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Launching A Science Career

Book provides fundamental knowledge for young scientists contemplating a variety of career paths

by Kenneth J. Barr
September 29, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 39

The Chicago Guide to Your Career in Science: A Toolkit for Students and Postdocs, by Victor A. Bloomfield and Esam E. El-Fakahany, University of Chicago Press, 2008, 336 pages, $50 cloth (ISBN: 978–0-226–06063–7)
The Chicago Guide to Your Career in Science: A Toolkit for Students and Postdocs, by Victor A. Bloomfield and Esam E. El-Fakahany, University of Chicago Press, 2008, 336 pages, $50 cloth (ISBN: 978–0-226–06063–7)

In their preface to “The Chicago Guide to Your Career in Science: A Toolkit for Students and Postdocs (Chicago Guides to Academic Life),” authors Victor A. Bloomfield and Esam E. El-Fakahany introduce the text as a guide for beginning scientists that will provide the fundamental knowledge required to successfully launch and develop their careers. They propose to educate the reader in “how to navigate the system of the modern research university, how research time can be made more productive and motivation maintained, and how to develop communication skills and professional contacts.”

The authors note that many prior books address individually the topics of graduate school, research, organization, motivation, communication, and careers. Here, they purport the ambitious goal of providing a master resource: a toolkit for success in each of these areas. In doing so, they divide their presentation into two primary sections. Part I outlines the stages of a research career from graduate education through the initial job search and the eventual diversification of career opportunities that comes with experience. Part II focuses on the successful execution and effective reporting of research.

Early on, Bloomfield and El-Fakahany set the tone of the book, which alternates between philosophical discourse and a stepwise “how to” guide. The authors clearly intend for readers to consider “The Chicago Guide to Your Career in Science” as a primary resource to be revisited and used as a handbook for facing numerous important questions and mastering a series of key challenges so as to powerfully launch and intelligently manage their careers.

In certain ways Bloomfield and El-Fakahany achieve their goal. The book will serve as an excellent overview for highly motivated students ranging from those in high school to those completing an undergraduate degree. The appropriate audience for this text will come forward without the benefit of experience and will learn much about what to expect over the next several years as they plan and prepare for their futures. And graduate students as well will benefit from many of the discussions around specific topics having to do with research, teaching assignments, the job search, and career options.

However, in its primary aim the book misses the mark. The authors are so sincere in their desire to provide a one-stop solution for how to handle every aspect of early-career planning and decision-making that in many places their book lacks the focus to provide the appropriate tools. In these instances, rather than stepwise and detailed instruction complete with examples, the reader is more likely to retain only a vague sense of how to proceed. For example, in Chapter 9, which covers tools for successful job searching, only two paragraphs are dedicated to the preparation of a résumé.

In their introductory chapter, Bloomfield and El-Fakahany discuss the rewards and challenges of a research career, including the importance of finding the right job for the individual and also the demands of a life in research. They also provide a historical perspective on scientific careers and discuss current opportunities for young researchers.

In Chapters 2 and 3, the authors review the reasons that one might choose either to pursue or forgo a graduate-level education, as well as selection of graduate program, details about the application process, tips for gaining admission, and factors to consider while deciding upon a research adviser or mentor. In Chapters 5 and 6 the topics of thesis projects and teaching requirements are reviewed, including tips for successful execution of both.

Credit: ISTOCK
Credit: ISTOCK

The final three chapters of Part I discuss the postgraduate experience, deliberating in detail whether to pursue a postdoctoral study or head directly to a full professional research career in academia, industry, or government, as well as other, non-research-oriented alternatives. These richly descriptive chapters will help provide focus for the novice who is unfamiliar with the options available to trained scientists.

Emphasizing their stated desire to provide a master toolkit for young, aspiring scientists, in describing the second half of the text the authors state, “In Part II of this book, we offer guidance for coping with the many demands of professional and personal life.” This sentence at once summarizes their admirable yet perhaps overambitious goal to provide everything the reader might need to achieve success.

The second part of the book covers chapter-wise a wide range of topics Bloomfield and El-Fakahany consider important for a successful career in scientific research, including the concept of ethical conduct; details of the research notebook and the relevance of good record keeping; the importance of working effectively with others; the general concepts of motivation and organization skills, time management, and information management; and both written and oral communication skills.

Certainly, there are well-crafted, bullet-point-driven sections that provide excellent instruction. For example, Chapter 9 does offer good advice regarding preparing for and handling interviews. In addition, Chapter 5 provides a well-reasoned discussion of effective teaching techniques. And Chapter 14 makes some good points about the challenges of staying motivated and presents some proven methods for doing so.

However, one point I found particularly objectionable was Bloomfield’s and El-Fakahany’s continuous return to the perceived importance of building a scientific publication record. It is absolutely true that throughout their careers, researchers in both academia and industry will be judged in large part on their scientific accomplishments. The publication record stands as a reflection of those accomplishments. Still, I would have preferred a larger focus on the quality and relevance of research findings, as was noted in Chapter 10 on the meaning and responsible conduct of research. In that chapter, the authors regarded the publication more as an important outcome rather than an ultimate aim.

In most cases young readers will come away with a far better understanding of what to anticipate and the general ways in which to approach the many challenges under discussion. This is a strength of the book that should not be underestimated, and for this reason I do recommend purchasing and reading “The Chicago Guide to Your Career in Science” for beginning scientists in the target audience range. However, because the book is clearly more of a general guide than a toolkit, the authors overpromise and underdeliver, which is precisely the opposite technique I would advise an apprentice at the start of a career.

Kenneth J. Barr is director of medicinal chemistry at Amplyx Pharmaceuticals Inc. and a career consultant for the American Chemical Society.


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