Science Careers Blog

June 2008

June 30, 2008

New G.I. Bill Now Law

President Bush this morning signed into law the Iraq/Afghanistan supplemental funding measure that includes the "21st Century G.I. Bill" legislation described in a Science Careers article earlier this month. The bill expands educational benefits to veterans of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing support more in line with the original G.I. Bill passed in 1944.

Bush had originally opposed the bill, but later accepted it as part of the supplemental funding package, with an added provision enabling veterans to transfer the educational benefits to family members.

A political science graduate student was among four Americans killed by a bomb in the Sadr City section of Baghdad on Tuesday. According to the Washington Post, Nicole Suveges, 38, along with a State Department civilian employee and two U.S. soldiers, died when the blast occurred during a meeting of an Iraqi district council.

Suveges, employed by Department of Defense contractor BAE Systems, was assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team for the 4th Infantry Division to help carry out political, social, and cultural engagements with local Iraqi institutions. According to CNN, she had previously served as a reservist with the U.S. Army in Bosnia in the 1990s and had worked in Iraq in 2006 as a social scientist for an Army contractor.

Suveges was also a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. According to her faculty advisor, she planned to use her latest experience in Iraq to collect data for her dissertation on the experiences of ordinary citizens under a transitional government.  At Johns Hopkins, she was managing editor for the Review of International Political Economy. Suveges also earned a masters degree political science from George Washington University in Washington, DC and an undergraduate degree from University of Illinois at Chicago.

The funniest Christmas card I received last year was from one of our regular correspondents.  "The worst part of the company Christmas party is finding a new job the next day," it read.

A Reuters story on MSNBC reported this week that some 20 percent of us get drinks with our coworkers at happy hours, and--gasp!--sometimes things get out of hand. This will come as no surprise to those of you whose labs resemble "Gray's Anatomy," or better yet, "The Young and the Restless." And in my experience, no lab is without its fair share of personal drama.

The survey of nearly 7000 full-time employees found that 16 percent of people admitted bad-mouthing a colleague during after-work drinks, and 8 percent say they kissed a colleague during happy hour. My favorite: 4 percent of survey respondents "confessed to singing karaoke." Twenty-one percent of people who attend happy hours say they're good for networking, but 85 percent said that their after-work efforts haven't helped them get closer to supervisors or get a better position within their company.

Harris Interactive did the survey earlier this year on behalf of

Does your lab have a regular happy hour? Do you go? Do you think it helps with collegiality, morale, and/or networking?

June 27, 2008

Senate Passes G.I. Bill

The Senate last night passed by a 92-6 vote the Iraq/Afghanistan supplemental spending bill that includes the G.I. Bill legislation described in an article earlier this month on Science Careers. Last Friday, the House passed the supplemental funding bill, also with the G.I. Bill legislation, by a similarly large margin. According to the Washington Post, the president is expected to sign the bill next week.

This week Research Councils U.K. (RCUK) announced a new agreement that outlines the rights and responsibilities of researchers and employers in the development of research careers. At the same time, they announced the creation of a new organization whose mission is to support the research careers of doctoral students and postdocs.

In some respects, both the agreement and the organization are grown-up versions of existing entities. The "Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers" is an updated and revised version of a concordat created in 1996. The new document takes into account changes in the last decade, such as legislation that affects fixed-term contracts and changes in RCUK grant terms. Its principles include, for example, ensuring transparent pay scales, rewarding good research management, providing researchers with a career development strategy within their organization, evaluating researchers' performance regularly, and recognizing that researchers are responsible for maintaining and developing their own careers.

By signing the new concordat, the signatories, which include Research Councils U.K., Universities U.K., the Royal Society, the British Academy, the Wellcome Trust, and many others, also sign themselves up to the European Charter for Researchers and a Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers. Prior to this announcement, no U.K. organization had signed the charter.

The newly announced organization, called Vitae, is the New and Improved version of the UK GRAD program, whose charter expired last year. But rather than just promoting the careers of doctoral students, as UK GRAD did, Vitae will also incorporate career development for research staff (postdocs). Vitae will officially kick off in September at its first Researcher Development Conference, but the organization already has pooled some good resources on its Web site.

After the application process for the European astronaut selection closed on 16 June, the ESA counted 8,413 complete applications. Candidates come from all 17 ESA Member States, but France is the best represented, with 22,1% of all applicants, followed by Germany's 21.4%, Italy's 11%, the United Kingdom's 9.8%, and Spain's 9.4%.  16% of the candidates are women.

Those who make it through pre-screening will be invited to take the first round of psychological tests. "Those tests aim to identify the psychological and technical skills of the applicants, who will be tested in different fields including visual memory and psychomotor aptitude," according to a press release.

For more information click on the ESA Web site and on Science Careers.

Dear editor,

It rather broke my heart to see such a rosy picture painted for the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. If someone were considering joining the military now, he or she would be thinking that it could be setting them up for educational benefits and job training. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Up to 30% of Army recruits now don’t even have a high school diploma.

Many thousands -- hundreds of thousands -- have head injuries and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].

Most do not use their educational benefits.

They are not trained to do anything useful; there is little that is transferable to civilian life. Even police departments find that the military training makes people often unable to think independently. Many Iraq and Afghanistan vets are taking their place with the homeless.

It was not honest to not go into the reasons that President Bush says he will veto the bill giving increased G.I. educational benefits: The administration is worried that people will not reenlist because they might want to go to school. Recruiters prowl the halls of high schools and junior colleges, looking for youth doing badly in school. 

Of course, some people do well. But that doesn’t mean that most people will, which these articles imply.

There is little good about going into the military these days. Please don’t be part of telling these young people that all will be well. AAAS has taken many proactive political stances in its time- and it is way past time now.

Kathy Barker, Ph.D.

Kathy Barker is the author of "At the Helm, a Laboratory Navigator, which I reviewed for Science. Kathy also wrote a column for several months that was published on Science's Next Wave.

Last week Career Hub, a group blog on job hunting and career development, posted its periodic list of tough interview questions that blogger and career counselor Billie Sucher heard from her clients.  While the list can help interviewees prepare for a potentially difficult session, they also reveal a little about some employers.

Some of the questions may have been tough for the interviewees, but depending on the type of job, they seem legitimate and interviewees should be prepared for them:
- What can we expect from you as an employee and what do you expect from us an an employer?
- Please tell us how you're an asset or a liability to an organization and defend your answer.
- If we bring you on board, how will you earn your keep?
- In general, would your colleagues describe you as a giver or a taker, and share some examples?

Some questions show employers have creative ways of finding out more about their employee prospects:
- If you were a member of this Selection Committee, what is the single-most important question that we should be asking you that we haven't?
- Will you lead or will you follow and which do you think is more important in today's volatile climate?

On the other hand, some questions seem designed to elicit a response of "huh?" ...
- As a manager, do you implode or explode when things don't go your way and what happens after that?
- Do you inspire, or do you despair, in the face of change and adversity, and tell us something about that.

And one question has only one answer: none of your business ...
- Tell us something about you that only your mother would know.

Have you had any tough interview questions you would like to share?  To get the discussion started, here are some interview questions our editors have heard about first-hand or encountered themselves ...
- How much do you expect to earn here?
- Do you plan to have children?
- If we offer you this job, will your husband be willing to relocate? 
Do you have any other handicaps you didn't tell us about?


Reports from Capitol Hill today tell of a deal between the House of Representatives and the White House on a new G.I. Bill, the subject of story in Science Careers earlier this month. Both the House and the Senate attached the G.I. Bill legislation to an Iraq/Afghanistan supplemental funding measure. The new G.I. Bill aims to provide significantly more educational benefits for returning veterans who enlisted after 9/11 than the current benefits offered to all veterans.

Acccording to the New York Times, House leaders kept the G.I. Bill intact but compromised on other aspects of the supplemental funding bill that the Bush Administration opposed: extension of some unemployment  benefits, restrictions on military spending in Iraq, and tax increases to pay for the additional costs. The funding bill now goes to the Senate, where according to the Washington Post, some Senators want to add other provisions to the bill that the White House may not accept. If the Senate adds these amendments, the bill would need to go back to the House, probably after the Fourth of July recess.

One of the truly exasperating experiences one faces when starting a new job -- especially your first job -- is making all of those decisions about taxes, benefits, and retirement, often accompanied by a flurry of forms and very little time to think things through. The New York Times business section this past weekend offered a primer on these topics, especially for someone entering the workforce for the first time.  

I still remember the terror of four decades ago when, confronted with my first income tax witholding (W-4) form, I had to figure out which boxes to check, knowing full well that making the wrong decisions could cost me plenty.  Writer Ron Lieber takes readers through the W-4 form, pointing out the key questions that employees new to the workforce need to address. He even provides pointers to and links for employees carrying a heavy debt burden from their student days, a situation not uncommon among recent graduates.

Lieber also covers common health insurance plans, including health savings accounts -- a new high-deductible plan offered by some employers.  He defines terms such as deductibles and co-pays, and describes how to evaluate these plans if you have chronic conditions, such as asthma or diabetes. For retirement benefits, Lieber advises new staff to take advantage of employer-provided 401(K) plans where the employer matches the employee's contribution up to a certain percentage.  For an annual salary of $36,000, about what many postdocs get paid, a 3% deduction amounts to about $20 a week. With the employer matching that amount and some smart investment decisions -- Lieber provides Web links to help with that matter -- you can start accumulating wealth with little pain.

In some respects, be thankful you have to make these decisions. As Times labor correspondent Steven Greenhouse notes in his book The Big Squeeze, barely half (55%) of private sector workers are covered by employer-provided health insurance, down from 70% three decades ago. And guaranteed-benefit pension plans, the kind your parents and grandparents had, are being replaced rapidly by the riskier 401(K) plans.

Lieber advises new staff not to be inimidated by the unfamiliar forms and terms that accompany that first-day-on-the-job experience. "Don’t be shy," says Lieber. "The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask."

June 17, 2008

Fly Your Thesis!

Registration for the European Space Agency (ESA)'s astronaut selection may now be closed, but another opportunity to make it into microgravity has just popped up for young scientists.

ESA's education office has launched a new programme called "Fly Your Thesis! – An Astronaut Experience" in which European university students may take part in a competition and carry out their experiments in microgravity as the winning prize.

The students' mission is to design an experiment they'd like to perform up in the sky as part of their Masters or Ph.D. research project. They must first register as a team with an outline research proposal. Up to 20 teams will then be selected by the end of September 2008 to prepare a more detailed proposal with the help of a mentor provided by ESA. Those teams will go to ESA’s European Space Technology and Research Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands to present their project to a jury.

Up to 4 teams will be selected in January 2009 to take part in ESA's Autumn 2009 Microgravity Research Campaign in Bordeaux, France. Students will fly three times aboard an Airbus A300 Zero-G aircraft, experiencing each time 30 parabolic flights and about 10 minutes of microgravity.

All along, students will be given scientific support by the ESA Education Office, ESA microgravity experts, and members of the European Low Gravity Research Association. ESA will also pay students' travel and accommodation expenses and cover part of the experiments.

To be eligible you must be a citizen from one of the ESA member and cooperating states, and be a full-time student in one of those countries. You also must be under 28, and although these do not figure in the eligibility requirements, there are some medical requirements for parabolic flights you should be aware of. Teams may be 2-4 students, and a professor or supervisor must take the responsibility for the experiments.

Deadline for registration: 31 August 2008. More information on the competition the can be found on the ESA Web site.

About a year and half ago, as I was getting ready to wrap up my PhD (Neurobiology), I sat down and asked myself, aside from taking up postdoctoral training- considered the default route, what would I like and be able to do for a career. Among the readily visible options was medicine, public health, business or law. I figured those options would help me specialize further and not necessarily broaden my professional horizons which is where I wanted to take my career. More importantly, I did not want to stray from science, but build on the experience I gained and instead work at perhaps a ‘big picture’ level. Picky, yes!

At that juncture, Science Careers was the first place I stopped by and visited most often since then. It offered a wealth of information about degree programs, funding opportunities as well as job openings and it continues to update its databases regularly and frequently. The Web site also contained valuable first-person accounts of individuals who took up unconventional career paths and in that sense they were pioneers. I read online articles on science policy, ethics, and science writing and decided to contact some of the authors. It was to my joyous surprise that I actually got replies from them. They presented a balanced picture of what each of those career paths had to offer and the need for professionals, who are proficient in the language of science and public-policy, to take on the role of liaisons.

The information, advice and encouragement I received, along with support from my PhD mentors, made me comfortable in stepping outside the lab and confident in seeking out the necessary skills to carve out an ‘alternate’ career - at the intersection of policy, ethics and writing - in an international setting. I joined the MA in International Science & Technology Policy degree program, at The George Washington University, concentrating in Biomedical Policy & Ethics. Now, at the start of second and final year of the program, I look forward to the remainder of an exciting journey learning new subjects and issues and, equally importantly, networking which comes with living and working at the heart of policy-making that is Washington,DC. As for the future, I feel challenged and excited about what it has to offer.

Vidya N Nukala, PhD
MA International Science & Technology Policy (2009)
Elliott School of International Affairs
The George Washington University
Washington DC

Take heart in this quote, pronounced by Professor Sir Gustav Nossal as he received the gold medal of the Australian Society for Medical Research on 4 June: "The lateral thinking, completely wacky approach which will really change paradigms tends to come from the young scientist." 

Hat tip: Mark Metherell's article in The Sydney Morning Herald.

If so, now is an opportunity to shine. Your Amazing Brain Web site, the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, the British Neuroscience Association, and Focus magazine are calling for entries to their 2008 national brain science writing competition.

The assignment is to write a newspaper-style article about your own field of research in no more than 750 words. Any scientist residing in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland and working in brain science, psychology, or the nervous system in humans or other organisms may apply, regardless of their educational and professional level.

The top winner will get a cash prize of £250 and see his or her article published in Focus, the British Neuroscience Association's magazine, and on Your Amazing Brain Web site.

Above all, get your inspiration quickly: deadline for entries is 30 June. For more details about the competition and how to enter, click here.

Both male and female European researchers see combining research with children as very difficult. But, according to a recent study, men and women perceive workplace obstacles differently.

Just like many previous studies, a new survey funded by the European Commission and published this month in EMBO Reports concludes that women remain largely absent in many fields of science, get lower wages, and have fewer opportunities than men to climb the career ladder.

But the EMBO survey, which collected the views of 143 scientists, 53.1% men and 46.9% women, also compared the barriers they perceived to gender equality. Seven out of ten female researchers, and six out of ten men, perceived as very difficult to both keep a career in science going and look after children. But while more than 75% of the female scientists saw the frequent participation of women in administrative duties as a barrier in the workplace, it was seen as such by only 33% of the men. Almost half of the female scientists complained about men getting the most interesting jobs. Interestingly, 57.4% of the female participants -- versus 27.3% of men -- believed this is due to women's lack of competitive attitude in the context of their careers. 

In addition, "the results confirm that many women participate more actively at the beginning of their scientific career, with their work ambitions reduced after having children," says lead author Simona Palermo in a press release. 

Full publication in EMBO reports here (Subcription required). A press release may be found here.

June 10, 2008

How NOT to Get a Raise

Laura Rowley, who writes the Money and Happiness column in Yahoo Finance, devotes a recent column to getting a raise in a soft economy. With tough economic times upon us, we're all finding it a little tougher to make ends meet, even in knowledge-based fields such as science and technology. Rowley's article is titled, "Seven Ways to Get a Raise in a Soft Economy," but she really discusses seven mistakes people make that prevent them from getting a raise. Here are a few of those traps to avoid.

Mistake 1. Assuming you can't get a raise. Human Resources and Finance departments, particularly at academic institutions or not-for-profit organizations, often make it seem like getting a raise is next to impossible.  They need to set policies and salary structures to encourage planning, effective budgeting, and financial transparency. And even in the best of times, research money is tight somewhere. However, if you're good at what you do, you can still make a case for a raise, no matter what the intimidating chisled-in-granite salary charts may say. Which brings us to ...

Mistake No. 2. (Not) Justifying your request for a raise. Don't make make your case for a raise on the price of gasoline or Pampers for the kid, but on your value to the organization. Rowley offers a number of tips, but the most important comes in a quote from executive coach Robert Lorber, who says, "Look at what you can do that adds value" to the organization. Have you thought of a new or different way of getting things done in the lab that may have saved some money? Or did you suggest a potential commercial application for some research findings? If you can show that an increase in your pay is a bargain, your management will more likely see things your way

Jumping ahead  ...

Mistake No. 5. Promoting your unconventional style. Rowley offers an interesting idea for using social networking services to get a raise, or at least discover the dominant successful career path in your organization. Managers of even the most off-beat or entrepreneurial organizations generally like to reward staff who seem the most like themselves.  Rowley recommends signing up for the networking service LinkedIn, then search for profiles of other staff from your organization. From those profiles, you may be able to find pattens or similarities for how the more successful staff members have made it, and you can plan your own ascent up the organizational ladder accordingly.

Rowley's other four tips are useful as well, and in some case, quite amusing, such as ...

Mistake No. 3. Asking at the wrong time ... like just after you've come back from a vacation.

The United Kingdom has had great record of attracting international students, but a new report questions whether that success will continue, noting that reforms in other European higher education systems are making their programs more competitive for students.

The report from the U.K.'s Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) notes that the U.K. currently has 248,635 international scholars among its 1,433,040 undergraduate and graduate students, making it second only to the United States in attracting students from abroad. Many come to England's schools because of the good employment record their graduates have and the high rate of return for students in term of salary. On the other hand, the U.K.'s fees for international students are the highest in Europe, and U.K. higher education institutions rely on international enrollment to provide 8% of their average income.

But many European countries are altering and upgrading their degree programs to bring them in line with the mandates of the Bologna process, a series of accords aimed at standardizing higher education degrees across Europe. The majority of the countries now have 2-year master's programs with research components, while the U.K. still offers 1-year master's courses. This means they may be less competitive than master's courses in other countries and may be seen as inappropriate preparation for a Ph.D. In this sense, other European Union members argue the U.K. has been "Bologna-disrespectful," according to the report.

Other countries are also starting to offer complete programs in English to compete with the U.K. for the international student market.

HEPI concludes that there is no "immediate threat" to the U.K. share of the international market. However, the report's authors say that to protect that market in the long term, the U.K. will need to identify meaningful measures of what students can do at the end of their program of study, apply strong methods of entrance selection, and demonstrate the good quality of teaching methods and the overall quality of U.K. system.

The HEPI report can be found here. The Royal Society expressed its concern earlier this year; read about it here.

-Emma Gatti

June 9, 2008

Peer Review Changes

On Friday, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a plan to overhaul its system of peer review. Among the changes most relevant to young investigators: NIH decided to establish a new, NIH-wide pay line for new investigators,  set at a level that assures that at least 1500 new-investigator proposals are funded each year.

Also important: Applications will be shortened from 25 pages to 12, and likely impact will be emphasized over methods and other details. The amount of feedback investigators receive will also be increased.

NIH refused to adopt one recommendation: That "amended", or resubmitted, proposals be eliminated. A committee had recommended that all proposals be considered "new", instead of the current system which, the committee said, gives preference to proposals that had been reviewed before, rejected,  revised, and reconsidered.

For a fuller account, read Jocelyn Kaiser's ScienceNow piece from Friday. Details may be found on NIH's Enhancing Peer Review Web page.

Biospace is reporting that Medimmune is in the process of hiring 800 researchers for their facilities in Gaithersberg, California, and United Kingdom facilities. They report that the company is more than halfway towards that goal, and plans to complete this phase of hiring by year's end. Biospace says the hiring is "Mostly in research and development, as well as clinical fields."

June 6, 2008

Friday Fun

Okay, maybe virulent cancer, mercury poisoning, and accident-induced blindness aren't exactly 'fun,' but hey, it's Friday.

List Universe provides a list of the Top 10 Scientists Killed or Injured by Their Experiments. The list includes Karl Scheele, who liked to taste the elements he discovered and probably died of mercury poison, the inventor of the kaleidoscope, and Alexander Bogdanov, the Russian revolutionary and physician who gave himself one too many blood transfusions in a quest for eternal life.

South African scientists will soon be able to take part in funding programs and scientific activities run by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO). EMBO today announced a cooperation agreement with the Republic of South Africa that gives the country's scientists access to EMBO fellowships, courses, and workshops and to the EMBO Young Investigator program, in which new faculty are offered mentoring support and networking opportunities.

Europeans too may benefit from the new partnership. EMBO will post on its Life Sciences Mobility Portal reciprocal career development and funding opportunities between the two regions.

For information on upcoming opportunities keep tuned to the EMBO Web site.

The U.K. government has announced a £13 million fellowship program aimed at attracting the world's best postdoctoral researchers from across all disciplines of natural and social sciences, engineering, and the humanities. The catch: You have to be from anywhere but the U.K.

The Newton International Fellowships--sponsored by the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society, and Research Councils U.K.--provide an opportunity for early-career scientists from any country outside the U.K. to work at a U.K. research institution for up to 2 years. The fellowships provide a salary of £24,000 per year and £8,000 to cover research expenses, plus a one-off relocation allowance of £2000.

An attractive bonus of the scheme: All Newton Fellows who remain in research will be granted a 10-year follow-up funding package worth £6000 per year. The goal, organizers say, is to encourage young scientists collaborate with U.K. researchers and to establish international networks.

Program organizers expect to award 50 fellowships in the first round, for which the closing date is August 4. Eligible applicants should have completed a Ph.D. and have up to 6 years of postdoctoral or equivalent experience; should be working outside the U.K. and should not hold U.K. citizenship at the time of application; and must be competent in oral and written English.

For more information, including how to submit an application, visit

--Emma Gatti

The latest in a long series of reports on the perceived crisis in American scientists has just been released. Fortunately, Advancing Research in Science and Engineering: Advancing in Early-Career Scientists and High-Risk, High-Reward Research  (ARISE) is less brain-dead than some previous reports--not surprising, given its illustrious panel of authors that includes economist Richard Freeman, Nobelist (and committee chair) Tom Cech, and AAAS's own Al Teich.

ARISE is concerned mainly with two related questions: how to get scientists in to the independent phase of their careers sooner, and how to fund  research that (as the title indicates) is risky but offers the potential for high rewards.

Commendably, the report provides lists of practical, more-or-less concrete things that stakeholders in the community--federal government entities, institutions, private foundations--can do to address these problems. The recommended actions include targeting more grants and seed-funding programs to early-career faculty, providing more, and more formal, mentoring for early-career scientists, adjusting university promotion and tenure policies, and addressing the conflicts that arise between work and parenting for early career scientists, especially women. The report also makes practical suggestions for funding riskier research and encourages reexamination of our peer review systems. One of the most interesting recommendations is to "invest in program officers" (p. 37; read the rationale).

We'll have more to say about the report as we digest it.


The New York Times on Saturday ran a story about a worker shortage in Iowa, including a deficit of specialists in advanced technology. Because of an historically tepid economy and a reputation for being out in the middle of nowhere, many of Iowa's best and brightest young workers have ventured elsewhere to make a living. As a result, skilled job seekers in Iowa are finding themselves in hot demand.

Des Moines technology entrepreneur Steven Smith, for example, says he spends 5 to 10 hours a week recruiting skilled staff. Smith needs to expand his payroll from about 35 to 50, but it isn't easy. "You’ve got to work at it," says Smith. "They’re not just going to come to you." Greater Des Moines alone faces a worker shortfall of 60,000 in the next decade.

One of the key reasons for the skilled worker shortage is Iowa's lower salaries, which has the effect of both bringing new employers to Iowa and driving local talent away. At the same time, the story notes, Iowa's population is aging -- the state's median age is two years older than the country overall -- and the weak housing market is making it tougher for people to sell their homes if they want to relocate. But for companies who need skilled technical talent, like Iowa's burgeoning insurance and financial services industries, the shortage is forcing employers to give promotions to their current staff and add amenities, like fitness centers.

The story says Iowa's situation may be a harbinger for the rest of the country. According to labor economists Anthony P. Carnevale and Donna M. Desrochers, because of baby boomer retirements and more job creation, the U.S. could face a worker shortage as high as 14 million by the year 2020.

Full disclosure: B.A., University of Iowa, 1967.