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.  


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. 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 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?