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NIH Director of OITE, Sharon Milgram, on resilience and transforming scientific training

Sharon Milgram: Director of the Office of Intramural Training & Education at NIH

Sharon Milgram is the director of the Office of Intramural Training & Education at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As someone who wasn’t always sure about what career she wanted to pursue, and also as someone who used to have her own lab, she is a phenomenal resource for early career scientists who want to learn how to navigate the scientific job landscape while also finding the best fit for their own personal fulfillment.

Writing Your Own Story

Many science graduate programs have started to offer workshops on so-called “alternative” careers; essentially this is any career outside of academia. Sharon hates when people call any sort of non-bench work an “alternative” career, as it tends to conjure an image of a job that you take when starting a lab just isn’t working out for you rather than a choice you make to pursue what you find most fulfilling. She mentors a lot of graduate students, and in her experience people frequently enter science with a “narrow” view of what it means to be a scientist: it’s a faculty position and your own lab. These “alternative” options don’t even seem to be very clear to people at the outset, because historically a non-academic path has not been emphasized by graduate programs. However, a career in academia is not for everyone, and that isn’t simply because there aren’t enough faculty gigs to go around. Many scientists find their calling — and happiness — far from the bench. “As people land on what they want,” Sharon tells us, “they forget they wanted something else before, because it feels so right.”

When Sharon was an undergraduate, she decided that she wanted to become a physical therapist. In retrospect, she’s not sure that she actually had enough of a grasp on what she wanted from her professional life to make such a big decision. She struggled with the realization over time that she wasn’t on the right track for her own fulfillment, and when those struggles were compounded in graduate school by the difficulties many grad students are all too familiar with — the imposter syndrome, the inevitable failures — she found herself wanting to give up. However, these hardships are what shape us into the people that we become and teach us how to be resilient. Sharon credits the lessons she learned from early career challenges — along with some people who truly believed in her — with the success and joy she has found in her current position as a career advisor. 

You’re writing a book and you don’t know the ending yet.

Sharon Milgram

Sharon’s mentors taught her to believe in herself enough to recognize good opportunities when they come along, even if it’s not the opportunity she thought she was working toward. This is a priceless lesson that she wants to pay forward to the next generation of young scientists. She likens every experience, positive or negative, to writing the story of your professional life rather than succeeding or failing at achieving a particular career goal. “I’ve started to try to encourage all students to think of it that way,” Sharon explains. “You’re writing a book and you don’t know the ending yet.”

Holistic Training in Science

As a mentor of graduate students and scientist herself, Sharon doesn’t only help her mentees navigate their career after they’ve graduated; she also has a lot of advice for how to get the most out of graduate school. For example, Sharon’s advice for choosing the right thesis lab emphasizes an honest assessment of that principal investigator’s mentorship style. She has seen many students enter labs with notoriously unhealthy work environments and think they’ll be the exception to the rule and fare well anyway. “I like to say we don’t ever break the mold,” Sharon advises. If you hear warnings about a lab having a “sink or swim” mentality, or that you need a “thick skin” to work with a particular advisor, believe those warnings and don’t set yourself up to enter an unnecessarily difficult or even toxic lab space day after day. Sharon has witnessed such labs churn through students and postdocs, watching a few trainees succeed while many seem to lose their love for science altogether. She’s also seen labs with healthy atmospheres that value their scientists’ personal lives — places where taking time for hobbies and families is encouraged — produce students and postdocs who are happy and fulfilled. If you ask Sharon, that’s not an accident.

Sharon firmly believes that we need to train scientists in how to be better mentors. “We know that critique drives good science,” Sharon explains, but principal investigators and even scientific peers are often not trained in how to offer that critique in a way that offers any real support or room for growth. Even worse, these assessments are often available at a few discrete evaluations rather than consistently over the course of a project, so trainees can’t course correct but rather are told at the very end how everything could have been better. “We make graduate students learn humility the hard way,” Sharon continues. “Humility without confidence is not what we’re looking for.” 

In order to become better scientists, Sharon thinks it is essential that graduate training must mean more than training as an experimentalist. As she puts it, you can be a good patch clamper, but if you aren’t a good colleague that is capable of handling and giving feedback in a professional manner, then you aren’t going to be a good trainee or future mentor. Fortunately, she has a lot of experience with the current generation of young scientists, and she believes that this is the generation who will change the culture of science for the better.

Sharon’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.

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