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Bio Careers

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Although I am the kind of person who knew she wanted to work in human genetics since she was young, I have always found it hard to specialize and work on only one problem at a time.  My undergraduate degree was in both genetics and biochemistry, which are normally in two different schools, even though they are intimately related.  Thus, there were a lot of extra courses and negotiations between two advisors to get the curricula to fit.  I earned my Ph.D. in genetics, but in a department of biochemistry. 

My projects began with human DNA variation and population/evolutionary genetics, but shifted to early adoption of the yeast two-hybrid system (still gives me nightmares), then delved into in vitro RNA-binding and hardcore protein work, and finished up with an amalgam of DNA structure analysis, early single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) detection, and population genetics again.

I thought about a number of careers before deciding to just go with a “traditional” academic postdoc, but picked potential advisors based on the possibility of a few side options.  It may be corny, but I went into human genetics to help people, so I was interested in pursuing clinical certification and perhaps running a diagnostic lab.  At the same time, I very much liked writing and editing, and thought about a postdoctoral fellowship offered by the American Journal of Human Genetics (AJHG) where you worked for the journal.  But one problem was that the incoming editor of AJHG was coincidentally my Ph.D. advisor.  Like any impetuous kid, I was ready to move out on my own.  After interviewing, I decided on a postdoc advisor who offered all of these options and more through his amazing department in genetics.

When you are working on your Ph.D., you have a clear endpoint:  that glorious day when you will stand up and give your defense, with trumpets blaring and multitudes singing their joy and relief.  When you start your postdoc, the endpoint is much more nebulous.  After one year, my suspicions were confirmed.  Not only did I not want to be an academic PI, running on the treadmill of grant applications, but it was clear that I would not be very good at it!  I think everyone needs to recognize his or her strengths and weaknesses – your career is just too darn long for you to be doing the wrong thing because you feel you “should.”  If you are not skilled at conceiving grants or willing to carry out a research program, then please consider turning your passion for science into another avenue for an amazing career.

While writing my own postdoctoral grant, and then carrying it out, I spent a lot of time reading journals, thinking about why certain papers ended up in certain journals, editing manuscripts for colleagues, and making suggestions about where they might be sent.  So, on a whim, I applied for a job at one of the “big three” journals.  The interview process convinced me that I could be and wanted to be a journal editor at that level, even though I didn’t get that job.

Then I came up with a plan.  My advisor was one of the two editors for the journal Human Molecular Genetics (HMG), which took up quite a bit of his evenings and weekends.  I wanted to learn editing.  Could he let me develop a part-time postdoctoral fellowship in editing for HMG?  I was already earning my salary through my grant, so he didn’t have to pay me for extra work:  a win-win.  He heard me out and was receptive to the idea, but the first thing he said was, “you have to know that you are stepping off the track and you can’t come back.”  (It’s ten years later now, and I still don’t fully agree with this, but appreciate that he was making sure I was sure.)  The second thing he said was, “ok smarty pants, if you think you can do the job, then come back with a complete list of the reviews that will form our fall review issue.”  One week later, I did, and my career in editing was launched.

That afternoon, once I knew I could start work on the journal and see a path to an editorial career, I drove home as always and got out of my car in a nondescript Cleveland parking lot.  I remember looking up at the blue sky and feeling that a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.  It was one of those crystalline moments where everything feels lighter and clearer.  The path has not stayed that clear – no one’s does! – but I certainly felt that what most people would call “stepping off the academic track” was the right thing for me.

Chris Gunter is the Director of Research Affairs at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.  After a B.S. from the University of Georgia and Ph.D. from Emory University, she did postdoctoral work at Case Western Reserve University, all in genetics and molecular biology.  She then moved into journal editing positions at Human Molecular Genetics, Science, and most recently at Nature, serving as the editor for genetics and genomics manuscripts from 2002-2008.  Chris can be reached via twitter.com/girlscientist.

Copyright, 2009, Chris Gunter
Published with permission