NIH Alumni: Where are they now?

This is the first in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Nicholas Mitchell

Current position: Assistant professor at St. Bonaventure University

Location: St. Bonaventure, NY

Time in current position: 10 months

Postdoc: Adult neurogenesis as a potential therapy for cognitive deficits, with Henriette van Praag at NIA

Job search in a nutshell: I went to the NIH after completing a one-year visiting professorship. I decided to do a postdoc largely based on the realization that I needed to retool and complete my research training to be competitive for tenure-track faculty positions at undergraduate institutions.

I was really aggressive in my job search, going to sources within and beyond the NIH. I asked people in academia and industry about what key functions and tasks were required to be successful in the jobs I was interested in. I interviewed for faculty and administrative positions in academia. I also considered alternate careers that emphasized the business and managerial sides of science. Ultimately, I chose academia because I thought it encompassed most of what I was looking for.

Go back to the beginning: For people struggling with finding a job or choosing between options, go back as far as you need to to identify the people who excited you. That should give some indication of where you want to go. I honed in on becoming a professor by listing my five most influential role models. They were coaches, teachers and professors. Open yourself up to all the people you’ve encountered and the career possibilities available to you.

Know thyself: I took the Myers-Briggs personality assessment at OITE. I had an idea of what I wanted and what I was good at, but the test helped me ask, “Am I really?” I took a good, hard look at myself and my skills and preferences as a human being, not just as a scientist.

When you spend so much time in the lab, you think that’s all you are. Don’t overlook your “translational skills” that could be helpful in other careers.

Putting it on paper: Craft your resume and cover letter carefully. Have it reviewed by as many people as possible. Recognize the differences between resumes and CVs. Neither should be something you write once and lock in stone. They are much more organic. Update them quarterly, or better yet, monthly. Make sure you use language that’s appropriate for the field, job and audience.

Interview tips: If you get an interview for a job you’re at least 50% interested in, take the interview. You can’t fully appreciate an opportunity until you’re on site, talking with would-be supervisors and coworkers. It’s very labor-intensive, and you have to develop a healthy way for coping with rejection, rejection and more rejection. But even if you don’t want the job or don’t get an offer, the process is still critical to eventually getting what you do want.

I cannot overemphasize preparation! You have to find out specific details about the organization—where and how you intend to fit in, promote it and advance its goals. Dress appropriately. Learn as much as you can while you’re there. Then follow up. Don’t let it sit like a boat adrift. If you don’t get the job, identify someone there from whom you can seek constructive feedback.

Making the choice: Teaching isn’t for everyone, but it‘s something I’ve always been passionate about. I decided to join the faculty at St. Bonaventure because they legitimately promote and support undergraduate research. The facilities allow us to conduct research on par (qualitatively) with Tier One, which is phenomenal when you consider that the student body here consists of just over 2,000 undergraduates. I received a respectable start-up package. And the best part is I get to work with really smart students. It’s awesome.

Give it time: My first year was teaching-intensive. I worked to advance our anatomy and physiology and our biochemistry curriculum. It was pretty tough to build any research momentum. However, in December I took on two energetic research students. In the spring, we started ordering supplies and setting up our lab. We’ll be culturing stem cells by Labor Day.

Your first year–anywhere–is hectic. Things don’t really gel until your second year, I think. Save game-changing judgment for years two and three.

The upshot: This is the most happy I’ve been, professionally and personally, since undergrad. I’m in a place where what I do has a direct impact on an organization. I work hard and see the effects both scientifically and humanistically. It’s tremendously rewarding to see students realize their potential.

What’s next: My current single biggest goal is to win a grant for extramural funding. Looking forward, I’m always questioning when and how to raise the bar. Whether that eventually means a more administrative role in academia, or transitioning beyond, I can’t say. Right now, I’m tickled to have my own lab and be mentoring bright students.

Nicholas can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.

Attention alumni: Do you have an interesting career or job search story? Drop us a line at conlanlo@mail.nih.gov

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