Alternative Academic Careers: A Conversation with Guest Editor Milka Kostic

Elizabeth Heppenheimer
Dr. Milka Kostic is guest editing a JoVE Methods Collection on Small Molecule Screening Strategies: Lead Identification and Validation.

After realizing that a traditional academic career was not the right fit for her, a fortuitous event led JoVE Guest Editor Milka Kostic towards a career as a professional scientific editor, and then onto yet another career as an academic program director. We spoke to Dr. Kostic about the pivotal moments in her career development and how she turned her academic expertise into a career as an advocate for the chemical and structural biology communities.

At the end of your postdoc, how did you decide to look for career opportunities outside academia?

When I was a postdoc, I was happy with the type of research I was doing and the speed at which I was making discoveries. But, I realized that I was not happy with how science is funded and how much you have to work to secure grants. If you’re a PI, so much of your time is entirely dedicated to securing the funding, and that did not make the prospect of having my own lab appealing. Another factor was that I didn’t like teaching undergraduates. I felt that it would be very unfair to have my own lab at an institution with a lot of undergraduates when I lacked enthusiasm for teaching. So, I realized that academia just wasn’t going to be an option for me.

On the other hand, I also discovered that I enjoyed thinking about scientific trends and discoveries very broadly. I was attracted to science policy and communicating scientific ideas in a way that makes sense to a broader group of people. I started thinking about big questions: how do we evaluate science, how do we establish scientific standards, and how do we make sure that we adhere to these specific standards. These interests were taking me away from actually doing science and towards something else. But what that “something else” was, was not immediately clear because I did not know that professional scientific editor positions were a thing.

How did you apply for your first position outside of academia?

It was a serendipitous event. I was working in the lab on a Saturday, and while I was waiting for a reaction, I flipped through an issue of Cell – back then, we had hard copies in the lab. And at the back, there was an ad for a full-time professional editor. I went from seeing the ad on Saturday to talking to my postdoctoral advisors on Monday, saying, “Look, I really want to try to apply for these roles.” That particular ad was for a job at Cell, which I didn’t get. But there was another ad for a position at Structure and Chemistry & Biology that I was a perfect fit for because I came with chemistry training, and over the course of my Ph.D. and postdoc, I became a structural biologist. I was offered the job, and that’s the role that I stayed in for about ten years.

What were some of the most interesting and exciting parts of your job as a professional scientific editor?

When I first started, I was so excited about reading loads and loads of papers. But as I matured as an editor, I became a part of the structural biology and chemical biology research communities. I became an advocate; I was able to use my position as editor to explain why both of these fields are critical for advancing the understanding of biological function. It was exciting to be able to shape the field through the types of articles we published and the standards we adopted and promoted.

After ten plus years as an editor, your current job is actually back in academia. What are you working on now?

I went back to academia in a role at Dana-Farber Cancer Institue, where I provide structure and strategy for nine labs and four research cores that are primarily focused on chemical biology and structural biology. I provide opportunities that improve the collaboration between the labs and the collaboration between the chemical biology labs and the rest of the institute. In some ways, it is along the same lines as what I did as an editor; I am advocating for the chemical biology community. I am also there to advise the scientists in our program in different ways. The PIs usually use me as an advisor on grants and manuscripts. The grad students and postdocs use me to advise them on career development because I bring in a perspective that is complementary to their PIs perspective.

Do you have any advice for early-career researchers?

I started, as I think everybody interested in the sciences starts, driven by curiosity and driven towards scientific research, and my area of interest was chemistry. Throughout my early years, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about what career I will have in the end. I was mostly driven by curiosity to do more research, find things out, discover, learn, and grow. If there is one piece of advice I can share it would be to follow your instincts, passions, and interests that play into your own individual strengths. There is a lot of pressure to fall into a mold that is familiar – coming from academia, that usually means pressure to stay in academia. But: there are many other opportunities out there for people with advanced degrees in science, as well as opportunities that don’t exist but that you can create for yourself. Be bold and adventurous, brave and determined, and through all this, remember to prioritize wellness and self-care!

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