Science Careers Blog

March 2012

On Wednesday, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an excellent advice piece by Michael J. Spires, a proposal development specialist from the Smithsonian Institution, about interacting with program officers for funding agencies. I believe every aspiring (and early-career) academic scientist -- anyone who isn't experienced and successful in getting funding -- should read it.

It's common for mentors and self-appointed experts to advise young scientists who are just beginning to seek grants to call up their program officer for a chat. It's always good if the person with the money is your buddy, after all. But that's a scary prospect for many inexperienced grant seekers -- and with good reason. There's a lot at stake, especially for investigators who don't yet have reputations or established funding records. Furthermore, many young scientists have found that when they tried to follow that advice, it didn't work. They left a message, but the program officer never called them back. Why not?

That program officer could be doing them a favor. Like a lot of relationships, it's important to get this one off to a good start. What's great about this essay is that it tells you how to do that.

Spires' advice seems aimed at helping you avoid making two mistakes: 1. Don't act like an undergraduate trying to win brownie points; and 2. Don't waste the program officer's time. You can avoid both of these mistakes by only calling when you have a really good reason.

So, for example, don't call to ask a question you can easily find the answer to online. Don't call just to chat. Do call to get insight into a specific funding program and whether it might fit the research you're hoping to do. (But keep the conversation short and focused.) Use e-mail whenever it makes sense: With e-mail there's a record, and it allows the program officer to answer at his or her convenience. Even in an e-mail, keep it concise. And while you might be accustomed to rapid communication in this area of chat and IM, don't be a pest. Give him or her a reasonable amount of time to get back to you. (That implies, by the way, that you shouldn't wait until the last minute to make contact.)

Always take care with your communication: Prepare for the conversation. Edit the e-mail. Search for the answer online before you send it off.

You need not always be strict and formal. There are times when it's OK to chit-chat with a program officer, such as when you meet them at a scientific meeting, for example, especially during coffee breaks. But when they're in their office, respect their time.

There is one other mistake you must avoid making, Spires indicates: When a funding decision doesn't go your way, don't be a jerk. Never respond when you're angry, and when you do respond, focus not on the negative decision but on how you might do better the next time.

A program officer is an important resource, one you really shouldn't try to do without. You need to have a good relationship with program officers working in your area. So call or write when there's a good reason to. Just exercise restraint and treat them with respect.

How did you get into science?

Are you doing what you first planned to do?

Which scientific question would you like to answer?

You can answer these questions and more (see below), as well as read other scientists' answers, as part of the 'A Scientist a Day' project, a labor of love from two German scientist-communicators. 

The Obama administration, in partnership with several federal agencies including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), today announced the creation of the Big Data Research and Development Initiative to improve the government's, academia's, and private industry's ability to collect and make sense of the vast amounts of data pouring in from health records, national labs, consumer-based reporting, and other sources.

How should someone aspiring to an academic career choose a graduate department and an adviser?  According to a provocative and clear-eyed essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Karen Kelsey,  a former anthropology professor who now runs a consulting firm specializing in the academic job market, the paramount factor should be the department's and the adviser's records in getting graduates onto the tenure track. (The essay assumes that this is your career goal.)

"Choose your graduate program based both on its focus on your scholarly interests and its tenure-track placement rate.  If it does not keep careful records of its placement rate or does not have an impressive record of placing its Ph.D.s in tenure track positions, do not consider attending that program."  Kelsey's essay is focused on humanities and social science fields, but those in scientific fields where postdoc appointments are customary should substitute "postdoc" for "graduate program" to get the idea.

"Choose your adviser the same way," she continues.  "Before committing to an adviser, find out how many Ph.D.s the mentor has placed on the tenure track in recent years."

An amazing number of departments, advisers, and labs do not have, or do not wish to divulge, this information.  You may, of course, be able to discover something about a lab chief's placement record by using the Internet to look for its alumni. But the fact that an adviser or department does not make the information readily available ought to give a strong hint about what applicants might expect at the end of their time in that department or lab.  

This leads to the issue that many people do not want to think about: If your major goal in investing years of your life in a grad program or a postdoc is getting into an academic career, and your institution or adviser doesn't have a proven record of delivering jobs for alumni, then you'll likely be  wasting your time and probably ought to rethink the venture and your goal.

That's because, Kelsey emphasizes, when it comes to tenure-track academic jobs, the past performance of the adviser and department carries immense weight.  In fact, "the placement history of a top department tends to produce its own momentum, so that departments around the country with faculty members from that department will then look kindly on new applications from its latest [alumni].  That, my friends, is how privilege reproduces itself.  It may be distasteful, but you deny or ignore it at your own peril."

So if you don't get one of those top programs, or labs, or advisers, the outlook for moving on to the academic career you want is probably dim, and sooner or later you'll need to think about seeking your future in another line of work.  Harsh advice, perhaps, but wise and, in the long run, more compassionate than spending years fostering false hope.  Of course, advanced scientific training opens doors to numerous fine career opportunities outside the academy.  Landing a tenure-track job is certainly not the only valid reason for studying science.  But if you want an academic career, it's best, as Kelsey advises, to choose a grad school and adviser with your eyes wide open.

Jon Bardin, a neuroscience graduate student at the Weill Cornell School of Medical Sciences, has no plans to seek a research career.  In fact, he intends to return to the career as a writer that he pursued before starting his graduate studies.  But, as he explains in an intriguing essay at  Chronicle of Higher Education, his graduate science education has been and will be extremely useful nonetheless.

His graduate education has equiped him to compete for desirable writing assignments, and also taught him such valuable life lessons as bouncing back from rejection (a skill he will have ample opportunity to exercise as a writer), analyzing and solving unexpected problems, and communicating effectively before an audience.  Since only a small minority of science graduate students will ever have a career on the tenure track, the others -- including Bardin -- can use these skills in any number of endeavors that they pursue in later life, Bardin rightly notes.

"If graduate students can learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long interview, I think that many who choose to leave  would find that they have not wasted their time but rather that they had learned a great deal in a safe environment, while being paid to boot," Bardin writes.  "As the world becomes more data driven, our experiences in collecting and analyzing data make us increasingly valuable commodities in any number of fields."

He's right about that, too.

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has extended the deadline for applying to attend its Life Science Ventures Summit scheduled for June 22 and 23 in San Francisco.  At the summit, up to 200 aspiring founders in the biomedical sciences will learn from experts and experienced entrepreneurs about the practicalities of starting a company.  Registration costs $100.  Information on the program and on applying is here.

The Boston Globe is reporting that unionized postdocs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst) have overwhelmingly approved a new contract with the university after 2 years of bargaining.

According to the Globe, the contract provides for a minimum postdoc salary of $38,500, 2% raises to current salaries, and guaranteed health insurance and other benefits for family members. Inside Higher Ed reports that the agreement also includes partial compensation for childcare expenses and holiday and sick leave equivalent to that of regular employees. Other sources also cite dental benefits and improved healthcare coverage for postdocs. UMass Amherst postdocs are represented by Postdoctoral Researchers Organize/UAW (PRO/UAW). According to a union press release, 95% of postdocs voted in favor of the contract. Also according to the union, before the contract nearly half of UMass Amherst postdocs did not have university-provided health insurance.

Reports also say the contract provides protections for foreign postdocs, such as guaranteeing that they won't lose pay due to visa processing delays.

Following three safety incidents -- including explosions in October 2011 and January 2012 that occurred in the same laboratory -- the chemistry department at the University of Florida is placing new emphasis on safety, reports the Alligator, an independent, student-run newspaper affiliated with the university.

"We're trying to change the culture so people will take safety as seriously here as they do in an industrial lab.  Where we've fallen down is really stressing the importance that safety is everybody's responsibility, all day, every day," says department chair Daniel Talham, quoted in the article.

Among the steps taken is organizing a committee including people representing the departments of chemistry and chemical engineering and the office of environmental health and safety to review potentially hazardous experiments.

The unemployment rate for chemists who belong to the American Chemical Society (ACS) reached a record 4.6% in 2011 -- 6.2% among bachelors degree chemists, 5.2% for masters degrees, and 3.9% for Ph.D.s, according to Chemical & Engineering News.  Each of these figures represents an increase in joblessness over the year before,  each is the highest in the 40 years that ACS has tracked unemployment.  Strikingly, the proportion of ACS members holding postdoc positions dropped by more than half, from 4.0% to 1.8%, between 2010 and 2011.

Overall U.S. unemployment dropped by almost a full percentage point, to 8.8%, between 2010 and 2011.  Historically, unemployment among chemists often reaches its peak a year after the general economy, the article notes. 

Eppendorf AG and Science are now accepting applications for the 2012 Prize for Neurobiology.

Details are at

In its fifth edition, the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) will be held this year in Dublin, Ireland on 11-15 July. ESOF is a biennial event showcasing European science and innovation.  The forum gathers researchers in all scientific fields, industry people, and government representatives. You can check out the programs for scientific and career development sessions on the ESOF 2012 Dublin Web site.

Travel grants from various organizations are being made available for early-career scientists wishing to come to ESOF2012. To apply for some of these grants, you need to register with ESOF. Currently, Euroscience, the Swiss Embassy in Ireland, and the Swedish Research Council are for example offering the joint Early-Stage Researcher travel grants. (The deadline is 10 May 2012.)

Other organizations are offering travel grants. You can keep track of these through news announcements on the ESOF Web site or through their Twitter feed (@ESOFHub). Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), for example, is  invites early-career researchers in Belgium to apply, and the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation (DASTI) will soon open a call for early-career researchers based in Denmark.

Here in Washington, DC, where I live, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, aka VPI&SU, or VA Tech [Editor's note: Thanks to the commenter for the correction] shooting massacre and the just-ended trial that grew out of it are heartbreakingly local.  The killer grew up around here, as did 6 of his 32 victims.  Many families hereabouts send their kids to study in Blacksburg, and thousands of alumni live in the metropolitan area.  At strategic points in the athletic calendar, maroon-and-orange Hokies banners go up all over town.

But that hideous day in 2007 has important national implications as well, as the Chronicle of Higher Education points out.
That young biomedical investigators are getting a raw deal in the competition for funding against older, more established, competitors is a widely held suspicion these days (and not only among young investigators.)  It especially rankles because history suggests that young scientists, not well-connected graybeards, are the ones likeliest to do transformative new science.

I had no idea just how large the the discrepancy is until Stephen Apfelroth of Albert Einstein College of Medicine told me about some calculations he has done based on information he received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

The Spanish Federation of Young Investigators (FJI/Precarios) is looking for volunteers to produce a video contrasting the situation of Spanish scientists abroad and at home. As reported recently on Science Careers, early-career scientists in Spain are concerned that the current economic context and forthcoming funding cuts are likely to derail their careers at home.

Spanish scientists abroad are invited to record their own answers to a series of questions including:
- "How do you think the research, development, and innovation in Spain compares to the country where you work? What do you think is failing here [In Spain]?"
- "Do you believe that you are more valued as an investigator in another country than in your own?"
- "Do you see what is currently occurring as a brain drain, or it is less serious than this?"
- "What real possibilities do you believe you would have to continue developing your research career in Spain?"

Information on how to contribute a video can be found on the FJI/Precarios Web site.

Together with the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies, the researchers' association Investigación Digna, and the trade union CCOO, FJI/Precarios also recently released a petition against the funding cuts and hiring freeze announced for 2012.

Given the discouragingly tiny number of faculty openings available in the United States and the large number of able applicants vying for them, it's refreshing to read of a country that has an oversupply of jobs and a shortage of qualified candidates. According to P. Pushkar's essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, India is short some 300,000 needed professors, and the deficit grows by 100,000 each year.

More than two thirds of U.S. medical schools rate a grade of B or better for their policies regulating faculty relations with pharmaceutical companies, according to survey results released on 8 March by the American Medical Student Association

Two schools -- University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine and Florida State University College of Medicine -- prohibit campus visits by pharmaceutical company sales reps.  A quarter of schools have shown improvement in their policies over the past 2 years and Harvard has moved from having no policies in 2008 to receiving an A in the current report.  Seventeen schools prohibit or "severely" limit work with company speakers bureaus.

Full details of the survey results are here.

The National Aeronautical and Space Administration wants to fund research by "outstanding early career faculty beginning their independent careers," according to an announcement issued 8 March.  Grants awarded under the new Space Technology Research Opportunities for Early Career Faculty will begin in the fall. Notices of intent are due March 30 and proposals are due May 3. A wide range of fields are eligible including communication and navigation systems, health, and materials.  Information is here.

Life scientists seeking to turn a brilliant idea into a viable company can learn about the process of company formation at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's 2-day Life Science Ventures Summit planned for San Francisco on 22 and 23 June. 

The Foundation will choose up to 200 would-be entrepreneurs, using as the main criteria "how much they will benefit from the experience based on where they are in their early-stage entrepreneurial journey" and the "commerical viability of their plan," according to the Foundation's announcement.  Registration for the program will cost the selected participants $100.  The deadline for applying is 2 April.  More information and application materials are here.

We have just learned that arraignment of Prof. Patrick Harran and the regents of the University of California on criminal charges in the death of lab technician Sheri Sangji has been postponed again, until April 11.  This is the second such postponement in the potentially precedent-setting case. It is the first time a professor or academic institution has been criminally charged in a laboratory safety incident.

The first postponement was granted on 2 February in order to give the prosecution and defense additional time to negotiate a disposition of the charges.  The judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court at that time stated that the delay until today would be the last.

In recent weeks, rumors have persisted that efforts to reach an agreement short of a criminal trial continue. Today's development appears to indicate that that goal is still out of reach.  Sangji's sister, Naveen Sangji, and supporters have been encouraging the Los Angeles County district attorney to proceed to trial.  The university, on its own and Harran's behalf, has denied any criminal wrongdoing.

The union representing 12,000 research, technical, and professional employees at the University of California has dedicated its new contract with the university to the memory of Sheri Sangji, the union member who died in 2009 as the result of burns sustained while working in the laboratory of Prof. Patrick Harran at the University of California, Los Angeles. Known as University Professional and Technical Employees, or UPTE-CWA Local 9119, the union today issued a release announcing the dedication and and stating that the university "refused to allow" mention of the dedication "in the official text" of the document.

The headline result from the latest employment report from the Conference Board -- 39,900 more online job ads posted in February than the month before -- delivers good news, but it isn't the kind you'd print in letters 4 inches tall. But when you take a closer look, the numbers look really good.

The ability to give a good presentation -- both at the all-important job talk and at conferences -- is a key skill in an academic career.  Kathryn Hume, who apparently has sat through her share of really bad talks, offers practical advice for job seekers in an astute essay at Inside Higher Ed. (Also not to be missed: Science Careers' Content Collection on delivering a great presentation.)

Norman Matloff, the University of California-Davis computer science professor and prominent critic of the H-1B temporary worker visa, has been saying for at least a decade that the true impetus behind employers' desire to hire foreign workers on H-1Bs is not any shortage of American talent.  Rather, it's wage suppression resulting from the visa holders' inability to change jobs while in the country on a visa (a visa, by the way, that belongs to the employer not the employee).  Until now, no one had quantified that crucial difference in pay.

Now Matloff is drawing people's attention -- including mine -- to a recent article, by University of Nevada-Reno economist Sankar Mukhopadhyay and graduate student David Oxborrow, that does exactly that.

March 2, 2012

Want to Be a TV Star?

A new Public Television Service series on the history of chemistry is in the works, we have learned from the Newscripts blog at Chemical & Engineering News, and the producers are seeking a host who combines chemistry chops with an engaging onscreen personality. 

Could this be your big break?  "The host needn't be famous, a Nobel Prize winner, or even a leading researcher," project director Stephen Lyons told C&EN.  He or she might be a college, community college, or even a high school teacher--so long as the person is also a "gifted chemical communicator," the production's website says.

The producers don't want a CV or list of publications, but rather a link to a YouTube video featuring the aspring Carl Sagan in action.  For more information on the planned production and how to apply, check out the series website.  These are the folks, by the way, who did the fine PBS documentary about the groundbreaking African-American chemist Percy Julian, so they know their way around both chemistry and television.  Can't wait to see whom they pick for this gig.

PS.  The Percy Julian program is well worth viewing, by the way.  Julian was a distinguished scientist who overcame severe discrimination and even a vicious attack on his and his family's physical safety. As the daughter of chemist who spent a decade in Chicago and knew Julian personally during that time,  I grew up hearing repeatedly about both aspects of Percy's life.