By Jeffrey Head
Dr. Constantine Stratakis
As a postbac, it is often hard not to feel like your life currently rests in a state of limbo with a large number of important questions weighing on your conscience, each with a seemingly endless number of equally viable answers: M.D., Ph.D. or both? Which institution is best fit to achieve my goals? Which subject, problem, or system do I inevitably want to devote my entire life to understanding? Will I succeed? But in the midst of this deluge of uncertainty we can gain insight from those who have come before us and have carried out their respective missions with such tenacity that they hold the positions they currently do and garner the respect from entire fields of research and medicine. In search of such advice I decided it would be most beneficial to go straight to the top.
Dr. Stratakis is currently the Scientific Director of the NICHD and has earned an impressive number of awards and accolades in his lifetime, which would quite frankly be too numerous to list here (his full bio can be found on the NICHD website). However, he credits much of his success to the mentors who provided him with the guidance and opportunity to become independent in his research. In his eyes, nothing is more important to the career of a scientist, doctor, or both than choosing the right mentors and making a concerted effort to be friendly to the people who surround you. Almost every mentor or coworker of Dr. Stratakis is either currently one of his collaborators, or their trainees, or has assisted him in the past in a number of his monumental discoveries, at one point even serving as the best man at his wedding.
Although Dr. Stratakis is a firm believer that there is no simple “cookie” of advice that can uniformly guide every prospective M.D. or Ph.D. through this difficult transition in life, perhaps his greatest piece of wisdom is to remain humble. Remembering that there is always someone out there who is, “smarter, more successful, and better looking than you are,” allows for possibly the greatest success of all in science and medicine: the freedom to follow your true passions without becoming consumed by some arbitrary idea of “success.” When asked why he has consistently turned down more lucrative careers outside of the NIH, Dr. Stratakis responded simply by saying, “I don’t call this work. The NIH is the best place for me to be: I actually get paid to do what I love!”
In the ensuing months and years we postbacs will face a veritable onslaught of questions and decisions that will likely determine the course of the rest of our lives. As Dr. Stratakis has pointed out, no one piece of advice can guide us in addressing these difficult problems. Yet, if we focus our attention on choosing the right mentors and maintaining our sense of humility instead of on the prestige and wealth associated with a particular degree or institution, we can achieve success—whatever that means to you—in any path we choose.