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Vanderbilt professor, Erin Calipari, on setting a personalized career strategy

Erin Calipari: Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at Vanderbilt University

A PhD Without a Blueprint

Erin is the first member of her family to pursue a PhD. Without a close role model to help you consider your career path, the academic route can seem opaque. “I didn’t even know grad school was a thing,” Erin shares. “[I had] no blueprint for what a PhD looks like.”

In some ways, this lack of familial academic experience can be a setback; people with PhDs in the family know more about the landscape and will likely be encouraged to get a lab internship in high school if they’re already set on science. Aspiring scientists that are pioneering the journey without footsteps to follow are less likely to realize what they’ll need to get ahead until later, when their competition for jobs is literally years ahead of them.

Erin believes it’s perfectly fine if a person’s scientific journey wasn’t clear from day one. “You don’t have to know where you’re going, but you need to be open to learning what you do and don’t like,” she explains. With an open mind, a scientist can do incredible work by fully embracing the resources available, even if that doesn’t include experience dating back to freshman year of high school. A passionate researcher can more than make up for lost time simply by being open enough to ask questions. As Erin puts it, “the biggest barrier to people learning things is their inability to admit what they don’t know.”

An open mentality can also clarify the road ahead of you. In a graduate rotation with the professor who would become Erin’s thesis advisor, Erin was tasked with writing an F31 proposal. She had no grant writing experience, no close examples to draw from, and was only rotating in the lab. Instead of allowing frustration to close her mind, she embraced the experience and completed the proposal with a much clearer view of the experiments she needed to perform than if she hadn’t dedicated that time to writing up a plan. 

In many ways Erin believes this grant assignment shaped how she does science, and it informed her goal of having each new member of the Calipari lab apply for their own funding. The experience of writing a grant proposal imparts a sense of purpose, clarity, and ownership of the project, and that’s what is at the heart of Erin’s love for this process. Plus, the individual funding helps everyone in the lab, not just the grantee. This collective attitude is central to Erin’s philosophy, because she knows that “when the whole team does well, we all do better.”

Staying True to You

Grant writing identifies more than just the experiments that a project requires. The process throws one facet of academia into sharp relief: scientists write. A lot. If any members of her lab didn’t enjoy that grant writing push at the start, Erin had a real conversation with them about what striving to become a faculty member really means. She cuts straight to the point: “if you hate writing, this is definitely not the job.”

A scientist that gets excited when writing grants can feel confident that continuing on the academic path is a good fit, given that writing (unlike benchwork) will only become more central to the job as they climb the academic ladder. Enthusiasm also bodes well for the potential success of the grant itself. A great sales pitch won’t rescue a bad proposal, but “there’s a difference between [selling something] and trying to get somebody excited about something that is a good idea,” Erin remarks. If the writer can impart that fire to the reviewer, it can only help the chance of success in a fiercely competitive funding environment.

Erin doesn’t subscribe to the idea that her success as a mentor hinges on how many of her trainees become faculty one day. She cares that her trainees are happy with the way they put their scientific experience to work, wherever that may be. After all, staying true to what makes herself happy is how Erin found her way to having her own lab. She didn’t work in a voltammetry lab or train as an analytical chemist to tick a predetermined set of boxes on the way to becoming a professor of pharmacology; she hadn’t even heard of voltammetry before working on it, and had little experience in a specialty of the Eric Nestler lab — genetics — when she joined them for her postdoc. Instead she followed the “path of least resistance,” picking places and mentors that made her happy; she’ll be the first to tell you that it’s a strategy that’s worked so well for her.

You don’t have to know where you’re going, but you need to be open to learning what you do and don’t like.

Erin Calipari

Erin’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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