NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 12 – Assistant Professor, University of Colorado, Denver

This is the twelfth in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Brian Berman

Current position: Assistant professor of neurology, University of Colorado Denver

Location: Denver, CO

Time in current position: 15 months

Clinical fellowship: Movement disorders with research focus on functional imaging with Mark Hallett at NINDS

Job search in a nutshell: This opportunity presented itself to me when I wasn’t looking. Less than a year into my fellowship, I met someone at a conference who was leaving the position I’m in now. I checked in to see if there might be an opening for me. Then it was a cascade. For some frame of reference, I started looking at other opportunities. There were a couple of other jobs I considered. One was near my wife’s hometown and one was in Florida. I also thought about whether it was a better idea to gain experience elsewhere first. I was definitely looking for an academic science position, but I was hoping to get some sort of transitional funding prior to taking one. I realized that I could potentially leave the NIH ahead of those plans, and if so I would need the right support.

A balancing act: I’m not sure UC Denver was thinking about other people [for this position], but they did start to become impatient [as the months passed]. They wanted an answer one way or the other. I was stuck waiting and working to get a contract at another institution so I could better compare the two opportunities. It was not easy. I had to delay UC Denver until I was certain about the other position. The timelines didn’t line up perfectly. When you start the interview process, you should try to have a number of possibilities that are roughly in the same course so you don’t have to wait long after an offer to hear about the others. For me, it was down to the wire.

Fortunately, in the end there was no bitterness. I couldn’t start before my fellowship ended later that year anyway. It was a natural starting point. I negotiated to start one month after finishing the fellowship.

Network, network, network: I went to med school at UC Denver, so I knew some people here, including the person whose position was available. I didn’t burn my bridges. Every year since I’d left med school, I had written the chair of neurology just checking in, asking how things were going and giving him an update on what I was doing. He ended up being on my hiring committee. Partway through, he retired, but I also knew the second person who stepped in.

When I was considering other options and asking people I knew about possible opportunities, it seemed most potential positions weren’t advertised anywhere. Those looking to hire would often just ask my mentor, who’s very well known, if he knew of anyone who would be good for a position.

Making the choice: One of the most important things for me was protected or allotted time to do research and not just see patients. Also the amount of startup funds for doing imaging research; it’s expensive. And feeling that I got along with people at the institution and fit in. Of the other two positions I was considering, one didn’t work out due to the amount of clinical time required. For the second, after a series of interviews it didn’t turn out to be the right fit for either side.

Necessary compromises: In this position, the downside was that I would be the only one in the department doing the research I do. I felt there might be environments more able to foster my research interests—where there would be more people to be mentors or guides and support my research rather than me being, you know, the “lone star” on my own. In the end, I felt my training had been strong enough and that I would be able to find people to be mentors. I’m pretty happy with my decision.

Day-to-day: I have about 30% clinical work. I see patients in a subspecialty of neurology. About 60% is research, including finishing work from my fellowship. The rest—which is probably more than 10%—is various administrative tasks, meetings, and teaching. Not courses, but guided training of students and residents and a fellow, and giving talks. Essentially I have a fixed schedule of 3 half-day clinics a week. The rest of the time is mine to organize. It’s a constant struggle to get better with time management. It’s about 60 to sometimes 80 hours a week, so efficiency comes into play. I try to consolidate blocks of time for my clinics and for research. For example, I have set aside Wednesday for meetings and conferences so those are out of the way for the week.

What I wish I’d known: Money’s kind of the big thing. Everything has to be paid for from some source. If you don’t succeed in securing funding, it’s not like your lab director can contribute to your salary. You may learn sometime down the road that there are people you may have to contribute salary to. You might be surprised to learn after a year that you’re responsible for providing part of a nurse’s or a research assistant’s salary, for example.

Essential skills: One important thing is being able to transmit your ideas to get people as excited as you are about what you do—to sell it to anyone you want to give you money. Even if it’s the same idea, it has to be repackaged for people differently. You need to know who you’re presenting to and how to best address that audience. You start to pick this up by practice. There’s a clinical faculty scholars program here that you have to apply for, which is a 2-year funded junior faculty mentoring program. It really can help with learning these types of things. If your institution has one, I would recommend it. It’s been very helpful in career mentorship. But I still had to find the right research mentor.

You also need a thick skin. To survive in academics, you have to publish and bring money in—and so you get lots of rejections. You have to continue to plod forward even though it feels like the forces are trying to keep you down. It takes a certain amount of fortitude and endurance.

The transition: The first couple of years are pretty tough. There’s a lot of unknowns. Then you start to get funding and it gets better. Something that takes getting used to is the amount of time devoted to clinical matters. There’s also a lot more pressure now because you’re responsible for your own future. It’s not a fixed fellowship position; your position is going to be what you make of it. You shape your future.

Brian can be contacted through the OITE alumni database.