Science Careers Blog

September 2012

Yesterday, Microsoft officials told policymakers at a Washington, D.C. Brookings Institution forum on immigration policy that it has 6000 open positions for computer scientists, programmers, and other IT professionals but can't find skilled workers to fill them, according to an article today in InformationWeek.

"[Microsoft chief counsel Brad] Smith said the problem is twofold: U.S. colleges aren't turning out enough grads educated in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and the U.S. government's immigration policies are preventing the company from importing enough foreign workers to fill the gap," reports the article's author, Paul McDougall.

Smith's claim should be familiar to anyone who's been following the debate over the so-called "skills gap" in the United States. He said the same thing at the U.S. News & World Report STEM Solutions 2012 leadership summit in Dallas, Texas, in July. Beryl Benderly of Science Careers argued then that as many employers say they aren't enough highly skilled workers, thousands of highly skilled Americans, with education that would appear to prepare them reasonably well for such jobs (with, perhaps, a bit of on-the-job training) are desperate for work.

In the past few years, most media reports have parroted these employers' claims uncritically; contrarian views were rare. That appears to be changing. McDougall's article includes the following passage: 

Not everyone buys Microsoft's claim that there is a shortage of American IT workers. Critics say the company simply wants to hire more foreign workers because they cost less.

"They probably have 6,000 jobs to fill because they are enamored of foreign labor," said Les French, president of WashTech, a Seattle are tech worker advocacy group that is affiliated with Communications Workers of America. "I doubt they couldn't fill the jobs from the available labor pool in the U.S.," said French, in an e-mail to InformationWeek.

It's good to see a critical perspective in the article (although we should note that for InformationWeek this is hardly a first). We're eager to see whether this critical perspective will be reflected in the mainstream media.

[Editor's Note: Next week, Science Careers will run a column by Beryl Benderly in which she reviews Peter Capelli's little book, Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It. Once it's published--at around 2p.m. on Thursday, 4 October--you'll be able to see it on our homepage.]

During medical school orientations just a few decades ago, it was common for the Dean or another senior speaker to say to the assembled freshman class: "Look to the right of you...look to the left of you... [and in solemn tones] four years one of you three will not be here." Happily for today's medical students, dire threats and gloomy predictions have long since become unacceptable, and medical schools strive for their students' success. However, in many ways the transition from undergraduate to medical student is more challenging today than ever. Medical schools have a complex selection process that carefully vets applicants and admits only students it judges to have the intellect and ability to succeed. Still, in each class some medical students struggle, particularly in the first 2 years. Why do some students do poorly or even fail and what should new or prospective medical students do to raise their odds of success?

A major reason medical school is challenging is that students are exposed to a new way of learning, which differs from the methods of most undergraduate programs in two ways:

  1. Case-based learning largely replaces the conventional didactic lectures.
  2. Learning is centered on groups of medical students working as teams.  
This is a radical departure from the "Lone Ranger" method of individual learning that undergraduates are used to. In the team system, medical students work together to tackle problem sets. They teach and learn from each other with faculty input and supervision. The team approach, combined with case-based learning, has proven pedagogically superior; working in teams stimulates learning and increases retention (see references 1 and 2 below). Another advantage is that while individual accountability and responsibility remain essential, medical care increasingly depends upon teams of caregivers; if you don't learn to work in teams in medical school, where will you learn this skill?
Another reason students struggle is that in medical school the pace of learning is much faster than what they're used to. There's more material to master in less time. Medical knowledge increases very quickly, so each new class has more to learn. The knowledge needed to be a physician is voluminous and complex, often requiring intensive concentration and study to be fully understood.  Effective teamwork and case-based learning facilitates the learning process--but also calls for flexibility, adaptability, and maturity beyond what is needed to excel as an undergraduate. Sub-par performance results in remedial work; weak students may even need to repeat the school year.
So how does one assure success in making this transition? There is no single answer, no magic rule. However, here are 10 suggestions that address the major obstacles to success:
  1. Make the necessary emotional and psychological adjustment to deal with 4 extremely tough academic years. Yes, this is within your control. Get used to having less time for family and friends, recreation and social life.
  2. The summer before you start medical school, obtain a reading list and possibly a textbook or two. Get a head start on your work and adjust your frame of mind towards serious study.
  3. Once medical school has started, take an engaged and active role in your teams and study group. When working in a group, there's a tendency to focus on your own contributions more than those of your teammates. Avoid it; you need to know all the material, so focus on the contributions of others at least as much as you focus on your own. 
  4. Limit distractions. There is no end of attractive opportunities for committees on class affairs, participation in clinics for indigent patients, community teaching, and other laudable efforts--but school work comes first.
  5. Think realistically about ways of incorporating research into your medical school experience. If you affiliate with a laboratory, make a commitment that does not encroach too much on your medical class work. If you have a passion for research, consider taking a year off to work in a lab. In addition, many schools with M.D.-Ph.D. programs will consider allowing interested and qualified students to transfer to the program through their second year. This is an attractive opportunity for some.
  6. Although exam scores and grades are usually not entered on your official transcript until the 2nd or even 3rd years, pay close attention to how you are doing on quizzes and exams and respond when there are indications that you may need to study more or get help.
  7.  Familiarize yourself with and take advantage of mentoring and other academic support services. These are extensive, accessible, and well-organized at most institutions. Periodically review your progress and review any concerns with your assigned mentor.
  8. Medical Schools are not monasteries or cloisters. Close friendships and relationships develop and can be rewarding--but maintain stability in your personal life.
  9. Don't spend time and mental energy worrying about future decisions such as what specialty to select or where you will do your postgraduate training. The curriculum is designed to give you the experience and information you need to make a carefully considered decision regarding specialty choice, residency, and fellowship--at the appropriate time.
  10. Eat well, sleep sufficiently, and exercise regularly. The ancient Greek philosopher was right--a sound mind in a sound body is what it takes.
It cannot be stressed enough that the first two years of medical school provide the foundation for the knowledge you need in your medical career.  Not only your success as a medical student, but the health and well-being of your future patients depend on the preparedness, commitment, and hard work you bring to bear those first two years. Make them count!
1.    Michaelsen L, and B Richards. 2005. "Drawing conclusions from the team-learning literature in health-sciences education: a commentary". Teaching and Learning in Medicine. 17 (1): 85-8.
2.    Williams, B. 2005. Case based learning--a review of the literature: is there scope for this educational paradigm in prehospital education? Emerg Med J. 22:577-581 doi:10.1136/emj.2004.022707.

Science is supposed to be a merit-based, bias-free profession, but research suggests that female scientists are hired less frequently and earn less pay than their male colleagues. Earlier this month, researchers conducted a mock hiring situation and found that science faculty members chose potential male applicants over female applicants and awarded males higher salaries even when the resumes were identical.

Why does such inequality persist? And is there anything that can be done about it?

Join us for a live chat with one of the paper's authors, Jo Handelsman, as well as Princeton president and molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman, today at 3 p.m. EDT.

In a year when many recent graduates are struggling to find work, those who received Professional Science Masters (PSM) degrees during the 2010-11 or 2011-12 academic year appear to be enjoying high levels of well-paid employment, according to a report released on 18 September by the Council of Graduate Schools, an association of more than 500 North American universities. The survey was conducted in June and July 2012.

Graduates of 81 different programs run at 44 universities responded to the survey, out of the total of 291 PSM programs currently offered by 126 universities. Just over 90 percent of the respondents graduating in 2010-2011 and 78 percent of those graduating in 2011-12 reported being employed, more than 90 percent of them in jobs related to their field of study. [Editor's note: Those employment rates may not sound that great--9+% reported not having jobs a year after graduating--but the majority of those not employed reportedly were pursuing more education; presumably that means that after completing the PSM they decided to learn some more science, most often, one suspects, pursuing a Ph.D. Readers can decide for themselves whether that is a good outcome. According to the survey just 3.2% of 2011 PSM graduates were unemployed in the usual sense.]

Two thirds of all respondents reported earning above $50,000 a year, with 20 percent reporting a salary of $60,000 to $69,000 and 4 percent over $100,000. The earlier graduates, not surprisingly, commanded higher salaries than the more recent ones. More than three out of four of the total respondents worked in industry. More than four out of five of the respondents declared themselves satisfied with the degree.

The lower employment rate for the 2011-12 graduates may, the report suggests, reflect the fact that the survey was taken soon after many members of that cohort finished their studies. 

September 19, 2012

Parenting On The Tenure Track

The other day, this blog discussed an assistant professor's controversial solution to the sick child problem, one of the many challenges facing academics who are parents. Now Kirstie Ramsey, a pseudonymous untenured faculty member in a STEM field, considers the larger question: when is the right time for an academic try to "expand your family?" Her thoughtful and helpful essay at Inside Higher Ed combines her own experience with what has obviously been deep thinking on the topic. 

No answer is right for everyone, she knows, and things don't always work out how or when we plan or hope. (Note that she sagely speaks of trying to have a child). But there are questions that can help faculty members of both genders to clarify both the practicalities of the issue and their own values. She lists and discusses some of the important ones. You can find her essay here.

When a working group from the National Institutes of Health issued a long-awaited report in June on securing the future of the biomedical workforce, one of its most important recommendations was to establish many more positions in research labs for career staff scientists. Now HHMI Bulletin has profiled five such long-term lab members, dubbed "The Indispensables," and the crucial work they do in some very prominent labs. Providing stability and deep expertise, these highly skilled and dedicated professionals are "critical to that lab's success," writes HHMI president Robert Tjian in an accompanying editorial.

"Recognizing the role of research professionals in today's laboratory organizations is important not only to the individuals who contribute their services but also to the research enterprise as a whole," Tjian adds. Very true. Such recognition will both inspire talented people to consider such careers and encourage institutions to give them status and remuneration commensurate with their crucial contributions. Take a look at the profiles to see just how crucial--and just how interesting and challenging--their work is. Without these frequently under-appreciated scientists, the article quite accurately states, "modern science could not get done."

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives plan to hold a vote this week on a bill to create a new category of automatic green card for foreign scientists and engineers who earn doctorates in the United States, reports the National Journal. The White House and other Democrats are reportedly trying to dampen enthusiasm by arguing that the vote is premature and there has been insufficient time to examine the bill and its ramifications.

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), for example, also intends to introduce a "staple" bill of his own, reports Computerworld. The House bill and Schumer's are not identical, however, and Schumer's bill is "being used as a vehicle to attack" the Rebublican's House Bill, Computerworld adds. The Senator's bill, for example, limits the proposed green cards to graduates of non-profit institutions, while the House bill to be voted on would permit degrees from certain for-profit institutions to be eligible.

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) last week released its annual survey of employment trends among recent graduates with a bachelor's degree in physics. The survey consists of responses from nearly 12,000 graduates from the classes of 2009 and 2010. The results show that the following year 60% of them were enrolled in graduate school and 40% had entered the workforce--approximately the same ratio as in recent years

Of those 40% who entered the workforce, a slight majority--53%--went into the private sector. Of those private-sector workers, three-quarters work in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, of which engineering is the biggest draw, accounting for 32% of all physics bachelor's degree-holders employed in the private sector. Also popular in the STEM fields are computer and information systems jobs, which account for 21% of physics bachelor's workers. Rounding out the private sector statistics, 8% work in "Other STEM" jobs, 8% work in "Other Natural Sciences" jobs, 5% work in physics and astronomy (highlighting the necessity of a graduate degree to work in these fields), and 26% are employed in non-STEM fields, such as finance, accounting, or hourly-wage jobs.

A cluster of personality traits predicts success in graduate school, according to an overview of research on the subject in the current issue of gradPSYCH, a magazine published by the American Psychological Association.  Topping the list of characteristics contributing to successful graduate work is intellectual curiosity.  Intelligence, both cognitive and emotional, is also crucial, but conscientiousness, "which includes self-discipline, future planning and the ability to work hard," ranks even higher, the article says.  Resilience and the ability to take criticism and use it to improve also play major roles.

How's this for the ultimate in work-life balance? 

Stuck with a sick baby and no good back-up daycare on the first day of class, anthropologist  Adrienne Pine, an assistant professor at American University in Washington, D.C., took the child to class.  While she lectured--aptly enough on "Sex, Gender and Culture"--she kept an eye on the crawling baby.  For part of the time, Pine's teaching assistant went beyond her job description, overriding Pine's insistence that she didn't have to help out, and held the child.  Finally, Pine quieted the baby by breastfeeding as she taught.

There was, apparently, a brief moment in history when almost everyone who entered a Ph.D. program ended up in a faculty position shortly after graduation. That moment is long past: Today it takes years of postdoctoral experience before most Ph.D.s can compete for a faculty job, and those jobs are now so scarce that the majority of recently graduated scientists end up in careers off the faculty track.

This realization has spurred several national, institutional, and grassroots efforts to help young scientists develop careers, both inside and outside academia. One approach to the problem is online tools to help scientists assess their skills and career goals and develop an individual professional development plan. For example, in 2009 the U.S. National Postdoctoral Association released the NPA Postdoctoral Core Competencies Toolkit "as: (1) a basis for self-evaluation by postdoctoral scholars and (2) a basis for developing training opportunities that can be evaluated by mentors, institutions, and other advisors," says the NPA Web site.

Then in 2011 the U.K. organization Vitae launched The Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF), which "articulates the knowledge, behaviors and attributes of successful researchers and encourages all researchers to realize their potential," Vitae says. The organization, which receives support from Research Councils UK (RCUK), works towards promoting the personal, professional, and career development of research students and staff members at research institutions. Last week, at the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference 2012 in Manchester, Vitae entered a new era by releasing a Web application called the RDF Professional Development Planner, which, Vitae announced in a press release, is aimed at helping researchers use the RDF as a basis "to identify their expertise and capabilities, plan their professional development, set personal targets, and demonstrate evidence of success." The online planner, which replaces Vitae's free but less user-friendly Excel RDF Planner Prototype, will also signpost training and development resources offered to researchers in U.K. institutions. The RDF planner will be available by institutional subscription; Vitae plans to offer individual subscriptions later this year. Meanwhile, Vitae is inviting everyone interested to take part in their pilot phase

Amy Bishop, formerly a biologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, pleaded guilty today in a Huntsville court to one count of capital murder and three counts of attempted murder in the on-campus shooting deaths of three of her biology department faculty colleagues in February 2010. Under the conditions of the plea, Bishop will not be eligible for the death penalty and will accept being sentenced to life in prison, according to reporting by The Huntsville Times.

The university had denied Bishop tenure in 2009, and she had recently exhausted the appeals process at the time of the shooting, The Huntsville Times says. Police reports indicate that Bishop brought a pistol to a faculty meeting and opened fire on her colleagues. Killed were fellow biologists Maria Ragland Davis, Adriel Johnson, and department chair Gopi Podila. In addition, biologists Joseph Leahy and Luis Cruz-Vera were injured, as was lab assistant Stephanie Monticciolo.

A jury is expected to hear a condensed version of the case later this month--as required by Alabama state law--after which she will be formally sentenced. Stay tuned for further details.

Our coverage of the Sheri Sangji case, in which a 23-year-old research technician suffered fatal burns, has concentrated on its ramifications for academic research laboratories. The potential repercussions of the accident, however, extend beyond the research enterprise to the clinical and pathology labs that do studies to determine the medical condition of patients, says an expert on that industry. 

Writing in DARK Daily, a trade publication covering clinical and pathology labs, editor-in-chief Robert Michel notes that the Sangji case "may create a precedent for liability in research laboratory settings as well as for accidents in pathology and clinical laboratories." A spokesman for the American Clinical Laboratory Association tells Science Careers that the United States has more than 100,000 clinical labs. Michel advises clinical chemists, and by extension, others employed in such labs, to follow the case. 

"What bears watching as this case moves toward a final resolution is what new legal precedents may result," Michel states. "It is the first time that criminal charges have been filed against a university and a professor following a laboratory accident and legal experts believe it won't be the last."

Michel also discusses the case of another "young laboratory research associate," 25-year-old Richard Din, who died in May 2011 less than a day after being exposed to the deadly Niesseria meningitis virus while working at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

"The deaths of both Din and Sangji--along with the criminal charges filed in the Sangji case--are warnings that the laboratory safety bar is being raised, along with penalties for not taking required safety precautions," Michel warns. "For that reason, everyone associated with clinical laboratory medicine and anatomical pathology should take notice of these developments and take the necessary steps to maintain the highest level of safety in their clinical labs and research labs."

The fact that Michel sees beneficial effects of these cases on lab safety standards in his industry is very good news indeed.

September 10, 2012

New ERC Starting Grants

The European Research Council (ERC) today announced the results of the fifth funding round of its Starting Grants. According to an ERC press release, this year 536 early-career
researchers have been selected to share almost €800 million to establish their independent labs in Europe.

Starting in 2007, the ERC has been offering grants of up to €2 million each for up to 5
years to researchers with between 2 and 12 years of postdoctoral experience. Researchers may be of any nationality, but they must be based or willing to move to Europe.

This year, the ERC received a total of 4741 applications, representing a 16% uptick compared to last year (the numbers of applications tend to vary substantially from year to year, with 42% more in 2011 than in 2010, and 14% more in 2010 than in 2009, for example). But with the ERC's budget for the Starting Grants also rising by more than 19% this year, even with the rise in applicants, the success rate only dropped from 12% in 2011 to 11.3% in 2012.

Representatives from higher education institutions in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia met last week in Seeon, Germany, at the Sixth Annual Strategic Leaders Global Summit, an event co-hosted by Germany's Technische Universitat Munchenthe and the Council of Graduate Schools, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. The meeting's theme was "From Brain Drain to Brain Circulation: Graduate Education for Global Career Pathways."

"Brain circulation," meeting attendees noted in a consensus statement issued 6 September, is the "mutli-directional flow of talents, education and research that benefit multiple countries and regions and the advancement of global knowledge." In an era when many scientists and scholars move between several countries to pursue training and research, the statement suggests, "brain circulation" often more accurately describes international mobility than "brain drain," which implies a unidirectional flow that only benefits certain countries.

"Today's doctoral and master's students will enter and lead a rapidly globalizing research enterprise. In a world where technology and research offer new opportunities for global collaboration, all early-stage researchers must be prepared for the challenges and opportunities of a globalizing workforce," declared educational leaders from 15 countries.

The statement also lists 10 "principles for supporting global careers" that educational institutions should follow. Among other advice, the principles state that institutions should "integrate international experiences and training into graduate degree programs"; "provide robust support systems, programs and services for international students and early-state researchers"; "prepare graduate students for ethical issues ... in a globalizing workforce"; and "encourage funding agencies to allocate funding for international research experience and global competency training for PhD candidates."

Meeting organizers plan to publish the proceedings in 2013.

Marc Hauser, the former Harvard psychology professor whose career and reputation imploded amid university findings of scientific misconduct, "fabricated data," "falsified coding," "falsely reported...results", and committed other violations, according to a report issued 5 September  by the federal Office of Research Integrity. As stated in the report, Hauser "neither admits nor denies" wrongdoing, but "accepts ORI has found evidence of research misconduct."

As reported by the Chronicle of Higher EducationHauser appears, however, to acknowledge only limited responsibility for the tainted results published under his name. In fact, in a move that highlights the vulnerability of young researchers who work in the labs of unscrupulous senior scientists, Hauser seems to be trying to lay off onto unknown others the blame for actions the ORI report ascribes to him. By way of explaining the situation, he declares in a statement quoted in the Chronicle that "I let important details get away from my control, and as head of the lab, I take responsibility for all errors made in the lab, whether or not I was directly involved."

These so-called "errors" of supposedly uncertain origin occurred because "I tried to do too much, teaching courses, running a large lab of students, sitting on several editorial boards, directing the Mind, Brain & Behavior Program at Harvard, conducting multiple research collaborations, and writing for the general public," he goes on. The arduous duties of a big-time academic apparently led him, the statement seems to imply, to making up or changing data.

Who are the unnamed others purportedly "involved" in the "errors"? Hauser's statement seems to implicate lab members, who would very likely be powerless and dependent "at-will employees and graduate students," in the words of a former research assistant of Hauser's quoted by the Chronicle. Some of them, at great cost to their own careers, brought his wrongdoing to light. All of them, it appears, were at risk of blame they did not deserve from a man whom, in the research assistant's words, "they should have been able to trust."

A plea of not guilty was entered today at Los Angeles Superior Court for Patrick Harran, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) professor facing felony charges for violations of California occupational health and safety laws that resulted in the death of laboratory assistant Sheri Sangji. The defense objected to Harran being arraigned, but the judge entered the plea and scheduled a preliminary hearing on October 9 to determine whether evidence is sufficient to merit a trial. Harran faces up to 4 1/2 years imprisonment if convicted.

The Regents of the University of California were also charged in connection with the case, but in July they reached a settlement that resulted in the charges being dropped.  As part of the settlement, they accepted "responsibility for the conditions" in the laboratory at the time of the fire that caused Sangji's fatal injuries. The settlement also requires extensive corrective actions by the university.

September 4, 2012

The Worth of a Science Ph.D.

Is getting a science Ph.D. worth the effort? Daniel Lametti, who expects to finish his in the coming academic year, thinks it definitely is. His reasons, as he explains in an essay at Slate, come down to an admirable love of science, especially of research, and an enjoyment of the freedom and intellectual stimulation that the graduate school lifestyle can afford. He also takes justifiable pride in the Ph.D. as a major accomplishment and as a contribution, through his dissertation research, to the world's supply of knowledge. (The article does not identify his university but suggests that it is in Montreal.)

But Lametti also offers his opinion on the state of the scientific job market, expressing his doubt that it is, as labor force experts have long known, quite weak. I wish that the skills he deployed in researching this topic came anywhere close to those he is presumably using to earn his neuroscience PhD. He seems unaware of the voluminous scholarly literature on the scientific job market and cites no recognized authorities in his opinions.