Future Immunologist needs help!

Mark Doherty mdoherty at pop.niaid.nih.gov
Thu Oct 23 10:49:24 EST 1997

In article <62jm60$6vg at freenet-news.carleton.ca>, ci388 at FreeNet.Carleton.CA
(Rami Rahal) wrote:

>    I have always been interested in microbiology/immunology and hope
> to pursue a degree in this field of study.  What I am unsure about is the
> availability for jobs in this area and the possible salaries.  In
> addition, do you need a medical degree to become an immunologist?  I
> don't want to spend 4+ years at University and discover that my degree is
> worthless.  If you could answer any of my questions, I would really
> appreciate it.

Things are not quite so bad as you fear - immunologists are in reasonable
demand at the moment and I suspect that this will coninue to be the
situation for a while yet, as this field offers opportunities in biotech
and pharmaceutical industries as well as traditional academic jobs.  A
quick look at the situations vacant on the Nature or Science sites will
show you what I mean.

Salaries - as for pretty much any aspect of science - are middling to low,
and competition for decent jobs is pretty hard.  To put figures on that,
Postdoc salaries currently range from the mid-upper $20's to the low $30's,
starting academic positions from the high $30's to the low $50's and
starting industry salaries range so much that it's hard to put a bracket on
them.  You should expect about 20-50% over a comparable academic salary -
and may get more.   If you don't expect to get satisfaction from your job,
it's hard to recommend it solely on a financial basis.

A couple of other points to consider - if you can get into medical school,
a combined MD/PhD offers several advantages - it lets you work as a
researcher to see if you can stand the lifestyle, without committing you to
it.  It gives you a fall-back position if jobs are scare to get andit will
enhance your salary andthe types of job you can do.  The downside is that
it is likely to saddle you with a big academic debt and it willadd several
years to your training period.

If you are serious about a research career, here's a couple of points to
1) You *will* have to do a postdoc.  Competition is pretty strong for good
jobs these days.  If you're competing against people with postdoc
experience when you're straight out of college, you're never going to get
an interview.

2) Having said that, there are things that make your postdoc life easier.
First off think about wher you go to college - look at people you might
study with at graduate school, think about projects you would ike to be
involved in.  If something looks interesting, check out the papers
published by that group.  A good publishing record usually means either
good funding, smart people, good contacts, or usually all three.  The
impression that people have of the lab that you are coming from is often
more important than your own record - especially when you are just starting
out and haven't had time to build a reputation of your own.

3) Think about what you want to do again, at least a year (preferably 2)
before you graduate.  These things often take time to set up.  Look at work
that's being published in the field and decide again what you want to do. 
It should be something that interests you, not just a "hot" field.  Hot
fields often go cold pretty quickly, and you are going to have to live
intimately with your subject for some time.  Talk to your supervisor or
other senior people in your department - see who they know in that field. 
A personal introduction helps a great deal.  Most people in good labs get
requests for positions all the time.  I've got one paid slot for a postdoc
right now and get a dozen or more requests a year.  If there's no
compelling reason to look at one over the other, I don't.

4) Be flexible.  As long as you do good work, you can afford to change
direction in your research - it may even become a strength, if you can
acquire a broad range of skills.  Be flexible in other ways too - if you
restrict yourself to a particular geographic area, it's going to be harder
to find a good position.  Postdocs and researchers move around a lot - I
tend to regard that as a plus - I've lived in San Francisco, and Washington
in the last 6 years, and I'm off to Europe next year.  Finally, don't make
the mistake too many PhD students and postdocs make and become slave to the
lab.  The long hours and mediocre pay rates are offset by good company and
flexible hours.  Don't be afraid to tell your boss you're taking some time
off to go skiing with friends at Steamboat - you'll put in enough time on
evenings and weekends to justify it (or at least you will probably have to
to get your work moving along) - and the opportunity may not come by again.

5)  Schmooze.  Science is a pretty small world - people know each other -
particularly within one field.  Knowing the right person can be as
important as a paper in Science.  (It saddens me to say it, but it's true). 
This doesn't mean you should grovel, but make sure you get to scientific
meetings - the earlier the better.  I didn't go to any major meetings as a
PhD student and it definately slowed me down, because I didn't know anyone,
and that made me shy when talking to people about my work or theirs. 
Connections are important not just for jobs, but for the lifeblood of
science - collaborations, shared reagents, inside information.  It will
help your work - it's a lot easier to approach someone for that transgenic
mouse you just *have* to have if you already know them or someone in their
lab.  In the same vein, pick the best labs you can get into to work.  It'll
be harder - they'll expect more - but if you can, you'll learn from the
best, which is what you need.  You'll benefit from *their* contacts and
resources - and hopefully add to them in time.

6) Don't be bound by traditional career options.  The standard path:  PhD -
postdoc - assistant professor - associate professor - etc is fine and
rewarding (I actually *like* teaching) but it is also the track that most
people follow and thus has the most competition.  If you do decide that is
what you want, try to get involved - even as a minor player - in the grant
writing process wherever it is that you work.  It's an aspect of PhD
training that is often neglected, but which is increasingly important in
actually landing a position.  Other options - science management,
consulting and industry research positions - are making up a bigger part of
the employment pool these days.

OK - that's enough pontificating.  Sorry this was so long, but I wish I had
known some of tis stuff when I started out.

Cheers, Mark

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