Science Careers Blog

October 2011

The Conference Board Help Wanted Online (HWOL) Data Series, which examines employment statistics by looking at job recruitment classified ads, today released its findings for the month of October 2011.

The total number of vacancies posted on job recruitment and classifieds Web sites fell by 13,600 during the month of October, which follows drop-offs in September (of 44,000 jobs) and August (164,000 jobs). Scientific jobs -- categorized within the survey as "Computer and Mathematical Sciences" and "Life, Physical and Social Sciences" -- are included in that decline, but they still fare well compared to other types of jobs. The report notes that the number of advertised vacancies for science jobs remains higher than the number of unemployed people seeking those positions. During the month of October, the report tallied 60,200 job ads for 45,600 unemployed job seekers in the "Life, Physical and Social Sciences" category, and 515,100 job ads for 175,800 unemployed job seekers in the "Computer and Mathematical Sciences" category.

Just in time for the annual celebration of synthetic spookiness, Cheryl Reed and Dawn M. Formo, two professors who've written a book about the academic job search, offer advice on dealing with something truly scary: the academic job interview. In an essay at Inside Higher Ed, they expand an observation by Stephen King, the, well, king of the creepy, into a sensible strategy for preparing for that deeply desired--but also dreaded--day when a job seeker may have to face a search committee in person.

People like horror because it lets them "dare the nightmare," the two authors quote King as saying. In just the same way, job seekers ought to use the months between the Halloween season--by which time their applications may have been sent out--and the period when actual invitations to interviews may begin to arrive, to consider the most horrifying things that could happen at an interview--and prepare to deal with them.  

In a column published yesterday in The Chronicle of Higher Education, William Ian Miller, a 65-year-old professor at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, discusses the effects of aging on his scholarly performance.

This later career stage -- where one is confronted with additional difficulties to staying productive and, in due time, with the decision to step down -- is almost as difficult to navigate as launching an academic career in the first place. In June, Science Careers offered advice on how to avoid retirement or to map the route to retirement. Retirement raises many career, financial, health, and psychological issues, and Miller's uncompromising look at his own academic performance -- he is plagued by the late onset of attention-deficit disorder and self-doubt -- is a great complement to our June articles.

You may read Miller's honest and beautifully written account here.
Are you a student (graduate or undergraduate) with an idea for an experiment that really should take place in space? If so, the opportunity to fly your research to the "edge of space" may just have arrived.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced a competition for research slots on its balloon-borne High Altitude Student Platform.  Open to graduate and undergraduate students, the competition has an entry deadline of 12 December.   NASA will be answering questions about it during a teleconference on 11 November.

You can get more information on the project, the teleconference, and the application procedures here.

October 28, 2011

Finding Where You Fit

In a recent BioTechniques (Vol. 51, No. 4), Kristie Nybo interviews Barry Honig, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Director of the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, all at Columbia University.

Honig has made important contributions to the development of tools for structural biology, though I know him -- though not very well -- as a computational biologist.

For me, the interesting part of the interview was the first, after Nybo asks, "In building your career, what was your most significant obstacle." His answer: He was so interdisciplinary that it was difficult for him to find a home.

Honig earned his Ph.D. in chemical physics, then switched to biology for his postdoc. "But when I finished my postdoc," he says, "I encountered a form of cultural bias that still exists to a lesser extent today: physicists and chemists viewed working in biology as  a lower level activity while biologists, rightfully, said I wasn't a real biologist. Consequently, I couldn't find a job."

"Was I a chemist? A biologist? What department would I be comfortable in?," he asked himself. "It was a long struggle, and one I still see today with young people doing interdisciplinary research."  Eventually he made his way to Columbia, where he found a very comfortable fit.

Again this year, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the National Postdoctoral Association have teamed up to offer the Kauffman Foundation Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Awards with prizes totaling $12,500.  

Present or former postdocs at U.S. institutions who have founded or are in the process of founding a company to commercialize research results are eligible to apply for one of the two awards.  The $10,000 Outstanding Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Award honors the founder or co-founder of a U.S. firm that is at least 3 years old.  Applicants for the $2,500 Emerging Postdoctoral Entrepreneur Award must be working toward commercialization.  

The deadline is November 28.  You can find application information and forms here.

Almost 150 firefighters spent 50 minutes on Tuesday bringing under control a fire in a lab at the Center for Health Sciences of the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), reports the Los Angeles Times. The blaze, which apparently caused no injuries, reportedly occurred in a lab containing hazardous materials.

Since the 2009 death of Sheri Sangji from burns she sustained in a lab fire, UCLA has instituted reforms of safety policies and procedures and become the home of the University of California Center for Laboratory Safety

Stay tuned for further details.
I'm attending the Michigan regional meeting of the National Postdoctoral Association. At a reception last night, I was sitting with four scientists; of the five of us, four had interesting scientist-spouse-related stories:
  • A chancellor's spouse had been an enzymologist, became a cancer researcher, and just finished law school to become a patent attorney.
  • A faculty member's spouse had accepted a faculty position (after a "dual-career" search), became a journal editor, then moved over into the technical side of journal work, serving up science-journal content online.
  • A faculty member's spouse had completed a dual-degree program (M.D./Ph.D.) overseas, and was in the process of doing a new residency in the United States.
  • A physicist (me) had followed a spouse who had received a faculty position, then made a career transition into writing and editing.
It never fails to surprise me how often scientists end up in relationships with other scientists and then have to deal with dual-career complexities. In this case, three of four situations had been resolved satisfactorily (with both partners happily employed), and the fourth seemed to be approaching a happy outcome.

What will the future of science look like? How will your generation mold the way science is practiced? Have ideas? Young scientists, we want to hear from you! Add your voice to the pages of Science by answering this question: How will the practice of science change in your lifetime?  What will improve and what new challenges will emerge?

Please take the survey at

Deadline for submissions is 18 November 2011. A selection of the best responses will be published in the 6 January 2012 issue of Science. Submissions should be 250 words or less.  Anonymous submissions will not be considered. 

In February 2010, we reported that the United States Chemical Safety Board (CSB) was undertaking its first-ever look at the safety situation in academic labs after one explosion critically injured and maimed a graduate student at Texas Tech University (TTU) and another, not long before, killed a technician at the University of California-Los Angeles.  The following May, the lead investigator on that study, Cheryl McKenzie, told us that the TTU incident appeared to reveal "widely applicable" safety issues "that need to be explored."

On Wednesday, the CSB proved itself as good as its word by issuing an incisive, detailed, and wide-ranging report entitled Texas Tech University Laboratory Explosion.  This groundbreaking document lays out what went wrong at TTU; what it means for that institution -- and, by extension, for thousands of other institutions across the nation; and what needs to be done about the situation right away. 

Are you a scientist who is running for office, or who does campaign work for a political candidate running in the upcoming 2012 elections? We'd love to hear from you about your motivations and experiences in the political realm. Please e-mail me at

Among the non-academic careers open to people with scientific training, science writing offers a wide variety of opportunities.  Science writers explain science to readers ranging from school children and subscribers of popular magazines all the way to officials of granting agencies and researchers seeking summaries of conferences they missed.

Is a Ph.D. a requirement for a successful science writing career?  Definitely not, says Robert Irion,  director of the prestigious science writing graduate program at the University of California-Santa Cruz.  Speaking at the ScienceWriters2011 conference held in Flagstaff, Arizona, 14-18 October, Irion shared results of a survey of graduates of the program who held Ph.D.s when they entered,  A background in science, but not at graduate degree, is a requirement for admission to the program.

The Ph.D. science writing alumni Irion reported on have all established credible careers, and all believe that holding the terminal scientific degree confers advantages in establishing credibility, especially with publications aimed at scientists; at getting higher starting pay; and at understanding and interpreting the process and results of research,  But, though useful, the Ph.D. is in no way "essential for someone going into science writing, particularly given the amount of time and effort it takes," says 2011 UCSC graduate Sandeep Ravindran, a microbiologist currently working at Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, as quoted by Irion. 

Years in the lab do give a "valuable perspective on the culture of science," according to 2001 grad, neuroscientist and Science staff writer Greg Miller, as quoted by Irion, But, Miller adds, staying "too long" creates the "risk of developing too much reverence for the influential people and ideas in your field," an attitude at odds with the skepticism required for effective reporting.

Irion's advice to aspiring science writers: pursue a Ph.D. only if you so love doing that work that you have to -- or, by extension, if you're so close to the degree that the time to finish is relatively small.  But don't start or slog through to the end because you think you need the degree to succeed as a science writer.  Having a Ph.D. "is by no means the only way one can geek out on something" and gain the knowledge needed for success, says 2004 grad and mathematician Davide Casstelvecchi, who blogs for Scientific American and freelances in his native Italy.

If you already know that science writing is the career you want, Irion advises moving ahead on it "no matter your degree level."  A good way to start learning about opportunities the field offers is checking out the resources at the web site of the National Association of Science Writers (full disclosure: this reporter is NASW's secretary.)

Sister site ScienceInsider (SI) is reporting a new scheme in Sweden that aims to provide generous funding to postdocs from around the world to help them move into faculty positions at Swedish universities. The SI post, written by Science Careers contributing editor Elisabeth Pain, says that Sweden plans to offer 25 awards each year for the next 5 years, worth about 7.5 million SEK each -- that's about €820,000 or $1.14 million -- to be paid out over 5 years. That adds up to a total cost of about 937.5 million SEK, or $142 million. It's a private program, funded by the non-profit Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

To put those figures in perspective, consider that the gross domestic product of the United States is about 35 times that of Sweden. A proportionate commitment to early-career researchers in the United States would fund 4200 awards altogether -- 840 per year for 5 years -- at more than a million dollars each, dwarfing the closest U.S. equivalent program, NIH's Pathway to Independence. The "Pathway" program makes between 150 and 200 awards available each year to postdocs in the biomedical sciences.

This month's "Taken for Granted" (TFG) column discusses the importance -- but the often low prestige -- of the work that safety officers do on the nation's campuses.  In an essay in today's Chronicle of Higher Education, Gary A. Olson also clarifies the  role of an "indispensable" job that is widely misunderstood.  As safety expert Nathan Watson tells TFG this month, the role of campus safety offices is not filling out forms but minimizing risk.

"it's amazing how many fires and safety hazards faculty and staff will create if left unchecked," Olson quotes a safety officer as saying.  Although the reportage on safety in Science Careers tends to concentrate on the risks to life and limb common in research laboratories, carelessness about such ordinary matters as storing supplies and plugging in appliances by faculty and staff members in all the disciplines and offices can also lead to serious harm, Olson notes.  "The most successful safety officer is one who continually focuses on accident prevention and regulatory compliance rather than reacting to safety crises," he continues.

Accomplishing this ever-challenging task requires the cooperation of all members of the campus community, even though many people are unaware of what safety officers are trying to do, Olson writes. It's not only scientists who have a stake in safe working conditions.  "The rest of us, too, can take steps to improve the safety climate on our campuses," he adds.  A major may to contribute, he advises, is consulting and cooperating with the safety officials on one's campus.

A new, independent postdoctoral association will take over from a university-established advisory council as the representative of the 1100 postdocs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reports The Tech, an independent student publication at MIT.  Individuals serving on the Postdoctoral Advisory Council, which currently represents postdocs and operates out of the office of MIT's vice president for research, worked on creating the postdoc-run Postdoctoral Association (PDA) over the past year.  The association, currently run by a group of volunteers, will be electing officials in the near future according to a member of the group.  The PDA is also reportedly looking into a number of issues to improve opportunities for postdocs both on the campus and in the labor market.  More information is available at the PDA website.

Yesterday, IBM announced that the city of Chicago would receive a $400,000 grant to transform the curricula of five high schools into technology-focused learning programs, in an effort to prepare those students for tech jobs -- after high school.

Few details about the new programs are set yet, IBM spokesperson Lisa Lanspery tells Science Careers. The grant mandates that IBM program directors, education experts, city officials, and teachers convene over the next 3 months to determine how best to weave the re-shaped curriculum into the schools' current systems. Lanspery says officials are basing the experiment loosely on a similar, ongoing effort in Brooklyn, New York, called P-Tech.

The contentious issue of high-skill immigration returned to Capitol Hill again today at a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement.  Unlike the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on immigration held in July, which covered a range of topics, this one focused on a single question: "STEM the Tide: Should America Try to Prevent an Exodus of Foreign Graduates of U.S. Universities with Advanced Science Degrees?"

The idea of "stapling a green card" to the diploma of every foreign science and engineering graduate has gotten a lot of influential support lately.  This hearing, however, highlighted a number of weaknesses with such a policy. 

Always longed to travel in space?  Well, if you have the "right stuff" (which can include graduate study or a work history in science or engineering), the opportunity you dream of may be ready to launch.  American citizens who have "significant qualifications in engineering or science," excellent academic backgrounds, good eyesight, and, perhaps most importantly, a desire to participate in space flight, are invited to apply for the next class of astronauts.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced that the application period will open early next month, with the incoming class slated to "support missions to the [space] station" and to "have the opportunity to missions beyond low Earth orbit."

You can find information here and here on the qualifications, pay and benefits, application process and more.

(Speaking of astronauts, we encourage you to read these recent Science Careers articles on astronautic careers:

How Many Astronauts Do We Need, by Michael Price,

Space Cadet, by Vijee Venkatraman,


A Rare Opportunity Into Space, by Elisabeth Pain)

October 3, 2011

How Big a Help is an Ig?

Winning an important scientific prize doesn't just acknowledge outstanding work.  Often, it also gives a matchless boost to the recipient's career and reputation. This week, for example, the world's attention is riveted on the announcement of the Nobel Prizes, the incomparable honors that propel scientists to the top rung of prestige and recognition.

Last week, on the other hand, media around the world (including our sister blog, Science Insider) covered the awarding of a rather less coveted -- but much more comical -- set of prizes, the IgNobels, which annually honor -- if that's the word -- science "that makes people laugh, and then makes them think."  

Well, they got us thinking, too.  Specifically, since we're Science Careers, we wondered what winning a spoof award does to the career prospects of recipients, a number of whom, we noticed, are quite early in their careers.  Do tenure and promotion committees look with favor on a publication that garnered the authors and their institution world-wide attention for being, well, downright laughable?  Or do they recoil in horror from a piece of work that might be taken, at first at least, as, er, exceptionally frivolous?  Or do they just take the dignified approach of ignoring the whole thing?  To find out, we asked Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, which sponsors the annual IgNobels.

Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic cleric and leader of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by an American drone on Friday, received a degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University in 1994. His excellent computer skills, fluent English, and familiarity with American culture made him a potent recruiter of disaffected young men in English-speaking countries, most famously Nidal Hasan, the military doctor charged with the 2009 Fort Hood shooting; Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the so-called "underwear bomber" accused of attempting to blow up a plane over Detroit 6 weeks later, on Christmas Day; and Faisal Shahzad, who allegedly tried to bomb Times Square in New York in 2010.

What's the relevance of Awlaki's engineering studies?  Just that it provides support for the research of Dr. Russell Razzaque, the British psychiatrist about whom we blogged some weeks back.  Razzaque studies the process of radicalization that has made violent extremists out of a number of highly educated young Muslim men who were either born or received a considerable part of that education in Western countries. Among the characteristics shared by those susceptible to such a transformation, Razzaque identified a background of studying a technical field, often engineering, technology, or a similar subject.  Abdulmuttalab holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the elite University College London.   Hasan graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (better known as Virginia Tech) with an honors degree in biochemistry and minors in biology and chemistry before attending Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.  Shahzad received a computer degree from University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.

So is Razzaque -- himself a trained in the technical field of medicine -- saying that there's something about science or technical studies that makes people terrorists?  By no means.  But he does think that certain individuals have characteristics that attract them to both that type of subject and to extremism.  You can read about Razzaque's work here.