CNS 2022

Guest post by Alexandra (Lesya) Gaynor and Alexander (AJ) Simon (CNSTA)

Two years into the pandemic, many of us are carefully re-evaluating what’s most important to us, and for cognitive neuroscience trainees thinking about the next steps in their careers, balancing priorities was at the forefront of their minds at this year’s CNS conference in San Francisco.  Four esteemed panelists, with careers in academia, military research, and government grants, shared their own personal struggles and successes with work-life balance, navigating unexpected career shifts, and more at the 7th annual CNSTA Professional Development Panel.

Priorities change, and so will your schedule

Even in pre-pandemic times, time management can be a significant challenge for many graduate and postdoc trainees, as they try to juggle personal demands with a rigorous but largely self-directed work schedule.  So it was validating for many of our trainees to hear that our panelists’ experiences during their own training was largely similar. 

Ian Fiebelkorn, assistant professor at the University of Rochester, said that during grad school, he largely ignored his own personal goals. Being in a very social lab where he spent a lot of time chatting with labmates meant he had to work evenings and weekends to get his work done. Having children during his postdoc, however, quickly changed his schedule: “with two kids there was no way I could work on weekends. I had to learn to be really efficient.” 

Matt Sutterer, program director at the NIA, had a similar struggle early in his career.  He acknowledged that in grad school, “it’s all on you to get those papers out, get that data analyzed, etc., and if you’re self-motivated that’s great, but that can also be very overwhelming.” Ultimately, Sutterer came to the decision that for him, staying in academia wasn’t worth losing all his nights and weekends to go the extra mile to get that next paper out.  He began looking for other career options that would allow him to pursue his academic interests without sacrificing so much of his personal time.

But Elizabeth Chua had a different take, encouraging trainees that it’s possible to get through graduate school and maintain a personal life.  She treated her graduate training more “like a 9-5 job than most people” getting the most work done in the mornings, when she knew she was most productive, and leaving her evenings free for personal pursuits.  But in her current role as an associate professor at Brooklyn College, Chua admits it’s been more challenging to maintain the balance she rarely thought about before becoming a PI, though working in academia has the advantage of flexibility in terms of working whenever she can.

For those trainees hoping for a more regimented work schedule, looking outside academia may be the answer.  Sutterer said working at NIH is largely a 9-5 job, where “nobody expects me to respond to emails after 5pm or over the weekends.” Javier Garcia seconded this, explaining that as a scientist at the Army Research Laboratory, you can easily keep your head down and do your work, but that the higher up the hierarchy you go, gaining more responsibilities sometimes means spending more time dealing with the unanticipated issues that arise from time to time.  

Managing transitions in the career path 

Across all aspects of life, change is the only constant, and the academic training path is no exception. As one progresses from PhD student to postdoc and beyond, learning to navigate transitions in workstyle and workload is critical for success. Oftentimes, these changes can be unexpected and ambiguous. 

At this year’s panel, one trainee asked the panelists if they had picked up any strategies for dealing with ambiguity as they progress through their careers. According to Sutterer, “finding meaning outside of work can help with ambiguity.” Chua candidly responded that she “is still figuring that out” while noting she is “thankful that through it all, I have the autonomy and flexibility to pursue the research that I am interested in.” 

The panelists also provided insights into how to manage the added responsibilities that come along with transitioning from being a postdoc to a PI. They reached a group consensus that some of the biggest challenges in becoming a PI were learning how to hire and manage people. According to Chua, “managing people is difficult, and it’s something I still mostly do on the fly.” Fiebelkorn added that, for him, “the hardest part has been the hiring aspect. How do you hire people that work well together? Trying to balance being a boss and being friendly is hard. At the end of the day, you have to be the one to make the final decisions, which can be difficult to adjust to.” 

Most graduate students and postdocs spend their time learning and refining technical skills, improving their writing abilities, and learning how to get grants. However, focusing on how to sell yourself is frequently overlooked, and can be a very valuable skill that can land you the job of your dreams, or help your research gain visibility. 

Sell yourself

Most graduate students and postdocs spend their time learning and refining technical skills, improving their writing abilities, and learning how to get grants. However, focusing on how to sell yourself is frequently overlooked, and can be a very valuable skill that can land you the job of your dreams, or help your research gain visibility. 

Sutterer suggested thinking about “what is it that my research requires me to do that isn’t necessarily tied to the specific topic, but the skills I’m using?”  He explained that this could include not only lab work, but extracurricular activities as well, recalling that as a grad student he volunteered with a “Brain Bee” where he “gave lab tours to people in the community. I realized that this could be a line on my resumé as a science communicator, where I communicated complex topics to the public.”  Garcia agreed: “The communication we do is key. Talking to a variety of people from different academic backgrounds is a marketable skill.”  

In terms of actionable steps to converting those points on your CV into an industry-aimed resume, Chua suggested using resources available online.  As a whole, our panelists agreed that as academic trainees, learning how to think broadly and communicate our findings and experiences in ways that are accessible to the general public can be just as powerful as becoming an expert in our narrow fields. 

The panelists also recommended leveraging professional and personal networks when looking for jobs. That means exchanging email addresses with people, whether at conferences or through existing contacts; you never know who’s on the search committee for that job you’re interested in applying to.“Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask someone for an informational interview; people like to help and pay it forward”, said Fiebelkorn.  

What makes you happy?

As a final note wrapping up the panel, our experts reflected on how satisfied they are with the paths they’ve chosen. Fiebelkorn explained that when facing obstacles on his way to the tenure track, he sometimes felt as though he had committed so much that he just needed to see it through, and that now he’s extremely happy that he did.  For Sutterer, the more administrative parts of working at NIH can have their downsides, but he truly loves many aspects of the job, especially when talking to PIs about their research. Garcia is very fulfilled by his chosen career, which he chalks up to the noteworthy flexibility in carving his own path at the Army Research Lab.  

Chua takes it one day at a time, saying that she loves her job, but she thinks there are other things she could love doing, too. Her poignant takeaway for trainees: ask yourself “is your dream job going to give you your dream life?” Thanks to the insightful, knowledgeable, and humorous advice from this year’s panelists, our trainees walked away from this year’s panel with a much clearer sense of how to answer that question as we embark upon our own careers. 

Alexandra (Lesya) Gaynor is a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University, where she conducts research on cognitive reserve, resilience, and brain maintenance in aging. She has served as president of the CNSTA since 2019.  Alexander (AJ) Simon is a research associate at the UCSF Neuroscape center where he researches and develops cognitive therapeutics.  AJ will begin his doctoral training in neuroscience at Yale University this fall, and has served as the vice president of the CNSTA since 2019.


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