Science Careers Blog

March 2009

The New York Times reports today that Google will soon announce an expansion of its fledgling Google Ventures arm. According to the Times story, Google plans to invest $100 million over the next 12 months in what it considers promising startups in fields such as Internet technologies, clean energy, and the life sciences.

The expanded unit has a strong science and technology background. Heading Google Ventures is David Drummond, a senior vice president at Google and the company's chief lawyer. Rich Milner, one of the managing partners of Google Ventures, has a Ph.D. in computer science from University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and led development of the Android operating system now used in Google's G-phone. Milner joined the company in 2005 when Google acquired Android.

Bill Maris, the other managing partner, has a bachelor's degree in neuroscience from Middlebury College in Vermont, during which he conducted basic research at the Duke University Medical Center. Maris opted for a career as an entreprenuer, but later applied his science background as the biotechnology and healthcare portfolio manager for the Swedish investment company AB.

The Times says Google Ventures has already invested in two startups. One of the companies, Silver Spring Networks, makes software for utilities to build and manage smart electrical grids. The other supported firm is Pixazza that develops software that adds marketing information to images of products on Web pages, to let consumers learn more or buy the products online.

Today's Wall Street Journal describes what it calls the revival of the nuclear energy industry, which comes, they say, with new job opportunities and renewed academic interest.

 In 1979, a partial meltdown at the Three-Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania soured the U.S. on nuclear power, raising questions about its safety, as well as related questions about what to do with of spent nuclear fuel--the term the industry favors over the broader and more loaded "nuclear waste".

The Journal says the comeback is driven by issues related to the economy, foreign-policy, and climate-change. Right now, the journal says, nuclear fission generates some 20% of the electricity used in the United States, but utilities have applied to build 26 new nuclear plants. Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse (now part of Japan's Toshiba Corporation), which plans to build 6 of those plants, added 1,400 workers last year. The company expects to add another 650 jobs each year for the next 5 years.

The uptick in job opportunities has sparked more interest on nearby campuses. A new undergraduate class in nuclear engineering at the University of Pittsburgh was expected to enroll 25 students; instead, 75 students  signed up. 104 students are pre-enrolled for next year. We reported explosive growth in nuclear engineering programs--and multiple job-offers for graduates--back in 2002.

At nearby Carnegie Mellon University, engineers at the Field Robotics Center have built robots to clean up the sites of nuclear accidents, and are researching others with potential uses in that industry.  

There are still concerns about what to do with the spent nuclear fuel. Plans to reprocess fuel into plutonium raise serious security concerns, since plutonium is used to make nuclear weapons.  And plans to store spent fuel at a new facility in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, have been put on hold by the Obama Administration.

The National Spent Nuclear Fuel Program at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls is conducting research on what to do with spent nuclear fuel. That lab has current career opportunities if you're interested in helping find a solution.
People in college and university communities may find themselves with better employment prospects than the U.S. at large, according to a story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. The tough economic environment is forcing town and gown to work together, with benefits for both parties.

In January, six U.S. cities had unemployment rates below 4%. Three of those--Morgantown, West Virginia (home of West Virginia University, WVU), Logan, Utah (Utah State), and Ames, Iowa (Iowa State)--are college towns. Iowa City, Iowa (University of Iowa) and Manhattan, Kansas (Kansas State) are not far off the mark, at 4.1% and 4.2% respectively. That's still less than half of the latest national unemployment rate, which is 8.5%. All of the rates are not seasonally adjusted.

College and university towns often have associated units and enterprises that generate jobs, such as medical centers and research institutes. Many research universities also have programs that encourage business spinoffs and technology transfers; these too can create jobs. Plus, the universities themselves are major employers, for both academic and support positions. The story notes that West Virginia University in Morgantown currently has 260 openings. "We're hurting for people, especially to fill our computer and technical positions," says a university vice president, quoted in the article.

These college towns may be economic powerhouses, but tough times are starting to cramp even their economic engines. Reduced endowments and state budget cuts have caused institutions to freeze hiring (see "Discouraging Days for Jobseekers" in Science Careers), cut back on capital projects, and reduce employers' retirement contributions, according to the WSJ article. To counteract the drag of the economic downturn, institutions like WVU are partnering with their host cities on development projects expected to benefit the communities.  The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are starting up similar projects.

Dubbed "communiversities," such projects go beyond economic development, the article notes, increasing educational opportunities for city residents and bringing volunteers from the campus out into the community.

If you're interested in a career in information systems security -- protecting citizens and institutions against hackers -- these are indeed good times. A story in today's Government Computer News says that federal agencies want to hire large numbers of IT security specialists. Plus, there's a scholarship program to cover much of the cost of training.

Current federal job openings in the systems security field number at least in the hundreds. The U.S. government's job board,, lists 634 separate announcements for IT security specialists (series 2210), with many of those announcements for multiple positions. Some of the advertised jobs are in the Washington, DC area; others are in regional and field offices around the country. 

While the entry-level pay for junior specialists at some of the field offices is comparable to entry-level postdoc salaries (about $30,000 per year), those with advanced degrees can start at higher levels: at least $41,000 for masters degrees and $49,500 for Ph.D.s. The actual amount will vary depending on amount of relevant experience and location. And most of the positions have job growth built in: You can add more responsibilities over time with commensurate salary increases, often up to, and sometimes beyond, $100,000 per year.

The scholarship program to train IT security specialists is called Scholarship for Service (SFS). A joint undertaking of Department of Homeland Security and National Science Foundation, SFS provides a 2-year stipend for students in certified information assurance university programs, and currently supports 250 participants at 26 institutions. About 80% of the current participants are getting masters degrees, with most of the remainder getting bachelors degrees, plus a few Ph.D. candidates. In return, participants agree to work for two years in a Federal agency.

The program's graduates get jobs right away. According to Victor Piotrowski, NSF's director of the program, nearly all (97%) SFS graduates get placed in federal jobs. An annual job fair for SFS graduates attracted 75 federal agencies this year, up from 29 agencies in 2005.

Advancement in these jobs is apparently swift, particularly for those technical specialists who are also knowledgeable in the government's underlying security policies, as we pointed out in a 2005 article about federal information security in Science Careers. Since then, the need, if anything, has increased.

Mischel Kwon, a 2005 SFS-sponsored masters degree graduate from George Washington University,  is now director of the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, part of Department of Homeland Security.  She told Government Computer News, "We're looking for analysts who can get to the real crux of the threat, and we're looking for writers who can articulate our geeking and beeping so that management, Congress, and the public can understand what we're talking about. With that in mind, there's a huge, critical demand for qualified people in the information assurance field."

A new report this week from the Computing Research Association (CRA)  shows enrollments and degrees rising among bachelor's degree and Ph.D. students in the U.S. and Canada. For undergraduates at least, this marks a reversal of a trend going back to 2002. The report, which describes changes between the 2007-2008 and 2006-2007 academic years, includes data from 192 of the 264 members of CRA, consisting of computer science, computer engineering, and information science departments in North America.

For undergraduate students, the 6.2% increase in course enrollment and 8.1% increase in declared majors were the first recorded in 6 years. At the other end of the undergraduate spectrum, the news wasn't as good: The number of bachelors degrees awarded in these disciplines decreased 10% to about 12,800. Nonetheless, this rate represented an improvement over the extraordinary declines documented by the previous year's survey; that survey showed a 20% decline in bachelor's degrees from the year before.

The number of Ph.D. degrees awarded by these departments grew 5.7% over the previous year, to 1,877. The number of Ph.D. students passing their thesis candidacy exams--a common feature in computer science departments--increased by about 7%. The number of master's degrees awarded remained about the same as in the 2006-2007 academic year, about 10,000.

While students from overseas make up a large proportion of the graduate degrees in computing disciplines, they are less common among undergraduates. About half (49.5%) of the masters recipients and a majority (56.5%) of the Ph.D. degrees were non-resident aliens. But only 6.2% of bachelors degrees awarded in 2007-2008--about 1 in 16--went to non-resident aliens.

Women are a distinct minority in computer departments. Only 1 in 8 bachelors degrees (12%), 1 in 4 masters degrees (26%), and 1 in 5 Ph.D.s (21%) went to women. Whatever their gender, a majority (56.6%) of new Ph.D. recipients were hired by industry, up from 52% in the previous year. Some 3 in 10 (29.4%) took academic positions, while another 3% went to work in government. Less than 1% reported being unemployed.

The 3 in 10 new Ph.D.s taking academic positions in 2007-2008 represents a sharp decline from the 6 in 10 recorded in the 2004-2005 survey. Of the new academic hires about one-third  (9.4%) received tenure-track positions, about the same number (10%) became postdocs, and the remainder became researchers, non-tenure track faculty, or took other academic jobs.

The authors of the report caution that these data were accumulated mostly before the economy deteriorated drastically (most of the last data were gathered in the fall of 2008).

If you get a layoff notice, something that's happening more and more in this economy, you need to be prepared for an extended period away from the work you spent a big chunk of your time on. Unless you're independently wealthy--and not many of us are-- the first thing to worry about is seeing to your and your family's financial and health-care needs. But it's also important to pay attention to your career development. Your career has hit a low point, but it will pick back up again in due time.

You may not have much money, but you've got time, and you should use some of that time (and effort) keeping up your technical and scientific skills. Honing your craft won't just keep you ready to jump back into the working world should an opportunity arises It will also help maintain your confidence. It may even help you find another job.

An Associated Press/MSNBC article last week quotes career counselors who suggest three ways of keeping your skills in game condition: continuing education, professional organizations, and volunteering. With continuing education, of course, few classes are free, but some colleges offer classes at very reasonable costs. Costs for online training are also quite low.

Professional organizations offer more than just a chance to keep your science up to date. They also provide networking opportunities. Dave Jensen talked about participating in trade groups as a form of "guerrilla marketing" in a 2006 Science Careers article that still gets a lot of traffic. Professional organizations have committees that often require leadership, so they provide a way of displaying your management abilities. And these groups offer a means keeping current on gossip in your line of work, which can include job openings. In a previous job, I saw many colleagues working on industry-standards committees use their participation to get acquainted with managers from other companies. It was not unusual to have committee members change jobs, leaving one company for  another company taking part in these groups.

Volunteering is a way to do good for yourself and your community. The article suggests easing the search for pro-bono assignments through the use of groups that connect people with skills to organizations that need those skills, like the Taproot Foundation. Other professional volunteering opportunities the article mentioned: teaching or tutoring in your subject at local colleges.

Helping others is also a good networking technique. Networking expert Dick van Vlooten, in a 2004 article for Science Careers, cites the New Testament: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance" (Matthew 25:29). For the more secular, van Vlooten tells how volunteering helps generate reciprocity from the recipients of your efforts and builds your reputation in the community.

Volunteering requires an unpaid investment of your time, but that investment can lead directly to employment with that organization. The AP article cites the experience of career counselor Shawn Graham, who got a pink slip from a retail company in 1997 and offered his services pro-bono at a local college's career center. A few month's later, the college hired Graham for a paid position, and he is now director of MBA career services at University of Pittsburgh. Van Vlooten says, "you have to give first in order to receive. And when I say you should give, I mean freely, without the hidden intention to get anything in return. This will get you further in the end."

There's one important point the article did not make, presumably because it was not aimed at scientists, but it's related to continuing education mentioned earlier. In a recent conversation, a friend of Science Careers talked about just how important it is for young scientists--graduate students and postdocs--to take their time and seek out a research problem they love, that can keep them charged up throughout their careers. Scientists--most of them anyway--have an extraordinary skill: They don't need a class, since most have learned how to teach themselves things from a book by the time they finish graduate school. You may have lost your job, but hopefully you kept your library card.

There's no better time than a layoff to explore your options and learn that bit of math, or whatever, that you've been putting off because you're too busy. If you spend your time well, that extra bit you learn during your forced furlough could make the difference between a first-rate career and an indifferent one.
At a news conference by the Technology Policy Institute (TPI) last week, which was organized to build support for increasing high-skilled immigration to the United States, a key congressional backer of increased immigration for highly skilled workers put a damper on the audience's expectations.

American companies can now hire up to 65,000 foreign workers with H-1B visas. Another 20,000 H-1B visas are set aside for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees. Supporters think these limits need to be revised upwards, while critics blame the H-1B program for low wages in high-tech jobs, among other sins.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who represents Silicon Valley, gave the keynote speech at the 10 March 2009 meeting and immediately dampened hopes for lifting the caps on H-1B visas for high-skilled workers. Lofgren said she shares the opinion that increasing the numbers of immigrants with advanced degrees in engineering and science has benefits for the United States. "Anybody who wants to build our economy and grow our jobs," Lofgren said, "has to deal with the issue of how ... we attract and retain the Ph.D.s who are graduating from American universities, who are not residents and not U.S. citizens." Non-citizens, she noted, make up 42% of the masters degree candidates and 64% of the Ph.D. candidates in engineering at U.S. universities. The numbers are similar--39% for masters and 61% for Ph.D. students--in computer science. Of all science and engineering doctorates granted in the past 2 years by U.S. institutions, she noted, 43% were not citizens.

Lofgren added, however, that congressional action to raise the limits on H-1B visas would have to be part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, because other industries -- she cited Western farmers and Chesapeake Bay fisherman as examples -- also have expressed a need for increasing the numbers of temporary immigrant workers. Measures that single out high-tech immigrants for immediate action, she suggested, would not attract the needed  support.

But the prospects for such a comprehensive immigration bill are slim, she continued: One such bill failed to pass in the last Congress, she pointed out, and there seems to be little appetite now to revisit the issue.

Despite the low salary, landing on the first permanent rung of the academic career ladder in France is difficult, and not just because they are highly competitive. The procedures for applying can also be daunting. If you are new, or foreign, to the current application system for a position of maître de conférences in France, this step-by-step guide published (in French) by David Allais on the news on French higher education Web site, the Observatoire Boivigny, is a good starting point.

If you're a researcher in training in France, or if you're considering faculty employment at a French university, you may be interested in the following, which suggests that financial prospects for young faculty members are, in a word, grim.

In an article published on Rue89, a French Web site for information and debate, Marie Conquy puts the financial situation of Jérôme P., a French enseignant-chercheur in physics at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, under the microscope.

In his first year on the faculty, Jérôme P. earns about 1,800 euros a month after taxes, with a bonus of 500 euros per semester. Given the high living costs in the French capital, Jérôme P., aged 29, says he can not afford to rent a two-roomed flat, so he lives with his parents instead. He estimates that he spends around 500 euros a month in food, 230 euros for transportation, 100 euros in Internet and phone bills, and 130 euros in health and car insurance. Thanks to the expedient of living with his parents Jérôme P. is left with significant disposable income: between 600 and 700 euros, which he splits between hobbies--mainly fishing--and savings towards a flat.

This article drew many comments, mainly from readers outraged at seeing 10 years of study being rewarded with a low salary. One reader, tony38, commented that he left the CNRS to work in Canada, where he now earns more than twice his French salary. And according to Ongaku, a recent graduate from a French Engineering School, entry-level ingénieurs (who in France are traditionally perceived as being better equipped to compete for jobs than doctors) earn between 2,000 and 2,500 euros a month in industry.  

Still, we all know that, whichever your country, if you go into academic research it's not really for the money. "When choosing this profession, I have never looked at the salary. I am really passionate" about it, Jérôme P. says in the article. 

Read the full article and comments (in French) here.


March 9, 2009

Avoiding Plagiarism

It seems like a no-brainer that you shouldn't take someone else's research or words, slap your name on it, and submit it to a journal. However, quite a few scientists out there seem to have missed this simple lesson. Consider these responses by authors who duplicated content and citations from earlier published articles:

"To be honest with you, I was not aware of the fact that I need to take prior permission of the authors of the original article."

"Our main goal was to spread the knowledge into the local investigation community, so it was published in a local journal as a review article."

"I was shocked when I saw the attachments... Only idiots can do such a thing, which I am not."
These are some of the responses that Harold Garner, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and colleagues got when they presented authors of published scientific articles with their published article and an earlier published article with which there was substantial amounts of overlap in citations and/or text. They describe this process in this week's Science Policy Forum, "Responding to Possible Plagiarism"  (subscription required to view full text).

Garner and colleagues have started a database called Deja vu, which identifies highly similar citations in Medline. So far, the database has identified more than 9000 articles with "high levels of citation similarity and no overlapping authors," Garner, et al., write. They then started doing full-text comparisons on these papers, and, so far, have identified 212 articles "with signs of potential plagiarism."

The research group developed a questionnaire and sent it to 163 sets of authors of original (potentially duplicated) articles, authors of the later (potentially fraudulent) articles, and the journal editors of both articles, along with copies of both published papers. They got a surprising (I think) 88.3% response rate. Some 93% of original article authors weren't aware their work had been duplicated. Authors who duplicated their own work denied wrongdoing 28% of the time, and 35% admitted to having borrowed from previously published materials.

What's this got to do with careers? A LOT, especially when it's your career. Plagiarism falls under the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy's definition of research misconduct. There are probably people among the survey respondents who knew exactly what they were doing. But probably most of them were unaware that copying material without permission or without crediting the other group is considered research misconduct, or they simply weren't involved enough with the final manuscript to know that plagiarism took place. Consider some of the responses that Garner's group got to their questionnaire:

"I was not involved in this article. I have no idea why my name is included."

"My contribution to the article was limited to the collection of clinical data: [the senior author] alone was responsible for the use of the data provided."

These people are now in danger of being guilty of research misconduct, and they didn't even know it. What can you do?  Make sure you know what papers your name goes on. If something smells fishy, ask questions. "The integrity of research is everyone's responsibility," Nick Steneck, University of Michigan emeritus professor, said in an article we published last year on research integrity. "If you see something that you don't think is right, all professionals have a responsibility to raise their concerns."

For more on this topic, see Research Integrity: Making the Right Choices, Dealing With Deception, A Pressure Cooker for Postdocs?, and Scientific Integrity and Ethics: A Dilemma. Also, the current issue of The Scientist this month has an article on tips for preventing research misconduct (registration required).

As If job hunting in a recession wasn't tough enough. Information Week reports that identity thieves are now posting fake employment ads to steal vital data from job hunters. Fake job ads, apparently, have more than quadrupled in the past three years, many aspiring to identity theft, or so says the Association for Payment Clearing Services, a financial trade group in the U.K.

The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) urges job hunters to be cautious about divulging personal information to prospective employers. This may be good advice, but it presents a problem: How do you answer a employment ad without giving out your vital details?

ITRC offers these tips:

  • Before sending out résumés or CVs, make sure your computer's security software is deployed and up-to-date. Job-hunters, because they are eager for responses, are often inviting targets for scammers and phishers.
  • Do not put your social security number on your CV or résumé, or give it to an employer prospect until you have a serious offer.
  • Set up a separate e-mail account for your job search, which can limit the threats from phishing and spam sent to your regular e-mail address. If this alternative e-mail address is compromised -- hijacked by a spammer, for example -- it will not affect your primary e-mail service.
  • Do some research on companies placing employment ads. One place to turn is the Better Business Bureau. Another source is the consumer protection authorities in the state where the company is located. Having an impressive Web site these days doesn't mean much, since posting a site takes little financial investment or technical skill.
  • Avoid Web site registrations that require you to provide sensitive personal data, such as Social Security Number, home address, or driver's license number. Most legitimate sites don't ask for such sensitive data (except for credit card numbers of course, at merchant sites) and those that do will make that sensitive data optional.
  • Double-check on the bona fides of the contact at a company. Be wary, for example, when the contact's e-mail address is not from the company's Internet domain. If someone is not employed by the prospective employer, find out the person's relationship with that company. It is not uncommon for companies to hire headhunters or contract recruiters, but legitimate outside recruiters will not mind answering that question.
The article has more tips and links to more resources.

Hat-tip:  TechAmerica

Yesterday's New York Times tells about increasing problems with visas encountered by foreign postdocs and students in the United States, particularly those in science and technology disciplines.

The problems, according to the article, involve delays, missing paperwork, and less-than-helpful U.S. embassy staff. They appear to be more serious for visitors from China, India, the Middle East, and Russia. A postdoc in genetics at MIT, from Belarus, ran into 3 months of bureaucratic delays and lost documents when she tried to renew her visa with the U.S. embassy in Minsk on a visit home. She ended up having to go to Moscow to get the visa.

An anonymous State Department source told the Times that delays like these (2-3 months) are common and a result of "an unfortunate staffing shortage." The Belarus postdoc, by the way, has decided not to do further work in the U.S.

The international student director at MIT says the problems often occur when the students or postdocs leave the U.S., for brief visits home or to attend scientific meetings. Trying to get a visa to return is when the problems often begin.

Visa procedures tightened markedly after the 11 September 2001 attacks but in recent years, the U.S. government improved the procedures that cut delays to about two weeks, and students began returning. In the 2007/2008 academic year, according to the Open Doors survey by International Institute of Education, the number of international students on U.S. campuses jumped 7% over 2006/2007. And the 2006/2007 year itself showed a 3% gain over 2005/2006. The Open Doors surveys also show that life science, physical science, computer science, engineering, and mathematics account for more than one-third (34.5%) of foreign students in the United States.

The problems, according to the article, caused AAAS (publisher of this blog and Science magazine) to convene a meeting with the National Academy of Sciences and several dozen other science organizations, to bring those problems to the attention of the State Department.  As the MIT international student director told the Times, "There are other countries that want these folks. They are the best of the best. They have other options."

Update: The Times story reminds us of a 2004 account in Science Careers of Haitham Idriss, a Thomas Jefferson University postdoc who went to Canada one weekend for some R&R. When he tried to reenter the United States, he was told he needed to register for a program called NSEERS, the provisions of which he found onerous. He refused and was not readmited. Outside the U.S., he never found another scientific position.

The last time we spoke to Idriss, we learned that he had given up on research and started a new scientific journal, Annals of Alquds Medicine, which now seems to be defunct. It was a pretty standard journal in all but two respects: it didn't allow submissions from an Israeli address, and it didn't allow references to evolution--which, Idriss maintained, contradicted Islamic orthodoxy. Make of this what you will. 

March 2, 2009

Bulletproofing Your Job

Published last fall by headhunter-turned-author Stephen Viscusi, Bulletproof Your Job: 4 Simple Strategies to Ride Out the Rough Times and Come Out On Top at Work, offers advice on how to keep your job in tough times.  This is no time for half-measures or the faint of heart, Viscusi says: "You must understand that your job is your most valuable asset, and your primary objective is to protect it."

Viscusi says the single important factor in keeping your job is what your boss thinks about you. "Here's the cold hard truth: If you don't click with your boss, all that merit and pedigree won't get you anywhere when your job is on the line," writes Viscusi in the book's introduction. "People make this mistake all the time, thinking it's their good work and fine resume that matters. What really matters is what your boss thinks about you. That's it, in a nutshell."

His four strategies are: Be visible. Be easy. Be useful. Be ready. Time magazine's review says that being visible means getting to the office before the boss, staying late (at least for a few minutes) after the boss goes home, postponing that long vacation or sabbatical, and no telecommuting.

Being easy means cut the whining about your workload, or the cubicle, or anything else. Even in good times, the boss doesn't want to hear it. Being useful means taking on the extra task or doing your regular job with extra flair.

And being ready requires having alternative survival plans in case the first three strategies don't pan out: adding to your bank account, keeping your résumé current, and maintaining your network of contacts.

In science and engineering at least, Viscusi's strategies won't hurt, but you still have to produce--the "be useful" part. If you miss a grant application deadline that your department is depending on, or fail to get a major grant or several publications during the first several years of your tenure-track appointment, being visible or easy probably won't help much. 

To keep your job in bad times, you'd better nail the "be ready" part as well.