Monday, December 22, 2008

On leaving the bench


This is cross-posted from my personal blog. It seemed appropriate, and this blog-space seems a little empty of late. It was inspired partly by a post that Thomas Joseph put up.


It’s surprising how much I still feel like a postdoc. I still go to work in the usual postdoc uniform of jeans and sneakers. I still go to seminars, journal clubs, lab meetings. I sit at a computer right in the middle of a lab bench, surrounded by the glassware, conical tubes, equipment and buzz of a research laboratory. I shoot the breeze with my labmates, and I find myself part of scientific discussions. And to my surprise and gratitude, I find that my scientific opinions are solicited and respected. I’m not just a copyeditor, correcting typos and English grammar. As part of my job, I am often required to evaluate the quality of the data going into manuscripts, and I make suggestions on how to tighten a paper, what to cull, what points to bring forward, and (sometimes) how to reorganize figures for a better flow.


I really thought that I would miss the benchwork. To my surprise, I don’t.


The postdoc at the adjoining bench tells me heartbreaking stories of failed projects and projects scooped by his competitors. He is currently getting results that are very exciting. But the previous five years have been a desert, with not a publication in sight--and the stress and disappointment show in his eyes. I don’t miss that stress. I don’t miss that hounding pressure of GOTTA PRODUCE, GOTTA GET PUBLISHED OR MY LIFE IS OVER! I don’t miss the frustration of fruitless screens, of watching a year or more of work spiral down the drain.


Yet I loved bench research, I really did. I remember standing in the darkroom on a Sunday afternoon, heart pounding, waiting for that film to slip out of the X-ray machine. The thrill of holding a blot up to the red light, squinting to make out the dark bands that will tell you where your protein is expressed, or whether or not it interacts with another protein of interest. Looking down a microscope to see to how your cells have reacted in response to a particular treatment—did the cells proliferate, did they spread and migrate, did they round up and die? Pacing impatiently before the scintillation counter, waiting for the results of an enzyme assay. There is nothing like the feeling of being the first person in the world to know some new fact about our universe. Even if it is a fact that even 99.99% of scientists couldn’t care less about—that, for instance, protein X is found in liver cells but not kidney cells. Still, at that moment, you are the only person in the entire world with that knowledge. It is a feeling that is very difficult to convey to those who have not experienced it. I’m not sure that it can be conveyed.


When my experiments were cooking, when my science was working—it was fantastic. It was an utter high. When the experiments weren’t working, it was the deepest low. It was like being on a roller coaster ride, but a ride that spent most of its time creaking tortuously through a subterranean tunnel. I remember sitting around a lunch table with friends in grad school, chatting about school and science in general. One of the students said thoughtfully about research, “You know, about once a year I have a good moment.” I always thought that quote should be printed on the cover of every graduate school brochure.


To mix metaphors still further, I recall once reading that research science is like playing the slots at a casino. (And if, dear reader, I read that on your blog, I do sincerely apologize. Drop me a line and I’ll give you the credit =) Most of the time you come up empty. But every once in a while you’ll get a payout. Just enough to get you excited, to keep you feeding tokens and pulling that damn lever. We all live with the dream of hitting that big jackpot. We feed off the smaller wins, or just the memories of past wins. The hope, the adrenaline, keeps us going through the dry spells.


I don’t have that rush of adrenaline anymore. But neither do I have the crushing lows and stress. I see people around me so desperate to continue their research careers. I know a former postdoc who took a position as associate director of a core facility. She took the job with the understanding that she would be able to continue her research interests. But now she finds that there is neither money nor support for her research. She is struggling on her own, trying to live off reagents and equipment donated by collaborating labs, coming in every weekend to work on her “side” projects. I see someone like that, and I think Man, I just don’t have the heart for that. I loved research, but I don’t have the fire to continue in the face of those kinds of odds.


I did not plan to leave academic research. It was never a part of any five-year plan. I was devastated when I left (er, was laid off from) my former postdoc, and I don’t want to underplay that. But I see a new path opening up before me now. I see a chink of light, and feel a breath of freedom that would never have been possible on the old road. I have flexibility to work from home when needed and spend all weekends with my family. And there is now a glimmering dream of someday going completely freelance as a science writer and editor—working when I want, on what I want, on my own terms.


I’m still in science. I don’t do the experiments, but I help interpret and communicate them. I even (as in the grant I’m now working on) have some input in experimental design. And I’m once again part of an active scientific research community, once again privy to unpublished, cool data, once again part of the “leading edge” of science. I don’t need the glory of a first authorship. I had thought that I missed benchwork the most, and that I would continue to miss it. But it turns out that this—being part of an active scientific community—is what I really missed most of all.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Why do we work the job we work?

Over at my blog, I posted a new entry which basically answers the question of why I work the job I work. For me it is a matter of, and I quote ...
What keeps me going is that paycheck I receive.
Which is why the entry is labeled Pragmatic Me. It's also part of the reason why I'm in what can be considered an "alternative scientific career" as opposed to what I view as the endless tedium of academia (no offense to the academic types here). The fact that I can work a 40 hour week, not worry about funding issues, get yearly raises and performance bonuses for the hard, and truly awesome, work I do ... are all definite bonuses, and were the deciding factors in my rejection of my academia job offers and acceptance of my government position.

So why blog about any of this here? Well maybe this isn't the right place to blog about such things, but I obviously think it is. When considered a career choice in an alternative scientific field, one must look at all the factors. A lot of us are not in these positions because we failed at academia ... I imagine quite a few people, like myself, are here because we thought academia didn't offer enough to us and felt we would ultimately be left feeling unsatisfied.

What are your reasons for looking into an alternative scientific career? Are they the right ones?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Medical Technology - Part Deux

A while back, I was asked the following question: [How comparable is a] BS/MS in med tech vs a BS/MS in straight chemistry or microbiology?

Two of the four major disciplines within Medical Technology are Clinical Chemistry and Microbiology, so there is definitely some overlap. However, I'd say that there is probably a fair bit of difference between a Chemistry major and the discipline of Clinical Chemistry. The same holds true for Microbiology. The issue becomes, what is the focus of the university programs curriculum?

If the Microbiology B.S. degree has more of an environmental focus, the student is going to have a lot less exposure to medically relevant organisms, and probably will not know the tests needed to properly differentiate phenotypically similar organisms, which is a core skill in Medical Technology. Same goes for the Chemistry major. If they have a solid background in Biochemistry, they'll be on their way, but will they have enough knowledge in some basic laboratory skills to run some of the non-standard tests (especially when it comes to drug testing and validation tests, which are usually not machine-based)? Plus they'll be missing the instrumentation classes necessary for the job (which often includes troubleshooting and routine maintenance).

That is why, while both majors can be used to work an individual into ASCP certification (which is a standard registry accepted by all hospitals in the USA), on their own they are not sufficient. In most cases, the individual with a BS in Microbiology and/or Chemistry is looking at about a year of additional training before they can sit for the ASCP Board of Registry Chemistry or Microbiology Certification exam. They can, however, be employed during that time, but it will be a position which will be heavily supervised.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Science Journalism...

...I ran across this blog entry by Matt Brown on Nature Network and he did a nice write up on how you get into science journalism that I thought I would just pass along for those who are interested.  He outlines 1) Why you would be interested in it,  2) Some myths that are associated with the career, 3) Some skills you will need, and 4) Some tips on how to get into science journalism.

Also...I hope all is well and that everyone is plugging away at discovering or pursuing their alternative science career!!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

More on scientific writing/editing (thoughts from a novice)

Jennifer said in a comment to my last post: I am interested in pursuing science writing, but am not fortunate enough to know anyone in the field. Do you have any advice on starting to freelance without such connections?

Okay, I’m not an expert, but I’m going to give this a try….

Getting the first gig.

(1) Cold-calling/cold e-mailing

There are a number of online editing services geared toward the needs of non-native English speaking scientists. Off the top of my head, I can name ScienceDocs, EquityEdit, BioEdit, Bioscience Writers, Write Science Right, etc. etc. Just Google “science” and “editing” and you’ll see what I mean. These companies recruit postdocs with good English skills to edit the manuscripts and grant proposals of international scientists. Although some companies may ask for an editing sample, many others will simply give you a test sample to edit as a way to evaluate your skills. So this can be a relatively easy way to get some freelance experience under your belt. These companies will often advertise open positions on their web sites. Even if they don’t, try e-mailing them anyway to express your interest.

You may also find other types of companies with which you’d like to do freelance work. Be aware that there are many many different types of science writing and editing jobs—from medical education/communications to more “newsy” science journalism. If you come across a company site you find interesting, don’t be afraid to shoot off a cold e-mail inquiry. If you have a really great news idea for The Scientist, don’t be afraid to pitch it! And please read Maddox22’s post here for some advice to freelancers, from a science editor (She works in K-12 science educational publishing).

(2) Advertised jobs
Science writing/editing jobs are also advertised on a number of sites, including the Council of Science Editors and the American Medical Writers’ Association. More on these organizations in a little bit.


Building your writing portfolio.

Of course, it’s easier to get a job when you have experience. You need to start accumulating samples or “clips” of your writing. It doesn’t need to be paid writing. If you are still a grad student or postdoc, there are great writing opportunities right there in academia. See Cath’s great post on Finding the Alternative in Academia. Offer to help your advisor with a grant, write a review, or copyedit a manuscript for a colleague who needs help with his/her English. And by the way, if you are editing a colleague’s paper remember to turn on the “track changes” function in Microsoft and save drafts of both the original and edited versions! You can use these as “editing samples” if you apply for editing jobs. (I’m still kicking myself because I didn’t do this after I copyedited a postdoctoral colleague’s twenty-page review).

Other ideas: your university probably has a press office. That press office probably publishes a newsletter spotlighting faculty research and other university news. Contact the press office and volunteer to contribute a piece on some university research you think would be of general interest. Or submit a story to your local community newspaper/newsletter/trade journal. At the beginning you may get paid very poorly or not at all; you want the experience, and you want to build up your portfolio. Have clips to show, and they can help you land paid jobs
Network, network, network.

This is so critical. Read Cath’s excellent post on networking. And read my post on networking within professional science writing societies. And don’t forget your grad school’s alumni database—my grad program has an excellent alumni website that tracks and profiles graduates by career outcomes. Because you have a built-in connection, fellow graduates are often happy to respond to someone with serious questions. Much of the advice I’m giving here was actually first passed on to me by a writer I “met” through my school’s alumni website!

Keep reading, keep researching (I think ScienceCareers.org is an excellent place to start). Keep talking to people. It’s all intertwined—the networking, the pitching, getting experience that leads to more contacts and yet more jobs.

And last of all, follow this link to Emma Hitt’s site for a nifty video interview on freelance medical writing. (Emma Hitt also maintains the HittList, a weekly updated list of medical writing jobs)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Performance Evaluation Strategies

Cross-posted from my other blog. Apparently, aspects of the performance tracking system I've developed might be useful to a wider audience than I'd anticipated!

Here's the text of an email I sent to a brand new (and very bright) graduate student recently. The student had asked me to "have a quick look at" a one page proposal for a small internal stipend competition.

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"Hi [name]

The bulk of the application is fine – I’ve attached an edited version with track changes on so you can see what I’ve done.

In addition to these small changes, I think the first paragraph needs some more detailed work. The major problem is that the hypothesis is extremely broad and doesn’t reflect what your experiments are actually going to address. [Using Method A] isn’t going to determine whether [very broad hypothesis, worthy of at least one Nobel if eventually proven] is actually true, so you will need to tighten up the hypothesis. Instead I would frame it in terms of your sentence on [description of what you are actually doing] – so something like this:

Hypothesis: that [Outcome B] can be derived by [using Method A], and that this [outcome]reflects the heterogeneity of [Behaviour C] in response to [Condition D].

Feel free to rewrite that sentence! But this is a better reflection of what your experiments will actually be testing.

The hypothesis is currently hidden in the middle of the first introductory paragraph. You need to make it stand out more: put it in bold type, at the end of that first paragraph. I also think it would be better to change the emphasis and order of the sentences leading up to the hypothesis – this very short introduction needs to be intensely focused on the content of the hypothesis and research proposal, with each concept leading logically to the next. At the moment it is a bit choppy, with no obvious connection between adjacent sentences. You need to lead your reader through this section since they might not have the background to make these leaps without guidance.

This order might work, but again please do play around with it until you’re completely satisfied!

1) [Very basic, established fact] (introduce the idea of [Outcome B])
2) This leads to heterogeneity in [Behaviour C]
3) Possible connection between the [heterogeneity of Behaviour C] and response to [Condition D]
4) The problems caused by using [current] approaches that [suck are outdated]
5) Therefore the superiority of [Method A].

Then the hypothesis.


I’d be happy to take another look at this proposal, and especially the first paragraph, once you’ve had the chance to make these edits.

Good luck!

Cath

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In contrast, my work on the actual proposal sections of the last three reworked / resubmitted grants we put in, with a combined budget well into 7 figures, mostly involved the following:

- Correcting typos
- Standardising the use of alternative spellings (not yet automated, alas)
- Correcting verb/subject disagreements (including "the data is", a pet peeve)
- Correcting preposition use by ESL writers (things like "we will respond from situation X by...")

As I mentioned before, this last round of submissions was not typical in that there were no new grants. But even when I do get involved with new grant applications, the same Catch 22 situation arises:

  • I am at my most useful when helping the people who have the least experience in preparing grant applications, and less useful when helping the experienced senior PIs.
  • The Big Decision (whether to try and find the money to keep me when my contract runs out) will be made by several of the most senior PIs.

What to do?

My strategy is in part adapted from my time in industry, where no job is ever truly safe, and has since evolved to better suit my current job. It is all very different from being a postdoc, when productivity is much more obvious, there are no scary formal reviews, and you know you are SOL after three years anyway!

1) Record keeping.

As I've mentioned before, I have retained the "lab book" habit from my time in the lab. I write all my activities, grouped by project, into a notebook at the end of each day. It's quick and relatively painless; unfortunately the quality of my record keeping tends to suffer in the frenzy of deadline week.

Every month or so I transfer all of my scribbles into an Excel spreadsheet, which contains all of my grants, manuscripts and other projects (for there are many). I have columns for dates, agency/journal, PI, title, funding/acceptance status, and - most importantly - my contribution. This is currently just a string of activities in an unformatted list; I once tried to develop an easy check list system, but with every grant and every PI being different I found it impossible to define consistent categories. Regardless, I should be able to pull out these data (please note correct verb/subject agreement) and insert them into a written progress report or PowerPoint presentation within an hour or two, although I have not actually had to do this yet.

I also archive all received and sent emails, sorted by project, and file hard copies of, for example, the PI's original draft of the grant proposal with my red pen corrections on it.

2) Blowing my own trumpet.

This is the tricky part for me! I mean, I'm English. I would rather keep my trumpet blowing to formal reviews (and blog posts, heh), but I do make myself drop my most significant achievements into conversation (e.g. "Oh by the way, Dr X got her grant" to my immediate supervisor at the end of an unrelated conversation). I hate to contribute to the flood of emails we all get, but I will CC people if appropriate; I copied the student's supervisor (a senior PI who was out of town in the week leading up to the deadline) when I sent the email above, for example.

I've also commandeered the large whiteboard by my desk, which is seen by everyone who visits me and/or my immediate supervisor. As well as a list of everyone's vacation dates and upcoming grant deadlines (its original purpose), it now has a list of "Grants Under Review", with agency and PI listed. Rather than erasing them once the decision is made, I keep them up for as long as I can, complete with an indication of whether they were funded. I just had to erase the older grants at the top of the list to make way for the latest batch of submissions, but there were a good number of successful applications listed up there for the last few months.

Sometimes someone will help me out, for example by copying one of the senior PIs on an email in which they thank me for helping them with their project. This is a rarity though and I can't rely on it.

3) Covering my ass.

This is where my industry experience comes in!

I email a copy of my Excel spreadsheet (see #1) to my Gmail address after every major update. You know, just in case I am terminated without notice and can't access my work files...

I also keep an email folder in my work account labeled "Feedback". Any time I get any significant positive OR negative feedback, it goes in here, and is forwarded to my Gmail account every month or so. I can use the positive feedback to make a case for keeping / reinstating me, and the negative feedback to help me avoid making the same mistake twice. I know I wasn't the only one at my former company who did this!

-------------

I recently described this system to someone with a similar job to mine, and she thought that most of it was a good idea - although I didn't tell her about some of my more paranoid ass covering! Of course she then told me that her reviews to date have been incredibly informal... but then she's on a permanent contract.

Hopefully my system will help me to convince the senior PIs that I'm worth keeping... I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Project management in the non-profit research services sector

So what do you do if you think that experience in conducting formal interviews might be good for your future career development, and you also happen to write for an alternative science careers blog?

You interview people with cool alternative careers, that’s what you do! (And you start by practicing on your friends). I get good experience, you get to read about a variety of potential careers, and the interview subject gets a glass or two of wine and half an appetizer. Win-win-win.

For the first article in this series I interviewed “Mermaid”, a good friend, former colleague, and regular commenter on my personal blog, who wishes to remain pseudonymous. Mermaid works as a Project Manager for a grant-funded, non-profit service provider.
___________________

Biological research, in both the academic and industrial sectors, is becoming ever more dependent on specialist high-throughput techniques that are beyond the equipment budget and expertise of the average research lab or start-up company. There has therefore been a trend towards outsourcing these techniques to designated centres. So what's it like on the other side of that fence?

“My analogy is that it’s like ordering a pizza”, says Mermaid.

“The usual pattern is that potential collaborators contact one of our PIs, or come through the website, and they are looking to sequence whatever it is that they have. If I’m lucky they’ll say something like ‘I have this much RNA from this species’, and if I’m unlucky they’ll say ‘how much does sequencing cost?’. So it’s as if someone phones up and says ‘I want three medium pizzas with pepperoni, extra cheese and tomato’, then the next person says ‘I want to feed my friends, how much will that cost me?’”.

Mermaid’s job is to determine exactly how much the pizza will cost, and how long it will take to be delivered, and to go back and forth with the potential collaborator until both parties are happy.

The first step is to communicate with each researcher to determine exactly what they want to do. The research outsourced to the sequencing centre covers a wide variety of fields; from cancer research to wine grape genomics, from anti-mountain pine beetle programmes to crop research. This variety obviously appeals strongly to Mermaid, whose academic and industry background includes such diverse fields as marine biology, medical genetics, biochemistry and stem cell biology. “I like that it’s all different, and what I really like is talking to people, finding out what they do, talking to them about their research”. The consummate scientist, she ends the long list of projects she’s been involved in with the words “it’s all very cool”. But has she had the chance to go back to her marine biology roots, which she originally abandoned after taking on co-op projects that involved “picking up dead fish on salmon farms”? With a smile she says “I think there are some salmon projects, but I haven’t had to deal with them!”

Once Mermaid has a good grasp of what the researcher wants, she helps them to choose the most appropriate sequencing service. “The effort depends on how much they understand about the different technologies”, she explains. “If it’s someone we’ve worked with before it’ll be one email, if it’s someone who’s got no idea it could be twenty”. She then factors in variables such as the type and scope of the collaboration, the number and size of the collaborator’s samples, and the technology used, to generate a rough cost quotation. If the client is still interested, she delivers a formal quote and estimated turn-around time. There are often several rounds of back and forth until the collaborator is happy, at which point Mermaid passes the work order on to the centre’s other departments.

When she’s not triaging pizza orders, Mermaid is also starting to manage specific projects, such as a grant held by one of the centre’s PIs. “I’ll be the first point of contact for questions about budgets, timelines, things like that”, she says. “I’m the one that makes the information flow”. This role includes coordinating monthly meetings, and tracking the project’s budget. “So I might have to say ‘you’ve only got enough money for 15 samples, if you want to do 20 we’ll have to make cuts elsewhere’, things like that”.

Mermaid moved into her current job fairly recently, following six years working in industry. Her previous job was the same as mine, with overlapping but distinct “good, bad and ugly” lists. Like me she saw no clear way to progress any further within the company, and realized that it was time to look for something else.

Using her network to good effect, Mermaid set up an informal chat with a contact in the non-profit research sector. She went into the meeting with no specific goals. “I was exploring how my skills might match anything in biotech, I wasn’t specifically looking in that sector”, she remembers. “And I knew this person had contacts in a wide variety of places”. However, she left the meeting with the name and contact details of a senior project manager who was hiring at the time. “I asked to meet her for coffee, and again I was just information gathering, looking for the kind of training that might be needed, finding out more about the field”. Soon after this informal discussion, Mermaid was encouraged to apply for her current position.

The multiple formal job interviews, with different people and departments, focused not only on Mermaid’s background knowledge and skill set, but also on how she approaches problems. “They would ask things like ‘if this situation would arise, how would you deal with it?’”, she says. “Knowing full well that you would have no idea what the official approach would be. But how do you think, how do your thought processes work?”.

The interviewers clearly liked what they saw in Mermaid, who has already been promoted after only a few months in the job. But what skills, other than a varied research background, would someone have to demonstrate if they wanted to follow in her footsteps?

“You have to be organized, you have to be on top of the paperwork, it’s just crazy”, she says. “People are managing three or four PIs, and you also have to be a little bit sensitive to them”. “So you shouldn’t go into this if you’re a bitter grad student who hates all PIs?” I ask. “You shouldn’t go into this if you can’t just laugh”, says Mermaid with an appropriate twinkle in her eye.

There is one final important point for anyone wishing to move into project management. Mermaid tells me that since she started her job, several people have interviewed unsuccessfully for similar positions, in part because they said that they wanted to leave research. “A project manager does not leave research”, says Mermaid. “Your job is to ensure that the research stays within the scope of the grant and its budget. You’re not leaving research, you’re an integral part of it”.

______________________

I know Mermaid reads this blog from time to time, and will probably be very interested in the feedback on this post! So if you have any questions for her, please leave them in the comments.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How I landed my alternative career in science writing

When I first started talking to people and reading about alternative science careers, I quickly realized that there is no set path. People find themselves in editing, writing, or policy positions by any number of round-about ways. Personal contacts are often key. This can make the prospect of “breaking into” an alternative career quite daunting. Academia is hard, but at least we’re all familiar with the setting, and we have at least some idea of what one needs to do to “succeed” i.e. land that tenure-track job. If you’re a grad student or postdoc, you have a built-in network of academic contacts and support. And you have probably seen, or are seeing right now, colleagues applying to and interviewing for academic positions.

But what if your dream is to go into science policy? To be a science journalist for the New York Times? To be a biotech consultant for investment firms, or to produce scientific documentaries for the Discovery channel? How the hell do you get into that?!

No one follows the exact same path. There isn’t a degree program you can take that will automatically get you the job you want. My own journey to an alternative career has been marked by meanderings and false starts. But I thought that it might be helpful in this forum, to some reader somewhere, to give a detailed account of how I’ve landed where I now am.

*****************************

Like probably 90% of my grad school cohort, I thought I wanted to head up an academic lab and spend my life doing basic research. I got Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences and then landed a good postdoc. Unfortunately, that Nature paper never appeared, and my postdoc advisor lost a major source of funding midway through my time in his lab. When I returned to the lab after a maternity leave, I was informed that my contract would be up in one year. Until this time, I had lived in a bubble, humming along at the bench with no real thought for my future other than a vague hope that the next breakthrough experiment was just around the corner. I had given no real thought to my career plan, and certainly had not researched any type of alternative career. But nothing sharpens the mind like the imminent loss of a job.

Option #1: Go into teaching

I knew that I wasn’t competitive for tenure-track research positions, and I didn’t particularly care for doing a second postdoc. So I decided that I wanted to be a teacher. That fall, I applied for tenure-track teaching positions. Saddled with the classic “two-body problem,” I restricted my search to schools that were in commuting distance. This turned out to be a grand total of two. I had a preliminary phone interview with one of the institutions, and it was so immediately clear that the position was unsuited for me that I was quite relieved to let that particular job go. The other job, at a regional state university with masters degree programs but no doctorate programs, seemed far more promising, and I was invited for a campus interview. At this point, I had practically ZERO college teaching experience (aside from eight weeks of TAing in grad school). I knew nothing about the environment at a teaching-oriented school or regional state university. And some snotty, elitist part of me still saw this path as second best.

I interviewed for the job and SURPRISE! I loved the school. I adored the people and environment. I loved it that people seemed excited about my research, and that I would have lab space and funding to continue my interests (even if only at a level that would be laughable to those at an R1). I decided that this was my dream job.

I didn’t get the dream job.

Option #2: Frantically apply for any other science-related jobs in the area.

I found a grand total of two. Postdoc School was not exactly in a biotech hub, and industry positions were extremely limited. I applied for one position in technology transfer and one position in medical writing. Didn’t get interviews for either.

Option #3: Drop out and get knocked up.

Um, this is the one I went with.

Seriously, my husband and I wanted a second baby. And it seemed that this was a good time to “opt out” and re-evaluate what I really wanted out of a career and life.

While working on the “knocked-up” part and caring for my toddler daughter, I kept exploring career options. Realizing that I needed more teaching experience if I actually wanted to be competitive for teaching positions, I signed on to teach a course at Regional State University, the same school that I had interviewed with and loved. And a friend at a medical communications company promised to send freelance science writing/editing jobs my way.

I learned that Regional State University was indeed a great place to work and teach. I also learned that I didn’t particularly care for teaching. I found the pressure of preparing new lectures each week, week after week, trying to master and present myself as expert in a new subfield each time . . . tiring and stressful. I liked getting to know students, and I liked working with them one-on-one. But I couldn’t see myself teaching full-time for a living, for years on end.

On the other hand, I did enjoy the medical writing/editing that I did for my friend’s company. My friend gave me a contract assignment reviewing and editing the text for a course in oncology. It was lucrative (far more than teaching!) and it was fun.

Trailing spouse

Unbeknownst to me, my husband, an M.D/Ph.D, was going through his own career crisis at the time. Out of the blue (it seemed) he announced to me that he was looking for a full-time clinical position. But, but, I sputtered in disbelief. You just set up your own lab! You just got your own lab going this summer! But my husband was disillusioned by academic research, and had been secretly dreaming of an escape hatch.

Luckily, a clinical position in his field of medical expertise opened up at a hospital across the state, in a city very near my parents’ home. Husband interviewed for the job and got it. Do you mind moving? he asked me. Hell, no. We’d be close to my parents, and there was nothing keeping us in Postdoc City. I was heavily pregnant with our second child by this point. We moved to the new city, and I gave birth just one month later.

I became a stay-at-home mother for the next year. During this time, I continued to do occasional freelance medical writing/editing projects for my friend’s medical communications company. I also started to seriously investigate medical writing and editing as a full time career. I read everything I could find on the Web (This article and this at Sciencecareers.org are good places to start). Eager for more work, I haunted the job board at the Council of Science Editors and applied for contract jobs I saw advertised there. Now it happens that there are numerous scientific manuscript editing services out there on the Web (just Google “scientific editing” to see what I mean). One such editing service company responded with interest to my application and asked for some editing samples. Thanks to my work with my friend’s company, I actually had samples on hand. The samples helped land me the job, so I was now a contractor with a second company. Through my friend’s company, I gained experience writing for the pharmaceutical industry. Through the second company, I gained a little more experience editing academic scientific manuscripts and grant proposals.

I had not quite, however, given up that old dream of a life at the laboratory bench. In fact, at the back of my mind, I harbored a fantasy of a triumphant return to the bench. I knew that the NIH runs a program of grant supplements to promote the reentry of women into biomedical research who have taken time out of their research careers for the sake of family responsibilities (These grant supplements are applicable to men as well, despite the name. Also, the sponsoring lab needs to be funded by an RO1 or one of a few other select NIH grants). Our new city of residence had no biotech industry, but it did have an Up-and-Coming Research Institute associated with my husband’s hospital. I regularly browsed this institute’s web site for information on its research labs, and for news and job opportunities. From time to time interesting postdoc positions popped up, but I wasn’t quite ready to apply. And then one day, when my youngest had already turned one year old, a new job posting popped up on Institute’s web page. It was a job posting for a Scientific Writer. And it sounded perfect.

I applied for the job. And I also applied for a postdoc. I still wanted to keep my options open, and why not, as this was just the application stage? I still thought that maybe I did want to head back to the bench, and the research position was in a lab whose research interests were loosely related to the avenues I’d been exploring during my first postdoc.

I received initial interview offers for both the science writing job and the postdoc. Then the postdoc position was eliminated when the PI realized she didn’t have the funds. The interview process for the writing position was delayed as that PI struggled for funds. I went through an angsty period and wondered if I should apply for other postdocs at the institute. But the other advertised postdoc positions were not of real research interest to me, and I didn’t have the stomach to apply for them. I waited. Eventually, I did get an interview for the science writing job. And so here I am today.

I am now a scientific writer and editor for a large laboratory at a private, nonprofit biomedical research institute. My position is unusual in that I do not work for an entire department (like Cath) or institute, but rather for one individual laboratory. My major responsibilities are to edit and help prepare grant proposals and scientific manuscripts for publication. So far, I am truly enjoying the work. I remain close to science—I interact daily with scientists, work with exciting, unpublished data, attend lab meetings and seminars, and read, read, read. To my surprise, I’ve found that I have yet (so far) to pine for the laboratory bench. Although earlier this week I was so bored (we’d just passed on a potential grant proposal, and things were slow) that I did offer to do DNA minipreps for anyone who wanted!

The key to landing my current position, I think, was the freelance scientific writing and editing work that I had done. Grad students and postdocs get writing experience as part of their standard training, but I had something extra in my resume, something that distinguished me and that suggested a special commitment to writing and editing. You can bet that I played that up in my interview. You can bet that I played up my English minor in college, as well =)

Now, having landed where I am, will I stay here? I don’t know. I might not be done with my meandering ways. But you can bet that, as Cath has suggested before, I will keep looking for marketable experience and my next potential job. Especially in these economic times, I think we all need to stay flexible and always be prepared to look for that next job. In my case, this may be as early as next year. The funding for my position is only guaranteed for one year. But in the meantime, I am making contacts at my research institute and am getting valuable new experience in grantsmanship. I am feeling more hopeful about my job prospects than at any time in the past year, when I really thought my science career was doomed.*

*I guess my “traditional” career as a tenure-track researcher is doomed, but a career in science still is not.*

Monday, September 22, 2008

New toy, new career?

Purchased this lunchtime

Note Nature Network sticker on my keyboard. I'm such a geek.



What could I be doing with this tonight?

All will become clear... eventually.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Praxis: new blog carnival

Readers of this blog might be interested in a new blog carnival called Praxis. It's billed as a carnival about "the academic life", and while the most recent edition focused on purely academic issues, Coturnix* did include some alternative career-related posts in the inaugural carnival.

So go and check it out while my co-authors and I work on our next posts! I know it's been a bit quiet around here, but I have two posts in progress, and I'm sure that other people do too... right?

*I assume it was him, since I know I didn't submit either of my posts that ended up in the carnival! Thanks mate!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A note about targeted letters of reference

I was looking through some old emails this week, and came across some correspondence with my PhD supervisor. Our emails are infrequent but very friendly; I like to keep him updated on my career progress - although he sometimes seems more interested in my (non-existent) sailing progress - and he in turn likes to pass on any news from his lab and department. So when I applied for my current job, back in academia after a stint in industry, I definitely wanted to include a reference from him, thinking that a professor's opinion would hold more sway than that of a marketing manager. The fact that the marketing manager didn't know I was applying for new jobs was, of course, completely incidental...

It is just common sense and good manners to email your prospective references, asking their permission to be listed as such in every new job application. However, in order to obtain an optimal reference you will need to provide some more detailed information. This is especially true when applying for an "alternative" position, as most academics will not be familiar with the job and its requirements.

So what did I do? After establishing that my PhD supervisor was happy to provide a reference, I sent him the following documents:

  • A Word document containing the job advert, including the full job description (don't count on the link staying active, copy and paste is your friend!)
  • My application CV
  • My application cover letter
Again, common sense. But you still need to go one step further. Sure, your CV will be full of all the relevant experience you've managed to obtain in your current position and other activities, and this information will be highlighted in your cover letter (right?!). But you also need to explicitly highlight this information - and really stress why you think you're a good fit for this job - in your email to your friendly local mentor. In my case I reminded my PhD supervisor of specific examples from my time in his lab of my strong track record in academic writing. I specifically asked him to focus on those aspects of my peformance in his reference letter.

My other reference was from my postdoc supervisor, who works in the same building as my current boss. She was the one who convinced me to apply for the job (the timing was not optimal - I ended up interviewing 3 days before my wedding - but she basically told me I'd be an idiot not to apply anyway), and she delivered her reference letter in person, about two hours after I told her I'd applied, and without being asked by anyone in my new department. I'm sure her actions played a pivotal role in my successful application, but those circumstances are pretty unusual and I think the focused letter of reference from my PhD supervisor was also an important factor.

Oh, and always let your reference providers know the outcome of every job application. Again, it's good manners, and hopefully it will also help the PI to perfect the art of writing reference letters for non-academic positions!

Friday, August 29, 2008

I wish I was witty

As then I could come up with a funny way to introduce myself, but I'm not. What can you do, eh?

This is my first post, and I have to admit that I have been very nervous to post something here. Partly because I am currently a PhD Student (at least for the moment) and I find it just a tad bit intimidating to be part of this amazing group of contributors. However, I wasn't always a PhD student, nor will I ever only be a PhD student, which is why, I was invited to be part of this amazing (didn't I already say that?) group of contributors.

What did I do before I became a PhD student? After completing my masters degree I worked as a "Microscopy and Imaging consultant" for a National Research Institute. In a way the title is a fancy term for saying I was in charge of all the microscopes in the institute, but the job was way more then that. Anyone who does any type of work in the biological / biomedical fields know the importance of microscopy to research. Yet microscopy has changed immensely in a very short period of time. In the digital age there is more to taking a "good" image than just Kohler illumination. As an aside, many who work on microscopes don't even know what Kohler illumination is. Microscopy has gone high tech and very high resolution. Quality, high resolution microscopes (confocal, two-photon, widefield) run upto 3/4 of a million dollars and these scopes can be easily damaged. Furthermore, learning the intricacies of high resolution microscopy is not something that many students, let alone PI's have the time for. They just want to know how to get the data they need (which buttons they need to push, which ones they shouldn't touch). Which is where I came in, I trained all types of users on how to take quality images that looked good but also accurately represented their samples. I assisted them in designing their experiments, what controls to use, how to set up slides, and most importantly how to analyze and interpret the data. I also worked closely with a variety of PI's, developing grant proposals for the purchasing of new equipment, as well as coming up with new applications for existing equipment. The best part of my job was organizing seminars and workshops so that students and PI's could learn more about microscopy, what questions they should ask when looking at images, what is important in the methods section of a paper. When PI's had money to purchase equipment, but needed someone with the knowledge to find them the best bang for their buck, they came to me. I really enjoyed dealing with some of the microscopy and software sales reps, learning about the new scopes and software applications that were coming out, how they could improve the research of our PI's. It was a fun job that I really really enjoyed. Unfortunately it was a short-term contract as I was covering the maternity leave for the individual whose job it was. I am grateful for the opportunity to do it, as it really opened my mind up to what was out there in the science world and re-ignited my passion for science. Which is why I am back in the lab, because I also learned that not having my PhD was inhibiting me from getting some of the positions I would love. The lab work is not what I most passionate about, but that is OK because it is through the lab work that I am able to get a breadth and depth of knowledge that I can transfer into other careers ie Core Facility Manager, Grants Facilitator, Lecture, etc.

Now why do I say I am not only a Phd student? Well its because, I am also a mother of little monkey boy and I work the not-for-profit community, where I have gained a ton of exposure to women working in immensely different areas of science. Through that work I have learned the importance of networking and how constantly developing a reputation as an ethical, hardworking individual is so important. But that is for another post.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Executive Scientific Officer

That's the official title of my new position.

OK, I forgot to introduce myself before posting here. But Mad's previous post let me think that it's time to describe my job. I don't know if there are many "executive scientific officer" around the world but it might help Scattered Scientist to see that this kind of position exists.

Let me tell you a bit about the framework first. I am working for a "National Center of Competence in Research" (NCCR). These are research networks funded by the Swiss government. Currently, there are 20 NCCRs in Switzerland and typical budgets are around $10-15 millions for 4 years (renewable twice) plus an extra $10-30 millions coming from universities and companies. My NCCR is devoted to the Affective Sciences: everything that is related to emotions. The core discipline is probably psychology but we also have labs working in neuroscience, litterature, philosophy, theology, law and collaborations with sociologists, education scientists, physicians, interprets, people working for help-hotlines as well as private companies interested in decision-making or human resources. The main goal of the NCCR is to promote excellence in research, to develop interdisciplinary collaborations, to train a new generation of scientists and to be useful to the society.

Now, what am I doing there and what does my strange position title means?

In fact, I have three different hats:
1. I am responsible for the communication, both internal and external. This is a task that I share with the Knowledge Transfer officer. This means writing documents (newsletters, brochures, etc.), contacting the press or other partners like museums. It also means that I will make a new website for our NCCR because I really don't like the current one...
2. I am responsible for the education and training. The main tasks here are to organize the doctoral school, an annual summer school and several smaller workshops. So I do not teach myself but still have some student mentoring duties.
3. I am responsible for scientific coordination: anything that can ease collaborations between the different labs. This requests a good knowledge of all the projects and particularly of all the external collaborations we have (with other universities or private companies). It also involves writing of progress reports or sensitive letters, meetings with the deans of the different faculties and so on.

So far, the only point I miss in Scattered Scientist's description of the ideal job is the experiment planning. But personally, I don't really miss it: I am working with many labs from different disciplines so I learn a lot of science and have the feeling to be useful to scientists.

Oh, yes, I forgot to say that I love this job and do not regret this alternative path...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reader's Question

It's been quiet around here lately. I hope you aren't all waiting for me to finish my academic research careers series before posting! :-)

Anyway, Scattered Scientist asked a question in the comments on my last post to which I don't know the answer, so I thought I would re-post the question here:

I'm interested in something that would involve a lot of grant writing and data analysis/experiment planning, some mentoring of students and giving of presentations, and little to no regularly scheduled teaching or bench work. Being an academic PI is not totally out of the question, but I'm uneasy about the tenure clock and teaching frequently as well as managing the totality of responsibilities. Something at a national lab might work well, so I'd like to find out more about the employment structure in similar organizations. (I'm not in the bio area.)

In my field, the closest match to this description would probably be a tenure-track PI position, although the NIH or CDC might have similar positions without the teaching and/or tenure clock. I don't really know much about national labs, and particularly positions in non-bioscience fields, so if any of you--authors and readers--have any thoughts on this or information on national labs and similar organizations, please share in the comments!

On a different note, DrDrA has given us an award...thanks! This one has already made its rounds through the science blogosphere, so instead of tagging other blogs, I'll simply point you in the direction of our "Contributing Authors" list in the sidebar. It contains links to the personal blogs of many of our authors, so if you really want to know what our alternative careers are like, that's the place to go!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Academic Research Careers, Part I

Part I: What are the options?

Drugmonkey has a recent post on stable, non-PI positions for PhD scientists in academia which makes a good starting point for a series of posts I will write about non-tenure track academic research careers. If you love research and enjoy the academic environment, but don't think the tenure-track path is for you, what are your options? Is it PI-dom or bust in academia?

There are actually a number of different possibilities which are seldom discussed or publicized, and aren't always apparent to those in the academic training pipeline. These can be divided into three basic categories--faculty, staff, and "permanent postdoc" positions--each with its advantages and disadvantages. My personal experience with these options is limited to the biomedical sciences field at my institution, but similar positions undoubtedly also exist at other major research institutions.

Faculty positions. In addition to the tenure track, many institutions have a faculty non-tenure track which is often referred to as the research track (I'm excluding other faculty positions--Lecturer, Adjunct, etc.--that are not primarily research-based). The research track is structured similarly to the tenure track--PhDs with postdoctoral experience usually enter this track at the Research Assistant Professor level, and can subsequently be promoted to Research Associate Professor and Research Professor. The main differences from the tenure track are:

  • There is no tenure--research faculty are appointed to one-year renewable contracts

  • There is no up-or-out or promotion clock--one can remain a Research Assistant Professor, for example, for as long as one wants

  • Research faculty typically do not get their own lab spaces or have independent appointments in their departments

  • Research faculty are not required to bring in portions of their salary via grant funding

  • There are no teaching or service requirements

  • Only senior research faculty can officially mentor grad students

  • Research track salaries are slightly lower than those for the tenure track

Staff positions. The titles for these positions can vary, but they are often called Scientist, Research Scientist, or Staff Scientist. Junior-level staff positions typically require either a PhD with no post-degree job experience or an MS with several years of post-degree experience. Senior-level staff positions almost always require a PhD with several years of post-degree experience. PhDs who have done a postdoc often enter this track at the senior-level position. Job descriptions for staff positions overlap significantly with those for research faculty positions, and the salary range for staff positions is similar to that for Research Assistant Professors. The main differences from research faculty positions are:

  • Staff positions are considered "at-will" employment and can be terminated at any time

  • Staff are not protected by the academic freedom policies governing faculty

  • Staff are not eligible to apply for grants, mentor grad students, or participate in faculty governance

  • The work schedules for staff positions tend to be more of the "normal business hours" variety

For lack of a better description, I'd say that staff positions are generally more like research positions in industry, whereas research faculty positions are more like tenure-track faculty positions.

Permanent postdoc positions. These are not really "official" positions--often, they are created when a postdoc decides to remain in his/her postdoc lab after the agreed-upon training period has ended. Some institutions have limited the number of years one can be designated a postdoc, which has resulted in permanent postdocs acquiring all sorts of different titles. What places all these positions in one common category is that permanent postdocs typically (1) do the work of a postdoc or senior technician, (2) earn the salary of a postdoc, and (3) are not expected or encouraged to advance their careers or transition to other career tracks. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this kind of position, but I'd be very cautious because permanent postdocs seem more vulnerable than either research faculty or staff to getting stuck in low-independence and low-paying positions that do not enable them to be competitive in applying for better positions.

These are the basic characteristics of the three main types of non-PI positions for PhDs in academic research. The most important thing to remember about these positions is that they can vary wildly in job description, level of independence, opportunity for career advancement, salary, schedule flexibility, and how they are perceived within the academic community. I know at least 8 other people in my department who have the same type of position I have, and no two of us have the same job. So if you look into these positions, each one should be researched carefully and individually evaluated.

Future topics in this series: (1) what exactly do people in these positions do?, (2) what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of each type of position, (3) how does one get one of these positions, and (4) how to be successful in one of these positions. Feel free to suggest other topics!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Medical Technology - Q&A Part I

maddox22 asks:

... what's your take on how long it would take someone who already has a graduate degree (although not in chemistry or biology) to complete such a program?

To test for a license from the ASCP Board of Registry, ASCP provides several routes. These are listed on the following page (you'll need to scroll down some).

Route 1: A baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited college/university including courses in biological science, chemistry and mathematics AND successful completion of a NAACLS accredited Medical Technologist program within the last 5 years; or

Route 2: MLT(ASCP) certification AND a baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited college/university, including 16 semester hours (24 quarter hours) of biological science (with one semester in microbiology), 16 semester hours (24 quarter hours) of chemistry (with one semester in organic or biochemistry), one semester (one quarter) of mathematics, AND two years of full time acceptable clinical laboratory experience in Blood Banking, Chemistry, Hematology, Microbiology, Immunology and Clinical Microscopy in the U.S., Canada or a CAP/The Joint Commission (JCAHO)/AABB accredited laboratory within the last ten years. At least one year must be under the supervision of a pathologist (certified by the American Board of Pathology) or an appropriately board certified medical scientist and a certified medical technologist; or

Route 3: *CLA(ASCP) certification, AND a baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited college/university, including 16 semester hours (24 quarter hours) of biological science (with one semester in microbiology), 16 semester hours (24 quarter hours) of chemistry (with one semester in organic or biochemistry), one semester (one quarter) of mathematics, AND four years of full time acceptable clinical laboratory experience in Blood Banking, Chemistry, Hematology, Microbiology, Immunology and Clinical Microscopy in the U.S., Canada or a CAP/The Joint Commission (JCAHO)/AABB accredited laboratory within the last ten years. At least two years must be under the supervision of a pathologist (certified by the American Board of Pathology) or an appropriately board certified medical scientist and a certified medical technologist; or

Route 4: A baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited college/university, including 16 semester hours (24 quarter hours) of biological science (with one semester in microbiology), 16 semester hours (24 quarter hours) of chemistry (with one semester in organic or biochemistry), one semester (one quarter) of mathematics, AND five years of full time acceptable clinical laboratory experience in Blood Banking, Chemistry, Hematology, Microbiology, Immunology and Clinical Microscopy in the U.S., Canada or a CAP/The Joint Commission (JCAHO)/AABB accredited laboratory within the last ten years. At least two years must be under the supervision of a pathologist (certified by the American Board of Pathology) or an appropriately board certified medical scientist and a certified medical technologist.

*CLA(ASCP) certification was discontinued in 1982. Only applicants previously certified as CLA(ASCP) may apply under Route 3.

Now, maddox22, I’m not sure of your exact schooling, so I don’t know if you have the necessary chemistry/biology to go through any of the Routes 2 through 4 (I assume Route 3 is off the table entirely). Route 1 depends on you receiving a degree in Medical Technology. So let us assume you need to go Route 1.

Off the top of my head, there are a few scenarios you can take:

Scenario 1: Oklahoma, where I once lived ... had NO Med Tech programs AT. ALL. in any of the universities in the state. Instead, the programs were run by the hospitals. Essentially, you signed on, they trained you, and then you worked for them. I think those programs took about 2 years, but IIRC you were working for them in the meantime so you did pull in a salary. I'm unsure of any costs of education that might be incurred. Local hospitals in your area might have such programs, if you're vaguely interested, it's worth checking out.

Scenario 2: You could back to college for a second major. Most universities will accept up to 60 credits, so if you've taken some chem and bio, you can probably enter a MT program directly. You'd have to take the 2 years of course work. You'd also have to pay for it.

Scenario 3: You go for your MLT, which would probably be a 1 year program at a local technical college and start working (albeit at lower wages) in the hospital and you go through Route 2 in two years time.

I’m not sure if you have enough base courses in bio, chem and math to meet the criteria outlined above. If you do, you’re looking at 2 or 3 years maximum of training, 1 or 2 of which (depending on the route) would require schooling.

There may be additional scenarios, but I can’t think of them right now. If you’re interested in looking into the situation, I’d contact the local hospitals to see if they have such programs and then talk to any MT programs in your vicinity and see what they have to say. It certainly couldn't hurt, and they'd be more aware of additional routes/opportunities. I'm sure a lot of people are going back and re-evaluating their career choices and I would imagine that the MT departments are taking this into consideration (if not, they should).

I hope this helps! I’ll get to your second question soon!

Greetings Earthlings ...

... how do you actually introduce yourself on a new blog? Obviously I don't know ... so I came up with something cheesy. At any rate, here I is. My name is Thomas Joseph (which I'm using as a pseudonym - though it's technically my first and middle name, just not my last) and I am the author of the blog (It's a ...) Micro World (... after all). When I'm not wasting my time blogging, I'm a geneticist/microbiologist/molecular biologist for the United States government. This qualifies me, I suppose, as an "alternative scientist" since I'm not in academia. I often work closely with individuals from academia, but I have a different set of goals and pressures in my work environment. As I continue to post here, I'll talk about a number of those.

I also qualify as an "alternative scientist" given the fact that my B.S. and first M.S. degree were in Medical Technology. As a licensed and registered member of the American Society of Clinical Pathologists and their Board of Registry, I can work in hospital laboratories throughout the United States (and throughout the world) in a number of fields. The four primary fields being: Clinical Chemistry; Hematology; Immunohematology (aka Blood Banking); and Microbiology (my favorite). Currently, there is a huge need for Medical Technologists (also referred to as Clinical Laboratory Scientists), and according to a US Department of Labor report (ASCP commentary here), there is a need for 15,000 new Medical Technologists per year through 2014. It's a shortage that simply won't be going away soon. Pay is also reasonable. Average salaries are topping well over $20 to $25/hour right out of college (translates into $40 - 50K/year). I didn't remain a Med Tech for long, opting for further graduate schooling and a PhD in Microbiology ... but I did jump through all the hoops and did work in a STAT lab (third shift, bleh!) for a couple of years during graduate school. As opportunities (and demand?) arise, I'll talk about these experiences as well.

With that said, I appreciate the opportunity given to me by Mad Hatter for allowing me to post my thoughts/opinions/advice here. If you have a question/blog entry request for me, leave a comment here and I'll run with it.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Finding the alternative within academia

As with networking, the best time to prepare for your next career move is NOW.

But what if you don't really know what you want to do after your degree / PhD / postdoc?

Well, NOW is also a good time to start figuring that out.

Identify the things you enjoy

The great thing about the academic experience is that it exposes you to many different tasks and experiences that are relevant to careers outside of the traditional tenure track. If you can identify the parts of your work that interest you the most (hint: these are probably the times when you're actually happy to be working rather than reading blogs), then you've already made a huge first step towards identifying your ideal career.

I made my first step when I started to write my PhD thesis. I'd enjoyed my three years in the lab about as much as it's possible to enjoy a PhD, but I struggled with some technical aspects of the work, especially long-term cell culture. The sorry state of my house plants is a testament to my lack of a green thumb, or whatever the cell culture equivalent is. When I started to write, I realised that my rate of progress was determined solely by the amount of time and effort I put in. What a contrast to those long Sundays in the lab, slaving away over a hot incubator, only to have my cells die before the end of the assay! I'd always enjoyed writing anyway, but this was my first realisation that I might enjoy writing about science more than actually doing it. This suspicion was confirmed during my postdoc - I was always happiest when writing papers, popping into the lab occasionally to run a gel and chat with friends. It took me a little longer to identify careers in science that were primarily based on writing, but I got there in the end.

So: what do you enjoy most about your current situation? Straight-up lab work? Maybe a research position in industry would suit you. TAing? Maybe you'd like to be a teacher, or to work in a public communications role such as in a museum or science centre. Do you find yourself more drawn to the opinion pieces and corporate merger information than the research articles in Science and Nature? Consider a career in science policy, intellectual property, or business development.

Hate everything about academia? Well, all is not lost. Any hobbies and volunteering you do in all that spare time you have (ha!) will also give you some ideas. Or maybe you have a friend with no scientific background, but with a job that sounds pretty cool. Might a biotech or big pharma company, a University or a museum or a professional association, need people to play a similar role within their organisation? Have a look at the careers section of their website and find out.

Now find a way to do them more often

If you enjoy a specific part of your current position, find a way to incorporate more of it into your remaining time in academia. This is a good idea for two reasons

1) it gives you a better idea of whether you really do want a career that focuses on this one area

2) it gives you experience that will make your CV stand out from all the others

You want to convince future interviewers that you're looking for a career, not a job; being proactive, not reactive; working to a long-term plan, not applying to any old scientific job that crops up in your local area. If you can point to areas of your CV that show a long-standing commitment to your chosen field (do this in the cover letter and - repeatedly - at interview), you will stand out from the pile of CVs stacked up in human resources.

My postdoc supervisor knew that I eventually wanted a job in scientific communication, and she was happy to help me gain more experience. I volunteered to edit and proofread manuscripts and studentship / fellowship applications written by other lab members. I wrote parts of her grant applications and progress reports.

But don't just rely on your boss; look for other opportunities too. My department had a newsletter, run by some of the grad students, so I wrote articles whenever I had time. I volunteered for Let's Talk Science, an outreach programme that took us into high schools to, well, talk about science.

Writing and communication are relatively easy examples, because they're such a large part of academic science anyway. But you should be able to find ways to gain more experience regardless of your chosen future field. Just volunteer for anything even vaguely related - even if you end up spending a lot of time proofing legal documents from your technology transfer department, sitting in committee meetings, volunteering for ethics review boards or whatever, you can find a way to get the right experience and flesh out your CV. (That's the other great thing about the academic experience; always more tasks than volunteers).

Again, you don't have to stick to academia - maybe a local charity would appreciate some help with their own newsletter or website. Maybe you have a friend who could use a fresh pair of eyes on her big sales report. The skewed tasks:volunteers ratio is not just an academic phenomenon...

Repeat ad infinitum

Hopefully the advice above will help you to make that first step into your new career. But don't stop now! Your first non-academic position is unlikely to be the amazing dream job that you will do for the rest of your life, but it will expose you to another, broader, range of experiences. For example, as well as the grant writing that is my day-to-day focus, my new job also gets me involved in public relations, website design and intellectual property issues. I haven't quite figured out which parts I enjoy the most (definitely not intellectual property!), but you can bet that as soon as I do, I'll start volunteering for more of it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

blogging = networking....right??

My fiancĂ© has been reading and participating in various physical therapy blogs for about two years now...and for the longest time I couldn't figure out why.  I honestly thought that blogs were around to allow people to discuss what they had for breakfast...or how they saved a kitty from the pound.  I was surprised when he told me that people wanted to meet him at conferences because of his blog postings.  

O.o  

I had no idea that there was such a world of information, intelligence, innovation, and all kinds of other 'i' words.  But more than that....these bloggers have found friends, held meetings, and thus networked all through the internet.  Whoa...you mean I can meet potential colleagues year round and not just at a conference????

So my first question is: Why don't we teach about the usefulness of blogs at universities, industries, etc?  They can be a wonderful tool that can aid in branching out and getting aquatinted with future collaborators/mentors/employers as well as learning about cutting edge research.  So WHY NOT BLOG??  Is it scary??  Or just misunderstood??

And my second question is often debated among bloggers:  Is it better to use your real name or a clever pseudonym??  I know that it depends on what you want outta your blogging experience...and as networking was a huge component to mine, i chose to use the name that my momma gave me...but i would like to hear ya'lls take on this issue.  For example: Is it common to have both names...so that you can remain anonymous when need be but also have your real name around for networking purposes?  Can you still network with a fake name? 

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Freaking. OUT.

I'm assuming a part of this blog is to track our activities, as we embark upon our alternative careers? Or at least, engage in activities that will hamper our primary careers, and throw our lives into disarray?

:D

About a month ago i actually signed up for the 2 Fall Term classes i will need, as part of my first year in the Masters' of Education i'm enrolled for. This program i chose specifically because i will only be in school full time for one year, after which i will be teaching with a provisional certificate while i finish 2 more years of school. (I am being deliberately vague with terminology on the very off chance that my place of work discovers my plan. I think it's unlikely, but if i start naming cities, states, colleges, or programs, you'd be surprised how quickly people can put things together.)

Anyway, last night i actually took steps to pay the bill. It is due 22 August; however, i am leaving tomorrow for a 2 week road trip to first visit my family, then spend a week at GenCon. At least the excitement about the trip is dulling the panic.

Where am i going to come up with $3k in cash all at once? I technically have it, scattered throughout various savings accounts, but that's for an EMERGENCY. My naturally stingy nature is balking at writing a check that big.

How am i going to attend the once biweekly classes? They are 190 miles from my house, at 6pm on a Tuesday. I have come up with a plan that involves leaving work at 2, driving for 3 hours, hoping i don't hit traffic, attending class, staying the night with a friend, then leaving as early as reasonably possible in the morning and hoping to make it into work at a decent hour, thus staying late Wednesday night to make up for the time lost. We'll see if i can pull that off without being burned at the stake.

I know i'm being a drama llama, but i do know intellectually that the worst that could happen is either i withdraw, and get some or all of the money back, or i fail and do it again next fall, when hopefully i will have the freedom to attend school full time.

Or i get fired for my absenteeism ;)

Wish me luck, Alternative Scientists!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi...

Boy, it's kind of intimidating to post on this site due to how well it has taken off!  Hats off to Mad Hatter *chuckles* for setting everything up and coming up with this wonderful idea!!  And thank you for inviting me to contribute.

So.  Who am I??  Whelp, unlike other posters on this blog...I have yet to experience the real world.  Officially, I am a PhD candidate in microbiology...getting ready to enter my fourth year of grad school with no real expectations of getting out soon.  I believe firmly in taking your future in your own hands and doing what YOU need to in order to be happy and successful.  

So. Why was I invited here?  I have always been interested in alterternatives to academics and the much desired tenure tract.  Awesomely, for a college student, my mother works for Anheuser Busch and has informed me of what their microbiologist does for the industry of delicious beer making ever since I displayed interest in the subject.  Thus, she was my introduction to the many alternatives that exist out in the 'real world'.  Since then, I have spent sometime learning about what else I could do when I grow up.  There is a fantastic club at my university called 'Alternatives in Science' which invites many people that obtained PhDs who did not pursue the canonical academic way of life in order to inform us what else is out there, and how to get jobs like theirs. 

So.  What do I plan to write about in this rad blog??  I hope to relay any information that I gather from those speakers or from my own little inquiries.  I would also like to promote discussions on general fears/expectations/loves/etc. of various career choices.  As I don't have as much incite on HOW to obtain rockin' jobs...I'd like to propose questions on WHO those employers are interested in hiring, WHY they are worthwhile, and WHAT to do in order to get those jobs.

...Soooo,  Hi Hi Hi Hi Hi!!!  Nice to meet all of you!!

Networking Nuts And Bolts

I wanted to follow-up on the excellent networking posts by CAE and Bean-mom with a few more thoughts on the specifics of how to network. Professional society meetings and other organized scientific events like the ones CAE and Bean-mom describe are fantastic ways to get started in networking. But what if there are no such events near you, or the alternative career you're interested in isn't represented at such events? How do you approach and interact with people with whom you'd like to network?

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when networking is that your contacts are much more likely to help you if they like you. My personal philosophy on networking is this: when my networking contact turns on her computer and sees an email from me, I want her to click on the email thinking, "Hey, I remember Mad Hatter. I liked talking to her. I wonder what she's been up to?" What I don't want her to do is groan and think, "Oh, no...it's Mad Hatter again. What does she want now?" So with that in mind, here are some tips on networking that have worked for me.

First contact. How you approach your contact depends on your relationship with that person. If your contact is a friend or family member, it should be relatively easy to call or email her to discuss your career of interest. If you are contacting a professional acquaintance, someone you know through another person, or just someone you don't know very well, you can send an email with this general format:

  1. Tell your contact who you are

  2. Tell your contact how you know each other and/or how you obtained her contact information

  3. Explain why you are contacting her

  4. Politely ask for what you want

  5. Thank your contact for her time and help
Networking by contacting someone you don't know at all, and with whom you have no connections, is obviously the least likely to pay off. Even relatively tenuous links--you both graduated from the same school, you heard her give a talk somewhere, etc.--can help personalize your email and give her a reason to want to respond. This is not to say that contacting strangers won't work, just that it will likely be lower yield than contacting someone with whom you have a connection.

Email or phone? This is a matter of personal preference and field-specific culture. In my field, email is used for everything, but I've also networked in Maxwell's Demon's industry in which everyone wanted to communicate by phone. I usually prefer to initiate contact by email because it allows my contact to respond at her convenience. But if I were networking to gather information on Career X, I would ask if she would be willing to discuss this by phone since live conversations are more suited to this purpose than an email containing a long string of questions, or a back-and-forth Q&A email series.

Preparation. Before initiating contact, you should have given some serious thought to two important issues. First, what do you hope to gain from this networking experience? If you are gathering information, prepare a list of specific questions to ask rather than demand that your contact tell you "everything about Career X". If you are looking for a job, be prepared to discuss your work experience, qualifications, and career goals. Second, what will be your answers to key questions you will almost surely be asked? These questions include:

  1. Why are you leaving academia/science?

  2. Why are you interested in Career X?

  3. What skills/experiences do you have that would make you good at Career X?
There may not be a single "right" answer to each of these questions, but there are definitely wrong answers. Do not say you are leaving academia/science because you failed to get a tenure-track position or funding or tenure. Do not badmouth your current PI or employer. Do not say you are interested in Career X because you want an easier job than what you have now. And "I have no idea" is not a good answer to #3.

Asking for a job. Whether you should directly ask your contact for a job is a difficult question. Again, it probably depends on your relationship with your contact--your uncle may be perfectly happy for you to ask him for a job, but the VP of R&D at BigPharma, who was your thesis committee chair's former PI, may not appreciate a "So are you going to hire me or what?" question. I prefer to address the issue by including my resume, stating what kind of position I'm looking for, and asking if my contact would please let me know and/or forward my resume if she knows of any opportunities. In situations when I was applying for an advertised position at the company in which my contact worked, I submitted my application through the company's HR process and sent a separate email with my resume to my contact to let her know that I was interested in, and had applied for, the position.

Networking etiquette. It should be obvious that you should be on your best behavior when networking since your contacts may well know the people who will be interviewing and/or hiring you. First, remember that your contacts have their own full-time jobs, which are not to help you find a job. So be polite and considerate of their time. Second, be aware of differences in culture between your field and theirs. For example, some academic fields are very informal, with everyone from grad students to department chairs being on first-name basis with each other. But addressing someone by her first name may not be the norm in the field/industry to which you are applying. Finally, pay attention to the cues your contacts give you and adapt accordingly. For example, some contacts may prefer communications to be strictly about business, while others may prefer to have some chitchat before getting down to business. I generally let my contacts set the tone for the interaction and try to match them.

Managing expectations. While it's true that many people get their alternative positions through networking, it doesn't mean that once you start networking, job offers will fall from the sky. Networking can be a lot of work and, like investments, can take time to yield dividends. Some of your contacts will never respond to your emails or calls. Some may promise to call you, introduce you to other people, or forward your resume but not follow through. Some may simply not be very informative or helpful. So go in with realistic expectations and don't get all bent out of shape if you don't always get the reception you hope for. Your contacts aren't just people who can help you get jobs, they're also people with interesting experiences and perspectives. And when you find one with whom you hit it off, networking can actually be lots of fun.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Advice on Freelance Science Writing

Caveat: I am writing this advice from the perspective of an editor who regularly works with freelance science writers. However, the market in which I work may not be the same as some of you out there work in, or want to work in. Therefore, I can guarantee that following the advice below will endear you to K-12 educational publishers (and to companies like mine who work for educational publishers). I can't speak to journals, newspapers, etc...but I can't imagine they'd mind if you follow this advice! And given that a lot of people here have expressed an interest in freelance writing, I thought I might be able to provide a bit of a different perspective on things.

Another note: Please do not interpret anything in this post as snarky. The points below are things that almost all of the freelancers I've ever worked with have violated at one point or another. Some of them are things that we see violated all the time. And I can say from personal experience that violating some of them (the ones marked with a star below) will almost surely get you kicked off any list of freelancers that a company regularly uses.

If you want to be hired as a freelance science writer (or, more importantly, if you want to be hired again as a freelance science writer :), here are some things you should always do:
*1. Keep your email address and other contact information up to date. If you have a website or blog, and that's how you advertise, make sure that people who go there looking for you can find you! If you've worked with a company in the past, send an occasional email to let them know you're still alive. (And it doesn't hurt to remind them what project(s) you worked with them on, especially if it was awhile ago.) If they can't get in touch with you, they won't offer you work.
2. Keep your resume up to date, and attach it any time you contact someone looking for work. Yes, most companies have a freelancer database, but it's not always convenient for the person receiving your email to search it to find out what you're good at. And even if they do have a database, it's always good for them to have an updated resume. (Oh yeah...and make sure there are no typos in your resume or email...)
*3. Turn your work in on time. Seriously. Those deadlines the company gives you? They're not just for laughs. If you don't turn it in on time, don't be surprised if the company doesn't accept it, doesn't pay you for it, or doesn't hire you again. Of course, life happens. Sometimes there's nothing you can do but miss a deadline. But if that happens, tell the company immediately, and offer a solution (e.g., "I can't get it to you on Friday, but I can definitely have it to you first thing Monday morning").
3a. Corollary: Unless the project manager specifically says otherwise, "due Friday May 1" means by 5 pm on Friday May 1, in the local time zone of the company. It doesn't mean midnight on Friday. If in doubt, clarify.
*4. Make sure your writing is good. I know, another no-brainer. But I have actually received files from people in the past that literally contained incomplete sentences. Even if you know for a fact that your writing is going through an editor, that doesn't mean you don't have to write well. If it's poorly written, the editor just has to rewrite it, and chances are they won't hire you again--because why would they pay you to write something that they then have to re-write?
*4a. Corollary 1: Make sure what you write is true and accurate. Do a fact-check before you submit. Even if you're writing for a 3rd-grade audience, you still have to give them accurate science. (I.e., it's not okay to say that a spider is an insect in order to make things "easier.")
*4b. Corollary 2: Even (especially?) if you are writing for a young audience, you have to write well. A guideline we sometimes give is "write for a 3rd grader, not like a 3rd grader."
*5. Follow any guidelines or directions given. Again...they do apply to you. If you're not sure about something, just ask! I've never met a project manager who would rather get something that doesn't follow the guidelines than answer a question or three.
6. Respond to all emails as soon as you get them. Even if it's just a short email from the project manager sending you a file to work on. Send an immediate response saying, "Thanks, I got it!" Otherwise, we're not sure whether you received it or it disappeared into the ether. And so we have to send another email asking if you got the first one...
7. Ask for feedback, and be gracious when you receive it. Maybe not in the middle of the project when things are crazy, but at the end of a project, email the project manager and ask whether your work was satisfactory, whether there was anything that you could've done to make them more likely to hire you again in the future, etc.
*7a. Corollary: Apply any feedback you get. If they tell you your writing was good but just a little too high-level, then the next time, make sure it's a little bit lower level. Applying the feedback the editors spent time giving you shows that you really are interested in giving them good work.

Here are some things you should never do if you can possibly help it:
*1. Quit a project the day before it is due (or, worse, the day it is due). If you think you're not going to be able to do a project you agreed to do, tell the project manager immediately. If you have to quit two days after signing on, you might make them a little grumpy because they have to find someone else. But if you quit the day something is due, and don't turn it in, you have just made their life a living hell, because now they have to write in one day what you were given a week to write. The former might get you off the freelancer list for a project or two. The latter will get you off of it permanently, or nearly permanently.
2. Demand more money. Obviously, sometimes the pay rate really is just too low for what is being asked. But if that is the case, please, present it nicely! I can guarantee that you will get a more positive response with a polite "I'm really sorry, but I expected this to take 3 hours and it's taken 10, so..." than with a "I can't do this for less than $X." It's perfectly fine to have a minimum rate, and to be clear about that rate. Just be polite about it. (And be realistic. As much as you might like to make $200/page, you're going to have a very hard time finding someone willing to pay that much. But if you do find someone willing to pay that much, PLEASE, let me know!!! :)
*3. Ask the project manager to bend the rules for you. Chances are, all of the guidelines the PM has sent to you were given to him or her from On High. The project manager can rarely change any of them. If you're told something has to be 300 words, it has to be 300 words. Don't turn in something that is 500 words and say, "It's impossible to make this 300 words." That doesn't help the project manager, because he or she still has to get it down to 300 words.
*4. Get grumpy with the client if he or she rejects your work because you didn't follow the guidelines or didn't turn it in on time. Let's face it: if you screwed up, it's your fault, not the PM's. This doesn't mean you can't (politely) argue something that you think isn't right (e.g., the guidelines say "3-6 pages" and you turned in 3 pages and they say you didn't write a long enough piece). But if they call you on something that you did incorrectly, either offer to fix it or apologize and let it go.

I know some of these seem like no-brainers, and I hope I haven't offended anyone. If I did, I apologize in advance :) But as I said, I have had freelance writers violate every single one of the points above at one point or another...so maybe they're not as no-brainer as we'd like to think.