Woman to Woman Scientist: Advice for Early-Career Scientists

Published in Fundamentals - Fundamentals March 2022
For early-career women scientists, the journey through graduate school, postdocs, tenure and beyond is often studded with experiences of bias, lack of support and life events that impact their trajectory. These factors contribute largely to the gender gap among researchers, making it harder for women to achieve the same success as their male counterparts. 

Because of this, community is critical to the success of early-career women scientists, and there is no better resource than the women scientists who have come before them. At this year’s Kuggie Vallee Distinguished Lecture, featured speaker Eva Nogales of the University of California, Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine faculty members shared guidance on navigating postdoc positions, the junior faculty years, becoming a principal investigator and more. Continue reading for their insightful advice.
The quotes were edited for length and clarity. 

Career Advancement

When choosing a postdoc, find your brand and be yourself.

Understand and establish your niche or brand and who you are as a scientist, and encapsulate that in a pitch. –Erin Goley

Believe in yourself, and have a passion that can be sensed by others and will energize people who listen to you. –Eva Nogales

When transitioning into a senior role, learn to prioritize and delegate.

Transitioning into a senior role was a gradual process. During this time, the balance between benchwork and other priorities can fluctuate. I had to periodically assess where I needed to be at different times. Having lab members who are excellent and trustworthy is important to the transition. –Jennifer Pluznick

Be proactive about finding the right opportunities.

Explore different opportunities to present your research; for example, whether or not you can participate in a scientific meeting, local seminar series or another university’s lecture series. This takes planning; you cannot ask about a seminar on a Monday and participate in it on a Tuesday. Set yearly goals and quarterly objectives. However, not all opportunities are good opportunities. Be discriminatory. Ask yourself and your mentor if/how the opportunity will serve you. Finally, whenever I go to a conference, I set a purposeful goal of meeting at least one new person and starting a relationship with them. This simple act has expanded my science network and led to many new collaborations. –Barbara Slusher

Becoming a Principal Investigator

When becoming a principal investigator, learn as much as you can about what you will need to run a lab.

Make an honest assessment of what you need for your lab equipment, personnel and other needs. –Hey-kyoung Lee

I asked friends who were a couple of years ahead of me what their startup costs were. –Erin Goley

Establish a good relationship with your principal investigator.

Establish a good relationship with your principal investigator(s) because the work you take from your postdoc when you become a principal investigator is important. Start having this conversation with them early. –Hey-kyoung Lee

Practice writing grants.

Start writing your first RO1 (with feedback from your principal investigator and as many additional faculty members as you can get) even if you are not writing a transition grant and it might go in the drawer for a couple of years. You will learn a lot about how the arguments have to be laid out in grant proposals and what makes a good grant proposal. –Kristina Nielsen

Enroll in a grant writing workshop. –Hey-Kyoung Lee

Find colleagues who have gone through the grant writing and approval process and ask for their advice on the business administrative documents that go along with grants, as well as how the review process works and how to write a grant that is reviewer-friendly. –Amanda Lauer

Establish clear expectations for your trainees.

When transitioning from mentee to mentor as a principal investigator, clearly lay out your expectations for your trainees. Remember, they are not going to be the same as you. –Erin Goley 

Ask yourself how you would want to be treated, and think about what worked for you as a mentee and what didn’t. –Kristina Nielsen


Aim to build leaders not to gain followers.

To lead effectively, take a leader-leader approach rather than a leader-follower approach. Empower your mentees to be able to lead in the lab on their own. When mistakes are made, resist the urge to revert to taking control, and rather give your mentees the space to learn from the mistake. With this approach, my mentees have been able to create new areas of research in the lab and to expand our efforts beyond the limits of my own imagination. This also prepares them well for the next steps in their careers. –Laura Ensign

Mentoring and being mentored can and should happen simultaneously.

Asking for mentorship while being a mentor will happen throughout your entire career. You need mentors who can help you navigate experiences like career-life balance and the tenure process. Most importantly, don’t rely on one mentor. Variety in mentors and mentorship systems is vital. –Eva Nogales

Find peer mentors as well as senior mentors.

Peer mentors are helpful. These are the people you are going to grow up with. –Elana Fertig

Mentors can help you decide what extracurricular activities to get involved with.
Have mentors who help you screen requests for service, committees and other activities. Leverage your mentors to help you meet your goals. For example, ask them “I want to give six talks a year, do you have any ideas?” They may be able to refer you to different opportunities. I give the name of an assistant professor anytime I am asked to give a talk. –Namandje Bumpus

Follow your field and your interests on Twitter and other social media.

I specifically followed and amplified minorities and women in science and computational biology on Twitter. Some of my greatest mentors have been through online peer groups. –Elana Fertig

One way to find peers, mentors and near-peer mentors is through social media, specifically Slack and Twitter. There are Slack groups for future principal investigators, new principal investigators, etc., and they connect people from all over the world. –Erin Goley

Work-Life Balance

Work and life are not rivals.

When I was an assistant professor, I started to grapple with the term “work-life balance” because looking at work and life as rivals can change how you look at it psychologically. You might not elevate some things in your life because of this conflict, so I reframed my thinking. I think more about my time and give myself credit for being productive at home. – Namandje Bumpus

When benchmarking your own career progress, resist the inclination to compare yourself to an imaginary version of yourself that does not have the same outside demands (such as kids, elderly parents, health issues, etc.). We may imagine how much more productive we could be if we spent all of our time working, but in reality, we need to balance our time with all of the other parts of our lives. When we are being considered for things like promotion, we are compared to our peers, who also have personal lives and other demands on their time. –Laura Ensign 

Protect your time.

Prioritize your own needs for your time over the desires others have for your time. You should mark times that are untouchable for the tasks you need to complete like reading and writing. Have at least one day each week with no meetings, and use that time to do tasks you need to complete. Read and write emails at the end of the day so that you don’t wait until midnight. Put a cap on the number of external commitments you do a year, and give yourself 48 hours to think about a request before responding. –Namandje Bumpus

Be open about when you need help. 

Be transparent about what you’re going through, personally or professionally, with the mentors you work with. People can only help you if they are aware of your situation. –Barbara Slusher

Work with your partner, and communicate your needs.

I try not to apply for grants in the same cycle as my husband. If he is applying for a grant, I pick up some of the home life responsibilities, and vice versa. –Hey-Kyoung Lee

You can have a family and kids.

Seeing other women scientists raise a family was a relief, and let me know that I would have a community around me that valued those things. I had a baby three years into my postdoc, and my second three years after coming to Hopkins. Both times I felt that I had gotten enough done in my career that I was at a natural point to have children. Having a supportive spouse and a supportive environment, including your principal investigator, is very important. Find out if your funding sources are going to be supportive of maternity leave. –Erin Goley

Navigating Bias and Lack of Support

Be mindful of red flags.

If you are in a job negotiation situation that becomes adversarial when asking for what you need, that is a red flag about the department. It could be a pattern. –Amanda Lauer

If you think you are experiencing bias, talk to someone.

Bias can be very subtle, but the experiences add up and can impact your self-esteem. Talk to someone. Ask how they might handle the situation. Speaking with people can help you determine if the bias you experienced is a pattern, as others may have experienced the same thing. If you feel comfortable, tell administrators like a department chair or find a support office on campus. Legally, universities cannot retaliate for these reports. –Hey-Kyoung Lee

Notify your university anonymously. You do not have to suffer. –Amanda Brown