Science Careers Blog

May 2008

On Monday, the European Commission called for a partnership among European Union member states to further increase mobility of researchers throughout Europe. The commission's major recommendations include opening job opportunities to researchers throughout Europe, increasing the portability of grants, and improving the transferability of social security and pension benefits.

And how will this partnership open up doors and borders? The Commission doesn't say. Not surprisingly, it's up to the member states to "adopt a national action plan by early 2009 setting out specific objectives and actions to achieve the aims of the partnership." The Commission will then evaluate the success of the partnership in 2010 to determine if further recommendations, or perhaps legislation, are necessary.

The recommendations come in a report (officially called a "communication") that's one of five planned policy initiatives aimed at creating a "European Research Area." It joins similar intiatives aimed at the rights of researchers: the European Charter for Researchers and Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers (read more about it on Science Careers in Researchers' Charter: A Paradigm Leap?) and the "scientific visa" package for non-EU researchers (read more about it on Science Careers in Coming to Europe).

The full text of the new communication is here, and a press release is here.

May 22, 2008

Tenure at Princeton U

Here's an excellent article on tenure at Princeton University, from the Daily Princetonian, with a focus on the chemistry department and their recent decision not to tenure Stefan Bernhard. Princeton's chemistry department hasn't tenured a home-grown professor since 1996.

May 22, 2008

Just Give Them Grants

Before it gets displaced by this week's new editorial, I thought I should call attention to an important editorial by Alan Leshner, the AAAS executive officer, in last week's Science (AAAS membership or a site license is required, I think).

A lot has been written about the increasing age at which scientists reach independence, and the struggles of young scientists to establish their careers. Leshner's proposal is appealing for its simplicity: "If the consensus is that young scientists really need a regular research grant to launch their careers, why not simply tilt funding decisions more towards new investigators?"

After all, he points out, meritorious proposals are submitted by young investigators in greater numbers than can be funded, so a preference for youth should not result in a major fall-off in quality. So why not, in effect, make age a criterion? Youth may not be a direct indication of scientific merit, but the proposal is justifiable on policy grounds, and there's something to be said for the suggestion that a proporal from a young scientist has more merit than an equally good proposal from an older one.

And at NSF, perhaps age should be considered a "broader impacts" criterion. Most would agree that establishing a new scientist is more valuable than giving another grant to an establishes scientist (assuming of course that the science has equal merit). So, "I am young and wish to establish a productive research program and I haven't yet received my first real research grant" seems to me a reasonable addition to the broader-impacts section of an NSF proposal. Think of it as workforce diversification. Hopefully the reviewers will, too.

So, next time you submit an NSF grant, try advertising your youth in the broader-impacts section. Any takers?

National Science Foundation has posted a page in its Science and Engineering Statistics section to request revised tables from its 2006 Survey of Earned Doctorates. The note at the top of the page says, "SRS (Division of Science Resources Statistics) will be releasing revised tables from the 2006 Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) for the Summary Report, Race/Ethnicity/Gender (REG) and Baccalaureate-Origin tables released by the survey contractor in previous years. Copies of the new 2006 SED tables will be forwarded via email, at no charge." The page then gives a form to request the new tables.

As we reported two weeks ago and last month, NSF had stopped reporting data on numbers of minorities earning doctorates in some scientific specialties if those numbers fall below a certain threshold. NSF promised earlier this month to release the missing data, including those in its 2006 survey.


The blog Scientiae, maintained by a group blog of women in the STEM professions, devoted its May monthly carnival -- a collection of contributions from each blogger -- to sharing experiences on the development of their careers. The comments, collected by blogger FlickaMawa, cover issues such as pressure to publish, balancing family and work, meeting expectations of parents and mentors, and hopes for the future.  Women reading this blog probably will find many familiar issues and concerns, and at least some men will find the post quite revealing.

FlickaMawa collected the contributions from the group and posted the comments as an extended essay, with many direct quotes from the contributors. Some of the bloggers were happy with where they ended up; as ScienceWoman says, "My job requires both teaching and research and expects me to be good at both. It’s not exactly what I planned, but I really think it’s where I was meant to be." Liberal Arts Lady, however, had to make some adjustments for the sake of her family.

I started out as a gung-ho, I’ll-suffer-anything-for-the-project undergrad, and although I’ve really enjoyed the majority of my field time, over the past few years I’ve become much more reluctant and resigned to field work as actual work that also takes me away from my home life.

The blogger Young Stellar Objects discovered an inconvenient truth about being a postdoc.

[I]t isn’t just about having good ideas. It’s as much about politics and networking and self-promotion and schmoozing as it is about writing papers and winning grants. My postdoc years have been a lot about becoming savvy about self-promotion and trying to get over being an introvert.

Hannah likewise learns that achieving success depends as much on others as well as herself.

When it comes time to apply for faculty positions and tenure and all that, it’s more about the impact of your research. This is where the networking comes in: you gotta give talks, go to conferences, talk important people up, promote your ideas, yadda yadda. You need to find people who will promote your ideas for you as well: advisors and mentors.

There's plenty more, from overcoming dyslexia to remembering one's favorite job.

My favorite job, bar none, was at the video store. I loved that store. I liked the coworkers, I adored and respected my boss, I liked (most of) the regular customers. I loved that I was getting paid to stand around talking about movies, watching movies (free tape!), repairing broken tapes, and, best of all, just interacting with people all day.

Hat tip: Ric Weibl, AAAS


Marci Alboher, the New York Times careers columnist, posted an entry on her blog last week about the conflicts and guilt generated about trying to do one's work after a death in the family. A death occurred in Alboher's own family, and she reported on her own conflicts and guilt. For anyone who has lost a close family member recently -- and even if you haven't -- it is worth a read.

After a death in the family, your first responsibility is to other family members. But as Alboher notes, there are often times when not much is going on and you're tempted to check in with the work place, via telephone or e-mail. That's where the internal conflicts kick in.

For scientists in the a lab or engineers working on a tightly scheduled project, losing a family member can cause serious disruptions in work schedules, even where fellow lab or project partners pull together to help out a buddy in crisis.  While companies or institutions may have policies about taking time off for bereavement, it is difficult to predict how much time a person needs to reconnect with work. As Alboher says, "So here I am, physically back at work, and wondering when my mind will join me back in the office."

While Alboher's post is personal, perhaps part of her own grieving process, it's a reminder of the need to expect the unexpected and build connections with your colleagues for when the unexpected happens.

Last week, we reported on this blog that 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. NSF told us yesterday they plan to release the missing data, including those in its latest survey.

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 displayed data for table cells where NSF believes the reporting of small numbers in those cells may divulge personal or confidential information. We then asked NSF for its rationale for the decision. In response to our inquiry, Bobbie Mixon, a spokesperson for NSF, said ...

SRS [NSF's Division of Science Resources Statistics] has instructed the contractor to release all data collected for the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), as in previous years.  There are privacy and confidentiality issues that must be addressed, particularly in the context of small data sets.  The question of how to aggregate the data in future years will be addressed with the data user community over the next few months and new tables will be used for the 2007 SED Summary Report.

Mixon subsequently said NSF would release the data in the latest (2006) report, noting that "The contractor will release all SED data collected for the 2006 SED."

NSF did not give us a timetable for any of these actions. However, we will monitor the SED and report when the missing data appear.

May 2, 2008

Earn 98K at FDA


Stuck in a postdoc? Economic times like these breed despondency, not hope, but even dark clouds have silver linings.

In response to a number of recent crises, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced plans to make 1317 new hires, including "hundreds with science and medical backgrounds." Many of the hires will be made at the postdoctoral level. According to a press release, the "critical need occupations are medical officers, consumer safety officers, chemists, nurse consultants, biologists, microbiologists, health/regulatory/general health scientists, mathematical statisticians, epidemiologists, pharmacologists, pharmacists, and veterinary medical officers."

Positions will be available throughout the agency, including the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (133 positions), the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (663 positions), the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (116 positions), the Center for Food Safety and Nutrition (104 positions), the Center for Veterinary Medicine (34 positions), the National Center for Toxicological Research (22 positions), the Office of the Commissioner, and the Office of Regulatory Affairs (245 positions). "Many of these positions are located in the Washington metropolitan area, as well as across the country in the FDA's five regions, 20 districts, more than 179 resident posts, and the newly created FDA offices overseas," according to the press release.

Kim Holden, FDA's assistant commissioner for management, says the majority of these posts will be in the DC area ("specifically Rockville, Silver Spring, and College Park, Maryland," she says) Exceptions are the Office of Regulatory Affairs, which is hiring for positions nationwide, and the National Center for Toxicological Research, which is located in Jefferson, Arkansas. According to Holden, many of these positions can be filled by people with a wide range of education and experience, from a bachelor's degree on up. But scientists with Ph.D.s will be competitive for most of the positions and can expect to earn a salary commensurate with their training and experience.

Specifically, Holden says that a scientist with an a relevant Ph.D. and (for example) 2 years postdoctoral experience probably would be hired at either the GS13 or the GS14 level on the government pay scale. Government scales vary by region; in the Washington, DC area, GS13 starts at about $83,000 while GS14 starts at $98,000 annually. Higher salaries can be negotiated in special circumstances. For scientists with clinical degrees, the "Title 38 medical officer" pay system applies, Holden says, which allows FDA to compete with the private sector when hiring people with medical credentials. The FDA also offers loan repayment programs, flexible schedules, a work-from-home program, and the ability to negotiate advanced credit toward annual leave. U.S. citizenship is required.

A working group at FDA "has prepared a strategy for recruiting the best talent available, through job fairs, conferences, etc. that focus on these disciplines," according to a backgrounder released by FDA.

FDA expects to fill its open positions during the current fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. The hiring is expected to continue in 2009.

Tucked away in a news release from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on 11 April is a notice that DHS has proposed doubling the fee for student visas from $100 to $200. The fee is required of all new applicants for visas to attend academic and vocational schools in the U.S., and is non-refundable. DHS wants to raise other fees as well, including a nearly five-fold increase in the fee to certify American schools to accept foreign students, from $350 to $1,700

The proposed regulations--fee increases are officially considered regulations--are open for public comments, which can be submitted online. The due date for comments is 20 June.

Hat tip: Boston Globe