Randy Schekman — Starting a Career in Science

(Image from https://www.mediatheque.lindau-nobel.org/nobellabs/37960/randy-schekman)

I’m also curious, what are the challenges of starting out a career in science and getting established within the community of science as an institution to the point where your grant proposals, they no longer say “We don’t think you can do this”?

Well the system has been and continues to be conservative. And that was true obviously when I started because I had been successful as a graduate student but I had zero experience with yeast. I had never done genetics, so probably rightly so my grant was rejected, but I’ve argued that in spite of that if anything it’s easier now. I know that’s sort of contrary to what anyone else would say, but I will submit to you that if you’ve been successful in your graduate career and postdoctoral career, then if you get an opportunity at a research university to begin your program, there’s more money available to you then when I started. I mean when I started at Berkeley it wasn’t traditional that the institution would provide funds to equip a lab. The expectation was you’d go and get a grant and that’s how you would do it. 

Now, at Yale or Berkeley or any of a cohort of research universities, the expectation is that the institution will provide at least a million dollars to set up your lab. Moreover, there are many more private foundation grants available to early career faculty than when I started. There was only one when I started and I didn’t get that either because I had no experience in what I was proposing. Now, most of our young faculty, and I bet it’s true at Yale, get their first NIH grant because early career people are given a leg up on the competition and they get some foundation grant or more. I mean some of our young faculty have more money than most of the senior faculty. And I guarantee that wasn’t true when I started. 

So maybe I’m a pollyanna but if you are talented and ambitious and you’ve succeeded in graduate and postdoctoral training, the support that’s available is quite generous. There’s just much more concern about making sure that a young assistant professor has a head start. When I started in my department at Berkeley there was no formal mentoring program, and I was by far the youngest faculty member in the department. And when my first grant didn’t come through I think they were probably very worried about me but they didn’t really help. 

That’s good to hear!

It’s much different now. Every new faculty member is assigned or picks a mentor and the mentor guides them and advises them about the bureaucracy, the things you can’t imagine. And the other thing is when you go in this academic direction, you may be trained to do experimental or theoretical work on your work, but you have virtually no training in guiding other peoples’ work, what it takes to develop a group and a group spirit. You know there are workshops at some meetings that discuss these things, you may learn by example from your mentors, but when I started as an assistant professor I made all kinds of mistakes that senior colleagues could have helped me with but their attitude was “He’s got to succeed on his own.” There really was a strong bias against propping someone up, but that’s completely different now. 

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