First steps on the academic road: Postdoc in the US

Melanie Mittenbühler und Hage Sprenger

Voices of our Employees - October 2021
A contribution by Daniela Morick

Hans-Georg Sprenger (Alumni of the Langer group at the MPI for Biology of Ageing) and Melanie Mittenbühler (Alumni of the Brüning group at the MPI for Metabolism Research) both chose to follow an academic career after finishing their PhD thesis projects in Cologne. Melanie and Hage are currently pursuing a postdoc at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S. with the strong plan to continue as group leaders and professors in the future.

Melanie and Hage, what happened during your PhD that made you decide to choose an academic career rather than any other career path? Were there any doubts at that time?  

For both of us, working on fundamental and open questions in biology and learning how to design your own experiments addressing those questions, is unique to academic science and has fascinated us ever since. In addition, working in academia allows joining interdisciplinary and international teams and enables to live and work abroad rather easily. Combined with the opportunity to work with and learn from more established scientists, this is what motivated us to pursue an academic career.
Working in a lab can be highly rewarding, but at times also very frustrating. Those periods, which require a high frustration tolerance and perseverance of course make you think whether you really want to do this for the rest of your life. However, making even a very small discovery is so rewarding for us that we feel it compensates for less fruitful periods.

After you both decided on how to continue with your career: what happened next? Were there any obstacles during the application process? Do you have any tips for current doctoral researchers that are interested in applying for academic jobs?

Both of us were looking into new labs working on topics that interests us the most. It was also important for us to find mentors, who had a good track record of successful mentees. The most challenging and stressful part of the interview and onboarding process was to process all the paperwork and fellowship applications while still working in our PhD labs. Talking to as many future lab members as possible during the interview process helped us with our decision. Also, looking early into possible fellowships and respective application criteria, such as deadlines, can be a good advice for people thinking of doing a postdoc.

What are you working on now as a postdoc? Did you find your dream project? Have there been any obstacles along the way?

Melanie is interested in proteins secreted from skeletal muscle and their systemic effects in health and disease while Hage is working on how mitochondria control the ability of our body to use different nutrients to generate biomass and energy. We think that both projects address fascinating questions, but what is great about biology is its diversity and therefore there are plenty of different projects we both could see ourselves working on.
The administrative burdens in academia such as that you cannot apply for the next job or funding if you have received your PhD too long ago and the time restrictions of working contracts are frustrating and frightening. If we decide to pursue a different career path it is because of those regulations.

Are there any difficulties for your adapting to a life in a new country? What would you say are the main differences between working in a lab in Germany and a US lab/group? What about your social life, especially during the pandemic?

We have moved to the US during the unique situation of a pandemic and therefore it definitely was a very special time for us. Living in a new country and adapting to a different culture can be challenging in times of social distancing and with the absence of social events.
But overcoming these initial challenges, we have to admit that it is has been a great experience so far, which not only broadened our scientific horizons, but also let us grow as a person. With time, we even got to know many other scientists and made new friends for life.
The number and density of research labs, scientists, and biotech companies in Boston and Cambridge creates an interdisciplinary environment and an inspiring atmosphere. One difference we noticed is that the interconnection between academic science and biotech companies is much more developed here in the US and in our opinion, scientists here are more open to pursue and support either career path.

Do you already have future plans? When will you start applying for group leader positions and how? Do you receive any support with your next steps?

We both love being scientists. It is clear to us that we would like to lead a research team in the future. However, since it is not always in your own hands, time will tell whether this will be in an academic environment or rather in and industrial setting like in a biotech company.
We started to explore and discuss possibilities in Europe and the US, however the focus right now is to continue and successfully finish our postdoctoral research projects. Our current mentors have been tremendously helpful in planning and thinking about the next steps. Besides discussing data, we have learned how to plan and manage research projects, which set the stage for a career rather than just a single publication. We believe that this will be helpful when applying for group leader positions in the future.

What do you think it takes and what makes you stand out for a successful career in the competitive field of academic research? Do you both have plan b’s in case you do not want to or cannot become group leaders?

People talk a lot about passion and talent when it comes to successful scientists. Despite this being absolutely helpful we believe that it is equally important to learn how to be a good mentor yourself. Once you are in the position to lead a team you should have experienced different mentoring styles and research environments to better understand the needs of every of your own mentees. In addition, we think being critical and at the same time enthusiastic about your own research is important. We believe that our own training in Cologne and here in Boston helped us acquiring exactly those skills and prepares us for future careers as group leaders.
Regarding plan b, we are both open to pursue a career as scientists in academia as well as in the industrial biotech sector, therefore we are optimistic that one will work out for both of us.

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