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Science Careers Blog

August 2012

Progress has been made in recent decades on ensuring that foreign graduate students at American universities have sufficient facility in the language--English, in the case of the United States--that they're likely to be teaching in. The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), or the comparable IELTS exam, has long been required for most international students. But with the old paper-based test, which is still in use, a person could ace the test and still be unintelligible in the classroom.

A naturalized American citizen born in China who earned a master's degree in physics at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and worked for nearly a decade at Motorola, today received a 4-year prison sentence and a fine of $20,000 for what a judge in Chicago called a "very serious raid" on the company's trade secrets, the Associated Press reports. 

A random security check at Chicago's O'Hare Airport led to officials finding that Hanjuan Jin was attempting to board a flight to China carrying 1000 confidential company documents and $31,000 in cash. In addition, she had with her confidential materials from the Chinese military and it was discovered that she was also an employee of a Chinese company that does development work for China's military. Though convicted of stealing trade secrets, she was not convicted of the more serious charge of committing economic espionage to help the Chinese military. The judge ruled that the evidence for that charge was insufficient.

The patents held by U.S. universities, hospitals, and other research institutions produced a total of $1.5 billion in licensing income and $2.5 billion in overall income for the institutions in 2011, according to a survey of 183 U.S. institutions by the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). Up 2.6% and 5% respectively from the previous year, these figures indicate "very strong" activity in licensing products and creating startup companies, "despite continuing economic difficulties," states a summary issued yesterday by AUTM. 

The survey also noted increases in the number of new patent applications the institutions filed (13,271, up 11% over the previous year), the number of companies they formed (671, up 3%), and the number of already established companies that remained in business (3,927, up 7%). Overall, 591 new products were commercialized in 2011. The products helping to finance universities include, notes the Chronicle of Higher Education, sophisticated medical devices and computer applications and the supermarket favorite Gatorade sports drinks, long a standby of the University of Florida's income stream.

Northwestern University led the 157 universities that responded to the survey with patent income of almost $192 million, according to a useful chart published by Inside Higher Ed. Though second in patent income, at $182 million, the University of California (UC) system (with its 10 campuses listed as a single entity) was far ahead of the pack in the number of patents issued--343, followed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with 174. UC also had the highest number of new startups established-- 58, to 21 for second-place University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. 

Researchers who work on campus-based innovations can also often share in the proceeds, whether as patent holders or as principals or key employees of startup companies. Much of this income goes to senior faculty members. Depending on their contribution to a project resulting in a patent, however, junior researchers can also get to participate. Considering that good jobs in academe and many large industrial companies remain hard to find these days, commercialization and patenting therefore appear to offer increasingly significant potential career opportunities that creative and ambitious early-career scientists should consider.


August 27, 2012

A "Giant Leap for Mankind"

No one who heard them live will ever forget two sentences that Neil Armstrong spoke in July 1969, in his flat, calm, Middle American voice. That voice, an indelible part of human history, has been stilled by his death, at 82, on 25 August. During his career Armstrong modestly described himself as a "white-sock, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer," reports the Los Angeles Times. But he also proved himself a steel-nerved, dauntless, and extremely skilled flyer as a Korean War pilot, a test pilot, and the commander of Apollo 11, the mission that became a milestone in the history of space exploration.

Back in those days Armstrong, along with his crewmates and fellow astronauts Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins, became the world-famous human faces of the U.S. space program. Combining technical training and expertise with dramatic physical courage, the astronauts inspired in countless young people an interest in science and technology. Armstrong held a bachelors in aeronautical engineering from Purdue University and a masters in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California, and in his post-astronaut years he served as professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Aldrin held a D.Sc. in astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Collins a bachelors degree in engineering from the United States Military Academy. 

Armstrong's death brings memories not only of an unforgettable day, but of an era when the excitement of vast new frontiers of discovery gave work in science and technology tremendous prestige and when ample government support of the space program offered qualified persons attractive careers. The landing on the moon highlighted the work of the many thousands of scientists, engineers, and other workers who had contributed to the effort.

The 16,000 graduate students who work as research assistants on the campuses of the University of California (UC) and California State University may soon gain the right to unionize, reports the Associated Press (AP). A bill to extend that right, which is already enjoyed by teaching assistants and UC postdocs, has passed the state senate on 25 August. It had already passed the legislature's lower house and now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature to become law.

Introduced in both houses by Democrats representing UC Berkeley, the bill faced opposition by Republicans wanting to avoid additional costs to the state that would likely follow unionization. "Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from Twin Peaks, blamed most of the extra costs on benefits and pay for university employees who belong to public employee unions," the AP writes. People in authority aren't usually so blatant about the institutional benefits of exploiting graduate students.

An erstwhile academician is facing criminal charges of stealing nearly a third of a million dollars as a result of falsely claiming to have earned a Ph.D. at Rush University, the health sciences institution in Chicago. The indictment alleges that, because of her bogus assertion of graduate studies and a doctorate, Carol Howley, who taught at Chicago's Richard J. Daley College, received $307,000 more in salary than she would have based on her actual qualifications, reports the Chicago Tribune.  

Howley allegedly told a hiring committee she was doing graduate work at Rush when she landed the job at Daley in 1995. She later claimed to have completed her doctorate, the indictment states. It was not until a potential employer in Colorado contacted Rush to confirm Howley's qualifications that the falsehood was discovered. Not only did Howley not receive a Ph.D. from Rush in January 1997, she never even studied there, the university stated.

And in case prosecutors want to further strengthen their case, there's additional evidence that Howley lacks the ability even to adequately research her false statements: According to John Gasiorowski, inspector general for the City Colleges of Chicago, as quoted in the article, "Rush told us, 'We don't even have graduation in January.' "

A great many studies over the years have looked into how female scientists manage their work-life balance, that is, how they divvy up time for professional and familial commitments. Fewer have focused on how male scientists do the same. A new survey presented at the American Sociological Association annual meeting last week in Denver and reported on by Inside Higher Ed suggests that a slight majority of male scientists prioritize their professional careers over their time [[helping?]] at home. "[T]he results illustrate options that male scientists have that many female scientists who have or want children lack," the Insider Higher Ed article says.

Notably, the survey done by Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University, Sarah Damaske of Pennsylvania State University, Anne E. Lincoln of Southern Methodist University and Virginia Johnston White of Rice University, queried 74 physicists and biologists at prestigious U.S. universities and found that 22% of male scientists fit into what the authors call the "neo-traditional" category, wherein men express some desire to help out with children and home duties but still offload the lion's share to their (also often working) spouses; 30% fit into the "traditional breadwinner" category, being married to wives who do not work outside the home. So altogether slightly more than half of the respondents reported having work-life balances that favored work and expected their spouses to pick up the slack at home. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Inside Higher Ed notes, these respondents tended to be older and more advanced in their careers. But interestingly, another trend emerged: "[M]any male scientists starting their careers (and whose wives work outside the home) do not attempt to have equal responsibility for raising children or managing homes."

A while back we commented on an astute essay about choosing an adviser written by Karen Kelsky, a former tenured anthropology professor and department chair who now uses her ability to decode cultural systems as a professional career consultant to aspiring academics. Now, at Inside Higher EdKelsky turns her penetrating eye to another sensitive subject, the relative weight of a Ph.D. from a very elite institution, such as a member of the Ivy League or one of a handful of other ultra-high-profile universities. 

From her experience as an academic job seeker, search committee member, and career consultant to hundreds of academic job applicants, Kelsky has concluded that the aura of eliteness that those schools project counts for much less in today's brutal academic hiring jungle than many people (especially graduates and faculty of those schools and some graduates of less prestigious institutions) appear to believe. That aura doesn't count for nothing, she admits, but, in her opinion, it is way overrated.

For science-based careers, some people assume that graduate school is essential.   A program at Montgomery College (MC), the public community college--yes community college--for Montgomery County, Maryland, on 18 August graduated 18 people trained to work as managers of clinical trials. (Unlike most community college programs, by the way, this one requires that students already have a bachelors degree). 

Located in "DNA alley," a region with more than 500 life science companies close to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, the program appears to be only one of its kind, reports the Gazette of Montgomery County.   The college's offerings also include a program that teaches scientists the industrial skills they need to work as companies' chief science officers.

The Journal of Commercial Biotechnology invites aspiring biotech entrepreneurs to enter their business pitches in its Biotech Pitch Contest. Each quarter of the year, the person submitting the best business pitch will win a free one-year subscription to the journal. 

"This contest promises to deliver enhance [sic] visibility for nascent biotech enterprises, and to provide valuable feedback to emerging entrepreneurs. It is also the perfect opportunity for biotech students to prepare business pitches and receive feedback from active biotechnology practitioners," the journal states in a media release. Information on entering the contest is here.

Ordinarily, students are trained to provide correct answers.  But, coming up with original ideas--the kind that really make a difference--often requires first being wrong, and sometimes repeatedly, notes Williams College math professor Edward Burger in an eye-opening and inspiring essay at Inside Higher Ed.  So, to teach students that it's right to be wrong, he rewards their mistakes, going so far as to require a certain level of creative failure to ace his courses. 

For many graduate students and postdocs, a tenured position at a reputable university is the most devoutly desired goal. Computer scientist Terran Lane, a former associate professor at the University of New Mexico, however, attained the position so many dream of and then gave it all up, including tenure, to go work for Google. He explains his reasons for walking away from the many advantages of a lifetime academic job in a thoughtful and provocative essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The factors that affected his decision are both personal and professional, and some of them may apply more to computer fields than to other disciplines. But anyone considering an academic career could benefit from his trenchant observations about the disspiriting trends--budget cuts, increased pressure to win grants, lessened autonomy, decreasing interest in exploratory research--that affect academic scientists generally and that, to Lane at least, make working in industry more attractive.

August 20, 2012

Monkey Business in the Lab?

Giving new meaning to the term "laboratory misconduct," a lab technician found "drunk and not fully clothed in the locker room for technicians of an animal research lab" at Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta has been placed under arrest, reports Inside Higher Ed. In addition to the errant technician, two of the lab's monkeys were also found on the loose. "No animals were harmed during the incident," says a university statement, adding that "employees are expected to conduct themselves, at all times, with integrity and respect."

Most laboratory misconduct appears motivated by a desire to advance a scientific career, but a piece of research reported elsewhere in Inside Higher Ed suggests another possible motivation for this unusual behavior: Sociologist Carolyn Hsu of Colgate University and New York University law student Landon Reid reported at the American Sociological Association on a survey revealing that "students who engage in binge drinking were happier" than non-bingers, writes Inside Higher Ed. What's more, male fraternity members are "likelier than others to binge drink and to be happy about it" than others. Who knew?

But clearly, the 32-year-old technician, not being a frat boy, was mistaken if he expected drinking to increase his happiness. No information is available about the happiness of the monkeys.

Vannevar Bush, who designed the architecture of American research at the end of World War II, called science "the endless frontier." Last week, while vacationing at Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies, I got a surprising insight into what he meant.

I first rode the gondola lift to the top of Sulphur Mountain overlooking the town of Banff. There, at 7500 feet above sea level, you find an awesome vista of majestic peaks in every direction as far as the eye can see, the products of immense geological and meteorological forces over enormous stretches of time. 

You also find the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray National Historic Site, which consists of a large plaque (in English and French) and a small, one-story stone building. It commemorates a research station established in 1956 as part of Canada's contribution to the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58, a worldwide effort to understand our planet and the forces that created it and continue to affect it. Sulphur Mountain was one of nine cosmic ray stations Canada built for the project, among 99 devoted to the subject around the globe.

A couple of weeks ago, current postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse (a pseudonym) contributed an article to Science Careers trying to put into words the overwhelming stress and pressure that so many science grad students face. It was an essay designed to help explain how the graduate experience can take its toll on one's mental well-being, and while it certainly doesn't excuse the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, by former neuroscience grad student James Holmes, it may provide some insight into just how delicate mental health issues can be for struggling academics.

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story looking into how universities are grappling with support services for distressed graduate students. The story notes that between January and June of this year, nearly 750 grad students called the 24-hour National Graduate Student Crisis Line (1-800-GRAD-HLP) seeking advice on problems such as difficulties with advisers, feeling disrespected in one's department, feeling isolated and alone, financial difficulties, and failing lab experiments and worrying about eventually finding a job.

Many of these concerns are ones DeWhyse addressed in her Science Careers article.

The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) has issued a new report on the responsible conduct of research (RCR) and how to teach it in graduate programs. Research and Scholarly Integrity in Graduate Education: A Comprehensive Approach, summarizes CGS's Project for Scholarly Integrity (PSI), which was funded by the United States Office of Research Integrity.

An article posted today at Business Insider (reposted from The Guardian? I can't quite tell.) provides a close-in view of the personal side of a scientific career from the perspective of a self-described (male) "trailing spouse". Over the long course of scientific training--before that long-sought permanent post--that trailing spouse developed a life: a business, a house, a garden, kids--and doesn't want to leave. Unfortunately, the wife's fellowship is ending and there are no permanent research posts locally. The author describes her as a "world-class researcher"; apparently she has prepared for the kind of career that you can only consummate by going where the jobs are. Sticking around near where your partner works just isn't a realistic option.

The comments are definitely worth reading. They reflect a lack of sympathy that scientific dual-career couples may find surprising.

Last month, the biggest health-care fraud settlement in U.S. history was reached, with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) admitting to federal prosecutors that it essentially paid more than 20 academic researchers to attach their names to a ghost-written article that misrepresented the safety and efficacy of the depression drug Paxil for children. While GSK will pay quite handsomely for its misdeeds--to the tune of $3 billion--an article that appeared yesterday in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that the academicians who agreed to let their names be used have repeatedly ignored calls to retract the disgraced article and collectively still hold millions of dollars in federal grant money.

So you want to become an Internet sensation, pick up 20,000 Twitter followers in a day and have your name turn up hundreds of times on Google?  How's this for a clever strategy: Get a bachelors in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at the University of Washington and a masters at MIT, and work for nine years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.  Then, on the night when the whole world is glued to television screens for Seven Minutes of Terror, sit behind your computer at the mission control sporting, above your blue NASA shirt and under your headset, a thick black Mohawk adorned with yellow and red stars.

A piece of mail arrives addressed to "Dear sir" when you're more accurately addressed as "madam." A clueless colleague remarks upon meeting you that he couldn't tell from reading your scientific publications that you are a woman. What should you do when you're a member of a group with low representation in your professional field and you suffer a small but noticeable slight? 

The examples above actually happened to a female science professor who writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education under the nom de keyboard of, well, Female Science Professor about these experiences and how she dealt with them. She advises that sometimes objecting to the slight can bring change but can also make enemies. And sometimes a response isn't necessary. A male scientist who heard Prof. Clueless's comment, for example, called him an idiot to his face before a group of colleagues.

As we noted a couple of months ago while discussing Breaking Into the Lab, a new book by Sue V. Rosser of San Francisco State University, slights of this kind--which the literature on discrimination calls micro-inequities--may mean little when considered as individual instances, but over time their effects can accumulate into genuine harm to one's career. As a "real and persistent feature of our professional lives," they demand attention, although knowing exactly what to do in each case can be tricky, Female Science Professor writes. If you have experienced such small indignities--or if you have ever inflicted them--her essay is worth reading.


Does this sound familiar?  Bright, ambitious young people make huge investments in an educational program they have been led to believe will lead to interesting, significant, and financially comfortable careers.  Once through their studies, however, most find themselves not only unable to land the jobs they thought they were preparing for but struggling to achieve any sort of decent standard of living. 

No, this isn't another critique of the Ph.D./postdoc academic Ponzi scheme.  Instead, I'm summarizing the situation of many newly minted lawyers, as reported in a Washington Post review of a new book entitled Failing Law Schools. The author, Brian Tamanaha, is a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Presumably, he knows what he's talking about when he writes, (quoted by reviewer Charles Lane), "Many law professors at many law schools across the country are selling a degree that they would not recommend to people close to them."

That too has a familiar ring. 

For former rock musician Adam Steltzner, the performance planned for 5 August ranks as the biggest, most nerve-wracking, most important, and potentially most brilliant debut of his career. Though Steltzner still wears an Elvis-style duckbill haircut along with snakeskin boots, National Public Radio's Joe Palca reports, it isn't an audience's reaction to their performance that has had him and his cohorts on pins and needles for months. Rather, it is how the NASA Mars rover Curiosity will perform in its extremely tricky landing on the planet's surface.  Steltzner headed up the design team that has spent nearly 10 years dreaming up and bringing to fruition a totally new approach to landing a vehicle on Mars. 

In his route from rock music to Mars rocks, Steltzner made some career choices unusual for people in his line of work.  An indifferent student throughout his school career, he heard from his teachers and even his father that he was unlikely to accomplish anything of value in life, let alone triumph in rocket science.  After intensely studying "sex, drugs and rock and roll" in high school," Steltzner told Palca, he tried for stardom on the bass guitar--unsuccessfully--when he graduated, bypassing college. But one night while returning home from a gig, he became enthralled by the movement of the constellation Orion. 

His fascination led him to sign up for a community college physics class.  His newly discovered love of learning and need to know about the heavens led to a Ph.D. in engineering physics and a career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he and his team designed Curiosity. And that could lead, as the King of Rock and Roll might have put it, to good rockin' on Monday.

Steltzner is not the only rock guitarist to combine spacey music with space science. Brian May of the band Queen has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, along with more hit songs than Steltzner could dream of.  But if Curiosity functions as hoped, Steltzner will be the only rocker in the known universe whose team has scored a hit of interplanetary proportions.

When Brazil launched its federally funded Science Without Borders program last year, its goal was to send 100,000 Brazilian undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs, mostly from STEM fields, to study in international host countries for up to a year. The agreement with the host countries called on Brazilian students to satisfy all the normal requirements for earning a student visa, including any tests for language proficiency. For at least some of the chosen students, that's proving harder than initially planned. The following was reported in Times Higher Education.

We've all heard warnings to be careful with our credit card receipts, checks, and online passwords to avoid identity theft.  But now it appears that academics with common names may have to be careful with their scholarly publications as well. 

A faculty member at Beijing University of Chemical Technology falsely claimed seven publications of a Yale University researcher with a similar name, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The Beijing fraudster, who has since been fired, was applying for research funds that the Chinese government offers to scholars who have come home from overseas.  Fang Zhouzi, an internationally known campaigner against academic fraud,  exposed the identity theft.

(Incidentally, such abuses would be much more rare if a researcher ID system, such as ORCID, were widely adopted.)

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has released its Employment Situation Summary for the month of July, and it's a pretty good report.

One of the employment metrics we track at Science Careers is the Conference Board's Help Wanted Online survey, a monthly survey which tracks the number of online job ads. This report measures changes in the number of job ads posted online, breaks them down by category, and compares them to unemployment numbers from the previous month (the latest category-specific data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) to measure the vigor of the current employment market.

First, the big news for scientists: Between May and June, the number of unemployed job-seekers in the Life, Physical, and Social Science category rose by a stunning 11.4%.

In another category of interest to those seeking science employment, over the same period, the number of unemployed job-seekers in Computer and Mathematical Science increased by nearly 4.6%.

What about those online job ads? The overall number was way down in July.

There's really nothing new in this Chronicle of Higher Education article--we've been offering similar advice forever--but reminders are always welcome of the importance of convincing a potential employer that you're eager for--even passionate about--the opportunity. This goes for industry jobs at least as much as academic ones. Nobody wants a new employee who comes in lacking enthusiasm.

Note that this doesn't mean you should get all bubbly or do lots of pretending. In fact, if you don't really want the job, you probably shouldn't be wasting their time or yours. Your "interviewing experience" might be costing another candidate--someone whose enthusiasm would more than offset your superior pedigree or whatever--a shot at a dream job, and your own time could be better spent seeking a position about which you're truly excited. If you don't want the job, get out of the way.

A physics graduate student who abandoned a Ph.D. in science for an MBA and the world of finance--and went on to make an Internet fortune--has decided to make some of the people who stuck with physics rich.  Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, an investor in Facebook and other internet companies, has established an annual prize in fundamental physics that awards nearly times as much money as the Nobel, the Guardian reports. (The Nobel take is split among up to three winners, whereas winners of the Milner prize receive the full amount.)  The first nine winners, selected by Milner himself and just announced, will each receive $3 million. These nine winners will constitute next year's selection committee.

In contrast to the Nobel Prizes, which are limited to three winners each, Milner's prize can go to any number of winners and anyone can submit an online nomination. 

There's good news for young physicists, too.  Milner will award a yearly New Horizons in Physics award to scientists who shows great promise early in their careers. None of the first nine awards were New Horizons awards.

So, thanks to Milner, lucky (and brilliant) physicists no longer have to go to Wall Street to become multimillionaires.