Science Careers Blog

August 2010

August 31, 2010

Seeking Anxious Scientists

For an upcoming Mind Matters column for Science Careers, psychologist/writer Irene Levine is seeking stories from scientists and science trainees  about the impact anxiety has had on their professional productivity.

When do you get anxious? What symptoms do you experience? How has it affected your work? How do you deal with it? Has anxiety had a positive or negative impact on your career?

Can advisors/supervisors reduce -- or help their subordinates manage -- anxiety in the workplace? Or do they just make it worse?

Please e-mail Irene -- irene(at)irenelevine(dot)com -- with your thoughts and contact information. If you want to be anonymous in the article, that's okay. Check out Irene's previous columns at

You may feel that, once you've got tenure and set up your lab and life in a place you like, your scientific career will go on forever. But while it's quite common for professors in the United States to remain active and productive researchers in older age, national laws and cultural traditions make it much more difficult for professors in Europe to do the same.

A recent article in The Scientist highlights the difficulties professors face if they wish to continue running a lab beyond the retirement age imposed by many European countries: "When a recently retired colleague warned [former Karolinska Institutet professor Jan-Åke] Gustafsson, who was quickly approaching Sweden's upper mandatory retirement age of 67, that emeritus professors aren't taken seriously in Sweden, he began to realize it was all too true. Emeritus colleagues received fewer and shorter grants and were more segregated from their departments," the article states.

For many well-established professors, the only way to keep their research going at full speed, if at all, is to start all over again overseas. Of course, you're much more marketable and can land much more prestigious positions if you've got a life-long career's worth of achievements on your CV. But the advice that the later-career professors offer for starting over at a new institution strike me as applicable to scientists at the beginning of their careers. Here's some of their advice:

Research your options
"'Start early, at around 60, to really think about what you want to do,' says Gustafsson... Gustafsson talked with colleagues about the pros and cons of becoming an emeritus professor before making his decision, and once he was sure, began his search for a new institution several years before reaching retirement age." 

Plan ahead
"Careful planning will allow you to avoid the worst aspect of moving - the loss of productivity, says Gustafsson. 'Organize the move efficiently, starting with the administrative details, a year before,' he says."

Don't burn any bridges
"As [former University of Helsinki, Finland Albert] de la Chapelle dissolved his lab in preparation for the move, able to only bring a few junior faculty members with him, he was faced with seven dependent doctoral candidates still at Helsinki. 'We had to really scramble to get their lives organized and get them co-mentors in Finland,' says de la Chapelle... But it was worth it: Today, those graduate students remain his key ties back to the university, he says."

Forced retirement is one reason why you may have to unwillingly leave your institution, at least in Europe, but in these days of economic recession even tenured professors have been made redundant. This makes it all the more important to keep your career-development skills well-honed all along the way for when you might need them.

You can read the full article on The Scientist's Web site.

Physician-scientist Peter Agre's biggest research contribution to date is his discovery of aquaporins, the proteins that regulate and facilitate the transport of water molecules across cell membranes. Aquaporins are important in physiological processes such as kidney concentration and spinal fluid secretion, and play a role in several diseases as well. Their discovery in the early 1990s earned Agre the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

These days, Agre, 61, is contributing to science in slightly different ways: by addressing infectious diseases in the Third World, and by promoting scientific diplomacy.


Agre, currently the director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, is now using his basic science discoveries about aquaporins to understand the role the proteins play in the parasite that causes malaria. The goal is to find innovative ways to target and treat the disease, which causes nearly 1 million deaths annually, most of which occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

"About the year 2000, after we'd worked on aquaporins for almost a decade, we'd answered the questions we felt were most important," Agre said in an interview in July at the Euroscience Open Forum meeting in Turin, Italy. "It was a matter of doing some translational work ... . There were a lot of groups that are really good at cancer biology and neuroscience, but the Third World diseases are still largely neglected." The shift to disease-focused research represents a return to Agre's original humanitarian goals when he went into medicine. "It was always something I wanted to do -- to get involved in Third World medicine," he said. "I had ... hoped at about age 50 to make a new direction in science in Third World diseases, human rights, and areas I felt were important."

In the mid 2000s, Agre got involved in science advocacy and politics; he even considered a run for the U.S. Senate. He ultimately didn't pursue a political career, but he did find a different platform a couple of years later: In 2009, he became the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS - the publishers of Science, Science Translational Medicine, and Science Careers). In that role, he traveled to Cuba, North Korea, and Myanmar as a member of scientific delegations tasked with finding common scientific ground with these countries, which are at odds politically with the United States. In an editorial in the August 25 issue of Science Translational Medicine, Agre explains how such science diplomacy can have an impact on medicine in such developing countries.

"Clinical and translational medicine represents an important arena of investigation ripe for 21st-century science diplomacy, beginning with -- although by no means limited to -- infectious disease research," he and co-author Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer and director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, write. "As private American citizens, we brought a message of good will, formed by a shared interest in science and science-based solutions to problems, that would have been greeted with great suspicion if delivered by officials of the U.S. government." Agre and Turekian conclude by noting that addressing global health needs will require scientific cooperation that transcends political borders.

Agre embraces all the aspects of his career these days. "I love the job, I love the excitement," Agre said in the July interview. "It's a new adventure for an old scientist."

Listen to my conversation with Peter Agre, recorded in July at the Euroscience Open Forum meeting in Turin, Italy: 

Alternate link to mp3

I have been reading the copious reportage on the Hauser affair at Harvard with admiration and respect. But that respect is not for the prominent professor who is alleged to have grievously abused his position and the trust of his colleagues and subordinates, nor is it for the cautious bureaucrats at that influential university who have apparently investigated the case at something less than warp speed. Their motivations hold little mystery.  

No, the people who have my unbounded approval are those the Chronicle of Higher Education terms "members of Mr. Hauser's lab" who blew the whistle on the great man's infractions. These anonymous underlings were, according to the Chronicle, research assistants and graduate students. In other words, bright, hard-working, underpaid, obscure and powerless young people at the very beginning of their own careers who had very little to gain and very much to lose by crossing an extremely powerful senior figure at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the United States.

My own reporting and discussions with young scientists tell me that in today's intensely competitive scientific world, the pressure to give data the, shall we say, most favorable possible interpretation is often very intense -- and the rewards of doing so are often not insignificant. More people than we know have doubtlessly succumbed.  

But these particular people in Hauser's lab did not. Instead, they took the bold -- some may say self-destructive -- step of reporting their suspicions of a superior's wrongdoing. As the excruciating Imanishi-Kari/Baltimore case illustrated some years back, such an action rarely benefits the career of the whistle-blower. Indeed, the Chronicle reports that at least one of those who who provided information to the university authorities in the Hauser case has since "left psychology." One hopes he or she was lured away by a brilliant and lucrative offer in some highly promising field -- but somehow one suspects that's probably not the case.

So why did they do it? An essay in yesterday's Chronicle by Michael Ruse suggests an explanation. "Seventy years ago," he writes, "the great sociologist Robert K. Merton made a number of points about science, and they seem still to hold today. Above all, he stressed that science is a community activity. Scientists may not always work together, although of course that is now very much the norm, but they do rely on each other, particularly for the ideas and theories that they use in their own research. In turn, they contribute -- and want to contribute -- to the general pool of knowledge."

The brave and upright individuals in Hauser's lab appear to have acted in the interest of everyone in science rather than of their own careers. That these benefactors choose to remain anonymous suggests, however, that they expect neither reward nor honor from the community they helped. That's a real shame, because the integrity of science depends on people like them and on acts like theirs.

Stories I've heard from a number of young researchers suggest that fear of retribution has kept, is keeping, and will continue to keep others aware of wrongdoing from telling what they know. In a just world, people who put the community's welfare above their own should be celebrated and formally thanked by the people they have aided. Maybe this will still happen for those from Hauser's lab. I'm not holding my breath, but I certainly hope it does.

The percentage of new faculty hired on the tenure track at U.S. academic medical centers and medical schools has been falling steadily for almost a quarter of a century, according to a report out this month from the Association of American Medical Colleges. Only a quarter of new clinical faculty hired in 2009 were on the tenure track, as opposed to 46 percent in 1984.

Seven of the country's 126 accredited medical schools have no tenure at all, and eight more offer it only in basic science, rather than clinical, positions. In the rest of the schools, including recently established ones, the tenure system remains "embedded," the report finds. Even so, tenure is now available to fewer and fewer potential medical school professors. For years, the absolute number of new hires on the tenure track continued to rise despite the decline in their percentage of total new faculty because of the drastic growth of faculties overall. However, this trend plateaued in 2003.
One figure has been virtually unchanged: The number of men in tenure track positions exceeded that of tenure-track women by eight percentage points in 1984 and in 2009. "Future research could assess the personal significance of tenure to women, as tenured positions may become more scarce for this subgroup of faculty," the report's authors write.

Given current trends, the report concludes, "a continual decrease in the overall percentage of faculty in tenured or tenure-eligible positions" appears likely.

See also: the March 6, 2009, Science Careers article, Redefining Tenure at Medical Schools.

Monica J. Harris, a social psychologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, made a compelling case in yesterday's issue of Inside Higher Ed that the number of Ph.D. students should be reduced. 

Harris, who has been the committee chair or co-chair for 13 Ph.D. students in her 23 years of professorship, has become increasingly concerned in the recent years about the dire career prospects for young scientists in academia, she writes in the opinion piece

"Population growth of that magnitude is a Malthusian melt-down in the making and simply isn't sustainable. We're not creating enough academic jobs to absorb all those Ph.D.s, and in today's economy, applied jobs are disappearing as well."

Until recently, the way Harris dealt with the poor academic job market was by warning prospective graduate students against the difficulties ahead as they came to her office seeking to take the first step toward a tenure-track position, she says. But seeing a staggering number of strong applicants compete in recent faculty searches at her institution got her wondering

"what would come of the countless others in the pool who had decent, even impressive, vitas but simply couldn't vault to the top of a short list? And would the students I train be able to compete at such a level? At this stage of my career, I'm publishing steadily but not spectacularly. I feel I can offer students excellent training in research methodology and theory, but I am no longer confident that will be enough to propel them to the top of a short list for the kinds of jobs they came into graduate school wanting."

Harris has decided that her "full disclosure" strategy is no longer adequate. A few weeks ago, she decided not to accept any more Ph.D. students until the job market shows signs of recovery. Meanwhile, she plans to take on honors undergraduates in spite of their greater need for supervision, collaborate with other colleagues who have Ph.D. students, and move her scholarship in new directions.

"Knowing that prospective students apply to graduate school of their own free will, with hope in their hearts and stardust in their eyes, doesn't absolve faculty of some portion of responsibility for the current crisis. ...  I think I will sleep better knowing that I am no longer contributing to an academic job market that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a Ponzi scheme on the verge of falling apart."

Harris's opinion piece was met with readers' comments that ranged from the very critical to the very supportive. 

I applaud Harris's ethical approach and her sense of professional responsibility. But in the course of the articles I have written for Science Careers, I've met countless young scientists who made satisfying careers for themselves in academia and in all kinds of alternative sectors. Some of them had a Ph.D. supervisor far less nurturing than Harris. Others started out in research in obscure or obsolete areas, entered the hottest of the research fields, or set their hearts on career alternatives no less competitive than academic science.

The job market is tough and probably always will be. The best solution, I think, is not deliberate population control but full disclosure. Make sure prospective Ph.D. candidates know the odds of succeeding in academia and are aware of the range of career alternatives open to them if they should fail in, or decide not to pursue, an academic career. 

But let them make the choice, because we cannot know ahead of time who will fail, who will find their dream job at a research university, who will solve our energy problems or cure some horrific disease, or who will end up happy in a career they had never heard of when embarking on a Ph.D. Whether or not one stays in academia, one develops many valuable and marketable skills while training to be a researcher. And sometimes you have to go through the process to know what you want to do in life. 

By a vote of 2588 in favor to 121 opposed, the postdocs of the University of California's ten campuses have approved the first contract negotiated between their union and the university. The union, PRO/UAW (formally known as Postdoctoral Researchers Organize/United Auto Workers) announced the result last night, after a week of balloting.  The 5-year pact brings higher pay and greater workplace protection, plus a promise not to strike, to an estimated 10% of the nation's postdocs. 

With millions of Americans, including many with technical and scientific qualifications, struggling to find work in a brutal job market, readers of Information Week were surprised to learn of a program by their government's US Agency for International Development that was apparently designed to train thousands of workers in Sri Lanka and Armenia for the IT outsourcing industry.  That certainly would conflict with President Obama's stated desire to keep high-tech work at home.  The story, which which sparked outrage in the blogosphere, does not relate directly to the job prospects of scientists.  In today's jittery economy, however,  with some scientists fearing that certain kinds of research work can follow IT jobs overseas, any indication of federal policy on the offshoring question is bound to attract attention.

Information Week quoted a press release from the US embassy in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo describing planned free courses in "Business Process Outsourcing, Enterpise Java and English Language Skills" that would prepare 3000 "under- and uemployed students" to "participate in on-the-job training schemes with private firms."

But according to a statement to Science Careers from USAID, U.S. workers need not fear for their jobs after all.  The program,  "will not displace American IT workers," says the unsigned statement.   The idea that it would arose from the press release "erroneously stat[ing] that trainees would learn Enterprise Java...that is not true," the statement continues.  In fact, the prospective students have "no exposure to even basic IT technology" and instead will study "basic IT competencies."  The goal is to help young people of the "marginalized, economically depressed" Jaffna region, which is just recovering from decades of civil war, "find jobs in the local economy" and also to "build a basic local skills base" that hopefully will draw Sri Lankan investment to the area. "The reference to 'Enterprise Java'" in the inaccurate press release was a mere inadvertent "holdover from initial discussions," the statement continues. 

On the surface, the employment report released this morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics looks bad: 131,000 jobs lost in the midst of what many hoped was a recovery. Dig just a little deeper and it looks a little better -- maybe -- but still not very good.

Last month's job losses resulted from an anticipated event: more temporary census workers -- 143,000 of them -- reaching the end of their assignments. In the private sector, real jobs were created: 71,000 of them. That's good. But beyond the 143,000 census jobs, governments shed an additional 58,000 jobs -- 10,000 from state payrolls and 38,000 from local -- as those governments struggled to deal with budget deficits. 196,000 census workers are still temporarily employed. In July the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 9.5%.

In addition to the new July numbers, the new BLS report revised downward June's numbers. Last month, the bureau said, the economy shed 221,000 jobs, nearly 100,000 more than the  125,000 reported in early July.

Lately, reported corporate profits have been strong, but economists say this is largely due to cost-cutting, a strategy these companies seem to be continuing. There doesn't seem to be much interest in adding jobs.

If there's reason for hope, perhaps it's in the Conference Board's survey of online job ads, which showed that in July the number of online ads increased by a healthy (but unspectacular) 139,200 -- a much better number than a month before. And taking the longer view, the number of science-related online job ads has increased by 28% over the last 12 months.

The second annual competition for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's Postdoctoral  Entrepreneur Awards is now open.  In conjunction with the National Postdoctoral Association, the foundation has announced two prizes-- $10,000 for a scientist who has successfully commercialized his or her research and $2500 for one who is in the process of doing so.  Contestants must have held postdoctoral appointments in the United States.

Nominations for both awards can be made until September 27 and completed applications  are due by October 4.  Individuals can nominate themselves or be nominated by others.  Nomination and application information and materials are available from the National Postdoctoral Association.

Stories about technical work offshored to Asia are staples of news coverage, so it's refreshing to read about the decision of Perimeter E-Security Corporation, a Connecticut-based firm involved in protecting financial information, to move certain of its research and development efforts from overseas to a new hub in downtown Boston.  To do so, the firm "cut some offshore engineering resources based in India," reported yesterday's Boston Business Journal

A dozen engineers ready for work at 60 State Street in downtown Beantown, and Perimeter plans to add eight more in the next 18 months, chief marketing officer Kurt Heinemann tells Science Careers in an interview. Is this move an outlier or some kind of a straw in the wind?

Neither, Heinemann says. Rather, it's a reflection of the realities of Perimeter's largely U.S.-based business. "A lot of our tools and services are related to the United States financial and regulatory environment," he says."We found that India was very good for what I will call time-intensive efforts, something that's a defined project that's going to span a period of time and doesn't need repeated strategic evaluation and correction." But to serve its mainly American-based market, "we wanted our development and engineering resources closer to our product development and product managers," who work to tailor products to meet clients' specific needs, Heinemann explains. "The innovation part requires all those people, product managers and engineers and developers, to communicate in real time...[So] we centralized all that effort to Boston" -- and thereby showed that clichés about sweeping trends in today's globalized research scene can't capture the fine-grained reality of real people making real business decisions.

(Hat tip: Alan Kotok.)

In July, the number of job ads posted online, overall and in science-related categories, showed healthy growth after 2 flat months. But in June -- the last month for which detailed unemployment data is available -- flat job-ad gains and a substantial increase in the number of unemployed job-seekers result in a mixed picture of the health of the employment market. But overall there's a steady upward trend in the strength of the job market for scientists. That, anyway, is our interpretation of the latest numbers from the Conference Board, released yesterday.

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 online job ads posted in June in the science-related categories we track increased by 28,800, or 2.0%, month over month. That's a bit worse than June but far better than May, when the number of ads in these categories declined by 52,700.

Taking a longer view reveals how far we've come over the last 12 months. In all the categories we track, 331,300 more job ads were posted in July 2010 than a year earlier, an increase of more than 28%. Keep reading to learn how the numbers break down by category.

The strongest science-related category in July was Architecture and Engineering, in which 11,000 new job ads were posted, for a 6.9% month over month increase. Computer and Mathematical Science also did well, adding 31,800 ads, an increase of 5.7%. Education, Training, and Library added 3.4%. Life, Physical, and Social Science added 1,100 job ads, or 1.9%.  

The only category that did badly in July was "health-care practitioners and technical," which fell by 18,400 ads -- 3.1% -- after a strong increase a month earlier.  

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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 various 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 June 2010, while the number of employment ads reported above are for July 2010.

We report the ratio of job seekers to job ads in each category, so a lower number means more opportunity. 

As we reported last month, in May the number of job ads increased by a healthy 2.7%. But the new Conference Board report reveals that in science-related categories, these gains were more than offset by the number of unemployed job-seekers. The result: over all science-related categories, the ratio got a little bit worse, creeping up from 0.6 to 0.7 job seekers per online employment ad.  The best performances were in Biological, Physical, and Social Science, where the ratio of job-seekers to ads improved from 0.8 to 0.7. In Architecture and Engineering, the ratio fell from 0.9 to 0.8. In "Healthcare Practitioners and Technical" the ratio got slightly worse -- from 0.4 up to 0.5. In the two remaining categories the ratio was unchanged: Computer and Mathematical Science (stable at 0.4 job-seekers per ad) and Education, Training, and Library, where the ratio -- always much worse than the other categories we track -- stable at 4.3. (The ratio of job-seekers to job ads for this category has reached as high as 7.0 in recent months, peaking last September.)

Finally, let us note that except for Education, Training, and Library (which includes science-related jobs but others as well), the ratio of job-seekers to ads in all the science-related categories we track is always far better than the average across the whole economy. In June, the average for these science-related categories was 0.7 job-seekers per online job ad. For the economy as a whole, the ratio was 3.5, which is slightly better than May's 3.6.

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Jim Austin Tweets as @SciCareerEditor.

August 3, 2010

Becoming a Science Writer

This week, Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science started what has turned out to be a really popular meme directed at science writers. If you have ever wondered about careers in science writing, this is required reading. His instructions: Tell your story, and give your advice to people considering a career as a science writer.

What has resulted is a series of more than 100 (and counting) short autobiographies of and by people from a variety of backgrounds working as science writers in various capacities. (In the interest of disclosure, my own story is there.) Yong tells his story: "My hazy hopes of a research career were stymied by a degree of experimental ineptitude that is still spoken of in hushed whispers and/or raucous laughter," he writes. He ended up leaving his Ph.D. and pursuing science writing; he's now head of health evidence and information at Cancer Research U.K. His advice: "Be sure you really want to do this. A lot of people want to do this line of work because they don't like research. But this can't just be a fallback option - you really have to love it."

His CRUK colleague Kat Arney writes about taking on writing -- including as a columnist for Science's Next Wave (the precursor to Science Careers) -- while doing an "utterly miserable postdoc." Her personal revelation: "The most important thing I've discovered as I made my transition from being a lab rat to a science writer was the fundamental truths about my talents and skills. I'm not a scientist. I don't have the logical mind, the insight, or the patience and dogged determination. I'm a creator -- of words, audio, video, music, cakes, socks, whatever... Coming to terms with this was tough, especially dealing with the severe feelings of failure over leaving lab science after so many years of training. But I'm much, much happier now."

Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health, came to science writing by way of medical school. He has been a columnist for American Medical News, founding editor of the now-defunct Praxis Post, deputy editor at The Scientist, and online managing editor at Scientific American. "I would be the last to claim that medical school, or some other graduate school, is the only place to gain that kind of expertise, but I would also be the last to claim, for obvious reasons, that someone with a doctorate can't make it as a journalist. (Yes, I've heard both of those arguments.)"

Alex Witze, contributing editor at Science News and former U.S. news editor for Nature, offers some direct advice: "Don't get into science journalism if you want to bring the wonders of the universe to the unwashed public. If so, go be a teacher instead."

The advice repeated over and over and over by people from/in all fields: Get A Mentor. Perhaps multiple mentors. Find someone whose writing you like, who has a cool job, whose job you want some day. Write to them. Ask them about what they do. Find people who will read your stuff and give you constructive feedback. Listen and learn from them. Buy them coffee and Twix bars. (Just a suggestion.)

Where do you find such mentors? Well, you could start with the 117 (and counting ...) people who have submitted their stories to that post, titled On the Origin of Science Writers.

Still interested in science writing? Check out this list of articles I pulled together in February for an event on careers in communication. (Note that was for a British audience; American readers should also check out the National Association of Science Writers.)

Each year, the American Academy of Ophthalmology meets in a major U.S. city and attracts around 25,000 ophthalmologists from the United States and abroad. Among the courses frequently offered at the meeting is one, entitled "Key to Successful Publications in Peer Review Literature," taught by the editors of the three leading clinical journals in our field.  The course tends to attract residents and young doctors at the start of their careers. I have enjoyed being involved in teaching this course for a number of years and have come to anticipate the questions that will be asked. These include the following four questions, all related to the first steps in research publishing:

1.    Why should clinicians do research?
2.    Is the scientific method optional for current medical reports?
3.    What is "peer review" and why is it important?
4.    How do I select a journal to publish in?

These questions apply to persons interested in participating in medical research, and I will  discuss them briefly here.

Perhaps the longest-running soap opera in academic science ended early Saturday morning when PRO/UAW, the union representing the more than 5000 postdocs on the University of California's ten campuses, reached a tentative agreement on a first contract with the University of California.  The pact came "in the wee hours," according to union spokesman Matthew "Oki" O'Connor, almost 2 years after the union had gained certification in August, 2008, after more than a year and a half of negotiating and maneuvering by both sides, and after some 30 hours of face-to-face talks in the preceding two days.  Details are confidential pending the ratification vote by the union membership, which begins later this week.  If approved, the contract will bring "definite economic improvements  and important gains in rights, protections, and working conditions, O'Connor said in in interview with Science Careers, adding that he is "very confident" of passage.  Results of the vote are expected in about 2 weeks.