Unconventional career path can be an asset to faculty applicants and new professors

Emil Hernández-Pagán

In Summer 2020, I will be starting as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware. The “conventional” or more common path to a faculty position is fairly direct: PhD ➡ Postdoc ➡ Asst. Prof. However, like many things in life, there are exceptions. And my journey is but one of many.

The fall of 2011, I completed my PhD at Penn State University. I then went on to do a postdoc at Vanderbilt University. One could say I was on the “conventional” path to getting a faculty job but different circumstances would divert this journey. For one, my graduate degree came with a “bonus”, impostor phenomenon (aka impostor syndrome). This lead me to thinking I wasn’t smart enough and certainly not capable of generating good ideas. In addition, I had some financial struggles which were a constant source of stress. Lastly, I constantly missed my family and felt terrible for not being a part of my niece and nephew’s early years. All these factors lowered the activation energy enough for me to halt my dream of going into academia and instead explore a career in industry.

In March 2013, I accepted a job in a biopharmaceutical company. It wasn’t in R&D but I would be returning to Puerto Rico with a good salary. The first year in the job was great, all the factors that diverted my career path were gone and my coworkers were awesome. After that first year, I was no longer happy despite nothing changing. I missed the scientific freedom, the fundamental research, the mentoring, the conferences. I was being drawn back to academia in a way I could not ignore.

In 2016, I decided to resume my dream of becoming a professor. But after 3+ years of not following the literature and no publications I couldn’t go straight to the job market, rather I had to reboot my academic career. Gratefully, my postdoc advisor re-hired me (shout out to Prof. Janet Macdonald!) and in January 2017 I returned to Vanderbilt. This opportunity was for 1.5 years and towards the end of this time period there were a few things on the pipeline but no publications, I wasn’t going to be competitive in the job market, I needed more time. With the help of Prof. Ray Schaak, I landed a postdoctoral fellowship at Penn State in August 2018, bringing my journey full circle. The following year, I went to the academic job market, and luckily I received and accepted a phenomenal offer from the University of Delaware.     

As I reflect back, I’m glad for having this unconventional journey to a faculty position. First, it made for very compelling personal statements required for fellowship applications. Also, many faculty candidates have strong letters of recommendation, publication lists, and proposals, so my unconventional journey differentiated me from other faculty candidates. Plus it served as topic of conversation in my interviews. Furthermore, having worked in industry, I am in a better position to provide insights and a different perspective to my students as they consider their own career path. This could be in the form of elective course selections that would help their professional development towards a career in industry or help them familiarize with concepts that would help in a job interview (e.g. Code of Federal Regulations, Good Manufacturing Practices, etc). In addition, life experiences acquired through this journey allowed me to further develop important qualities needed for effective mentoring such as empathy, compassion, and relatability. Lastly, being away from academia reignited my passion for research and allowed me to unequivocally confirm that academia is where I belong.

For academia and perhaps other professions, there are conventional career paths, but that doesn’t mean those are the only ones. Don’t be afraid to carve your own trajectory and if you are ever at a crossroads make sure to follow the Pennsylvania state slogan: “Pursue your happiness”.

Good career advice from the Pennsylvania state slogan

Dr. Emil Hernández-Pagán assistant professor at the University of Delaware Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry starting Fall 2020

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