Science Careers Blog

Alternative Careers

In their latest sampling of U.K. industry, released today, business lobbying organization CBI and recruitment specialists Harvey Nash have found a cautious but continuing trend toward growing employment, with job prospects looking especially good for highly-trained people and college graduates.

We at Science Careers have long urged graduate programs to track and make public their graduates' and postdocs' career outcomes so that people considering Ph.D. programs and postdoc appointments can make informed choices. Recent studies from the National Academies and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) include similar recommendations. Now two U.S. senators, Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), have also joined forces to require institutions to reveal to prospective students and their parents what kind of return they may expect on their investments of time and money.

The "Student Right to Know Before You Go Act," which the senators are co-sponsoring, would require colleges to provide data about graduates' earnings. As presently written, the bill applies only to undergraduate degrees. As economist Richard Vedder of Ohio University in Athens writes in Bloomberg, it's not at all clear that income is necessarily the best measure of educational outcome because the specific fields that students pursue and career choices they make also greatly influence their earnings.

This bipartisan effort could, however, be a significant first step toward making educational institutions more accountable to those they ostensibly serve. Once a requirement for tracking student outcomes were in place, it probably could be relatively easily extended to include graduate programs. 

The bill, of course, is nowhere near becoming law. Vedder, furthermore, predicts that "the higher-education establishment will fight" any such requirement in order to safeguard elite colleges' cachet. Many graduate programs that recruit Ph.D. students and postdocs on the basis of faculty members' need for low-cost laboratory and instructional workers rather than on the basis of the career opportunities later available to graduates have also shown strikingly little interest in publicizing alumni outcomes.

As the reports from the National Academies and NIH propose, another approach to getting out information about graduate programs would be for funding agencies to require universities to report on the fate of the students and postdocs supported on their grants. To date, however, the largest agencies have shown no inclination to do so. 

Real progress on this issue therefore lies in the future. Still, it's encouraging that a serious conversation has at least begun.

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

Last time I talked to Romanian chemist Daniel Funeriu, he was a group leader in chemical biology at the Technical University of Munich in Germany and vice-president of the Romanian presidential commission for science and education. This was 2009 when I was researching an article as part of a Science Careers feature examining how science had fared in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall some 20 years ago. 

Romania's government had recently launched an initiative offering scientists with a foreign affiliation up to €1.5 million to spend half of their time at a Romanian host institution for 3 years. Back then, Funeriu called the initiative "a step forward" even though he noted that the application forms were "extremely unfriendly. ... Many people are put off by the bureaucratic requests." 

Funeriu got a chance to change the system from the inside when he became Minister of Education, Research, Youth, and Sports in Romania in December 2009. Today, he is Adviser to the President of Romania on education and science issues, a position he took in February 2012 following a change of government. 

During a session at ESOF 2012 in Dublin, Funeriu talked about his own career path and shared the lessons he learned from his unusual experience both as a researcher and politician.

When aspiring science writers ask me for advice on how to make the transition from the lab to the press room, I often say that a great way to get started is to take part in writing competitions. With so much else going on, it can be hard for early-career scientists to find a focus for their writing--but without that experience they cannot know for sure whether science writing is a good career choice. Competitions offer a topic (however general), a deadline, and short-term incentives, providing a focus for your science-communication efforts.

Chemistry World's Chemistry World Science Writing Competition 2012 is open to students and early career scientists anywhere in the world. You can enter in one (or both) of two categories: writing and multimedia. As you would expect, you must write or talk about the chemical sciences. The deadline is midnight UK time, 31 August.

Winners in each category will see their entry published on Chemistry World and receive a £300 cash prize. Runners-up--one in each category--will receive a £100 cash prize. 

The winners will be announced during an evening reception in London at The Chemistry Centre on 10 October. Twenty shortlisted entrants will be invited to join the reception (but overnight accommodations will be reimbursed only if you are traveling to London from more that 2.5 hours away).

More information can be found on the competition's Web site. The FAQ also offers sound advice on science writing and multimedia communication.

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. 

In case you missed it: Near the end of a Science Careers blog post from Michael Price yesterday, on a report documenting the results of an National Institutes of Health (NIH) survey, was this:
The working group recommends in the report that NIH "[r]educe the number of students and post-doctoral fellows supported," increase awareness of alternative careers for people trained in science, and work on ways to increase funding and promote a wider distribution of funds.
Here are NIH's "Action Recommendations," from that report:
  • Reduce the number of students and post-doctoral fellows supported, and improve awareness and understanding of the branching career path available to new scientists (supply-side).
  • Increase total funding and revise current funding structures to promote wider distribution of funds (demand-side).
It will be fascinating to see whether the NIH administration embraces these recommendations.

"He was super smart, but so what? ... Pure intellectual heft is like someone who can bench-press a thousand pounds. But so what, if you don't know what to do with it?"

That's how math professor Paul Zeitz describes his high school friend and director of MIT's Broad Institute, Eric Lander, in an article in Tuesday's New York Times. Lander, whose Ph.D. is in pure mathematics, now heads up a molecular biology and medical genomics lab. Although he excelled in his math studies, he craved the more tangible fruits of biological research and threw himself into that work. In addition to his MIT post, he serves as co-chairman to President Obama's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

Lander's case illustrates well the role passion, creativity, and persistence play in the careers scientists carve out -- or fail to carve out. It's also a good reminder that your Ph.D. isn't your destiny.

August 26, 2011

Equality in Academe

Gender inequality in academic science is a much-discussed issue. But a new study reported 23 August by Inside Higher Ed has identified one segment of academe where women's representation and pay match those of men: community colleges. Not only that, female faculty members at two-year institutions are "happy" and "love" their jobs, say sociologists Cynthia Anderson and Christine Mattley of Ohio University, members of the research team.

The article did not explain the reasons for the high level of satisfaction among female faculty at two-year institutions. One factor they ruled out however is shorter working days: The researchers found that the female faculty members did not have workloads any lighter than their colleagues at four-year colleges. Teaching loads at community colleges, for one thing, are twice as heavy as at universities and four-year colleges. The study has thus far looked at faculties at 29 community colleges in Ohio and will look at other states in the future. 

Yesterday, physicist Chad Orzel from ScienceBlogs' Uncertain Principles called out a disturbing trend in academia: When it comes to tenure decisions and grant reviews, he says, engaging in public outreach is all too often considered an impediment to success.
People are generally in favor of outreach activities, of course, but in the same diffuse way that the general public is in favor of tax increases. If you ask them whether they're in favor of outreach to the general public, they'll say yes, but pressed to support it in a concrete way, they'll find reasons not to. Any discussion of outreach requirements like the NSF's infamous "broader impact" criteria invariably includes the argument that forcing scientists to do outreach as a condition of receiving government research funding is a wholly unreasonable imposition. But nobody's willing to hire and promote outreach specialists who want to do that sort of activity. Directing any significant money toward outreach activities is questioned, because it could've been spent on "real" science.
To buck that trend, last year AAAS created the Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science. Awarded annually, the award pays out $5,000 and a scholarship for travel to the 2012 AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver. The contest is open to early-career scientists and engineers -- defined as being in your current field for less than seven years and pre-tenure -- who engage in public outreach. Last year's recipient, Lynford Goddard, organized summer camps to promote electrical engineering careers to high school girls.

If you're out there fighting to educate the public in the ways of science, AAAS has a bit of cash to support your efforts. Eligibility and application information can be found here.

The European Union is inviting applications for its first EU Prizes for Women Innovators, which will reward three women entrepreneurs for their "innovative work in any field or business."

To be eligible, women entrepreneurs must be residing in the EU or an associated country and have founded or co-founded a company before 1 January 2009. The applicant or her company must also have received EU funding for research projects. More detail on the eligibility criteria can be found on the European Commission Web site

There will be three prizes, of €100 000, €50 000, and €25 000, respectively. Applications will be judged according to the originality and marketability of the developed product or service, its economic and social relevance for Europe, and the scientific content of the innovation, which the applicant must have contributed to researching. 

Deadline for submission: 5 p.m. on 20 September 2011 (Brussels time).

For more information and to apply, check out the European Commission Web site.

The striking characteristics of the nutritional sciences are its long and colorful history, its broad scope and complexity, its ability to integrate with other scientific disciplines, and the excellent opportunities it offers for a scientific career.

Its long history includes the first written nutritional research study -- reported in the Book of the Prophet Daniel, in the Bible. In Chapter 1, Daniel and his companions, captives of King Nebuchadnezzar, disdain the food and wine they are offered from the royal table and request a diet of vegetables and water. After a 10-day "clinical trial," they look healthier and better fed than the "control" group eating from the royal table. As a reward, the King admits the group into his service.

The broad scope of the nutritional sciences is well documented by the information provided by the more than 160 graduate programs offering advanced degrees in the field. Nutritional sciences encompass all aspects of an organism's interaction with food, and can be investigated at levels ranging from molecules to populations.

It is common to hear undergraduates and recent college graduates preparing for a career in science complain: "I think I wasted a lot of time in college being forced to take humanities classes that had nothing to do with my area of study." This is one of many manifestations of the ongoing centuries-long battle over the relationship between the sciences and the humanities.

From a historical point of view, until the mid-19th century, the humanities (i.e., grammar, rhetoric, history, literature, languages, and moral philosophy) held the upper hand. At Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the gold standard models for American education, the areas of study consisted mainly of classics, mathematics, or divinity.

However, in 1847 Yale College broke with this tradition and formed the School of Applied Chemistry. This became the Yale Scientific School and in 1861 it was renamed the Sheffield Scientific School. Sheffield's 3-year undergraduate program focused on chemistry, engineering, and independent research. It offered the best scientific training in America. The "Sheffs" studied and lived apart from other undergraduates taking the classic curriculum and roomed together in the "college yard." The two groups did not mingle. The old truism that a classical education assured success was being challenged. Science had begun its separation and was ascending vis-a-vis the liberal arts in American universities.

The need for science majors to take courses in the humanities has been contentious ever since. The required core curriculum at most colleges and universities has atrophied over the years, while at the same time governmental funds for support of any new research in the humanities has dried up. Authorities both within and outside of science have expressed concern that scientists do not learn enough about the humanities -- to the detriment of society.

In this environment, it's difficult for the undergraduate to determine the desirability of taking courses in the humanities -- or which and how many to take. In fact, some applicants to college regard a strong core curriculum requirement as a negative factor, opting instead for programs with a minimum number of required core courses and maximum flexibility.

All this considered, I would offer the following 10 reasons why students pursuing science careers should augment their education with a strong foundation in the humanities.

Getting along with your colleagues may not only be good for your work satisfaction and productivity, it could be good for your health, too.

That's according to a new study, published in the May issue of Health Psychology, that looked at the medical history of more than 800 people working in finance, insurance, public services, health care, and manufacturing companies between 1988 and 2008.

The team of researchers, led by Arie Shirom at Tel Aviv University in Israel, looked at peer social support in terms of the participants' perception of how supportive and friendly their colleagues were to them. The researchers found that a high level of peer social support was associated with a lower risk of mortality. When also looking at the participants' age, they found peer social support to have a protective effect only for people aged between 38 and 43. Interestingly, support from supervisors was not associated with mortality rate.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is widely regarded as the father of modern physics. For those of us old enough to have seen him in person, listen to him speak in public or on the radio, and read his writings when they were current, these memories are precious. In addition to being a great theoretical physicist he was looked upon as a philosopher and statesman. His intellectual interests and profound observations extended widely into the other sciences and the social aspects of human endeavor. In the 21st century he remains one of the most influential and iconic thinkers of all time.

Einstein is possibly the most frequently quoted figure in the history of science, but as is often noted, many of these quotations are of dubious authenticity. Alice Calaprice, a senior editor at the Princeton University Press, has worked with the Einstein papers at the Institute for Advanced Study for more than 30 years. In 1996, she published a volume entitled The Quotable Einstein, a comprehensive, meticulously referenced, annotated, and carefully arranged compilation of Einstein's quotes. For 2011, Calaprice has enlarged this to The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, a nearly 600-page volume of approximately 1600 quotations--the "final" and definitive edition.

On a recent visit to Princeton, I had the good fortune to obtain an advanced copy of this work and delighted in it as I have in few other books. I have selected and arranged these quotations to simulate an interview with Einstein, circa 1955, on the topic of science careers.

The November/December issue of MIT's Technology Review has a nice piece, posted online, about  Ayr Muir, an MIT materials-science grad who runs a lunch truck in Boston's Kendall Square.

No, this isn't another story of an angst-ridden underemployed science grad. Muir is an environmental entrepreneur -- and a distant relative of environmental legend and Sierra Club founder John Muir -- who is out to make foods with a smaller environmental footprint as cheap and ubiquitous as McDonald's.

Read it online here.

Hat tip: John Travis, Science news.

The latest (2009) National Science Foundation Survey of Earned Doctorates found significant gains in the number of doctorates earned in the United States. Doctorates awarded grew 1.6% overall, and 1.9% in science and engineering (S&E) fields, over 2008. In S&E fields, the increase is entirely accounted for by a 4.8% increase in the number of doctorates awarded to women; 622 more S&E doctorates were awarded to women in 2009 than in 2008. The number of S&E doctorates awarded to men declined slightly.

This rate of increase is slow by recent standards. Over the period 2004 - 2007, the number of S&E doctorates awarded increased at a rate of 6.5% per year. Still, the new totals -- 49,562 total doctorates and 33,470 S&E doctorates -- are all-time records. The number of S&E doctorates awarded to women -- 13,593 -- is also an all-time high.

The growth in the number of S&E doctorates awarded to members of minority groups was also impressive, up 6.4% compared to 2008. The longer-term trend looks better still: Since 2004, the number of S&E doctorates awarded to members of minority groups is up 34.3%.

Also notable: The number of S&E doctorates awarded by U.S. institutions to temporary visa holders declined by 3.35%.

The survey also sampled employment outcomes. The number of S&E doctorate recipients who already had employment commitments was down slightly from 2008 and about the same as in 2007. And of those who had employment commitments, a record number were for postdoc positions. The proportion with employment commitments from industry was down in most fields, while the proportion with employment commitments in "other employed position increased." This category includes government, non-academic non-profits, primary and secondary schools, and "other employment." This could indicate an increase in interest in non-traditional science jobs, and it could indicate that the number of S&E doctorate recipients settling for substandard employment is increasing.

Does your research in nutrition, biochemistry, plant science, or other food-related field suggest a product with commercial potential?  Do you wish you could find out how to move your idea from the lab to the market?  Or do you want to move yourself from academe to industry? 

If any of these things describes you or your research, the Food + Health Entrepreneurship Academy, sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of California, Davis, may provide the opportunity you seek.  

The five-day academy, which begins January 31 at the UC Davis campus, will provide "focused lectures, practical exercises, networking sessions, and hands-on experiences" for grad students, postdocs and faculty members seeking either to turn research results into commercial opportunities or to prepare for a move to industry, according the the Center's website.  Applications are due January 1.  Cost for university-affiliated individuals is $150 with meals but without lodging, or $250 with meals and a shared room in a hotel near the program.

1.    Learn on whose shoulders you stand.

On February 5, 1676, Isaac Newton wrote a letter to his rival and adviser, Robert Hooke, which he concluded with his famous aphorism: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Two hundred years later another great scientist, the French physiologist Claude Bernard, enlarged on these words: "Great men have been compared to giants upon whose shoulders pygmies have climbed, who nevertheless see further than they. This simply means the science makes progress subsequently to the appearance of great men, and precisely because of their influence. The result is that their successors know many more scientific facts than the great men themselves had in their day. But a great man is, none the less, still a great man, that is to say, a giant."

"Students should think more broadly about what a PhD could prepare them for. We should start selling a PhD as higher level education but not one that necessarily points you down a tunnel...We should not see moving out of academia as a failure. We need to see it as a stepping stone, a way of moving forward to something else."

-Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, quoted in Times Higher Education in 'Postdoctoral scientists urged to spread their wings'. Click the link to read the full article and a rather lively discussion in the comments section about that statement.

September 7, 2010

Seeking the Alternative

This week, GenomeWeb's The Daily Scan featured two blog posts on alternative careers: Februa at Almost a PhD wrote about her discouragement at an incredibly vague career seminar on alternative careers, and the Prodigal Academic followed up with a great post highlighting some specific alternative careers.

Februa's experience highlights just how little information scientists get about the variety of career paths they can pursue away from the bench. Over the years, Science Careers highlighted several of these alternative/nontraditional careers in our articles, which almost always include stories from Actual People doing those jobs. Following on from what the bloggers above and their commenters have suggested, here are some alternative careers we've highlighted over the years, in no particular order: 

All funding agencies -- NIH, NSF, ESF, and so on -- have program officers behind the scenes making decisions about grant applications. Read about some of them in Working as a Program Officer.

Perhaps a teacher along the way inspired you to pursue a career in science. Why not try teaching? See, for example, Scientists as Schoolteachers, Community College Faculty: Must Love to Teach, and Careers in Teaching. (See also Teaching Science to Nonscience Majors, and Teach the Students You Have).

Did you love writing for your university paper or otherwise really love news? Consider a career in science writing. See Starting a Career in Science Writing, which includes Some Thoughts on Becoming a Science Writer, Science Journalism Degrees: Do They Make a Difference? See also my recent blog post on becoming a science writer.

When you send in a manuscript to a journal, there are editors on the other end who determine its worth. Book publishers and societies with publishing arms also employ science editors. See Careers in Science Editing: Feature Index

Similarly, many scientists have found rewarding work in public relations at agencies and scientific organizations. Read about them in Getting the Message Across: Scientists in Public Relations.

Medical writing includes many different types of jobs, from working in biotech companies to regulatory agencies. This collection -- Careers in Medical Writing: Opening Doors -- covers some of these diverse jobs. We also revisited this topic more recently in Working as a Medical Writer.

Do you love talking to people about science? Consider a career in science outreach: Read Transitioning from Researcher to Outreacher and Making Schools Better in New York City.

Science museums are a great place to be around science. Read more in Careers in Zoos and Museums, An Astrophysicist at La Città della Scienza, Darwin's Legacy: Rich Collections, Deep Expertise, and Darwin's Legacy: Keeping Order.

In most countries, science is funded by national governments, and that means politicians are making decisions about how much money science gets. Contribute your expertise through a career in science policy. Read more in A Matter of Policy and Finding Your Way Into Policy Careers in Europe.

If the intellectual property end of things interests you, you might consider a career as a patent attorney. Read In Person: Peter Brown, Patent Attorney Pending and Careers in Patent Law.

Regulatory science offers opportunities for life scientists to get involved in shepherding drugs to market. Read more in our recent article All in the Details: Careers in Regulatory Science. For an industry perspective, see Tooling Up: The Regulatory Affairs Career Track.

Universities have many types of jobs for Ph.D.s away from the bench:

Most research universities will have an technology transfer department responsible for working out how to commercialize its researchers' discoveries. Read more in Transferring Skills to Tech Transfer.

Read about one researcher's job in a university diversity office to make a difference in the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities in The Passion of the Science: A Nontraditional Pathway.

If you like to help others understand what their true career passions are, consider a career as a career advisor. Read more in It Isn't Just the Ambiance.

People in staff development work on everything from curriculum to course materials. Read more in A Developing Career.

Research administration
offers scientists a chance to help others find research funding, develop research proposals, and coordinate dispersal of funds. Read more in University Research Administration: Benefits, Not Bureaucracy.

Read more about careers within university settings in Alternative Career Routes in the Ivory Tower

The Prodigal Academic did a great job of describing some of the jobs in industry. Dave Jensen, our Tooling Up columnist, has written about some specific industry job types in the last year: The Medical Writing and Corporate Intelligence Career Tracks, The Applications Scientist Career Track, The Project Management Career Track, and The Biomanufacturing Career Track.

As the Prodigal Academic mentioned, sales is an important career sector. Read articles about scientists in these jobs in Careers in Sales and After-sales Service

Perhaps you have an outside interest that you're really passionate about. Read about a coffee roaster, a comedian, an artist, and more folks who left science altogether in And Now for Something Completely Different. See also The Itinerant Artist and Finding the Way Back to a First (Career) Love.

The Science Careers outreach program has a bunch of materials you might find interesting, too. Check out these slides, this booklet, and this handout on alternative careers (perhaps suggest to your department that they use this at the next alternative careers event ...).

This is not an exhaustive list, but it hits the major categories of so-called alternative careers that aren't really discipline-specific. Please feel free to offer more suggestions below in the comments. Best of luck!

August 3, 2010

Becoming a Science Writer

This week, Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science started what has turned out to be a really popular meme directed at science writers. If you have ever wondered about careers in science writing, this is required reading. His instructions: Tell your story, and give your advice to people considering a career as a science writer.

What has resulted is a series of more than 100 (and counting) short autobiographies of and by people from a variety of backgrounds working as science writers in various capacities. (In the interest of disclosure, my own story is there.) Yong tells his story: "My hazy hopes of a research career were stymied by a degree of experimental ineptitude that is still spoken of in hushed whispers and/or raucous laughter," he writes. He ended up leaving his Ph.D. and pursuing science writing; he's now head of health evidence and information at Cancer Research U.K. His advice: "Be sure you really want to do this. A lot of people want to do this line of work because they don't like research. But this can't just be a fallback option - you really have to love it."

His CRUK colleague Kat Arney writes about taking on writing -- including as a columnist for Science's Next Wave (the precursor to Science Careers) -- while doing an "utterly miserable postdoc." Her personal revelation: "The most important thing I've discovered as I made my transition from being a lab rat to a science writer was the fundamental truths about my talents and skills. I'm not a scientist. I don't have the logical mind, the insight, or the patience and dogged determination. I'm a creator -- of words, audio, video, music, cakes, socks, whatever... Coming to terms with this was tough, especially dealing with the severe feelings of failure over leaving lab science after so many years of training. But I'm much, much happier now."

Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health, came to science writing by way of medical school. He has been a columnist for American Medical News, founding editor of the now-defunct Praxis Post, deputy editor at The Scientist, and online managing editor at Scientific American. "I would be the last to claim that medical school, or some other graduate school, is the only place to gain that kind of expertise, but I would also be the last to claim, for obvious reasons, that someone with a doctorate can't make it as a journalist. (Yes, I've heard both of those arguments.)"

Alex Witze, contributing editor at Science News and former U.S. news editor for Nature, offers some direct advice: "Don't get into science journalism if you want to bring the wonders of the universe to the unwashed public. If so, go be a teacher instead."

The advice repeated over and over and over by people from/in all fields: Get A Mentor. Perhaps multiple mentors. Find someone whose writing you like, who has a cool job, whose job you want some day. Write to them. Ask them about what they do. Find people who will read your stuff and give you constructive feedback. Listen and learn from them. Buy them coffee and Twix bars. (Just a suggestion.)

Where do you find such mentors? Well, you could start with the 117 (and counting ...) people who have submitted their stories to that post, titled On the Origin of Science Writers.

Still interested in science writing? Check out this list of articles I pulled together in February for an event on careers in communication. (Note that was for a British audience; American readers should also check out the National Association of Science Writers.)

As the practice of medicine and the delivery of health care over the last half-century has grown in complexity and content, training to be a practicing physician has gone from being analogous to a cross-country track event to a virtual marathon in time, effort, and expense. With the explosion of knowledge and technical complexity in the biological sciences, M.D.-Ph.D. candidates preparing for a life of medical research are found in a triathlon by comparison. Those who cross the finish line are well equipped to take on the challenges of being a physician-scientist.

Based on personal involvement within my own institution, discussion with program directors, and interaction with M.D.-Ph.D. program graduates, I will present a brief overview of this challenging pathway to a science career.

Why was the M.D.-Ph.D. program created?

June 24, 2010

Seeking the Alternative

Yesterday, I posted a short summary of the Academic Careers panel discussion at a mini-symposium called 'Careers in Science: Life After a Ph.D.', organized by the Graduate Students Group at the Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology (IBMC) in Porto, Portugal. The event also featured sessions on other career options, including industry and 'alternative' careers.

If I had to summarize these discussions in just one key message, it would be, 'seize the opportunity as it emerges.' The two stories below illustrated this point particularly well.

Delay the decision. Patrícia Calado hadn't really thought about leaving academia until she got a phone call from a former lab mate, with an interesting offer. At the time, she was doing a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences at the University of Lisbon. She "liked what I was doing," she said, so her first impulse was to say 'no'. But she gave herself some time before giving a definite answer. Thinking about the opportunity -- to lead a team in industry--  got her thinking in new ways. "I love science, but to be a PI, have my own group was not something I would go for," she said. Eventually, she decided to take the position on offer, as a project manager at the biopharmaceutical company Bioalvo in Lisbon.

It wasn't the most comfortable position, but, "You need to feel uncomfortable... because it is the only way to learn and move on in life,"  she told the audience. Discomfort doesn't quite capture her experience; her first reaction was "panic. I didn't know anything about business," she said. And then there's "the language, the abbreviations. You really don't know what they are talking about." So she studied, and studied some more. "After a [4 to 6] months, I realized that this was the good decision because I was controlling things and understanding the differences between industry and academia. I knew I had found my niche," she said. "I am very good at doing things," and in industry, "It's not so much the thinking, but the doing."

Calado was promoted to Drug Discovery and Development Director in 2008, just 2 years after joining the company. She found that in industry, "you can create your own position and you can start doing something and expand. There is always room for improvement." 

Say 'yes',  then make it your own. Marta Agostinho also had an unexpected job offer as she was finishing her Ph.D., in biomedical sciences at the University of Lisbon. She expected to move into science communications, but an opportunity to run a program for Ph.D. students at the Instituto de Medicina Molecular (IMM) in Lisbon seemed too good to pass up, Agostinho said. The communications person at IMM retired soon after she joined, in 2007, so "I decided to propose the creation of a [joint] unit for communication and advanced training." She put a proposal together with a colleague. 

Agostinho became the Ph.D. Programme & Communications manager at IMM the same year, participating in the design and implementation of the IMM International Ph.D. program and running communication and outreach activities. Since then she has earned some extra training -- a postgraduate diploma in science communication from the Open Unversity in the United Kingdom -- and she now holds the position of Director of the Communication & Training Unit at IMM. Among her duties are contributing to the Ph.D. program, offering support to researchers on funding and grant management issues, coordinating the institute's communication strategy, keeping abreast of what IMM researchers are up to, establishing contacts with journalists, promoting public engagement, and designing new outreach activities. As you develop your career, it is important that you "create your [own] project. Focus on what you want to do and like to do," she said.

In March 2006, Science Careers interviewed Ken Fink as part of a feature on teaching science as a career. Fink, who started a company that offers science education outside the classroom, seemed to having a blast at this kind of work when we first talked to him. An extended news segment on Philadelphia's NBC affiliate that aired on Friday confirms it.

The big news in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, these days is its National Hockey League team, the Philadelphia Flyers, playing in the Stanley Cup finals. So Fink and a colleague described for TV viewers how the ice on a hockey rink freezes and stays frozen, even on warm days. Instead of explaining the physics behind this process with charts and graphs, Fink and his partner use exploding trash cans.

Fink, who earned degrees in physics and music from Columbia University, also completed graduate programs in marketing from the Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania, and in education at Drexel University, both in Philadelphia. He started Wondergy, as his company is called, in 2002 with a colleague. The company now has four presenters, all with science or engineering backgrounds.

Careers blogger and Wall Street Journal contributor Alexandra Levitt this week poses a question faced by a few budding entrepreneurs: Should I start a new business while working at my current job?

For some academic scientists, starting a business is often a question of "when", not "if". Many university campuses have technology transfer offices that encourage university scientists to consider starting a business on the side that's based on their research. And U.S. federal agencies set aside certain research grants for small business competitions, including calls for partnerships between small businesses and academic scientists.

Researchers and other professionals working in industrial or government enterprises, however, have other factors to consider, Levitt writes. For example, planning or running a sidelight takes time, added on either before or after work, or juggled during the work day. On the other hand, having a day job eases some of the financial pressure of starting a business. It also offers a chance to plan your company more for the long term and avoid decisions based solely on the need for immediate income.

Levitt also raises the issue of that tipping point when the new business becomes your day job. A hint: If the revenue from the new venture surpasses the salary in your job, it's time.

A couple of weeks ago, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Thomas Friedman published an optimistic column in the New York Times about the start-up company EndoStim, which has developed a medical device to treat acid reflux. The company started out as one doctor's idea - an extension of his clinical practice - and was helped along by several investors. Friedman, who likes to stay ahead of current trends, sees EndoStim as the future of scientific innovation and economic development.
Friedman's analysis of EndoStim's success in combining science, business, and technology reflects ideas that can open career opportunities and directions for researchers. For example, EndoStim's way of doing business hews close to the methods of the open-science movement discussed in a Science Careers article last month. Indeed, EndoStim's approach might be called "open everything." Its lack of a formal structure and use of technology allowed the company to bring in ideas and capital from all over the world, taking advantage of the fluid nature of information.  As Friedman explains:
"EndoStim was inspired by Cuban and Indian immigrants to America and funded by St. Louis venture capitalists. Its prototype is being manufactured in Uruguay, with the help of Israeli engineers and constant feedback from doctors in India and Chile. Oh, and the C.E.O. is a South African, who was educated at the Sorbonne, but lives in Missouri and California, and his head office is basically a BlackBerry."
Another point that Friedman hints at -- and that another Science Careers article discusses -- is the motivation behind the success of these scientist-entrepreneurs, which is not always profit. Financial success, of course, is a big reason scientists start their own companies. But in many cases the chance to develop useful -- in some cases life-saving - products or processes from their research is as important. As one bioengineer told Science Careers, "You have to have faith...You have to believe in your technology and what you're trying to do."

If you've got an idea based on your research and think it's marketable, now may be a good time to push forward. And if you want to do something truly new and interesting, it's a good time to investigate novel business models like this one. For more on founding a science start-up, in addition to Science Careers, see this Depth-First blog post from 2008.
This guest post is contributed by Angela Martin, who writes on the topics of Career Salaries.  She welcomes your comments at her email:  angela.martin77 [at]

Here's an unlikely alternative career for a scientist: Playing safety in the National Football League. Recent Rhodes Scholar and former Florida State Uiversity (FSU) standout Myron Rolle may just make it happen.  This weekend the Tennesse Titans chose Rolle in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL draft making him the 207th overall pick.

As we reported in January 2009, at FSU, in Tallahassee, Rolle excelled in the classroom and lab and on the playing field, completing his undergraduate work in 2 1/2 years with a 3.75 GPA.  At FSU, he conducted research on metabolic characteristics of human mesenchymal stem cells, for which he received Florida State's 2008 Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Award.

Rolle passed on the 2009 NFL draft, choosing instead to accept a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University in the U.K., where he studied medical anthropology but worked out daily to stay in condition. Last summer, the U.S. Department of the Interior recruited Rolle to help design a health, fitness, and diabetes awareness program for American Indian youth.

Rolle's story may make great copy, but the fact he has options other than football led some NFL scouts to question his commitment to the game. Rolle helped answer those questions in the NFL Scouting Combine, a group skills competition for rookie prospects in February and March, where even with the one-year layoff he was competitive in the workouts.

At the combine, Rolle told Doug Farrar of Yahoo Sports he saw no conflict between his academic and athletic pursuits. "You learn discipline, you learn time management," Rolle told Farrar. "You learn structure, you learn organization, and as a football player those are obviously valuable assets and traits you can use to be great ...."