Academia: Both exciting and daunting

27 July 2009

Dr Woodman "... academia is a difficult profession, and you have to love science, research and teaching to pursue it" – Dr Zenda Woodman of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology.

Sydney Brenner Fellow Dr Zenda Woodman conducted postdoctoral studies in the US before returning to UCT. Life as a postdoc in America is a very different experience, as is life as an academic.

"I completed my PhD at UCT in the laboratory of Dr Edward Sturrock. However, because I was keen to stay in academia, I applied for a postdoctoral position at the University of Pennsylvania, US.

"At the time I had wanted to expand into viral oncogenesis, to give me a taste of two of my chief interests: cancer and viruses. Laboratories in the US are run very differently, with the ratio of postdocs to students approximately five to one.

"I was one of 12 international postdocs, and I gained invaluable experience and training. Importantly, the experience taught me that South Africa's level of scientific development is comparable with the best, and we are more than capable of developing and sustaining research programmes.

"I always wanted to come back home, because I want to participate in the scientific development of the country. For four-and-a-half years I worked in HIV research. Early this year I applied for a lecture post at the Molecular and Cell Biology Department, and I'm now a permanent member of the academic staff.

"In South Africa the ratio of students to postdocs favours the student. Many postdocs are inundated with student supervision duties. This means they don't publish enough, and thus are unable to secure fellowships and research grants.

"After receiving a postdoctoral position, there is no guarantee that you will become employed or get a grant to cover salary and research. If you take into consideration that postdocs have only five years at UCT to develop a career, it's pivotal that there's a planned programme of development, signed and recognised by the principal investigator of the study, that holds both parties accountable, and that is recognised and endorsed by the university.

"Postdocs need to be organised. There's a misconception out there that once the PhD is over, life becomes easier. This is not true. The onus to make a success of your scientific career falls entirely on your shoulders. This concept must be addressed if the path to an academic position is to be nurturing and organised.

"The university also has a responsibility as a research-led institution, because it's mostly the postdocs that inject new ideas and energy into projects.

"There must be strict guidelines and clear steps identified that will assist the transition between postdoctoral study and permanent employment. Which brings us to the main problem: the few permanent positions available.

"Academia is both exciting and daunting, but I'm looking forward to the challenge. My advice to postdocs is: have solid contracts with your mentors, and have a career path mapped out. How many students will you supervise? How many papers will you publish? When will you be last author on what publication?

"I think I have finally grasped that academia is a difficult profession, and you have to love science, research and teaching to pursue it. For me, what makes it worthwhile is interacting with young enthusiastic minds filled with promise."

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