6 Tips from Early Career Researchers to Remember on Good Days & Bad

Early career researchers are vital to scientific research. They bring new skills and bold leadership that can lead to innovative discoveries.

We believe that collaboration accelerates scientific progress. We’re bringing new people and new ideas to science — which includes supporting early career researchers to pursue new approaches and take risks in collaborative environments.

“Anyone can have a great idea and pursue it vigorously, but early career researchers tend to be eager to make a positive impact, and aren’t burdened by ideas from their past.” -Cole Trapnell, CZI grantee and early career researcher from the University of Washington

The highs of academia can take you soaring — the thrill of starting to understand something that made you scratch your head a year ago; finally focusing in on that elusive cell type; or the simple joy of crisp bands on a western blot.

But before each take-off, we know there can be many … bumps on the road. Let’s just say the pursuit of science is perhaps one of the most humbling pursuits.

For those days when you’ve been brought down to earth one too many times by the weight of your pipette, we asked some of our grantees who are early career researchers to share their advice for some of the most challenging aspects of their career.

1. Got questions? Ask them!

Being a scientist essentially means being a professional question-asker. Which perhaps is why it’s so common to question even one’s own questions. But don’t be afraid to ask questions, says early career researcher Sarah Snelling. She’s building tissue atlases of healthy and diseased tendons so she can develop new treatments using biomaterials at the University of Oxford.

“It took me a long time to realize that it was okay to not understand something and to ask for it to be explained again.”

This applies to scientific concepts, but also to the logistics side of a scientific career. Cole Trapnell, who builds free, open source software for genomics analyses, says, “We train as scientists, but then we’re asked to be personnel managers, accountants, salespeople, fundraisers and judges.”

If you’re finding the process of joining or managing a new lab confusing, chances are you aren’t the only one. And you won’t get help if you don’t ask!

2. Is it failure or did you learn something?

Early career researcher Markita Landry of UC Berkeley uses nanomaterials to develop special probes that enable researchers to better see the chemical exchanges between neurons in the brain. She suggests that it’s important to re-frame the way we think about failed experiments, and instead see them as learning opportunities. “It is important to acknowledge that even a failed experiment or negative results are useful in determining how to move a project forward.”

Though, sometimes a failed experiment really is just that. On those days, remember you’re not alone and that it’s part of the process.

“We are all psychological beings trying to ascertain logical facts. That makes science difficult,” says Abbas Rizvi, whose lab at Columbia University is building an atlas of the spinal cord so they can better understand how cells change in diseases like ALS. “Be kind and patient with yourself, understanding that the failure rate in research is high. The experiment may fail, but that doesn’t mean you have.”

Uri Manor studies how cells stay dynamically organized and how certain diseases disrupt that organization at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He encourages, “Don’t let failure discourage you. Let your love for science carry you through all the challenges associated with grad school. Believe in yourself and make sure to never take for granted the pure wonder of the natural world.”

3. Think big

A (literal) microscopic view helps at the bench — Chris Rowlands would know, as he helped pioneer three-photon optogenetics and continues to build new instruments to help us better map and diagnose tissues at Imperial College London.

But when it comes to one’s career, he says it’s best to think big. “It is very easy to focus on the next problem and make incremental developments, but it’s much harder to see the big picture. Thinking big takes practice, and grad school is the ideal time to develop your skills.”

On the road to developing that skill, don’t be discouraged. While it’s easy to get caught up in the little mistakes, Chris reminds that, “Science and academia are designed to be robust to mistakes. Early career researchers introduce new ways of doing things, new ideas. Our fresh perspective brings novelty and inspiration.”

Gulcin Pekkurnaz, who studies mitochondria in the brain to discover how neurons regulate their energy in health and disease, agrees that it’s important to take time to enjoy the research process. She adds, “The main purpose of grad school is to learn how to be a scientist. Find a research question that you are passionate about and enjoy every moment of chasing the answers.”

4. Take care of yourself

It can be tempting to compare ourselves to others, and while some friendly competition to hold ourselves accountable can be healthy, there’s a thin line to toxic over-working culture.

Sarah Snelling reminds those who are just starting in their career that, “Science is better for having different people with different working styles and ideas, so don’t make yourself conform to the hours someone else works, the way they work, or their speed of ‘progress’ up the career ladder.”

Alejandro Chavez leads a lab at Columbia University that builds new technologies to help us better understand the genes and pathways that change in neurodegeneration. He encourages everyone to savor the process. “One thing I wish I had known sooner was how fast time goes. Enjoy the process and test your intellectual limits. If you fully embrace it, graduate school can be an incredibly positive period in your life.”

5. Build your support network

A quick glance at any author list will more than confirm that scientific research is a team sport. But there are many different benefits of a strong support network, as our early career researchers point out.

Stephanie Moon of the University of Michigan builds her network for collaborations. Stephanie’s lab uses cutting-edge imaging techniques to fluorescently label different molecules in cells and watch, one by one, how they change due to cell stress during disease. Her advice: “Make connections with other researchers and think about forming new collaborations. Sometimes these interactions are very motivating and end up being really helpful for your research progress.”

In fact, for Caron Jacobs at the University of Cape Town, the people are as important as the project. She collaborates with researchers across the continent of Africa to better understand infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis. She suggests to “pursue not only the questions or fields you’re interested in, but also chances to partner with people you enjoy working with!”

Early career researcher Michelle Itano leads the UNC Neuroscience Microscopy Core, where she helps make advanced imaging technology accessible to all members of the research community. She advises researchers to look for multiple mentors. “A single person or mentor cannot provide support for all of the many facets of your professional and personal life. Build a diverse network that can support you as your needs develop and change over your graduate career.”

If you’re not sure where to start in building your network, Leonel Malacrida of Institut Pasteur de Montevideo-Universidad de la República del Uruguay says to start with your peers: “Networking with professors is great, but don’t lose the chance to meet your classmates; they will be your partners in the future!” Leonel builds and democratizes access to custom high-tech microscopes to help researchers learn about how a cell’s metabolism changes in disease.

6. Pay it forward

Scientific research is about discovery. But discovery is only made possible through the people engaged in the process. As such, many of our early career researcher grantees are committed to mentorship, with a strong determination to leave academic culture better than they found it.

Alejandro Chavez sees his role as a mentor as part of the bigger legacy of science. “We are all on this earth for only a short period. By training and supporting young scientists, we form a strong link in a long-running chain that stretches back thousands of years and ensure that the next generation of scientists have all the tools and training they need to keep pushing the boundary of knowledge.”

This also means ensuring the current and future faces of scientific discovery are representative of the populations it aims to serve.

“As scientists, we should be active advocates who push to ensure diversity,” says Sarah Snelling. “A space can’t begin to be supportive or inclusive if bias and discrimination are allowed to occur unchallenged.”

Cole Trapnell agrees: “We as a scientific discipline need to work harder to retain folks in science and not let their talents escape. Retention all the way to faculty positions and science leadership roles in industry or government is key.”

We are inspired and encouraged by the passion, innovation and leadership of early career researchers. Wherever you are in your academic journey, join us in celebrating and building community amongst early career researchers. For example, Norbert Tavares, Single-Cell Biology Program Manager at CZI, wrote this incredibly helpful article on how to apply for NIH funding.

As early career researcher Leonel Malacrida says: “I knew that I was committing to a life of hard work and possibly financial sacrifice. But I also knew that I was committing to a life of excitement, fulfillment, camaraderie and happiness. Indeed, so far in my life I have found this to be true — I would not change my decision to become a scientist for anything.”

Bookmark this for a tough day, or perhaps send it to the new person in the department. And who knows, that new connection may even lead to your next big discovery …

Supporting the science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century.