Science Careers Blog

Alan Kotok: July 2009

At the group blog Career Hub, Sital Ruparelia offers a list of 21 networking tips for job seekers. Networking seems simple and natural enough, but there's a skill to it, and Ruparelia's tips may help even experienced networkers.

Networking is something that you need pursue systematically and professionally. While you need to be yourself and spontaneous when meeting with people (two of the tips on the list), Ruparelia says you need a strategy and discipline to be successful at it. Some of his tips:

  • Be clear about your objectives and what you want (and don't want)
  • Ask lots of open questions - who? what? how? when?
  • Listen twice as much as you talk
  • Focus on the quality of relationships rather than the number of contacts you've got
Many of the tips point out that successful networkers give of themselves to others, often asking for little or nothing in return ....
  • Be generous in sharing ideas, resources, contacts
  • Take a genuine interest in other people, their challenges and their goals (and not just your own needs)
  • Keep asking "How can I help you?" rather than "How can you help me?
  • Share and help others without expecting anything back
Ruparelia urges networking job-hunters to take risks in order to expand their networks outside their circles of contacts ...
  • Network with a wide range of contacts outside your immediate connections
  • Keep nudging yourself outside your confort zone  
He recommends using online networking tools, but don't expect them to substitute for real, face-to-face contact ...
  • Ensure you have an online presence and are using social media platforms to establish an online brand (e.g., your own blog, etc.)
  • Limit the time you spend on social media platforms. They can be great fun, but also a great drain on your time
Ruparelia urges job seekers to remember that networking can do more for your career than just find a job, and that networking is just the start of the process of building contacts ...
  • Think long-term relationships rather than short-term job leads and opportunities
  • If you're not going to follow up religiously, don't bother networking
If you're new to networking, Dick van Vlooten's series for Science's Next Wave, the predecessor to Science Careers, in 2003-2005, can help you understand networking's basic principles.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) now offers a series of webinars on the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship program, which encourages U.S. undergraduate students to study abroad. Gilman Scholarships aim to diversify the composition of typical study-abroad cohorts by giving preference to the atypical students, including those in the sciences and engineering.

Studying overseas can enrich a student's academic development and enhance career prospects as well, but for many students, the financial barriers can be daunting. The Gilman program funds more than 1200 scholarships a year of up to $5000 (the average award is about $4000) covering tuition, room and board, books, local transportation, insurance, and airfare. Recipients must be awardees of Pell Grants, or have been approved for a Pell Grant, a student at a 4-year college or community college, and accepted into a study-abroad program offering credits toward graduation. Pell Grants are a federal program awarded on the basis of financial need, determined by a formula covering family income and assets.

An objective of the Gilman program (funded by the U.S. State Department, but administered by IIE), is to diversify the population of American undergrads who study abroad. It gives preference to science and engineering students, who are generally under-represented among the numbers of students who go overseas. The program also gives preference to students want to study in regions other than Europe and Australia, as well as ethnic minorities and the disabled. In addition, the Gilman program requires students to do a follow-on service project when returning to the U.S.

IIE offers a series of webinars, given by the program administrators, which provide details about Gilman Scholarships; the next webinar is scheduled for 11 August. The application deadline for the spring 2010 round of Gilman awards is 6 October 2009.

At the end of May, we commented  -- favorably -- on the campaign by philanthropies of the late fashion designer Geoffrey Beene to attract young people to science. That campaign, called Rock Stars of Science, featured a photoshoot in GQ, the men's fashion magazine, combining real rock stars (e.g., Will.I.Am and Sheryl Crow) with real big-name scientists, including Francis Collins, since nominated to lead the National Institutes of Health.

The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) took note of the fact that the only scientific rock stars portrayed were male, and the association is none too pleased. AWIS posted messages on its own Facebook group page and on the Science Careers fan page (Facebook membership required), saying, "If you haven't seen it and been outraged by it yet, check out the horrid new 'Rock Stars of Science' campaign launched by Geoffrey Beene."

Despite their outrage,  AWIS suggests taking part in one aspect of the campaign, which encourages visitors to nominate scientists for rock-star status.  AWIS is urging its members to add women to Geoffrey Beene's band.

UPDATE, 28 July: Corrected the full name of the AWIS organization. Thanks, Science Lady.

Our colleagues at ScienceInsider yesterday posted news about the 350 postdoctoral fellows at Rutgers University voting to form a union, a vote certified on Tuesday by New Jersey's public employment relation's commission. The postdocs' union will join a labor council on the Rutgers campus that includes the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, which already represent faculty and graduate staff.

Forming a union is the first step, but now the hard work of negotiating a labor agreement begins. Science Careers columnist Beryl Lieff Benderly has chronicled the status of postdocs for 6 years, including formation of unions at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) and the University of California system. While postdocs have advanced degrees and do work that's typical of professional staff, they are also trainees, whether they are on fellowships or in grant-funded positions. This dual role is often used to justify low postdoc pay, and postdoc job security often depends on supervisor's ability to maintain research-grant funding. Foreign postdocs, including those on H-1B visas, are susceptible to abuse.

What can Rutgers's postdocs expect from its union? The experience of nearby UCHC may provide a clue. As Benderly reported in 2006, the postdoc union at UCHC negotiated an agreement on bread-and-butter issues, such as higher salaries, retirement benefits, and regular, structured employment reviews. While executives at UCHC claimed higher salaries would mean fewer postdocs, as of 2006 the number of positions remained about the same as before. Also, predictions of more problems between unionized postdocs and supervisors did not materialize. In fact, one postdoc leader noted that the contract brought "better respect from PIs".

Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric Corporation, caused a stir with a comment made in his keynote address at the Society for Human Resource Management conference on 28 June. "There's no such thing as work-life balance," said Welch, who added "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."

Welch, who has been married three times, elaborated, saying "We'd love to have more women moving up faster, But they've got to make the tough choices and know the consequences of each one." The Wall Street Journal's "Juggle" blog on balancing life and work said audience reactions, mainly human-resources managers and specialists, were mixed. "When people are not visible, it does hurt," said one attendee, referring to the out-of-sight/out-of-mind risks employees face when they leave the workplace for extended periods of time. Another audience member noted that many women have children after they join management ranks, which allows them to return to their careers already in progress.

Many bloggers reacted to Welch's comments as well. Conor Friedersdorf, guest blogging yesterday for Andrew Sullivan, had some of the more interesting comments. Friedersdorf says that if someone is penalized for temporarily stepping off the corporate ladder, the problem is with the ladder, not the employee, and that can eventually hurt the enterprise. "Doesn't Mr. Welch's approach artificially limit the number of qualified applicants considered for top jobs where the applicant pool is already smaller than optimal?" asks Friedsdorf.  "Doesn't it prevent some people with singular, extreme talent from ever being considered?" He adds that it's no coincidence that CEOs "lead miserable lives rife with lost friendships, dysfunctional relationships, divorces, alienated children, ludicrous attempts to use consumption as a stand in for actual happiness, etc."

This issue is particularly meaningful to scientists, who find themselves wanting to start families at the same time in their careers (graduate school, postdoc, or early academic or professional post) when they are expected to have high research output. Juggling these demands is a continuing interest on Science Careers. We most recently looked at how balancing career and family affects women physician-scientist trainees.
The technology trade magazine Information Week reports that some 20,000 H-1B visas, used to bring high-skilled temporary workers to the United States, are still available for the current fiscal year. Immigration law sets an annual quota of 65,000 H-1B visas, and to date the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has received 44,900 visa petitions.

That number--65,000--applies to skilled workers at any level of educational attainment. A separate quota of 20,000, reserved for foreign nationals with advanced degrees from U.S. institutions, was met soon after they became available in April 2009.   In the 2 previous years, the quota for all H-1B visas, requested by companies seeking to hire skilled foreign staff, was met within a few days.

One reason for the lower demand may be sharp cut-backs by Indian outsourcing companies. Infosys, an Indian technology company with a large outsourcing business, told the Business Standard newspaper that it has filed 405 visa applications so far this year, well down from 4,800 the company requested last year. The newspaper says Infosys's two main competitors, Wipro and TCS, are also believed to have asked for far fewer H-1B visas, but the companies did not divulge any numbers.

The H-1B program has recently come under increasing scrutiny, with support for the program diminishing on Capitol Hill.  

The Wall Street Journal today tells that more workers are delaying their retirement plans, largely due to last year's financial meltdown, which wiped out their nest eggs.  The Journal says many companies aren't complaining about having experienced workers staying longer on the job. Yet this presents an obstacle to the advancement of younger workers, leading some enterprises to take imaginative steps to ensure advancement opportunities.

As of June, the Journal reports, more than 1 in 4 (27%) of workers were age 55 or over, which means that under current rules they will be eligible to start collecting Social Security and Medicare within the next 10 years. But many of those workers don't plan on retiring when their turn comes.  In a survey of workers age 25 and over, conducted earlier this year by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, some three-quarters (74%) of the respondents plan to retire at age 65 or older, or not at all. That's up from about 6 in 10 (62%) of workers just 2 years ago.

For many employers, keeping experienced hands on board delays the impending headache of replacing large numbers of retiring boomers, but not everyone in management is celebrating. Among those who have serious concerns are people concerned about the future of the scientific workforce. The Journal quotes David Dobkin, dean of the faculty at Princeton University, who says fewer than half of the typical number of faculty are considering retirement, which Dobkin fears will result in fewer openings and institutional stagnation in many departments. That's a serious problem for early career scientists seeking faculty posts, and, as the feature in Science Careers last month pointed out, many tenured faculty face the challenge of going stale, and need something to take their careers in a new direction.

Some companies have found interesting ways of dealing with this problem. IBM is attacking the senior worker glut with online tools to boost its internal mentoring program that encourages older workers to share knowledge with their younger counterparts. While this kind of mentoring isn't new, IBM's program adds an interesting wrinkle, creating a reverse-mentoring channel to help older workers learn from their younger colleagues about topics younger workers know best, such as social networking.

Other companies are creating new opportunities in their organizations that keep the older workers gainfully employed but allow them to make contributions in different ways. One example is Jones Edmunds & Associates Inc., an engineering company in Gainesville, Florida, which has created career tracks with lateral or even downward mobility, to train senior managers in new skills and open opportunities for younger staff. The program's manager says that senior managers are willing to take these new opportunities with the expectation that they will have the opportunity to mentor their younger associates.

Full disclosure: The author is bumping up against Medicare age, but has no plans of retiring anytime soon.

Today's Wall Street Journal tells how some companies have begun making more use of their own Web sites, along with social network sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, to find new staff. In some cases, this shift in recruiting strategy comes at the expense of traditional advertising on job boards.

For years, companies have announced job opening on their Web sites and encouraged their employees to refer promising prospects for those openings. With social network sites, however, companies can use the Web to expand their exposure to prospects and still take advantage of personal referrals. If the enterprises can save a few bucks on not placing job ads, that's an added benefit.

The article tells how high-tech companies Adobe (graphics and publishing software) and Intuit (tax and accounting software) have started making more use of their own Web sites for recruiting.  Both companies tell the Journal that recruiting through their own sites better conveys the companies' values and culture, which are important factors for prospects to understand before applying. The Adobe site has videos showing a day in the life of employees, including one staffer who starts his day surfing at a 6:00 am. Adobe says it makes little use of job boards. The article quotes an Intuit manager who says the company will not abandon job boards completely--but wants to rely more on viral marketing.

The HR manager at Facebook says, not surprisingly, that the company uses the viral qualities of Facebook to find top talent. "One of our main philosophies is to get smart and talented people. They tend to be connected," she says, adding that about half of Facebook's new hires come through referrals. The article notes the experiences of food-service company Sodexo and online retailer in using Facebook and LinkedIn for referrals, with Sodexo claiming it saves hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in job advertising.  

For applicants, getting connected means establishing an online presence on social network sites, using that presence to convey a professional image, and using the community features of the sites to make that presence known to prospective employers. The article offers hints on researching companies online, with sites like, to find companies that may be hiring people with your particular skills.

On Science Careers, Dave Jensen has discussed how LinkedIn can aid your job search, and Lucas Laursen has talked about social network sites for scientists.

Full disclosure: Science Careers has a job board and gains income from job advertising.