Science Careers Blog

April 2008

Science Careers seeks personal stories and perspectives on science and scientific careers for publication in our "In Person" series. We're interested in submissions from scientists and trainees at every level, from undergraduates to senior scientists, to government officials and policy makers. We want perspectives from industry, academia, and government, and from the whole range of scientific disciplines.

Submissions should be written well and in a personal voice. They should be lean, readable, to the point, free of unnecessary jargon, and shorter than 1000 words. Please email submissions to

From Inside Higher Ed we learn that National Science Foundation has stopped reporting data on numbers of minorities earning doctorates in some scientific specialties, if those numbers fall below a certain threshold. The Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), an annual survey of doctoral awardees conducted for NSF and five other federal agencies by the National Opinion Research Center, no longer reports data for table cells where the reporting of small numbers in those cells may divulge personal or confidential information.

According to the most recent (2006) report (PDF), this non-reporting of data removes much of the data on Native American participation in the sciences. Likewise, data for African-Americans in several disciplines ...

- Earth, atmospheric, & marine sciences
- Physics & astronomy
- Aerospace/aeronautical engineering
- Industrial engineering
are gone as well. See the screen shot below; cells with "D" have the withheld data.


[Click on thumbnail for full-sized image.]

Inside Higher Ed quotes an e-mail from Jaqui C. Falkenheim, NSF's project manager who attributed the decision to a review by NSF's Division of Science Resources Statistics (SRS) that publishes this and other workforce statistical reports. She said, "The findings of that review revealed the need, given more restrictive rules/guidelines and heightened concerns about confidentiality/privacy, to tighten SRS procedures for releasing SED data to the public." Falkenheim adds that protection of confidentiality helps keep response rates high and protects "the reputation of NSF as a research partner with academe".

How large does the cell size need to be to allow release of data? According to Falkenheim and Inside Higher Ed, that's confidential as well.

Users of these data are both disappointed and mystified. "This hides information. It removes information," said Andreen Neukranz-Butler, human rights compliance officer for the University of Idaho. She also noted that even with small cell sizes, no names or institutions are revealed, thus the concerns about confidentiality don't add up.

One of the commenters on the InsideHigherEd site, a researcher at University of California-Berkeley remarked, "This latest move is utterly pointless, indeed counter productive. It seems yet another move intended to obscure the very slow growth of Ph.D. acquisition by ethnic minorities."

Science Careers asked Falkenheim to comment further; we will update this post with NSF's response.

Hat tip: Donna Scheidt, University of Michigan


April 24, 2008

From Now on, I'm the Boss

Being picked by your colleagues to become their boss is one of the toughest challenges you'll face in your career, writes Marie Peronnau in the French finance online magazine "This indeed requires asserting your authority, changing your image, and adding some distance to emotional relationships that have now become burdensome," Peronnau continues. This is especially true for industry careers, but similar situations may occur in the academic world. I´m taking the liberty of translating and summarizing Peronnau's key points:

  • "Assert your legitimity as quickly as possible." Inform your colleagues of your new position before they hear it in a formal announcement. Make new rules of the game, new targets, and other changes clear to your colleagues in department and one-to-one meetings.

  • "Spot the jealous ones to prevent them from doing any harm." Manage disapointment, jealousy, and any other negative feelings openly before they damage the working atmosphere and productivity. Be diplomatic, and show your confidence in the competences of the people who resent your promotion. If hostility remains, ask for advice to your superiors, but only when you've tried everything else, as this may undermine your image as a leader.   

  • "Don't feel shy about asserting your authority." Don't hesitate to give directives even if it means breaking your former relationship with the group. Don't rely on past friendships with colleagues as this may make it difficult for them to recognize your authority and may be viewed by others as favoritism.

  • "Distance yourself from your team, but just enough." You must assert your authority, but this doesn't mean becoming authoritarian. Strive to find the right balance.

  • "Accept the loneliness your position implies." Get used to the idea that you can't share your complains or doubts with your former colleagues, as this would now harm your credibility. Instead, find a coach or mentor within your department.

The article contains many more good pieces of advice. If you want to read the complete version in French, here it is.

April 22, 2008

New Meat Prize

(I love writing headlines like that.)

A new, $1 million science prize is available, on an unlikely topic and from an unlikely source. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an organization not known for promoting science, has announced a $1 million jackpot for the "first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012."

A New York Times article by John Schwartz quotes PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk as saying that the proposal for the prize caused a "'near civil war'" at PETA because (quoting the article now and not Newkirk), "so many PETA members are repulsed by the thought of eating animal tissue, even if no animals are killed."

"Lisa Lange, a vice president of the organization, said she was part of the heated exchange. “My main concern is, as the largest animal rights organization in the world, it’s our job to introduce the philosophy and hammer it home that animals are not ours to eat.” Ms. Lange added, “I remember saying I would be much more comfortable promoting eating roadkill.”

April 22, 2008

Feedback for "Ph.Dollars"


Thanks to Dr. Webb for voicing the predicament I and my colleagues face as recently graduated bioscience Ph.Ds.  Unfortunately, I have real-life proof that spending 6 years in graduate school does not make financial sense.  Like Laurie Earls, I too met my husband in graduate school, and like her and her husband, we are struggling to gain financial security.  Living in the Washington, DC, area, we face high rent and childcare costs while simultaneously repaying undergraduate student loans.  Both my husband and I have chosen to pursue non-traditional science careers, in large part because we simply cannot meet our financial obligations on postdoc salaries.  As new parents, we are unwilling to postpone further our ability to save money for a house and our child's education, and so we have both left the bench. 

I encourage policymakers to consider carefully the career prospects of PhD scientists.  In light of concerns that U.S. competitiveness is lagging in science and technology, perhaps efforts should be focused on employing, compensating and, hence, retaining the Ph.D.s we have.  If efforts are instead focused on recruiting even more doctoral candidates – and this is certainly the current trend – I fear that the United States will simply have an even greater number of Ph.D.s who literally cannot afford to be scientists.

Meg L Flanagan, Ph.D.

Alexandria, Virginia

There have been a few interesting European reports that I've been meaning to write about, so here they are, all in one convenient package!

First up: Europe's scientific workforce is aging.

Europe's population as a whole is aging, so it's not a big surprise that the scientific workforce is aging, too. Eurostat recently took a look at the demographics of human resources in science and technology (HRST), which they define as people with higher education or employment in science and technology. Rather than refer to people as an acronym, though, I shall call them "folks in science."

Eurostat estimates that 40% of the folks in science in Europe are between ages 45 and 64, and the percentage of workers in that age group has been increasing by 3.3% per year since 2001. Bulgaria has the oldest scientific workforce (with 46% of folks in science over age 45), followed by Finland, Germany, and Sweden. Spain has the youngest scientific workforce (with 30% between ages 45 and 64), followed by Ireland and Portugal.

The report also looks at the gender breakdown (47% of folks in science aged 45 to 64 are women, it says here -- that's overall, and the report breaks it down by country but nothing else), job-to-job mobility (2.9% of folks in science aged 45 to 64 changed jobs in a one-year period compared with 6.2% of those in the whole group surveyed -- those aged 25 to 64), and unemployment (2.9% of the total folks in science are unemployed, compared with 2.2% of the older group, with, of course, huge variations by country). 

The report's authors don't include too much strong language in the way of recommendations: "The impact of this labour force aging needs to be closely monitored, in particular regarding the highly qualified section of the labour force, to ensure knowledge transfer," the report's authors write. I suspect we'll see numbers from this analysis pop up in a future report aimed at drawing young people into science in Europe. 

You can read the Eurostat report here, and a summary of it here.

Next: Women are underrepresented in senior science positions.

A mere 15% of full professors in European universities are women. That statistic in itself isn't new, but it's one of many in a new report that was put together by an independent panel charged by the European Commission "to review the procedures for evaluating and promoting research personnel and to identify measures taken to promote women into senior positions," according to a press release.

To accomplish this, the report's authors reviewed the issues in depth, including the latest statistics on women in the scientific workforce, the latest legislation in each country that pertains to gender equality in the workforce, and reviews of programs that seem to be successful in promoting women in the workforce. The report -- called "Mapping the maze: getting more women to the top in research" -- makes several recommendations: There should be national and international committments to equality in the workforce, training efforts should inform high-level officials and administrators on gender aspects of the workforce, create more transparent hiring processes by requiring all job positions to be publicly advertised, collect better data on hiring and workforce, and recommend that institutions make public information on their faculty's age, gender, and income distribution.

There are many more recommendations, of course, and you can read them in the full report.

And finally: The European Commission wants to help you get the right funding for your project.

The Commission has developed its "Practical guide to EU funding opportunities for research, development and innovation," which describes three funding mechanisms: the 7th Framework Program (FP7), the Competitiveness and Innovation Program (CIP), and structural funds. According to the new guide, FP7 "provides funding to co-finance research, technological development and demonstration projects based on competitive calls and independent peer review of project proposals." CIP is meant to "promote innovation (including eco-innovation), foster business support services in the regions ... , encourage a better take-up and use of information and communications technologies, help to develop the information society and promote the increased use of renewable energies and energy efficiency." And structural funds are meant "to strengthen economic, social and territorial cohesion by reducing
disparities in the level of development among regions and Member States."

The new guide is meant to help researchers choose which one of these funding mechanisms is the right one for their project -- or even how to combine funds from different sources. The guide provides a checklist to help compare each funding type. The guide itself is still in draft form, and the Commission is soliciting comments through the end of April. You can read the consultation document here, the draft practical guide here, draft checklist here, and draft scorecard here. Oh, and there's also a press release.

The New York Times asked financial aid directors from five American universities to answer reader questions about funding their higher educations, in an online discussion forum. The five schools include elite institutions (Harvard, Yale), other private schools (St. Johns University in New York City), large public universities (University of California at Los Angeles), and commuter colleges (Buffalo State in New York).

The questions include both general questions ("How will all the new changes affect aid for graduate students?") and questions about very personal, specific circumstances ...

I was a single parent raising my daughter for 10 years. She’ll enter college in 2009. I remarried in 2007. My husband (not her father) earns approximately $65,000; I earn $40,000. Will his income also be counted when considering the aid we receive? Her real father is $35,000 in arrears in child support, and has not had significant income in many years.

The Times will continue the online discussion until Wednesday, 23 April, if you want to ask your questions or you just want to see if your circumstances are beiing addressed.


"After a short-lived recovery in 2006–07, faculty salaries are lagging behind inflation again this year. Yet the salaries paid to head football coaches, presidents, and other top administrators do not seem to reflect an economic downturn."

Read more in Where Are the Priorities? The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2007-2008. 

One year after the Virginia Tech shootings, and weeks after another multiple-fatal shooting incident at Northern Illinois University, campus administrators and faculty have become much less reluctant to refer to counselors those students they feel are dangers to themselves or others. According to an Associated Press story, via MSNBC, student privacy considerations are now being balanced with concerns for physical safety. Yet questions remain whether university counseling services can handle the crush.

"Administrators are pushing students harder to get help, looking more aggressively for signs of trouble and urging faculty to speakup when they have concerns," writes the AP. It isn't just administrators; faculty are watching student writing assignments for signs of trouble. Universities are recruiting resident advisors and other students to report incidents that indicate violent tendencies.

Until recently, the article says, administrators and faculty felt constrained from reporting these incidents due to a concern for student privacy. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is often cited as a reason to protect a student's privacy, but that law focuses on student records and allows exceptions "in cases of health and safety emergencies." A new law in Virginia, signed last week, allows institutions to alert parents if students appear dangerous. Some campuses, notably Cornell University, already have estalished policies to notify parents if their children are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD), the professional society of college counselors, however, recommends involving parents with the student's consent. In a statement released last fall the AUCCD says ...

[S]uggestions that counseling staff routinely involve parents in the treatment process against a student’s will are ill-considered. This abrogation of the student’s rights should only be used when state law allows, when it is a treatment team decision, and when it is a last resort in cases where other options for safety have been explored and discarded.

For increased vigilance to be effective, universities need the capacity in their counseling services to handle the increased load.  As we reported last month in a related story, Canadian campuses are also experiencing a sharp upward demand for mental health services, in some cases, outstripping the capabilities to provide those services quickly. A similar condition is occurring at American universities.

Last April, after the Virginia Tech shootings, Russ Federman, director of University of Virginia's counseling service, testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. He noted that from a national survey of university counseling directors, "we see that in 1996 we had a ratio of one FTE clinical staff per 1598 students. This past year, in 2006 we see a ratio of one per 1697. We are not getting ahead of the curve; if anything, we are sliding behind."


Summer internships offer excellent opportunities for students to get hands-on experience and (sometimes) a little money in a real working environment. But Highland Capital Partners is offering something more: a summer internship that can kick-start your new business.

Highland Capital Partners (HCP) is a venture capital company based in Massachusetts and California that invests in early-stage businesses in the communications, digital media, information technology, health care, and consumer-products industries. This summer, HCP is offering its second "Summer@Highland" program, which offers student entrepreneurs a chance to learn the ropes of building an enterprise using their own business ideas.

HCP offers the internship to students -- graduate or undergraduate -- or recent graduates, either individually or in teams of up to 4 people, for 10 weeks. The teams work out of HCP offices in Lexington, Massachusetts or Menlo Park, California. Teams of 2 or more  divide a stipend of $15,000; individual interns (i.e. teams of 1 person) receive $7,500. In addition, HCP offers a staff member who can put interns in touch with HCP's network of investors and client companies.

Applicants need to show HCP a good business idea with at least some movement towards the marketplace.  HCP defines a "good" idea  as one with the potential to be highly disruptive in its field. The teams must have taken at least the first steps in forming a business, beyond the idea stage. HCP expects interns to have a solid grounding in their marketplace or technology. Interns must also provide testimonials from advisers who share the interns' vision and can attest to the idea's potential.

If, as a result of the internship, interns get their enterprises going and attract other investors, HCP asks the former interns to allow HCP the option of co-investing up to 50% in the same round of financing as the other investors.

If you have an idea with the potential to become the next Google or Facebook, don't delay. Applications close on 22 April.

Hat tip: Institute of International Education

Employers are increasingly relying on their internship programs to identify new recruits, according to a recent survey from the U.S. National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

In their 2008 Experiential Education Survey, NACE asked 311 employers in the United States -- 45.8% of them representing manufacturing organizations, 48.7% services employers, and 5.5% government/nonprofit sector -- about their internship programs and hiring practices. The results show that about 36 percent of the Class of 2007 graduates hired by companies had taken part in an internship program within the same company, compared with 30 percent for the Class of 2005.

"Currently, employers say they extended job offers to nearly 70 percent of their interns; in 2001, they offered jobs to 57 percent," NACE executive director Marilyn Mackes said in a press release. "Employers consistently name the internship program as one of the most effective tools they have for hiring new college graduates."

As judged by the retention rates after hiring, both employers and employees are satisfied with the formula. In the study, more than one-third of employers said the former interns are more likely to stay for at least 1 year after hiring, and nearly half said they were likely to be there after 5 years.

It seems the trend will continue to grow. The employers who took part in the NACE survey anticipated a 4% increase in the number of graduates they would bring into their internship programs.

You may have seen this already in the mainstream media, but this morning's announcement by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the economy lost 80,000 non-farm jobs in March isn't good news for folks seeking scientific or any other type of employment. The jobs report continues trends seen throughout the first quarter of 2008, during which average monthly job losses were 77,000. The unemployment rate was up almost half a percent compared to the average rate during the first half of 2007.

The broad category most directly linked to science--professional and technical services--was flat for March, as it has been since the beginning of the year.

Of some interest to scientists is the "employment services" category, which includes temporary workers. (For more information on working as a scientific "temp", see Cliff Mintz's article "Short-Term Science".) Though it's often said that temps do well when the economy is poor, "employment services" was among the worst-performing categories in March, shedding 42,000 jobs. That's nearly as bad as the construction industry, which, under the influence of the current mortgage crisis, shed 51,000 jobs in March.

There's always McDonald's. The food-service industry added 23,000 jobs in March, as did health care. 

A few European countries are setting aside money to fund top-notch European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant proposals that didn't quite make the cut for the ERC's competition. You can read about it in this week's Science (subscription required). Briefly, 430 proposals of the more than 9,000 submitted were deemed worthy of funding, but the ERC estimates that the €290 million budget will only fund about 300 of those. France, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain all have announced that they will step up and provide some form of funding for those top-tier proposals that don't get funded.

France's Agence Nationale de la Recherche has announced it will put up €10 million to fund the unfunded ERC proposals submitted by scientists at French host institutions. Italy has set aside €30 million for any unfunded Starting Grant finalist, on the condition that they perform their research in Italy. Switzerland's National Science Foundation has announced that it will review the ERC finalist proposals from Swiss host institutions and provide some sort of funding for those that meet certain additional criteria. And Spain will provide €100,000 to the Starting Grant finalists at Spanish host institutions to help them set up labs or get their projects started while they apply for funding elsewhere.

We here at Careers are pretty impressed with this idea: The European Commission already put in the time end effort to peer review the grants, so the national governments can't really go wrong funding proposals already deemed excellent. In this era of tight federal budgets, could this model work for, say, top-notch-but-turned-down NIH proposals? Could a state government or private foundation pick up NSF proposals that would have been funded if the payline had been more favorable? It's an interesting way to get additional mileage out of the grant/peer review system.

A press release about the alternate funding can be found here. Feel free to read our previous blog posts on the nationalities of the finalists and the selection of the finalists; also check out Elisabeth Pain's article last July, "Getting to the Top of a Big Pile," in which she talked to ERC proposal reviewers about what makes a proposal stand out in a pool of 9,167 applications.

For basketball fans in the U.S., the Final Four -- the semifinals and finals of the collegiate basketball championship, which start on Saturday -- is one of the year's top attractions. Among this year's contenders is the University of Kansas, a perennial basketball power.  Its center, Sasha Kaun, is an imposing figure in the computer lab as well as the basketball court.

At the start of the season, Kaun, at 6'11" and 250 lbs (2.108 meters and 113.398 kilograms), was the Jayhawks ' starting center, but now he comes off the bench where he, as MSNBC notes, "contributes points, rebounds and blocked shots, but also does a lot of little things that don’t show up in the box score."

In a sport where fewer star players are getting their bachelors degrees and the term student-athlete is a running joke, Kaun is a senior studying computer science, not your typical jock major. He excels in the classroom; Kaun was one of two Kansas players named to this year's Big-12 all-academic team.

The story of how Kaun got to Kansas to play for one of college basketball's top teams is quite a tale in itself. Kaun's family lived in the Siberian town of Tomsk, where his father worked as a computer programmer in a bank. Some 10 years ago, the 13 year-old Sasha Kaun came home to learn that his father was found dead in a parking garage under mysterious circumstances (Russian authorities call the death a suicide, which the family disputes). Kaun still carries his late father's picture in his wallet and credits his father with the inspiration to study computer science.

Three years later, Kaun heard from a friend who just graduated from the Florida Air Academy, a private boarding school in Melbourne, Florida.  The school was recruiting students from Russia;  Kaun jumped at the opportunity to come to the United States. The school's basketball coach recruited Kaun, who at 6'10" was the school's tallest student. Up to then, however, Kaun had never played more than informal pick-up games, and did not know a word of English.

Kaun had to learn not just English but also the basics of basketball, and then the finer points, where size by itself means little. His hard work and long hours in the classroom, weight room, and on the court, transformed him into a leading college prospect, recruited by Duke and Michigan State as well as Kansas. This season, he had to work through injuries suffered in his junior year that lowered his point production, but Kaun still leads the team this year in field goal percentage.

While Kaun's immediate goal may be the national championship, his career can take any number of routes, and computer science is high among the options.

April 3, 2008

Who Needs Scientists?

That's the title of a BBC Radio 4 piece that aired on Monday. Mark Miodownik, a research scientist and lecturer at King's College London, questions the periodic goverment and private institution reports stating that the U.K. needs to increase its scientific workforce. How can this be true, Miodownik wonders, when so many early-career scientists can't find jobs? Miodownik hits the streets, so to speak, to gather opinions on the subject from students, scientists, and leaders, including the U.K. science minister Ian Pearson and Royal Society president Martin Rees.

You can listen to the segment here. (Hat tip: Elisabeth Mahoney, the Guardian)

On that same theme, Dan Greenberg writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Odds Aren't Favorable for Careers in Science." A preview: "Unsolicited advice for students contemplating a career in scientific research: Don't -- unless you’re passionate about life in the lab and willing to undergo a long apprenticeship, at low wages, with an uncertain outcome, gain a situation where, against long odds, you can compete for position and money to do the research that interests you. Understand this: The chances of making it are not good."