Career Interview: Beth Ruedi, PhD

Director of Education and Professional Development
Genetics Society of America

ASHG: How can trainees gain experience in your field while doing research? What steps are necessary for trainees to get involved in your field?

Dr. Ruedi: I have a few favorite sayings when I talk about careers and professional development. One is: “No one is responsible for you…except you.” For most trainees, it’s very difficult to get a diverse array of experiences outside of their benchwork. Your advisor expects research projects to be completed at a quick and steady pace, you have qualifying exams to prepare for, grants and papers to write, and theses to defend.

However, all signs point to a faculty career in academia as being the “alternative career” for PhDs….you are going to have to enhance your skill set. Most of the time, you’ll have to do it on your own! And that’s ok. That independence makes you a stronger person.

If you like teaching, like I did (and do), enhance your TA experience while you are a trainee; don’t do the bare minimum and complete the requirements for your program. Instead, make sure to get experience in a plethora of different teaching environments (majors & non-majors; intro courses & senior electives; small discussion & labs). If your institution has a teaching certificate, take the steps needed to earn it.

Even if those things are not available to you, you can “choose your own adventure”–sign up for a course or workshop given by your professional society that will teach you all you need to know about education; become an adjunct lecturer at your local community college and teach some night classes. These things will have you poised to be a step ahead of the pack when you finish your training.

Note that some advisors will not like this extra effort. To get around that, make sure your research is going along at a steady pace; it’s hard, but it’s achievable. In addition, ask yourself what is the most important thing to you, and then follow your gut: is it most important to appease your advisor, or is it most important to make sure you have a robust skill set? It really depends on what you want to do after you earn your credentials.

My other piece of advice? “Never underestimate the power of networking.” I can’t stress that enough! It’s often all about who you know, and who will think of you when they hear about an interesting opportunity that would suit you.

I don’t mean that you should seek out the best and brightest in your field, necessarily. In fact, it’s usually the unexpected connections that are the most fruitful. Next time you see an interesting article on a science blog or in the front matter of a journal, email the author and say that you thought it was great, and ask how s/he got involved as a science writer.

Or when you are at a meeting of your professional society, go seek out and talk to members of the Board and society staff. The Executive Director, Director of Education, and journals staff are going to have a lot of advice for you. Getting involved in your professional society is one of the best ways to get linked in to a lot of opportunities.

ASHG: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

Dr. Ruedi: I am fortunate in that I truly love my job. I look forward to work nearly every day (it can’t be all the time, let’s be honest here), and every day is different. I have my hands in a lot of different projects so I am never bored.

For instance, today I will be going through the applications for trainee representatives to our Board and committees; editing two blog posts about education; writing a blog post about our Primers in the GSA journal GENETICS; trying to secure funding for our upcoming “The Allied Genetics Conference” in 2016; and thinking about the fact that I will be exhibiting at the Society for Advancement of Native Americans and Chicanos in Science (SACNAS) meeting Thursday and Friday.

Things that are not my favorite include: the fact that there are only 8 hours in a work day if you want to keep sane (sometimes, my to-do list backs up!!); administrative tasks are necessary but often boring (though on the other hand, sometimes filling in Excel sheets can be meditative); pushing out of my comfort zone. That last one is both a favorite and not a favorite–it makes me uncomfortable to do something brand new, but at the same time that’s the only way to learn!

ASHG: Can you describe your transition from trainee to working professional? How did you land your first “real” job?

Dr. Ruedi: I was always more interested in education than in research, though I was fortunate to discover a true passion for my thesis work in behavior genetics (on male fruit fly mating behavior). If I hadn’t been truly excited about my research, I wouldn’t have been able to finish my PhD!

However, I went to graduate school because I knew that I was interested in undergraduate education; I wanted to emulate my undergrad advisor and be a faculty member at a small liberal arts school, working on smaller research projects with my students. To me, research was a way to teach, so I wanted to learn how to guide new researchers through the process.

With that in mind, I beefed up the TA portion of my graduate training, which was fortunately ok with my advisor. I then contemplated a traditional postdoc vs. a visiting professor position at an elite liberal arts school, covering someone who was on sabbatical. I had a phone interview with the department head at that institution, and he told me that if they were hiring a permanent faculty member they would look for and expect that person to have completed a traditional postdoc.

So, I went with that, though I was quite frank with my postdoc advisor that I loved teaching first and foremost. She was not only ok with that, but very supportive. After year one of 100% research, I was miserable. Teaching was what made me happy! With the encouragement of my advisor, I got a part-time faculty lecturer position that allowed me to also complete my postdoc research part-time.

I had a few good interviews with some small primarily undergraduate institutions, but hadn’t gotten anyone on the hook. My postdoc advisor happened to be on the Board at GSA, and mentioned that they were contemplating hiring an hourly manager to work on education-related initiatives at the Society, and that I should think about applying.

I had honestly never thought about the fact that professional societies had people working on education. The interview went very well because I clicked with the executive committee and the other staff at GSA. I began working part time in 2010 (yes, I had three part time jobs, I worked 10 hours a day, 7 days a week…and I liked it?!) with GSA, and they asked me to move up to D.C. and begin full-time in 2011.

That long story is why I always stress that networking is *crucial* for trainees’ professional development! Without networking, I wouldn’t have my job, and I can’t imagine not doing what I am doing now.

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