Science Careers Blog

February 2009

Going back to the workplace after being away for a number of years can be difficult for anyone, but especially for parents who choose being a full-time mom or dad. Today's Wall Street Journal reports that companies and institutions in science and engineering are setting up programs to help women (many more moms than dads leave the workplace for parenting) return to their former professions.

For employers, career re-entry, as this process is called, offers a source of experienced, skilled, and reliable talent. Even in tough economic times, their investment apparently pays off.

The Journal article by Sue Shellenbarger cites re-entry programs by companies such as Honeywell, IBM, General Electric, and BBN Technologies that provide training, mentoring, and referrals -- and sometimes even jobs -- to help women rejoin their working colleagues. The article also mentions programs by the British government and a General Electric initiative at its research center in Bangalore, India, as examples outside the U.S.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge offers a 10-month "Career Re-engineering" training course for engineers and scientists returning to work. MIT expects enrollment to grow from 10 to 24 by next fall.

Science Careers has covered career re-entry in some detail, particularly as it affects women outside the U.S. A story by Chelsea Wald in March 2008 detailed a number of career re-entry programs in Europe. And last month James Pauff and Misty Richards looked at this and related issues affecting women physician-scientists.

The Web site, described in the Journal article, has additional advice and resources.

Note: Paragraphs 3 and 4 corrected, 25 February 2009

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 signed into law last week (a.k.a. economic stimulus bill) contains provisions that make it more difficult for some companies -- those involved in the TARP financial bailout package -- to hire workers on H-1B temporary work visas. Beryl Benderly discussed the impact of H1-B visas in her column last month in Science Careers.

According to ComputerWorld, an IT industry publication, the stimulus bill says that for 2 years companies receiving funds from the government's Troubled Asset Recovery Program (TARP) are deemed "H-1B dependent." This designation, usually reserved for companies where H1-B holders comprise 15% or more of their workforce, imposes limits on companies seeking to hire more H-1B staff.

Companies deemed H-1B dependent must attest that they've made good-faith efforts to find American workers to fill their openings before recruiting H-1B talent. These employers must certify that they have offered minimum prevailing wages during their recruitment. The measures are aimed at preventing the company from claiming that they could not find workers while offering unrealistically low pay.

There are other restrictions on H-1B dependent companies. They cannot lay-off an American worker 90 days before or after filing an H-1B petition. And they must also have offered the job to to an American worker who applied and is at least equally qualified than the H-1B worker. If a company claims to have followed these rules, but a subsequent audit shows they did not, they can be banned from further participation in the H-1B program. According to the immigration law firm Shihab & Associates, the Department of Labor has recently increased these H1-B audits. 

The practical impact of this provision in the stimulus bill on hiring will likely be minimal. The limits affect new hires, not existing holders of work-related visas. And while the amount of TARP money is staggering, the number of companies involved -- generally in the financial services industry -- is relatively small. Only about 1 percent of workers in this industry have H-1B visas. Our look in November at the financial services industry as a source of alternative employment for scientists suggests this segment of the economy isn't poised for explosive growth anytime soon.

The stimulus bill also does not impose any limitations on outsourcing, which according to Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira, has increased among American banks since the rescue bill passed last fall. Charles Kuck, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, however, told ComputerWorld, "These banks will not able to hire qualified foreign talent to pull them out of this mess -- if that was necessary." Kuck added,  "Maybe we've got all the homegrown talent we need to pull us out of this mess, because now we have to hope we do."

Update, 25 February 2009: The Economic Times of India reports a growing protest in India to the stimulus bill's provisions, including calls for a boycott of American multinationals.

Update, 10 March 2009. The Charlotte Observer reports today that Bank of America has rescinded job offers to "a small number of foreign-born business students" who held H-1B visas, because of the restrictions in the stimulus bill. The bank, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, did not say how many offers were rescinded. The story reported, however, that in 2008 Bank of America applied for less than 100 H-1B visas to work in North Carolina, mainly in computer engineer and programmer positions.

The global economic downturn has affected each European country's science and education system differently. Some countries are pumping more money into higher education, while in others, the weakening economy hasn't had much of an effect because science and education were already chronically underfunded.

But most countries lie somewhere in the middle, and last week the European University Association released a Snapshot of the impact of the economic crisis on European universities. The report notes that universities in Norway haven't felt any direct effects yet; universities in Denmark will receive extra funds for research that the government put aside in 2006. Budget cuts for universities are being proposed or have been enacted in Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, and Poland.

In Germany, a government stimulus package will pump money toward university infrastructure. In the U.K., funds that relied on endowments have suffered, as have universities with investments in Icelandic banks. However, no change in government funding is expected. In Greece, "Chronic under-financing of Greek universities should not be eclipsed by the current economic crisis," the report states.

Outside of universities, there are examples of fiscal belt-tightening. For example, in the Netherlands, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences has suspended several of its smaller funds because of concerns about returns on capital investments. In the U.K., the Wellcome Trust released a statement this month announcing that the charity, whose assets have dropped £2 billion compared with last year, is cutting its 2008/9 budget by £30 million, to £590 million. The organization has also warned its grant applicants that there will probably be increased competition for upcoming grant cycles due to reductions in funds elsewhere.

Our colleagues over at ScienceInsider have also highlighted a few cutbacks around Europe; Sara Coelho writes about the research-funding cutbacks in the Netherlands and specifically at Leiden University. And in December, John Bohannon wrote about budget cut scares in Austria.
For life scientists with good people skills looking for an alternative to basic research, work as a genetic counselor may be to your liking. According to today's Career Journal, an online supplement to the Wall Street Journal, genetic counselors are in demand and the pay isn't too shabby.

Genetic counselors work for hospitals, private physicians, and genetic-testing companies. Sarah Needleman, a Career Journal writer, says genetic counselors conduct genetic tests and study patients' medical and family histories to uncover risks of contracting genetic conditions, particularly in prenatal medicine and oncology.

Cathi Ruben Franklin, a genetic counselor in Madison, New Jersey, tells Needleman that the work lets her be both a scientist and a teacher. This interaction with patients, which requires strong person-to-person communications skills, provides both the highs and lows in the job. Talking with families, some counselors say, lets you learn the details of their stories. Peter Levonian, a genetic counselor in LaCrosse, Wisconsin says, "It's that daily glimpse into the good and bad of human experience that makes the job fascinating and rewarding."

The other side of that coin, of course, is that genetic counselors must break bad news to some of the same patients. "You can't guarantee success" in preventing or treating a genetic disorder, says Elizabeth Leeth, who serves with a maternal health service in Evanston, Illinois.

Becoming a genetic counselor often requires at least a masters degree in genetic counseling. The American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) lists 33 graduate programs on its Web site. A certification examination (PDF), also from ABGC, is required by many employers.

Needleman says demand for genetic counselors remains strong despite the slumping economy. Pay ranges upwards from a starting salary in the upper $40,000s to the $100,000 neighborhood, with a median salary of $63,000. The number of opportunities in the field is expected to grow by 20% over the next 7 years.

The National Society of Genetic Counselors Web site tells more about the profession, and offers listings of employment opportunities through a list-serve subscription.

February 14, 2009

Hidden Opportunities

If you've never attended a AAAS meeting, you should. It tends to be a bit less technically hard-core than most scientific meetings, but much of it is also higher-impact. You get to witness the presentation of science that makes big news; no doubt, you're reading about much of it now (perhaps the Neanderthal genome).  Also, there are lots of good career-related events, opportunities to meet and greet journalists and scientists, and other stuff that's just plain fun. One problem: It can keep you too busy to get any blogging done.

Yesterday Science Careers hosted two career events. Both were well attended and, in my estimation at least, very successful. In this post I'll describe the first, "Finding Hidden Value in the Job Market," which Brooke Allen, the presenter, spontaneously renamed "Finding a Job in a Bad Economy."

It was a provocative presentation--not your typical how-to-write-a-resume type of career event--though I found myself wishing it was longer. (That's my fault, since I'm the one who chose to apply for the 60-minute format instead of a 90-minute slot.)

Brooke's major theme: A bad economy is a great time to look for a job. He took the irony further: A company with a hiring freeze, he suggested, is a great target for employment.

On its face, it seems an absurd suggestion: How can you get a job at a company that isn't hiring? But his argument is compelling. First, in companies that cannot hire--and often are laying people off--the work piles up. As Brooke said, "There has never in the history of the world been a shortage of work." The only question is whether you can get paid for that work.

Furthermore, Brooke suggested, companies that are cutting back their professional workforce often offer buy-out (or "early retirement") packages to current employees. The best employees tend to accept because they know that they can get another job (along with the lump-sum payment that comes with a buy-out offer. So the best employees go away, leaving those who are least secure about their prospects of replacing their current jobs. The less accomplished employees, in other words. The result is a smaller, less competent workforce. But usually the quantity of work does not decline. So there's plenty of work to be done, much of it good, satisfying work.

The trick, Brooke suggested, is to be resourceful. Find a way to make contact, to insert yourself into the company. Brooke told the story of a time, during times like these, that he wanted to work for the (now-defunct) Pam-Am Airlines doing operations-research work. They were in the midst of a hiring freeze. Still, he managed to get in touch with the person at the company who supervised his kind of work. He invited that person out to lunch.

At this lunch, Brooke offered to buy lunch for the whole Pan Am group--about 12 people. At that event, he sat and listened to the complaints and all the problems (including technical problems) the Pan Am folks needed to solve.  He offered to give a seminar, and the offer was accepted.

Brooke's thinking was that it's always possible to get an exception to a hiring freeze--"Where there's a will, there's a way," he said. But in this case, getting an exception took 4 months, and during that time Brooke heard nothing from Pan Am. By the time they called to offer him a job, he had already taken a different job. Accustomed to less resourceful applicants, the folks at Pan Am were upset when their employment offer--which, after all, they'd gone to a lot of trouble to make, getting special permission from the board of directors--was rejected.

Brooke described himself as a "promiscuous networker" and suggested that the members of the audience emulate him in this. To get them started, Brooke presented a networking game in which the players listed their "Haves" and their "Wants" on cards, which they exchanged with as many people as possible. When the 'haves' of one were compatible with the 'wants' of another, contact information was exchanged. The objective: To reach as many people as possible in the alloted time.

The game was interesting, but this was fascinating: the game continued spontaneously after the session. For another half hour, I was offered networking cards outside the meeting room.

Here's what I take as the overarching theme of Brooke's workshop: Interact with others "promiscuously." Be willing to ask for help and to help others. Help connect people who might benefit from knowing each other. The presentation was filled with stories about unlikely contacts leading to unlikely opportunities.  Brooke is a great storyteller and his life is evidence of his thesis. If everyone networked as conspicuously and effectively as Brooke, one suspects, the market for professional labor would work much more effectively and the unemployment rate would be significantly lower.
Science Debate 2008, the people who encouraged discussion of science issues in the 2008 elections, have prepared a summary chart showing the status of science-related line items in each of the House of Representatives and Senate versions of the economic stimulus package. A House-Senate conference committee is now reconciling the two versions of the bill, and the chart shows where each agency and program wins or loses.

For example, according to the chart the House version of the bill gives more money to National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the NIH, and the Department of Education. The Senate's bill favors NASA, the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office of the Department of Energy, and the Advanced Broadband Program in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (part of Department of Commerce).

The chart also shows that to understand what's going on, you need to look beyond the bottom lines and get into the details. Each version of the bill, for example, gives about equal amounts to National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST). However, the House version adds funds to the NIST's Technology Innovation and Manufacturing Extension Partnership programs, while the Senate bill does not.

The page's authors keep the page updated, since events are happening quickly. The page also gives the names of the conference committee members and links to their Web-site contact pages, if you want to add your voice to the debate.

Full disclosure: AAAS, the publisher of Science Careers, is a cosponsor of Science Debate 2008.

Hat-tip: Daily Kos

Update: Associated Press/MSNBC reports Congressional conferees have reached a deal on the stimulus bill.

Welcome to those of you coming here from the Cambridge Media Event -- and welcome to everyone else, too! We often get questions about careers in science writing, editing, and similar careers. So, I thought I'd take the occasion of the Cambridge Media Event to assemble some links to our many features and articles on this subject.

Starting a Career in Science Writing

Careers in Science Editing: Feature Index

This feature contains more than two dozen profiles of scientists who have found careers in scientific editing, whether it's at book publishers, journals, or international agencies.

Getting the Message Across: Scientists in Public Relations

More than a dozen profiles of scientists who've found rewarding work in public relations at agencies and scientific organizations.

Science Broadcasting: Feature Index

Scientists from around the world talk about working in radio and television, whether it's full time or an occasional thing.

Careers in Medical Writing: Opening Doors *Feature Index*

Medical writing includes many different types of jobs, from working in biotech companies to regulatory agencies. This collection of essays covers some of these diverse jobs. We also revisited this topic more recently in Working as a Medical Writer.

If you'd like to try out a career in the media, why not apply for a media fellowship? The two largest programs available are the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program and the British Association for the Advancement of Science Media Fellowships. (We wrote about the BA fellowships earlier this month; the deadline for applications is March 10.)

In connection with "Career Boosters for Women and Minority Scientists," a career workshop presented by Science Careers at the AAAS Annual Meeting, we present the following list of international resources for women and minority scientists. If you encounter this list in print form, you can find an online version (with embedded links) at

These resources are examples of what's available, not an exhaustive list of opportunities. Check out what other programs your college or university, funding body, learned society, professional body, and support association may have to support you.

Training and Mentoring

- Coming Soon! MySciNet, an inclusive community of scientists, from Science Careers

-    Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) at Boston University in Massachusetts

-    Minority Undergraduate Research Fellowships (MURF) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

-    the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Summer Research Program in the Biological Sciences and Related Fields

-    The Ecological Society of America (EAS)'s Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity, and Sustainability (SEEDS) offers minority undergrads the opportunity to gain lab research experience, go on field trips, network, and attend conferences

-    MentorNet, the E-Mentoring Network for Diversity in Engineering and Science

- The Empowering Leadership: Computing Scholars of Tomorrow Alliance offers mentoring to minority undergraduate and graduate students in the computer sciences in the United States

-    The American Heart Association (AHA) Minority Mentoring Program for early-career scientists and clinicians

-    The Mentoring Program of the Max Planck Society for Promoting Female Junior Researchers in Germany

Grants, Scholarships, and Awards

-    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Undergraduate Scholarship Program (UGSP) offers undergrads from disadvantaged backgrounds a scholarship towards their educational and living expenses, a paid summer internship within an NIH lab, and employment at the NIH after graduation.

-    The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Robert D. Watkins Graduate Research Fellowships for doctoral research

-    The L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program offers International Fellowships for doctoral and postdoctoral women in the life sciences to carry out a research project outside their home country as well as national fellowships and mentoring opportunities in 35 different countries.

-    The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellowships and Supporting Activities in biology and social, behavioral, and economic sciences

-    The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)'s Diversity Program in Neuroscience Postdoctoral Fellowships offers funding and additional training opportunities

-    The Royal Society's Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships cover salary and research expenses for European Union doctorate-holders in all fields of science to work in a U.K. institution.

-    The Federation for American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) offers travel rewards to underrepresented minority senior postdocs and faculty members to attend the FASEB Summer Research Conferences

-    The Daphne Jackson Fellowships aim to help scientists in the United Kingdom return to the workplace after a career break

-    Find more opportunities on GrantsNet

More Resources

-    The International Federation of University Women (IFUW)

-    Women in Technology International (WITI)

-    The Association for Women in Science (AWIS), U.S.A

- The European Association for Women in Science Engineering & Technology (WiTEC)

-    The European Platform of Women Scientists (EPWS)

- European Women in Mathematics (EWM)

- The U.K. Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology

- The Centre of Excellence, Women and Science (CEWS) in Germany

-    The Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS),

-    The Center for the Advancement of Hispanics in Science and Engineering Education (CAHSEE), U.S.A.

- The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES)

-    The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) in the U.S.A.

- Minority Scientists Network (MySciNet), Science Careers Diversity Issues

-    JustGarciaHill, a virtual community for minorities in science

-    The American Psychological Associations (APA)'s Survival Guide for Ethnic Minority Graduate Students 

-    Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)'s Entering Mentoring, written by Jo Handelsman and colleagues  

In Science Careers this week, Siri Carpenter and Kate Travis tell how scientists working at natural history museums make Charles Darwin's research come alive.  Harvard's Museum of Natural History is strutting its Darwin stuff as well. In fact, the entire Cambridge, Massachusetts campus is getting in on the act.

Harvard's museum features a lecture by Janet Browne on Thursday 12 February, Darwin's birthday, on his cultural significance, particularly how Darwin has come to symbolize scientific progress. A science historian at Harvard, Browne is developing a course at Harvard on the role of natural history museums in science.

On Saturday and Sunday, 14-15 February, the museum's Darwin events feature family-oriented programs. On Saturday, author Kathryn Laskey and illustrator Matthew Trueman discuss their children's book, One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin, and how Darwin's early life collecting beetles stimulated his later research. On Sunday, evolutionary biologist Andrew Berry -- in a unique example of faculty outreach -- appears at the museum as Charles Darwin himself to talk about Darwin's life, display some fossils, and lead a walk through the museum's zoological galleries.

The campus-wide Darwin Day celebration starts off Thursday morning with a Bloomsday-style reading of Origin of Species at various points on the Harvard campus, followed by a birthday cake at noon, and a Darwin Day party that night at a local pub.

Recent Science Careers articles have talked about using social networks like LinkedIn as part of an overall networking strategy -- the ones by Dave Jensen and Peter Fiske, for example.  The goal of networking, of course, in person or online, is to build your collection of contacts and get your name and qualifications in front of a larger pool of people, including potential employers. Lindsay Pollak, the careers columnist on, offers some pointers on how to better integrate social networks into your live-people networking, an approach called Clicks and Mix (a term coined by one of her colleagues). 

The first step in this approach involves strengthening those networking capabilities that need work. If you're tech-savvy but a little nervous about talking to strangers about your accomplishments, then consider joining a group like Toastmasters, which will help build your public-speaking confidence. On the other hand, if you don't know much about the online variety of social networks, become more knowledgeable about them. Take a class, get coaching, or just explore.

But Pollak suggests other steps to take those new skills a step further.  She recommends breaking out of your narrow age cohort when networking in person. By reaching across generational lines, Pollak says, you can increase the number of contacts and learn about more opportunities. Boomers should attend an event for young professionals and Millenials should go to an occasional "rewire, don't retire" party.

With any means of networking, Pollak suggests, play up your assets. If you're more experienced, emphasize your maturity and judgment. If you're a recent graduate, focus on energy, enthusiasm, and technical smarts (if you have them). And don't put yourself or your age down, Pollak adds. You are who you are; be comfortable with it and others will respond in kind.

One of the fun parts of working for Science Careers is that we get to meet people -- all sorts of people. And when you meet someone who's so totally passionate about her or his science that it's infectious, well, that's great fun.

For this week's article Keeping Order, I interviewed entomologist Erica McAlister in the staff cafeteria at London's Natural History Museum. We had a good conversation, but it was during a tour of the collection later that afternoon that Erica's excitement and enthusiasm really came through. She  lights up when she's explaining the insects, and she was incredibly patient with me in explaining even very basic concepts about insects. And when I later listened back to our interview and started writing up the article, I found myself thinking how cool it would be to be a curator in entomology. (I have absolutely no qualifications to do this.)

A central fact about labor markets--translated into real-world terms that means jobs for job-seekers and suitable employees for companies with positions to fill--is that they're hideously inefficient. That means it's hard to match up buyers and sellers.

In stark contrast to a commodity market, the parts of a labor market are not interchangeable. And the higher up the employment hierarchy you go, the more specialized you get, and the less interchangeable the parts become. You, as an expert in (fill in your biological science specialty here) are not, in most ways, interchangeable with that person you used to say hello to on the quad when you were in graduate school, who eventually emerged from his dark laboratory in the building across the way with a Ph.D. in physics. Your training is specialized. To get hired, you need to find a job that matches your credentials.

In Career Journal (the Wall Street Journal's online careers supplement) last week, Sue Shellenbarger discussed an increasing trend in career-related summer jobs for students, where students or their families pay a fee to participate in the internship experience. The fees go to for-profit companies who place students in established internship programs, or to marketing consultants who promote the students' skills to employer prospects, or to charity auctions where students or their families bid on the internship.

Parents worried about their kids' job prospects are often the ones willing to pay.  Internship-placement services, Shellenbarger says, report a 15-25% jump in the demand for their services over a year ago. The fees mentioned in the articles range from $799 to $9,000. Shellenbarger says that middle-class families, not necessarily the rich, are paying these fees.

For science majors, there are fortunately many internship programs available that are funded by institutions, government agencies, or foundations--and that pay the students, not the other way around. In December, a Science Careers feature on internships describes and benefits of internships for undergrads, and provides a list of summer research opportunities in Europe and North America. We update that page as we learn of new opportunities.

Update: Timothy Noah in Slate gives his views on this subject. Here's a sample: "Whoever said a summer internship was something you had to pay for? The idea of getting a job is that they're supposed to pay you."

Those of you living in the United Kingdom and curious about how the media work may be interested in applying for a British Science Association Media Fellowship. These fellowships offer researchers with at least 2 years of postgraduate experience the opportunity to spend between 3 and 8 weeks working with a print, broadcast, or online media organization. You can read about past fellows' experiences and find details on how to apply on the British Science Association Web site. Deadline for applications: 10 March.

These fellowships are intended for scientists who want to stay in research (which doesn't mean you can't use one to make a career switch to science journalism). If you are interested in leaving the bench to become a press officer, a new guide released by Stempra, the PR association for U.K.-based science, technology, engineering, and medicine, offers practical guidance on writing press releases, preparing scientists for media interactions, and dealing with ethical issues. This guide is likely to be most helpful once you've landed a PR job. But even now it can also help you understand what a science-PR job would be like so you can decide for yourself whether such a career is for you.