Career advice from an associate university professor

I met Todd Nolan through my old college roommate, whom I’ve already interviewed From professor to entrepreneur.  If you are curious about my other scientist interviews see these: The business side of scienceLife as a postdoctoral researcherWorking in the science industryBalancing work and family life as a part-time college instructorThe important work of a science policy directorLeaving academia to teach young scientistsThe ins and outs of being an associate college professor.

Todd is currently an Associate Professor of Physiology and a Program Director at a university.  He oversees science education for hundreds of dental students and ensures that they are well prepared to have success in their board exams.  He also maintains a small research program of his own using cell culture to study the effects of vitamin overdoses on neurons.  The best aspect of his career he says is the student interaction he has on a daily basis.

My students are wonderful and insightful.  I think I learn as much from them as they do from me.  I also love my colleagues, I have built a great team and together the program is really starting to take off.

Todd received his bachelor’s degree at a small state university and got his BS in biology with minors in both chemistry and philosophy.   He then became a research technician at a research university and was able to receive his Ph.D. in the same lab.  He then worked as a postdoctoral researcher for 4 years until he became an assistant professor.

Originally Todd wanted to be a physical therapist but after he volunteered at several clinics he felt that he wouldn’t enjoy it as a career:

 The primary reason for not enjoying it was that there was no outlet for creativity or experimentation.  It was very methodical, patient has this, you do that.  It felt suffocating… I found research, I loved asking questions, designing experiments, and looking for answers in the data. 

Todd had quite a bit of good advice on the current state of finding and landing a job in science

I think there is a lot more variety than ever before and so called “alternative careers” are no longer looked at as being alternative.  Particularly since that is where PhDs often end up.  I also believe that associations such as the Cheeky Scientist Association, are helping PhDs explore the options are that are out there for them.  There is no need to be stuck in a lab if you don’t want to be.

 Finding a job is about connections and developing your network.  This is true no matter the area but I think even more true in science.  The people you know are your best bet for finding a job, particularly outside of academia, since about 80% of job openings are never posted.  They are filled because someone knew someone who was a good fit.  I wouldn’t say it is political, but knowing people is the key.

 In my experience, every interview I’ve ever gotten was because of someone I knew.  It was either directly or indirectly and what I mean by that is: Directly: they brought me in for an interview, Indirectly: they referred me and it was because of the referral that I got an interview.  In all of the jobs that I’ve applied for, I’ve never gotten an interview when I submitted an application through a job board or applicant tracking system.”

I do have to point out that while this was Todd’s experience, it’s not everyone’s experience.  I have received all of my positions through formal applications.  However, networking, like Todd said, is super helpful for finding many positions.

On that same note, I asked Todd what he would have done differently if he could:

 I would have taken networking more seriously throughout my education (from undergrad through postdoc).  I didn’t realize how important knowing people was when it came to getting a job and have been playing catch up ever since.

I asked Todd what he would tell a current HS or undergraduate student if they were thinking of getting a PhD

Be curious and ask questions of everyone who is where you think you want to be.  99% of people want to talk with you about how they got to where they are.  Your journey to that point might be different but at the same time the more learn about each person’s journey the better.  The most important takeaway from each conversation is less “tell me exactly how you got to where you are”  and more “did you make any mistakes along the way”.  The more mistakes you learn about the less you have to make on your own journey.  Though don’t worry, there are plenty of mistakes to be made and to learn from.

 Finally, I asked Todd if there was any advice he wished he would have gotten when he was younger:

Be curious.  Don’t focus on just one thing right away.  There is time and opportunity to find what you want to do and just because you major in one thing it doesn’t lock you into any specific career path.

In Grad school – I wish I had taken more business related classes, or even obtained an MBA.  A business background with a PhD opens so many more doors than a PhD alone.

Thank you for your great advice Todd and good luck in your endeavors!  Todd hopes to be assistant dean and then full dean in the next 5-10 years.