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Science Careers Blog

July 2010

Bioinformaticians at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in Spain report having developed a new methodology they hope will save other researchers time when searching for bioinformatics resources on the Internet.

Nowadays, biomedical researchers are spoiled by an abundance of online databases, software, and other resources, but identifying them and learning how to use them can take too much time.

The Madrid team, led by Víctor Maojo, developed a new tool that is able to retrieve and automatically classify bioinformatics resources according to their application domain and functionality by scanning the existing scientific literature. When running the tool on 400 articles in the ISI Web of Knowledge, the team retrieved nearly 95% of the available resources. The tool is designed to update its index of resources automatically.

The best part is that the team has made the new methodology available to everyone via a Web application called BioInformatics Resource Inventory (B.I.R.I.). BIRI allows the whole scientific community to search for bioinformatics resources by name, category, and domain. 

It's free, so you may try it for yourself.

(Speaking of informatics, check out today's CTSciNet profile of Lynn Bry of Harvard Medical School, who developed CRIMSON, which makes access to tissue samples much faster and cheaper.)

Anyone who's ever taken a general aptitude or specific mental ability test will know that these can turn up wacky career suggestions. But if you go beyond the specific suggestions, such tests can also often tell you something about what matters to you or what you would enjoy doing in your professional life. 

One day, perhaps, there may be a new test type that provides vocational guidance, according to research recently published in BMC Research Notes. Using brain imaging, a team of researchers tried to correlate brain networks with ability factors such as general intelligence, speed of reasoning, and test scores among 40 individuals seeking vocational guidance. The team was able to detect different gray-matter correlates depending on whether the tests assessed general or more specific mental abilities.

"A person's pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses is related to their brain structure, so there is a possibility that brain scans could provide unique information that would be helpful for vocational choice. Our current results form a basis to investigate this further," said first-author Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine, in a press release.

Perhaps. Still, the image that comes to our mind is of Harry Potter and the Sorting Hat, the magical hat that read the mind and heart of every new freshman at Hogwarts School of Magic. It's fine for fantasy books -- but applied to the real world the notion seems too ambitious and greedily reductionist. It seems, for example, to overlook the fact that some people do great work not by following our strengths and pursuing our particular aptitudes, but by working to overcome our weaknesses. It's not unusual, especially in science, for especially creative work to arise from a new perspective on an old problem; any approach that tries to channel us into neurologically determined professional silos would, we think, inhibit that.

It's important to remember that even the magical sorting hat had a difficult time deciding whether to assign Harry to Gryffindor or Slytherin -- precisely due to the idiosyncratic blend of personal attributes that eventually made him great.

-by Elisabeth Pain and Jim Austin

Do you know an early-career scientist or engineer whose efforts to engage the public with science and technology exemplify excellence? Nominations are invited now through 15 October for the new AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science. Endowed by Bob and Margee Hazen and other donors, the new award will specifically focus on public engagement with science activities that promote interactive dialogue with a non-scientific, public audience.

The award will include a $5000 prize and support to attend the 2011 AAAS Annual Meeting. Nominations may be made by AAAS affiliate organizations, universities, government agencies, media, research organizations, and individuals. The award is open to individual "early career" scientists and engineers who have been working in their current field for less than seven years (at a pre-tenure or equivalent level).

For more information, read the full story:

http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2010/0727pub_engage_award.shtml

Award eligibility and nomination procedures:

http://www.aaas.org/aboutaaas/awards/public_engagement

High-level administrators who blog are pretty uncommon, and high-level administrators who blog substantively are rarer still. That makes National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) director Jeremy Berg a rare bird.

In recent days, Berg has posted to the NIGMS blog NIGMS Feedback Loop a three-part (so far) analysis of NIH's new system for assigning scores to grant applications, in which reviewers assign a separate score for each of five core criteria. (The three blog posts are here, here, and here.) Berg has been analyzing the data to determine the correlation between each of the five criterion scores assigned by the reviewers and the overall impact score assigned by the study section. The analysis answers the question, which of the five criteria -- significance, investigator, innovation, approach, and environment -- matter most. The analysis is based on NIGMS data only, and so far from only one grant-reviewing cycle. Assuming the trends hold up, the results could be very useful for people applying for research grants from NIGMS. And assuming the trends apply across other NIH institutes -- which remains to be seen -- the results could be applicable to NIH grants generally.

The conclusions are mostly unsurprising, but they are also reassuring, especially for investigators who haven't yet established reputations. Here's Dr. Berg's primary conclusion:
 
 This analysis indicates that approach and significance are the most important factors, on average, in determining the overall impact score, at least for this sample of NIGMS R01 grant applications.
"Approach," with a Pearson correlation coefficient of 0.74, was the most closely correlated to the impact score; "significance" was next, at 0.63. The criteria least closely correlated with the impact score are "investigator" (0.49) and "environment" (0.37). That means that, at least for the sample Berg analyzed, the data show that the quality of your ideas matter far more than your reputation. That's good news for early-career scientists.

Also notable: the weak correlation of "environment" with the impact score shows that where you are -- your institution and the facilities it offers -- matters even less than who you are.
  
On Twitter: @SciCareerEditor  
In 1961, just 4 years after Sputnik shocked the American science establishment and led policy makers to emphasize science as never before, the New York Yankees featured Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris; that's the year both chased Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, with Maris eventually breaking it. Yogi Berra was at catcher for the Yankees, and their pitching rotation included Whitey Ford, who won 25 games that year.

The Yankees beat the Reds (with Frank Robinson) 4 games to 1. Ford won the MVP, pitching 33 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings, setting a new World Series record (another Babe Ruth record that was broken that year; as most baseball fans know, was an amazing pitcher before he became the greatest home run hitter ever, and he held the consecutive-scoreless-innings record before Ford broke it).

2009 was a pretty good year for science budgets in the United States, with a new, science-loving President and a generous bonus budget from the stimulus act. The Yankees won yet another World Series title, with A-Rod and Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and company beating the Philadelphia Phillies 4 games to 2.

If the 1961 Yankees played the 2009 Yankees, who would win? Sure, the '61 team was legendary, but today's players are bigger, stronger, faster...

OK, enough with the baseball;  this is a blog -- and a blog entry -- about science careers. Yesterday's anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing got me thinking:  The post-Sputnik era is known as the golden age of U.S. science. It's when the space race propelled the U.S. to focus on science as never before, and American science accomplished great things. It was during this period, from the mid-'60s (approximately) through sometime in the '70s -- there are no fixed end points, that the Apollo program got off the ground, resulting eventually in a successful moon landing. I was a kid at the time, growing up in Florida, just south of the Space Coast, so I paid close attention; my school mates and I would watch the Cape Kennedy launches from the school playgrounds.

It was also, I have heard, a golden age for science employment, at least in the physical sciences. I later worked with physics faculty who got their first jobs in that era. They told me that multiple offers, with no postdoc, were common in those days. One former colleague, who got his first job in that era, once told me he had seven offers right out of grad school. He was a very good scientist, but no superstar.

Today there's far more competition now for each science job. Several hundred well-credentialed applicants compete for tenure-track post at a research institution. And most new hires have much more training than they did back then, with 3, 4, or even 5 years of postdoc experience on top of their graduate training.

So here's the question I've been wondering about: Are today's established scientists -- the better (or at least longer) trained cream off the top of a very full vat -- better than those post-Sputnik scientists? Or is it the other way around?

I realize that it's an impossible question to address scientifically, or at least very difficult. I'd have to define "better", which I'm not prepared to do, and decide on a metric. And we'd have to account for the fact that so much more is known -- and must be learned -- today than back then, and that, very likely, the problems are harder.

But never mind that. Ignore the difficulties and give it your best shot. Use whatever criteria you wish.

This isn't just a random diversion; I think it's an interesting question. Because, if the answer is that scientists were better then, we have to ask ourselves why, given that today's scientists get so much more training and the competition is so much more intense. And if the answer is that scientists are better now, then maybe we need to rethink our image of the post-Sputnik era a such a golden age; it was great for its time, but have today's scientists left it in the dust? What do you think?

It always feels good to get your hands on sound, reliable data about scientific employment -- or it does, anyway, when you're an editor of a science careers journal. One of the organization that consistently provides such data is the American Institute of Physics (AIP), a meta-society consisting of 10 physics-focused professional societies, with 25 affiliate member societies (including AAAS) representing related disciplines.

The latest statistical snapshot from AIP focuses on what bachelor's degree physics majors do after they graduate. They combined two consecutive classes -- 2006 and 2007 -- and asked them what they were doing shortly after graduation. The numbers are interesting -- especially for aspiring physicists (and career geeks like me).

Unsurprisingly, the AIP data reveal physics as a major for the grad-school bound: about 57% of graduates from the 2006 and 2007 classes went on to graduate school in physics or some other field. Four percent were still unemployed. Even those who took jobs right out of college -- or many of them -- intend to return to graduate school eventually. 25% reported planning to return to school after a year of working -- the standard "post-bac" experience -- and fully half were planning to return to school in no more than 3 years.

39% of recent grads took jobs right away. Where did they work? Working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields was common, but working directly in physics and astronomy was rare: 70% of these grads were able to stay in STEM-related fields, but only 5% were working in physics or astronomy. Instead, most physics grads took jobs in engineering (32%) or information technology (16%). 7% were working in other natural sciences (other than physics and astronomy that is) and 9% in other technology-related positions. 29% took jobs in non-STEM occupations.

These jobs were mainly in the private sector; 59% took jobs there. 13% of physics graduates were employed at high schools, presumably in teaching posts. Another 10% were employed at colleges and universities. 6% were employed in civilian government (including federally funded but privately operated research centers), and 5% in the military.

These physics grads were called on to do several things a physics major doesn't generally prepare them for. While almost all reported solving technical problems as part of their jobs, nearly as many had to work on teams. Other common activities were technical writing, programming, management, and quality control.

In measures of job satisfaction, the military did very well. The military led  in the level of satisfaction with intellectual challenge, salary and benefits, and advancement opportunity. The only area where they didn't rank highest was in the level of job responsibility, where the military ranked third; the leading sector here was high school teaching.

One especially useful information resource on the employment of recent physics bachelor's degree recipients, is contained in a separate document, also from AIP. It's a state-by-state list of companies that have recently employed physics grads.

If you're an undergraduate physics student, or someone who advises them, you should definitely check out these resources.
 
On Twitter: @SciCareerEditor

As the practice of medicine and the delivery of health care over the last half-century has grown in complexity and content, training to be a practicing physician has gone from being analogous to a cross-country track event to a virtual marathon in time, effort, and expense. With the explosion of knowledge and technical complexity in the biological sciences, M.D.-Ph.D. candidates preparing for a life of medical research are found in a triathlon by comparison. Those who cross the finish line are well equipped to take on the challenges of being a physician-scientist.

Based on personal involvement within my own institution, discussion with program directors, and interaction with M.D.-Ph.D. program graduates, I will present a brief overview of this challenging pathway to a science career.

Why was the M.D.-Ph.D. program created?

Time to put your dancing shoes on: The Dance Your Ph.D. Contest is up again!

Launched in 2008 by Science's Gonzo Scientist, the Dance Your Ph.D. Competition invites scientists from all walks of life to put their Ph.D. research topic into dance form. Videos will be judged by an interdisciplinary panel on scientific and artistic merit and on the creative combination of the science and arts.

The deadline to enter is 1 September, and the finalists in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Social Sciences categories will be announced later that month. Finalist videos will be screened at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City in October, and the winners will be announced and prizes awarded then and there. Above all, the contest is meant to be fun, but it's also an opportunity to earn some cash: There's a $500 prize up for grabs in each category, with the winner of the 'Best Ph.D. Dance of All' getting an extra $500.

Find more detail and lots of tips on how to enter on the Gonzo Scientist's Web site and take part in ongoing discussion on the Dance your Ph.D.Contest Facebook page.

The United Council of Academics at NJIT (UCAN), the union representing postdocs at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, has won recognition from the state's Public Employee Relations Commission.  The move makes UCAN the Garden State's second officially recognized postdoc union. With 450 postdoc and graduate assistant members, it is affiliated with the national American Federation of Teachers, which is in turn affiliated with the AFL-CIO. UCAN filed for recognition in May.

Okay, it's official. Just what graduate students have always suspected appears to be true.  A  department's interest in training its students to be effective college teachers is inversely related to its research productivity.  At least that's the case for the field of political science, according to an article in the July issue of the journal PS: Political Science and Politics by John Ishiyama, a professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, and two of his graduate students, Tom Miles and Christine Balarezo. 

After examining 122 universities with PhD political science programs to see whether they offer a formal course in college teaching methods, the trio found that the more productive a department, the less likely it is to list such an offering.  There are some research-powerhouse exceptions, including the University of California-Berkeley, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Ohio State University.  Public universities proved seven times likelier than their private counterparts to provide training in teaching, perhaps reflecting their "public service component," the authors suggest. 

Does this same inverse relationship hold for other disciplines?  "Little or no systematic work" has examined whether Ph.D. programs "overtly prepare their graduates for teaching," the authors say.  Here's hoping that researchers soon take a look at other fields, too, including scientific fields.

esof-th.pngIn addition to the funding workshop (with the video now available on the ESOF Web site), Science Careers organized a session on alternative careers during the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy, earlier this week. For those of you who couldn't attend, here's a quick guide from my colleagues Brianna Blaser and Ric Weibl on how to find love away from the bench should research not be for you:

  • Reflecting on Your Preferences 
There are many differences among employment sectors (and particular jobs), including wages and benefits, work-life balance, how you relate with colleagues, and the focus of your daily duties. For example, "Some people really very much enjoy focusing down on the details... Other people are like global thinkers. They want to solve big problems," Weibl said. So you first need to find out a little more about you and what you enjoy doing. Taking career inventories, writing pros and cons lists, or writing a journal may all help you in this process. 

  • Researching Your Options 

Once you know what you want, you have to match it with what you find out is out there. "The first person many of us think of turning to when we want to talk about our careers is our PI, and you may have a productive conversation with your PI about your career, but it may also be that they really have a specific career in mind for you and so they don't want to have an open and honest and frank conversation with you... It may also be that they don't know a lot about other career options" outside of research, Blaser said. Searching Science Careers and other careers Web sites, reading books, talking to career service professionals, looking at job ads in journals, and networking are all good approaches to mapping the career landscape.

  • Conducting Informational Interviews

You can also get a lot of information by talking to people who are already in fields you might be interested in. Ask for a few minutes of a person's time, by e-mail, phone, or a face-to-face meeting. Prepare for the encounter ahead of time. "The CEO is very busy and has a lot of other things to do than being an informant to a young scientist trying to figure out where his life is going to go," Weibl said. Ask quick and open-ended questions that go to the point, like, 'What attracted you to this field?', 'Describe a typical day or week', and 'How do I locate positions in this field?'. Afterwards, "Always write a thank-you note," Weibl said. "Handwritten thank-you notes are special. I keep them on a wall in my office." They also help people remember you down the line, Weibl added.

Always try and carry out multiple interviews by asking the people you talk to whether they could give you some referrals. "Listen carefully," Weibl said. Sometimes the advice is good, sometimes it is not so good. Use your critical skills. A theme will start to emerge, he added.

  • Making the Transition

Training expectations and career paths are different in academia and other sectors, so this is something that you need to find out. Assess the skills you already have and figure out what other skills you will need to get into your new field of choice. Volunteering, doing an internship, getting a fellowship, gaining additional training, and taking a part-time or temporary job will all help you get in.

  • Talking to Your Supervisor

Some day you'll have to walk in and tell your supervisor that you don't want to stay in academia. "They've invested in you; you've invested in them," Weibl said. This is a "difficult conversation that you must have at some point with your adviser." It can help to realize that "this is about you, not about them", and that you are not the only person who has these doubts about whether or not to become an academic scientist. "It's not unusual for your adviser to actually surprise you with a very positive and supportive response, but you're going to have to talk to that person, and you're going to have to own that decision," Weibl added.

It may not feel like it at the time, but take this as a time of opportunity. "We have this plan maybe when we start grad school that we are going to be this great researcher, we're going to become an academic, get tenure. But things might go differently, and that' s not necessarily a failure," Blaser said. "It's a time to re-evaluate and figure out where you want to go." 


The slides of the complete talk can be viewed on the Science Careers Web site, and a video is available on the ESOF Web site.

esof-th.pngAs I was queuing for lunch at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy, earlier this week, I started talking to a young scientist from FarAwayCountry A. She was writing her Ph.D. thesis and looking for a postdoc in Europe, seeing a research experience abroad as a key step in her career. But she also saw such a period as a "make or break" time in her relationship. Her non-scientist boyfriend had a great career lined up in FarAwayCountry A. How they would juggle the two careers was a source of arguments, she told me.

As it happened, juggling dual careers was the topic of a session organized at ESOF by the Marie Curie Fellows Association (MCFA), an association gathering scientists who received a mobility research training grant (a Marie Curie Fellowship) from the European Commission. "As a researcher, you are always required to be mobile," said the session's moderator Maria-Antonietta Buccheri. But it can be "difficult to reconcile mobility with family life." According to recent surveys, this is an issue that more and more scientists are facing as the number of dual-career couples is raising, she added. 

Buccheri outlined several typical ways couples deal with dual careers. A common strategy is what Buccheri referred to as the "hierarchical" model, in which couples decide to favor the career with the better prospects and opportunities. Because women are typically younger and, hence, at earlier stages of their careers, usually "the leading career is the male career," Buccheri said. In contrast, some couples take an "individualistic" strategy "in which everybody follows their own career and the relationship plays a second role," she continued. Another model still is to adopt an "egalitarian" approach where each "partner is ready to make compromises for a rewarding career for both partners." 

It "mainly depends on you and the compromise that you are ready to make," said Manuela Giovanetti, a senior researcher at Queen's University Belfast in the United Kingdom, who shared her story during the session. "At the beginning, I chose my career and I was satisfied," said Giovanetti, who over the years gained research experience in the Republic of Panama, Germany, the United States, and Spain. But "at a certain point, I started to have a relationship," she said. "That is why I accepted ... to come back to Italy" -- knowing that when her 3-year postdoc came to an end she would be left with little opportunity to find a more stable position, she said. 

After a couple of years of unemployment, "We decided [to resume] my career, which meant being mobile again," Giovanetti continued. She obtained a Marie Curie Fellowship to go to Belfast. The new situation -- maintaining two houses and traveling to see each other -- was difficult and expensive. "The expenses doubled," Giovanetti said. Frequent travel sapped time and energy; the situation was "really stressful. "If you want to be a dual-career couple, you need a lot of money ... and a lot of enthusiasm both in the work you are doing and the relationship that you are keeping."

"The situations are different for each couple, and even for [a given] couple, the situation changes according to the life cycle," Buccheri said. There are signs that institutions are willing to help. In the United States in particular, some universities have dual-career offices or "brokers" whose role is to help partners -- whether academic scientists or not -- find jobs, Buccheri said. As part of the Swiss Federal Equal Opportunity at Universities Programme, universities in Switzerland have started offering temporary positions to help following partners progress in their careers and created a new kind of high-level position in which the two partners share the research and teaching load. It is "the same money as one position, but they can split the burden of the job. The shared position is considered in the C.V. as a full position," Buccheri said. 

Much more common are dual-hiring strategies, in which universities offer positions to the partner according to his or her specialization, Buccheri said. Be aware of your power to negotiate. Say, "'It is a very good position, but I have a partner," Giovanetti said. One of the risks "is that the trailing spouse is always considered a trailing spouse, someone who is less prepared and maybe giving less to the university," Buccheri said.

Being the one who follows doesn't necessarily mean harming your career. When her husband followed her to the United Kingdom so that she could take an 18-month Marie Curie Fellowship in London during her Ph.D., it opened new doors for him, said Giovanna Avellis of InnovaPuglia, a company in the Apulia region fostering local innovation. Her husband, then a professor of combinatorics, took a leave from his university to study in the British Library and pursue a secondary interest of his in "the origin of formal thinking, [of the] formal manipulation of signs by humans like in logic and computation," Avellis said. This topic has since become his primary research and teaching interest. "After 20 years spent playing with numerical signs, he wants to spend the next 20 years understanding the origin," Avellis said. 

The Marie Curie Fellowships are already offering great support to dual-career couples, but the MCFA is currently putting together a report with suggestions to the European Commission on how the program may be improved. They are soon to launch a survey on related issues -- keep an eye on their Web site to take part.


esof-th.png

One of the sessions organized by Science Careers this week at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy aimed to give young scientists a leg up in the increasingly competitive race for funds. The workshop offered advice from three different perspectives -- a national research council, an international funding organization, and a winner of a Starting Grant from the European Research Council -- which I summarize below:

  • Identifying a Grant Program

Identify existing funding programs well in advance. "For each step in your career, there is a program that fits. Look carefully, and find the right one," said Markus Behnke, a program officer in the Chemistry and Process Engineering Division of the German Research Foundation (DFG) in Bonn. 

Make sure you check out the details: the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), for example, ` only funds basic biology research with a focus on interdisciplinary and international collaborations. "We are very different from national research councils, though we are not a foundation," said Guntram Bauer, Director of Fellowships at HFSP in Strasbourg, France. "So first learn about the organization and its philosophy," Bauer added. Even when looking at opportunities within the same body, "Carefully read the guidelines, because they all are different and [there is a] rapid program turnover."

You should "Tailor your proposal according to the specific objectives of the program," Bauer said. But only up to a point: "Read carefully the grant call and see if your idea fits that kind of call... If you have any doubt, call and ask questions. It could be the wrong grant," said Vittoria Colizza, an ERC Starting Grant winner who leads the Computational Epidemiology Lab at the Institute for Scientific Interchange (ISI Foundation) in Turin, Italy. 

  • Finding a Good Research Idea

How much is expected of you depends on your career stage, but ultimately what you need is a good idea. Yet be aware that "to have a good idea is not good enough. You have to have it clear in your mind," Colizza said. 

For many funding bodies, good also means bold. ERC grants in particular require an ambitious project, which "by definition is risky and tricky," Colizza said. This means that you also need to prove your ability to seeing it through: "Say out aloud what is the problem, what are the risks, and how you think you are going to cope with them," she added. 

To get one of the ERC Starting Grants, which target young researchers aiming to become independent, you also need to develop a broader vision. At this point in their careers, "many have a vision limited to the day after. This cannot work. Think about the papers you'll be writing in the next 5 years," Colizza SAID. 

  • Finding a Host Institution

The host institution is especially important if you're applying for an individual fellowship: You have to demonstrate that this is really the right place for you, Behnke said. So explain your reasons for picking your host (to learn a new technique or follow a new research direction, for example) and how this fits into your career plans (your host may agree to you running a small team within the lab). This implies discussing the project with your host before hand and going to visit them to check out the equipment, Behnke added.  

  • Positioning Yourself

Know yourself and your competitors in the field, especially for an ERC Starting Grant. You should be able to say, "'Yes, there are several groups who do that in this way. I can do it in that way'," Colizza said. Also explain what it is going to bring to the community and demonstrate your ability and willingness to collaborate, she added. "Show that don't want to play solo, that you are able to reach out." 

If you are working in an interdisciplinary field, be prepared "to prove that you are the right person" for the project, said Colizza, who is a physicist studying the epidemiology of infectious diseases. Time and again she had to make the case to reviewers for why, even though she was not a biomedical doctor, not a biologist, and not a biostatistician, she could do the research. Demonstrate that you've got the training and are bringing something new and innovative, she said. 

  • Demonstrating Your Other Skills

To get an ERC Starting Grant in particular, you also need to demonstrate your ability to manage a research group. "If you are able to do very good science, this is not enough to get a grant. [You need] to convince [reviewers] that you are able to succeed in the project. This is science plus managing science," Colizza said. If you have supervised a few students in the past, assisted younger researchers, or taught classes, "all this helps," she added. "If you are still junior and nobody gives you enough independence, try to find some space because it gives you experience" that you can then add in into your application. 

  • Crafting Your Summary

Arguably, one of the most important bits in your application is the proposal's summary. "You can be a winner immediately if you convince people" in your summary, DFG's Behnke said. "Some say it's only the summary that's carefully analyzed by reviewers." 

So, what makes a good summary? Make it understandable to people who may not be experts in your field, Behnke explained. Keep it as short as possible. Regarding content, in a DFG application, for example, you will be expected to show that you can fill in a knowledge gap, and you also need to lay out your preliminary work, working hypotheses, and approaches to finding a solution. You should also define your research's key points and milestones, Behnke added.

  • Writing a Good Application

Give your C.V. a clear structure, and do not list articles that are 'in prep.' "Most people try to fill up the list with many, many publications, even if they are not written... Reviewers do not like it," Behnke said. "Add only the most relevant papers," he added, bearing in mind that reviewers have no time to figure out what is a poster and what is a peer-reviewed publication.

Be aware that many of the skills and strengths that are relevant in a grant application are "not something that you prove with a lot of publications," Colizza said. "You really need to write what you have been doing... [Reviewers] have to read it explicitly, not between the lines ... that you are proactive on carrying out your ideas," for example.

In your research proposal, when reviewing the state of the art in the field, "Make sure it is self-explanatory. Reviewers shouldn't have to read the literature to figure out the research," Behnke said. All the way through, be clear and precise: Detail what you aim to do and how, the timing, all the budget issues, and what you are going to do besides hiring staff, Colizza said. For example, when presenting the time line, break down your project into modules that build upon each other, Behnke added. 

 "All of this nicely, smoothly integrated and very, very clear, " Colizza said. This implies using simple language. "If you try to be a poet, you may hurt yourself. Just write plain and simple English. It can be really convincing," Bauer added.

  • Giving (no more than) What You're Being Asked

Expect funding bodies to ask for different things. The Young Investigators' Grant program run by the HFSP, which targets teams of 2-4 members all within 5 years of starting their independent position, for example offers a fixed amount of money relative to the size of the team. At the HFSP, reviewers "don't discuss the budget, just the science," Bauer said. No need either to include preliminary data, as the research should be "hypothesis-driven," Bauer added. Make sure you write a new application for each body. And "if we see a grant with milestones, we know it is a cheap copy of an ERC grant." 

  • Dealing With Rejection

If you're nut successful, "Take it easy. Don't take it personally. This is about science," Behnke said. If you feel there has been some bias, "phone the agency. It may happen," Behnke said. Above all, "don't be discouraged." You can resubmit, and notes from reviewers can greatly help you improve your application. Also get in touch with the agency to discuss future directions, Bauer recommended. 



Last week I attended a talk about presentation skills at the Microsoft Research Summer School in Cambridge, U.K., an annual event for computer science Ph.D. students. I've attended many presentations in the course of my work, but none have left me feeling as energized at 9:30 in the morning as this one did. What made this talk so different? The speaker, Ken Shaw from Benchmark Communication Techniques, comes from a theatrical background, where he learned how to engage effectively with an audience -- and he has transferred those skills to giving presentations brilliantly.

Following a successful career in theatre, Shaw moved into training corporate clients in presentation skills 19 years ago. Since then, he's also worked closely with the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, training future CEOs how to communicate effectively. Then, about 2 years ago, someone from the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge approached him about teaching these skills to academics too, and since then he has been helping Ph.D. students and postdocs bring a bit of corporate showmanship into academic presentations. "Half of Ph.D. students will enter the corporate world and another quarter will regularly interact with corporate companies in their research," Shaw says. "Changes are happening in academia and I'm attending to that need."

Here is a summary of his advice:

Look and sound confident

• Do vocal exercises before your presentation. This will help you articulate your words and sound more confident. Some exercises: Move your tongue to the back of your throat and say the months of the year. Then bring your tongue to the front of your mouth pointing downwards, between your lower teeth and your gum, and again go through the months of the year.

• People often get nervous in front of audiences because they feel like they are being looked at. Instead, reverse this feeling and look at your audience: Who got here early? Is anyone in the front row? Are people clumping together into groups?


Why should the audience listen to your talk?

• Don't just impart information during your talk -- you could do that via email. Instead your talk must be a proposal, with a recommendation backed up by justification. That's when a presentation shifts from being boring to dynamic.

• People shouldn't know that the presentation is over just because you've stopped talking. You should have a clear point to make and when you've arrived at that point, that is the end.


General presentation advice

• Try giving a presentation without using slides and turn the talk into a discussion. By doing this, the audience will feel more comfortable to ask questions. (Showing by example, Shaw used no slides or backdrops during his talk. It was just him on stage, engaging with the audience--and it worked!)

• Think about reversing the norm of having a large segment dedicated to the presentation with a few minutes at the end for questions, because a talk only gets interesting when someone questions or challenges what you've said. For a 30-minute presentation, Shaw recommends 10 minutes for the presentation and 20 minutes for Q&A. Also, instead of just asking at the end if there are any questions, try to steer the discussion into the direction that you would like to take it. This removes some of the fear about the final Q&A segment.

• Allow humor into your talk, but don't fall into the trap of telling jokes. There's a danger your jokes could fall flat -- or worse, offend your audience. You're not there to entertain; your main aim should be content and clarity.
 
• Presenting to a large audience is different than giving the same talk to a small group of people. Large audiences are far more passive and require more encouragement to keep them engaged.
 

Recently, A Science Careers story by Susan Gaidos profiled several researchers who have pioneered methods for gathering data with the help of non-scientists. Of course, not all contacts between scientists and knowledgeable non-scientists are as well coordinated as those. In fact, serendipitous, fleeting encounters can still be quite rewarding for researchers, both scientifically and personally.

An example comes from plant ecologist Andrea Lloyd of Middlebury College in Vermont. About 10 years ago, she was starting a project to study Arctic tree-line expansion on the Seward Peninsula in Alaska. The Arctic tree line is a latitudinal version of mountaintop tree lines -- if you go far enough north, the trees disappear. As the planet warms, Lloyd hypothesized, that tree line should move northward. She planned to study this using tree rings.

One of her first orders of business was to buy topographical maps in a store in Nome. There, an elderly local man -- an Inupiat subsistence hunter she came to know as Mr. Johnson -- asked her what she was doing. When she told him about her research question, he replied, "Well, you've come to the right place. I can tell you," Lloyd recalled during a discussion with journalists in Fairbanks last month. "It turns out he'd been driving this road past my study sites to his fishing camp every year for 40 or 50 years." He took the maps she had just bought and marked how the tree line had moved over those decades.

This chance encounter gave Lloyd a surprising reality check, not only on the question of tree-line expansion but on changes in the Arctic as a whole. "It was really striking to realize that what I thought of as this subtle change was something that people living in this landscape were seeing," she said. "Alaska is changing faster than we can study it in some ways."

It also started her thinking about the value of local people's knowledge, she told me later by e-mail. "I was really impressed by the precision of his observations -- not just a generic 'things are changing,' but precise details on how much and when. ... Science is a tremendously powerful tool for understanding the world, but local residents have the ability to make observations in a really different way than do scientists. For one thing, they're living in the landscape all year long, and thus see processes playing out over all of the seasons. I fly in at the start of the summer, spend a few weeks, and go home -- so I miss most of the important parts of the year. For another thing, local residents (and here I'm speaking generally about anyone living in a landscape, not just Alaskans), particularly those who are engaging in subsistence activities like hunting, fishing, gathering berries, tend to be looking more holistically at landscape change, and may thus see connections that I might miss, in my focus on whatever it is I'm studying."

Lloyd also began thinking about how to access this knowledge in a way that's not "extractive" -- just taking and not giving. For Lloyd, "it boils down to three R's: respect (for local residents and the knowledge they have worked hard to build over generations), relationships (between individual scientists and individual local residents, as well as between broader communities of scientists and local residents), and reciprocity."

Ideally, she says, scientists would take the time to build relationships over time, as the scientists in Gaidos' story did. But that's not possible for most scientists, including her. It is possible, however, to follow those principles even in short-lived partnerships, like the one with Mr. Johnson. For example, when a reporter called Lloyd about her work, she suggested that the reporter contact Mr. Johnson, "so that he retained control over his observations," she explained. "They weren't mine to share with the newspaper; they were his." The reporter followed her suggestion and featured Mr. Johnson in a story in the Anchorage Daily News.

To cap off her work, the next summer Lloyd sent a student to the Seward Peninsula to discuss the research with local teachers so that the information she gathered could be shared with the communities that were most directly affected.

Lloyd's work in the Seward Peninsula left her wanting more and deeper collaborations with local communities. She's now developing programs in Vermont, where she lives. But she hopes that her experience will encourage young scientists to connect with non-scientists, even if they only have a limited amount of time. "I wouldn't want young investigators to feel like the only way to work effectively with local communities is to move [there]," she writes. "It's not all or nothing."

esof-th.pngIt's pretty common for a scientist who participates in a press conference to appear in a news article that same day. And that was indeed the case for Elin Ekblom-Bak, who presented her ongoing work on the possible detrimental health effects of sitting for prolonged periods at a July 4 satellite event at the Euroscience Open Forum in Turin, Italy. But it wasn't her research that made the headlines; it was the critical goal she scored the previous day in a soccer match against the former champions of a professional women's football (soccer) league in Sweden.

Elin Ekblom-Bak, from Sportbladet.se Ekblom-Bak, 29, is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Medicine at the Karolinska Institute and the Astrand Laboratory of Work Physiology in the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. She's also a midfielder for a professional soccer team. It's a combination of activities that she finds complementary. "They're very similar, these two worlds," she says. "At the elite, national level, playing soccer is a competition -- you have to stand out, you have to be tough. Science is a tough world to show off your knowledge and  ... you have to dare to do things. It's really helped me being a soccer player at that level to get the mental strength" for science.

Her research did make headlines in January when she was the lead author on an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that outlined what has become the core hypothesis of her Ph.D.: That sedentary behavior may be harmful even in people who get regular exercise. In other words, working out hard several times a week may not compensate for the ill effects of a desk job. "We know that not exercising and prolonged sitting are two distinct behaviors," she says. There have been a handful of studies in this area (compared to thousands focused on physical activity and fitness), and animal studies suggest that prolonged inactivity -- 3 to 4 hours or more -- alters expression of lipoprotein lipase, which can affect, for example, muscle glucose levels, fatty acid metabolism, and cholesterol levels. Ekblom-Bak aims to clarify the role of prolonged sitting on long-term health using a population-based dataset at the Karolinska Institute. She plans to do some mechanistic studies as well, she says.

She got into health science and physiology because, as she says, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Her father is a professor of physiology, and Ekblom-Bak works in his group at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. "It's really fascinating to be able to work with him. I really adore that."

On the sports side of her life, she has been playing football since she was 4 years old. For her, though, it wasn't a matter of choosing between an academic career and a sports career: "I did not choose. I loved [soccer] too much. But I saw a lot of bad examples of girls playing football and when they were 35 years old they [had] two knee injuries and no job, no education, nothing." She trains in the afternoons and evenings, which leaves her mornings free to study and work on her research.

She juggles more than soccer balls and science. She and her husband (who is the chiropractor for her soccer team) have a 9-month old daughter. She also works as a television commentator for major soccer games, which has made her enough of a celebrity to warrant an article about her comeback after her daughter was born.

Her medium-term plans are to keep playing soccer and keep working on her research -- because both the soccer and science aspects of her life are unpredictable. "It's a tough world. You have to create your own opportunities, search for your own money and your own job," she says. "You have to have good luck to get a good opportunity. If you have the right spirit, I think you can do it."


If you want to start an organization aimed at encouraging and supporting young scientists, get senior scientists involved. This was one of the key messages of a presentation by Jenny Baeseman of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) at this weekend's Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy.

APECS was born out of the involvement of young scientists in the 2007-2008 International Polar Year (IPY), a story told on Science Careers in April 2008. Among the goals of the polar year "was to expand the polar community," said David Carlson of the International Polar Year program office in the United Kingdom. "There was nothing in the system preventing young scientists to come with ideas and say, 'we want to be the next generation of polar scientists.'" And that's effectively what the founders of APECS did.

penguins_h1.jpgAPECS started out with no budget but a lot of enthusiasm and the support of the IPY program office, Baeseman said. Its early members used free tools such as Google Groups and Skype to organize themselves and start creating an active community of young polar scientists. But "from the very beginning, we decided that it is great that young people get together... but we don't want to be by ourselves," Baeseman said. "We wanted to learn from senior researchers ... to continue the continuum of knowledge."

In 2008, APECS signed a memorandum of understanding with two large international polar organizations -- the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) -- that gave them recognition as the primary organization for young polar researchers. This "gave us institutional recognition, even though we were just was a Google Group and Web site," Baeseman said.

APECS soon started organizing career development activities at other organizations' meetings, inviting senior polar researchers to sit on discussion panels and share their experience. "And then we all go for a beer and it gets nice and lively," Baeseman said. APECS also runs discussion forums and technical workshops in which "we invite experts to come and give advice... Nothing that we do is by ourselves," she said. It is "always with senior researchers."

APECS runs a mentorship program with a database of senior scientists interested in mentoring younger researchers. This makes it easier to find the right connections if, say, you're a young scientist in Norway who wants to go and work in Germany, Baeseman said. "You know they are willing to support you," she said. The organization also hosts virtual poster sessions on their Web site, which they like to think of as "the Facebook of polar science," Baeseman said. 

Today APECS is tied into several international organizations, gets involved in science policy, organizes its own conferences, and runs education and outreach activities. "When you're a grad student you're trained to do the science, you're not trained to be a scientist," Baeseman said. "We help to provide the training to be a scientist."

While Baeseman credits the success of APECS to dedicated volunteers, support from established organizations, and support from senior researchers devoted to promoting young researchers, Baeseman's own dedication to the organization belongs on that list. When Science Careers first met Baeseman at a 2007 conference in Lindau, Germany, she was a tenure-track faculty member at Kent State University. "I decided that the tenure track wasn't for me," she said.

The opportunity came up to go to the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States in Fairbanks, Alaska, to continue to develop APECS, so she took it. Toward the end of that time, the association put out a call to individual countries to host an international office for APECS. Norway stepped forward, and Baeseman now lives there and works full time as director of APECS.

She continues to do some research for a National Science Foundation grant she received while she was in Fairbanks; she published a research paper and wrote a book chapter this year. "I think it's important that when you start to make this transition from a research career to something else that you try to keep a foot in the research door."

At the same time, her devotion to APECS and its mission has provided her with a new career: "You have to find your talent and figure out where you can help science the most, and for me I think it's the administration level, helping scientists make science happen."

-by Elisabeth Pain and Kate Travis


The U.S. Employment Situation Summary issued this morning by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals a labor market running not quite fast enough to stay in place.

The headline numbers appear contradictory: a reduction of 0.2% in the unemployment rate, to 9.5%, and a net loss of 125,000 new jobs. But the more meaningful number is 83,000, the number of new jobs added by the private sector. This was offset by the expected end of 200,000+ temporary census jobs. The best-performing category was professional and business services, which added 46,000 jobs. The unemployment rate is measured by the BLS Household Survey, while new-job growth is determined by the BLS Establishment Survey.

The rate of growth in private-sector jobs is just below the median of what economists had predicted; predictions ranged from around 20,000 private-sector jobs up to about 200,000, with a median of about 110,000, according to the New York Times. Economists say that the U.S. economy needs to produce about 100,000 jobs each month to accommodate the growth in the working-age population.

There was a substantial gender difference in the household survey results: Unemployment among adult women improved by 0.3%, to 7.8%, while the rate for adult men worsened by 0.1%, to 9.9%.
 
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In June, the number of job ads posted in the "healthcare practitioners and technical" category recovered, partially, from a large decline in May -- but all the other science-related careers tracked by Science Careers declined or were flat. That's the conclusion of an analysis of numbers released yesterday by the Conference Board. The latest numbers also show that May, in retrospect, was a pretty good month for the job categories tracked by Science Careers, as declines in the number of job-seeking unemployed meant more advertised jobs for every job-seeker in most of these categories.

The Conference Board, a private business and economic research institute, provides these data, which are tracked monthly by Science Careers.

Online job ads

The number of job ads posted in June in the science-related categories tracked by Science Careers increased by 2.7%, month over month. Taking a longer view reveals how far we've come since last year: In all the categories we track, 300,000 more job ads were posted in June than in June2009, an increase of more than 25%. Keep reading to learn how the numbers break down by category.  

According to the Conference Board data, in June, online employment ads in the "health-care practitioners and technical" category increased by 51,900 -- an impressive 9.6% increase. This fails to offset declines in the number of job ads the previous month, but it's still an impressive number: Fully 27% of May's unemployed job-seekers in this category found jobs in June, the numbers suggest.

The numbers in the other categories aren't as good. The number of job ads in the life, physical, and social sciences category increased by about 500, or about half of one percent of May's total. The number of ads in architecture and engineering was completely flat. Ads in computer and mathematical sciences declined by 12,700 -- about 2.2%. Ads seeking employees in education, training, and library fell by about 900, or about 1.1% of May's total.

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Job market competitiveness

The Conference Board computes a job-market competitiveness measure -- a ratio of online ads to the number of unemployed workers in the job market -- for these categories. However, the most up-to-date unemployment data, taken from Bureau of Labor Statistics' reports, are a month older than the numbers for online job ads, so the ratios calculated below are for May 2010, while the number of employment ads reported above are for June.

In May, computer and mathematical science, and health-care practitioners and technical, remained the best sectors to be looking for work, according to this ratio: There are far more job ads than unemployed people looking for work, with 0.4 unemployed job-seekers per job ad in both categories.

The market also looked good for life, physical and life scientists; in this category, in May, there was 0.8 job-seeker for every ad, the same as a month before. The ratio for architects and engineers was just a little worse, at 0.9. But that's a bit improvement from the previous month, when there were 1.2 job seekers for every online ad. That leaves education, training, and library, where, despite dramatic improvement in May, the outlook still looks dismal. The ratio of job-seekers to job ads in this category decreased from 5.1 to 4.3 from April to May. That's the best number we've seen since we started tracking these numbers a year ago. But it's still far worse than any other category we track.

Across all the categories tracked by Science Careers, this ratio improved dramatically in June, thanks to a healthy reduction in the number of unemployed. 955,200 unemployed people sought jobs in these categories in May, compared to 1,085,900 the month before -- a 13.6% reduction in the number of job-seeking unemployed. This brought May's overall ratio of online ads to the number of unemployed workers to about 0.6, down from 0.8 a month earlier.

How does this compare to the labor economy as a whole? Except for one category -- education, training, and library -- job-seekers in science-related categories continue to be in far better shape than the average job-seeker, by this metric. In May there were 3.6 job-seekers overall for each online job ad, suggesting that there is six times as much competition for the average job than there is for jobs in these science-related categories.

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