Science Careers Blog

December 2008

With all of the bad news about employment, it is nice to see that some sectors of the economy are still hiring, particularly those that hire scientists and engineers. Last week, Jack Chang of McClatchy Newspapers highlighted three sectors that have added jobs in the past few months, while others have been cutting: education, health care, and information technology (I.T.).

Chang notes that from July to November 2008, while the entire non-farm workforce lost 1.4 million jobs, health care and education organizations added 140,000. Not all of these jobs, are high-paying professional scientific and engineering positions--very likely, only a small minority are good technical jobs--but it's good to know there are sectors of the economy that are still hiring people with technical training.

Chang talked to Gary Burtless, a labor economist at the Brooking Institution, who says that governments at every level consider the  education and health care sectors--vital services supported largely by public funds--worth saving. Educational institutions also absorb many laid-off workers who use the opportunity to retrain for other kinds of work--creating jobs, if only in the short term, for people capable of teaching those skills.

In the I.T. sector, Chang relies on more anecdotal evidence and less on statistics. He talked to Trevor Loy, a venture capitalist in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who says many of the technology companies he finances are hiring. Loy gives as examples companies that develop advanced water purification systems and a new generation of survey cameras used in construction. Loy says these companies plan to continue hiring through 2009.

Barry Lawrence, a spokesperson for the employment search site Jobfox, tells Chang that I.T. plays such a fundamental role in businesses that employers want to avoid losing their I.T. staff. Jobfox, Lawrence says, sampled 4,000 of its job listings from 2,000 employers over a 4-month period ending on 28 October. Software designers and developers were fifth on the list of workers most in demand. University faculty ranked 22; sales representatives ranked  no. 1.

Lawrence believes Barack Obama's much-discussed economic stimulus package will spur many more technical employment opportunities. If the package gets enacted, Jobfox anticipates more staffing needs in civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, as well as in construction management.

Emily Mendell, vice president of strategic affairs for the National Venture Capital Association, tells Chang that alternative energy is another field that should benefit from the Obama presidency, and thus should serve as a source of new jobs. Financier Loy adds that developers of innovations that can save energy for businesses are doing well right now, including one firm in his financial portfolio that makes illuminated display signs requiring much less energy and maintenance than current illuminated displays.

December 24, 2008

A Really Good Personal Blog

I really like good science-related personal blogs, especially when the writing is vigorous, quirky, and--especially--unpretentious. Reclaiming Miss Havisham qualifies. The blog is written by a young woman named Leslie who describes herself as "a medical research scientist and bio-ethicist by trade" who "approach[es] frivolous topics with inappropriate belligerence." She currently works (if I'm reading it right) as a compliance officer overseeing animal care, though she has announced her resignation due to ethical conflicts with her supervisors and applied to veterinary school. She intends to stay on in her current position until her replacement is hired and trained.

In case you haven't read Dickens, the "Miss Havisham" reference is to the eccentric, rich widow in Great Expectations who (if I remember right) has kept the same feast rotting on her dining room table for decades. I'm not sure what's implied by the reference; presumably Leslie feels a personal connection to Miss Haversham.

Reclaiming Miss Havisham is witty, funny, and poignant. This is NOT a science blog--though it sometimes touches on animal care--but an often profane, deeply personal account of a life lived on the edge of the scientific world, written by an idiosyncratic, compassionate, deeply human soul.

December 24, 2008

Confessions from the Lab

Yesterday I got a note from James Frost III, the CEO of a company called BioTx, a life-sciences automation company, advising me of a new "non-commercial, non-PC, fun, free" Web site that his company has started, called Confessions from the Lab. (By "non-PC" he apparently does NOT mean that it's a Mac shop.) Frost sent me the link after reading Phil Dee's excellent Confessions of a Secret Lab Dancer on Science Careers.

It's pretty much what you would expect, a mix of lame, silly, and provocative, funny descriptions of stuff that happens in the lab that no one should ever admit, along with a few other lab-related thoughts, like "Top Ten Ways to Get Thrown Out of the Lab." Warning: The list is distinctly NOT PC:
10: Pretend an electron got stuck in your ear, and describe the sound to others.
9: Give a cup of liquid nitrogen to a partner and ask them how it tastes.
8: Consistently write 3 atoms of potassium as KKK.
7: Mutter repeatedly "not again...".
6: During a lull cry out, "My eyes"!
5: Deny the existence of chemicals. 
4. Begin pronouncing everything your immigrant lab instructor says exactly the way he/she says it.
3. Casually walk to the front of the room and urinate in a beaker.
2. Pop a paper bag at the crucial moment when the professor is about to pour the sulfuric acid
1. Show up with a 55-gallon drum of fertilizer and express an interest in federal buildings.
The New York Times on Saturday described the U.S. State Department's accelerated efforts to recruit more foreign service officers (FSOs), the people who staff American embassies and consulates overseas. While FSOs come from a wide range of disciplines, some scientists find these jobs rewarding, particularly when they can apply their earlier training. For example, a few years ago Joan Woods described for Science Careers her transition from biology studies to public health work in Malawi for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the agencies mentioned in the Times article.

FSOs represent the United States in political, economic, consular (passports and visas), press, cultural, and administrative positions overseas. In addition to salary and the usual benefits, FSOs often receive housing (either directly or through reimbursements) for themselves and their families and bonuses for agreeing to serve in hardship posts. But FSOs must agree to serve anywhere in the world, including dangerous and difficult places where they may face long separations from their families. Many months can be spent in full-time language training to prepare for these assignments.

Even with these caveats, the competition for FSO spots is intense. The Times article says that 12,000 to 15,000 applicants compete for an average of about 450 new positions each year. Applicants must pass a written exam, an interview, and a full security background investigation. Those with foreign-language skills, particularly in Middle Eastern and Asian languages, receive preference.

For those with science or engineering backgrounds, the State Department hires FSOs for specialist positions in information technology and security work. USAID also seeks experts in public health and agriculture, as well as social scientists. Some officers who enter as specialists become generalists, learning the political and economic policy issues needed to advance to management positions in embassies and in Washington.

Full disclosure: the author is a former foreign service reserve officer and current board member of the Public Diplomacy Alumni Association.

In the new (19 December) issue of Science Careers, Brian Vastag describes a number of training programs to produce translation scientists, who conduct biomedical research with a direct connection to clinical practice. Among the most prominent of such initiatives is the Med Into Grad program, created by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).  Yesterday, HHMI announced an expansion of this program that will increase the number of training centers from 13 to 38.

According to a news release, HHMI is adding $25 million to its spending for Med Into Grad, which it hopes to distribute to another 25 institutions. HHMI sets general objectives for the institutions, but, as noted in Vastag's article, universities have considerable leeway in configuring the education they deliver to participating students.

HHMI asks for institutions to register their intent to compete for the grants by 6 January 2009. Full proposals are due on 27April 2009.

December 18, 2008

U.S. Research Spending to Fall

The Wall Street Journal is reporting (subscription required for access) that U.S. research spending is expected to decline next year--or so says a report due out from the Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit trust in Columbus, Ohio that will be published in R&D Magazine. The Battelle numbers describe total research spending, including expenditures by government and private-sector sources.

Without accounting for inflation, the report will say, U.S. R&D expenditures will rise about 1.72% to $383.5 billion. After inflation, this is expected to amount to a 1.6% decline in real spending. It would be the first drop in overall U.S. research spending in a decade.

The U.S. share of global research spending is also expected to fall, from 34% this year to 33.6% in 2009. Global research spending, after inflation, is expected to be flat, a 3.2% increase offset by a 3.2% inflation rate.

December 18, 2008

HHMI Janelia Farms

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion on alternative careers at HHMI's Janelia Farms campus in Ashburn, Virginia.  Before going to the event, I knew nothing about the campus. (For more information on Janelia Farms, see "Betting the Farm" by Beryl Benderly and Jim Kling's "Captain of the Farm Team.") It turned out to be a really neat facility with some interesting features intended to foster interaction and collaboration.  The facility is relatively new, having opened just two years ago and is still being staffed.  Among the interesting things I learned:

  • Meals and snacks (and the pub!) are subsidized to encourage researchers to leave their labs and eat with each other and with visitors.  In the cafeteria, most tables seat 6-8 people to encourage conversation.
  • Housing for scientists is located on campus.   Apparently, there is so much demand for the on-campus housing that on campus housing is limited to a year so that others can have a turn.
  • Labs are limited to 7 individuals, but collaboration is encouraged among groups.
  • There is an incredible amount of glass in the building.  Some of it lets you see out to the surrounding farmland and the nearby pond; the rest olets you see into the labs, creating a sort of fishbowl effect.  The labs themselves are large, open spaces with several groups sharing one (very large) room.
  • In order to encourage creativity, lab heads are not given tenure.  After 6 years, and every 5 years thereafter, they are subject to a review.  Researchers who are not renewed are given HHMI funding to take to another institution.

Sound like a place you'd be interested in working?  Or do you prefer to work in a more traditional research environment?  If it sounds appealing, Janelia Farms still has many open positions ranging from lab techs to to postdocs PIs. 

The arrest of financier Bernard Madoff on 11 December on investment fraud charges has sent waves crashing into scientific institutions and philanthropies that invested in Madoff-backed schemes. Madoff contributed widely to and served on boards of various Jewish and Israeli charities and institutions, many of which invested in his hedge fund. Prosecutors say Madoff's fund was a $50 billion scam.

Yeshiva University in New York, home to the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, has apparently taken a significant hit. The Albert Einstein school is a major research facility, as well as a medical training institution. Sources at Yeshiva told the JTA news service that the school has lost at least $100 million from its endowment because of Madoff investments. Madoff served as treasurer of Yeshiva's board of trustees.

Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, Israel, invested in Madoff's securities, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, which estimates its losses at about NIS 25 million ($6.5 million).

Victims of Madoff's apparent fraud include foundations headed by household names such as Nobel laureate Elie Weisel, Senator Frank Lautenberg, and film director Steven Spielberg, as well as many smaller family foundations and institutions that serve Jewish communities in North America, Europe, and Israel. Madoff managed most of the investment income of Spielberg's Wunderkinder Foundation, which donated some $3.3 million for medical research to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Charities with larger exposure to Madoff's schemes were less fortunate. The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation of Salem, Mass., which supports exchanges of teachers and students between Israel and the United States, invested all of its $8 million in Madoff's fund and has shut down.

The Madoff scandal has further shaken an already nervous environment for philanthropies. John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York told JTA, "Already in the context of a very challenging economic environment this will present another significant difficulty. We don’t know yet the extent of the wreckage."

December 11, 2008

How to Publish in Science

Interested in learning more about publishing in Science?  Come on out to our next Science Careers Outreach event. At the American Society for Cell Biology meeting in San Francisco, Science Editor Bryan Ray will discuss the submission, review, approval, and publication process for the journal. The presentation will cover what editors look for and what reviewers are asked to consider when reading manuscripts. Ray will walk through the process from submitting a paper through the review process and publication. He will also explain what types of papers are suitable for publication in Science, and which are better submitted to a more specialized journal. There will be a Q&A session after the presentation.

  • Date: 14 December 2008
  • Time: 6:15-8:15 pm
  • Location: American Society for Cell Biology, San Francisco, CA; Moscone Center Room 101
  • You must be registered for the ASCB meeting to attend the session.

December 9, 2008

Women Leaving Science

A nice piece by The Guardian's Jessica Shepherd about the difference in attrition rates between male and female graduate students in the sciences, and the causes of high attrition rates for women. Pretty dramatic.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) announced last week a £250 million investment in 44 doctoral training centers across Britain. The move will generate more than 2000 new Ph.D. students in areas such as climate change, sustainable energy, and global security.

Britain needs "scientists and engineers with the right skills to find answers to these [21st century] challenges, build a strong economy, and keep us globally competitive," U.K. Minister of Science Paul Drayson said at a press conference announcing the program. "EPSRC’s doctoral training centers will provide a new wave of engineers and scientists to do the job."

The centers, which will be located at 22 universities across Britain, will include formal taught coursework designed to develop a broad set of skills combined with research in a multidisciplinary environment. Seventeen of the new clusters will be industrial training centers where students will also acquire business and entrepreneurial skills. 

The project is funded with £250 million from the EPSRC training and education budget. The centers will receive funding for 5 years, with a review after the first 3 years. Each center will take in around 10 students a year starting in 2009.

-Sara Coelho

December 5, 2008

Career Resources at AAAS

Recently, I was compiling a list of the various career resources that AAAS offers. Different parts of the organization offer different career-development opportunities. Among those that Science Careers readers might be interested in are:

Science Careers' contributors occasionally write about the role of workplace politics in one's career, either by telling their own experiences (Educated Woman) or dispensing advice on the topic (Tooling Up, Opportunities, Mind Matters). In the New York Times recently, career columnist Phyliss Korkki answered a question from a reader on why workplace politics matters ...

Q. You’ve been told that to succeed at work, you have to play office politics. You don’t care to play games; you just want to get your work done. What should you do?

Substitute the word "lab" or "faculty" for "office" and that question is probably one asked by many early career scientists. Korkki cites several authorities on the subject who say workplace politics is a necessary evil, and if you do it right, maybe not even evil.

Korkki quotes author and psychologist Marie G. McIntyre that politics in the workplace are nothing more "being smart about how you manage the relationships at work." This means, says Korkki, understanding who has power in your organization, being aware of how your managers and colleagues operate, and adapting to the culture of your organization.

But even if you don't want to crawl your way up any corporate ladder, adds Korkki, you may still need to play the political game in your company, research institute, or academic department, just to keep doing what you like doing. She quotes author and executive coach Peggy Klaus, who advises clients that by managing your relationships well, "you are going to continue to have the ear of your boss, to get the assignments that you want and to get the resources that you need."

Workplace politics can and, as McIntyre insists, should be played ethically. McIntyre cites the golden rule of office politics: "You should never advance your own interests by hurting the business or harming other people." In this way, adds Korkki, you develop a reputation as a valued contributor who can be trusted.

Klaus points to another important part of workplace politics that some people find distasteful: self-promotion, also a topic Science Careers discusses on occasion. Klaus defines this as the ability "to talk about ourselves and our accomplishments and our team’s accomplishments in appropriate situations."  In an ideal world, keeping your head down and just doing a good job should be enough to get recognition and rewards for your efforts, says Klaus. But in these tough times, you don't want to leave to chance getting your accomplishments noted by management.

The whole column is worth reading. And if you can't get enough of this subject, Korkki found an entire Web site devoted to office politics.

December 2, 2008

New Career Basics booklet

Just out this month is a new version of Science Careers’ Career Basics Booklet. Developed as part of the Science Careers Outreach Program with sponsorship from the Department of Defense's Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) program, the booklet is a collection of articles from the virtual pages of Science Careers. It has all the information that you need to get your career on the right track: articles and resource lists provide information on choosing a career path, marketing yourself, skills needed in different career paths, and diversity issues.


The Outreach Program runs career development programming for early career scientists at various venues. Approximately 25,000 print copies of the first version of the Career Basics booklet, printed in 2007, have been distributed and many more people have accessed it online.


As a reader of Science Careers, you may have read these articles before, but it’s a great way to introduce others to the wealth of resources that Science Careers has to offer.


The new booklet is available here as a pdf.

Find out more about upcoming Outreach Program events here.

When you interview with an employer, it's not unusual to get introduced to staff members other than the interviewer during your visit. Dave Jensen's new Tooling Up article on interviewing includes this advice (number 18, under During the Interview) for that very situation:

  • Assume that everyone you talk with on interview day will be involved in the decision to hire, no matter how they are introduced. Answers to the "candid" questions you're asked by prospective peers often make it back to the hiring manager. You are interviewing no matter where these conversations take place--in the hallway, the lunchroom, or while walking through the plant.

Last week, a posting in the Careers blog at U.S. News and World Report directly supports this piece of advice. Business owner G.L. Hill, one of the bloggers at U.S. News, says his company uses these meet-and-greet encounters as a way of finding out how an employee prospect interacts with coworkers. Hill says mastering these brief meetings is crucial to the candidate. Yet, says Hill, "Most fail due to lack of planning. Or they believe the job interview is over-and are trying their best to get out the door and have no time to be nice to some random person they just met."

Hill adds, "Realize that the interview is not over until you are out of sight. This does not mean you have to develop an oversize personality overnight and become Mr. or Ms. Extrovert, but know that how you interact with others has become more important than ever."

Hill suggests practicing for these seemingly impromptu encounters, because in Hill's company--and probably many others--there's nothing impromptu about them.