The Future of Scientific Careers

Johns Hopkins Career Services Pro, Kate Bradford, on the future of scientific careers

Kate Bradford: Associate Director of Doctoral and Postdoctoral Career Services at Johns Hopkins University

Like many of us, Kate Bradford has been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though she may not need to physically commute to her job in doctoral and postdoctoral career services at Johns Hopkins University, she finds a sense of normalcy in recreating this commute each day from the comfort of her home. Instead of going straight from waking up to working, she takes some time after the trek downstairs to sit down with her phone for twenty minutes or so before she starts working — pretty much what she would be doing on a bus. Subtract the signature sights and aromas of public transportation, substitute a comfortable couch and friendly cat in her lap, and you have a glimpse into how Kate has held onto her normal routine during uncertain times.

Lessons from a Government Lab

Quarantine has thrown a wrench into typical lab routines across the globe. Scientists everywhere have been forced to reckon with important experiments grinding to a halt –a situation that is unprecedented for most researchers. Kate, however, has a unique perspective as a scientist who has had to grapple with scientific shutdowns before.

Kate did her postdoc with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In several regards, doing a postdoctoral fellowship with a government agency sounds a lot like a postdoc gig at a university: she worked within a robust research program, she went into the lab each day to conduct her experiments, she had access to good core facilities, and so on. But Kate chose the FDA over other postdoc opportunities because of what it could offer her that many universities could not: a true work-life balance (she almost never had to work weekends!) and a stipend that matched what she felt she had earned.

Of course, she could not have predicted that part of her experience working at the FDA would prepare her for what so many of her colleagues are facing now. Employment with a government agency inherently means that you are tied to the government funding cycle, and the 2013 federal government shutdown was a wake-up call that research can –and will –stop unexpectedly. From that point forward, her postdoc lab always had a contingency plan for what they would do should another shutdown come around.

Paying It Forward

The need for an experimental contingency plan is a lesson that many labs may find themselves learning right now. Fortunately, Kate has always been generous with her learned wisdom! Throughout her scientific career, she has always maintained a commitment to scientific outreach, policy, and mentoring. When she realized she could get paid to focus on these endeavors, she made the jump from academia to her current role as the Associate Director of doctoral and postdoctoral career services at Johns Hopkins University — the very place she did her own PhD.

The scientific career landscape is actively undergoing a major change. More junior scientists are realizing that they can successfully apply their scientific training outside of the lab without completely leaving their hard-earned skills behind. Junior scientists may feel unqualified to step away from the bench into an unknown field, but their training is a transferable skill that allows them to become experts quickly. Kate helps graduate students and postdocs to gain the experiences they need to realize this power through career programming like the OPTIONS career communities at Johns Hopkins — a resource so valuable that incoming students have begun citing it as one of the drivers behind their decision to pursue a graduate education at Hopkins.

Times have changed, and with that graduate education has changed. People expect more than a scientific product at the end. They expect a job.

– Kate Bradford

Fortunately, the culture of academic science in general has also shifted and become more open to what were once considered “alternative” (read: non-academic) careers. Career programming like that which Kate organizes may once have been sparsely attended by graduate students for fear that their PIs would look down on an eye that strayed too far from academia. But the purpose of pursuing a graduate education has evolved. “Times have changed,” Kate explains, “and with that graduate education has changed. People expect more than a scientific product at the end. They expect a job.” With academic job opportunities dwarfed by the number of graduating PhDs each year, graduate programs have become more invested in ensuring positive career outcomes for their trainees well beyond the boundaries of academia.

In her conversation with Nick, Kate offers insights from her journey within and beyond academic science. In a true mentor’s fashion, she also encourages listeners to reach out to her if they want to learn more! You can find her @KateBradfordSci on Twitter.

Kate’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Caroline Sferrazza.

By Contributor 2
Contributor 2