Research Spotlight Profiles

The Members-In-Training Committee organizes the Research Spotlight Series.  This Research Spotlight Series is designed to highlight notable members in CPDD and allow them to share their experiences and recommendations on how to be successful in the field of substance use and addictive disorders particularly with members in training or those who are new to the field.


Kelly Dunn

MITCo Careers Subcommittee

Spotlight Interview Questions

Day-to-Day work

  1. Where/how do you get your inspiration for your next project?

 I like to attend conferences/talks from outside of my direct field of research to learn about new perspectives or experimental methods that I can adopt. Following preclinical work is especially important to me – much of my current research was inspired by exciting outcomes from animal studies.

  1. What is your target number when it comes to publishing?

A prominent senior scientist once told me their goal was to always have a paper under review. That was somewhat difficult to achieve as a postdoc/trainee, but that advice stuck with me and became easier over time, and now I think it’s a nice concrete goal to work towards.

Long-term career

  1. In the short-term, we all want to get grants and publish papers, but what do you/did you consider as your long-term career goals? (e.g. tenure, editor positions, directorship positions?)

My long-term career goal is to be in a stable position that provides me ample flexibility to pursue different research ideas. I’m not yet sure whether that will be as tenured professor or in some other position- our field is very dynamic and I don’t want to focus so heavily on one long-term goal that I overlook other potentially fulfilling opportunities.

Work/life balance

  1. Any tips? The work never ends, so what boundaries do you have in place to protect your personal time and your sanity?

I firmly believe you have to set boundaries for yourself. When I first became a postdoc I pushed myself like I was working on my dissertation- I kept thinking I would work really hard “temporarily” until I accomplished the goal of finishing all my work. But work kept accumulating, and I ended up feeling burned out and like I was failing. All of my efforts to work as hard as possible actually caused my productivity to suffer. Eventually I decided I would only work at work and would reserve nights/weekends for myself (except for extreme circumstances), because 99% of things are not so urgent that they can’t wait until tomorrow for me to respond/ work on them. I continue to follow these rules- although I may check email, I rarely respond or do work unless I am in my office during the work week. Since I stop thinking about work for a few hours each day, I no longer feel burned out and I am more productive when I am working. I also think it really helped to have established these boundaries early in my career because my colleagues have come to anticipate my schedule (I no longer receive large requests on the weekends) and I have only gotten busier over time, so developing a work-life balance early helped me to maintain it as the demands on my time increased. Also, once I acknowledged that I wouldn’t ever be “finished” with work, I learned to pace myself better so I don’t feel overwhelmed by my workload.

  1. In your experience, when is a better time to start a family? Should it be after you graduate, after completion of a post-doctoral fellowship, after completion of few years of first faculty position, or perhaps some other time?

I only recently started my family, but I suspect this decision will be different for everyone. I view my personal and professional lives as being very separate, and I decided that I would start a family when it was the right time for me to do that personally. There will always be more work to do. And since our careers advance through productivity, anything that decreases that (like a baby) can be easily deprioritized, which means there will probably never be a “right time” as far as work is concerned. My personal opinion is that you should pursue a family when that is the right choice for your personal life and then adjust your work expectations to accommodate your new “normal”. You probably won’t be as productive at work for a while, but that is OK because your personal life deserves as much attention as your career.

Advice for young investigators

  1. What advice would you give to a new grad student, a senior grad student, a new postdoc, or a new investigator? 

I have two thoughts. The first is that when you feel like a task cannot be accomplished or have guilt from not meeting goals, it is important to evaluate whether the goal is something you set for yourself and whether it was really achievable. I frequently set goals for myself that are very ambitious (e.g., submit two grants next cycle), and then as I feverishly work to meet the goals I forget that I was the one who set them. Many times when this has happened, I have felt pressured to sacrifice the quality of my work in order to complete them or just felt incredibly stressed. Now when I start feeling this way, I make myself step back to consider whether the deadlines are real or something I created. Most of the time, I imposed them on myself, and when this happens I force myself to acknowledge that my plan was probably too ambitious to begin with and to set new, more reasonable goals (e.g., submit one grant now and another at a later cycle).

The second is to say yes to as many new opportunities as you can without sacrificing your ability to manage everything. Everything you do becomes an area of expertise on your CV and I have watched many colleagues become inspired enough to change career paths or receive unexpected job offers simply because they spontaneously agreed to contribute (often in a minor way) to a project that was outside of their wheelhouse and may even have been perceived as an extra burden on them at the time. This includes new research skills as well as professional opportunities (e.g., reviewing journal articles, participating on committees, etc..).