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Careers in Science From the Field
Dr. Kent E. Vrana is a Professor and the Director
of Graduate Studies in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology
at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. He received biochemistry
degrees from the University of Iowa (BS, 1978) and the Louisiana
State University School of Medicine (Ph.D., 1983) and was an NIH
postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Embryology at the Carnegie
Institution of Washington (in Baltimore, MD). On January 1, 2004,
Dr. Vrana assumes the position of Elliot S. Vesell Professor and
Chair of Pharmacology at the Penn State University College of Medicine
in Hershey, PA.
What is your profession?
My title is the Elliot S. Vesell Professor and Chairman of the Department
of Pharmacology at Penn State University School of Medicine. So
you can think of me as the chief academic and scientific officer
for a small companyand by small company I mean the Department
of Pharmacology. We have 17 faculty members in my unit, and a little
over 100 employees, and our task is to train the next generation
of scientists and clinicians, and we teach them about drugs. So
my job is splitabout 75 percent research, 15 percent administration
and 10 percent teaching.
What are the responsibilities of your position?
From the institutional standpoint, my job is to oversee our teaching
efforts and to provide the resources, because in academia, investigators
are independent, so my main task for them is to provide them with
resources to do good science. At the same time, I direct a medium-sized
research group, which at its peak will be about 12 or 15 people:
a mixture of PhDs, technicians and graduate students, to do my own
research, which is in stem cells and brain molecular biology. So
my main task is primarily guidingas much as you can with a
bunch of independent-minded PhDsthe direction of research
in the pharmacology field for Penn State. I also have more global
issues of how does pharmacology fits with biochemistry and things
Can you describe a typical week in your position?
My day starts at 7 in the morning. I arrive at work, spend the morning
doing administration and teaching. That involves a series of meetings
to discuss where the department is going, writing grants, reviewing
papers, and then the afternoons are blocked off for actually doing
science. In that case I'll be not in my academic office, but hopefully
in my research office interacting with graduate students, post-docs
and faculty in my own research group. It has been a couple of years
since I actually had my own research project. I would say about
5 percent of the time I will actually be doing hands-on research,
but 50 percent of the time I'll be interacting with folks doing
research and guiding their careers. My typical workweek is about
50 to 60 hours. I'm not on a clockwe are all self-driven in
What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying?
The most challenging part is managing people, because as a scientist
I have never been trained to do that. So it is helping people resolve
problems and seeing that they are reaching their full potential.
The most fun is discovery in general. I am so fortunate that since
probably 1978, when I first entered science in a major way--I graduated
from college in '78 with an honors degree in biochemistry from the
University of Iowa--and from that time on I have never not wanted
to go to work in the morning. I started off, I spent a year as a
research technician and then four years as a graduate student getting
my PhD, and I just love getting up and going in and discovering
new things, or being part of that, so interpreting data. And then
the neat thing about being in academia, as opposed to industry,
is I set the direction of our ship. So, if I get a wild hair that
I want to study Alzheimer's disease, we can, and I have had several
times in my career where I have just gone off in a new direction
because I felt like it and I pursued my intellectual curiosity.
That is the beauty of being in academic science: you choose the
direction of your research. That is the most fun, is deciding where
we are going to go and then contributing to new knowledge.
What is the greatest benefit of working in this field?
The greatest benefit is two-fold. One part is just discovery. We
do things every time we publish a paper. It might not be earth-shattering,
but so far my group has published maybe 100 papers, every time we
do, it is something that no one else has ever done before; otherwise
it is not noteworthy. And in some cases it has been really high-impact.
In the stem cell field, our work with parthenogenesis, or activated
eggs, had not been done in mammals before, and we did it in non-human
primates. It is the thought that you are doing something that no
one else has ever done. That is the high point, knowing that I am
one of the world's experts in a small area of science. In the enzymes
that we study, I am probably one of the top 3 or 4 people in the
world that work on that enzyme. We all have a little bit of hubris,
a little ego in usthe thought that I am contributing to science,
but knowing that I am doing it at such a high level really gets
What are the biggest challenges facing your field?
The public discourse and debate over whether or not we should be
applying these technologies to human tissues. We would be doing
these experiments with human cells right now if we were allowed.
So we are doing a lot of experiments with monkeys, and we just started
some experiments with human cell lines that are permitted by the
President's guidelines. But it would be really nice if we could
be doing these experiments with human eggs.
What are the skills that are most important for a position
in this field?
You've got to be bright. You must be bright and well trained. You
need an analytical mind and independence. If you have those inherent
things, then it is just a matter of getting into the right PhD program
and then finding the right mentor to guide your development. But
you are not on the clock, as I said earlier, so you have to be self-driven
and independent, and then you just have to have an inquiring mind.
What kind of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage someone
to gain if s/he is interested in pursuing a career in this field?
It depends. If you are going to be a research scientist, then there
is no substitute for research. As a graduate director at Wake Forest
University, before I took the chair at Penn State, what I would
tell students is that entering the summer after their junior year,
they should get into a laboratory. I am not talking about an industrial
laboratory where you analyze samples over and over and over again,
but a research program. It is far better to get into a laboratory
where you are actually discovering stuff, and you know if it is
right for you, than to take an additional course and get an A. Because
in the sciences, as opposed to, for instance, medicinewhere
you learn to treat patients, you go in, you see them, you treat
them and you go on to the next onewell, in the sciences, you
will go in and do experiments. I once went 9 months without an experiment
working, and so you need to know that that is right for you, that
you can put up with that type of deferred gratification. Plus, you
hang out with lots of rats and other lab geeks, like me, and that
is not exactly interacting with human beings. So you need to spend
some time hanging out with geek scientists and making sure it is
right for you.
What type of education background is required?
You are going to have to have an undergraduate degree in the sciences,
although my best student ever had a chemistry degree and an English
degree. The ability to write is way under-appreciated. He was so
good for me because he wrote so well. But you are going to need
an undergraduate degree in one of the sciences, and you are going
to need, to be in my field, a PhD in one of the sciences. It does
not matter which one.
What are the typical entry-level job titles and functions?
What entry-level jobs are best for learning as much as possible?
It depends on where you go with your career path. One of my big
deals is that the PhD is one of the least under-employed, or unemployed,
degrees. Less than 4 percent of the people with a PhD do not have
a job. First off, that is because there are so many jobs available,
and so a lot depends on what you want to do. If you want to be a
research scientist, then the entry-level job is called a post-doctoral
fellow. That is like a resident is for medicine, so you become a
doctor, and then you still have to go to a residency program to
get advanced training. The same is true of a PhD; you get your doctorate,
you spend three years in fellowship training. That is the entry-level
job for most folks. But then, the types of titles from there are
that you can become an assistant professor (the entry level in academia),
a staff scientist (entry-level in industry), or with a PhD you can
go straight to law school and become a patent attorney, and they
make tremendous sums of money. You could go into business administrationfor
instance at Wake Forest and at Penn State, there are dual PhD-MBA
degrees so you can enter on the administrative side of science.
You could be a research fellow at some place like the National Research
Council, or the National Academy of Sciences, where you learn public
policy in science. But in general, I would say the two major entry-level
jobs are the staff scientist in industry and the assistant professor
in academia. I would guess that covers probably 60 to 70 percent
of all PhDs in the biomedical sciences.
What are the salary ranges for various levels in this field?
Is there a salary ceiling?
There is no salary ceiling, but it just depends on how hard you
work and how lucky you are. Typically, one of the things that most
people do not understand is that we have such a shortage of or such
a need for PhDs in the biomedical sciences that we pay you to get
your PhD. So there is no tuition, and we pay a salary typically
between $18,000 and $20,000 a year for PhD students. After you get
your PhD, if you stay in the post-doctoral track, your entry-level
salary after your PhD is generally $35,000 a year. If you go into
academia, as an assistant professor, my guess is it is probably
in the $55,000 to $65,000 a year range. In industry you can add
20 percent to that. But the tradeoff is they tell you what to do,
when to do it, and all of those are good things, mind youyou
do not have to write grants or anythingbut they compensate
a little bit better.
Then as you move up the ranks, the typical full professor is at
about $100,000 a year, a chair of a department will close on $200,000,
and in industry what will happen is you will end up in the $110,000
to $140,000 range. It will hold pretty steady there unless you move
into administration. Once you hit about $200,000 you are going to
hold steady unless you become the president of a company or something.
What special advice do you have for a student seeking to qualify
for this position?
The key is to work harder than anybody else. It pays to work smart,
but people recognize a go-getter. This is true in any aspect of
business: if you go in there and go the extra mile, no matter what
level you are, do more than is required of you. If you can do that,
you will be a success in any aspect of business.
Submitted by: Chris
Moore, spring 2004 intern