The Transition from Postdoc to Research Development: Alexis Nagel

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Alexis Nagel, Research Development Strategist, Office of Research Development, Medical University of South Carolina

Describe your work in research development (RD): I help to identify and advertise funding opportunities that are aligned with faculty research interests and institutional priorities. I also work with research interest groups on campus to build long-term strategies for funding. I manage my institution’s annual shared instrumentation (NIH) and research infrastructure improvement (NSF) grant application submissions, and assist with preparation of multi-component program and center proposals. Also, I lead informational sessions and faculty enrichment activities, including a grant writing workshop that I developed.

Describe your postdoc work: I received my PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 2010. During my first postdoc, I studied the role of metabolic-sensing O-GlcNAc post-translational modifications in bone health and development using mass spectrometry (MS) based techniques. For my second postdoc, I applied MS-based molecular networking approaches to discover and characterize natural product drug leads.

Describe your transition from your postdoc/research background to RD: It was during my second postdoc that I discovered an aptitude for grant writing and proposal management that set the stage for my eventual transition to RD. Toward the end of my first postdoc I began to have doubts about the tenure-track faculty path for a variety of reasons and recognized the need for a career reassessment. I then learned of a newly hired senior faculty member who had relocated to our institution and needed help assembling proposals while reestablishing his lab. Because I was already considering an alternative career path, I was open to dialing back my research responsibilities to accommodate grant preparation activities. Over time I found I enjoyed this role; however, I also understood that I needed to move up and out of my postdoctoral training phase if I was serious about pursuing a different career trajectory. When a position opened up in my institution’s RD office several months later I applied and was hired as a Research Development Officer.

Describe the benefits your postdoc work provides to your skill set related to RD: Senior postdocs and early-career faculty members face many challenges while attempting to build funding for their research programs. As someone who traveled down this road for a time, I understand these frustrations and I am attempting to translate lessons learned from these experiences into training opportunities and resources that will serve and support these groups at my institution.

What words of wisdom do you have for postdocs who might consider an RD career? To be effective in RD you will need to build a diverse set of relationships with faculty and staff members at your institution and possibly other partnering entities and funding agencies. So make sure you like talking to people! In RD, interpersonal skills are probably just as important as writing experience and will serve you well when navigating the political landscape.

What has been your best experience, so far, with your work in RD? Observing the successful outcomes of long-term team funding efforts. When you start at the ground floor with a faculty group and continue to work alongside them the entire way, it is gratifying to see the combined hard work and planning of the team pay off as they reach their funding goals.

Why do you think RD is a good career choice? While I am no longer directly involved in academic research, I continue to have a tremendous passion for the sciences and respect for those working within the various fields. After being completely immersed in one subject area for so many years, I now appreciate the “20,000-foot view,” as it were, of the latest science taking place at my institution and across the nation. Additionally, I think if I had pursued a traditional faculty path I would have needed many more years of seniority before I was in a position to give back to the faculty research community through training and education, which is another aspect of this position that I really enjoy.

What other insights might be relevant to postdocs considering an RD career? To these postdocs – it is important to keep in mind that your investment in scientific training is not a sunk cost! My guess is that you have many transferrable skills that simply require an adjustment in focus. I would suggest reading current RD position announcements to get a feel for the field, and reaching out to RD professionals either at your institution or through NORDP. Schedule informational interviews and inquire how these individuals came to be in their current role. Then think about how you can re-tailor or otherwise build upon your existing training to ideally position yourself for such a role in the future.

Posted on behalf of the Strategic Alliances Committee committee

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