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?


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,'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 maybe they're not as no-brainer as we'd like to think.

Applying for jobs in big companies

Here is a couple of things I've learned from a friend managing a research lab in a big private company.

1. In these companies, when a job is posted, the applications are first screened by HR departments. They have no idea what science really is. They can not guess that if you did -say-"bioinformatics" it means you are good at data mining. Unless you explicitely write "skills: data mining" in your CV.

2. If you leave your CV on their website's online database, it will be screened by computers. They search for keywords. So a good way to pass this filter is to first google the website of the company to find out what are the keywords they love. And then include them in your resume.

3. When you send an unsollicited application, email again and again. Or call. Some people never reply before your third attempt, just to see if you're really motivated. Some others are just busy and your application rapidly disappears from their list of most recent emails.

Does any of you dis/approve these advices?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

How drugs are made: part I

Should I ever be invited to give one of those "Alternative Careers" talks at one of my alma maters, I plan to spend a fair amount of time explaining how the drug development process works. Even for people with no intention of working in the field, it seems like something you ought to understand if you believe that your research ultimately contributes to it.

Here's how academic biologists think drugs are made: Pharma researchers read a PNAS paper about a new kinase and throw it into a big machine with millions of compounds, and a drug comes out. They give it to mice or monkeys, and if it doesn't kill them, give it to people, give other people a placebo, and if it works better than the placebo, it's time to start making the TV commercials.

Here's how it typically works.

Target identification and assays: This is where the majority of molecular/cell biologists are employed, it's what many biotechs do almost entirely, and it employs the people whose academic training prepares them the least for industry. There are different ways to pick the target of interest, largely depending on the company. Some do rely on those PNAS papers, with the biologists replicating the results to find the ones that aren't, y'know, wrong, and trying them out in vivo when the original authors didn't do that. Large companies have have their own basic research and new startups often focus on the founder's PNAS paper from his academic lab. In any case, the goal is to find a target where up- or down-regulation might plausibly be therapeutic, and then to develop a high-throughput assay for that up- or down-regulation.

Screening and chemistry: Given an assay, someone then runs lots of compounds through it. Large pharmas have huge collections that they've accumulated over the last century; small startups might outsource this part. The best candidates serve as starting points for optimization by the synthetic chemists, a process that's a curious mix of science and art. Those new compounds get screened themselves, usually in a better but more labor-intensive assay. Meanwhile, a bunch of supporting cast members chime in with advice from their respective specialties. Lawyers start filing patents around now.

Formulation, scale-up and PK/PD: Formulation is definitely something I'd never imagined before getting involved in drug development. The top candidates coming out of the in-vitro assays have to be turned into something that can be administered to animals, so chemists have to tweak their salts and solvents. When they get the stuff to dissolve, it's given to mice or rats, and pharmacologists study where the drug goes (pharmacokinetics, PK) and biologists look to see if it's doing what it's supposed to do (pharmacodynamics, PD). This is an iterative process, with the formulation people trying to improve the PK numbers. Meanwhile, another group of specialized chemists figure out how to make kilograms of the compound instead of mere grams, and pharmacologists start looking into how the stuff is metabolized.

Toxicology: This is where the compounds are given to rats, dogs or monkeys to identify problems with toxicity, and also to check the PK/PD in primates. This is usually outsourced to specialist testing companies, but still employs primarily pathologists and veterinarians to evaluate the results.

If a compound survives all this, you have a potential drug! For small biotechs, this is the part where they get paid. In a large pharma, it might be where the process starts, when your company in-licenses the drug from the biotech. (After a team of chemists, biologists, pathologists and lawyers in your company do the due diligence to decide whether to buy it.) This seems like a logical point to break...

Note: for biologicals (antibodies, peptides, RNA therapies), the route is a bit different than for "small molecules". Here, a target is also defined, but the synthesis, screening and scale-up stages obviously employ many more biologists instead of chemists. And given the species-specificity of these therapies, the appropriate counterparts to the animal studies mentioned are frequently murky. This sort of development is going to be increasingly important in the future, though, especially if siRNA ever gets working.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Networking in science writing/editing

I’d like to piggyback here on CAE’s excellent, excellent post on networking.
Professional societies in your field of interest can offer invaluable opportunities for networking. If you are interested in scientific writing and editing, there are three organizations you should know about:

National Association of Science Writers (NASW)

Council of Science Editors (CSE)

All three associations offer a wealth of online information. There are listserves or discussion groups that offer the opportunity to virtually network with other writers and editors. There are online job boards, and web space to advertise your own services. Perhaps best of all, there are opportunities for face-to-face networking at national meetings, chapter meetings, and educational workshops.

Unfortunately, I do not belong to any local chapter of any of these associations. These are all U.S. organiations, with chapters near major metropolitan areas. I live in something of a Midwestern backwater, and the nearest chapter of AMWA is a five-hour drive from me. However, if you *do* live near a local chapter, attending local meetings is great way to learn more about these fields and make local contacts. I know one science writer who told me that attending local chapter meetings of NASW brought her invaluable contacts, and mentors who helped her learn the ropes of science journalism.

And as an illustration of how useful networking within these professional societies can be, I am going to reference this post I saw recently in the ScienceCareers discussion forum.

The original comment was posted at But I am copying the post in full here, because it is just that good (hope that’s okay. Someone let me know if it isn’t)

From a ScienceCareers poster going by the name of “Wes”:

Hello everyone, Just as a little background I've been reading and posting on this forum as a grad student and postdoc for a couple of years now. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do after graduate school, so I decided to take a postdoc at a prestigious University in one of the biotech hotbed areas of the country, in hopes of networking and landing a position outside of academia. I had read many of Dave's posts regarding "networking" and how invaluable this technique could be for meeting individuals outside of academia who may aid in your job search. At first, I was stubborn and didn't may much attention to these comments. So I applied to a bunch of companies online and either never heard back or received the wonderful automated generic response of "Thank you for applying but we have received more qualified applications". After a brief stint of frustration, anger, and even lashing out at someone on this forum who was already in an industry position, I decided it was time to take a more assert approach. Now this was not an easy step, no one I knew from my graduate school days or from my postdoc lab had EVER networked outside of academia, and had either no ambitions to look outside the Ivory Tower or had no idea how to go about it (or they were just too scared to try). The only information I was equipped with to start networking I found on this forum. After reading 'alternative careers for scientists' books and websites, I decided that medical writing appealed to me. I still get to think, read, and write about science without having the pressure of obtaining grants and performing bench work. But, how do I find such a job? After reading on this forum that websites existed for science professionals to network within a specific region, I found such a website for my area. There was an online calender of events, one of which was a talk given by a nobel prize winning molecular biologist which happened to be sponsored by the local AMWA chapter. I signed up to attend the talk and discovered there was an hour long networking session before the talk began. I was alone in a foreign world outside of my comfort zone. I didn't know anyone, but decided to just walk up to someone who looked friendly enough and began talking. Just small talk at first... "How are you? What do you do? Where to do work?" etc. After speaking with a few individuals, the approach became easier and by the end of the session I had 4 business cards and few names. A few days later I contacted the individuals via email and 3 out of 4 responded. I'll skip the details, but after retooling my CV to a resume and listing my transferable skills, I landed a couple of interviews. One interview went very well and I received a verbal offer, but after waiting a few months for the official offer, I was about to give up. Luckily, I was still attending monthly AMWA meetings and met another individual who was very open to talking about my interests in medical writing. So again, I applied directly to the director of her company and received an interview within a week. A few days after the interview I received an offer and I accepted. Now I have a whole new challenge of adjusting to a desk job in an entirely foreign environment, but I feel the first and most difficult step is complete. Basically, I'm writing this to share with those disgruntled postdocs that while the job searching process is not easy, and many bumps in the road will frustrate you even more, perseverance and networking is the key. Don't give up and eventually the combination of luck, timing, and hard work will come together and bless you with a real job. Good luck and happy hunting!

Now isn’t that a story to inspire and warm the heart?

*Note: I think all the professional societies I’ve mentioned have discounted membership fees for students.

*Note: The job board at the CSE website is open access (you don’t need to be a member to see it), and I actually got my second science editing gig by responding to an advertisement on that job site.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Thanks to Mad Hatter for creating this space and inviting me to post, and apologies for the tardiness of this introduction! My "alternative career" is in management consulting, although I'm currently on an extended maternity leave spending time with my 4-month old daughter. (My time on the computer has decreased markedly, but I am following the conversation with interest!)

I have actually had two alternative science careers: I first took some time off between college and graduate school and found work with a small science publishing company. Because of the small size of the company and my relationship with one of their authors, I was able to contribute to editing the scientific content of a textbook and had a fantastic time. However, I realized that publishing was less appealing to me than writing books, so I packed my bags and headed for graduate school.

When I began graduate school (in physical chemistry), my long-term goal was to become a small liberal-arts college professor, teach classes, run a small research program, and possibly write my own books someday. I did not find graduate school inspiring, and by the time I was halfway through graduate school I had decided that I wasn't committed enough to the tenure track (and the odds that Pablo has illustrated) to uproot my significant other and dedicate the next decade of my life to getting tenure.

Several friends suggested management consulting to me as a career, so although I was skeptical, I looked into it. I accepted a job offer from a management consulting firm and I've spent the last two years in a variety of locations, working for a range of companies with different focuses. I don't know how the next year will unfold now that my daughter is added to the mix, but I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in management consulting and think it was a fantastic move for me.

One important thing to consider when thinking about career moves is what truly motivates you, and what brought you to science in the first place. In my case, I loved thinking about science, solving problems, creating hypotheses to test in lab, and teaching others about science; however, I was not fond of benchwork and the rigorous trouble-shooting required to get experiments going. The tasks that energize you in the lab can be great clues as you venture into the alternative career realm (and save you from alternative careers that don't really suit you).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Networking: the basics

WHAT is a network?

People. People connected to you and to each other. Even if your primary network is quite small, each person in it will connect you to others who you may never have met or even heard of.

WHY is my network important?

In the context of moving into an alternative career, I think there are two main reasons:

Gathering general information

If you're a typical academic scientist, or are just completing your undergraduate degree, you may not know very much about the day-to-day realities of most alternative careers. In the early stages of your career planning, you may therefore find it helpful to interact with people who actually do these jobs.

Finding specific job opportunities

Later, when you're ready to apply for specific positions, the same people may be able to point you towards appropriate openings. They say that only a minority of jobs are ever actually posted; to have a shot at the rest of them, you have to know someone with inside information.

WHO should be in my network?

While you never know who might be able to help you advance your career (I once met a biotech head hunter in a security line-up at LA airport), put most of your energy into building the most obvious and relevant contacts:

  • Academics with a side-interest that matches your career aspirations, for example involvement in a spin-off biotech company, media relations, academic administration, science policy, etc.
  • People who are established in the career(s) you're interested in - regardless of their field. Any business-to-business marketer will be able to tell you many of the same things I did in my last post. And you never know who they might know from all the marketing courses they've taken!
  • Friends and family may be more useful than you expect, especially in the information gathering phase. My sister took a completely different career path to me, studying French and Italian at University, but ended up working in publishing. Through the course of our normal conversations and emails she's given me lots of insights into that industry that are surprisingly relevant to what I do. The same goes for friends who've gone into other careers.
Once you've done some preliminary digging, have a career path in mind, and are ready to look for specific opportunities, you will obviously need to focus in on the people who are most likely to be able to help you. This may mean finding new contacts in specific fields or geographical areas. The people from whom you acquired your initial information may be able to help you find these contacts, and even opportunities if you're really lucky - but if not, they probably know someone else who can help!

HOW do I build my network?

This is the tough part. Networking doesn't come easily to many of us, but at some point you're going to have to start approaching people. Finding the right contacts might just be the most important thing you do to kickstart a new career, and well worth the effort and initial awkwardness.

Your approach will depend to some extent on how open you can be about your intentions, which is more of an issue when you start looking for specific opportunities than when you're just gathering information. In my postdoc position I could be completely honest with everyone, meaning that I could ask my PI and other colleagues for their contacts in addition to my own. In industry I had to keep everything on the down-low and preface all of my internal networking attempts with "don't tell [boss], but..." . The latter approach takes more work, but it can still be done.

Finding your contacts

As I said above, literally anyone you bump into could become a useful contact, but don't rely on talking to random people at airports! Start with the obvious, but keep your ears and your mind open...

  • I got my chance in industry through an academic scientist who also owns a spin-off company; I went to him for information about writing careers in the biotech industry, and he set up a series of interviews for me. If you're interested in industry positions, try to find yourself a similar contact. They're more common than you might think, and your local technology transfer office may keep a list of spin-off companies started by academics at your institution.
  • Alternatively, try talking to your local sales rep, or the people staffing the booths at conferences, even if you're not interested in a career in sales. My former company sends marketing, technical support, R&D, business development and management staff to work at conferences alongside the inevitable local sales reps. They've also hired several ex-customers who expressed an interest in working in industry, and I've passed on booth visitors' CVs to management if I thought they were a good match.
  • Most biology conferences also attract journalists, staff from charitable foundations and other non-profits (check out the booths again), policy makers, NIH/CIHR employees or your national equivalent, etc. Talk to whoever you can, collect business cards, make yourself known.
  • Look out for local science-related events such as Cafe Scientifique nights, seminars, local biotech organisation functions etc. I've been to a few LifeScience BC events and have met all kinds of interesting people, from venture capitalists to patent lawyers to bench scientists.
  • Use the internet. Facebook is not the only social networking site out there - check out LinkedIn for business-orientated networking, or Nature Network for more of an academic science angle. Don't forget to link to your friends and family, and to look at your contacts' contacts! You might be surprised at who your high school friends know from university, and vice versa... not to mention your labmates and PI!

Using your contacts

If it's at all possible, be open with potential contacts about your career aspirations and any current job search. Don't be shy to tell anyone and everyone "I'm interested in careers in [x] and I'll probably be looking for a new job in that area in a year or so". Having said that though, don't start asking complete strangers if they can give you a job! I've basically told everyone except direct current supervisors that my ideal job is as a freelance science writer. So far, and without any actual begging, this has earned me one actual completed freelance project (unbloggable until later this year) and the potential of more - from my former company, from the publishing company my sister works for, from a video producer I worked with on one of my marketing projects.

  • The most important thing to remember is that most people love talking about themselves. So get them talking. Whether it's over coffee, lunch, beer, or by email, let them know that you value their advice and are potentially interested in following in their footsteps. (This stuff isn't brown-nosing if it's true!) Ask them about their experiences.
  • Leave it at that, for now. When you come back later looking for advice on how to find specific opportunities, people will be more likely to help you if you have an existing relationship.
  • Stay in touch. Drop the occasional email. Invest in the occasional coffee date.

WHEN should I network?

NOW. Even if you're not looking for a job at the moment. Even if you're not looking for a job this year. As with updating your CV, the middle of a career crisis is the WRONG time, especially if you haven't quite figured out which careers you might be interested in. People will be more willing to help you if you don't seem like you're clutching at straws as your contract ends. Remember, you're looking for a new career, not just a new job.

Wow, that was a long one! I hope I haven't scooped any other authors working on a similar post. I'm very interested in hearing about other people's experiences and in adding to the lists I started above.

The Google Challenge

I completely agree with some of the comments on a recent post that Googling your name should not produce anything you don't want a potential employer to see. However, I have a couple of questions for general consumption (one of which probably applies only to me, but hey...)

1. Should you be concerned if a Google search turns up nothing about you? I.e., if there aren't any web pages that actually refer to you (or there are only a few)? Is it actually a benefit to have Google hits, or is it just not a downside if you have good ones?

2. (related to above) Assuming one would like to have lots of good hits, what do you do if you happen to share a name with someone much more famous than you are (or for some other reason it's difficult for you to show up on a Google search)? I, for example, have the same name (down to the spelling and middle name) as a famous author. So a Google search for most versions of my name reveals almost exclusively sites related to her and her work, not to me and mine (not that I have a lot of hits anyway). The only way I've been able to get anything related to me to come up is by putting in my name plus a couple of keywords related to my resume.

Should I be concerned about my lack of Google hits? Or rejoice that I don't have to worry about it?

Better Late Than Never

I have been invited to contribute, and accepted the challenge. However, my career path is somewhat unlike anybody else's here, and is also very much in the middle of radical change at the moment. Lastly, i'm not a blogger at all, but a prolific commenter. So i feel very much out of my depth.

Regardless of all that, i do feel obligated to write the introductory post about myself, and explain why my posting will be sporadic at best for at least the next month, if not two.

Chapter One: I am born. Or at the very least, i attend college (Michigan State) and get a BS in Chemistry. In High School it became very obvious to me that Organic Chemistry was my path, so i got into college, did undergrad research for credit as early as possible, and became at TA during my junior year. I went straight from undergrad into the PhD program at Penn State, intending to go the full course BS-PhD-Postdoc-Big Pharma, but along the way i learned a lot about people, and myself. It became extremely obvious that spending 10 + years in college to work at Big Pharma and rarely actually enter the lab was not what i wanted. (Most of my friends who graduated and did a postdoc were promoted out of the lab within 2-5 years.) And the future for non-PhDs in Big Pharma was bleak, if one wanted to contribute meaningfully and intellectually to a project, so i started examining the job market for MS Chemists in the Biotech Sector.

*DING* This was where the action clearly was going to be. MS Chemists were just beginnning to be treated as fully capable human beings, able to be promoted beyond the bench and into management positions, but after a decade or longer. This was a timeline that better fit my idea of how long i wanted to be in the lab versus becoming a manager, if at all. Most of the MS Chemists i met on interviews spoke of intense intellectual contribution to their teams, and were generally very happy. Actually, to clarify, it varied from company to company: if one company had almost all engaged, happy Associates, and others had mostly disenfranchised, unhappy Associates. But the happy companies were all very happy, so i wrote up my thesis, defended it, accepted an offer in Cambridge, and worked my buns off.

I have worked at 3 companies in my 10 years on the job, and had different levels of happiness, engagement, disillusionment, and challenge. That's a long story for another post. But the short version is: I have used up my time in industry, and am in the process of finding a new career for myself. I wish this blog had come along sooner, because my first instincts would have been to figure out some way to transition internally. I would love to have been a good candidate for the Safety group, and i would love to become more skilled at HPLC maintainence and repair. However, how to accomplish either of those without changing companies eluded me.

So in the end instead of a seemless, natural transition, i applied to grad school to get my Masters in Education, and will be attending full time in the fall. Things are very much in limbo regarding my job and home, which is why my posting will not be timely or reliable until one of two things happens: If the house sells, i will move, attend school full time, and be very pleased with that outcome. If the house does not sell, i have to figure out some way of attending the less than once weekly in-person night classes 190 miles away and yet still making enough money to cover the mortgage. That is going to be a very complex road to navigate, and so until that giant unknown is settled my contributions will be minimal at best.

However, i'm still reading voraciously, and whatever i learn from my chosen path that might help someone else figure out how to change careers without completely ending one and re-educating to start the next, i am more than willing to share.

Thank you for the invitation to contribute, and as soon as my life settles down i intend to fulfill my end of the bargain. And thanks to everyone else for being more reliable than me ;)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The career crisis and the CV

I'd like to rebound on Mad's previous post.

I always had a CV updated. Well, maybe not always, but in the last 2-3 years I didn't let my CV unupdated for more than a couple of months. I also got one online. I even googled my name to see what websites were popping up first. Was this information that I wanted my next employer know? If not, learn the lesson: never put your name again on such a website. Then learn a bit how Google ranks the websites and arrange for other websites to take the lead. The first page must be clean.

When my career crisis happened, I was certainly not ready [who is?]. But at least I got all my career information ready. What I did where, what I published, what conferences I attended and what were the titles of my talks, who I supervised, what grant I got, etc., etc. All I had to do was a little bit of CV cleaning/shuffling for the different positions I was applying for.

That's what I thought.

My problem number one was with my online CV. As I simultaneously applied for different jobs with emphasis on different skills, shall I rearrange it for every position I was applying for? Should I advertise for my website? Worse, should I advertise for my blog (I never did)? What I wanted to do was to match my online CV with the position I wanted the most at a given time. But that was much too much work. Keeping it simple and factual was probably the smartest thing to do.

I was unaware of my problem number two until a friend of mine, working in a private company, had a look at my CV. He knew me, knew I was a smart guy (hey, he's a friend), knew some of my skills... but couldn't find any such information in my CV. That was a good academic CV tailored for academia, with a little bit of focus on what I really wanted to do (more management / communication / supervision /...). But it was not a CV for the industry market. And he was not surprised at all that I didn't get any interview.

We spent a couple of hours starting to completely rewrite my CV. Something I wished I learned before. Something any reader of this blog should learn. 


And I never finished this re-writing. Because I got positive feedback on my favorite application. So I preferred to wait a bit before spending more hours on that CV. And I finally got the job I wanted. Guess what? Well, a position in academia involving more management / communication / supervision (but not as an assistant prof). Exactly what my CV was designed for.

But I have to admit that a bit of luck helped...

Do As I Say, Not As I Did

As more authors introduce themselves, I'm realizing that my own self-introduction was rather brief and sketchy. So I thought I'd provide a few more details about my career path in the context of a piece of sage advice Bean-Mom provided in her first post:

I didn’t start seriously researching “alternative careers” until very late in my postdoc. In fact, I waited until the push came to shove—when my PI lost his major source of grant funding, and I found myself forced to really think of my career options for the first time. My hope is that young scientists reading this blog will not wait for that “push comes to shove.” Don’t wait until the last minute.

I think one of the worst things one can do in considering alternative careers is to do so in reaction to, and during a time of, career crisis. Like Bean-Mom, I didn't do any research into alternative careers until my crisis, when I realized, two years into the Morass of Misery that was my postdoc experience, that the path I was on wasn't what I wanted at all. And all I could see before me on that path was years and unending years of more of the same.

What I should have done then was to consider my interests, skills, and options, and come to a rational decision as to what alternative career I should choose. But at the time, rationality was drowned out by the voice in my head that was screaming, "GET. THE. HELL. OUT!!!" So I applied for all sorts of random jobs--anything I thought I was remotely qualified for--including many that I now know I wouldn't have enjoyed. Fortunately, I didn't get any of those jobs, and was lucky enough to land my current job instead.

My point is that a career crisis is a bad time to be researching, and making decisions about, alternative careers. And some people who do so jump too impulsively into the first thing that comes along and wind up in some god-awful alternative position that may not be any better than the position they were trying to escape to begin with.

If you're not in the middle of a career crisis and are thinking about options, then you're in way better shape than I was in. Some good ways to begin the research are:

  1. Look through the alumni database, as Bean-Mom suggested. This will give you some idea as to what kinds of alternative positions are available to scientists in your sub-specialty, and may also help you identify good contacts for future networking. More posts on networking to follow.

  2. If your institution's career center sponsors seminars on alternative careers, attend them. Yes, they take time, but you might just discover a really cool career that you never knew existed. And guess what? Those other people sitting in that auditorium are also interested in alternative careers and may be prime targets for information sharing.

  3. Pay attention to what the graduating students and senior postdocs in your department are doing career-wise. Some of them will either be taking alternative positions, or have done some research into them. These people can be a tremendous source of information and advice, so don't pass up on the opportunity to talk to them before they leave.

  4. Check out online job resources for more ideas. Some of the websites that the authors of this blog have found useful are linked in the sidebar.

You'll find that there is a near infinite number of potential alternative careers to choose from. And trust me, you do not want to be researching, networking in, applying to, and interviewing for all of them at the same time. I'll suggest a few ideas for how to narrow down the options in the next post.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Story

A female Ph.d. I know held a research post in a respected company – a position that was arguably comparable to a faculty position. She had good writing and management skills in addition to research skills.

Slowly she started getting all the writing tasks - proposals, marketing reports, and what not. To cut a long story short, when she objected she was fired (well not exactly fired, but told put up or get out). Her self-esteem thoroughly thrashed, she ended up in a position where all she does is writing and a smattering of management. This is where I met her. I found the whole thing quite puzzling.

How is it that men don’t end up like this, or do they?

I’d like to put forth a view point here. Men carefully screw up tasks they don’t like. Carefully of course, because it is a risk – a risk they are willing to take – to ensure career success. Writing tasks are minimally acceptable. Accents get thicker when doing tedious tasks. On top of that male supervisors, feeling a sort of kinship, aren't too surprised. Female supervisors might find it more annoying, but in the end brush it off as men aren't the best communicators anyway. So any risk is mitigated to an extent. This is a more risky tactic for women.

What's the thinking on this?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Admin: Questions For Authors

Fellow authors, I have a few questions/comments for you regarding how this blog is run and thought it would be easier to write an “admin post” than to send mass email. Apologies to readers—we shall return to our regularly scheduled programming shortly.

  1. Would you like me to set up an email distribution list containing all the authors' addresses for future group communications, or is everyone happy with using occasional admin posts for that?

  2. Blogger has a feature which sends all comments made on this blog (regardless of who authored the post) to individual email addresses. I am happy to set this up for anyone who would like to receive comments by email. The only problem is that Blogger limits this to 10 email addresses, and there are already more than 10 of us. Let me know if you’re interested in this, and if necessary, I can look into creating an alias or setting up a specific email account for this that we can all access.

  3. Please use labels on your posts to make it easier for readers to find posts by topic. And at the rate we’re going, it’ll help us find specific posts too! My suggestion is to label your posts with your field of training and the alternative careers and/or topics you are discussing. I’ve also toyed with the idea of labeling posts with the author's pseudonym so one can search for posts by author. What do you think about that?

  4. I’m considering creating a “Topic of the Week” on the sidebar that will contain a suggested topic for everyone to weigh in on. For example, CAE and I have been discussing writing a series of posts on networking, which is a topic some of you may also wish to write about. Anyone can suggest a topic and, of course, nobody will be required to post on the topic. Thoughts on this?

  5. I’ll set up a “Resources” list in the sidebar to house all the useful websites you have recommended. Might take me a few days, but feel free to post or email me links you would like included.

Thanks for all your great posts!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Marketing: the good, the boring and the ugly

As promised in my introductory post, here are some thoughts on my time as a marketer.

I don't want to identify the company I worked for by name on this blog (and please don't try to guess - all attempts will be deleted from the comments), so all I'll say is that "my" products comprised various ranges of kits that we sold to research labs. Marketing pharmaceuticals to doctors and their patients is a different kettle of fish entirely, and not something I'm qualified to comment on in any way other than rants about advertising prescription drugs on TV. (WTF? I couldn't believe it when I moved to Canada from the UK and saw my first Viagra ad).

My job was to handle all aspects of my products' launch and promotion. At its best, the job was fun and tapped into my creative abilities in a way I've not experienced (at work) before or since. At its worst, it combined the stress of tight deadlines with the boredom of repetitive brainless tasks. The latter scenario became increasingly dominant throughout my time in the job, as we launched more and more products and became bogged down in "maintenance marketing" (the tasks described as Boring below).

The Good
  • The people. I interacted with people in most departments within the company, and most people were great, but the team of product managers was especially helpful and supportive. Good colleagues are very important to me, and these guys were awesome. I'm still friends with lots of people from across the company - my new job is only a few blocks away so there are frequent beer, coffee and lunch dates.
  • Big meaty creative projects. My favourite was the video we made to promote our lead product, for which I wrote the storyboard and script, worked closely with the producer, assisted at the shoot, helped with post-production, and even saw my pencil scribbles converted into animation by someone much more artistically talented than me. My gloved hands also made it into a couple of scenes after our main "actor" left for the day. I also had fun with puns - we were often asked for slogans for ads, t-shirts etc, most of which never made it into the public eye, which is a shame. I also came up with some promotional item ideas (e.g. playing cards with our logo on them) and got to work closely with the resident graphic artists on ads, emails etc.
  • Big meaty writing projects. This was where they needed a scientist, as my projects included literature reviews, summaries of published papers that used our products etc. The promise of this type of work was why I took the job, but there wasn't nearly as much of it as I would have liked.
  • Conferences. Yes, I was one of those people who stands at a booth, trying to get your contact details in return for the playing cards and pens you're taking. I loved meeting researchers and discussing how our products might help them with their work.

The Boring

  • Endless paperwork.
  • Initiating, proofing and signing off on endless product labels.
  • Product inserts. Dear god, the product inserts. Each one unique, but having to conform to a standard template. The 5 different R&D scientists who developed the products, each with their own interpretation of the standard template. The struggle to ensure accuracy and consistency at all times. The endless revisions. And, the straw that broke the camel's back, the major change to the standard template that entailed making detailed revisions to dozens and dozens of inserts. I just finished this project before I left. I almost went nuts.
  • Product manuals. Possibly the only thing worse than the product inserts.
  • The endless meetings, other than those that discussed the fun projects in the first category.

The Ugly

  • Management speak - constantly shifting, never comprehensible (be sure to have your ducks in line so they can sing from the same hymn sheet).
  • Decision making by committee, and/or multiple edits and sign-offs required on every single label and document, each successive signatory tending to reverse the changes made by the person before them.
  • Lack of a sense of humour (I was made to remove all "fun" scenes and dialogue from my video script because scientists are supposed to be serious and will not respond to cheesiness. Yeah, right, tell that to BioRad - their PCR video went viral and is now a cult favourite that I've even heard scientists sing in the pub (Who's your Daddy?)).
  • Continual changes to paperwork processes and other SOPs.
  • The few bad apples among my colleagues.
  • Metrics.
  • The endemic email diarrhea (most of it designed to cover the sender's back by copying the entire company on every message).
  • Constant minor niggly urgent tasks that took me away from my cool projects, e.g. individually editing each of 60 web pages because we decided to change our nomenclature and our website editing interface sucked.
Yeah, OK, so the last list could refer to almost any job, and might have more to do with my own poor fit with the job and the company than with marketing in general. Every job has its ups and downs and repetitive tasks - during my postdoc I would have put DNA minipreps and pH-ing solutions under Boring and the low pay under Ugly, and in my current job I'd definitely class updating PIs' CVs as Boring. But in my case, the primary motivation for getting out of my marketing job was that the sheer volume of items on the Boring and Ugly lists was preventing me from undertaking anything on the Good list.

Marketing has some very fun and creative aspects, but it's not for everyone. If you're thinking of taking this route, choose your company wisely; the tasks performed by product managers (and marketing departments in general) vary between companies, and from what I've heard, my company wasn't exactly typical. Try to find out - preferably from people with the same job description - what their day-to-day life is like, how much of their time is taken up with maintenance marketing, and how much time they get to spend on the creative stuff. As with requests to meet students and postdocs from a potential new lab, any reluctance by your interviewers to let you talk to existing staff should be a red flag, especially if you're new to the field. (Disclaimer: I actually did talk to several other product managers before taking the job and got some very mixed messages - politics being what they are and all).

Despite some of the negative comments I've made, I learned a hell of a lot during my time in industry. The experience helped me to get my current job and will continue to be useful to me throughout my career. Ultimately, if things go to plan, the primary benefit will probably be that the job diversified my network of contacts. But that's a post for another day.

Another helpful site

Maddox22's question about disclosing salary reminds me of another useful site I wanted to recommend: Science's career forum. It's part of a much larger collection of resources (browse upwards and outwards) that I mostly haven't waded through, although Tooling Up also looks useful.

The forum does have a somewhat weird vibe, but it's an excellent place to ask questions when, say, you need to know what to wear to an interview. The big picture discussions can also be helpful.

Resume, cover letter, and salary requirements

So, as I've been applying to various and sundry jobs, I have occasionally come across requests for salary requirements. (One employer even wanted to know my salary for every single job on my resume.)

I'm curious about others' thoughts on the salary requirement. I think this may not be something that arises in academia. It might be something that business-school graduates learn about, but I certainly have never had any "instruction" in the matter.

So, if you've ever had to put down a salary requirement, what have you done? Do you play it honest and truly give the minimum amount you need to live (which would be the literal definition of "requirement")? Do you research the matter and put down a number that seems reasonable given your qualifications and the position? Do you put down your current salary, or what you'd like to make?


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hi Y'all!

I thought I would take a break from my lab and come over to chat for a while. First of all, thanks to Mad Hatter and Bean Mom for starting the Alternative Scientist blog and for the invite to post. As someone who had no real guidance in her career decisions, I was happy to read that someone was trying to get information out on the subject of alternative careers for scientists.

Well, I guess I should start with a proper introduction. My name is Mad Chemist Chick and I am an organic chemist (Hmmm, sounds like the beginning of a support group, huh? ;-).

So how did I get to where I am now you may ask? I attended a small liberal arts college and majored in chemistry and minored in biology. During that time, I fell in love with organic research and went on to attend grad school at a large public university where I performed research in both organic methodology and natural product synthesis.

During grad school, I found I enjoyed teaching labs and tutoring students, however, I never seriously considered obtaining an academic tenure-track position. I did repeatedly question my sanity for putting up with the conditions in my lab though. I thought that maybe I should come up with a plan B. What if I could not work in chemistry in the way I had planned? I ended up ordering a book called Careers for Chemists: A World Outside the Lab. It gave me a lot of ideas but none of them were quite as appealing to me as drug discovery (For those interested in pharma, you might want to check out the book Jobs in the Drug Industry).

I moved to the Midwest to take a postdoc at a large research university where I performed a mix of organic and organometallic research. After I finished my postdoc, I had the choice of applying for industrial jobs or taking a job at a small liberal arts school teaching as an adjunct and doing some research in the lab of a tenured professor there. In a fit of what I can only describe as madness, I chose the latter. I thought I really couldn’t reach an honest decision regarding industry versus academia without having tried to teach a lecture course and dealing with all the crap that comes with it. I was also worried that if I chose industry and then later changed my mind, it would be much harder to go back and try to get into teaching.

Long story short:
While I really enjoyed interacting with the students, I decided I wanted to stick with my plan A. After postdoc #2, I took some time off and started looking for an industrial job. I ended up being unemployed for about 14 months and started doing some science/technical writing to help make ends meet (and have continued it as an extra source of income).

At the onset of my job search, I had to take an honest look at what I wanted from my career. During some early interviews at large pharma, I saw some things that I did not like and that really concerned me. So I widened my search to include some more non-traditional jobs. Chemists are really lucky in that there is a broad array of companies needing our skills. I interviewed at all sorts companies including biotechs, small pharma, start-ups, law firms, medical supplies, energy and contract research organizations (CROs). I ended up taking a position at a CRO and so far love it.

In terms of this blog, I don’t have firm ideas as to what I will write quite yet. I was thinking about possible avenues for increasing one’s marketability, my experiences while job hunting and hiring (including some outrageous examples of blatant prejudice), and debunking (or confirming) some of the myths of jobs in industry. If anyone has any questions (or ideas), just post them here or over in my lab and I will answer them ASAP.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Joining in

Thanks to Mad Hatter for getting this forum rolling! I'm not a blogger, but when she posted the original list of participants here there didn't seem to be anyone from the Big Pharma side, so I thought I'd chime in.

I did my PhD in a model system molecular biology lab. By the time I finished, I'd already decided I wanted to pursue a career in biotech or pharma. I looked into those options then, and found that PhD positions basically required a postdoc. I thought about industry postdocs, but was advised that the same track to get a faculty position was the recommended one here as well: go to the hottest lab you can get into and get high-profile publications. (More on these topics in future posts.)

So I went to the hottest megalab I could get into, which was -- let's just say it had its good points and its drawbacks. After a too-long postdoc, and a too-long job search covering pharmas, biotechs and national labs, I landed a position in one of the large pharmaceutical companies, and have been there for several years. By and large, it's easily been the most pleasant stretch of my career in research.

Why industry? The biggest reason is that I wanted to do something that provided tangible benefit to people. Not to belittle basic research at all, but I personally was tired of producing incremental bits of knowledge that might have some non-zero chance to (as the R01 applications always put it) "lead to a potential treatment for cancer", and wanted to get a lot closer to really doing it. Secondarily, after spending years feeling shackled to my and my wife's PI's, I just couldn't see spending the rest of my career on the opposite side of that relationship.

When I got there, I spent the first few months trying to decipher the blizzard of abbreviations and jargon that describe a research and development process I barely understood. The second or third day, I decided to hit Google and find something that might get me oriented. That's how I found In The Pipeline, and I can't begin to say how helpful Derek's posts (and attached comments) were. Despite its slant towards chemistry, the biggest recommendation I'd have for anyone interested in learning about pharma work and culture is to read through his archives. Seriously -- pick topics from the sidebar and read through them.

In general, until recently the chemistry blogs were the only science-related blogs I read, as their focus on their work and workplaces was of much more interest to me than the various obsessions of the life sciences people. It's only recently that nuts-and-bolts discussions (like the ones here) have started catching on on the biomed side, and it's a welcome development.

So, what would you like me to talk about? Things I'd had in mind included: explanations of the drug development process, the various jobs involved, the hiring process, myths about industry work. (Pablo Achard scooped me on the analysis of the FASEB study I'd planned to do next!) But I'd very much welcome any suggested topics.

How poor are they that have not patience

"Thou know'st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft;
And wit depends on dilatory time."

3 days ago I got a skype job interview. It went very well. At the end, I was offered my dream job. It is not a professor position. Not anymore.
5 months ago, I lost patience. The following lines are a free translation of a post I wrote (in French) during this period on my own blog. I believe they are still relevant.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a PhD allowed you to become a professor. Then, a well intended person invented the post-doctoral appointment. Great invention! Right after 5 years of PhD, made to prove yourself in research, and just before 5-6 years as an assistant professor, where you can prove yourself before being tenured, here comes the post-doctoral appointment, meant to prove yourself. The post-doctoral status is so weird that I have to explain what it is every time I talk with people outside academia. It is so weird that my employer gave me... a student ID. Sure, I will enjoy some rebates. But that tells a lot about how the administration sees us.

I trully believe that one more article would improve my CV. As well as one more class taught, or one more grant obtained. But it's an endless race. And the reasons are pretty simple. The number of PhDs and post-docs keeps growing on while the number of professor positions is stable. The competition becomes harder and harder. You need more papers than your neighbor. One more post-doctoral year makes you more competitive. But your neighbor does the same calculus. And both of you spend one more year, and one more, and one more until one is lucky... or renounces.

Here are some data to support this claim. Through a Nature article (in Aug 2007), I found these figures on the FASEB's website. The numbers are for biomedical sciences only but certainly apply to other disciplines.

First, let's have a look at the number of PhDs per year in the last decades:

In a 30 years period, the number of PhDs more than doubled (blame the women's liberation ;-)

Whereas the number of post-docs...

tripled in the last 25 years (because of women and foreigners... god damn liberals!!)
Note that I am not quite sure of the absolute number: the FASEB cites this reference where the above numbers correspond to the total number of post-docs in all disciplines, of which biomedical sciences are a half. But the argument remains the same.

On the other hand, as I said, the number of tenured and tenure-track professor positions remained stable.

Consequence #1: what do the PhDs do? More and more are moving to industry.

Consequence #2: the competition for professor position increases as well as the duration of post-doctoral periods. The following graph shows the percentage of PhD holders being post-docs 1-2 years after their PhD defense.

And this one is the percentage of post-docs 3-4 years after the defense.

From 1973 to 1980, the proportion of post-docs 1-2 years after the PhD doubles and stabilizes around 50% (hence the absolute number increases continuously).
From 1973 to 1997, the proportion of post-docs 3-4 years after the PhD quadruples (!!) and then decreases. Note that this decrease is relative, the absolute number of post-docs after 3-4 years remains stable around 5000 in these last 6 years (compare to 500 in 1973).

En 1973, out of the 75% of PhDs that were not post-docs, a good number were professors.
In 2003, out of the 50% of PhDs that were not post-docs, most went to the private sector.

I don't know the number of post-docs 4 years after the PhD defense. But the table 8 of this document indicates that 15% of the post-docs got their PhD more than 6 years before. The absolute number is around 1900.

With 42000 tenured and 12000 tenure-track professors (NSF numbers), we can evaluate the number of open positions to be somewhere between 2000 and 2500 each year.

Patience is therefore a key factor to land a professor position. The brightest and luckiest will go faster but, for everybody, the delay increases.

And for those who believe that this is a good thing for Science, I let you read this report written by a committee of Lords of the House of Commons. The abstract is pretty explicit:
"For many researchers there is no career structure and little hope of obtaining a permanent position. The research in our universities suffers in such a climate. Many researchers are either new in position or searching for their next contract. Research is left unfinished or unpublished. [...] Universities have deflected the [financial] risk onto the researchers; this bad management has added to the plight of contract researchers. In this respect, universities have failed their research workforce and the UK's science base. "

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A kind of risk analysis

Thanks Mad Hatter for starting this blog and inviting me to post.

I've been thinking a lot about taking risks, so I'll make that my first post. One reason why the tenure-track is considered good is that it leads to a tenured position and that provides a certain amount of job security. There's also some freedom to pursue longer term projects (to a point). It is a relatively stable low risk career choice (not thinking about the heart-burn caused by the shenanigans that go on in academia here - that's another post).

Industry positions in large companies are also quite stable. There is less job security and less freedom to follow pet projects, but the salary is larger. You get paid more to absorb the risk of a lay off and your willingness to contribute to the profits of the company.

Positions in smaller companies and start-ups are less stable (unless your start-up is Google). Not to say there aren't people making a good living happily working for small companies. Just that there is little job security, even if you do fantastic work. An SAP programmer hopping from start-up to start-up is considered routine. A Ph.D. somehow seems to have more baggage to lug along (sigh).

Science writing has been a topic of discussion frequently. Probably if the position is in a large company it will be more stable than smaller companies. Science writing positions in academia tend to depend heavily on grants. So one has to always look for the next position to be on the safe side.

Coming to alternative faculty posts, academia always had temporary assistant professors, instructors, and adjunct faculty. The primary tasks in these positions are still teaching/research/service in varying ratios, just as in the traditional tenure-track. The difference is that there is little job security in these temporary positions. I wish these positions are given the same respect and stability that regular faculty positions automatically get (more in another post).

There are also temporary faculty positions where the job expectations are different from the usual teaching/research/service. These can be highly individualistic. There isn't much stability though and too much depends on the whims of the PI. Having held one such position I can offer some general suggestions with the benefit of hindsight:
  • Get as many details about job expectations as possible. If you are told you have to do what it takes, be careful. You could end up doing some tedious and time-consuming work that won't add anything to your resume, or worse. It would make finding the next job difficult.

  • Ask how you will be evaluated and what kind of promotion you can earn.

  • Negotiate in advance how much research time you will get (unless you don't want it). If you are told you can do research on your own time, realistically evaluate if you will be able to do any research at all. Same goes for teaching.

  • Negotiate in advance when your position will be renewed. I know someone who had to ask her PI every month from January till July before finally getting the letter of renewal.

Perhaps we could use this blog as a forum to lobby for more stability in these alternative faculty positions.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Same Old Shit

I wasn't going to post again this soon because I didn't want to hog the airwaves, so to speak, but I just have to write about this before my head explodes.

DrugMonkey wrote a post on Nature's recent not-so-objective review of PLoS. It's a great post, but in the process of venting his spleen on the Nature article, DrugMonkey also decided to take a dump on scientists who chose alternative careers as journal editors.

Geez d00d, do you understand that one of the biggest knocks on the GlamourMagz is the fact that the editorial decisions aren't being made by respected senior (active, working) scientists? Instead of a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears punks who opted for publishing jobs because they were barely hacking it as postdocs, never mind barely making it as junior faculty?

And here is part of the comment I made on that post:

I happen to have worked with one of those "wet-behind-the-ears punks" before he became an editor. He was a fantastic academic scientist and his taking an editorial position had absolutely nothing to do with lack of ability to hack it in academia.

Seriously, it's because people make sweeping judgmental statements like this that grad students and postdocs have to turn to anonymous blogs to get information on non-academic tt careers.

Now I'm not saying that there aren't incompetent scientists who end up in alternative careers because they couldn't hack it in academia. In fact, I have occasionally worked with incompetent scientists who I have wished would opt for a different career. Preferably something that did not involve me. But these sorts of assumptions really fucking piss me off.

I should point out, however, that DrugMonkey has been kind enough to link to us and add us to his blogroll. And I, for one, am appreciative of the number of people he has sent our way. So I'll assume this one rant was an aberration and not representative of DrugMonkey's general views on people who choose alternative careers.

If it's Pittsburgh, it must be Wednesday

Well, I guess it's my turn to do the introduction thing. As a preface, let me say that not only is this my first post on this blog, it's also my first post ever, on any blog, anywhere. Yes, I'm a noob. Please educate me on blog-iquette (woohoo! I coined a word!) as necessary.

So, the short life story: I have a Ph.D. in geochemistry, which I earned in 2005 from Cornell University. (My mother was very proud.) Before that, I got a B.S. in geology from the University of Delaware.

About two-thirds of the way through graduate school, I became aware (thanks to a long series of unpleasant events that I won't detail here) that I had, in fact, very little interest in becoming a professor or researcher--at least in geochemistry. (For the record, 2/3 of the way through is a VERY bad time to figure this out. It's far enough in that it's silly to change direction, especially if you have funding; and it's far enough from the end that you have the prospect of a year and a half of not really enjoying what you're doing to comfort you at night. I don't recommend it.) I thought what I actually wanted to do was teach high school. I had become involved in several outreach/teaching activities as a grad student, and they had gotten me into classrooms and in front of kids, and I really enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, this was also right around the time that the No Child Left Behind act was starting to bare its teeth, and I didn't think I'd be able to get a teaching job without certification. And getting certification either meant paying for another 2-3 years of graduate school, or committing to teach for 3-4 years in a high-need public school while also working 25 hours a week earning my degree. Neither of these options appealed to me, so I started exploring other options.

As you might imagine, I had a rather hard time exploring those avenues. The university career services center was--to put it politely--less than useful for someone not seeking a job in business, marketing (no offense, CAE), or industrial research. My advisor was, if not negative, definitely not particularly helpful. So I turned to the Internet. (Where else?)

I started looking for jobs with museums, universities, textbook companies, pretty much anything that would let me do pre-college education without state certification. I sent out the requisite million resumes. The only response I got was from an educational content developer. They offered me a job as a science editor, and as I had at that point been looking for a job for a year or so and had had not so much as a nibble from anywhere else, I took the job. Three years later, I am still here.

The company I work for is a vendor. That means that other companies hire us to do work for them. Most of the companies we work for are educational publishers of some kind; almost all focus on the K-12 market. We've done work for the big basal publishers, and also for lots of smaller companies. We do all sorts of products, from text books to teacher guides to lab manuals to high-stakes tests and test prep. Our company works in all disciplines; I work in the science department. The department is currently quite small, so we all pretty much have to do everything; although my degree is in Earth science, last week I was writing life science questions, and this week I'm working on a teacher guide for physics.

If there is one thing I can say about my job, it is that it is never predictable. This is, I think, a function both of the type of company I work for and of the type of work I do. Because we work entirely on contract, we are never really sure how much work we will have in the future; therefore, things tend to swing from feast to famine with alarming rapidity (although, because NCLB's science requirements are now coming into effect, it's been more in the "feast" mode lately). And because I'm one of only a few editors in the department, I'm never really sure what I'm going to be doing next.

I'd say the job has its ups and downs. I'm fairly confident now that, although I enjoy the work, this particular industry is not a great fit for me. I think my first instincts in grad school--that I'd like to work in informal education, such as in a museum--were probably right; I'm currently keeping my eyes and ears open for other job options.

I guess that's about it (you should see the LONG life story...) for my background. Looking forward to your comments...

(And for those of you questioning the title: Yes, I live in Pittsburgh. Yins should visit, n'at.)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Another day, another introduction

First of all, many thanks to Mad Hatter for setting up this blog, and for inviting me to post on it!

I feel like my "alternative career" might be "professional blogger", since this is now the third site I contribute to. Unfortunately I'm yet to make a single penny from blogging, so you get to hear all about my real-life alternative career instead.

(An aside: this post will include several links to my main blog, since I've written a few career-related posts and it makes more sense to link to them than to write everything all over again. I promise to keep the cross-linking to a minimum in future!)

What is my career? Well, I'm not quite sure yet. Ideally I'd like to be a freelance science writer, but my current job can be very intense and I usually come home too knackered to face a blank piece of paper. So rather than focusing on the future, here's a quick run down of the story so far.

I was born and raised in Northern England. I started off wanting to be a vet, but an excellent high school biology teacher got me interested in genetics and I've never looked back. After a genetics degree in Newcastle and a PhD in Glasgow, I found my way to a postdoctoral position studying human endogenous retroviruses and genome evolution in Vancouver, Canada. (See my post "Why I Got Into Science" for a more detailed version).

I started my postdoc with the knowledge that I didn't want to be a PI (my reasons are in my post "Why I Got Out of Research"). That gave me the freedom to choose such a self-indulgent research project, rather than something that was less interesting to me but more likely to attract grant funding. It also allowed me to treat my postdoc research as just a job, rather than my whole life. I'm a work-to-live kinda gal, not a live-to-work-er.

I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do after my postdoc, but I knew that I enjoyed writing about science more than actually doing it. I was lucky enough to have a head of department who had one foot in industry and one in academia, so I set up an appointment with him when I had a few months left on my postdoc contract. I took some writing samples and asked for his advice as to what careers were out there. And... he offered me an interview at his biotech spin-off company!

I met with the heads of R&D, Business Development, Sales, and Marketing, and Marketing was clearly the best fit. I was promised technical writing for flyers, minireview articles, product manuals, advertising etc. I ended up as a Product Manager, responsible for all aspects of my products' launch and advertising.

As it turned out the job wasn't the best fit for me, but my two years in industry left me with a lot of very useful skills and, perhaps more importantly, more diverse contacts than you'll make in academia (there's a future post right there). And my marketing experience looked great on my application for my current job - a grant / manuscript / whatever writer for a large academic department.

I'm really enjoying my new job, and I have a guaranteed salary until November 2009. At that point, if they like me they'll try to find the money to keep me. Another downside of academia, but if my two years in industry taught me anything, they taught me that I'm not really cut out for industry. So fingers crossed and maybe I'll get my chance at freelancing after all! I can freelance my way to the unemployment office... just as I become a Canadian citizen.