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From the Lab to the Library…

This may be a familiar story for some of you. I started my PhD program in Neuroscience full of hope and excited about where my future would take me.

Like many of you, I assumed I would follow the traditional path – grad student postdoc, then tenure track faculty at a research university.

Well, I completed my PhD and was in the midst of my postdoc at Yale when I had a realization – after working more than a third of my life in a lab, I no longer wanted to do it. For multiple reasons, I didn’t have the desire to be at the bench anymore.

How frightening is that? Spending so much time and effort focusing on a particular skill set, only to decide, nope, that’s it, I’m done.

What to do now? After considering my options for quite some time (Science policy? Forensics? Consulting? Teaching? Win the lottery? Find a sugar daddy?), I finally recalled something from my childhood. I wanted to be a librarian.

What?!?

When I told my parents, my dad’s reaction was “You want to go back to school to learn how to stamp books?”

Ummm, no.The librarian of the 21st century is not the stereotypical grey-haired bun sporting, sensible shoe and cardigan wearing, meanly shushing spinster of the mythical past.

Today’s librarian is a curator and facilitator of information on the cutting edge of technology.

You know those journal articles you think you download for free from PubMed? Thank a librarian for making that happen.

Have you tried to get an animal protocol passed by your Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC)? A librarian can help you find the resources to support your protocol.

And are you aware that some librarians can even help you not only find but also teach you how to use bioinformatics databases and tools?

I am that latter type of librarian, or “information specialist” as some prefer.

I have a multi-faceted job:

(1) offering workshops on topics such as “DNA Analysis Tools” and “Clinical Genetics”

(2) providing consultations on anything from identifying biomarkers to exploring SNP genotyping

(3) managing a website

(4) curating a freely available database of over 2300 bioinformatics databases and software tools

(5) creating video tutorials to answer basic bioinformatics-related questions

(6) registering users for library-financed licensed tools like Vector NTI and Ingenuity Pathways Analysis

(7) writing blog articles

(8) supervising field placement students

(9) teaching in medical, nursing, and dental school classes

(10) collaborating with our Clinical and Translational Science Institute

(11)serving as a member of the faculty assembly as well as the senate budget policies committee

(12)presenting papers and posters at national meetings (Hawaii in May!)

And this isn’t even a complete list.

So how did I get this job? I did indeed go back to school to get my Masters in Library Science (MLS).Then I looked at library and university online job sites to look for openings (check out the Medical Library Association).

I also talked to a lot of people – don’t underestimate the power of networking. It turns out that I didn’t necessarily *need* an MLS to get my current job – the most important criterion was that I have a scientific background, PhD preferred.

However, the additional degree has certainly been useful in terms of understanding the culture of and fitting into a library. I am also actively involved in a few professional organizations that support individuals with scientific experience that work in the world of libraries and information science.

Overall, one of the best, albeit initially gut-wrenching career decisions I’ve made was to move on from the lab to the library.

Do I miss the bench?

Sure, sometimes – I have fond memories of fluorescently-labeled olfactory sensory neurons. But I think I now have more opportunities, varied experiences, and much less stress than when I was sitting in the dark looking through a microscope.

So if you’re trying to figure out an alternative career in science, I’d recommend looking into becoming an informationist / science librarian / molecular biology information specialist / you make up the name.

There might not be a lot of us out there, and there might not be tons of available jobs (thanks, economy!), but it could be the perfect niche for you too.

4 Comments

  1. gioby on February 4, 2009 at 10:43 am

    so, break a leg for your new job!
    I have found your blog from scintilla’s (nature) web site.

    If I were you, I would investigate all the methods which try to do automatic parsing of articles to improve database annotations, as many articles published by Alfonso Valencia.
    For example, there are tools like iHop (http://www.ihop-net.org/UniPub/iHOP/) and others that I don’t know of, that try to infer the network of interactions of a protein by just parsing sentences in the public peer-reviewed articles.
    A few years ago I was so excited about this field, and I tried to study the ntlk python library (http://www.nltk.org/) to write my own world-dominating bot.
    well, I just thought that you could find interesting this topic.
    Your website seems to be very complete and I will surely use some of your tools, directly or indirectly.
    cheers..

  2. bala on February 3, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    An interesting post carrie.Would help me in choosing my career path.Also, i agree with Kurt, there are very few librarians out there who can give a wholesome picture when you go to them with a query. Must say the students at your place are lucky!

  3. Ben on February 2, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    Congratulations on being brave enough to make your transition and for finding a critically relevant role in science.
    Though I never did any labwork, I went through a similar transition while still still in graduate school. I came in thinking that I would be working on bionformatics methods in support of vaccine design but quickly ended up being sucked away from actual research in biology and into the maelstrom of the semantic Web (which is all about information science).

  4. Kurt on February 2, 2009 at 5:45 am

    A problem I frequently notice is otherwise that librarians at research libraries don’t seem to have a solid academic background. They don’t follow what’s happening e. g. in the area of text mining and other types of literature mining, instead they only present and recommend the same old list of commercial databases and search and retrieval tools that are so complicated that only an informatics specialist can use them!

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