The Most Important Experiment: Your Career – an Interview with Dr. Joerg Schlatterer

The Most Important Experiment: Your Career – an Interview with Dr. Joerg Schlatterer

This is a guest post by Future of Research policy activist Adriana Bankston.

On February 14, 2017, Dr. Joerg Schlatterer gave a talk to the Career Research Advancement Focused Training (CRAFT) seminar series at the University of Louisville entitled “The Most Important Experiment: Your Career”. Following his talk, he graciously agreed to give an interview for the non-profit organization Future of Research, in which he expressed his views on graduate education and career development for trainees.



What is your name and current position?
My name is Joerg Schlatterer. I am the manager of the Graduate and Postdoctoral Scholars Office in the Education Division of the American Chemical Society.

How has your research progressed overtime?
My research focused on chemistry, biochemistry, and biophysics of nucleic acids.
As a chemistry student in Berlin/Germany, I synthesized initiator nucleotides for in vitro selection of RNA enzymes (ribozymes). As a Ph.D. student in Heidelberg, I generated artificial Diels-Alderase ribozymes, which supported the RNA World hypothesis. As a postdoc at the National High Magnetic Field laboratory in Florida, I learned how to solve RNA structures using solution NMR techniques. I added a third element to my research skill portfolio when I joined the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (Einstein)/New York, first as a postdoc and then as an instructor. I learned how to determine folding pathways of large RNAs using time-resolved hydroxyl radical footprinting approaches. I achieved my research goal of mastering all three pillars of RNA research:  generation of artificial ribozymes, examination of RNA structure, and determination of RNA folding pathways.

Tell us about the career development part of your work
I held various volunteer positions before I decided to dedicate my career entirely to supporting graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. I was an active representative for the Albert Einstein Postdoctoral Association. This engagement led to the unique opportunity to help start an official Career & Professional Development program (CPD) at Einstein. The Graduate Division created a new position for me. As a part-time Administrative Fellow, I helped create a robust CPD program based on professional skill training and career exploration modules. As Assistant Dean of Faculty Professional Development at the Columbia University Medical Center, I provided support to medical and basic research faculty and learned about a unique academic culture. In 2014, I accepted a three-year opportunity to serve as a program director in the Division of Graduate Education (DGE) at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Since March of this year, I lead the Graduate and Postdoctoral Scholars Office at the American Chemical Society.

What were some of your accomplishments while at NSF?
As a NSF DGE program director, my main focus was to help run the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) that awards 2,000 new fellowships to individuals who have demonstrated the potential to be high-achieving STEM professionals and future leaders. I am proud that I was able to help select highly talented individuals who will positively impact the world. Specifically, I streamlined GRFP processes that led to the successful annual review of up to 16,500 applications and 49,500 reference letters. Also, I am excited about my impact on the GRFP outreach strategy that helps inform undergraduate, graduate students, and mentors about GRFP. Another accomplishment was leveraging NSF investments by facilitating the creation of regional networks of NSF Graduate Research Fellows.
In the DGE, I also managed the Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) initiative that is available to eligible NSF Graduate Research Fellows. This is a significant professional development opportunity for graduate students who want to grow both professionally and personally by gaining research experiences abroad.
I represented the Directorate for Education and Human Resources during numerous other NSF activities including the Cultivating Culture for Ethical STEM (CCE STEM) program, the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) program, the Innovation in Graduate Education (NRT-IGE) program, and INCLUDES.


What is being done well in U.S. graduate education today?

Overall, I think the U.S. graduate education system is in very good shape. It allows graduate students to acquire the necessary skills to succeed professionally. The U.S. graduate education system produces a large number of outstanding scientists who are able to address and solve global challenges. It guarantees that academic positions are filled with top-notch individuals. In fact, the U.S. graduate education system yields many more skilled scientists than are needed in academia. Some argue that graduate education should significantly reduce the number of Ph.D. graduates. I strongly believe that the number of graduate students is appropriate if not too small. Ph.D. and M.S. skills and experiences are essential for the advancement of the U.S. and a global society that needs individuals capable of making evidence-based decisions. Who is responsible for optimizing the broader impact of graduate education investments? Everybody: graduate schools, graduate students, funding agencies, scientific societies, and others.


What should change in STEM graduate education?

I think STEM graduate education should identify and communicate the overall value of graduate training. Graduate schools must work with faculty to inform students and postdocs early on that their training prepares them for entering a highly diverse job market and how to expand and leverage their professional skills. Additionally, students and postdocs should have information about what, specifically, that diverse job market looks like.


How would you implement changes in graduate education?
To implement these changes, partnerships and collaboration of all stakeholders are necessary. Academic institutions, scientific societies, non-profit and for-profit organizations, and funding agencies have to identify the contributions that graduate-level education brings to society and to communicate/advertise those contributions to the public.

Academic institutions have to identify mechanisms by which graduate students (and postdocs) can easily access information about the numerous career opportunities available to Ph.D./M.S. recipients and how to translate professional skills from an academic setting into any other professional environment. Environments in which to practice safe and efficient professional skills would help with realistic skill level assessments and improvement. Training modules that familiarize students with how to thrive in non-academic workplaces immediately upon arrival (e.g. training in budgeting, project management, team building, negotiation, conflict resolution, hiring & firing) should be offered.

Funding agencies could re-assess their current support mechanisms for graduate students/postdocs (research assistantships/fellowships/traineeships). Trainees with independent funding might feel that they have more freedom to explore a wider variety of career and professional development opportunities. I think it could be helpful for funding agencies to consider providing more seed funds for starting local/regional services that allow for successful implementation of career & professional development programs.

Scientific societies could expand mechanisms that help connect students and postdocs with employers that have had long-standing relationships with members of these societies.

What does your work at ACS relate to helping trainees?
As manager of the Graduate and Postdoctoral Scholars Office (GPSO), I am responsible for all activities our office provides. That includes strategic planning and budgeting. GPSO focuses on creating and providing professional development opportunities such as workshops including Preparing for Life After Graduate School or Postdoc to Faculty (P2F)/Postdoc to PUI Professor (P3). We facilitate network formation amongst young chemists and professionals during the national and regional ACS meetings and publish the free Graduate & Postdoctoral CHEMIST e-magazine that disseminates important information regarding career & professional development. Recently, we launched an online Individual Development Plan tool (ChemIDPTM) that helps with career planning.

What should graduate students do to prepare for today’s job market?
Graduate students are uniquely qualified to find satisfying and rewarding careers. In fact, you can compare the process of finding those careers with a very well-planned experiment. Graduate students and postdocs plan, conduct, and evaluate experiments every day. Now they can take these skills and use them for their own life/career (experiment).

Step Graduate Research Finding a Satisfying Job as a Ph.D.
1 Study a topic area. Identify scientific problems, thorough literature search Study career areas, identify career area(s) of interest, informational interviews
2 Formulate a hypothesis Formulate a career goal
3 Prepare thoroughly for the experiment Prepare to be competitive for the job (acquire additional skills and knowledge), research work environments, interview and get the job
4 Do the experiment Work in the job
5 A Did it work? Yes → next experiment Are you satisfied? Yes → develop yourself within the organization
5 B Did this experiment work? No → what have you learned? Start over from steps 1&2 Are you satisfied? No → what have you learned? Start over from steps 1&2
6 Re-evaluate your knowledge, develop new experiments to further knowledge. Consistently re-evaluate your job situation and look for opportunities to grow and develop new skills within the current job or explore something new.


How would you advise trainees to accomplish finding their ideal jobs?
Perform a self-assessment and request feedback from others about how they view your professional and technical skill levels. Develop and prioritize short and long term goals to acquire skills and experience. Explore all career options. Take time to think about your values and write them down. What job would you love to do even if you wouldn’t get paid?

Use any kind of Individual Development Plan (IDP) tool to keep track of those results. For example, you can use online tools such as or if you are someone with a chemistry background, you might want to use (my office developed the … check it out … and send me feedback.)

However, it is not only about work. It is about your life. Think about how you want to live your life. Do you want to have a family? Do you want to live and work in a particular country/city? What are your hobbies? Which resources, skills, or tools do you need to accomplish this?


Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this interview are those of Joerg Schlatterer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the American Chemical Society, or any other organization.

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