Science Careers Blog

November 2007

This has little to do with scientific careers, but given the hardships of student life and the weekend looming, I thought I'd pass it on.

According to a new study commissioned by the British National Lottery and carried out by Richard Tunney of the University of Nottingham, what really makes people happy is within everyone's reach.

The study compared the happiness of lottery winners with non-winners, concluding that lottery jackpot winners are happier more often (95% claiming to be satisfied with their life versus 71% of the control population). Yet the study also asked what treats the winners were indulging in and how these contributed to their well-being. The study found that there was nothing like taking time to have a long bath, listen to music, or read a book to lift the spirits of the people who described themselves as happy. In contrast, those people who described themselves as less happy would rather go out to buy themselves something, like a CD or a meal out. You don't necessarily need to splash out a lot of money to feel better after a bad day.

"While buying sports cars, giving up work and going on exotic holidays is out of reach for most of us, there are small lessons we can learn from society’s happiest people to help improve our quality of life," Tunney wrote in a press release. "It appears that spending time relaxing is the secret to a happy life. Cost-free pleasures are the ones that make the difference -- even when you can afford anything that you want."

"If departments or institutes are expanding, you prefer to identify someone with a funding track record, so they are able to hit the ground running," says E. Albert Reece, dean of the medical school at the University of Maryland, quoted by in the Baltimore Sun

Grants often beget future grants, which sometimes lead to patents and royalties and more money for the institution down the line.

The article, Universities in Hot Pursuit of Research Talent, provides an interesting look into the recruitment of scientists at leading research universities.

November 29, 2007

More Space for Negotiation

According to an article published last week in Ecoaula, the education Web site of the Spanish financial newspaper El Economista, today's university graduates are in a privileged position when negotiating a job with a company. At least in Spain, "university graduates know that their specialised training is worth more than money compensation, and for this reason they feel in the position to demand from companies a bonus in personal benefits," writes Chus Muñoz, the article's author. 

Among the perks Spanish graduates want are opportunities for life-long training and long-term prospects for professional development. Also important to them are flexible working hours and what has come to be known in Spain as "emotional salary" -- a series of company policies that help employees achieve a good work-life balance.

Why the change in the balance of power between employees and employers? According to a study recently released by consulting firm PeopleMatters, it's the aging of the Spanish population and a greater demand for well-trained employees. "The shortage of talent guarantees ... a good salary, but [well-trained workers can] also demand, in addition, other things," Muñoz continues in the article.

That may not be possible in all countries, sectors, disciplines, or companies -- but it is a good reminder that, when negotiating for a job, there's more than just salary to contemplate. So before closing the deal, take some time to think about what you would need to be a fulfilled, well-rounded employee. Provided it's reasonable, ask for it courteously and be willing to compromise. It won't hurt to ask.

You may read the article in full here (in Spanish).

November 20, 2007

Job Trends in European R&D

A report released this month by the European Commission -- Business R&D in Europe: Trends in Expenditures, Researcher Numbers and Related Policies -- offers a snapshot of recent job-market trends in industrial research, with, as its main findings:

Over the 1995-2004 period,

* The number of researchers employed in R&D companies as well as R&D investments grew in line with Europe's overall economic performance.

* The representation of industrial researchers among the total employed population increased by 25%.

* The representation of researchers among all industrial employees rose by more than 1%.

* As measured in 2003, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) provided a fifth of industrial R&D expenditure but employed a third of all R&D researchers.

* The manufacturing industry (which includes pharmaceuticals) remained Europe's core industrial sector with around 80% of all industrial researchers and R&D investments.

* Among the manufacturing industries, the automotive and pharmaceutical sectors showed the greatest increase in researchers' employment.

* The main driver of R&D-employment growth, however, was the service sector -- in particular, computer-based services -- which saw the number of researchers quadruple.

* Germany, the United Kingdom, and France remained the biggest European employers of R&D researchers.

More information on industrial R&D and changes in policy context across Europe can be found in the report.

As my colleague Jim Austin pointed out earlier today, NIH is making funds available for particularly innovative biomedical research through its Pioneer and New Innovator programs. For researchers outside the U.S. -- those collaborating on international research teams -- there's funding available from the Human Frontier Science Program's (HFSP's) Research Grants, a funding opportunity with similar objectives.

In its Research Grants, HSFP is looking for "novel, daring ideas" on complex mechansims of living organisms, but it puts several interdisciplinary and geographic conditions on its funding. The organization funds projects for teams of researchers that combine biology with disciplines including (but not restricted to) chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science and engineering.

Not only must research proposals be interdisciplinary, the teams proposing the research must be international in composition, with a preference for teams that are intercontinental as well as international. The principal investigator must be from one of HFSP's member countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Cyprus (EU part), the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

HFSP has two types of research grants: (1) Young Investigators’ Grants for teams who are all within 5 years of establishing an independent laboratory and within 10 years of obtaining their Ph.D.s, and (2) Program Grants for teams of researchers at any point in their careers, although HFSP encourages participation by younger scientists. Awards range from $250,000 to $450,000 per team depending on team size.

To be considered, interested researchers must register with HFSP by 21 March 2008. Letters of intent are due by 2 April 2008. For more details, see GrantsNet or the HFSP Web site.

We don't usually post press releases on our blog, but this one is important enough that I decided to make an exception. I'd hate to think that one of our readers who might have benefited from this opportunity didn't know about it.

And actually I'm not posting a press release, or not verbatim. I'm switching the order of the programs to feature the award most Science Careers readers are most likely to benefit from.

What follows is all NIH's prose, though I've modified the formatting.

Apply for an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. If you’re a new investigator, you’re also eligible for an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.

Both programs are part of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research and support exceptionally creative scientists who propose highly innovative—and often unconventional—approaches to major challenges in biomedical or behavioral research.

Women and members of groups that are underrepresented in NIH research areas are especially encouraged to apply.

New Innovator Award

$1.5 million in direct costs over 5 years

Up to 24 awards expected in September 2008

Open to New Investigators Who:

- Have not yet obtained an NIH R01 or similar grant
- Hold an independent research position at an institution in the United States
- Received a doctoral degree or completed medical internship and residency within the past 10 years
- Will commit at least 25% of their research effort to the project 

Streamlined Application

Electronic application allows preliminary data but does not require it

Applications accepted March 3-31, 2008

More Information

See and

E-mail questions to

Pioneer Award

$2.5 million in direct costs over 5 years

5-10 awards expected in September 2008

Open to Scientists Who:

- Are at an institution in the United States
- Are at any career level, including the early to middle stages
- Will commit at least 51% of their research effort to the project

Streamlined Application

Electronic application includes 3- to 5-page essay and 3 letters of reference
Applications accepted December 16, 2007-January 16, 2008

More Information
See  and

E-mail questions to

Often there are patterns -- sometimes obvious and sometimes not -- among the articles we publish in a given week. Often as not these patterns emerge on their own from the chaos of my (virtual) desktop with no planning by me.

The latest issue is a good example of the this kind of unintentional, emergent theme. On Friday we published three stories, at least two of which are related not just to teach other but also to one of the most important career stories of recent months: The report released last week by the Urban Institute, which we've already blogged about here and here.

What's the hidden connection? The articles and the Urban Institute report all take on labor-market inefficiencies and their consequences. In this week's lead article, Brooke Allen, a securities trader who makes money by using technical skill to exploit inefficiencies in the securities markets, describes novel approaches he and colleagues have taken to exploiting labor-market inefficiencies. Finding hidden talent in a large pool of applicants is hard and conventional approaches are ineffective. Why are scientists, who work very hard for many years to develop high-level intellectual skills, so often chosen on the basis of recent experience with a particular analytical technique? Why do employers "look to see what you are doing right now and whether you are likely to fit through the tiny door they have open, a door that's defined by the specifications for the position they're hiring for," as Dave Jensen put it in a Tooling Up article earlier this year.

Why do employers make the door so tiny? Because they get more applications than they can handle. The conventional process -- glancing at every CV or resumes for 9 seconds -- culls the pile effectively, though arbitrarily. It's a good way to save time, but a lousy way to identify the best employee for the long term. 

Brooke Allen proposes some creative, alternative methods to find the best person in a job search. Our readers -- aspiring and early career scientists -- would be better served by a hiring process that weighs talent and smarts more heavily than narrow technical skill.

Our second article for the week is the latest installment of Peter Fiske's monthly column, "Opportunities." You might say that Peter is addressing the same problem as Brooke, but from the job-hunter's perspective. Peter gives two examples of scientists who find ways to make themselves easier for employers to identify, in effect bypassing the usual inefficient job-search transaction. 

What's the connection to the Urban Institute report? A section of the report, called "Where’s the Problem? Hiring Difficulties versus Labor Market Shortages," (page 38) makes the point that from an employer's point of view, market inefficiency looks a lot like a shortage of workers. The report argues that claims that there's a shortage of scientists and engineers are unfounded. When employers (and heads of National Academies panels) think they see a shortage of scientists, this section of the report suggests, what they're really witnessing the intrinsic difficulty of locating good employees in a crowded labor market -- precisely the problem that Brooke Allen's article addresses.

When I was a freelance writer I struggled to find work. Now that I'm an editor, I struggle to find good writers. That kind of struggle is the nature of the labor market -- or any inefficient market.

An article in this week's Science News of the Week by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee (AAAS membership or Science site license required for access) discusses the report from the Urban Institute and the Congressional hearings on the scientific workforce we blogged about last week. "A new study questions two basic tenets" of the argument that American needs to produce more scientists and engineers or risk losing its economic edge, "concluding that work force data do not support claims of a looming labor shortage and that test scores indicate U.S. students are doing at least as well in science and math as their international counterparts are."

The authors of the Urban Institute study "note that the annual U.S. production of bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in STEM fields has averaged three times the annual growth of science and engineering jobs between 1985 and 2000. They also point out that fewer than one-third of the 15.7 million workers with at least one STEM degree at any level hold jobs that require such training."

So why do people continue to argue that America needs to produce more scientists and engineers? The article makes it clear what workforce-expansion proponents believe is at stake in the debate. "The supposedly sorry state of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education was a driving force behind enactment this summer of the America COMPETES Act, which authorizes $44 billion for a cornucopia of research and education programs across several federal agencies (Science, 10 August, p. 736)," writes Bhattacharjee. And Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin and chair of the National Academies of Science (NAS) panel that produced the Gathering Storm report, acknowledges that "Salzman and Lowell have raised some important issues but that he is worried their criticism could undermine efforts to boost the research and training budgets of federal research agencies slated for growth in the COMPETES Act." If you want bigger science budgets, he seems to be saying, you have to argue that America needs more scientists, whether it's true or not. Another factor, the report makes clear, is that from an employers perspective it's easy to mistake the usual labor-market inefficiencies for a worker shortage.

One suspects that if Augustine and like-minded colleagues believed that producing more scientists was bad for American science, they wouldn't be so quick to use the the workforce issue as a bargaining chip in the negotiation for science funding. They are sanguine. "Augustine notes that 'what the [new analysis] does not observe is that an undergraduate degree in [science or] engineering is a prized credential for those who wish to attend business school, law school, medical school or [go into] a number of other fields,'" Bhattacharjee writes. "If the Gathering Storm report is incorrect, we will end up having devoted additional dollars to improving our children's education and to the discovery of new knowledge. On the other hand, if Drs. Lowell and Salzman are wrong, America may well face a serious growth in unemployment and a commensurate decline in its standard of living." So Augustine sees the NAS position -- expressed in the Gathering Storm report -- as the safe route.

But such arguments overlook a key point. Indicators already show that the factors that influence the desirability of a scientific career have deteriorated in recent years -- a trend further expansion of the labor supply will exacerbate.

(See, for example, Richard Freeman, et al., in “Where Do New US-Trained Science-Engineering PhDs come from?”, NBER Working Paper No. 10554 June 2004; Freeman's  "Does Globalization of the Scientific/Engineering Workforce Threaten U.S. Economic Leadership?" in Innovation Policy and The Economy v.6, NBER/MIT Press; and Espenshade's "High-End Immigrants and the Shortage of Skilled Labor," Office of Population Research, Working Paper No. 99-5. Espenshade's article establishes that real wages for S&E workers have declined over 2 decades; Freeman's work establishes that decline as a factor in the shrinking number of native-born Americans seeking employment in science and engineering. A 1997 article by Geoff Davis posits that a decline in mathematics enrollments was partly caused by falling salaries for mathematicians. ) 

Training more scientists in a market where good, permanent jobs are already scarce and competition is already tough causes salaries to fall and insecurity to rise. Train more scientists and engineers, and jobs in science and engineering become less desirable. The best and brightest choose different careers. As Yogi Berra once said, nobody ever goes there anymore -- it's too crowded.

The only way American science will remain healthy is if scientific research remains an elite and attractive profession. That won't happen if the labor market remains -- or becomes increasingly -- glutted. To Augustine, a former CEO of a large, science-based corporation, expanding the labor supply may seem like the safe play. But it's not without risks. Despite what Augustine implies, if the Gathering Storm report is incorrect but we act on its recommendations anyway, more scientists will be unemployed. We will cheapen and compromise a profession that's  already under stress -- one that's crucial to the economic security of the United States.

November 15, 2007

For Those with a Musical Bent

If you have an ear for music or just feel good when you hear music playing, funds are available for research to serve both your scientific and musical tastes. The NAMM Foundation, the research arm of the music products industry -- a group that includes the stores you see in Nashville that sell those cool guitars -- offers grants for research that explores the impact of hands-on music making.

(NAMM looks like an acronym, but what does it stand for? It's a mystery. According to the NAMM Web site--which is deliberately coy on the question--it "stands for the global music products industry. NAMM stands for you.")

The group is interested in proposals from researchers in neuroscience, psychology, and education that delve into topics such as cognitive processes, skill development, and health effects, among others.  Target populations can range from the very young to the very old. The foundation gives preference to projects lasting less than a year.

More details are available from GrantsNet and the NAMM Foundation site (PDF). The deadline for applications is 4 January 2008.

November 15, 2007

The Achievement Trap

There's a lot of disagreement these days about the state of the scientific workforce; do we have too few scientists or too many? But rather few in workforce-policy circles question the importance of establishing a scientific workforce that more closely reflects America's demographic makeup -- one that's less male, less white, and that draws less from the economic elite.

A new report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the public-policy firm Civic Enterprises points up one of the least coherent aspects of America's current educational and training policy. Just as America's science and economy face their most serious international challenges in generations, our public schools embrace a policy that ignores its brightest student -- our future leaders and scientists -- in an otherwise commendable effort to ensure that No Child is Left Behind. The President's central educational policy focuses its metrics on the lower end, penalizing schools that fail to improve the scores of their lower-achieving students. As a result, scarce education funds -- and not only the ones provided by the federal government -- are diverted to serving schools' low achievers.

The report's focus is on high-achieving, lower-income students. These policies affect all high-achieving public-school students, but lower-income students are the most affected because they lack an escape path that's available to higher-income students: the path to private schools.

The result is that at a time when universities and businesses are clamoring to hire minority scientists but find too few to go around, such a potentially rich vein of talent is intentionally ignored by federal policy. And it's just plain weird that American schools, under the strong influence of a restrictive federal policies, are increasingly abandoning the high-achieving students that are the key to the country's economic future.

There's a press release here. The full report can be downloaded in pdf format.

This morning, President Bush vetoed H.R. 3043, a spending bill that would have provided funding for NIH's National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) and the Department of Education's Mathematics and Science Partnership Program for the fiscal year that started in October. The bill would have provided nearly $10 billion more across all funded programs than the president requested. "It will  be difficult to secure enough votes in the House to override the President's veto," writes Richard Jones in "FYI" from the American Institute of Physics. "These and other programs for which funding bills have not been passed are being funded through a continuing resolution which runs until December 14."

For a detailed analysis, see the Web version of the FYI Announcement.

In the lead essay of the online version of our recent feature on Lab Management, we included a survey asking people whether they had received lab-management training. We've got some results in so we thought we'd share.

Our final question was "What is your position?" The way the question was phrased ("PI's and aspiring PI's" were invited to answer) no doubt skewed the response towards the older part of our readership:

PI                                27.4%
Postdoc                       40.2%
Grad student               25.6%
Other                           6.7%

Here's how readers responded to the other questions:

1) Have you received any formal (i.e., classroom or workshop) training in managing people?   

Yes                           13.4%
No                             86.6%

2) Have you received any formal (i.e., classroom or workshop) training in managing money? 

Yes                             8.5%
No                            91.5%

3) Have you received significant informal (i.e., on-the-job) training in managing people?   

Yes                            48.8%
No                             51.2%

4) Have you received significant informal (i.e., on-the-job) training in managing money?   

Yes                           26.4%
No                            73.6%   

All in all, not much surprising here--but not much encouraging either. Perhaps it's a little encouraging that nearly half of those answering the survey have received at least informal raining in managing people. Still, people still aren't receiving formal lab-management training in significant numbers. Training, such as it is, remains ad-hoc. There's a lot of work still to be done.

Postdoctoral training abroad is a key career step that many women do not take for personal, financial, and family reasons--or so says the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, which is putting its money where its mouth is with a new funding program that aims to bridge that gap. The new Sara Lee Schupf Postdoctoral Awards offer talented young women who did a Ph.D. in the natural or exact sciences at an Israeli academic institution a grant of $20,000 a year and social, personal, and professional support while they train in a foreign institution for 2 years. "The long-term goal of the program is to invest resources in women who plan to develop their scientific careers in Israel, and to create a feminine leadership within the Israeli research community," wrote the Institute in a press release.

Awards will be issued annually, and this year's winners have just been announced. Of the 11 awardees, three conducted their doctoral studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, three more at the Weizmann Institute of Science, two at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, two more at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and one at Tel Aviv University. Eight will carry out their postdoctoral training in America, two in Germany, and one in France.

Those interested in applying next year should keep an eye on the awards' Web site for further announcements.

November 8, 2007

The Imposter Syndrome

"In psychological terms, [it's] a cognitive distortion that prevents a person from internalizing any sense of accomplishment." In practical terms, it's a feeling that you're a fraud as a scholar, no matter how excellent your skills or how much you've accomplished. From the Chronicle of Higher Education. Paid subscription required.

More funny humor from the Science Creative Quarterly.

It's true, as you've probably long suspected: People who feel inadequate to their responsibilities tend to hire less competent employees to feel better, at least according to a study published last year in the Spanish journal Psichothema.

Researchers at the University of Granada in Spain and the University of Louvain in Belgium first made students in psychology, education, and social work believe that they were looking for student representatives to attend an upcoming conference. Student representatives would be selected based on an auto-evaluation questionnaire and an assessment from their professors, the students were instructed. Seventy-three of them filled in the questionnaire, after which all were told to have been selected for participation to the conference. Half of the students were explained that they had been picked for the good marks given to their auto-evaluation, while the other half was given a poor score and told they had made it to representant because one member of the jury supported their application. The researchers then asked the students to pick one of two unnamed subordinates with clearly different levels of competence and sociability to accompany them to the conference.

The self-perception of skills the researchers thus triggered skewed the selection of subordinates by students. While both good and bad 'representatives' perceived the same candidate as superior to the other, 32% of those who had been given bad marks chose the less desirable applicant, against 12% of the 'more deserving' representatives.

This betrays "people’s attempts to rationalize and justify their position as well as to perpetuate the existing social arrangement," the study concluded.

Experts testifying at a congressional hearing yesterday corroborated what we've been saying all along: There is no scientist shortage in the United States.

At a hearing of a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives science committee, said that "Although I know you routinely are told by corporate lobbyists that their R&D is being globalized in part due to shortages of scientists and engineers in the U.S.," said Michael S. Teitelbaum, vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, "no one who has studied this matter with an open mind has been able to find any objective data of such general shortages."

Government spending on science, Teitelbaum said, stimulates the production of scientists by paying for more postdocs and graduate students--but it doesn't reliably lead to more permanent science jobs. "This disconnect between demand and supply means there are substantially more science graduate students and postdocs than can find attractive real job openings and future careers in these fields," Teitelbaum said. Teitelbaum urged the government to support research into ways of supporting scientific research without adding too many excess scientists to a glutted scientific labor market.

Another witness, sociologist Harold Salzman of the Urban Institute, talked about how some engineers urge their children not to go into engineering because the job prospects are so poor. Last week Talzman and a colleague released a study saying that claims that the nation faces a shortage of scientists "are anecdotal and also not supported by the available evidence."

Vernon Ehlers, a Michigan Republican and a former academic physicist, dismissed witnesses' concerns and hauled out the pro-glut truisms, ignoring the impact of a glut on the desirability of a career in science. "I think it's better to have an oversupply of something like this," Ehlers said. "I also think people trained in science and engineering have opportunities in other fields."

Here's a link to the Web site for the hearing. You can download and read the opening statement and witness testimony via links in the left column.

November 7, 2007

Chefs as Chemists

In our article this week about Portuguese molecular-gastronomy researchers Catarina Prista and Joana Moura, they express concerns about their long-term career prospects in a field that still had a way to go to becoming accepted. A New York Times article published yesterday suggests that their field is gaining much more attention than before among gourmet chefs, which may enhance their career prospects.

In "Food 2.0: Chefs as Chemists" (free registration required), Kenneth Chang writes that not long ago chefs had little to do with food science, which had a reputation for focusing more on supermarket products than on refined palates. More recently, however, chefs are gaining a better understanding of the molecular properties of the materials they work with -- a result of research in molecular gastronomy and related fields -- and are finding creative ways of putting that knowledge to use.

Chang describes, for example, how chef Grant Achatz at Chicago's Alinea restaurant uses agar, a compound made from seaweed, to make transparent sheets he adds to hot dishes. Prista and Moura, who we profiled this week, could probably give chef Achatz a few lessons on this topic, judging by the stunning fish soup they made with agar, displayed in the article.

Read more in the New York Times and Science Careers.  Bon appétit.

Two German students, who brought a legal action against their regional governments for being refused a grant to study in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands back in 2004, have just won the case. As reported in EurActiv, the German regional governments had refused giving the grants because according to German federal law, this training abroad must represent a continuation of at least one year of study in Germany. On 23 October, the European Court of Justice ruled that "the German federal law on education and training grants restricts freedom of movement for citizens of the union."

This is not the first time that origin or host countries have been criticized for impeding the free movement of students around Europe. The European Court of Justice already condemned Belgian and British laws in similar cases.

"Whether your program connects girls to professional female mentors, exposes girls to science at a local museum, or teaches girls robotics after school, there are key strategies that are effective when working with girls in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math].  Learn from experts in the field what research and practice tell us about high-quality informal learning programs for girls in STEM." A free Webcast from the National Girls Collaborative Project.

Register here.

November 6, 2007

Author Order Matters

From the We-Already-Knew-That department: A new study published in EMBO Reports confirms that being a middle author on a paper lessens your stature dramatically, even if the paper is published in a prestigious journal. "Our survey results showed that author names appearing near the beginning of the list of authors are perceived to have contributed more to the project," wrote Jonathan Wren of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, first author on the paper, in a press release. Senior authors--those listed last--tend to maintain their standing no matter how many authors are listed in the byline.

In case you were wondering, the authors least likely to get credit for the new study--those listed in the middle--are Katarzyna Z. Kozak of the Department of Internal Medicine, Exempla Saint Joseph Hospital, Denver, Colorado, Kathryn R. Johnson of the Department of Dermatology, Sara J. Deakyne the Department of Pediatrics, and Lisa M. Schilling of the Department of Medicine--all of University of Colorado, Aurora, Colorado. The last, senior, author is Robert P. Dellavalle of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, University of Colorado, Denver, Colorado.

Though I obviously am in no position to question the author order on this paper, I can't resist pointing out that the first and last authors are both men and all the middle authors are women...

...which may go part way towards explaining why (from the same issue of the same journal):

Women are more likely to quit at the postdoc to principal investigator transition

and how

Traditional Gender Roles Hold Back Female Scientists

November 6, 2007

Should I Move On?

Life is short, writes Ms. Mentor, in Chronicle Careers, so it's important to try hard to break out of your miserable life.

It may be a sabbatical, or an unpaid leave, or a faculty exchange -- but she should move to a city where she would like to live. She can be a temporary office worker, as a way to meet "real world" people. She can devote each day to networking and schmoozing, making herself known, visiting the real-world places where an "English person" might work. It may turn out to be grueling, and she may discover that Ruralville is a pleasant womb after all.

"But if it still sickens her, she should be bold, and quit," for "if Yvette accepts stagnation, that will be her life."

Tough love from Ms. Mentor. Recommended.

Andrew Grove,  Parkinson's sufferer, cancer survivor, and billionaire former CEO of Intel, castigated  biomedical research for its ineffectiveness in getting new therapies to market in a Sunday speech to the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in San Diego. I tried but failed to find a transcript of the speech, but here's a link to an interview in Newsweek. This is from the Newsweek article: "Like an increasing number of critics who are fed up with biomedical research that lets paralyzed rats (but not people) walk again, that cures mouse (but not human) cancer and that lifts the fog of the rodent version of Alzheimer's but not people's, he is taking aim at what more and more critics see as a broken system." The article continues:

Grove challenges big pharma companies, many of which haven't had an important new compound approved in ages, and academic researchers who are content with getting NIH grants and publishing research papers with little regard to whether their work leads to something that can alleviate disease, to change their ways."

Grove contrasts his own industry -- semiconductors -- with biomedical and pharmaceutical research: "The fundamental tenet that drives us all in the semiconductor industry is a deeply felt conviction that what matters is time to market, or time to money. But you never hear an executive from a pharmaceutical company say, 'Before the end of the year I'm going to have xyz drug.'"

Last week, the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), an affiliate of the National Council for Science and the Environment, released a document notable for its valuable content, but also for its comprehensive approach to academic careers. "Interdisciplinary Hiring, Tenure and Promotion: Guidance for Individuals and Institutions," authored by eight faculty members from CEDD member institutions, offers advice for universities and individuals for the care and feeding of researchers whose specialties overlap two or more traditional scientific boundaries.

Environmental science is one of those fields that draws on several disciplines, but the authors say the guide is useful for other interdisciplinary fields as well (e.g. urban studies). Interdisciplinary researchers often must navigate departments with different priorities, working cultures, and sometimes nuts-and-bolts procedures.  The document offers insights and tools to institutions for heading off the most likely conflicts and addressing those that  occur anyway. For example, the guide recommends establishing a lead department for joint appointments -- making the ratio of service between the departments at least 60:40 and avoiding 50:50 splits where there's no clear lead. It also urges departments to write a memorandum of understanding (a checklist is offered to to help develop one) that spells out the expectations and responsibilities of all parties involved in the researcher's appointment.

Just as important as these tips is the guide's approach to position management and career development. It breaks out the life-cycle of an interdisciplinary position into six stages, which cover the creation and staffing of the position as well as career progression of the researcher occupying the job. The first three stages provide guidance on the establishment of the position and hiring someone to fill it:

1. Structural conditions. In this early stage the departments identify their different organizational hierarchies, organizational cultures, availability of resources, and evaluation criteria. The guide says departments need to get these factors in alignment or face conflicts later on.

2. Establishment of the position. This stage covers the writing of the position description and includes setting a lead department for the appointment.

3. Search, hiring, and the pre-tenure process. The memo of understanding among the departments is the main part of stage 3, but it also includes details such as the the need to accommodate different hiring schedules among the departments, which can impose difficulties in scheduling interviews of leading candidates.

The next three stages address career development of the incumbent:

4. Junior faculty development, mentoring, and protection. In this stage, the guide discusses the extra networking demands of multi-authored interdiscipinary research and the difficulties in assessing contributions to publications with multiple authors. The guide recommends steps such as providing support for more travel than is normally given to junior staff.

5. Dossier development and evaluation. Because interdisciplinary research often requires more collaboration, how does an interdisciplinary researcher capture unique contributions, originality, and creative thought? This stage offers detailed guidance for presenting accomplishments in an annotated CV and cover letters.

6. Senior career development. Even senior faculty need career guidance. The document suggests steps for rewarding interdisciplinary research, such as merit pay and professional development funds for interdisciplinary activities, and recommends roles that senior faculty can play in the leadership of interdisciplinary research on a university campus

Self-promotion alert: The lead author of the guide is Stephanie Pfirman, who is also the lead author of our article this week in Science Careers, "Maximizing Productivity and Recognition, Part 1: Publication, Citation, and Impact."

Hat tip: AAAS's Ric Weibl.


November 2, 2007

Ranting on the Ranking

Which university to go to is an important and delicate decision. International rankings can help you make that decision wisely. Or, can they? A study published last week in the open access journal BMC Medicine warns against putting too much faith in rankings.

As an example, the study compared the 2006 international rankings offered by the Times Higher Education Supplement's World University Rankings and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities. They found that the two lists only had 133 institutions in common among their top 200. Four of top 50 universities in Shanghai Jiao Tong University's rankings didn´t make it to the top 500 of the Times Higher Education Supplement's list.

Part of the problem is that international rankings use different indicators for education and research excellence--and often they don't use those indicators rigourously, the study concluded. The Shanghai list, for example, gives great weight to the number of Nobel and Fields laureates, while the Times relies largely on a survey capturing researchers' perceptions. "I don't disagree that excellence is important to define, measure, interpret, and improve, but the existing ranking criteria could actually harm science and education," the study's first author, John Ioannidis, said in a press release. The study called for rankings to address the challenges or "be abandoned."

My take: Rankings like these can be useful but you shouldn't take them too seriously. Never use one ranking exclusively, and always look at the criteria they use to establish the ranking: Do their criteria match your criteria? Chances are also that the universities that really are among the best will always be looming somewhere near the top of all the lists.

Perhaps the most important point however is that a top university name may shine on your CV, but it will not guarantee you a successful and enjoyable experience. Rankings with compatible criteria can be useful information sources, but they must be used in combination with personal research and introspection. What you really should be doing is compiling your own ranking of the institutions you are considering, based on what matters most to you. Young scientists should certainly count the excellence of potential supervisors both as scientists and potential mentors. Adequate resources and facilities in the lab and good opportunities for collaborations may also greatly impact your career. How important is location and lifestyle? Paying a visit to see how likely you'll be to get what you want out of the place both professionally and personally is always a good investment.

Use rankings, but use them wisely.

Got something to say about starting or moving through a career in science? Here's your chance to let friends and colleagues know what's on your mind. This week, Science Careers unveils a series of personal essays called "In Person," about education and career development -- in the broadest sense -- in the sciences and engineering.

Your essay can relate personal experiences that gave you special insights; see the first article in this series as an example. Or, you can tell about a special person who had an impact on your career, or discuss a policy issue related to career planning, or come up with another topic related to scientific or engineering careers. Invitations from junior and senior scientists, policy makers and decision makers, are welcome.

Here are the guidelines: Your essay should be about 800 words long and personal in tone. Please send us your submission as an editable text document attachment to an e-mail message, addressed to (Subject: In Person submission); Microsoft Word format is preferred, but OpenOffice format is acceptable. Please do NOT include photographs or other attachments with the original submission.

We will give each manuscript we receive careful consideration, and contact you within 6 weeks if we decide to publish your essay. Most essays will be edited prior to publication. If you do not hear from us in 6 weeks, feel free to submit your work elsewhere.

OK, let us have it.

From Inside Higher Ed:

A new survey of the top 100 departments in 15 science and engineering disciplines (including the social sciences) finds that “few science and engineering departments have more than a single [underrepresented minority] faculty member.” Despite the increased representation of members of minority groups among bachelor’s and Ph.D. degree recipients, the analysis finds that the proportion of black, Hispanic and Native American instructors generally drops at every point in the academic pipeline, with the majority of minority faculty members concentrated at the assistant professor level.

The study by Donna Nelson, chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, holds no surprises but offers no good news, either. Nelson surveyed the "top departments" in the sciences, finding that in some cases--like computer science--things are getting worse. The representation of underrepresented minorities on top faculties varies from horrific--2.2% in astronomy--to pretty bad--13.5% in sociology. Nearly 30% of the U.S. population is from these groups.

The news for women is less awful but it's still pretty depressing. For example, women earn more than 50% of B.S. recipients in chemistry, but just 13.7% of chemistry professors in top departments. Here, at least, the trend is in the right direction.

November 1, 2007

Legendary Advice

We like to focus on practical, tangible advice for new students/postgraduates/postdocs/scientists. Admittedly, it can sometimes be rather optimistic and positive. Consider this advice to graduate students written by Yale ecology and evolutionary biology professor Stephen Stearns:

"Always prepare for the worst."

"Nobody cares about you."

That may seem harsh, but it's a good dose of reality. To prepare for the worst, he explains, you should be cynical and have alternative plans/projects in case yours fails. As for no one caring about you, he points out that it's your education, so take initiative to make the most of it. There's more: Go read it here.

In response, Raymond Huey at the University of Washington drafted "Reply to Stearns: Some Acynical Advice for Graduate Students." That advice includes "Always expect the best," and "Some people do care." He summarizes: "Our main point is this: there is no one way to be a graduate student." Go read it here.

Now, perhaps you've seen one or both of those lists. Apparently they've made their way into graduate student lore and make their way around labs and universities nearly as often as the email about antiperspirant causing breast cancer or the one about the cell phone do-not-call list. But the advice lists are both prominently linked to from the scientists' web sites, and Huey explains their history:

"Our presentations were originally given in the fall of 1976 as coordinated, back-to-back "seminars" at Ecolunch, a weekly seminar/discussion group at the University of California, Berkeley. We handed out typed outlines of our presentations. These notes made it into the graduate student grave-vine and were distributed widely in subsequent years. Peter Morin eventually encouraged us to write them up for publication. We did so in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. As Steve noted a few years ago, these articles -- not our scientific studies -- are undoubtedly our most widely read papers!"

I got to Stearns' advice from ScienceWoman at On Being A Scientist And a Woman. In that post, she offers her $.02: Good science takes time; make friends of your fellow graduate students; and don't forget the big picture. She explains each one: Go read it here.

My favorite advice in these comes in the comment section of ScienceWoman's post. A commenter writes: "I tell new graduate students to keep a massive stockpile of snacks in their office. ... Well fed students are efficient students."

Keepin' it real.