American Society for Investigative Pathology, October 2012, Vol 4, No. 3

Challenges in Navigating your Career in Science

Cecelia YatesCecelia C. Yates, PhD
Assistant Professor, Health Promotions and Development
School of Nursing, University of Pittsburgh

Dr. Yates received her Ph.D. in Integrative Bioscience and Pathology from the Tuskegee University, Alabama in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. From there, she continued as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Pathology under the mentorship of Dr. Alan Wells. Dr. Yates has recently accepted a position as Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Pittsburgh. Currently, she is integrating the fields of dermatology and pathology with a focus on stem cell biology and regenerative medicine/tissue engineering. Her goals are to develop novel medical devices and cell therapy approaches in order to improve chronic wounds and correct excessive scarring.

When did you start applying for position and how did you prepare?
It is never too early to start. The groundwork and preparation for independence begins many years before you start applying, with your scientific productivity and investments in national networking. During the end of the second year of my postdoctoral fellowship, I started applying for Early Career and Transition Awards. These applications, which require both a research plan and a career plan, are very helpful, by design, in moving you forward. One in particular was the NIH Pathway to Independence Award (Parent K99/R00), which is offered in several institutes. This is a highly competitive grant. If you obtain a fundable score, there is a clear road map to your next steps in career development. However, for the majority of others with non-fundable scores another plan must be in play. Dr. Paul Monga (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine) was instrumental in providing guidance on how to use my summary statement and research plan as a selling point for career opportunities. In other words, making the most of your score requires understanding of and capitalizing on the strengths that the reviewers point out and working on the weaknesses. This process and the advisement of both my mentor and other senior scientists confirmed it was time for me to begin my transition.

Was it difficult to obtain a position at the same University where you completed your post-doctoral fellowship?
In the current funding climate obtaining a faculty position anywhere is a big challenge, especially given the stark competition for the most desirable and stable tenure-track positions. Staying at the same university and dealing with the complexities of being part of a 'two-scientist couple' with the desire to stay within the same University has its challenges. In any case, it's important to think strategically. It's not enough to seek the traditional paved road. You must explore the road less traveled. This requires that you understand your distinctive assets and take the time to pursue those skill sets that will increase your value.

In many cases, it requires convincing the various schools and departments that you can provide a unique skill set. By no means was this easy. It is very helpful to have assistance with this from individuals who are already independent scientists such as Dr. Monte Willis (UNC-Chapel Hill). His coaching and advice helped to broaden my vision beyond that which I had as a student and trainee. I had to make myself marketable in several different fields.

What made you interested in the School of Nursing?
My search led me into non-traditional places. The key elements I kept in mind were 1) an interdisciplinary research environment and 2) funding opportunities that would be available by being in that environment. In the case of the School of Nursing, I first noticed that new and additional sources of funding would be available, in particular, at NIH in the Institute of Nursing Research (NINR). In fact, after contacting NINR, I discovered that they were heavily interested in my particular area of research and there were several funding opportunities available to me. Moreover, I have a clear avenue, which will allow me to expand the scope of my work, which is considered in NIH grant decisions. There are several other schools within the Health Sciences including the school of Dental Medicine in addition the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs that was considered in my search.

As with most of places I sought out, the School of Nursing did not have a position listed or advertised. In fact, they were not actively seeking a research scientist; however, since I preferred to stay in Pittsburgh, I wrote to the Dean. I outlined my research plan and career objectives but made sure to impart a clear vision of how my goals and skill set aligned with the school's mission.

What was the interview process like? Can you talk about some negotiation strategies?
In my case, it seemed as if all of my interviews fell within a narrow window and I believe that you do get better with practice. Yet, my first interview was the most important to me at that time. The truth is that the interview involves more than just consideration of the quality of your research and your presentation. Evaluations are being made as to whether you will fit into a particular culture of individuals in that institution. Because of my inexperience, I sought help from a variety of ASIP and other faculty members. In addition, Dr. Jayne Reuben (USCSOM Greenville) helped me prep for my first interview. She prepared me for everything from a chalk talk to clearly articulating the manner in which I could collaborate with the nursing faculty and support the school's mission.

Know what the market is like for people with your skills and establish priorities. Determine the order of importance of title, opportunity to learn new skills, responsibilities, and salary. Be sure to assess by yours and the employer's reservation value. The absolute lowest package (combination of salary, benefits, etc) that you would be willing to accept before declining an offer and the absolute highest package that the employer would be willing to offer before "walking away" from you.

Do you think you had a secret weapon? If so, what was it?
Honestly, the networking I have done through ASIP since the start of my graduate training-starting with Dr. Mark Sobel (ASIP Executive Officer) who has invested his time and resources to developing trainee members into career scientists. The training workshops and summer courses that I took advantage of were extremely educational and served as a great networking opportunity. It was clear by the end of this process that the contacts that were made through ASIP were the individuals that I called upon to guide me through this process. For this reason, I am most appreciative to all of the members of ASIP especially those who have given me encouragement and support through the years.

Moreover, I am truly a product of the Wells' lab. Dr. Alan Wells (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine) did not just mentor me, he has sponsored me throughout my training. Even though mentoring relationships are really important, mentoring is grooming, coaching, and personal. In contrast, sponsorship is an investment. The person that is sponsoring you is going to actively open doors for you. For the combination of both, my greatest weapon has been having Dr. Wells as my mentor, teacher, and sponsor. It has been a privilege having a renowned scientist promoting and guiding me for the last 7 years.