Tag Archives: careers

A tribute to Andy Robertson, and why we all need a career coach

Andy Robertson

This is how I’ll always remember Andy, because this is what he looked like most of the time.

Andy Robertson was a shining light, a gem of a mentor, scientist, and human being who consistently inspired and supported me during challenging times in my career. It is rare to meet people as warm, spirited, present, engaged, and generous as Andy, and I consider myself truly lucky to have known him. He was the kind of person who not only makes the world around him better, but inspires those around him to do the same. One year ago, on August 14, 2014, the world became a little less good, as a mutual friend put it, because Andy was no longer in it. There will never be another person like him; he was truly too good for this world. As I’ve been reflecting on this loss, I can only think of one way to answer this tragedy: We all just need to be a bit more like Andy. From what I can tell after meeting other wonderful people in his life, he inspired us all. It’s now our duty to live that inspiration on.

This return to my blog (a blog that Andy drove me to start) is my attempt to share some of the ways we can all continue the goodness that Andy gave to this world; it begins with explaining the concept of a ‘career coach.’ While I was trying to address my growing preference for science communication amidst a career in research, I talked to a couple of my entrepreneurial friends whose careers had an even greater degree of uncertainty. “How do you figure out how to prepare yourself for your next career move and where to focus your energies?” I asked them.

The answer both of them gave me was one I’d never heard from a scientist: get a career coach. Someone who has experience in your field, isn’t directly invested in your current job (i.e., NOT your Ph.D. mentor), who can provide you with objective guidance and hold you accountable for those personal and professional development pursuits that we all struggle to find time for. To be honest, my first reaction to my friends’ advice was, They’re in a different world. That kind of person just doesn’t exist in the world of science. This probably won’t work for me.

But I was wrong: through Andy’s example, I learned that career coaches are exactly what the world of science needs. I’m not alone in my career confusion: the majority of Ph.D. and postdoc researchers I talk to are uncertain what their next step will be or even how to equip themselves to figure that out. And no wonder, for the majority of them necessarily will not follow in their research mentor’s footsteps – there aren’t enough independent research positions for 90% of Ph.D. holders. So even our research mentors aren’t equipped to guide us along different paths: for many of them, the only definition of success in science is to become an independent researcher. Choosing your path nowadays is hard work, and I’d argue it’s even harder work than our predecessors on the highway to PIship faced when the future of Ph.D.-educated scientists was less murky. But to see it in a more positive light, as Andy would, what the dearth of professorships also means is that there is a whole world of diverse scientific career opportunities before us and many more ways to define success.

Andy Robertson at SACNAS

How many people do you know who complain about the lack of diversity in science but don’t do anything about it? Andy did lots – through organizations like SACNAS, ABRCMS, and Keystone. Source: Keystone Symposia

This is part of what made Andy such a special person. He saw this world of opportunity before most did, and he dove in head first. He began on a traditional academic career path – Ph.D.-postdoc-associate professor-full professor – and then, while at a conference, seized an opportunity to “parachute” into medical communications at Merck. Next, he found his “dream job” as Keystone Symposia’s first Chief Scientific Officer, guiding the implementation of their conference programmes for years, and spearheading their initiatives to promote diversity in biomedical research. Then, when he was over 50, he moved across the Atlantic to Germany as the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s first scientific coordinator of their training program (and immediately started learning German, unlike just about everyone else at EMBL). Even a high-level summary like this reveals his fearlessness, open-mindedness, and passion for helping to move science forward in any way he could.

Andy Robertson playing the fiddle

Andy’s awesomeness as a human also included musical talents and fiddle-playing abilities. Source: Keystone Symposia

Andy’s enthusiasm and fascination with the world around him was limitless, which is what brought him to the EMBL Clubs Fair, a showcase of extracurricular activities at our research institute –among a handful of attendees who otherwise mostly seemed to be there for the free food and booze – where he approached me as I was trying to recruit singers for our choir. Even though our music club didn’t have much to offer a talented fiddle player like Andy, he stayed for an enthusiastic chat with me about my position in science communication at EMBL, and insisted that we schedule a lunch together. As we swapped career stories, I was blown away by the diversity of his experience, the energy and humility he brought to each step, and his bravery in walking away from his coveted full professor position at Iowa University to pursue a non-traditional career. The lighthearted and confident approach he brought to life was by itself reassuring and inspiring.

Though I knew I had interests beyond the lab, at that point I was still hesitant to stray from The Path. “You know what people say, that leaving the lab means you’re a failed scientist, that you’re giving up on science,” I told Andy.

“Oh, that’s nonsense!” replied the perfect counterexample. “Why limit yourself to contributing to science in only one way?” And indeed, I would learn that even though Andy was no longer leading a research team in a lab, he was a scientist every day of his life.

“Do you miss the lab?” I asked him, echoing another fear that all of us uncertain Ph.D.s face.

“I think what I miss the most about being a PI,” he told me, “is the mentorship.”

At this point a big cartoon bell with flashing red lights started ringing in my head. My entrepreneurial friends’ advice was finally within my grasp. It took some restraint to keep myself from jumping up and down, screaming, “Me! Me! Me!” But in retrospect, it wouldn’t have mattered what I did. Andy had already decided to give me the guidance I needed, because that’s exactly the kind of guy he was. He gave of himself freely, generously, and without question. 

Over the next few years, through lunches, coffees, phone calls, and beers, Andy thoughtfully guided me through the ambiguity of career development. He recommended reading material, taught me phrasings and approaches to handle sticky issues, edited my writing, helped me understand my passions, pushed me to try new things, and supported me through challenging times. “Oh boy,” he’d chuckle sympathetically yet excitedly when I brought him a new issue. And he would listen. I never once had the impression he’d rather be anywhere else. He never reached for his phone, he never looked away, his eyes never glazed over. He gave me true engagement and invaluable advice.

Naturally I was distraught when I learned he would be leaving EMBL for yet another exciting opportunity at the National Psoriasis Foundation, with a 9-hour time difference from Germany. So I cooked him a big Indian thank-you dinner, where we talked about everything from food to boys to science to music. Those of you who know me know that I don’t sing solos very easily, but Andy’s curiosity about my Carnatic music training was so compelling that even after a big dinner and a few glasses of wine, I had no choice but to indulge him. While I reacquainted myself in real-time with the songs and style I hadn’t sung in years, a situation that would have embarrassed me in front of just about anyone else, Andy marvelled at my pauses and mistakes. “This is the best part, hearing you figure things out!”

Andy promised to keep in touch when he moved to Portland, and like everything he said he’d do, he followed through. Whenever I e-mailed him asking for advice or a chat, he’d make room in his undoubtedly packed schedule within a few days. I have no idea where he found the time, but I will be eternally grateful that he did. Two years ago, during the most traumatic professional challenge I’ve ever faced, he listened to me empathetically and regularly. “Oh, Raeka, I know this feels awful right now,” he reassured me, “but this is going to be such a great experience for you in the long run and you are going to learn so much from it.” I could hear his excitement through the phone. That was Andy: he knew how to find the fun and the opportunity in any situation.

And of course he was right. That experience led me to open my mind to the next phase of my career and gave me the inspiration and courage to step outside of the lab. He then guided me through that extremely difficult decision (“This is fun!” he said in one e-mail), told me what to watch out for, and advised me on the questions I should be asking that he wished someone had told him to ask when he was in my shoes.

It was during my adaptation to this career transition last August that I thought to call Andy for some guidance. I hadn’t seen him posting on Facebook in a few days, so I checked his page to see if he was travelling…only to find a wall of condolences. Such are the times in which we live. It took me more than 10 minutes to understand who the condolences were for, and much longer to understand that he won’t be replying to my emails anymore. In fact, I honestly still don’t understand it.

But as I said at the very beginning, the best response that I can think of to Andy’s passing is to continue to live the things he taught me. What Andy has left me with is a strong sense of the tools and attitudes that help you to navigate a career, scientific or otherwise. Here are the pieces of Andy’s knowledge and character that have helped me the most:

  • Understand your passions and how they evolve: write down everything in your job you like doing and everything you don’t like doing. Repeat regularly.
  • Be positive and brave, no matter what faces you.
  • Be adventurous and daring enough to try something completely new. Don’t be afraid to screw up. Find the education and comfort in your mistakes.
  • When you try a totally new job, be sure to clarify the expectations in both directions up front.
  • Never have difficult and ambiguous conversations via e-mail.
  • Take interest in your world and everyone who lives in it.
  • Find the fun in everything.
  • Identify your passions and follow them. See and seize the opportunities everywhere.
  • Ask people for their stories. They love to tell them, and you just might learn something.
  • When you talk to people, be present. Give them your full, undivided attention.
  • Take the time to help others and share with them whatever advice you may have.
  • Live the shit out of life.

Andy’s impact on the world was a lasting one, even if his presence in it was far too short. We are all better people for having known him, and the world is a better place for having had him in it. We will all be even better people if we follow his example. So go get yourself a career coach. Or be a career coach to someone who needs it. Find all the ways you can be a light to others, in your career and your life.

More memories of Andy