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Inspire students to choose scientific research careers

Victoria R. Polonis, PhD, Chief of the Dept of Vaccine Immunology for the Military HIV Research Program at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) shares key tips for guiding your students.

Tips for Students

Broaden your knowledge and learn what intrigues you.
Watch TV specials, YouTube videos, MOOCS (free online learning courses); read journals such as Scientific American; find opportunities to shadow, observe or volunteer. Ask yourself: Is my track clinical or research? Do I like the people who are doing the work? Don’t worry if you major in biology or chemistry and are still unsure after you graduate. You’ll figure it out.

Be open to guidance and direction.
Asking for guidance is a sign of wanting to learn and helps builds teams and relationships based on trust.

Have confidence in yourself.
I didn’t realize how important this is through most of my career. I kept thinking I fooled everyone, not feeling totally confident in myself. Have a realistic belief in yourself because if you doubt, you won’t advance to the higher positions.

Emotional intelligence and communication skills are critical.
The people I admire and respect have been able to balance competence, confidence and the ability to communicate with respect. Communication style effects whether others see, hear and think about your ideas.

Competence builds with the scut.
Scutwork is part of all jobs and allows you to develop deeper competencies. This is something that I wish I knew then. I spent a fair bit of time doing stuff that most 15 year old would say, “Hey, I don’t want to do this!”. I think this is why STEM careers falter – it is hard! But no one starts with independent research – you have to earn the right.

Persevere through the hard stuff.
It takes perseverance, a bit of luck, and wise judgment.

Weigh what’s best for you.
When making choices consider what’s better, not just for the people around you and your family, but better for you too.

Career trajectories can take many routes.
You have to have a bachelor’s degree, without that it’s hard to advance beyond entry level. You have to study math and some of the sciences, There’s a lot of different routes, but you can go your entire career with a bachelor’s degree and get promotions to research assistant level one, two, three, laboratory manager, senior research associate, etc. Getting a master’s degree helps. Not everyone needs a PhD.

Be open to unexpected twists and turns.
I never thought about a military career until I saw ROTC cadets climbing down the side of the science building. I listened carefully when they pitched ROTC scholarships…and got almost a free ride for 3 years and then owed the army 4 years of active duty. It was exciting…and I came out with much less debt.

Think about your career choice first.
The specific disease or area of impact will evolve with your exposure and experience.

Don’t do something you don’t like just to please other people or just for the money.
These are very unhappy people.

Stay connected.
People will come and go in your lives but find ways to stay in touch. It will build your network of connections and resources.

“Do it because you want to and trust in yourself. Have confidence in yourself and you can do it. Don’t hold back and think, no, I can’t do this. Go for it. Because if you want to and really want it, you can.”