Science Careers Blog

December 2010

December 28, 2010

Snow Job

Actually, no job may be more like it -- or so it must seem to many would-be faculty members who had job interviews scheduled at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Society's Eastern division.  This gathering, which serves as the discipline's main annual employment market, began Monday in snow-crippled Boston.  Inside Higher Education reports that the national airline snarl caused by the weekend's huge blizzard is keeping many job candidates and search committee members from holding scheduled interviews.  Many who planned to present papers or posters are also disappointed.

APA executive director David Schrader tried to resassure panicky applicants by noting that since "departments aren't scheduling interviews with people they don't think are very good," they would probably arrange another method of holding an interview.  The Eastern division's secretary-treasurer Richard Bett, however, termed the situation "a nightmare basically."  Apparently APA has no Plan B for the eventuality of a winter storm in wintry New England and no systematic way of letting people know what is going on.

One hopes that their advanced training may allow frantic job seekers to view the situation philosophically, but for some the damage may indeed be serious.  The situation remains fluid and chaotic, as people struggle to make new travel plans or re-schedule events.  Bett, at least, sees signs of improvement today.  (He, however, already has a job, as a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins). 

Inside Higher Education notes that APA is the only major academic society that holds its main job-interview confab during the snow-vulnerable and chronically overbooked Christmas  holiday season.  

Other scholarly groups perhaps should avoid feeling smug about their clever planning, however, unless they have contingency plans for inclement weather.   AAAS, for example -- the publisher of Science Careers -- will meet in Washington, DC, in February, the month when, last year, the city was engulfed by one of the two historic storms that supposedly blizzard-hardened former Chicagoan and new Washingtonian Barack Obama dubbed "Snowmageddon."

December 22, 2010

The Impact of Working Close

Thanks to the Internet, today researchers have many ways to collaborate remotely. Several studies have shown that international collaborations tend to produce higher-impact papers than local collaborations. But new research suggests that when you look closely at those local collaborations, close interactions between key authors boosts the number of times articles are cited after publication. 

Led by Isaac Kohane of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts and published last week in PLoS ONE, the study determined the location of collaborating Harvard biomedical scientists in 35,000 published articles. Kohane's team then analyzed the effect of distance between the Harvard collaborators -- whether they were located in the same building, on the same campus, or across different campuses -- on each paper's citations.

"Essentially, at all of these scales, the closer the first and last author are located, the more  impactful that paper is as measured by how much more it is cited," said Kohane, quoted in a press release. "Despite all of the profound advances in information technology, such as video conferencing, we found that physical proximity still matters for research productivity and impact." 

Twin-sister geology postdocs are living the dream of every 5-year-old science geek. A newly established dinosaur species has been named for the two women -- the Suarez sisters -- who discovered the site near Green River, Utah, where the dinosaur remains were discovered, according to a press release from Johns Hopkins University (JHU). To be more precise, the new species was named for the site -- the "Suarez Sisters' Quarry -- which, in turn,  was named for the Suarez sisters.

One of the sisters -- Marina Suarez -- is a postdoc at the Johns Hopkins'  Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.  Her sister Celina is a postdoc at Boise State University. The sisters discovered the site while Marina was a Master's degree student at Temple University. Marina earned her doctorate from the University of Kansas. The twins are 29 years old. They are natives of San Antonio, Texas.

The official name of the new dinosaur species is Geminiraptor suarezarum, which, the press release says, means "twin predatory thief of the Suarezes," which doesn't make a lot of sense, but I doubt they're complaining. The press release says "the 6- to 7-foot-long raptor-like dinosaur with large eyes and dexterous claws is thought to have lived about 125 million years ago, according to Utah's Bureau of Land Management."

Tweeting as @SciCareerEditor

With every new year comes change, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as elsewhere. At NIH, though, the operative date is not 1 January but 25 January. That's the first application due date of 2011, and the date on which the changes take effect.

What changes? NIH is getting stricter.

  • The 2-day correction window will end. 
  • After a proposal is submitted, NIH will only accept new materials resulting from unforeseen administrative issues "(with exceptions specified for institutional training mechanisms and certain RFAs). Corrections of oversights/errors discovered after submission of the application will not be allowed. See NOT-OD-10-091."
  • Resubmissions must be submitted within 37 months of the original submission.
  • Applicants for career development and training awards -- including individual National Research Service Awards -- must use the new ADOBE-FORMS-B1 package.
  • It's hard to imagine that this happens, but I guess it must: Apparently, some investigators have been dodging page limits by sticking extra materials in sections that don't have limits, like Protection of Human Subjects. This strikes me as unwise; wouldn't you make a better impression by just following the rules? Anyway, NIH is instructing its reviewers that, starting with the first submission date of 2011, they need not consider such materials, and "In egregious cases, NIH has the authority to withdraw such an application from review or consideration for funding. See NOT-OD-10-077."
There are a couple of other rule changes. You'll find the whole document here.

Tweeting as @SciCareerEditor

December 19, 2010

What Is the Value of a Ph.D.?

Not much more, and often less, than a master's degree, at least when counted in cold cash. That's the conclusion of an unsigned article in The Economist that takes a trans-Atlantic view of what it calls "the disposable academic."  

"Many of those who embark on a PhD are the smartest in their class and will have been the best at everything they have done," the article perceptively notes.  "They will have amassed awards and prizes.  As this year's new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else.  They might use their research skills to look harder at the lot of the disposable academic.  Someone should write a thesis about that."   

These strong and insightful words from a "correspondent" who "slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology" appear as part of the magazine's "Christmas specials" package.  Though some may see them as a journalistic lump of coal in the Yuletide stocking,  they offer the heartfelt gifts of analysis and experience.

In a step that attempts to differentiate the purportedly science-friendly Obama administration from its predecessor, on Friday the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, issued guidelines intended to shield government scientists from political influence.  He was complying, somewhat belatedly in the opinion of many, with a March 2009 memorandum signed by President Barack Obama that ordered the OSTP director to develop a policy "for ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and technological processes."  

The new formal policy is the first of its kind in the nation's history, according the the Washington Post. Government scientists repeatedly complained during the Bush years of political pressure to shape their findings to conform with administration policies, and the Post reports that many say they had thus far seen little change under the Obama administration.

Scientists should be hired and retained only "based on [their] knowledge, credentials, experience and integrity," and each agency should have "appropriate rules and procedures to ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency," the memo states.  It also calls for "whistleblower protections" to safeguard the integrity of the "information and process on which the agency relies in its decisionmaking,"  

Agency heads must report within 120 days on their progress toward developing those rules and procedures, Holdren stated in a Friday post on the OSTP blog.  Of course, the details of those rules and procedures, and the ways in which they are carried out within agencies, will determine the strength of the protections scientists will enjoy.

Today's Chronicle of Higher Education includes a nice profile, by Kevin Kiley, of chemist Emily Carter, who was recently appointed the director of Princeton University's new Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, which was funded by a $100 million gift.

With our CTSciNet project, Science Careers has been focused lately on translational research. That phrase normally refers to medical research and the pursuit of human therapies, but there's a lot in the Carter profile that resonates with translational-research ideas.

Kiley was trained as a quantum chemist, with a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology. She spent the first part of her career doing surface chemistry. "I had been working a lot of different projects and developing software tools to probe the properties of materials, but I hadn't had a laser-beam focus on any one particular issue," she says.

Then she read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report and altered the direction of her career. "I felt like I had an obligation, a responsibility to use my expertise to solve these big problems," she says. "I no longer had the luxury to just do intellectually stimulating research projects. My research had taken on a purposeful perspective." Specifically, Carter began to apply her scientific skills to solving the problems of energy and the environment. "Anyone who has expertise in an area related to this should be working on these problems," she says.

There's much about Carter's approach to science that resembles common ideas in translational research. First, there's a belief that purely curiosity-driven research is an indulgence we -- or at least scientists with sets of skills appropriate to solving practical problems -- can't afford right now; social needs are too compelling. Second, there's her interdisciplinarity: Her lab includes physicists, chemists, materials scientists, and engineers, Kiley writes. She calls herself "multilingual" because she can talk with scientists in different fields and departments.

The idea that we should all be applying our scientific skills to solving the day's most important problems is compelling. But there is an alternative point of view:  Fundamental, curiosity-driven research often yields insights that are important for the next generation of practical technologies. Applied research can be short-sighted because it can be difficult (probably impossible) to know ahead of time what will ultimately matter. So we need to keep dedicating resources -- funding and human resources, including our own -- to fundamental, curiosity-driven research. That's the argument made by many basic scientists.

Of course we do. But not every researcher who eschews applications does the kind of basic research that's likely to yield such high-powered fundamental insights. As Carter says in the article, "You have to look at your technical strengths and say, Where I can make the best contribution?" Your set of skills may best prepare you to work on important fundamental problems. But if, after some honest reflection, your work doesn't seem to be headed towards such fundamental insights, consider asking yourself, as Carter did, what important problem those skills might effectively address.

The new Andlinger Center, by the way, plans to hire 9 new scientists.

2 December was the official launch date of OpenAIRE -- Open Access Infrastructure for Research in Europe -- providing researchers with open access to publications emerging from research funded by the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The 2-week-old site is still small, but it's growing quickly.

The launch of OpenAIRE is the latest part of a European Commission pilot initiative to encourage open access to the research it funds. Since August 2008, EC-funded researchers in the fields of energy, environment (including climate change), health, information and communication technologies, and research infrastructure have been required to make their peer-reviewed research articles freely available in an institutional or subject-based repository within 6 months of publication. Researchers in social and socioeconomic sciences and the humanities are given 12 months.

OpenAIRE aims to be a one-stop shop for exploring EC-funded research articles in those repositories as well as articles that did not find an open home. As I write this entry, about 200 papers are available online. Articles can be browsed by year, scientific area, or language.

For more information on the EC open access pilot project and OpenAIRE, see the OpenAIRE Web site.

December 13, 2010

Unnaturally Not Selected?

Should a scientist's religious views affect his ability to land an academic post?  Astronomer Martin Gaskell believes they should not, and, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Federal Judge Karl S. Forester agrees.  That is why the judge is allowing Gaskell to go forward with a jury trial in the religious discrimination suit he has brought against the University of Kentucky.  

Despite "substantial evidence that Gaskell was the leading candidate" to head the university's new observatory, the judge found, the university gave the job to someone else once the search committee learned that Gaskell had expressed doubt on the subject of evolution.  With a P.h.D from the University of California, Santa Cruz [Editor's Note: Previously we wrote UC Santa Barbara; apologies for the mistake], extensive publications in his field of super-massive black holes, and successful experience founding an innovative observatory at the University of Nebraska, Gaskell has also written and lectured on the relationship between science and Biblical religion.

The University of Kentucky acknowledges that Gaskell's religious views hurt his chances for the job.  It argues, however, that other issues about his academic record and personality were also involved and, furthermore, that it has a right to consider the totality of a candidate's views on science.

Notes from one of Gaskell's science and religion lectures indicate that he sees Genesis  as compatible with astronomical science.  He also perceives, however, "major scientific problems in evolutionary theory," although he denies that he rejects evolution overall.  On this basis a search committee member e-mailed her colleagues that Gaskell, though "fascinating," was "potentially evangelical."  And an astronomy department member expressed fear of potential embarrassment were the university to be viewed as hiring a "creationist," especially in a state that contains the anti-evolution Creation Museum.   Gaskell counters that he is not a creationist and notes that the search committee chair believed him "superbly qualified" and thought his religous views "unrelated to astronomy."

Gaskell in fact would have served the university as "the perfect foil" to narrow anti-evolutionism because he is "an openly Christian man of science who accepts evolution," argues attorney Francis Manion, one of those representing Gaskell.  Manion suggests a strategy of co-option that some observers argue would emphasize the broad compatibility that many Christian believers -- including National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins -- perceive between their personal religious faith and their acceptance of modern science.   

Beyond that, Manion's use of a turn of phrase, "an openly Christian man," usually reserved for members of the gay community, carries a potentially powerful and provocative implication about discrimination and minority status within a dominant culture.  Who defines what is acceptable and normal?  How sweeping can that definition be?  To what extent must individuals be protected from harm?

Currently a research associate at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, Gaskell states on his personal homepage that he has "accepted a professorship in Chile.., where a large fraction of the world's largest telescopes are."  He nonetheless hopes to recover financial damages from the University of Kentucky to compensate for lost income and emotional pain.

Stay tuned for a courtroom battle over what constitutes unlawful discrimination and legitimate science -- a battle that, like Gaskell himself, could prove "fascinating."

[Editor's Note: For an excellent account of a scientist with a strong religious faith, read Elisabeth Pain's Testimony of a Young Christian Scientist.]

December 10, 2010

To Stay or to Leave?'s "Since You Asked" advice column generally publishes pleas for help with commitment-phobic lovers, unreasonable in-laws, ornery bosses, or impossible-to-please parents.  Today's plaintive writer, however, expresses a form of anguish more relevant to Science Careers: "Grad school is suddenly meaningless," writes a student at a "top-ranked" department who, after "purring along" for years suddenly finds him- (or, from the internal evidence, probably her-) self struggling with doubt over whether to continue.  The student, who uses the nom de 'Net of "Lost in graduate school,"  is "ashamed" of these feelings because "my identity has been wrapped up in my studies." Now, "the whole premise of my efforts has crumbled." 

The major precipitating event, "Lost" relates, probably was the decision of a "close friend and colleague [to] quit a professorship that had taken over and ruined her life."  What's more, "post-docs are now telling me that they have no job prospects and that they wish they had known earlier.  I feel like I've been duped...."  Not surprisingly,  "Lost"'s "advisor keeps acting like pursuing his profession is the only way to be happy." "Lost" does not say what field this is, but, because it apparently has plenty of postdocs, one surmises that it must be some kind of science.

Cary Tennis, the column's hipper Anne Landers, advises "Lost" that "reclaiming your passion for this work" is the way through her crisis of confidence.  Based on what I know about graduate school and where it often leads, however, I must respectfully disagree -- as do many thoughtful comments from the more than fifty people who wrote letters in reply.  What "Lost" should do, I (and a number of the letter writers) think, is take a careful look at the warning lights flashing all around, consider deeply what they indicate, determine how this new information fits into "Lost"'s'  values and goals, and then take appropriate action, including the possibility of leaving graduate school.

What warning lights? First, there's the life-eating professorship.  One guesses from the context (top-rated school, intense pressure) that this friend has achieved what others strive for: a tenure-track post at a prestigious institution.  The years leading up to the tenure decision are  known to be brutal for many young scholars trying to make the grade in a major department, and, as the data unfortunately indicate, those years are especially hard on women who want or have children.  Statistically, single and childless women fare better in high-level academe than colleagues who marry and/or become mothers.  (Intriguingly, married fathers do very well, too.)  One surmises that it's the conflict between the tenure clock and the biological clock, both ticking deafeningly, that may have "ruined" the young professor's life.  Or perhaps the insatiable demands of doing enough research, writing enough grants, and publishing enough papers to get tenure consumed a romantic relationship that was dear to the young professor's heart.

Then there are the premonitory postdocs giving "Lost" the benefit of their own disappointment and sense of betrayal.  If "Lost" was counting on the degree to produce a certain kind of career, she really ought to heed their counsel before investing more years and possibly more debt-financed money in a possibly fruitless quest.

So, what's needed is not a search for a lost passion but an evaluation -- as dispassionate and searching as possible, but still taking feelings into account -- of motives, goals, and the available objective information.

The first thing to go must be her crippling sense of shame.  There is nothing dishonorable about re-evaluating decisions in light of experience and information.  It is, indeed, the definition of intelligence and the essence of the scientific method.

Why did "Lost" enter grad school in the first place?  Where did she hope it would lead?  How likely is this hope to be realized?  Does she still want to go there, assuming it is possible at this point?  Friends and colleagues have provided fair warning of what likely lies ahead. (The advisor may be thinking of the situation that existed decades ago, when he was young.)

If the original destination is not one that "Lost" still desires, then, as many of the letter writers indicate, there is no shame deciding to leave --  a decision that at least some of the postdocs apparently wish that they had made.  (But, of course, one must also wonder what is keeping those postdocs from also evaluating other options available to smart, highly educated people. Is it perhaps because they have lost faith in themselves?)

Such self-evaluation can be emotionally wrenching.  It may indeed require upending an identity, abandoning the dreams of a lifetime, and coming to terms with a not-totally-unjustified sense of having been hoodwinked.  In the end, it may result in new dedication to those original goals.  It may result in a new goal that can also be reached via staying in graduate school, such as an industrial rather than an academic career.  Or it may indicate an entirely new direction.  As a number of the thoughtful letter writers note, this process of self-assessment is a hallmark of adulthood.  

One hopes that "Lost" soon embarks on such an effort and that it leads in the end to a satisfying conclusion.

December 8, 2010

How Not to Write a Grant

What happens when six scientists working in five separate fields serve on a number of grant committees?  Apparently they see a great many truly terrible proposals full of lame-brained and sloppy mistakes -- and they remember the very worst of these goofs.

The exasperated band has now compiled actual examples of applicants' ineptitude into a tongue-in-cheek list of "proven techniques" for not getting funded and published it in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Some of their tips are simple enough: "Don't use spell-check."  Or : "Use very few subheadings.  Grant reviewers are smart enough to figure out where subheadings should be.  A single multipage paragraph is fine."  

Some are more global: "Focus your grant entirely on your own study species and/or area of focus.  Knowledge for knowledge's sake, right?  Dealing with problem of general interest is a waste of time.  A good panelist will be able to discern the global impacts of the research without being led by the hand."

Others are all-encompassing:  "Always assume that the panel and the program director will give you the benefit of every doubt."  

But especially importantly, none appears to have much bearing on the quality or significance of the actual research being proposed; instead they have to do with careless writing, slovenly formatting and thoughtless preparation.  And together they constitute an amazing catalog of how just how dumb and self-defeating smart people can be.

It may be a tough thing to do, but tenure-track faculty members need to recognize and put an end to relationships with "dead weights, negatives, dispensers of bad advice, draggers-down of your conscience, and saboteurs of your labors," writes David Perlmutter, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, in a Chronicle of Higher Education article published last Monday. Above all, good academic friends will offer honest feedback and be upbeat. "Friends should be there for one another in times of trouble. But if someone seems hellbent on sinking his or her own career, it won't help you to join in on the downslide," Perlmutter adds.

Perlmutter analyzes other hallmarks of unproductive friendships in the world of academia and gives some tips on how to end them gracefully. You can read the full article here.

For more on the added value and perils of laboratory friendships across hierarchical ranks, check out this past column from our Mind Matters columnist Irene S. Levine.

December 7, 2010

Capitol Hill Opportunity

The American Institute of Physics is accepting applications for its annual Congressional Science Fellowship program, which permits people with Ph.D.s in physics and related fields to spend a year on the staff of a member of Congress or a science-related Congressional committee. The Fellowship includes a salary of $70,000, a relocation allowance, health insurance, and an orientation program in Washington, DC.

For many former fellows, the program has opened the way to career opportunities in science policy or government.  Applicants must be US citizens and members of at least one of the AIP's member societies at the time they apply. The deadline for applications is January 15.
In November, the upward trend continued in the number of online job ads in science-related categories -- and in job ads overall. But in science and in the broader economy, the gains were modest. The Conference Board, a private business and economic research institute, provides these data, which are tracked monthly by Science Careers.

In the science-related categories we track, the number of ads posted online rose by 1% in November, or 14,400, compared to October. In the economy overall, the number of ads increased by 1.1%, or 47,400 ads. No science-related category did especially well in November, though heath care practitioners and technical added 2.2% to the number of ads posted online. That marks the second straight month of gains for that category after several months of declining prospects. All the other science-related categories were either flat or showed very small changes.

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And in October -- the last month for which detailed unemployment data is available -- the ratio of the number of unemployed people looking for work to the number of online ads changed very little, overall and in science-related categories.

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While this marks yet another flat month for science job opportunities, two things are worth noting. The first is that the ratio of ads to job-seekers -- a measure of job-market competitiveness -- is far lower (0.7) in science-related categories than it is in the economy as a whole (3.4), indicating that jobs in science-related fields are easier to find than jobs generally. 

The second is that the outlook for job seekers is much better than it was a year ago. In November 2010, the number of online ads in science-related categories was 29% higher than it was in November 2009. In the life, physical, and social sciences -- the category most important for most Science Careers readers -- the number of job ads in November 2010 was nearly 40% higher than a year earlier.

The November/December issue of MIT's Technology Review has a nice piece, posted online, about  Ayr Muir, an MIT materials-science grad who runs a lunch truck in Boston's Kendall Square.

No, this isn't another story of an angst-ridden underemployed science grad. Muir is an environmental entrepreneur -- and a distant relative of environmental legend and Sierra Club founder John Muir -- who is out to make foods with a smaller environmental footprint as cheap and ubiquitous as McDonald's.

Read it online here.

Hat tip: John Travis, Science news.

Irene Levine, our Mind Matters columnist, seeks to interview scientists or science trainees who have encountered a troubled colleague. For example, the colleague may have been depressed, had marital problems,abused substances, had an anger management problem, and so on, that interfered with productivity and/or office morale.

When faced with such a situation, what did you do? Did you tell someone else? If so, when? How did you maintain your professional distance and balance it with your personal one? How do you strike the right balance between being a colleague and a friend?

Naturally, we'll protect your privacy -- and especially the privacy of your colleague.

If you have been the troubled colleague, Irene would love to hear about your experience, too.

Write to Irene-at-IreneLevinedotCom.

As we highlighted in a recent Science Careers article, most researchers have to make judgments in their day-to-day practice of research that have ethical implications. While falsification/fabrication of data, and plagiarism, are largely seen as unforgivable scientific sins, junior researchers are routinely confronted with decisions about how they carry out and report research that could either be seen as appropriate, questionable, or unethical depending on where they draw the line.

In an Inside Higher Ed column published last Friday, Professor of Education and Law at Lehigh University Perry A. Zirkel analyzes a possible case of self-plagiarism after stumbling across two research articles that were published in different journals the same year and shared one author, together with big chunks of text. "Yet neither article cited the other," Zirkel writes.

In his discussion of the case, Zirkel makes an important distinction between self-plagiarism and text recycling. I would like to pass it along here as food for thought.

"Exploring relevant writings... I found that the issue of self-plagiarism is better understood in terms of specific parsing within the more general concept of plagiarism," Zirkel writes. In particular, "as Scanlon has explained, ... self-plagiarism poses the problem of imposture, not theft. Here, imposture refers to padding, churning, over-crediting, or, in Bird's words, 'implying that the author is more productive than is actually the case.'"

Text recycling is a grayer area, Zirkel says. "The blurry boundary for text recycling as an ethical matter appears to be not only the amount but also the nature of the material duplicated without attribution,"Zirkel adds. "For example, repeating significant parts of the literature review or the methodology is far less shady than is doing the same for the core, i.e., the results, of the study." Zirkel refers to codes of conduct and journal guidelines that prohibit publishing old data as new and advocate transparency.

Zirkel's column also highlights how difficult it can be to pinpoint actual sins and enforce sanctions. Putting the issues under the microscope, as Zirkel does, is an essential step in helping the scientific community put an end to questionable practices.

The latest (2009) National Science Foundation Survey of Earned Doctorates found significant gains in the number of doctorates earned in the United States. Doctorates awarded grew 1.6% overall, and 1.9% in science and engineering (S&E) fields, over 2008. In S&E fields, the increase is entirely accounted for by a 4.8% increase in the number of doctorates awarded to women; 622 more S&E doctorates were awarded to women in 2009 than in 2008. The number of S&E doctorates awarded to men declined slightly.

This rate of increase is slow by recent standards. Over the period 2004 - 2007, the number of S&E doctorates awarded increased at a rate of 6.5% per year. Still, the new totals -- 49,562 total doctorates and 33,470 S&E doctorates -- are all-time records. The number of S&E doctorates awarded to women -- 13,593 -- is also an all-time high.

The growth in the number of S&E doctorates awarded to members of minority groups was also impressive, up 6.4% compared to 2008. The longer-term trend looks better still: Since 2004, the number of S&E doctorates awarded to members of minority groups is up 34.3%.

Also notable: The number of S&E doctorates awarded by U.S. institutions to temporary visa holders declined by 3.35%.

The survey also sampled employment outcomes. The number of S&E doctorate recipients who already had employment commitments was down slightly from 2008 and about the same as in 2007. And of those who had employment commitments, a record number were for postdoc positions. The proportion with employment commitments from industry was down in most fields, while the proportion with employment commitments in "other employed position increased." This category includes government, non-academic non-profits, primary and secondary schools, and "other employment." This could indicate an increase in interest in non-traditional science jobs, and it could indicate that the number of S&E doctorate recipients settling for substandard employment is increasing.

December 4, 2010

It pays to advertise

So, you think you've done everything you possibly can to land a secure academic research post?  Well, how about making a stunning, paradigm-changing discovery, becoming an instant, worldwide scientific celebrity, and naming the thing you discovered "Give [Me] A Job"?  That, writes Paul Davies of Arizona State University in the Wall Street Journalis exactly the strategy followed by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, discoverer of the now world-famous arsenic-based microbe.  The organism's name, GFAJ-1, he reports, actually stands for "Give Felisa a Job."  Wolfe-Simon, for whom future employment opportunities probably won't be a big problem, was an ASU postdoc when she had her great idea and has, according to Davies, since then been patching together short-term gigs that let her chase her hunch. 
Now here's a concept that could catch on if given a chance. Or maybe not: Graduate schools should keep track of what happens to their alumni and even offer them formal opportunities to prepare for careers outside academe.  Two graduate deans, Patricia Calarco of the University of California, San Francisco, and Lynne Pepall of Tufts University, suggested this last week at a meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, according to today's Chronicle of Higher Education.  

The deans further suggested that if universities collected information about which careers alumni entered, and took the additional step of finding out what careers other than academe students might be interested in, they could serve their students better than they do now.

Dean Calarco said that faculty members often don't want to know when Ph.D. students want to work outside of academe.  When UCSF asked its graduate students in 2008 about their first-choice careers, a third named non-academic pursuits.  The University has since established a program of formal 3-month internships in government and industry for doctoral students from its basic-science departments.

Dean Pepall asked the representatives of 34 universities whether their institutions kept systematic alumni records for former graduate students.  Twenty said no. For institutions supposedly dedicated to both research and the welfare of students, this seems a stunning oversight, especially in light of how meticulously professional and undergraduate schools tend to track their alumni.  These schools use that data to boast about the success of their graduates and to hit up those who achieve success for money. 

Could it be that graduate deans already suspect that Ph.D. students are unlikely to rank among the grateful future graduates who fork over handsome donations?

December 3, 2010

Truly Taken for Granted

The name of Beryl Benderly's monthly column -- Taken for Granted -- is always appropriate, since every month she writes about scientific workers who are exploited or under-appreciated by the scientific establishment. This includes, notably, postdocs, the scientists at the nexus of contemporary science. They, more than any other group, combine the intellectual insight that science depends on with the hands-on skill -- the actual bench work (or the theoretical or computational equivalent) -- behind most of our scientific output. (Of course, there's a pun hidden in there as well, since these scientists are usually on soft money: "grant"-supported.)

But for this week's column, "taken for granted" is an especially apt phrase, in at least two ways. First is the article's placement on Science Careers: Despite being an important piece of writing, it's listed fourth this week, pretty far down the page. This is partly because the top two articles describe such an exciting, and rare, career opportunity for people with the right skills -- including scientists. But whatever the reason, Beryl's article deserves much higher billing. It's important. So this month it may seem as though we're taking Beryl's art for granted.

The name -- "Taken for Granted" -- is also appropriate in a different sense: Established scientists take it for granted that any clear-thinking woman or member of an under-represented minority group (or any white male for that matter) would choose a career in science if given the opportunity, so all we have to do is remove barriers. That assumption is false and leads, I believe, to faulty policy on issues such as scientific-workforce diversity. Such assumptions also affect perceptions of a different kind of diversity: the diversity of career options. Some traditional scientists disparage non-traditional careers -- even careers like research in industry. It's remarkable how much space there is between common (among established scientists) assumptions about science's desirability and young peoples' perceptions.

Drawing on a recent study by Amanda Diekman and colleagues, this week's Taken for Granted column challenges the assumption that anyone in her right mind would study science, suggesting that that women often don't choose science because they don't think it's consistent with their values. Specifically, Amanda Diekman and coauthors determined that women embrace values of community and caring more often than men, and that people (men and women) who embrace those values most strongly are likely to pursue alternatives instead of the fields in which women are poorly represented.

This idea -- which, like a lot of important ideas, seems obvious once it has been pointed out -- has exciting implications. In recent years, many fields of science have, famously, become more communal. And in some areas -- basic biomedical research is an excellent example -- perspectives have started to shift away from intellectual mastery and penetrating insights and towards the more practical and therapeutic (think CTSciNet and translational research). If the ideas Benderly discusses in this month's column are valid -- and I think they are -- we should expect these changes to lead to improvements in the representation of women in the affected fields.

But there's a point underlying Beryl's column that has even broader significance. It is that good people, who could even be excellent scientists, often have real alternatives and sometimes choose them. It follows that, as I wrote in my commentary on the occasion of Science Careers's 15th anniversary, if you want to make science better, you have to make science a better career. Policy makers have to put themselves into the shoes of science trainees -- and bright young people considering a career in science but who have other appealing choices -- and think hard about how the science career path looks, and how to change it for the better.

Partly this is about perception: Some of the assumptions underlying women's career choices (as determined by the Diekman study) seem wrong. Yet, other unflattering assumptions about science careers -- the prospect of earning $30,000 a year with no retirement well into your 30s after 10 years or more of training, for example, with questionable long-term job prospects -- are accurate. So it's not just a matter of changing perceptions; realities must change as well. Changing perceptions is hard, and changing realities is much harder, but it's something that has to happen if science is to continue to thrive. The status quo is already failing.

December 2, 2010

A Batty Case of Harassment

Academic scientists need no longer fear that sharing a scientific paper with a colleague will lead to major career damage.  That at least appears to be the implication of a decision handed down by an Irish court quashing the punishment of Dylan Evans, a behavioral sciences lecturer in the medical school of University College Cork, as reported by the Independent newspaper.  In November 2009, Evans showed a colleague, Rossana Salerno Kennedy, an article published the previous month in PLoS One entitled "Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time."  At the time, he claimed in court, he believed Kennedy was amused.

She, however, complained to the university, which determined that, although Evans had not intended to offend, his act fell within the technical definition of sexual harassment.  It punished him by requiring counseling and two years of monitoring.  He also was not recommended for a promotion.  He took the case to court.

The judge termed the punishment "grossly" disproportionate and observed that the article, written in the dense and densely footnoted style appropriate to a reputable scientific journal and illustrated with graphs of statistical observations from what the authors termed 20 "completed copulations," was neither suggestive nor obscene.  The judge further noted that the article had won a 2010 Ig Nobel Prize, which, states the institute that gives the prize, is awarded for "research that makes people laugh then makes them think."  Or, in this case, maybe not so much the latter.