Academic Advice for Graduate Students | News | Loyola Medicine
Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Loyola researcher: To succeed in academia, today's grad students need 'street smarts'

MAYWOOD, Il. In an era of reduced funding, it’s not enough for a young researcher to be a good scientist. He or she also needs “street smarts” to, for example, find an influential mentor, dress professionally, network during scientific meetings and be able to describe a research project in the time it takes to ride an elevator.

These are among the techniques taught at a “Street Smarts for Science” workshop offered at the 2014 Society for Leukocyte Biology meeting, and described in the November issue of the journal Nature Immunology.

What students learn in the workshops can help them “navigate educational and professional waters to find success in academia,” Elizabeth J. Kovacs, PhD, and colleagues report. Kovacs, a professor at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, initiated the workshops and is senior author of the report published in Nature Immunology.

The proportion of PhDs who obtain tenured or tenure-track faculty positions has declined from 34 percent in 1993 to 26 percent in 2012, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Worldwide fiscal constraints have trimmed government and private sources of research funding, which has created an increasingly competitive landscape for young scientists looking to succeed in academia,” Kovacs and colleagues write. “Thus, students seeking tenure-track faculty positions must make efficient use of their training time and network with colleagues in their scientific discipline, including potential employers.”

Here is a sampling of the career advice offered in the workshop and described in the report in Nature Immunology:

Find a mentor. Preferably, a mentor should be in a tenured position, or at least be around long enough to see the graduate student through the entire project. The mentor should exemplify what the young researcher wants to do professionally. Ideal mentors have “pull,” meaning they are well-established and credible, and thus can help in job searches -- especially in writing recommendations.

Self marketing. In today’s research environment, the ability to describe your research is as important – if not more important – than the research itself. “In many cases, brilliant scientists with potentially groundbreaking ideas fall short because they cannot communicate their ideas or the importance of their research to the appropriate audience.” A researcher should be able to describe his or her work and goals in one to three minutes  – roughly the time it takes to ride an elevator.

Networking tips. Get exposure by, for example, asking thoughtful questions after presentations. Collaborate. Be friendly: Sometimes it’s not what you know but whom you know that counts when seeking a job, grant, research opportunity, etc. “You never know how far kindness can get you.” Tap into potential networking opportunities. For example, if you like sports, join a sports club so you can network there.

Make the most of scientific conferences. Beforehand, do research into the speakers and topics. “This will allow the young scientists to ask more insightful questions and get more from each session.”

Dress well. “While it is true that one cannot judge a book by its cover, first impressions are lasting. Junior researchers should dress as if attending an interview because every encounter might represent an opportunity for advancement.” If another participant has a MD or PhD, address the individual as Dr. until invited to use a first name. Turn off your cell phone, because conferences “are places to learn and network.”

Kovacs is co-director of the Burn &  Shock Trauma Research Institute and a professor in the Department of Surgery at Stritch.  Co-authors are Michael M. Chen, a MD/PhD student and first author; Anita Zahs, PhD; and Sulie L. Chang, PhD.

About Loyola Medicine and Trinity Health

Loyola Medicine, a member of Trinity Health, is a quaternary care system based in the western suburbs of Chicago that includes Loyola University Medical Center (LUMC), Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, MacNeal Hospital and convenient locations offering primary and specialty care services from 1,877 physicians throughout Cook, Will and DuPage counties. LUMC is a 547-licensed-bed hospital in Maywood that includes the William G. and Mary A. Ryan Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine, the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, a Level 1 trauma center, Illinois's largest burn center, a certified comprehensive stroke center and a children’s hospital. Having delivered compassionate care for over 50 years, Loyola also trains the next generation of caregivers through its teaching affiliation with Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine and Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing. Gottlieb is a 247-licensed-bed community hospital in Melrose Park with 150 physician offices, an adult day care program, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness, the Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care and the Loyola Cancer Care & Research at the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Center at Melrose Park. MacNeal Hospital is a 374-bed teaching hospital in Berwyn with advanced inpatient and outpatient medical, surgical and psychiatric services, advanced diagnostics and treatments. MacNeal has a 12-bed acute rehabilitation unit, a 25-bed inpatient skilled nursing facility, and a 68-bed behavioral health program and community clinics. MacNeal has provided quality, patient-centered care to the near west suburbs since 1919.

Trinity Health is one of the largest multi-institutional Catholic healthcare systems in the nation, serving diverse communities that include more than 30 million people across 22 states. Trinity Health includes 92 hospitals, as well as 109 continuing care locations that include PACE programs, senior living facilities and home care and hospice services. Its continuing care programs provide nearly 2.5 million visits annually. Based in Livonia, Mich., and with annual operating revenues of $18.3 billion and assets of $26.2 billion, the organization returns $1.1 billion to its communities annually in the form of charity care and other community benefit programs. Trinity employs about 129,000 colleagues, including 7,800 employed physicians and clinicians. Committed to those who are poor and underserved in its communities, Trinity is known for its focus on the country's aging population. As a single, unified ministry, the organization is the innovator of Senior Emergency Departments, the largest not-for-profit provider of home health care services—ranked by number of visits—in the nation, as well as the nation’s leading provider of PACE (Program of All Inclusive Care for the Elderly) based on the number of available programs.