lofty aspirations in my heart. There was certainty of unsurpassed opportunity of conducting state-of-the-art research at the most prestigious US institutions but I had little practical knowledge regarding prospects after postdoctoral training.

As it turned out - one could actually breeze through four or five years of postdoctoral training without having any plans for the future, and without any institutional guidance regarding the transition. I had joined a University that had neither a PDA nor a PDO and I remained blissfully clueless about my future for the better part of four years.

Things changed once I moved to the University of Chicago. I became aware of the BSD PDA through their career related seminars and postdoc only Socials. I was happy to find out for the first time that there was a group just for us! I began to get clear and directed information for career development at the seminars. It was the most helpful wakeup call I got during my postdoc years but sooner than I expected, the five-year rule of up or out was upon me, and a decision had to be made.

My PI, who had recently been awarded an R01 based on the work that I had done, offered me the staff scientist position of Research Professional Associate (RPA) but declined to consider me for a Research Associate (Assistant Professor) position. It was the most viable option for me at the time and I gladly took it. But I did feel I got caught unprepared at the time of transition. The RPA position is a highly coveted permanent staff position (as long as the PI is funded) and it offers good benefits, plenty of autonomy. What it lacks is two crucial elements, no promotions over years of service and, no opportunity to apply for grants as PI or even as co-PI, the only sure path to becoming an independent scientist. The RPA position can lose its charm when you turn 45 and everyone around you has either moved up or gone into something else, and you start to feel like a glorified super postdoc, reliably chugging along in the lab of your PI.

So after five years as postdoc and two years as staff scientist, I decided, after many conversations with friends, colleagues, mentors, fellow postdocs and career development counselors, to explore my options.

I took classes. I got diplomas. I consulted for a Biotech company. I attended professional development workshops and visited career fairs. There are many avenues open to PhDs – Faculty in academia, staff scientist in Biotech companies, medical writer, consultant, patents specialists and in management – seemingly numerous choices. What I most wanted to do was be a scientist in an academic setting. I preferred not to move outside Chicago because of family ties.

To remain in academia, one of the best options available to me was to apply for a faculty position in a supportive role, such as the RA (Assistant Professor) position. I had published two significant papers during the previous two years, but my PI had not allowed me the option to apply for grants. This lack of independent funding made me less competitive for a tenure-track faculty position. I believe that if I had been a citizen or even a resident alien during the previous years, some of these barriers would not have existed or even been more smoothly overcome.

All the networking advice I’d gotten from the workshops was put to the test. I contacted my professional colleagues and collaborators and requested them to network on my behalf. Fortunately, one of these very people was actually searching for a candidate with background similar to mine to take over the management of his expanding laboratory in addition to conducting leading research. He confirmed the position of the Research Associate (Assistant Professor) would be a faculty position with some limitations. My role would be to support his research interests as well as develop my own goals and projects, essentially splitting my time to meet individual and the group’s interest. I would apply for grants as PI or co-PI and after 3-5 years would be eligible to be promoted to Associate Professor depending on performance and productivity. As the co-director of the lab, I would have additional responsibilities of managing the lab and all employees. Benefits included college tuition, retirement contribution and time off, in addition to health and dental insurance.

I felt this was an excellent opportunity for me to transition into a position with greater responsibility, career building and research opportunities and a sense of personal fulfillment. After 18 months as an RA (Assistant Professor), I am now preparing to apply for NIH funding based on the work I have been doing.