Description: Academic research is a central feature of almost every college and university. It is distinguished from other forms of research primarily, although not solely, by the degree to which it is integrated with education. In a small college setting, research is largely carried out as a component of undergraduate training. Advances in scientific knowledge are certainly made, but the focus centers more on the undergraduate experience. In a university setting, research represents a far larger enterprise, and one whose goals through funding and publication are pursued aggressively. Yet, the involvement of undergraduate, now predoctoral students and postdoctoral researchers in an addition to undergraduates, remains an essential element. Those with PhDs in the biomedical sciences who wish to pursue academic research, having completed a postdoc (see below), will undoubtedly seek faculty positions. The tenure track affords a modicum of stability once tenure is achieved. Promotion within the tenure track is based on contributions to research, education, and service, with the relative weights accorded each dependent on the institution. Some institutions will have something akin to a research track, which does not provide the stability of tenure but allows an almost sole focus on research, sometimes of an independent nature and sometimes as part of a team. There do exist staff positions, as opposed to faculty positions, in which research is actively pursued. Such positions almost always exist within the laboratory of someone else. They often involve lab management, and usually evolve from when a postdoctoral appointment in the laboratory has run its course.
The joy of fundamental discovery exerts a considerable pull for many in academic research. The relative autonomy in choosing directions is attractive as well. Many investigators cite intellectual challenge and the growth afforded by continual reinvention as deeply important to them. Indeed, while writing grant applications can be a consuming process, it is cited by many as a time of intense intellectual growth. The rewards of teaching and training are of paramount importance, of course, and for many these have been the inducement for entering academic research. The relatively flexible schedule, the camaraderie of the laboratory, and travel are benefits as well.
The negatives of academic research, especially in a university setting, to some extent relate to the perception of long hours and job insecurity. The long hours are in fact probably no greater than that of most professional careers but, like them, vary according to need. Achieving tenure is a tough and sometimes anxiety-prone process. If the process of tenure follows the ‘up or out’ dictum, moreover, career stability is not achieved until one’s mid- to late thirties, assuming the normal lengths of pre- and postdoctoral training. Counterbalancing the risks inherent to pursuing a tenured position, most colleges and university now recognize the value of intense mentoring throughout the early stages of one’s career. If one is not on tenure track, stability is tethered to consistent success in funding, or in small colleges competence in teaching or administrative functions. Particularly in a university setting, the ability to conduct research and in general thrive is tied to success in obtaining individual and shared research grants, which can be a volatile process. Research grants are important in small college settings, too, but often assume forms that fund multi-investigator programs.
Advantages of an advanced degree: An advanced degree (PhD or MD) is essential for any realistic pursuit of academic research at a level beyond that of providing rote technical support. Pursuit in almost all settings requires postdoctoral experience as well.
Key competencies: Please see those listed as ‘Competencies Intrinsic to Scientific Endeavor’. Competencies relating to critical thinking, mathematical and computational facility, and experimental design are essential, of course, but one cannot undervalue those of management and communication.
On-campus student organizations: None, excepting BGS (but not a bad idea!).
First steps: Predoctoral students are immersed in academic research, so the idea of testing the waters is less an issue than for other career paths. Obtaining a faculty position, particularly within the tenure track, can be highly competitive. In this regard, it’s hard to understate the value of publications as a testament to one’s experience and productivity. The exertions of one’s pre- and postdoctoral mentors, through networks and recommendations, are intensely important as well.
Additional resources: None.