Science Careers Blog

January 2008

January 30, 2008

A Fun Read

Most of you probably know about it already, but for those of you who don't: For a consistently fun read, check out A Natural Scientist.

Sabine Hikel, who created the Leaving Academia blog, has moved on to producing a podcast of the same name, hosted by University Affairs, a Canadian magazine focused on higher education. Podcasts so far have covered an English Ph.D. who became an environmentalist, a "dramaturge" who became a "life coach," and a linguist who grew up to be a TV producer.

Related: in the same magazine, an article on the need to improve doctoral training in Canada.

Here's an interesting post from 'Absinthe' (whose tagline reads "1000 years of affirmative action for white males is enough"). It's about her struggles (and the struggles of another female physicist/trailing spouse) to find a home in the lone physics department in a small college town. Apparently, not everyone is hip to the sweet two-for-one deals that a two-career couple can offer.

(FYI: 'Absinthe "is aimed at female academics who are considering pursuing a discrimination lawsuit.")

An article by Junko Yoshida at EE Times Online looks at a paper, by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog of Oxford University, that says that engineers are over-represented "among graduates who gravitate towards violent groups."

Why? The authors of the paper say it's due to the "engineer's mindset;"  "a disproportionate share of engineers seem to have a mindset that makes them open to the quintessential right-wing features of 'monism' (why argue where there is one best solution) and by 'simplism' (if only people were rational, remedies would be simple)."

Hat Tip: Slashdot.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) announced yesterday the 2008 winners of its Best Practices in International Education awards, and the first prize went to an internship program in Japan for science and engineering students. The NanoJapan initiative that won the top rating provides undergraduate summer internships in nanotechnology at Japanese labs.

The program is run by University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and Rice University in Houston. The two schools fund the initiative with a grant from National Science Foundation's Partnerships for International Research and Education program.

NanoJapan is open to freshman and sophmore students from any American institution with an interest in nanotechnology. Student interest in nanotechnology will be evaluated on the basis of their studies in topics such as nanoscale semiconductor devices, nanophotonics, and carbon nanotubes. While students in any discipline may apply, engineering and physics majors are preferred. And while the program encourages applicants with no previous travel to Japan, applicants need to demonstrate an interest in Japanese language and culture.

The program's learning experience doesn't end with the internship. On their return, the 2007 NanoJapan interns took part in a colloquium (PDF) at Rice University where they presented posters on their research. According to IIE, the program has encouraged 6 of the 16 2007 participants to continue their studies in Asia. Applications for 2008 NanoJapan internships close on 8 February.

"Florida" and "Dickens" are two concepts that don't really seem to go together -- but "Dickensian" is how Richard J. Bookman, vice-provost for research at the University of Miami, describes Florida's current research-and-funding situation. "We are in the best and worst of times," Bookman said, quoted in an article by Madhusmita Bora, staff writer for the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times.

In recent years, Florida has invested a billion dollars or more in luring high-profile research labs to Florida, including a new campus of the Scripps Research Institute, partly as a way of attracting more federal research money to the state. Now, with federal research money tight, state universities are falling on Hard Times.

This may be 2 years old, but it's still as valuable as ever. Stever ("No, That's Not a Typo") Robbins writes at Working Knowledge for Business Leaders on the Harvard Business School Website:

Working smart means getting the same results in less time. To do that, you must change how you work. You'll get the most by changing your speed, increasing focus, and organizing to do things in parallel.

Many scientists learn this when they're faced with the prospect of adding teaching and service to their research obligations -- or starting a family -- after starting their first faculty jobs. And because women (on average) spend more time on home-related obligations -- who was it that said that every prof, male or female, needs a wife at home? -- this message is especially valuable for women.

Reuters, via MSNBC, reports today on a study in the European Heart Journal on the association between work-related stress and coronary heart disease. Science Careers often reports on conditions that can cause conflict or stress, to help scientists and engineers cope with their work conditions. But this research points out that it's the younger workers -- not necessarily the old folks -- who need to worry about the impact of work stress on their hearts.

The study aimed to uncover the linkages between stress at work and coronary heart disease, when combined with risk factors such as smoking, lack of exercise, and poor diet. The research team from University College London and St. George's University of London studied some 10,300 British civil servants aged 35 and older, through interviews, postal questionnaires, and clinical examinations. The research covered a 20-year period, from 1985 to 2004.

The researchers measured work-related stress on the surveys and questionnaires. They rated work conditions more stressful when the demands of the job were high but the workers' decision-making latitude was low. The researchers also rated the degree of social isolation -- the degree to which workers faced by stressful conditions had no support from co-workers or supervisors.

The researchers found an association between higher work stress and coronary heart diseases such as heart attacks (myocardial infarction) and angina. When dividing the subjects by age, they found that the younger (through age 49) workers had a stronger association between work stress and heart disease, while the 50+ age group showed little association. Stressed-out workers also had lower heart-rate variability, a sign the heart is functioning poorly, and higher levels of cortisol, a hormone found in stressful ("fight or flight") situations.

The researchers found that the lifestyles of the subjects were also associated with heart disease. Subjects who smoked, exercised little, and had diets low in fruits and vegetables reported higher rates of heart disease.

January 18, 2008

Funding News You Can Use

When GrantsNet began adding new U.S. government science grants last spring, the volume of new funding opportunites on a given month tripled, which meant the monthly Funding News also tripled in size. To make it easier to find the grants you want in each Funding News, we added a search feature for each month's entries so you can avoid scrolling up and down the ever-lengthening Web page.

For those who have not visited the Funding News recently, we also moved the Deadline Watch to a separate page to make the Funding News less forbidding. The Deadline Watch lists GrantsNet entries with deadlines in the next four weeks.

The search feature uses Yahoo Pipes, an engrossing -- one may even call it addictive -- service that lets you create little applications like this one without writing computer code. In this case, we combined the two Funding News RSS feeds, for research funding and student and institutional support, and added a search box.

As counted by Eurostat, more than 525,000 students were doing a Ph.D. across the 27 Member States of the European Union in 2004. That year, more than 93,000 students obtained their doctorate -- twice as many as in the United States and six times more than in Japan. Around 26,000 of the newly granted Ph.D.s were in science, mathematics, and computing. Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Spain were the four biggest producers of science Ph.D.s.

The report also mentions an ongoing survey from Eurostat, the OECD, and UNESCO's Institute for Statistics aimed at tracing the careers of doctorate-holders at a global scale. Results are still patchy, but they do outline some general trends. The survey gives some unemployment figures for doctors in all fields in Australia (2.3%), Canada (3.7%), Germany (3.2%), and the United States (2.9%). The survey also found that in Australia, 28.3% of women having a Ph.D. choose to work part-time versus 14.3% of men. In Germany, the number of women working part-time is exactly the same as in Australia -- 28.3% -- but the number of men is much smaller: 6%. The United States showed the lowest numbers of part-time workers, with 13.5% of women and 5.2% of men. Most employed Ph.D. graduates were in professional or managerial positions, but the underemployed percentage varied widely: 14.7% in Canada, 14.8% in Germany, 8.6% in Portugal, and 8.4% in the United States held positions below their level of qualification.

The full data can be found in the Eurostat report.

The Whitehead Institute at MIT today announced  the unveiling of what sounds like an excellent new package for Whitehead postdocs. Working with its postdoc association, the administration devised a plan that offers first-year postdocs a salary of $47,000 with annual adjustments after the first year. (The announcement indicates only that there will be cost-of-living adjustments; there's no indication whether salaries will rise with seniority and experience. I've asked and will report back.*) The plan also includes health and dental business and group term life insurance.

The plans most novel part is a retirement benefit valued at 8% of salary. This benefit will cover all postdocs, including those on fellowship, according to a press release.

* I heard back from Cristin Carr, Media Relations officer with the Whitehead Institute. Cristin sent me a table comparing salaries under the old plan with salaries under the new plan for the first through the 6th years of a Whitehead postdoc. Previously, first-year Whitehead postdocs received just $38,000 -- not a bad postdoc salary, but nothing special -- but they got larger annual raises, topping out at $50,000 in year 6. Under the new plan, first-year Whitehead postdocs receive $47,000, but salaries still top out at $50,000, now in year 4. And all these rates will rise from year to year as the cost of living rises.

January 17, 2008

Caught in the Lab-Rat Race

With a lack of career structure, low pay and little job security, it's no wonder academic researchers are disillusioned. Suzanne Lynch discovers what can be done to improve their lot.

From the UK-based newspaper, The Independent.

Lately, I've noticed more older people complaining about the current generation of young workers. We've posted several recent examples on our blog, here, and here, and here. Most recently, at a news conference earlier this week, NSF Director Arden Bement  remarked that young workers today seek a short-term payoff -- a serious problem for the science establishment.

In a smart post about intergenerational differences ("Obama's victory in Iowa sheds light on today's workplace"), Penelope Trunk (aka Brazen Careerist) puts forward some interesting ideas.

"Gen Y plays by the rules, meets expectations, and in the same step, pulls the rug out from under the people with power," Trunk writes. "How? By refusing to pay dues, by customizing their own career paths instead of lusting after a promotion, and by job hopping when learning curves get flat." And in the process, they're pushing the boomers aside, she writes. "They can work within the established lines of business to get what they want, but they get it faster than we expect."

These folks aren't going to spend 10 years in a postdoc, waiting for something to happen. If we want to keep them in science -- some of them at least -- we need to offer them some other options. Soon.

To the editor,

I’ve just finished reading “Belgian Scientist Shares her Struggles to the Top.” I can relate to Dr. Van Broeckhoven’s intuition about herself as a scientist; I too “know” that I am and will always be a scientist.  I greatly admire her for the struggles she has overcome in order to continue with her research, and for her willingness to share her story. 

What concerns me about the nature of this article, and is addressed by Dr. Leboy in “Fixing the Leaky Pipeline” is the message that to be a woman scientist, you must work harder than the men, sacrifice your family, and the enjoyment of life. 

Even with my conviction that I am a scientist, these “facts” are making me question my desire to continue in academics.  Where are the stories about women who have “made it” without giving up so much?  They may be few and far between, but to encourage young women to continue in science, you need to seek out those stories and show that things are beginning to change.

Mary A. Robinson
VMD/PhD Student
University of Pennsylvania

January 16, 2008

Science Careers, Recommended

On Monday, Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting from College to Career, listed Science Careers on her blog as one of her "5 recommended career resources." 

"The site is full of resources for job seekers, including job listings," she writes. Check out: 1) the message boards, featuring career development advice; 2) the how-to guides for writing a science career resume; and 3) various online career development booklets—all free!"

Forty fellowships are up for grabs for recent graduates of any nationality to come to Spain to do a four-year Ph.D. at one of the most important biomedical research centres in the country. The four participating institutions -- the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) and the National Centre of Biotechnology (CNB), in Madrid, and the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) and the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB), in Barcelona -- each will host 10 fellows.

The programme is funded by the Spanish La Caixa Foundation. Grantees will receive a monthly stipend of 1,500 euros in the first two years, increasing to 1,700 euros in the last two years, and a yearly allowance to cover costs like conference travel.

Each centre has its own recruitment process so you need to check their Web sites for specifics. Here are their deadlines:

Deadline for applications to the CRG: 31 January 2008.

Deadline for applications to the IRB: 31 January 2008.

Deadline for applications to the CNIO: 31 March 2008.

Deadline for applications to the CNB: 31 March 2008.

If you're a postdoc or student considering employment in Europe and you plan to be around Boston in early February, head over to the 12th European Career Fair in Cambridge, Mass., put on by the MIT European Club.

The career fair aims to bring together employers with candidates -- students and postdocs in the sciences and engineering -- interested in working in Europe.  The fair itself takes place on Saturday 2 February at MIT's Johnson Athletic Center, but there are associated activities taking place before and after: a panel discussion about globalization of the knowledge economy on Friday afternoon and interviews between employers and prospects on Sunday and Monday

While advance candidate registration that enabled the filing of resumes closed on 30 November (with some 4,000 resumes collected), unregistered candidates may still attend. So far, 141 employers plan to take part. About half of the employers are for-profit companies, particularly in engineering, technology, health care, life sciences, energy, and finance. The not-for-profit employers are mainly universities, government agencies, and research institutes.

Science Careers posted a special resources page for fair-goers. If this is your first career fair, or want to be better prepared than the last fair you attended, see the Science Careers instruction guide for these events.

Yale University announced last week that it plans to dig into its own pockets to expand its support for biomedical research, increase financial aid for students, and make more of its collections available to the public without charge. To fund these initiatives, Yale president Richard C. Levin said the institution will boost the payout from its endowment to $1.15 billion in 2008-2009, up from $843 million this year.

According to the announcement, Yale plans a "major expansion" of its biomedical research capabilities, which includes establishing several new research institutes, although the university did not identify the specific research fields of these new institutes. In October, Yale purchased a 136-acre research campus from Bayer Pharmaceutical Company in nearby West Haven, Connecticut. The new institutes are expected to be housed at this location.

Yale announced this week the details of its support for student financial aid, which also comes out of its increased endowment payout. Families with incomes below $120,000 per year will see the amounts they need to pay for Yale tuition cut by at least half, while families with incomes between $120,000 and $200,000 will get their costs reduced by a third.  Families with incomes between $60,000 and $120,000 will pay between 1 and 10% of total family income, and those with incomes of less than $60,000 will not need to make any contribution. In December, Harvard and several other elite universities announced a similar program of financial aid.

The university also plans to use its endowment to expand access to what it calls its "intellectual treasury" by digitizing its collections and making them available to the public free of charge. In a similar action, Yale announced last month its Open Courses, where lectures and materials from seven of its undergraduate courses, including those in astronomy, physics, and psychology, are made available to the public in digitized form.

Levin said Yale's endowment experienced "exceptionally strong investment returns in recent years," which made possible increasing the payout this year.

A recent report, based on a poll of IT managers, says that managers find younger IT workers hard to manage due to their "unreasonable" expectations about pay and working conditions.

"Atlantic Associates polled more than 100 Massachusetts executives on the challenges they face and more than 50% of respondents described those teen and 20-something employees as the 'toughest generation to manage, wrote Denise Dubie in Network World. "Generation Xers (ages 32 to 42 years old) placed second with 17% of respondents saying they pose a management challenge."

"Millennials are coming in with high expectations and are disillusioned about the reality of a work place," said Jack Harrington, co-founder of Atlantic Associates, a staffing firm, in the article. "They feel they should be rewarded and start at the top, when we all know you have to work your way up. They have been raised to be rewarded often and when you get into the workforce those rules change a bit," Harrington says.

Yet, managers acknowledge that the pool of qualified workers is shrinking and that some openings are going unfilled. Many of the polled managers identified hiring and retaining qualified workers as their primary staffing challenge for the coming year. Apparently, the salaries and working conditions they're providing are not adequate to attract the capable young people the industry needs.

When a company and an industry is struggling to find qualified employees, the obvious response is to offer more money and better working conditions. I can't help wondering whether it's the managers, and not the young employees, who have unreasonable expectations. 

The European Commission is inviting applications for the following Marie Curie programmes:

- Marie Curie European Reintegration Grants (ERG)

Who it's for: Ph.D. holders in any field of research who are nationals of a European or Associated country or have resided in Europe for at least 3 of the past 4 years. Applicants must already have received a Marie Curie grant that lasted for at least 18 months and ended no more than 6 months ago. Applicants may pick a host institution in any European country.

What it offers: A € 15,000 per year contribution towards the researcher's salary, research project, and other costs, such as travel.

For how long? 2-3 years.

When to apply: Applications may be submitted throughout the year, with 3 April and 8 October 2008 the two cut-off dates for selection.

You can find more information on the ERG call and a guide for applicants on the Framework Programme 7 Web site.

- Marie Curie International Reintegration Grants (IRG)

Who it's for: Ph.D. holders in any field of research who are nationals of a European or Associated country and have spent at least 2 of the last 3 years in a non-European country. Applicants must pick a new host institution within Europe.

What it offers: A € 25,000 per year contribution towards the researcher's salary, research project, and other costs like travel.

For how long? 2-4 years.

When to apply: Applications may be submitted throughout the year, with 3 April and 8 October 2008 the two cut-off dates for selection.

More information on the IRG call and a guide for applicants on the Framework Programme 7 Web site.

Marie Curie funding is also available for joint research projects presented by public and private research organisations across Europe under Industry-Academia Partnerships and Pathways, and for joint staff-exchange programmes presented by public organisations across Europe and other countries under the International Research Staff Exchange Scheme.

The Wellcome Trust has announced a new Ph.D. program aimed at clinicians who want to get rigorous research training in a doctoral program setting. Studentships for the program will be offered at nine universities across the U.K., two of which will also recruit basic scientists into an integrated program.

"This unique scheme sees a shift away from the traditional models of support for clinical Ph.D.s," John Williams, who oversees the Ph.D. programs for clinical scientists, said in a press release. "The scheme aims to provide a cadre of highly-qualified clinical researchers who can both contribute to and take advantage of the rapid advances in biomedical research."

Seven universities will offer 3-year fellowships exclusively for clinical research programs (those will be offered at Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University of Edinburgh, University of Dundee, University of Liverpool, and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine). Two schools (University of Birmingham and The Institute for Cancer Research, London) will offer 3-year (for medical students) and 4-year (for basic science students) Ph.D. tracks.

You can read more about clinical/translational research training programs in our recent special feature on translational research careers.

The British government is looking to recruit professional scientists, mathematicians, and engineers currently employed in industry to go back into the classroom as teachers.   

According to a BBC news story this week, England is in dire need of science-trained teachers at elementary and high schools. The new federal program hopes to tap various industries across the country for people who may consider changing professions, such as those looking at early retirement, and convince them that a teaching career is a viable and fulfilling alternative. "We now need this 'best of British' to get into our schools and colleges and bring on the next generation," says Schools Minister Jim Knight in the BBC story. "We need companies to encourage career switchers to take the leap and go into teaching."

Read the full BBC News story.

- Andrew Fazekas, Canadian Correspondent

The George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC, and union representing part-time faculty at the institution have agreed on a contract that union members ratified last Friday. The agreement is GWU's first contract with its part-time faculty. Anne McLeer, the director of research and strategic planning for local 500 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), tells Science Careers that 89 percent of those voting ratified the agreement, which went into effect on 1 January and runs until 30 June 2010.

The contract applies to regular faculty working part-time, those paid per course, and a few specialized hires. The agreement raises pay for regular part-time faculty, who get a $2,500 raise to a minimum of $21,000 per year. Faculty compensated per course get a $550 raise for each 3-4 credit hour class and a $330 increase for 1-2 credit courses. Those teaching non-standard or skills courses get a $100 raise.

The union, also negotiated improvements in job security for part-time faculty. Under the new agreement the part-time faculty can be fired when departments are eliminated or downsized, the courses they teach are discontinued, or their job performance is inadequate. Now, GWU must demonstrate just cause -- defined as substantial evidence of wrong doing -- to discipline or discharge part-time faculty. The contract includes union representation on disciplinary matters and a grievance procedure, with binding arbitration by a third party, if the union or faculty member believes just-cause was not established.

The agreement adds benefits for part-time faculty, including supplemental retirement, medical leaves of absence applicable under the Family Medical Leave Act, and public transportation reimbursement. While health benefits were not extended to faculty paid per-course, both sides agreed to jointly study the issue and bargain further.  McLeer says the joint labor/management committee studying the issue will meet no later than March.

There are more provisions on individual faculty member rights, union rights, and student evaluations. The union posted a summary of the provisions as well as the full contract on its Web site.

Unions representing part-time faculty are not unknown on American campuses; examples include Portland State University in Oregon that negotiated an agreement in 2005 and University of Rhode Island. One aspect of the GWU agreement that's different from the others is the union representing the part-time faculty. The SEIU generally represents blue-collar workers in the service economy, such as those found in health care, office cleaning, and security. On other campuses, you often find the traditional educational unions representing faculty: American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and American Association of University Professors. 

Hat tip: Inside Higher Ed


Reviewing grant proposals is a huge responsibility and a time sink. If you become a regular study-section member, you get new batches of proposals to review three times a year, and reviewing them can be a slog.

But it has some profound positive consequences. There's no better way to learn about grant-writing -- and what reviewers look for in a proposal -- than to review them yourself, on a regular basis. It's also a great way to keep up with what other scientists in your field are doing -- and thinking about doing. Participation in a study section comes with a travel allowance and a small honorarium, but nobody does it for the money.

Now, NIH has added another incentive. Permanent members of NIH study sections no longer have to worry about the grant-submission calendar. This is from a recent NIH Notice:

The National Institutes of Health is implementing an alternate plan for submission and review of research grant applications from appointed members of chartered NIH study sections in order to recognize their outstanding service and to minimize disincentives to study section service. The timing of Study Section meetings and most standard due dates for grant applications overlap ( Thus, reviewers are under pressure to review applications and prepare their own applications simultaneously.

Beginning February 5, 2008 the alternate submission and review procedures, described below, will be available for appointed members of NIH Study Sections....

This continuous submission process will enable appointed members of chartered NIH Study Sections to submit their applications as soon as they are fully developed. The applications will be reviewed no later than 120 days after receipt.

NIH plans to analyze this opportunity on an ongoing basis in order to assess feasibility and satisfaction. 

From the San Jose Mercury News:

Across the United States, they are called the lost generation of young scientists. They are the young Ph.D.s and M.D.s who, despite their brilliance and commitment, are unable to establish or adequately support their nascent medical research laboratories because of the federal government's denial of funds. Thwarted, many choose to abandon careers in medical science altogether. And every mind turning away from research represents untold lost opportunities for medical advances.

Fortunately for some of these young scientists, the frustration has ended. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM, the institute taxpayers established through Proposition 71) two weeks ago awarded $54 million to a select group of 22 young medical researchers based in California, enabling them to commit their full energies to stem cell research.

Read on...

Assistant Professor ScienceWoman's New Year's resolutions for 2008: 1. To survive, and 2. To remain sane.

Leading companies in industries such as pharmaceuticals and integrated circuits have long funded research fellowships in science, but now a bank has done the same thing. In late November, Toronto-Dominion (TD) Bank donated $1 million to research institutes at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital to fund biomedical research.

One of the TD grants will fund a postdoctoral fellowship for Abdallah Al-Hakim, who is completing his Ph.D. in Scotland. The Toronto Star reported that Al-Hakim, who will join Mount Sinai's Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, recently published research on proteins involved in cellular activity linked to DNA damage and repair. Another grant will fund the work of May Alarab, a clinical research fellow at Mount Sinai, who studies pelvic-floor dysfunctions among pregnant women to help women choose the safest delivery methods.

Al-Hakim, who emigrated  from Egypt as a child and grew up in nearby Hamilton, was also considering an offer from Stanford University, according to the Star. But, as Al-Hakim told the newspaper, "I like the quality of life here better than the U.S. And now I get the feeling in Toronto that they're trying to recruit the best people, like the Americans have always done."

"One of the most pressing concerns for health care professionals is a lack of funding for ongoing research and education," said Frank McKenna, TD Bank's vice-chair, in a press release. McKenna noted that the medical-research grants are an extension of the company's continuing support for health care facilities in Canada.

Even Al-Hakim had to look twice to make sure he read the source of funding correctly. "When I first was told in an email that it was a TD fellowship, I thought it can't be TD Bank," he told the Toronto Star. "I've never heard of a bank giving a biomedical fellowship."

IEEE has a new career magazine for women in engineering, called -- you guessed it, Women in Engineering Magazine. The inaugural issue is available online.