Science Careers Blog


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.

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.

Last month, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, part of the National Science Foundation, released a report called "Diversity in Science and Engineering Employment in Industry." I took a look and learned something new -- or maybe more accurately, the numbers caused me to look at things in a new way.

Not only are minority scientists and engineers under-represented in their fields, the proportion of minorities trained in science who stay in science for a career is also smaller.

Counting everyone with a science or engineering degree (bachelor's, master's, doctorate, or professional), 30.2% work in scientific or engineering (S&E) occupations. The rest work in either "S&E-Related" occupations (including, for example, doctors and nurses: 24.4%) or in "Non-S&E occupations" (45.4%).

That number varies a lot by group. Asians with S&E degrees, for example, stay in S&E occupations far more than any other group: 45.6% of them work in S&E fields. Among Asian men, it's 53.5%; this is the only subgroup where more than half of those with S&E degrees were working in S&E fields.

For those who described themselves as Black or African American, the number is 22.4%. Among Black or African-American women, the number is 15.5%.  For Hispanics, it's 24.6%, and for Hispanic women, 14.4%. In the American Indian or Alaska Native category, 24.9% of those with S&E degrees continue to work in S&E professions, and 18.7% of women. Among those with disabilities, 17.9% of those with S&E degrees work in S&E professions, and 15.7% of women. Across all demographics, just 18.1% of women with S&E degrees work in S&E fields.  

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with having an S&E degree and working outside of science; work is a very personal thing and it's important to find the right fit. And I won't speculate on what drives these differences. But when percentages vary this widely -- when Asian men with S&E degrees stay in science with nearly four times the frequency of Hispanic women --  powerful forces are at work.

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

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

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

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.

The President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness announced yesterday at a panel discussion in Portland, Oregon, that it had secured a commitment from 45 companies to double the number of engineering internship opportunities they offer by 2012. The move is part of the council's effort to train and graduate an additional 10,000 engineers from U.S. colleges and universities every year. Yesterday's announced commitments will add close to 6,300 new internships.

Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel and a member of the council, said that there simply aren't enough qualified engineers in the American workforce to meet the needs of the market. One reason so many companies are looking to relocate their R&D departments to China or India is that those nations are graduating about 10 times more engineers, making it all the more important that the United States bolster its own engineer-training programs, he said.

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. 

Research Councils UK (RCUK) have just released a video showing how the public can benefit from interacting with researchers, and how researchers can benefit from engaging with the public. 

The 7-minute movie includes interviews with researchers and members of the public during a public debate about future energy scenarios held as part of the York Festival of Science and Technology. The movie is nicely done and addresses important points -- it is well worth the watch.

Gregg Treinish, a man whose hiking credentials include a stroll along most of the Andes, took part in the Appalachian Trail Days event last weekend with an unusual sense of purpose. On a previous hike, he "felt selfish and ... realized that was a shared feeling amongst hikers and mountaineers," Treinish says.  That feeling, together with a stint studying wildlife biology at Montana State University, gave him an original idea: to offer adventurers the opportunity to share with scientists something that even those who travel light routinely take with them on their adventures: their eyes and ears. Now, wherever he goes, Treinish recruits fellow adventurers for his new organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ACS).

Plenty of researchers seek to include helpful citizens in their projects, as I wrote last year for Science Careers ("Collaborating with Citizen Scientists"), but ACS, launched in November 2010, may be the first dedicated matchmaker, removing some of the recruiting burden from scientists.

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.

For women in engineering, workplace climate issues are pervasive and continue to be a key reason they leave the field, reports a new survey of more than 3700 women engineering graduates from 30 U.S. institutions. One in three women who have left the field report working in uncivil, disrespectful environments, where colleagues and supervisors frequently undermine their work, the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded study found.

The survey -- aimed at trying to understand why 20% of engineering school graduates but only 11% of practicing engineers are women -- asked women in engineering jobs and those who had left the field about their job experience, training and development opportunities, and work climate.

Of those who left (1086 women):

  • Nearly half said they left because of working conditions; they report experiencing too much travel, low salaries, and a lack of personal advancement.
  • One-third report leaving because of the work culture; including treatment by boss or supervisors, and more generally a lack of female-friendly culture in the workplace.
  • Independently of those categories, 25% of the respondents reported leaving their jobs to spend more time with their family.

Of those who stayed (2099 women):

  • Most say that they have supportive supervisors and co-workers.
  • Women who report that they are undermined by their co-workers and work in cultures characterized by condescending, patronizing treatment are the least committed to staying.
  • Women who report that they are overworked both at home and work, and who were treated in a condescending manner, report experiencing considerable work-life conflict.

The report, published by the Project on Women Engineers' Retention (POWER), was careful to underscore that there was no difference between groups in their interests, confidence in their abilities, nor in their expectations of positive outcomes from performing a task.

The report's authors, Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh, of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, suggest that organizations and companies must find ways to better recognize positive contributions from women in engineering, root out undermining behaviors in the workplace, and foster an environment where colleagues and supervisors support women. Fouad and Singh suggest that changing the workplace environment could be done through formal mentoring programs and by providing forums for informal mentoring.

A video, summary of the report, and PDF are available on the Center for the Study of the Workplace Web site.

- Jennifer Carpenter

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.

The August employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor statistics (BLS) are in. The result: Pretty much No Change from one month earlier. Though it could be worse, that's not good news.

The U.S. economy lost 54,000 jobs from July to August 2010, including the loss of 114,000 temporary census jobs. Overall, governments shed 121,000 jobs -- just 7000 non-census jobs -- a pretty good result compared to the July, when state and local governments in a state of fiscal crisis shed 58,000 jobs in addition to the 143,000 temporary census jobs that ended that month. Meanwhile, the private sector gained 67,000 jobs.

A closer look at the report yields little of obvious interest: Most sectors either gained a few jobs or lost a few. One exception, perhaps, is the number of part-time workers who would rather be working full time, which increased by 331,000 over the month.

Since the size of the workforce increases by at least several tens of thousands every month, a flat month means employment is losing ground slowly. The economy has added 763,000 jobs since it's low in December 2009 -- but according to BLS statistics, the economy needs to add more than 7.5 million jobs just to get back to where it was at its peak in December 2007.

About 34% of regulatory affairs professionals are involved in comparative effectiveness research, health technology assessment, and reimbursement, compared with 25% just 2 years ago, according to a new survey released in August by the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society (RAPS). The survey includes 3120 respondents from 55 countries around the world (81% from the United States, and most others from Europe and Canada).

According to RAPS, "Regulatory professionals play critical roles throughout the healthcare product lifecycle, from concept through product obsolescence. They provide strategic, tactical and operational direction and support for working within regulations to expedite the development and delivery of safe and effective healthcare products to people around the world." Science Careers published an article about careers in regulatory science in April ("All in the Details: Careers in Regulatory Science").

The new survey found that 72.6% of the respondents work in industry, with the remainder employed in academic institutions (2.3%), government (3.2%), independent research organizations (3.5%), consulting firms (13.1%), hospitals (1.3%), and law firms (0.4%). More than 68% of respondents work with multiple product types, including different types of pharmaceuticals, medical devices and materials, veterinary products, cosmetics, and foods.

An increasing number of respondents (compared to previous years' surveys) report taking part in the business side of their work, which includes activities such as business and corporate strategy, finance, management, personnel management, and legal activities. On average, respondents reported spending 18.2% of their time on business aspects of their job; this figure varies substantially by job level. At the more junior levels, the duties usually include smaller business-related issues, as opposed to overall business strategy and functions among higher-level managers. Given those figures, it's perhaps not surprising that the number of respondents holding MBAs has increased in recent years, and is now up to 12%.

Almost all the respondents (99%) have a university degree, and more than 60% have degree credentials beyond the baccalaureate level. More than 86% have degrees in life sciences, engineering, or clinical professions, reflecting the scientific and clinical focus of this work.

Base salaries for US-based professionals currently range from an average of $55,606 at the coordinator level to approximately $200,000 for vice presidents and CEOs. Most employees in this field have seen their salaries stay constant or slowly increase despite the recession. The exceptions to this are vice presidents and CEOs, whose base salaries have been stable, but total compensation has decreased due to a reduction in bonuses. Somewhat lower salaries are reported in academic and clinical settings, while the highest ones are found in industry and government positions.

Consultants, 55% of whom are self-employed, have experienced a 17% decline in base salary and 21% decrease in total earnings. The number of consultants has increased over time, and 30% are self-employed with less than 2 years of work experience. Taken together, these data suggest that an increasing number of people have recently become independent consultants, likely due to loss of work in the economic downturn.

The majority of the report's findings overall were true across national boundaries, with the main differences related to the level of interest in health technology assessment/comparative effectiveness research and reimbursement, which was less common in Latin America and the Middle East. Salary levels differed by country and varied with local standards of living. The factors influencing the salary, however, such as job experience and education, were largely the same regardless of geographic location.

The RAPS Scope of Practice & Compensation Study is available online from the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society.

-by Yevgeniya Nusinovich

Raytheon Corporation, a defense and security contractor with $25 billion in sales in 2009, is looking for engineers -- a lot of them. William Swanson, Raytheon's CEO, told the Boston Chamber of Commerce this week that the company plans to hire 4,500 engineers this year, and it's having a tough time finding them.

Why? Swanson claims there aren't enough engineering candidates in the American workforce. He notes that the number of American students interested in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) shrinks the further you go in the educational system. Of the 4 million American ninth-graders in 2001, says Swanson, 167,000 will earn a scientific or technical degree by 2011, and of those just 64,000 will become engineers. He expects this to continue for some time.

Raytheon is making efforts to encourage more education in science and technology. Swanson says the company devotes 60% of its charitable giving to math and science education, including development of a simulation and modeling tool to help businesses, educators, and policy makers better understand the dynamics of the STEM labor market.

Understanding the STEM labor market can be a matter of debate, as Beryl Benderly pointed out in Science Careers two years ago. In particular, the experience of shortages by one company may not be reflective of the market as a whole. Benderly talked to experts who study labor market dynamics, who find that a shortage in one discipline or area of the country can go on while other fields or regions are experiencing gluts.

Our editor Jim Austin often discusses dynamics of the scientific workforce on this blog. In February 2009, he described the discrepancies between perceptions and realities of labor shortages and gluts by employers and job-seekers.

Hat tip: Experience blog

Since we're between flu seasons, concerns about encountering ill colleagues in the workplace have abated for now. But there's reason to be concerned, even without an epidemic in the headlines: A large percentage of American workers apparently go to work while sick, including more than half of those without paid sick leave, according to a new survey for the Public Welfare Foundation. The survey also shows that workers without paid sick leave are more likely to use hospital emergency rooms -- one of the least efficient and most expensive forms -- for primary care.

More than one-third (37%) of workers eligible for sick leave said they had gone to work while sick with a contagious illness, while more than half of those who are not eligible for sick leave -- 55% -- said they go to work while sick. Nearly a quarter (24%) of those without sick leave say they send their sick children to day care or school. And about two in 10 (18 to 20%) of workers without sick leave took themselves or family members to hospital emergency rooms for non-emergencies.These numbers are about double what workers with paid sick leave report.

Depending on how it's structured, the availability of sick leave may not keep people away from work, apparently. While more than six 10 (64%) are eligible for paid sick leave, less than half (47%) of workers took advantage. In many cases, paid sick leave is combined with vacation and family leave into a single pool called Paid Time Off (PTO). More than half (58%) of those with PTO get just 10 days or less of paid leave for all of these purposes. If they get sick after using up their PTO, they cannot get paid if they stay home while sick.

For researchers in government or larger industrial labs, sick leave usually comes as part of the compensation package. (In academia, leave is often handled less formally, but it's usually available.) The report cites the 2009 National Compensation Survey compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows that nearly nine in 10 (88%) of government workers get sick leave, as well as eight in 10 staff (81%) of companies with 500 or more employees. As companies get smaller, the percentage of workers with paid sick leave drops; about four in 10 (42%) of workers at companies with 15 or fewer employees get paid sick leave.

Part-time and lower-paid workers, the new new survey says, are less likely to be eligible for sick leave than full-time and better-paid employees. Only about a quarter (24%) of part-time workers get sick leave, compared to nearly three-quarters (73%) of full time workers. And only three in 10 of those making less than $20,000 a year get sick leave, compared to eight in 10 workers making $80,000 a year or more.

Survey data were collected by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, via 1,461 telephone interviews.

In his February 2008 Tooling Up column, Dave Jensen offers tips for adding muscle to your marketing materials, particularly your résumé and cover letter. One of those tips is to describe your accomplishments and contributions with "action words" -- terms that convey action and results.

Action words may help your materials stand out from the mass of others and improve your chances of getting an interview. Many résumés today, unfortunately, still give lists of duties rather than tell about applicants' results or contributions.

In his 2008 piece, Jensen links to a document with list of action terms offered by the law school at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). The CareerRocketeer blog recently posted its own list of 30 more résumé action terms, many of which are not on the UDC list. Some of these lend themselves to scientific or technical work. Here are a few ...


and my favorite ...

The importance of a good mentor for early-career scientists has been well documented on the pages of Science Careers and even by the National Academies. But finding a mentor who can open doors for you, and not just offer advice, takes special effort. In an entry posted yesterday on the Wall Street Journal's Hire Education blog, Steve Walters offers a few tips on how to make that special effort.

Walters calls this super-mentor a "whale": "somebody who is a recognized voice, widely admired or otherwise well-accomplished -- in other words, a high-achiever." Once you have identified an industry or profession in which you want to work, Walters suggests looking for executives, entrepreneurs, consultants, and other recognized experts with at least 10 years experience in that industry or profession. They likely will have networks including plenty of contacts in the field.

Whales can be people you know -- a current or former professor, for example. Or if none of your acquaintances fit that description, you can search online for authors of articles or blogs, or executives of industry associations. Walters then suggests making contact at near-by events, such as conferences or workshops, where the whales are likely to appear.

Walters describes a process for approaching a whale, including a straightforward way demonstrate your abilities: volunteer your services for one of  the extra projects whales tend to accumulate, like barnacles. In an article for Science Careers this past March, Brooke Allen mentioned the abundance of opportunities for volunteer work that are related to professional development. "There's plenty of work to do, even if there's no money to pay you to do it," Allen says.

Walters offers ideas on maintaining a relationship with a mentor and even for developing a network of mentors, since there's no rule that says you should have only one. "Once started, fostering these relationships should be one of your top career priorities," Walters says, "since you don't know where they may lead."

Woody Allen famously said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up," and new research suggests he may be on to something. This new research suggests that your physical presence on the job, while maybe not 80% of your success, can add a few percentage points to your perceived value.

The findings are published in a paper in the June issue of the journal Human Relations. Kimberly Elsbach and Jeffrey Sherman of University of California at Davis, and Dan Cable of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill talked in-depth with 39 first-line or mid-level managers about the implications of workers being present in the workplace. The findings from these open-ended interviews suggest that employees seen at work during normal business hours are considered dependable, reliable, conscientious, and trustworthy. As one respondent remarked, "So if I see you there all the time, okay, good. You're hard working, a hard working, dependable individual."

Showing up was particularly important for workers doing work that was not easily quantified, such as creative or specialized tasks. Being physically on the job assured the managers the workers were working diligently, even if they weren't completely knowledgeable about their output.

And if staff were seen on the job outside of normal working hours, they more often were considered committed and dedicated, and thus even more valuable. Speaking of staff who put in the extra hours, one respondent told the authors, "I think it's seen as a higher level of commitment, and you get thought of as an overachiever because you're seen after hours." This extra effort, according to another respondent, is "definitely one of the tests of management material."

The researchers followed the interviews with more of a controlled experiment that suggests this attribution of positive traits to those who show up could be a spontaneous or unconscious process. The team gave 60 professional-level employees a written scenario describing the activities of an office worker who was on the scene and observed by others. The participants were then asked to identify traits of the person described in the scenario from a list of test words, in what was presented to the subjects as a test of memory. Four of the test terms -- Dependable, Committed, Dedicated, and Responsible -- were NOT used in scenario. Nonetheless these terms were identified by far more respondents than other non-occurring terms such as Creative, Friendly, Unproductive, and Lazy.

An interesting angle on this research is that the authors focused solely on fellow workers' or managers' impressions of employees based on the extent to which they were physically present in the workplace, what they call "passive face-time." They did not get into other factors, such as substantive interactions with employees or even the nature of the work they performed.

Thus, just showing up could make a difference in how managers and fellow workers think about your value to the organization. Telecommuting and virtual organizations can cut costs, save energy, and allow for more time with your family, but you need to be breathing the same air if you really want your colleagues to recognize the good that you do.

Anyone who has been on the job market for any length of time knows the anguish experienced when a potential employer asks for a salary history as well as a C.V.  Author and career blogger Eve Tahmincioglu offers advice for dealing with this vexing requirement, and while there's no easy answer, there are ways of handling it productively.

When an employer asks for salary history, it can cut two ways. For job hunters making less than they feel they deserve, the salary history is seen as a way for employers to offer another low salary. For those lucky enough to be paid well, it is seen as a way for employers to arbitrarily remove their names from consideration in favor of lower-paid candidates.

A reader of Tahmincioglu's Career Diva blog falls into the first category, finding what she considers a dream job but with a requirement for salary history. The reader worked for a not-for-profit unit of a university that had faced one budget crisis after another, and as a result had only one pay raise in 5 years. Many readers of Science Careers, working at universities and not-for-profit organizations that have been particularly hard-pressed lately, can probably sympathize.

Tahmincioglu spells out three common options when faced with a salary-history requirement, none of which are fool-proof:

- Lie about your current salary, which can come back to haunt you if employers check your salary -- and they will.

- Put down your desired salary, but with an asterisk indicating "market rate"

- Don't answer, and put off the discussion until the employer makes an offer. This may work, but it's a crap shoot.

Tahmincioglu quotes a fellow careers consultant who lays out an interesting strategy: answer honestly but also spell out your circumstances, explaining why you deserve a higher salary. Then investigate prevailing rates of pay and the employer's financial situation in advance of  salary negotiations.  

In 2006 Dave Jensen devoted two of his Tooling Up columns to salary negotiations. The June 2006 column advises job hunters how to approach salary negotiations (Hint: You got more power in these negotiations than you think) and in July 2006 offers tools and tips for salary negotiations. And in another Tooling Up column coming up later this week, Jensen points out that some potential hires are more likely to encounter such difficult questions than others.

Canada's Université de Montréal is recruiting businesses to supplement traditional government grants for cancer research on its campus. The university's Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) models this program on a similar partnership that funded Canadian athletes for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The new program, called B2Discovery, hopes to enlist the for-profit private sector to fund research into cancer causes, diagnostics, drugs for prevention, and therapies for cures. According to Dr. Guy Sauvageau, CEO and Scientific Director of IRIC, the private funding will supplement traditional government funding, which Sauvageau says in a news release today "meets only part of the needs of our researchers." 

The model for B2Discovery is the B2Ten program, which supplements athletes' main sources of funding, providing access to the extra training and services athlete's need to excel internationally.  B2Ten's private-sector funds supported some 20 athletes that competed for Canada at the Vancouver Olympics. Like the B2Ten program, enterprises make charitable contributions to B2Discovery and take no ownership of the research findings.

B2Discovery is attracting interest from companies beyond biomedical industries. One of the early backers is Pomerleau, a construction company based in Saint-Georges, Quebec. Pierre Pomerleau, the company's president, says they signed on to B2Discovery because of its important mission and the role business can play. "Cancer is the leading cause of mortality in the country," Pomerleau says. "To conquer this devastating disease, we must be innovative."

Suzanne Lucas, a blogger and former human resources manager, answers a question from a reader today on the management Web site BNet about the wisdom of telling a potential employer about health problems. Lucas's short answer is "don't do it," at least not right away.

Lucas's reader is applying for jobs that require a college transcript, and in this case, the transcript shows the reader got less than stellar grades in some classes. The reason: medical problems. Also in this case, the reader's most recent grades were high and the mediocre grades received during the medical problems were in subjects unrelated to the work being applied for. A hiring manager, Lucas says, probably would not care about those mediocre grades, so the reader would be better off not mentioning them.

Lucas also addresses the broader question of leveling with a potential employer about chronic medical problems, noting that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination in hiring because of disabilities, and that employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. However, a study published in 2000 by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, reported that the hiring of people with disabilities actually decreased after the passage of ADA. Lucas says some observers attribute that decline partly to the cost of meeting those reasonable-accommodations requirements.

Lucas says applicants with chronic health issues should concentrate first on getting the job. Given the continuing tough job market, you don't want to give a potential employer any reason not to hire you. Once on the job for a while, you can disclose the health problems to the human-resources department, who can advise your supervisors on any accommodations you may need. By that time, says Lucas, it will probably be too late for management to fret much about the hiring decision.

Science Careers devoted a June 2004 feature to health issues in the scientific workplace, including a Mind Matters column by Irene S. Levine on disclosure of health problems. Levine, like Lucas, notes that the issue is not always clear cut, but offers a series of steps people with chronic health problems can take, including consultations with the employer's human resources department.

On the Secrets of the Job Hunt blog today, Hannah Morgan advises job seekers who have been offered a job that is less than what they hoped for when the job search started. Her post outlines a systematic method of evaluating job offers.

Morgan provides three sets of criteria for deciding whether to accept the offer:

- Have you been specific about what you are looking for?
In other words, does the employer know this is not your ideal job?

- Are you qualified? Is it a realistic option?

Morgan asks whether you have the skills for the job, but you could ask if you are over-qualified. Brutal honesty is needed here.

- Have you exhausted all your options?
Is it still possible that you'll be offered the job you really want?

Morgan then provides a set of questions to determine if this job may open doors for further professional growth, i.e., sacrifice job satisfaction today for job satisfaction tomorrow. She follows with advice on making the most out of the situation if you decide to take the job: "By all means, don't be resentful, negative, or give an air of superiority. Be grateful to have been given a chance."

In March on Science Careers, Brooke Allen offered another option. Unless making immediate money is absolutely required, you can always consider a volunteer position doing the work you love, until a good job in your field comes along.

Among the provisions in the 2010 health care bill -- officially, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- is one that offers grants to help small companies to start wellness programs for employees and offer rebates on health insurance for staff who enroll.  If they need more reasons, a study shows that wellness programs can improve the health of employees and cut insurance claims for employers.

A CNN-Money story from earlier this month describes the law's provision authorizing the Department of Health and Human Services to give out $200 million to help companies with fewer than 100 employees start new programs on nutrition, smoking cessation, physical fitness, and stress management. That part of the program begins next year. To sweeten the deal, beginning in 2014 workers taking part in wellness programs can get rebates of up to 30% of their premiums if they meet certain health-related benchmarks. (Hat tip: Jobacle Blog)

This provision can be especially helpful to the smaller businesses that employ scientists, such as many biotech companies. Many larger companies -- another major source of scientific employment -- already offer wellness programs. A study released on Friday at the Quality of Care and Outcomes Research in Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke 2010 Scientific Sessions shows that one such program benefited employee health and cut the company's insurance costs. The company in this case is CSX Transportation, a national freight rail and logistics provider with 30,000 employees. In 2004, CSX found it had higher than average rates of cardiovascular disease in its workforce, and correspondingly higher insurance costs, and decided to do something about it.

CSX's wellness programs offer health screenings, nutrition and exercise coaching, and on-site fitness centers. Analysts from CSX and pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer Inc. led by Kenneth Glover of CSX, compiled health data from 5768 employees on the CSX payroll from 2006 to 2008 and analyzed medical and hospital claims.

The results showed measurable improvement in the employees' cardiovascular health. CSX employees with high cholesterol found average total cholesterol declining and with the average high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL -- the good kind) increasing. Also, the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL decreased over this period, while the percentage increased of employees in the program who cut their levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL -- the bad cholesterol).

Among participants with hypertension, their systolic and diastolic blood pressure measurements dropped from levels the American Heart Association considers abnormally high to slightly above normal. The percentage of employees meeting their blood pressure goals increased from 43% to 67%.

CSX's health insurance budget benefited, too. The percentage of medical claims for these cardiovascular conditions, as well as diabetes, declined from 14% of the company's claims to 13%. The percentage of CSX employees filing cardiovascular-related medical claims dropped more sharply, from 57% to 43%. Among cases requiring hospitalization, cardiovascular claims dropped from 2.5% to 1.7%, and the proportion of CSX staff with hospital claims dropped from 6% to 4%.

Yesterday's big science news -- the creation of a bacteria cell with a synthesized genome -- comes from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, and San Diego, California. Craig Venter himself is already a scientific legend due to his role in the sequencing of the human genome. But one aspect of his story is less well-known, and shows how scientific talent can emerge from unlikely sources: In his case, the U.S. Navy and community colleges.

After high school, Venter joined the Navy and served in Vietnam as a medical corpsman in 1967-68. Corpsmen, like medics in the Army, treat wounded Navy sailors and Marines at the scene, sometimes in the midst of battles. Venter says the experience exposed him to the
"best and worst of human behavior", and also sparked his interest in medicine and science. Like many veterans, Venter has maintained his links with his service buddies, and in 2008 Vietnam Veterans of America honored him for his contributions to science and veterans issues.   

In an undated interview with the Foundation for California Community Colleges, Venter says that, growing up in San Francisco's East Bay area, he was hardly a stellar student.  So after the Navy, he chose to attend College of San Mateo (CSM), a community college, rather than a 4-year college. "Because of my prior experiences in the educational system," Venter says, "I was uncertain if I was cut out for academic life or if academic life was cut out for me." The G.I. Bill for returning veterans at that time provided a $130 monthly stipend for each month of service, for up to 36 months.

Venter credits CSM for his scientific success, including the human genome sequencing. "Had I not met such strong, enthusiastic professors right away at CSM, my educational experience and my life would have been very different from that point onward," Venter says. He names Bruce Cameron, an English professor, and Kate Murashige, a chemistry professor; Venter says both are still friends. The CSM experience prepared him well for upper-division classes when he enrolled at University of California, San Diego, Venter says.

Community colleges have become something of a family tradition with Venter. His son, niece, and nephew started their college educations at community colleges before transferring into the University of California system. Even his mother took classes at CSM.

Students and recent grads hunting for internships often have problems finding internship opportunities, unless they are advertised on campus, broken out separately on job boards, or discussed in Science Careers. At the same time, many entrepreneurial companies can be a good source of experience for interns -- but they may not have the recruiting resources to find interns. An online service called YouTern now aims to bridge this gap.

Officially unveiled last Friday at a Silicon Valley entrepreneurs show, YouTern aims to connect students and recent grads to internship opportunities with start-up or early-stage companies. Still in an early stage itself, YouTern is beginning in California, which has the highest concentration of startup-up companies and investments, the company says.

YouTern's advanced search capability lets job-seekers refine their search by a number of criteria including industry, academic major, amount of experience required, location -- within 5 to 100 miles of a city or zip code -- and whether the internship is paid.  But a quick test of some of these capabilities revealed that YouTern is still a work in progress. A search for paid engineering internships within 100 miles of zip code 90210 (I watch too much television) returned 50 jobs. But a number of those jobs were located all over the country: New Mexico, Massachusetts, Virginia, far from 90210.

A quick search of the YouTern database looking for Los Angeles-based internships with the keyword "science" also returned 50 hits. A few of these announced opportunities to work in a lab or do research, but many specified computer skills. And many, if not most, of the hits were with large, established companies such as CNN, IBM, Sony, and Northrup-Grumman -- not startup companies. Very likely, working for a big established company would make for a very different internship experience..

Among the capabilities still in development is integration with a general job board, with which these sample searches apparently coincided. An e-mail from a YouTern spokesperson today says YouTern has been testing this feature, and noted: "Although the test was successful from an engineering point of view, the additional postings were not sortable by what we would consider standard fields (including zip radius). Also, we were not 100% able to suppress particular companies using [the job board's] 'Advanced Search' function."

Anuradha Lohia, CEO of the India Alliance, will lead a series of seminars next month in the U.S. on biomedical, clinical, and public health research opportunities for postdocs in India. The India Alliance is a partnership between India's Department of Biotechnology and the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom, formed in 2008.

Lohia's seminars begin on 2 June at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, and end on 17 June at MIT in Cambridge Massachusetts. Other stops on her tour include Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, U.C. San Francisco, and Columbia University in New York. Event locations, dates, times, and registration forms are found on the India Alliance Web site.

The India Alliance offers fellowships for new and established postdocs, as well as more senior researchers. Applicants do not need to be Indian nationals. Early and intermediate fellowship applicants do not need to be resident in India at the time of application.

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]

According to the Arizona Republic, two universities in Mexico canceled their academic exchange programs with University of Arizona (UA) as a result of a new Arizona law that allows police to question individuals they feel might be in the U.S. illegally.  Among the canceled exchanges is a program for scientific researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the country's largest university.

In other fallout from the new law, an organization of Hispanic and Native American scientists removed Phoenix, Arizona as a potential site for its 2012 conference.

Francisco Marmolejo, UA's assistant vice president for western hemisphere programs, told the Phoenix newspaper last Friday that UNAM would no longer send students on exchange programs due to fears of harassment from authorities. The Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí, a state college in eastern Mexico, also canceled its exchange programs with UA for similar reasons.

Two exchange programs with UA were immediately canceled, including a delegation of 10 scientific researchers from UNAM. The other immediate cancellation involved a program for nursing students from the San Luis Potosí institution.

As we reported two weeks ago, UA's president Robert Shelton sent a letter to to the campus community after Arizona's governor signed the law, known as SB 1070. In the letter, Shelton told of students who initially chose to attend UA, but changed their plans after the law passed, as well as his concerns about the campus's international community. According to the Arizona Republic, UA has some 200 students from Mexico.

SACNAS, a 37-year-old organization made up of scientists and science students of Hispanic and native American origin removed Phoenix from consideration as a site for its 2012 annual conference. In a letter to Arizona's governor, SACNAS president president Jose Dolores Garcia said, "the immigration law SB1070 will make the state inhospitable to people of color, especially Hispanics."

The Arizona Republic reports that the National Association of Black Accountants, the International Communications Association and the National Urban League, and the oldest African-American Greek-lettered fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, have already canceled scheduled conventions in Phoenix because of the law.

The postdocs and graduate assistants at New Jersey Institute of Technology have joined forces to form a union, the state's second representing postdocs.  On May 6, the United Council of Academics at NJIT (UCAN), which represents both groups, filed for certification with the state Public Employees Relations Commission. "We teach your classes. We work in your labs. We contribute valuable research to projects across the university. We are the academic workers of NJIT, and we deserve to be treated as the professionals we are," says UCAN's mission statement.

Affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO-affiliated national union that last summer also organized the postdocs on the three campuses of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, UCAN claims on its Web site to have support from a "truly overwhelming majority" of the 450 postdocs and graduate employees at NJIT, which adjoins the Rutgers-Newark campus in the city's University Heights section. Rutgers union colleagues are in fact invited to the celebration UCAN has planned for Thursday evening. 

Meanwhile, negations on a first contract continue between the Rutgers union and the university.

Louise Fletcher, résumé coach and career blogger, suggested last week adopting techniques from real estate sales to make your résumé stand out from its hundreds or thousands of competitors. Before you turn up your nose at the idea of scientists using such tactics, read Dave Jensen's Science Careers column from last October, "Focus Your Industry CV". You will see some common themes.

Fletcher says that successful real estate ads sell more than a physical structure; they sell the dream of a new life. Before they talk about number of bedrooms and baths, home ads often talk about the neighborhood, surroundings, or lifestyle the new home can bring to its owners. Likewise, Jensen advises scientists and science students to focus their résumés on the needs of the employer rather than only discussing themselves. "The overwhelming question on the mind of the hiring manager as she scans your material," Jensen says, is, 'What's In it For Me?'" Sell the potential employer on the dream of a new employee -- you.

Just as listing the square footage of each bedroom probably won't entice many home buyers, a job hunter's list of experience and accomplishments aren't likely to make much of an impact unless they're put in the context of the hiring manager's desires. That takes work, starting with solid research about the company and the open position.

Focusing your résumé like real estate agents focus their ads also requires not trying to appeal to everyone, Fletcher says. Instead, call attention to the elements of your experience most powerful and relevant for the "buyer" -- employer -- you're targeting. In Jensen's October column, he advises making a quick, compelling case in your résumé and cover letter for why the organization needs to hire you for the job. As Jensen notes, "With the number of people looking for jobs today, you need to look like a 'must call' in just 30 seconds," Jensen says.

By taking a few hints from home sellers -- and Science Careers columnists -- you can put more punch into your résumé. And you don't even have to learn the fine points of mortgage finance.

Writing on her Career Diva blog yesterday, MSNBC careers columnist and author Eve Tahmincioglu gives advice to job-hunters on how to find out about the person who could be your boss at a company where you interviewed.

In Science Careers, Tooling Up columnist Dave Jensen encourages job hunters to do their due diligence on companies that have expressed an interest in you. Jensen's tells how to research the company and provides questions to ask in the interview of the hiring manager and others.

Tahmincioglu focuses entirely on the boss, including his or her personality and management style. There's a commercial service that, for $20.00, will search public databases for arrests, legal proceedings, and news reports. But Tahmincioglu tells how you to use your own networks to find out if your prospective boss is a good fit for your future, or someone who will give you fits.

Both Tahmincioglu and Jensen advise against ignoring warning signs or deluding yourself into thinking that you somehow can get along with a bad boss or in an organization with a toxic corporate culture. As a colleague tells Jensen, "If it smells funny, and it looks funny, try to avoid stepping in it."

Unless you're into agricultural research, you may have missed a new U.S. Federal funding source for life sciences research. On 1 October 2009, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) took over the duties of the Cooperative, State, Research, Education and Extension Service, (CSREES). NIFA offers grant programs that support research in science related to food production, engineering, biotechnology, and more.

NIFA was established through the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. Its mission is to enhance knowledge in human health, agriculture, environmental science, and related disciplines within the land-grant university system and other public, private and non-profit organizations. Land-grant universities date back to the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, and traditionally focus on agriculture, engineering, and science.

In an 8 October speech at the opening of NIFA, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that he wants the agency to operate differently than CSREES. "It is no exaggeration to say that NIFA will be a research 'start-up' company," Vilsack said. "We will be rebuilding our competitive grants program from the ground up to generate real results for the American people."  

Examples of the research Vilsack called for can be found in GrantsNet:

- NIFA's Women and Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Fields program supports research and extension projects focused on topics such as (1)  safe and nutritious food supplies;  (2) support for 21st century rural communities; and (3) climate change. These institutional grants aim to increase the participation of women and underrepresented minorities from rural areas in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The deadline for the current competition is 7 June.

- The Critical Issues: Emerging and New Plant and Animal Diseases research program provides one-time seed funding for research on plant pests and diseases. Some $370,000 in funds will be available in fiscal year 2010. The project period will be up to 2 years. The deadline is 21 June.

For more information about these programs and other NIFA research opportunities, click on the GrantsNet links above or visit the NIFA Web site.

In the blog EmploymentDigest today, career coach Peter Fisher offers a number of tips related to body language in a job interview. Fisher's basic message is that in order to build rapport, interviewees should take their cues from the interviewer.

By the time you get to an interview, you've already made a good impression with your networking, résumé, cover letter, LinkedIn page, and so on; otherwise you would never have made it this far. Your task now is to seal the deal, and a good performance in the interview will go a long way towards doing that.

Fisher stresses building rapport with the interviewer, which means making the interviewer feel comfortable with you. He recommends letting the interviewer initiate the handshake, for example. and watching how the interviewer sits and stands and modeling your behavior on the interviewer. Read the post for details and examples.

There's an exception to Fisher's "let the interviewer lead" principle: The interviewee should always be prepared to initiate eye contact, Fisher says. Looking the interviewer in the eye at the beginning of the interview is vital. "Avoiding the other person's eyes sends out the wrong signals and can give the impression of 'shiftiness', dishonesty, having something to hide, or lacking in confidence," Fisher says.

Don't worry about acting cool, whatever that means, Fisher advises. Act like the person they want to hire. You can go back to being cool once you're on the job.

The retirement of older workers opens up jobs for new workers entering the labor force. But according to a new survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), many older Americans plan to continue working beyond the retirement age. This year, fully one-third (33%) of American workers expect to retire after age 65, up from a quarter (24%) 5 years ago.

EBRI, which conducts its retirement confidence survey annually, says that most reasons for delaying retirement can be traced to the recession. About 3 in 10 (29%) of those who said they have delayed retirement blame the poor economy; another 22% point to changes in their employment situation. Sixteen percent say they cannot afford to retire and 12% cite the need to make up for investment losses (12%).

Nonetheless, EBRI found more Americans very confident they will be able cover their basic needs in retirement -- 29%, up from 25% last year. Yet, the findings suggest that many Americans have a way to go to make that happen.  About 7 in 10 (69%) workers say they have saved for retirement, down a little from 72% last year. But many American workers do not have much saved. More than half of Americans (54%) say the value of their home and pension (defined benefit) plans is less than $25,000. Some 27% say they have less than $1,000 in savings, 7% more than the number who said that last year.

EBRI conducted the survey of 1153 respondents -- 902 workers and 205 retirees -- age 25 and over in January 2010. The sample used random digit dialing, plus a supplementary sample of mobile phone exchanges, and was weighted to reflect a cross-section of the U.S. population.

April 21, 2010

Prepping Your References

At this week, Susan Adams provides tips on how to get your references to provide glowing accounts of your performance. As we pointed out last October, more employers today use the reference-checking process to learn all they can about potential hires, so you should not leave references to chance.

The first rule, Adams says, is to list as a reference people you know for certain will say positive things about you. Adams quotes a human-resources manager who says "Hiring managers expect a rave," so anything less than a completely favorable report will raise questions. And references should spell out specific examples of your contributions and not just generalities. A career coach told Adams that some prospects send their references bullet-point lists of their accomplishments, which references can then read back to employers.

A related tip: Use what you've learned about the employer to brief your references. Another career coach interviewed by Adams recommends asking the hiring manager in the interview to describe the strengths of the previous person in this job. You can then ask your references to describe your attributes in similar terms.

Still another suggestion: Get references representing different types of relationships with previous employers. This "360-degree set," as it is called in the article, should include a supervisor, a colleague, and, if you had supervisory responsibilities, someone who reported to you.

Adams also addresses the sensitive topic of references at an employer you left under less-than-ideal circumstances. You run the risk of tainting your references if you leave a company with guns blazing, Adams says. So when you're heading out, keep your mouth shut. Calm down, let some time pass, then go back and find someone who can give you a good word.

Mary Elizabeth Bradford, a recruiter turned career adviser, published a good explanation last Thursday of the hidden job market on her Career Artisan blog. The hidden job market is made up of unfilled positions that have not yet been advertised and in some cases may not even formally exist. Tooling Up columnist Dave Jensen and contributor Brooke Allen have discussed ways that scientists can learn about these jobs and make a case for getting hired into them.

Understanding the hidden job market means first understanding the recruiting and hiring processes of companies and organizations. Bradford gives a succinct description of these processes, illustrating that posting an open position on a job board comes much later in the process than most people realize. Hiring managers often talk to trusted colleagues or get recommendations from current staff before writing and posting an ad. Furthermore, Bradford adds, the managers may first post the opportunity on an industry association Web site before opening it up to the general public.

Tapping into the hidden job market, Bradford says, means tapping into this pre-announcement process. Networking, she explains, is one part of the overall task -- but it's not a substitute for hunting down the names of decision makers and discovering an enterprise's unadvertised needs. Bradford says that task requires that you understand your target market, research companies in your target market, design your marketing materials for that market, then send those materials to the people making the decision to hire.

Ostensibly, Bradford's career counseling services will help job hunters with this task. We submit that, for scientists at least, reading Dave Jensen's and Brooke Allen's articles, and the other articles in Science Careers, is just as good, even if it's not as customized as what Bradford offers.

Following strong earning reports this week from technology leaders Intel, Google, and Advanced Micro Devices comes news of increased hiring at some of these enterprises and throughout the industry.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Google said this week that it hired 786 new employees in the first three months of 2010. Intel reported plans for its first substantial hiring spree in 5 years, adding 1000 to 2000 new workers this year. In February, Cisco Systems said it plans to hire 2000 to 3000 new staff.

Smaller companies, particularly those active in social networking, are also adding employees. The mini-blogging platform Twitter says it has added 125 employees since May 2009. Professional networking service LinkedIn says it has added 154 new staff so far this year, and anticipates another 300 hires., a technology industry job board, says it now lists 62,000 positions nationwide, up from 51,000 a year ago. Dice told the Journal this was the first year-over-year increase since 2007.

Some tech companies are still shedding jobs, however, particularly those that are going through mergers. Hewlett-Packard's CEO says it had 304,000 employees last October, down from 321,000 a year earlier; H-P is in the process of absorbing Electronic Data Systems. The only jobs H-P has plans to fill are in its sales force. Oracle is cutting jobs as it integrates Sun Microsystems into its enterprise, but Oracle's CEO said in January that the company still plans to hire about 2000 people this year.

These reports support the data we've highlighted recently from The Conference Board on the job market for scientists, engineers, and related workers. For computer scientists and mathematicians, the number of posted job ads has increased in five of the last six months. Moreover, for each unemployed computer scientist or mathematician looking for work, there are 2.7 job ads -- far better than in the workforce at large, where nearly four unemployed workers are looking for work for every online job ad.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) last week released a report showing demand for H-1B skilled temporary worker visas is well below the levels experienced in recent years.

H-1B visas enable American employers to hire foreign workers in jobs that require advanced scientific or technical skills, such as engineers, scientists, and computer programmers. The law caps the number of visas issued at 65,000 per year, with another 20,000 positions reserved for applicants with a master's degree or higher. The latest application season began on 1 April 2010, and after one week, USCIS received 13,500 regular H-1B applications, plus another 5,600 requests for advanced-degree visas.

These numbers don't come close to the demand in previous years. Last year at this time, USCIS had about 32,500 applications for regular visas, about half of the 65,000 limit, while just about all of the 20,000 advanced-degree visas were taken up. Yet even those rates were considered slow compared to 2008 and 2007, where almost all H-1B visas were snapped up by this time.

The H1-B program has both vocal supporters and critics. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and trade groups like the Technology Policy Institute favor lifting the caps on H-1B visas, in order to bring more of the world's scientific and technical talent to the U.S.

But reports of enterprises and institutions abusing these visas have tarnished the H-1Bs. In 2008, Indian technology outsourcing companies grabbed one of every six visas issued. And last year the Department of Justice filed criminal conspiracy and mail fraud charges against 13 defendants for filing false statements and documents related to H-1B visas. As a result, some of the H-1B program's supporters in Congress have started distancing themselves from it.

Our columnist Beryl Lieff Benderly has also documented how postdocs with H-1B visas working on American campuses are more liable to be exploited, with lower salaries and fewer publications.

UPDATE 1: Amy Smorodin, v.p. of Technology Policy Institute wrote in to clarify that "the Technology Policy Institute isn't a trade group ‑ we are an independent, non‑partisan think tank".

UPDATE 2: ComputerWorld today reports on federal extortion charges levied against two employees of a Chicago-area IT consulting company that allegedly threatened retaliation against an H-1B visa holder who filed complaints with the Department of Labor about being owed back wages. The threats were allegedly delivered in unannounced late-night visits, with forced entry to the visa holder's home. The report says the victim used audio and video devices to record later conversations, which were given to investigators. The defendants face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

In numerous Science Careers articles and blog posts, we've recommended LinkedIn as a tool for making and maintaining contacts. LinkedIn is a social network with professional orientation -- much more than Facebook, which is more about personal connections. By extending your circle of contacts out several layers, LinkedIn can multiply the impact of your one-on-one personal network to uncover job opportunities. Moreover, LinkedIn's profiles capture details of work histories that let job-hunters describe their accomplishments and talents. LinkedIn also allows colleagues add recommendations and testimonials to your profile.

In his blog last week, Chris Hoyt -- a corporate recruiter for AT&T in Dallas, Texas, who writes under the nom de blog RecruiterGuy -- shared his take on some of the uses and misuses of LinkedIn he's encountered. Hoyt says he's a fan of LinkedIn, but he unloads on lazy job-seekers who think finding his LinkedIn page is all they need to get a job at his company.

Hoyt cites as an example the job seeker who started a LinkedIn message with "Dear Respected Madam" (Hoyt is male) and a compliment on a speech at an event Hoyt says he never attended. Hoyt also tells about several requests for résumé help, and frequent messages with variations on the "Please look at my résumé do you have any jobs?" theme.

All it takes to get his attention, Hoyt says, is honesty and professionalism. "Please understand that I'll go the distance in helping job seekers to find a match for their skills -- if they're honestly trying.  If they've taken the time to construct a full sentence when sending me a solicitation... If they've taken a look at what's posted on the job boards or the career portal of my employer."

In the blog post Hoyt reproduces a real example of an effective LinkedIn message from someone who was seeking a management position. Hoyt notes how the writer described the kind of work he wanted and the strengths he could bring to AT&T. His tone was conversational but confident and courteous.

Using this example, Hoyt offers advice to job-seekers sending e-mail or LinkedIn messages:

If you're engaging a recruiter or manager about employment, try and remember that it's a person on the other end of the e-mail.  Remind yourself that just because your message is being delivered in writing doesn't mean that it's your brightest move to use the same tone or shorthand that you'd use when messaging a friend or college buddy.  Step up your game and spend a whopping 5 minutes to craft a message that is similar to what you'd say in person to the recruiter.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) today released its annual faculty compensation report for 2009-10, and it had little good news for American academics or those hoping to join their ranks. AAUP's findings show the recession is cutting deep into campus finances at both public or private institutions, from community colleges to doctoral degree-granting universities.

Faculty members don't take a vow of poverty, and they aren't starving. Average annual salaries range from $59,400 at schools giving associate degrees to $91,060 for faculty at institutions granting doctoral degrees. But this year, the average salary increase amounted to just 1.2%, which didn't approach the rate of inflation: 2.1% as of February 2010.

Even the meager 1.2% average increase may be an overstatement. The 1200 campuses taking part in the survey reported their contracted salaries, not what faculty members were actually paid. Left out of the calculations were unpaid furloughs imposed on public institutions in some states (including Arizona and Georgia). Also, the survey covered full-time faculty only, not part-time or adjunct faculty who usually are paid less.

Even using the reported numbers, nearly a third (32%) of the reporting institutions cut faculty salaries from last year. Slightly more (35%) either held salaries at the same level as last year or granted increases less than the rate of inflation. As a result, faculty salaries at two-thirds (67%) of the institutions failed to keep up with the cost of living.  Four-year colleges and associate-degree granting schools were the hardest hit; there, about four in 10 schools cut salaries compared to about a quarter of universities granting masters, professional, or doctoral degrees.

The survey found wide differences between salaries paid to men and women on college and university faculties. Male faculty members received an average of $87,206, compared to $70,600 for their female counterparts. Higher salaries for men were found at all levels of degree-granting institutions and at all faculty ranks, from full professor to instructor.

Other forms of compensation were also cut, the survey showed.  Some 13% of surveyed institutions, including one-fifth of colleges giving bachelors degrees, cut employer contributions to faculty members' retirement accounts.

AAUP's report highlighted the key role benefits pay in the compensation packages of faculty members. Even with the cuts in employer contributions, schools paid the equivalent of about 10% of their faculty's salaries into retirement accounts.  In another retirement expense -- one required by law -- institutions paid 5-7% of faculty salaries for Social Security. Amounts paid for medical/dental insurance ranged from 18% of salaries at associate degree-granting colleges to 10% at doctoral degree institutions. The AAUP report also gave anecdotal evidence of other benefit cuts, notably sabbatical leave and meeting attendance.

Science Careers reviewed the grim academic job market earlier this year and about a year ago. Our most recent monthly compilation of data from The Conference Board on posted job ads found indications of an improving job market, with one exception -- jobs for education, training, and library staff (at all levels), where the number of unemployed job-seekers exceeded the number posted opportunities by more than 5 to 1.

If you didn't get enough Cinderella from Butler University's improbable rise to college basketball success, take a look Rochester Institute of Technology's (RIT's) ride to the NCAA hockey's championship this weekend in Detroit, Michigan. Like Butler, RIT's  championship aspirations fell short, losing to a superior University of Wisconsin team -- the tournament's no. 3 seed -- 8-1 in the national semifinals, which are known as the Frozen Four.

Until 5 years ago, RIT, in Rochester, New York, played hockey in Division III. This year, RIT won the Division I Atlantic Hockey Association championship. While that gained an invitation to the NCAA hockey tournament, RIT was seeded  15th of the 16 teams in the tournament. Like Butler, RIT upset some of the tournament favorites and skated its way into the Frozen Four with a 2-1 victory over favored Denver University and a 6-2 pounding of University of New Hampshire to win the regional final. 

RIT's roster is hardly a typical collection of college jocks. Like Butler, RIT has a small athletic program and plays in a small conference. RIT offers no athletic scholarships. One-third of the 24-man squad is majoring in science or engineering. Three are majoring in biomedical science, including sophomore defenseman Chris Haltigin, who has a 3.75 GPA. Another three players are in RIT's packaging science program, which combines materials science, economics, and business. Forward and co-captain Sean Murphy, a civil engineering student, was an academic all-American last year.

One advantage a school like RIT has over colleges with elite athletic programs is NOT being elite. RIT's coach Wayne Wilson told the New York Times that many pro hockey prospects leave their big-name college teams after 1 or 2 years, but RIT's team members play together for 4 years, where they gain experience and teamwork. While RIT's squad may not get the pro contracts, they are more likely to finish their degrees in solid academic disciplines that complement the great memories of their near-championship season.

Full disclosure: I attended printing technology classes at RIT in 1990.

It probably happens all across the country every year, but few take notice. At Stanford the milestone was commemorated by an article in today's Stanford Report, the university's daily news vehicle.

At the beginning of 2010, Stanford had 1754 postdocs -- more than ever before. Postdocs at Stanford now outnumber every undergraduate class. That's worth repeating and pondering: At Stanford, postdocs now outnumber freshmen.

It's not just a new record. It's the product of a remarkable spike in Stanford's postdoc population: 10% in just 6 months, says Ranja Sanford, Stanford's assistant dean for postdoctoral affairs, in the article. There has been a steady upward trend in the number of postdocs on campus, Sanford says, and then a sudden leap that she attributes to the bad economy. The number of Stanford postdocs has increased by 37% since 2000.

The article provides an interesting snapshot of the postdoc population at a major research university because unlike most universities Stanford keeps careful tabs on their postdocs:
  •  About 40% of all Stanford postdocs are women.
  • The biggest group -- 601 -- is from the United States. 242 have Chinese passports. "Rounding out the top five countries on the list are Korea (98), India (86) and Canada (70)," the article by Kathleen Sullivan says. 306 are from the European Union, nearly four dozen are  from Russia or Eastern Europe, 33 are from the Middle East, and 32 are from Latin and South America. "More than two dozen postdoctoral scholars are the sole representatives of their countries on campus, including Jamaica, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe," Sullivan writes.
  •  2/3 of Stanford postdocs are at the medical school. About 200 are in engineering. Of the balance, 80% are in biology, chemistry, physics, and applied physics. The rest are distributed among 10 departments including history, linguistics, philosophy, East Asian studies, psychology and sociology. 
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A new InfoBrief from the U.S. National Science Foundation says that between 2004 and 2008 the number of jobs in science and engineering (S&E) increased by 13.7% compared to 5.5% for all occupations and 4.9% for non-S&E occupations -- an annual growth rate of 3.3%. Interestingly, all the job growth in science and engineering occurred in higher-level non-management jobs; technician, programmer, and S&E management jobs fared especially poorly, declining by 0.2%.

The fastest growth was seen in jobs related to science and engineering but outside of S&E proper (and also outside the health professions) -- a group that roughly maps onto what are commonly called alternative, or non-traditional, science careers. Jobs in this category grew by 16.8% over the period. Other fast-growing areas were social science (16.2%), life science (16.0%), and mathematical and computer science (15.9%).

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In Friday's New York Times, Steven Greenhouse describes how unpaid internships may get companies offering these opportunities in legal hot water. The story tells about students not only working gratis at some of these jobs when the law says they should be paid, but also doing tasks that could hardly be called an educational experience.

Greenhouse cites evidence that the number of unpaid internships is growing, along with the eagerness of students to get their names and faces in front of potential employers. But three states -- Oregon, California, and New York -- have begun investigations of unpaid internships, which may violate minimum wage rules. And the U.S. Department of Labor is increasing its enforcement of internships that may break federal wage and hour laws.

The Labor Department has six criteria that must be met for companies to hire unpaid trainees:

- The training must be similar to that given in an academic institution or vocational training school

- The training benefits the trainees

- The training cannot displace regular employees and trainees must be closely supervised

- The company that provides the training gains no immediate advantage from the trainee's activity

- Trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of the training experience

- Both employer and trainee understand that trainees are not entitled to compensation for the time spent in training

If any of those standards are not met, the Labor Department says, then the trainee is considered an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act and due at least the minimum wage.

Oregon, one of the states investigating unpaid internships, found cases where unpaid interns displaced regular workers and were not working in an educational environment. Greenhouse says an investigation of unpaid internships at a solar-panel manufacturer in Oregon led to two interns receiving $3,350 in back wages.

Greenhouse also described menial work experiences of interns that come nowhere close to anyone's definition of "educational". In one case, a New York University (NYU) film student who hoped to get training in animation did an unpaid internship for a production company in Manhattan. However, she was assigned to the company's facilities department and ordered to wipe off doorknobs to prevent the spread of the swine flu virus. In another case, a law firm in New York -- a company that would have a problem claiming ignorance of the law -- hired an NYU student for the summer, withheld the promised $10.00 an hour wage, and required the intern to make coffee and sweep out bathrooms.

The laws get fuzzy, Greenhouse says, when not-for-profit organizations offer internships. In some cases, it is difficult to tell where volunteer work for charities ends and unpaid internships begin. Another gray area involves course credits. In California and some other states, unpaid student interns can receive college credits for the experience. But the U.S. Labor Department says companies still need to meet the six criteria for unpaid internships, even if students also receive course credits.

Science students have more opportunities for landing paid internships. As we mentioned in our blog post last week on internships, many science-related student internships offer real money for the experience thanks to research grants or other training funds. And as noted earlier in March, paying interns in a well-designed internship program can pay off handsomely for employers as well.

In a post on, posted yesterday, columnist Bill Bartman gives advice to budding employers on the five traits he believes make for great hires. While intended for employers, his advice offers insights into the thinking behind hiring decision, particularly in small businesses or quickly changing industries, that could be helpful to job seekers.

Bartman, who claims to have made a fortune buying and selling bad loans, says his companies have hired almost 10,000 people over the years; he doesn't say how many years or companies. He also says that his employee turnover rates were far lower than industry averages. Why? Presumably because he hired well. Here's what he suggests new bosses look for in their new hires ...

- Aptitude. Experience is nice, says Bartman, but if you want to turn your industry on its head or start an entirely new line of business, experience can be more of a disadvantage. Instead of people who claim to know their way around the industry, he says, look for raw talent and skills you can build on, like the ability to build rapport quickly, and to handle rejection.

This emphasis on raw skills rather than years of experience can be important in fast-moving industries such as biotech, genomics, or green energy, where you often need to adjust to new circumstances and opportunities. It can also benefit recent graduates, while it works against the interests of mid-career job hunters.

- Attitude. Bartman tells about a FedEx driver who applied eight times for a job with one of his companies. Her persistence impressed Bartman, who later hired her. Bartman also tells about one of his employees who, when her car broke down, walked 15 miles to work. He was so impressed with her loyalty he bought her a new car. You may not have an opportunity to demonstrate this kind of motivation to an employer, but you can demonstrate in your resume, cover letter, and interview that you keep at a task to see that it gets done right, or go the extra mile for a customer.

- Intelligence. Here Bartman says he's talking about creativity rather than IQ. He advises new business owners to ask candidates about situations where they broke through time or budget constraints, or other barriers. These kinds of questions resemble behavioral interviewing, which we've discussed on this blog and in Science Careers articles.

 - Intensity. By intensity, Bartman means a sense of urgency and excitement about the work. This quality is one of those "intangibles" that employers look for in interviews, but it's difficult to describe or quantify. Bartman says he would tell candidates that working in his company would be the hardest job they ever had, but also the best. If Bartman saw that the statement rattled candidates, he wouldn't hire them.

- Integrity. Bartman looks for people's ability to deliver what they promise. "I also expect employees at any level," Bartman says, "to have the guts to deliver bad news rather than shade it or hide it." This trait likely would not come out in a resume or even in interviews, but it would in reference checks, which are becoming much more comprehensive and probing.

Bartman says these traits are not easy to train in new hires, so they need to be uncovered in the hiring process, which is not an easy task. "These are not traits that show up like a swallowed coin on an X-ray," Bartman says, so employers need to develop their sensors to pick up on them.

I've been lucky enough to stay employed throughout this long, deep recession. But when I read the bulk email this morning from the Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and learned that the economy had added 162,000 jobs in March -- and, in a correction, 14,000 each in January and February -- I got a tiny taste of what it must feel like to learn that a war is over and our side won. Serious elation.

I realize, of course, that there's still a great deal of unemployment-related suffering out there, and that the suffering will continue for months or years to come. The unemployment rate didn't budge, after all, and 40,000+ of the jobs added in March are temporary census jobs.

Yet, with three straight months of added jobs, the third month with substantial gains, it feels like we've turned a corner. The gains were fairly uniform; even manufacturing added jobs, and construction held steady. Those are good signs. Add in March's up-tick in the number of online job ads in most STEM-related categories and there's good reason to be hopeful. With continued enlightened government policies, there's reason to expect the scientific job market to begin to grow again at a healthy pace. I've got my fingers crossed. 
In an EmploymentDigest blog post from yesterday, Bill Vick advises job hunters who land an interview to assess the style of the interviewer and be prepared to react accordingly as the session progresses. Vick, a recruiter, entrepreneur, and consultant, parses interviewers into five types and says that recognizing an interviewer's type early in the interview can give interviewees tools for getting their message across when the interviewer is -- to be charitable -- less than an expert at it.

How many of these interviewers have you encountered?

- Non-stop talker. This interviewer talks more -- much more -- than he asks questions. The non-stop talker makes it tough for candidates to break in with their selling points, but the friendly chatter also can lull the candidate into saying something he or she might not want to divulge. Vick recommends staying focused and waiting for an opportunity to ask questions about the position or organization, to help get the discussion back on track.

- Drill sergeant. This style is the opposite of the non-stop talker. Here, the interviewer fires off questions in monotone, which can be intimidating. Here again, Vick says to keep your focus, maintain eye contact, provide solid answers, but don't try to engage in small talk. To the extent possible, return questions with your own questions, but be prepared for more drill.

- Traditional interviewer. This interviewer follows a predictable script, often with prepared questions. Vick says the traditional interviewer may be trying to stay completely objective, or he or she may just be using the script as a crutch. The advice here is to allow the interviewer to remain in a comfort zone by following his or her lead, but to use opportunities in the discussion to follow up with questions of your own so that you can learn more about the organization and make your own points.

- Inexperienced/newbie. As Vick says, "everyone has to start somewhere." You may run into an interviewer who doesn't know where or how to begin. This is a tricky situation because you want to get across your selling points but you do not want to embarrass or confuse the interviewer. Vick advises staying on message -- but don't ask questions you suspect the interviewer can't answer.

- Inappropriate interviewer. This interviewer crosses the line with questions that are unrelated to employment or just too personal. On this blog last month we discussed Interview Questions from Hell, where some questions are so egregious they break laws, not just the bounds of good behavior. Vick says candidates should keep the session on a professional level and turn the discussion back to the job and the company.  If the interviewer continues being a jerk, conclude the discussion.

Vick's interview types generally apply to one-on-one interviews conducted in person. There will be variations for other kinds of interview sessions. Here are links to Science Careers articles discussing telephone, informational, and panel interviews.

On Friday, Tara Weiss in offered some pointers for students on landing a coveted summer internship. Hunting for an internship is a lot like hunting for a permanent job in that it takes both preparation and professionalism. Interns may generally be younger or paid less, but that still means you have to look and act like a pro when applying.

Weiss says that according to National Association of Colleges and Employers the market for internship hunters is improving; employers are hiring 5.8% more interns this year than last year. But applicants for internships are also getting more aggressive: Last week I gave an informational interview to a candidate for an internship here at Science, the first time I had been information-interviewed for an internship.

In finding internships, you need to look past college bulletin boards and campus recruiters to identify places to work. Weiss recommends making a list of companies or organizations where you would like to intern. Rattle your networks of professors, recent grads, friends, and family to find the names of the hiring managers. Then see if your contacts can make an introduction or referral on your behalf. In many organizations, employee referrals get more serious consideration than those coming in cold.

If you don't know anyone in those companies, use impersonal means such as company Web sites or  LinkedIn to get the names of managers in the department offering the internship. Send your résumé to those managers as well as the H.R. department.  

Like hunting for a permanent job, Weiss says, do your homework on the target companies. Read their annual report and news about the organization -- and not just the press releases on the company Web site -- to learn what's going on in the organization, the products and services offered, and who are their customers. Customize your cover letter and résumé to display this background research. Few hiring managers will expect an intern to have a lot of direct experience in their kind of work, but you still can highlight problems solved or leadership provided in campus organizations or in part-time jobs you've held.

If you get an interview it will likely be held over the telephone -- unless you're local -- since few companies have the resources to pay travel for intern interviews. In a 2006 Tooling Up column, Dave Jensen gave advice on nailing telephone interviews. More phones have gone mobile since then, but Dave's advice still applies. And if you're lucky enough to get a personal interview, career coach G.L. Hoffman earlier this month gave students a few pointers on job interviews from the hiring manager's perspective. (Really dudes, lose the chewing gum.)

In the interview, Weiss advises, ask about next steps and timetable, which will show your enthusiasm for the internship and give you an idea of when to follow-up if you don't hear anything. And send a thank you note -- hard copy or e-mail -- that offers a sincere 'thank you' and also emphasizes your strengths, or covers over rough spots in the interview.

Pay is always a touchy subject in internship interviews. Fortunately, many science internships are paid positions, supported by research grants or programs like NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates. If, however, you're being considered for an internship with a not-for-profit organization or start-up company, you may need to balance the desire for experience against the limited compensation they offer. Here's where you will need to think through in advance potential scenarios and make a decision based on your current needs versus future opportunities.

Consistent with the plan we mentioned 2 weeks ago on the Science Careers blog, the House of Representatives lumped much of their student-loan bill into the package of fixes to the health care reform bill. Yesterday, both the Senate and the House passed this package, which now goes to President Obama for his signature. But in order to get the deal made, aid to community colleges in the original student loan bill had to be cut.

Combining the bills gave Democratic lawmakers a way to bypass a threatened filibuster of the bill by Senate Republicans. The combined bill used a legislative procedure called reconciliation that's reserved for budgetary measures, which, under the Senate rules, allows legislation to be passed with a simple majority. The strategy helped get the bill passed, but it required cutting back on some of the financial aid provisions in the student loan bill, to meet complex reconciliation rules. For example, today's New York Times says the student loan bill had originally proposed a new $10 billion program to increase community college enrollments for improving skills in the American workforce. But those funds were among the spending excised to keep the entire package on target. Instead, section 1501 of the final bill authorizes $2.5 billion for job-training grant programs over the next 5 years.

The original bill's main provisions remain intact, however. The federal government will now loan money either directly to students or through educational institutions. The law ends the role of private banks in originating student loans. While private companies can still play a role in servicing loans, they lobbied strenuously against this bill. Even Science Careers received some messages from the industry.

The restructured program will convert savings from loan subsidies and guarantees to private lenders into new Pell grants for low- and moderate-income students.  As we noted two weeks ago, however, the original estimate of $87 billion in savings over 10 years has shrunk  as institutions have gotten a head start, substituting direct lending for private loans in anticipation of the bill's passing. The New York Times puts the savings estimate at $61 billion, with most of the savings ($36 billion) going to fund Pell grants.

March is Women's History Month, and this week in particular there have been some exciting highlights of women in science.

For starters, today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day of blogging about women in science. Bloggers can register their posts with the Finding Ada Web site, where anyone can view a map or a list of the posts by the women profiled in the posts. This list will no doubt update throughout the day and perhaps even longer. (Note: Organizers of today's event note on Twitter that they're victims of their own success -- their Web site keeps crashing from all the visitors. If the links above don't work, check back later.)

I was pleased to see on the list a post from SarahAskew's Sarah Kendrew on Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who heads the optical instrumentation unit at the space firm Astrium. I had the pleasure of meeting Maggie at the U.K. launch of the She Is An Astronomer campaign, and we later profiled her in Science Careers. She's one of those people for whom the term "infectious enthusiasm" was invented. Sarah's post definitely confirms that I'm not the only one who thinks that.

Maggie also made The Independent's list of today's women trailblazers in science, published earlier this week. Another scientist on The Independent's list jumped out at me: Ottoline Leyser, a plant biologist at the University of York. Ottoline is a passionate scientist who is also committed to career development. I'm mentioning her because she received the Royal Society's Rosalind Franklin Award in 2003, and the project she did with the prize money was to assemble a book, "Mothers in Science: 64 Ways To Have it All" (links to full-text PDF of the book). I think this is such an excellent idea and a great resource.

Also this week, the Royal Society published a list of the most influential women in the history of science. The list includes Mary Anning, Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin, and Anne McLaren, to name a few.

Take a look at the lists above -- perhaps you'll be inspired to write a blog post of your own about a woman in science who has inspired you. You can also see who's tweeting about Ada Lovelace Day by searching Twitter for the hashtag #ALD10. There are so many great posts out there this week on women in science that I can't link to them all, but feel free to post your favorites in the comments below.

The hotly debated Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that passed the Senate in December and House of Representatives last night establishes a new center for comparative effectiveness research in health care costs and quality, a topic discussed earlier this month in a Science Careers article.

Section 6301 of the bill establishes an independent, not-for-profit corporation, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI)

"to assist patients, clinicians, purchasers, and policy-makers in making informed health decisions by advancing the quality and relevance of evidence concerning the manner in which diseases, disorders, and other health conditions can effectively and appropriately be prevented, diagnosed, treated, monitored, and managed through research and evidence synthesis that considers variations in patient subpopulations, and the dissemination of research findings with respect to the relative health outcomes, clinical effectiveness, and appropriateness of the medical treatments, services, ... "

PCORI would be funded by a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Trust Fund, financed by transfers beginning in 2013 from two other federal medical trust funds. The use of a trust fund for financing helps protect the institute from day-to-day political considerations in funding decisions.

The bill calls for PCORI to establish research priorities and a project agenda based on the prevalence and burden of diseases in the U.S. particularly chronic conditions, as well as a host of patient care and cost-control variables. The proposed research priorities will be open to a public-comment period as well.

The bill also identifies PCORI's research methods: primary research and systematic reviews of existing studies. To conduct its research, the institute will contract with federal agencies -- the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) to start -- and non-government researchers.

Research conducted for the institute will be peer reviewed, and the bill allows PCORI to use the processes of the NIH and AHRQ or academic journals. Within 90 days, research findings will be made available to the medical community and general public. AHRQ is also authorized to take proactive steps to disseminate the findings to physicians, health care providers, patients, insurance providers, and even health care technology vendors. The bill calls as well for AHRQ to award grants for training in the research methods used by the institute.

The new law imposes some restrictions on the use of comparative effectiveness research. Perhaps in response to the phony "death-panel" claims -- that comparative-effectiveness research would be used for making end-of-life decisions on individual patients -- made by the bill's opponents, the bill prohibits the use of comparative effectiveness research findings "in a manner that treats extending the life of an elderly, disabled, or terminally ill individual as of lower value than extending the life of an individual who is younger, nondisabled, or not terminally ill."

National Institutes of Health (NIH) wants a few really new and different ideas on how to achieve more ethnic diversity in the biomedical sciences, and is prepared to pay up to $10 million for those ideas.  Our colleague Jeff Mervis on the Science Insider blog yesterday reported on a new NIH Director's Pathfinder Award aimed to get those breakthroughs.

The announcement for this competition notes that greater diversity in the biomedical research workforce is not just the right thing to do, it also benefits the research enterprise. A more diverse workforce helps achieve greater minority participation in clinical trials, says NIH, and improves patient satisfaction.  

The announcement also makes no bones about its desire for ideas they haven't heard before:

The Director's Pathfinder Award is designed to support extremely creative individual scientists who propose innovative -- and possibly transforming -- approaches to this major challenge to biomedical research. The proposed approaches should have the potential to produce an unusually high impact in an area of research on workforce diversity.

NIH plans up to five awards of $2 million each, for projects lasting no more than three years. For entries to be considered, they must be new projects, not extensions of ongoing research. Plus awardees need to show they will devote no less than 30% of their research efforts to these projects.

Proposals are due on 4 May 2010. Letters of intent -- not required, but encouraged -- are due on 5 April.

The National Human Genome Research Institute, part of National Institutes of Health, unveiled today its Genomic Careers site for students thinking about genomics as a career.

The site introduces students to careers in genomics research as well as fields that apply the science of genomics, such as forensics and biomedical engineering. Visitors will find the site's primary medium is video. Even the introduction to the Web site and an introduction to the field of genomics are given on videos. The site does offer transcripts for those who still favor the written word.

An entire section of the site offers 51 videos including interviews with people working in and around genomics who tell about their careers. Other videos in this section give tours of genomic research centers and companies that commercialize their findings. Another section, called Career Profiles, gives quick overviews of more than 50 jobs in or related to genomics, with details such as salary ranges and medians, minimum education required, projections on growth in job opportunities, and links to other Web resources.

Other parts of the site are more interactive with tests of knowledge of the field, based on what visitors learn while at the site, as well as ratings of the content. Visitors who register with the site and provide ratings of the content can get an assessment of their interest in different types of genomics careers -- such as research, clinical applications, or policy jobs -- based on those ratings. Still another section is designed for teachers and counselors to help students with their genomics career questions.

An Office of Management and Budget (OMB) memo last week gave federal agencies the green light to use more grand challenges and prizes to spur innovation. The memo, signed by Jeffrey D. Zients, OMB's Deputy Director for Management, points out that agencies with funds for grants can use that funding and authority to sponsor grand challenges and prizes.

Zients encouraged agencies to use such competitions, a form of "crowdsourcing" that gathers broad public input in the search for innovative solutions to problems. Agencies were urged to collaborate with outside organizations for the design and management of these prize competitions. OMB promised that within four months the Administration would have a Web-based platform for agencies to post their prize and challenge competitions and invite communities of problem solvers to take part.

The memo outlined the legal and financial mechanisms enabling agencies to offer prize competitions and challenges, including grant-making authority. Zients notes that a grant "is defined in the Federal Grant and Cooperative Agreement Act (and in OMB Circulars) as financial assistance by the Federal Government that provides support or stimulation to accomplish a public purpose;" a cooperative agreement is defined similarly, but calls for the agency's substantial involvement.

Where agencies have the authority to give grants, the memo says, they can offer a cash prize for a competition under the same authority as long as the prize is consistent with legislation authorizing those funds. Competitive grant programs like the ones commonly used to fund research are especially suitable, the document says, since their legislative authorizations often do not specify how the funds should be distributed.

Zients cited several examples of prizes or challenges as evidence of the value of the approach, notably DARPA's grand challenge to develop robotic cars and NASA's Centennial Challenges to develop technologies, from lunar landers to astronauts' gloves. Zients also pointed to Department of Energy's L Prize, used to develop more efficient alternatives to incandescent bulbs.

Hat tip: Peter Modigliani

When we last checked in on the proposed Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which aims to reform the student loan process, the bill had passed the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate due to a threatened Republican filibuster. The New York Times reports this morning that Democratic leaders in both houses of Congress have worked out a deal to move the bill to a vote.

According to the Times, the deal would fold the student loan bill  into the Senate's health care reconciliation bill, which needs a simple majority (50 + 1 votes) to pass rather than the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. Senate rules allow the use of the reconciliation method only for budget-related legislation, and most provisions of the student loan bill meet that criterion. Ezra Klein of has a good, brief explanation of the reconciliation process proposed for the health care bill.

The student bill would end the role banks and and other private lenders play in making student loans. Students now can borrow money from private lenders through the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which provides subsidies and guarantees to banks and other lenders. Students or their families can also borrow directly from the U.S. government's Federal Direct Loan Program. The bill would fold all lending into the Direct Loan program, leaving the private sector with a much-reduced servicing role.

The bill would also redirect the anticipated savings from the end of private-lender subsidies to more funding for the Pell grant scholarship and Perkins loans that students can get through their institutions. When the bill passed the House in September, the Congressional Budget Office estimated those savings at $87 billion over 10 years. The Times this morning says that many institutions, in anticipation of the new bill, have increased their use of federal money for Perkins loans to students, thus reducing the amount of private loans. Because of this cutback in private student loans, the estimated savings are now down to $67 million over 10 years.

Linux software vendor Ksplice tells how they conquered a difficult management problem with a unique staffing approach: Hire interns. In December of 2009 the company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, found itself with a host of pending engineering projects outside of its core business functions, and it needed to complete these projects quickly for a new product launch last month.

Ksplice's solution: hire a dozen student interns from nearby MIT -- for one month. Each intern was assigned one of the company's pending projects to complete in that period of time. Adding the 12 interns quadrupled the size of its engineering staff. In a blog post yesterday, Ksplice says all 12 of the interns completed their tasks.

How did Ksplice do it? The company is located in the shadow of MIT and founded by MIT alumni, which helped Ksplice locate and hire the best talent. It also helped that MIT sets aside the month of January for students to pursue independent activities Here are a few other tips that Ksplice offers companies considering a similar project:

- Pay well. If you want the best talent in a place like Cambridge, you have to pay for it. Ksplice says it pegged its compensation to the high-end of prevailing pay rates for on-campus jobs.

 - Devise the tasks to be as self-contained as possible. Because each of the assignments involved tasks outside the Ksplice's core technology, the interns did not have to become super-familiar with Ksplice's systems. Instead, they could concentrate on solving their specific problems, with minimal ramp-up time

- Design the interns' projects in advance. Ksplice had to plan this intern project carefully to make it work. Before hiring the interns, they had to plan the interfaces between each task and the company's core technology so that they could give the interns specific targets to meet.

- Tolerate a little crowding. Ksplice works in a suite of two rooms, into which all 12 interns piled for a month. A photo on the company blog shows the interns at work. It is evident they got to know each other very, very well.

Hat tip: Ed Dodds

It would seem so, if statistics (free download -- pdf reader required) just published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) are to be believed.

The AIP analysis reveals -- unsurprisingly, to this former physicist -- that physics majors scored 161.5, on average, on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) -- higher than any other major. Math majors came in just a little lower, at 159.7. All of the six top-scoring majors were science related -- assuming that you consider economics to be science-related. The highest-scoring non-science major is English, followed very closely by two more science fields, biology and then computer science. Pre-law, by the way, comes in a distant 12th of 13 majors, and criminal justice guards the rear.

Physicists also do very well on the MCAT -- the Medical College Admissions Test -- but they miss out on the top spot by a hair. The best scoring major on the MCATS is chemical engineering, followed by physics, electrical engineering, economics, neuroscience, and mathematics. Interestingly, English was again the highest-scoring non-science field, again ranking seventh (of 13).

What's the lowest-scoring major on the MCSTs? "Premedical."

An aside: When professional associations start telling you how good preparation in their field is for other careers, you can bet the job market in the field isn't good.

You can download the AIP report, in pdf form.

We've written about what a lousy job market we're in for early-career scientists -- see Tenure-Track Jobs Remain Scarce for the latest account.

But there are scarier examples out there of how lousy the times are for academic scientists. An example: Florida State University (FSU) has laid off 25 tenured faculty members as the departments of geology, oceanography, and anthropology are disbanded and merged into a new Earth and Atmospheric Sciences unit. Reportedly, three tenure-track assistant professors also lost their jobs. All told, about 200 people, faculty and staff, are expected to lose their jobs.

There's an account of the fall-out -- Layoffs Lower Morale by Senior Staff Writer Courtney Griffin -- published last Thursday at, the online edition of FSU's student newspaper. Other Florida universities are also laying off tenured faculty members, but in far fewer numbers than FSU.

The faculty -- including Philip "Flip" Froelich, Francis Eppes professor of oceanography, who will lose his job, is incensed. "The university administration has torn the fabric of the faculty, there's no trust between the faculty and the upper administration of this university," Froelich said, quoted in the article.

Hat Tip: National Student News Service

Last week Beryl Benderly wrote about the successful effort to unionize postdocs on three University of Massachusetts campuses. Beryl wrote, "Having collected signed union cards from a majority of the approximately 300 postdocs at UMass's Amherst, Boston, and Dartmouth branches -- Canovas's Worcester campus is not involved -- the new union received certification this week from the Massachusetts Division of Labor Relations. It can now begin contract negotiations with the university."

That's all true -- except, possibly, for the part that say the Worcester campus was not involved. Accounts differ, but it seems likely that there was an attempt to organize the Worcester campus -- home of the UMass Medical School -- but that so far the attempt has not succeeded.

Here's one more small correction on that story. Postdocs at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell were originally certified by SIEU as Benderly wrote in the article, but have since joined the Massachusetts Teachers Assocation, which is affliated with the National Education Association.

In a piece posted today, Todd Bavol -- author, blogger, and self-styled Job Search Ninja -- tells why the way you start off a new job is so important and offers tips on getting started off right.

Bavol urges new hires to use the time between acceptance of the job and the start date  --  a few weeks or more when typically there's little contact with the employer -- to get familiar with the enterprise, cement contacts with people met during your interviews, and to meet their new coworkers.  Bavol recommends making on-site appointments with the new boss and colleagues prior to the start date. That exposure will give you a better feel of the new surroundings so when the job starts things seem more familiar and you feel and act less like a newbie. It's even more important to get to know your new colleagues in a less stressful atmosphere than the job interview. These meetings will help you begin to  can learn more about the job's real expectations, which almost always differ from what's in the formal job description. Finally, the fact that you're doing this on your own time will likely make a good impression with your new colleagues.

Another step Bavol recommends is reading anything and everything written about your new employer -- again, before the start date. This includes public materials such as annual reports and articles but also internal policies and procedures manuals that often are restricted to staff, but which you can probably convince your new colleagues to share. You may not have time to fully digest these materials once you've started, and this is yet another way to make a good impression before you start.

I would recommend a third step, either in advance or soon after starting a new job: Introduce yourself to the support staff in the organization with whom you may not have a lot of contact. These administrative and technical specialists provide vital services that keep the enterprise afloat, including human resources (though you will have met some of them already), accountants, bookeepers, the computer help staff, receptionists, security guards, and so on. Their help, when you need it, can make your work more pleasant, productive, and fulfilling.

March 8, 2010

Celebrating Women

Today marks the 100th annual International Women's Day. Here are a few sites online that are promoting women in science today:

AthenaWeb is highlighting videos of this year's L'Oreal-UNESCO laureates, who come from the United States, Mexico, France, Philippines, and Egypt.

CERN is celebrating International Women's Day by letting viewers peek in at the experiment control rooms to see how many women are working at any given time (when I checked in earlier, it was about half-and-half men and women). Be sure to scroll down to see some great posters of women scientists in various departments at the megalab.

Imperial College London has an exhibit called 100 Women - 100 Visions that features photos and quotes from women at Imperial at all levels -- undergraduates on up to senior faculty.

I'd love to know about more special online events for women in science; feel free to add them in the comments section below.

On Science Careers, we've profiled some awesome women in the last year or so:

  • Patricia Alireza, a physicist who started her Ph.D. after her kids were in school and finished at age 45;
  • Laia Crespo found that, for her, a career in science meant a career in venture capital;
  • Gina Wingood, public health professor who has devoted her career to designing AIDS intervention programs for African-American women;
  • Regan Theiler, a physician-scientist who works in both the laboratory and the delivery room to improve women's health;
  • Cecilia Aragon, a computer scientist in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Computational Research Division, who returned to finish her Ph.D. after a more than a decade spent working as a pilot;
  • Michal Sharon, a structural biologist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, who recently landed a starting grant from the European Research Council.

Sometimes even the best planning and good luck aren't enough in your job search. Consider the following scenario.

At conference, you get introduced to a department chair at a university, who mentions they just got a big new grant and may have positions opening soon. Instantly, you reach for your a business card and hand it to Dr. Chair so that she won't forget your conversation.

Unfortunately your cleverly-designed business card, with special stylized fonts on a dark background, with contact information printed on both sides, doesn't work very well in the OCR scanner Dr. Chair -- or, more likely, her assistant -- uses to capture the details of people she meets at these events. Your business card hits the bottom of the trash can, your scanned-in contact information is illegible, and your networking near-triumph instead fails.

In an age of rising productivity and dropping technology prices, tools like business card scanners are becoming more common and less expensive. There's even an iPhone app for that. So job hunters need to  make sure their business cards are scanner-ready.

Nancy Nally in yesterday's WebWorkerDaily provides some tips on making your business card scannable. Nally scanned over 100 business cards into her Mac to figure out what works and what doesn't. Here's what she found:

- Use big text. Human eyes can squint; scanners will just ignore text that is too small. If you have to squint to see the text it is probably too small for a scanner to read.
- Use plain text. Fancy fonts may be visually compelling but they can confuse a scanner. You might think a sans-serif font like Helvetica is boring, but a scanner doesn't think so.

- Give the text some space. Crowding, too, can confuse a scanner, and anyway it's bad design.

- Use a light, plain background. Dark backgrounds may make for unforgettable business cards but also unscannable business cards. Also do not print text over a pattern. The human eye can tell what is text and what is pattern, but scanner cannot.

- Use text for all key information. A company logo may look cool on the card, but it won't scan.

- Put all key contact information on one side. One reason business card scanners are inexpensive is that they scan only one side of the card. Using both sides is fine, but put the key contact info on side 1.

- Put your name and title on separate lines. When printed on one line, the scanner won't know where your name ends and your title begins.

- Print the text in one direction: horizontal. People can rotate the business card to read text printed both vertically or at an angle, but scanners just get confused when that happens. Scanners get confused easily.

If you're interviewing for jobs, the folks doing the hiring will probably do a Google search on your name -- at a minimum. This isn't news; we've certainly written about it before. But it may be surprising to learn that, according to a recent survey of 1100 hiring managers, 70% of U.S. companies say they have disqualified candidates based on what they find online when they do those searches. That same survey found that only 7% of U.S. consumers think their online footprint affects their job search.

The survey, commissioned by Microsoft and released earlier this year, included interviews with recruiters, hiring managers, human resources professionals, and consumers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. There were some notable differences in responses across the countries; for example, 41% of hiring managers in the U.K., 16% in Germany, and 14% in France said they've disqualified candidates base on what they've found out about the candidate online.

At the same time, 13% and 10% of consumers (who aren't well defined in the report, other than the fact that they use the Internet and half of them were under age 30) in Germany and France, respectively think that online information about them would affect their job search. This figure is 9% for U.K. consumers.

Three-quarters of recruiters and HR professionals surveyed say their companies formally require that hiring personnel research each applicant online. Recruiters reported that they look at social networking sites, photo and video sharing sites, professional and business networking sites, personal web sites, blogs, news sharing sites, online forums, virtual world sites, and online gaming sites, among others, though the percentage of recruiters who search each of these categories varies.

So why would a company reject a candidate based on what they find online? In descending order, the answers given were as follows:

  • concerns about the candidate's lifestyle
  • inappropriate comments and text written by the candidate
  • unsuitable photos, videos, and information
  • inappropriate comments or text written by friends or relatives
  • comments criticizing previous employers, co-workers, or clients
  • inappropriate comments or text written by colleagues or work acquaintances
  • membership in certain groups and networks
  • discovery that information given by the candidate was false
  • poor communication skills displayed online
  • concern about the candidate's financial background.

Eight in 10 consumers say they make some effort to keep personal and professional online identities separate. What do they do? Here are some of the responses:

  • Regularly search for information about themselves online
  • Use alerts to notify them when their name is mentioned online
  • Use privacy settings on social networking sites
  • Restrict access to personal Web site
  • Use multiple online profiles

The take-home message (though not one that's emphasized in the survey report) is that you need to pay attention to what people can find out about you online, particularly if you're doing a job search. Be mindful of what a simple search of your name and your e-mail address will bring up. You can't really do anything about data on people with the same name as you, but if there is potentially harmful or untrue information about the real you, try to get rid of it. And, consider carefully those college photos that anyone can search and find. Our favorite in-house story on that last category: Our editor did a Google search on a source quoted in an article on professionalism and found that the source's Facebook profile photo showed him sitting on a toilet, beer in hand. Fortunately for him, he already had a job.

The full survey report (PDF) and a slide presentation on it are available on the Microsoft Web site.

A Web site to help educators in the geosciences advance their careers and professionalize their teaching has won an award for online resources in education from American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The Web site, titled On the Cutting Edge, hosted at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota offers guidance to students on preparing for a career in geoscience education and advice to new faculty on advancing their research and professionalizing their teaching.

For geoscience teachers at any level, the site provides detailed tips on course and curriculum development, including outlines of substantive topics, such as mineralogy, paleontology, and structural geology. The site also addresses topics with public policy implications such as climate change and human health.

On the Cutting Edge is a project of National Association of Geoscience Teachers and funded in part by a grant from National Science Foundation's Division of Undergraduate Education. The site developed out of a series of workshops in 2002. An article in this week's Science magazine (subscription required) tells more about the site.

The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education was designed to honor and promote the originators of the best online materials available to science educators. Nomination for the 2010 prize close on 31 March. AAAS is the publisher of Science magazine and Science Careers.

February 24, 2010

Job Hunting in Campaign Mode

To get your job search organized and energized, sometimes you need to take a step back and view it from a different perspective. On the Career Hub blog this week, résumé coach Louise Fletcher suggests that job hunters think about the task as a campaign, such as a political or marketing campaign.

According to Fletcher, the language we use frames the way we behave in the job hunt. If you consider a job search as a succession of job applications, you can get into a passive rut. "Applying sounds weak," says Fletcher. "It makes us sound subservient -- we are asking for something when we apply for it."

Instead, Fletcher suggests, you should approach job hunting as a campaign, much like political candidates when they run for office. "When a politician runs a campaign, he is engaged in the act of marketing. He is deploying a variety of strategies in order to communicate his value. He is being creative. He is engaging other people. He is offering solutions."

So how does this translate into job hunting? Fletcher recommends:
- Keeping your lines of communication open with peers and recruiters, even if you're not looking for a job. Networking doesn't stop even when you're in a job you like.
- Choosing language for your résumé that describes the value you added to your employers, not just the duties you carried out.
- Contacting employers you want to work for even if they do not have positions advertised that you fit, which means finding people to contact and figuring out where and how to contact them.
- Approaching interviews with a set of solutions rather than merely answering the interviewer's questions. This means at least helping to set the agenda of the interview, which takes initiative and a certain amount of risk. It also means approaching the interview as a conversation between equals rather than as what Fletcher calls "terrifying rirtuals".

About a year ago, Dave Jensen's must-read Tooling Up column, "The Cold, Hard Truth About Finding a Job in 2009" urged job hunters to take a positive attitude. Fletcher's advice adds to that positive attitude a different, more assertive mindset for attacking the job of finding a job.

A story in the New York Times tells how Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts now accepts videos as optional supplements to the traditional application forms and essays. Some 1,000 of the 15,000 applicants took up Tufts on the video offer, including some clever mathematics and engineering candidates.

The article quotes Tufts's dean of undergraduate admissions, Lee Coffin, who got the idea last spring when watching a YouTube video someone had sent him. "I thought, 'If this kid applied to Tufts, I'd admit him in a minute, without anything else," Coffin told the Times.

In the past, Tufts has encouraged unorthodox thinking in their application essays, and this year applicants used the one-minute videos to demonstrate their creativity, as well as expertise with the medium. Many of the videos played on the elephant theme -- the school mascot is an elephant -- but engineering candidate Michael Klinker took the idea further. He built a miniature remote-control helicopter shaped like an elephant and filmed it -- technically, his father did the filming -- as it flew around his back yard.

Applicant Amelia Downs sent a video that combined her passions for mathematics and dance, with choreographed representations of common statistical charts such as bar graph, scatter plot, and (my favorite), pie chart.

Coffin says the videos are optional, and the only way they can hurt an applicant is if, in Coffin's words, "there was something really disgusting."

One of Tufts's concerns was that the videos would give one more advantage to affluent applicants -- yet two-thirds of the submissions were sent in by financial aid candidates.

The Times includes 12 samples of the Tufts videos with the article.

It isn't every day that an intern working at a government agency can analyze the costs and benefits of a livestock disease-tracking program, then go out and throw a baseball 95 miles per hour with pin-point accuracy. That day has arrived: Ross Ohlendorf, a starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and 2006 graduate of Princeton University, spent part of the off-season this winter as a volunteer intern with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C.

Ohlendorf earned his degree from Princeton in operations research and financial engineering, a program that combines engineering, mathematics, and economics. For his senior thesis, Ohlendorf combined these academic disciplines with his baseball background to compare the future financial return to a major league team of rookie signing bonuses, as opposed to signing a veteran player as a free agent  -- after the player's contract is up. At Princeton, Ohlendorf's achievements on the field and in class (including a 3.75 GPA) earned him the George Mueller award in 2006, awarded to a senior who excels in both engineering and intercollegiate athletics.

Ohlendorf became a fourth-round draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks, but was soon traded to the New York Yankees. Towards the end of the 2008 season, Ohlendorf was then traded to the Pirates and in 2009 became a starter, achieving an 11-10 record and a 3.92 earned-run average in 29 games. The hard-throwing right-hander is one of only 40 pitchers in all of baseball history to ever strike out three batters in an inning with the minimum of 9 pitches, joining such greats as Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan.

His celebrity status helped Ohlendorf land the internship at USDA. He sent his resume to Doug McKalip, an assistant to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a Pittsburgh native and Pirates fan. But Ohlendorf's family also owns a cattle ranch in Texas, where he helped manage a herd of longhorn cattle. Because of that combination, McKalip told the New York Times, "Ross was especially qualified."

From October through mid-December, Ohlendorf analyzed the USDA program that traces diseases in livestock  -- cattle, swine, sheep, goats -- and poultry. He also analyzed the insurance costs facing farmers who take part in the program. He worked at USDA in the mornings, reserving the afternoons for working out.

Ohlendorf and other Pirate pitchers began their 2010 spring training workouts yesterday in Bradenton, Florida, where Ohlendorf hopes to add a change-up pitch to his fast ball and slider.

As more details emerge about the shooting at University of Alabama in Huntsville that killed three members of the school's biology faculty and wounded three others, the biology department is trying to pull together and keep functioning. Today's New York Times describes how the department is trying to cope.

Last December, Sara Coelho described for Science Careers how two labs at universities in the U.K. dealt with the deaths of individual faculty members, in both cases by natural causes. Coelho distilled from her interviews six steps that labs and departments can take when a death occurs, with recovery being the first step.

The shooting left 4 holes to fill -- the three faculty members who were killed, and the shooter. Three more were hospitalized -- and only one of those has since been released. Among those still hospitalized is Stephanie Monticciolo, the department's administrator, who, colleagues told the Times, was the one on the team who "doles out hugs and birthday reminders".

University president David Williams told ABC News that a campus memorial service is planned for Friday. Beyond that formal observance, department colleagues, particularly those that witnessed the shooting first-hand, will likely need counseling to deal with the events. Students, too, are likely to be affected. Among the lessons Coelho learned from the people she interviewed is not to push the grief aside, and to seek help if you feel in trouble. Other steps include looking after your personal health, planning ahead, communicating with your colleagues colleagues, staying focused on your research -- but also staying open to new opportunities.

This week, the U.K. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) announced that it will commit up to £15 million (about US$23 million) to training in food security research and development through its Advanced Training Partnerships scheme. "The scheme will support the development of staff within the sector and help companies with succession planning in niche skill areas. Collaboration between training providers and industry partners will ensure that high level skills relevant to crops, livestock, and food are employed throughout the development pipeline," it says here.

It's a timely announcement, as Science Magazine devotes much of this week's issue to the critical issue of food security -- that is, ensuring an adequate food supply for the world's population, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The coverage includes reviews, perspective articles, a special news package, and an editorial. This week's Science podcast is devoted entirely to food security.

Science Careers pitched in with two articles on the topic: An overview piece, Careers in Food Security Span Several Disciplines, by Wales-based writer Cath Janes, and a profile, Plant Geneticist Cultivating a Future for Peanut Farming in Uganda, written by freelance writer Gaia Vince.

The articles both illustrate the multidisciplinary nature of a career in food security. "You have to ask yourself how you can get into food security," U.K. science adviser John Beddington told Janes. "There are lots of disciplines relating to food security, and that makes it an attractive career. Yet you have to understand the science as well as how your work is applicable to food producers in tackling a lack of water or their fight against pests."

Yale University announced last week it would reduce the number of applicants admitted to its graduate schools by up to 15%, which would directly hit doctoral programs and could affect the conduct of research on the Yale campus. The admissions cut is one of 10 measures unveiled last Wednesday that Yale says it needs to respond to a 26% drop in the university's endowment caused by the global financial crisis of 2008-09.

University President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey said in a letter that the Graduate School would reduce its admission of new students in the 2010-2011 academic year by 10-15%. In Friday's Yale Daily News, reporters Vivian Yee and Lauren Rosenthal said that the reduction would fall almost entirely on doctoral students, since unlike doctoral candidates, masters degree students pay tuition. Levin told the Daily News that the university spends $65,000 to $70,000 a year on fellowships and stipends to support each doctoral student. Also in their Wednesday letter Levin and Salovey announced a 2% increase in those stipends.

Chairs of science faculties at Yale said the admission cut might cause more financial problems than it solves. "Reducing the number of graduate students in the sciences is unfortunate and short-sighted," Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department (EB&B) Chair Richard Prum tells the Daily News. Prum says his department received a surge of grants from the federal stimulus program, which include funds for paying graduate students. "Even though the income of our grants has gone up," says Prum, "the number of graduate students we're able to accept has gone down."

Computer Science chair Avi Silberschatz tells the Daily News he has a similar situation. Silberschatz noted that if these projects are not delivered, it may be difficult to win future grants.

Among current students, the Daily News found a mixed reaction to the announcement. Cynthia Chang an E&EB doctoral candidate tells the reporters that the proposed enrollment cuts would be "a huge detriment to our department and to any department." However, Mark Klee, an economics student they interviewed, likes the increased stipends in the proposal. "I think that cutting down on admissions as opposed to cutting down on stipends is probably the right way to go," Klee says.

Hat tip:  Washington Monthly

The excellent physics-and-math blog Not Even Wrong, published by Columbia mathematician Peter Woit (who has a book with the same name as the blog), has an interesting post about an analysis of the job market in high-energy theoretical physics. The post describes data compiled by Erich Poppitz, a theoretical physicist at the University of Toronto. Poppitz's analysis is available as a pdf download. The data were taken from the Theoretical Particle Physics Jobs Rumor Mill maintained at UC Davis; Poppitz insists that there's no guarantee of accuracy. 

Among Poppitz's interesting conclusions (most of them noted by Woit) are these:
  • A typical recent year brought 20 new faculty appointments in high-energy theoretical physics in the United States; over the last 16 years the average number of new U.S. appointments in the field is about 17. The best recent year was 2007, when 28 new high-energy theory faculty were hired.
  • Two years later, in 2009, U.S. universities made just 9 new faculty appointments. 
  • In the same year, Princeton University alone hired 8 new postdocs in theoretical particle physics, so that one university cohort could nearly fill all of America's theoretical physics faculty slots in a bad year. The stats don't say how many postdoc appointments there were nationwide.
  • If you want a job in high-energy theory, the numbers suggest, you'd better get your Ph.D. from one of a handful of universities, since that's where most new faculty members come from. And all six are in America: Princeton (24 new Princeton Ph.D.s were hired into faculty slots over the last 16 years), Harvard (19), Berkeley (18), Stanford (13), MIT (12), or the University of Texas (10). Those six schools produced 35% of all new high-energy theory faculty members since 1994; the other 180-or-so positions were distributed among another 76 or so universities throughout the world.
  • Another key to getting hired is to choose your subfield carefully. "You pretty much have to work in cosmology or phenomenology to have some sort of job prospects," since no one is hiring at the more formal end of the field, Woit writes.
(Follow my science-career-related posts on Twitter @SciCareerEditor)

In September, we reported on the U.S. House of Representatives passing the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act and sending it on to the Senate, where many observers expected it to move quickly, as it did in the House. The New York Times reports this morning that the bill has bogged down in the Senate thanks to aggressive lobbying by private lenders and the Senate's changing politics.

The bill would end the role banks and and other private lenders play in making student loans. Students now can borrow money from private lenders through the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which provides subsidies and guarantees to banks and other lenders. Students or their families can also borrow directly from the U.S. government's Federal Direct Loan Program. The bill would fold all lending into the Direct Loan program, leaving the private sector with a much-reduced servicing role.

The bill would also redirect the anticipated $87 billion in savings over 10 years from ending the private-lender subsidies to more funding for Pell grant scholarship and Perkins loans that students can get through their institutions.

The student loan industry, led by Sallie Mae, the largest student-lending company, was not about to let that $87 billion go without a fight, says the Times.

Sallie Mae has plenty to lose if the bill goes through. The company spent $8 million on lobbying last year, the Times says. It originated $21.7 billion in federally-subsidized loans in 2009, compared to $3.2 billion in private loans last year. The company held town-hall meetings, circulated petitions, and button-holed legislators to stress the legislation's impact on jobs. Sallie Mae says it stands to lose some 2,300 jobs if the bill becomes law.

The Times quoted anonymous sources who say that some Senators are wavering, particularly fiscal conservatives and those in states where the lenders operate, including Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, New York, and Pennsylvania. The industry claims the bill amounts to a federal takeover of the student loan industry, an argument that gets the attention of conservatives. Adding one more Republican senator in Scott Brown of Massachusetts helps the lenders' cause as well, says the Times.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Times that they anticipated the industry's push-back and the administration is stepping up its own lobbying in the Senate. In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama told cheering Democrats, "To make college more affordable, this bill will finally end the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that go to banks for student loans." Republicans remained silent during that part of the speech.

At the Career Hub blog today, career consultant Billie Sucher unveiled her top-ten list of illegal or inappropriate interview questions that her clients said they were asked in 2009.  Sucher noted that the items she listed were those she could post; there were still other doozies not fit for a family-oriented blog.

Here's a sample ...

- You're too pretty to hire...productivity would drop with you around.
- Has it ever occurred to you to dumb yourself down a little?
- We noticed you're driving a Mercedes...convince us you need this job.

And my personal favorite ...

- You remind me of my grandpa...he's in his 60's.

Enjoy the full list for yourself.  

Sucher refers readers to human-resources guru Alison Doyle, who blogs about job-searching on About.Com, for background on interview questions prohibited by law. Doyle says "employers should not be asking about your race, gender, religion, marital status, age, disabilities, ethnic background, country of origin, sexual preferences or age," and offers advice on what to do if confronted with one of these gems, such as ...

- Are those your real fingernails or are they fake?

Readers interested in knowing how science fared in the President's (U.S.) budget request should check out Science Insider, from Science's news department. SI is posting frequent updates and analysis of the proposal. The news for science is generally very good for such a tight budget year.

Faced with decreasing state and federal government support, the University of Montana in Missoula this week began considering several cost-cutting measures, including a four-day week for students and employees. Students and faculty interviewed by the local newspaper generally support the idea, but some were still worried about what comes next.

The proposal, floated by George Dennison, the university's president, would shut most of the campus on Mondays, moving classes and many work activities to longer periods on Tuesdays through Fridays. Classes now meeting on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays would be rescheduled to Wednesdays and Fridays and run for longer periods. Work days on Tuesday through Friday would be extended to 10 hours a day. Dennison said no one's work hours or pay would be cut as a result.

Some campus services, like the library and student center, would have their hours reduced but still be open for part of the day on Mondays. The impact on other vital services, like child care, is still being assessed. The story makes no mention of the impact on science labs or researchers; losing a work day each week could extend the time needed for researchers to complete their lab work. Also, how would lab animals be cared for on the days labs are closed?

Chelsi Moy, a reporter for the Missoula newspaper, quotes a campus source saying that the university would save some $450,000 a year mainly in utility costs, about 15% of what it now spends on heat and power. Dennison said the change would also reduce the university's carbon footprint, another institutional goal.

Some students told Moi they liked the idea of a longer weekend. One computer science student said it would give him a chance to work longer hours and make more money. He already works two jobs while going to school.

Moy quotes Doug Coffin, vice president of the university's Faculty Association and a professor of molecular genetics, who said that faculty were worried more about what the proposal could portend for the future. "They hit a panic button," Coffin said. "They are wondering, 'Are we still on the cliff or are we in free-fall?'"

Dennison said there was "a good chance" the university would implement the proposal, which would take effect no earlier than July 2010. On Monday, Dennison also announced his retirement as university president. He has served in the post since 1990.

Hat tip: Washington Monthly

03/12/2010: Please be advised that this grant opportunity is now closed.

Earlier this month, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 150,000 people in the capitol of Port-au-Prince and leaving many more injured and missing. Among those affected by the disaster are students from Haiti at American colleges and universities who are cut off from their families in Haiti and, in many cases, from the financial support the families provided.

To help these students, the Institute of International Education (IIE) has created Haiti-Emergency Assistance for Students (EAS) grants. These grants provide financial assistance to citizens of Haiti who are undergraduate and graduate students at accredited U.S. colleges and universities. Eligible students must have non-immigrant visa status, good academic standing, and a demonstrated financial need that was caused by the earthquake.

Students must be nominated by campus officials, including international student advisers. Each campus may nominate up to five students to receive $2000 grants for the spring semester. IIE has a downloadable nomination form on its Web site. A separate form must be completed for each student. Applications should be sent by e-mail to The deadline for nominations is 12 February 2010.

For an overview of this grant visit GrantsNet. For the full announcement please visit the IIE Web site.

IIE is also accepting financial donations to fund more grants through the EAS program. Please contact if you would like to contribute to the fund.

In 2003-2005, Dick van Vlooten, a Dutch management consultant, wrote a series for Science's Next Wave (the predecessor to Science Careers), where he drew lessons for job-hunters about networking from social science research. One of van Vlooten's columns discussed the need to build open networks, where you break out of your usual comfortable circles and find what he calls "fairly odd friends" who have access to potential employers with which you may not be familiar.

Last week, career consultant Kevin Donlin discussed a similar idea on the blog WorkBloom, what he calls "weak ties," casual acquaintances you may barely remember or with whom you have a tangential relationship. These weak ties can be former college classmates, co-workers, clients, vendors, neighbors, or people you met while volunteering for a good cause, and can provide leads to unfamiliar companies or organizations.

Like van Vlooten, Donlin bases this advice on research, in this case the sociologist Mark Granovetter, who Donlin quotes as saying, "[T]hose to whom we are weakly tied are more likely to move in circles different from our own and will thus have access to information different from that which we receive."

Donlin goes one step further than van Vlooten and suggests ways of mining these contacts to get job leads, based on the experiences of real people he advises or who had some connection with Donlin and contacted him. In one example, Donlin received an e-mail from a fellow alumnus of the same college he attended, asking if Donlin knew any people at a list of companies, asking for a referral. Donlin says he made a referral as a result of that request.

In another example, Donlin tells about a client who mailed hard-copy letters to weak-tie contacts describing his career goals and accomplishments and asking for leads or referrals. Researching postal addresses, plus the printing and mailing, will be time consuming, but Donlin says it got this job hunter more leads than e-mail.

Another approach Donlin discusses seems to me more dubious, which is to offer a financial reward. He talks about a job hunter who works in marketing and is offering $1000 to anyone who can give the job hunter a "warm introduction" to a senior decision-maker that leads to an offer of employment. Donlin defines a warm introduction as one where the referrer gushes (Donlin's word) about the person being referred. Needless to say, this last approach generated a lot of comments from readers.

On Monday, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) -- Uncle Sam's human resources department -- unveiled a new Web site and slicker search engine for jobs in the federal government.  The site, called USAJOBS, gives visitors a simple search window to start but more powerful tools just beneath the surface.

The USAJOBS home page looks something like the classic Google search page, asking for keywords and location to start a job search.  Those with better idea of what kind of work they want to do, or where, can browse for jobs in specific agencies or locations, or by type of job. And for those who really want to drill down, the site's advanced search page lets job-hunters search by keyword within job titles or descriptions, as well as by government occupational category, location domestic and foreign, agencies, compensation ranges, and eligibility requirements.

The site has pages to aid searches on special criteria such as top management jobs in the Senior Executive Service, jobs for veterans, student opportunities, and employment for people with disabilities. Job hunters can create accounts to store resumes and to save search factors and specific jobs returned by previous searches.

Searches on science-related keywords offered a glimpse of the site's workings.  A simple search on the keyword 'physics' returned 1400 open jobs. A review of the first few pages of results showed that the current openings include research scientists, engineers, technicians, and project managers, among others. A simple search on a narrower discipline -- neuroscience -- returned 13 jobs including jobs for researchers, medical officers, nurses, physician's assistant, and social workers.

Job hunters can refine their searches by grade level, salary, location, occupation series, agency, student jobs, posting date, and work schedule (full-time or part-time). Of the 1400 jobs returned for a search on physics, for example, 11 are for students, with openings at NASA, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior.

A geographic search of these 1400 jobs with the keyword Physics returned 176 entries for California and 55 for Louisiana.  However, these geographic returns are misleading; of the 55 entries for Louisiana, 50 of the jobs give their location as "nationwide," which may or may not include openings in Louisiana.

Each listed job has a detailed job description with instructions on how to apply. Many but not all of the jobs allow online applications, but online applicants must first have a USAJOBS account.

For recent college graduates, finding a job at any time is difficult, since they often lack experience outside the classroom -- a situation made worse by the current tough job market. The trick for recent grads is to find entry-level jobs, which can lead off professional careers but normally require little more than a solid, relevant educational background. Started by a 2006 college grad who ran into this very problem, One Day One Job identifies these entry-level opportunities.

One Day One job profiles a few employers each week, reviewing the organization's work and its job opportunities, highlighting those where entry-level applicants would have a shot. It gives some background about the organization, including unfavorable news like adverse legal judgments, along with links to the enterprise's "about", leadership, annual report, news, and of course jobs/careers pages. In some cases, it reviews the organization's current job openings, pointing out those not requiring extensive previous experience. One Day One Job includes links that search Facebook and LinkedIn for current employees of the companies profiled. A separate section discusses internship opportunities at the profiled enterprise.

Two recent issues on the site appear to have opportunities for junior-level engineering and science grads.
- In the 24 January 2010 issue, the site talks about the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, DC, and finds two entry-level jobs looking for applicants with computer and engineering training.
- On 23 January, the site reviewed the Educational Testing Service (ETS), headquarted in Princeton, New Jersey, and with locations in six other U.S. cities. We found several junior-level jobs (with the title of "associate") for statisticians and social scientists in the ETS jobs section.

The site is the creation of Willy Franzen, a 2006 graduate with a BS degree from Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. After experiencing the same job-search frustrations as other recent grads, Franzen started the One Day One Job site in 2007.

A common tip offered to job interviewees is to send a thank-you letter to the hiring manager soon after the interview session. Catherine Jones in the Job Search Secrets blog now tells why the thank-you letter is a good idea and offers suggestions on what should go in it.

Jones says the thank-you letter will make you stand out from the other interviewees. She cites statistics (source unknown) that only 1 in 10 interviewees send a thank-you letter. If you don't believe the interview went well, the letter will at least raise your profile with the hiring manager. And if the interview did go well, the thank-you letter can seal the deal. Jones also notes that few hiring managers make their decisions immediately after an interview, which provides an opportunity for a prospect to make his or her case in the thank-you letter.

As for the letter itself, Jones recommends that the text have:

- A thank you to your interviewers for taking the time to see you.
- An expression of desire to work for them.
- A summary of why you fit the bill.

Jones adds that a recent candidate remembered a comment in a conversation after the interview about the failing health of the interviewer's cat, and in her cover letter the prospect wished the cat well. This prospect ended up winning the job. While Jones cannot be sure that the good wishes expressed about the cat won her the job, the comment did help raise the candidate's profile, and added a feel-good factor to the decision.

Women scientists do about twice as much of core household chores as do their male counterparts, according to a study published in the January-February issue of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. "Understanding how housework relates to women's careers is one new piece in the puzzle of how to attract more women to science," the authors write.

I heard about this study yesterday from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which you should read, too. I'll hit the high points of the study here:

Study authors Londa Schiebinger and Shannon K. Gilmartin used data from the Managing Academic Careers Survey, which was administered to full-time faculty at 13 U.S. research universities in 2006-2007. Respondents included 1222 tenured and tenure-track faculty -- 910 men and 312 women -- in the natural sciences who indicated that they are partnered.

Women respondents say they perform 54% of the core household tasks (cooking, grocery shopping, laundry, housecleaning), adding up to about 20 hours a week. Men scientists reported they do about 28% of those tasks. (We can speculate who is doing the remaining 18% of housework -- paid help, children, etc. -- but I think it's safe to assume that not all the women who took the survey are married to the men who took the survey, therefore those numbers won't add up.) When it comes to parental responsibilities, women scientists report they do 54% of the parenting labor, compared with 36% for men.

The authors also looked at the relationship between scientists' productivity (defined as number of published articles) and employing others to do housework. They found that, regardless of gender, salary, and rank, partnered scientists who hire outside help for housework are more productive.

The authors' recommendation, then, is that employers should offer financial support for housework as part of their benefits packages. They point out that some European companies offer such a benefit. I know at least one fellowship scheme here in England (the Royal Society's Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships) includes funds for childcare.

Some of the commenters on the Chronicle's news article think this is a ridiculous suggestion:  "I can't believe someone really suggested that pay packages now include money to hire servants!!" writes one commenter. "In this type of economic climate, colleges should subsidize the cleaning lady? With positions being cut, budgets being slashed, endowments having lost can someone even discuss this with a straight face?" writes another.

I've interviewed some amazing women scientists and read interviews with and articles written by many more. I often see a similar answer from women who are asked how they are able to juggle family/home responsibilities with a successful scientific career: They have help. One more time: THEY HAVE HELP. For many partnered women, much of that help comes from a supportive partner, whether that support comes in the way of doing housework, taking care of children, or helping each other protect time for work and for family. And help may also be in the form of an au pair to take care of the children, someone to do some or all of the housework, or family that lives close by and chips in.

How a couple divides up its household chores is of course a personal matter, of course. But if a university or a company provides a laptop, Blackberry, company car, housing, or a tuition benefit as perks or to contribute to the employee's productivity, then why shouldn't they consider offering stipends for domestic help if it means freeing up several hours a week of a valued employee's time?

Let us know what you think.

January 15, 2010

Bending the Job Hunt Rules

When you're job hunting, particularly if you're out of work, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the competition, with often hundreds or thousands of applicants vying for the same limited number of jobs. As Dave Jensen pointed out in a 2006 column for Science Careers, sometimes you need to bend the rules a bit and engage in "guerrilla marketing" to get an advantage over the competition.

This week, Colin Daymude on the CareerRealism blog offers a variation of this advice, particularly for unemployed professionals, to get your skills and talents in front of prospective employers. Daymude says that many small companies like his  -- he runs a human-resources and training firm -- often need the help of skilled professionals to do their work but are not in a position to hire full-time staff. He recommends marketing yourself to these companies as a consultant or contractor to show first-hand your skills and abilities.

As with any marketing campaign, you need to do a lot of background work: to identify company prospects and key decision-makers and to learn enough details of their business to make a credible pitch. Once you have selected the prospects, Daymude suggests two different approaches:

- If you have products of a recent project that you can send to a prospect, package it (literally, in a box) and send it to it out to those prospects.  Companies in your field of expertise would recognize good work and it would offer a way of getting their attention. One caution, however, that Daymude overlooks: make sure you are not bound by any intellectual-property restrictions or a non-compete agreement before taking this step.

- Daymude also recommends that you prepare and mail a printed coupon on a post card, offering a day of free consultation in your line of work. This coupon offer can get you in the door and actually perform your services, which can then give you a way of discussing follow-on work, either as a direct hire or a contractor.

In either case, you have short-circuited the usual process of responding to advertised jobs and beaten the hordes of competitors to these enterprises. Even if the companies you canvas are not in a position to use your skills, you at least have made contacts. And you can mine those contacts later in follow-up calls if the initial campaign doesn't pan out.

Daymude's ideas are not a substitute for the traditional job search and probably would not work with many larger employers, such as government agencies and academic institutions, which often have strict hiring policies. But in a tough job market like this one, you need to consider any and all methods that may get you a job in your line of work, as long as they're not unprofessional or excessively risky.

Have you or your institution had problems registering or submitting a grant application through Have you found you must deal with variations in grant-application policies at different federal agencies even if they use Then the Grants Policy Committee (GPC), part of the federal government's U.S. Chief Financial Officer Council, wants to hear from you.

Last May, we reported on a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of, the centralized federal service for grant announcements and applications. That GAO study looked at the varying procedures among federal agencies for handling grant applications through, which makes applying for a government grant more difficult for individuals and institutions.

A later GAO audit, in July 2009, highlighted more problems with, particularly the cumbersome and lengthy registration process, which has to be completed before you send your first grant application. It's a multi-step process that Science Careers described in 2007, just as NIH was preparing to move from paper to all electronic applications. Some of the steps required by, such as getting a DUNS identifier, are the same as any company or organization faces when first getting into high-volume electronic business. But as GAO found, the registration process can take a week or longer.

The GPC is collecting real-life experiences from grant applicants through an online form to help the committee respond to the GAO report.  A Federal Register notice posted on 7 January, gives more details about the inquiry. The deadline for comments is 31 January.

At the WorkBloom blog this week, résumé coach Jessica Holbrook discusses the optimum length of a résumé, and the advice she gives can be summed up as "it depends." Holbrook says that one size won't fit all job-hunters, but finding the right size depends (that word again) on the amount and type of experience the job-seeker has to offer.

Holbrook says that most American business résumés should be 1 to 3 pages. Entry-level workers and recent grads can probably get by with a single-page, since they have less of a story to tell than their more experienced counterparts. Mid-career workers will probably need 2 pages for their professional histories; a 3rd page, if needed, should be devoted to publications, honors, and continuing education.

Holbrook emphasized that job hunters should be as concerned about the content and quality of their résumés as with their length. The goal of the résumé is to give the hiring manager a clear picture of your professional history. Filling up space with a lot of fluff will probably hurt more than help your case. Likewise, says Holbrook, if your work history is measured in decades rather than years, you probably want to concentrate on the most recent several years and leave out some of the details about your early experience.

A common source of confusion in academic and scientific employment is the difference between a résumé and curriculum vitae, or CV. The CV is a comprehensive description of education, work history, publications, and presentations used for academic hiring. A CV often runs many more pages than the typical business résumé. (An additional source of confusion is the fact that in some European countries "CV" is used to describe a document very similar to what we call a résumé). About a year ago, Science Careers columnist Dave Jensen defined résumé, CV, and a host of other common terms used in job-hunting and career development. In an earlier column, Jensen also described how a CV can be adapted for business use.

A recent Wall Street Journal's careers section advises job hunters to pay attention to details when interviewing for jobs, particularly in this highly competitive job market, and explains what happens when they don't. Writer Joann Lublin offers horror stories of interviews gone bad, because job candidates did not prepare, were in attentive or careless, or just left their good common sense at home.

In a what-was-he-thinking example, one interviewee who underestimated the travel time to the employer's office, jogged 12 blocks on a summer's day to the interview site, where -- soaking wet -- he asked the receptionist if the office had shower facilities that he could use before the session. They didn't have those facilities and he didn't get the job either.  Lublin advises prospects to plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time. You can always find a place away from the interview site to wait and keep cool.

Attire, of course, is important in an interview, and a June 2009 Science Careers article provides tips for making the best sartorial impression.  One piece of advice in that article was not to push the fashion envelope in a job interview, a point apparently lost to an applicant mentioned by Lublin. This candidate apparently wore a low-cut dress that exposed not only cleavage, but also a tattoo when she leaned over the desk. The job, at a hospital in a small conservative Texas town, was filled by another applicant.

Where the interview involves a meal, you need to remember more than just your table manners, says Lublin. Being on time is always good advice, but particularly when a meal is involved where your tardiness is more visible. In one case of an employer who took a group of candidates out for a meal, one candidate arrived late, well after the rest of the group was seated. A business etiquette specialist telling the story to Lublin, said the candidate compounded the error by ordering the most expensive item on the menu and then ate so quickly that he was finished even before others in the group had been served.  

Employers like prospects who show enthusiasm, but there are limits. One candidate cited by Lublin waved his hands wildly during the interview first knocking over a water bottle -- fortunately still sealed -- but later sending an uncovered mug of coffee sailing across the conference table.

One way to make a better impression is to pay attention in the interview. Lublin tells of one candidate who mispronounced the interviewer's name four times -- even after being corrected three times. The interviewer told Lublin it was probably a case of nerves, but he chose another candidate who seemed to be less easily flustered.

Many students preparing for the job hunt get to know their universities' career centers quite well, since these offices often provide counseling, resume help, job leads, and interview advice. According to a New York Times article last week, some of these same career centers now offer their services to graduates who have been out of school for a while.

In general, campus career centers provide services to current students or those who graduated recently, usually in the past 6 to 12 months. But at the University of Colorado in Boulder,  the career office was forced to add an extra staff member  to help its not-so-recent graduates. While some campus career centers charge alumni nominal fees ($25 - $50) for their services, Boulder keeps its alumni assistance free.

State University of New York at Albany is another campus the article says has seen a sharp jump in requests for help from alumni. SUNY Albany's career center says the number of counseling sessions with alumni has jumped 28% in the past year. Rutgers University in New Jersey also provides career assistance to its alumni, and even held a speed-networking event where they introduced unemployed alumni and students to employed alumni with the aim of helping them find jobs.

For the universities, the motivation to open their career centers to graduates is more than altruistic. As the Times article notes, these interactions help campuses keep in touch with alumni so that they can hit them up later for contributions once their former students land jobs.

A nationwide U.S. survey of chief information officers (CIOs) shows that more employers now plan to hire rather than lay off IT professionals in the first quarter of 2010, with most hiring for entry-level and junior staff in full-time jobs.

The survey found nine in 10 CIOs (89%) plan to keep staffing at about their current levels, but 7% say they will increase the number of employers while 4% expect to decrease their workforce. While the percentage of companies expected to hire is the lowest in two years, the anticipated percentage of layoffs is also the lowest since the first quarter of 2009. In the previous survey -- which asked about hiring plans for the current quarter -- the CIOs anticipating layoffs equaled the number of those expected to hire, at 6% each.

Of the CIOs with hiring plans, the vast majority (81%) plan to hire junior-level staff next quarter, divided about evenly between those with 2 years of experience or less (41%) and those with 2 to 5 years of experience (40%). One in five CIOs who plan to hire new staff expect to recruit senior-level professionals, defined as those with more than 5 years experience.

A majority of the CIOs (58%) who plan to hire next quarter expect to recruit full-time workers, with almost 3 in 10 (28%) expecting to use a mix of full-time and contract hires. Only about 1 in 10 CIOs plan to bring in only contractors.

The survey asked about broad functional expertise and specific IT skills most in demand by CIOs. The functional expertise CIOs consider the most challenging to find among skilled professionals is networking -- technical, not interpersonal -- cited by 1 in 5 respondents (19%).  Another 13% of CIOs say security expertise and 10% say applications development are tough to find in today's workforce.

Specific IT skills, as opposed to functional expertise, cited as most in demand by half or more of the CIO respondents are network administration (70%), end-user desktop support (66%), Windows operating system administration (62%), database management (58%), and wireless network management (52%).

The Robert Half Technology IT Hiring Index and Skills Report, released last week, is based on telephone interviews with 1400 CIOs during October 2009, randomly selected from companies with 100 employees or more. Robert Half, a staffing company, has conducted the survey quarterly since 1995.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded $16 million to 23 universities for its Med Into Grad initiative, a program that integrates clinical medicine into the graduate school curriculum. Each of the winning institutions will receive up to $700,000 over 4 years.

The Med Into Grad program began in 2005 with awards to 13 schools with the goal of finding out "how graduate schools could provide doctoral students the skills necessary to investigate the scientific mechanisms of disease and translate scientific discoveries into clinically relevant treatments, diagnostics, and public health practices--and whether such programs would attract students," it says in HHMI's press release on the new grants.

Just how the universities use those funds varies. For example, the press release notes, "Some schools, such as Baylor College of Medicine and Cleveland Clinic/Case Western Reserve University, are creating entirely new doctoral programs that teach clinically relevant topics in the classroom, in the clinic, and in the laboratory. Others, such as the University of California, Davis, designed a series of extra classes and clinical experiences for students interested in clinical research. These students can earn a master's degree or emphasize translational research in their studies."

The new awards include those original 13 schools and add 12 more. (Click here for a full list of all participating institutes.) We've written about some of the Med Into Grad programs and the students in them in Basic Scientists in the Clinic, Programs Aim to Train Translational Scientists, and Carving a Career in Translational Research.

Disclosure: HHMI is a partner in CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network, a joint project of Science Careers and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

After I posted that last blog entry, I decided I should provide a little more information. What's the point of the expedition that Posada-Swafford is participating in. In part, at least, the scientists are hunting fossils. Posada-Swafford writes in an e-mail:

We will arrive in Punta Arenas tomorrow and on the 23rd will sail to Seymour Island to install the paleontologists' camp, will hang out with them (hopefully walking around in search on dinos and mammals) and sail to Palmer Station 2 days later.

The paleontologists are Ross MacPhee of the Natural History Museum in New York and Matt Lamanna, a long time friend (what a coincidence!) from Carnegie, an expert in Patagonic dinos. They are going to look for clues of mammals and hopefully a dino from a specific geologic era that will give evidence of a land bridge between South America and Antarctica and Australia. Very cool. Wouldn't it be fabulous if we found something new?

Over the next few weeks, Angela Posada-Swafford will be sending dispatches from her fossil-hunting journey to the coldest continent. Posada-Swafford is a Miami, Florida-based science journalist who has built quite a reputation writing mainly for the Spanish-language market.

"I am doing A LOT of things with this trip," she writes, via e-mail. "We are doing (and this is first for NSF at Palmer and indeed, in Antarctica) a series of 6-party live video conferences with science museums and educational institutions in 3 Latin American countries (Colombia, Chile and either Mexico or Uruguay)." She continues:
The loveliest thing is that I managed to involve in the conferences this isolated, forgotten community in the Colombian pacific jungles, the Universidad del Choco, and are so thrilled at the idea of just seeing the ice! They are asking a thousand questions already.

Only once before had NSF allowed streaming video and that was for 10-minute reporting for the Ophrah Winfrey show. But now they are going full one or more hours per video conference and I have decided that I want 2 of them, one week apart. The kids at the different museums get to ask questions as I tell them all about the station's LTER research (long term ecological research), climate change from the molecular to penguin levels, etc.

Here are the links, also, to two websites that are following my expedition to the detail, through my own dispatches, which will come in every day with pictures, audio and video. They are doing an animated map of the trip, and a zillion more things, which already started with my chronicles of the preparations for the trip. I haven't left and there are already many comments.

This is a great opportunity to talk science to people! One of the links is for my magazine in Spain, MUY INTERESANTE. The second one is for the very sophicticated science museum in Bogota, Colombia, which is orchestrating the video conferences in Latin America:

The videoconferences can be seen at the Maloka website in real time and later, as they'll be recorded. The dates are:

  • Saturday 5 December at 2 p.m. U.S. eastern time (4 p.m. Palmer time)
  • Saturday 12 December at the same time.
(Saturdays are good for the children in Latin America and they are also good for the Palmer scientists who will take those days off!)
In addition to talking science to people, Posada-Swafford will also be sending us regular updates, posted on our blog, telling us about the scientists she meets and what it's like to do science in Antarctica.

A new summer internship program allows U.S. undergraduate students -- and Indonesian students enrolled in U.S. degree programs -- to study, live, and work in Indonesia while learning about the administration of not-for-profit organizations.  The internships include positions in fields such as environmental protection and public health.

The Freeman Indonesia Nonprofit Internship Program is a 9-week educational opportunity that stretches from 15 June through 17 August 2010. The program includes a unique partnership feature, where 10 Indonesian students seeking degrees at U.S. colleges will be paired with 10 U.S. undergraduates. Interns will live in the cities of Jakarta, Bandung, or Yogyakarta and be immersed in Indonesian culture.

Awardees will gain real-world experience working in an Indonesian not-for-profit organization.  U.S. students are required to complete a credit-bearing Indonesian language and culture course in Indonesia during the internship. Indonesian students are required to complete an online course related to nongovernmental organization administration. Once American students return to the United States, they are expected to share their experiences with others, and find ways to incorporate the skills that they learned into their careers.

Arranged by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and Indonesian International Education Foundation, the program is open to U.S. and Indonesian citizens who are enrolled as full-time sophomores or juniors in U.S. degree programs. Applicants should be pursuing their first bachelor's degrees at U.S. colleges or universities. All program-related expenses will be covered.  

The deadline for applications to the Freeman Indonesia Nonprofit Internship Program is 15 February 2010. Visit GrantsNet or the Institute of International Education's Web site for more information.

For the first time in 5 weeks, the number of new flu cases at American colleges and universities has dropped, according to a tracking survey by the American College Health Association (ACHA). The survey, which tracks influenza-like illnesses on campuses, reported 6373 new cases in the week ending 13 November at the 263 reporting institutions, a drop of 27% from the week earlier.

The 263 institutions taking part in the survey cover a campus population of almost 3,000,000, and the number of new cases represents what ACHA calls an "attack-rate" of 21.3 cases per 10,000 people served.  That rate is down from 29 cases per 10,000 a week earlier.

Despite the drop, the survey still found flu to be a widespread problem on campus. Some 249 of the 263 institutions, or 95%, reported at least one new case in the last week. During that week, 12 of the cases required hospitalization and 2 patients died.

The drop in the number of new cases was the first weekly decline and the lowest attack rate since 9 October. Yet the rate has dropped before, since ACHA started tracking new flu illnesses, in early September and again in late October, only to start rising again soon thereafter.

The ACHA survey tracks all flu cases, using the CDC definition of influenza-like illnesses: both a fever of 100 degress (F) or higher, and a cough or sore throat. The survey does not break out the types of flu diagnosed, H1N1 or seasonal varieties. However, according to the CDC as of the first week of November, all but a handful of new flu cases were H1N1.

ComputerWorld magazine reported yesterday that U.S. immigration authorities have ramped up their field inspections for H-1B visa violations. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security, told Sen. Chuck Grassley (R, Ia.) that it will conduct some 25,000 inspections of workplaces hiring staff under the H-1B program in the current fiscal year, which began in October.

H-1B visas, which admit non-immigrant skilled workers for a limited number of years, have come under fire recently because of allegations that American companies use the visas to bring in foreign workers, including many engineers and scientists, to avoid hiring higher-salaried American staff. In addition, during the past year evidence has emerged of increasing fraud and abuse of individual visa holders, on which Beryl Benderly has reported for Science Careers. The Science Careers blog has also noted reduced demand for H-1B visas during 2009 and diminishing political support for the program.

Earlier this month, Grassley, a frequent critic of H-1B visas, wrote a letter to USCIS requesting more enforcement of the rules, noting incidents in Iowa where companies brought in foreign workers under the program even though the jobs that the companies identified in their H-1B petitions were no longer available. Grassley also pointed to incidents where companies hired H-1B visa holders then outsourced them to other work sites, another rules violation.

ComputerWorld says that Alejandro Mayorkas, director of USCIS, told Grassley that the inspections will determine "whether the location of employment actually exists and if a beneficiary is employed at the location specified, performing the duties as described, and paid the salary as identified in the petition." The 25,000 inspections planned for this fiscal year is nearly a five-fold increase over the 5,200 conducted last year.

The number of science and engineering students from abroad jumped 20% at American institutions in the 2008-09 academic year, with the biggest gains recorded in engineering and computer science. Science and engineering students now comprise about half of all international students in the U.S. and nearly two-thirds of international graduate students.

According to the Open Doors survey, conducted annually by the Institute of International Education (IIE, funded by the U.S. Department of State), the number of science and engineering students increased from about 267,000 in the 2007-08 academic year to about 319,000 in 2008-09, an increase of nearly 20%.  That's about half (48%) of the 671,600 international students in the United States in 2008-09, up from 43% of the total in the previous year.

Except for agriculture, international students in all the scientific and engineering categories increased by double-digit percentages in 2008-09. Engineering and computer/information science students increased by about a quarter (24%), while life, physical, social, and health science disciplines all increased between 14-17%. The number of agricultural students from abroad stayed about the same as in 2007-08.

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Nearly two-thirds (65%) of international graduate students at American universities during the 2008-09 study science or engineering. About a quarter (24%) of international graduate students are in engineering programs and 13% of international graduate students are in the physical and life sciences. About 11% of international graduate students are studying mathematics or computer science,  and 9% of international graduate students are in the social sciences.

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About 4 in 10 international undergraduates are in science or engineering programs. Some 12% of international undergrads are studying engineering, while nearly 1 in 10 (9%) are majoring in the social sciences. About 5-7% each are in undergraduate physical/life science, mathematics/computer science, or health programs.

Overall, the number of international students in the U.S. increased by nearly 8% in 2008-09, to 671,600. Of the total, about 41% come from India, China, or South Korea. The number of students from China increased by about 21% year over year. Vietnamese students increased by 46%, to about 12,800, compared to 2007-08 -- the largest increase for any country. (IIE did not provide country breakdowns by field of study.)

Attaining a Ph.D. degree takes commitment and perseverance, as any Ph.D. candidate can attest. But the way Nicholas Kristoff tells it, in yesterday's New York Times Tererai Trent, a plant pathologist and Ph.D. candidate at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, demonstrated commitment and perseverance in the quest that few students at American universities are expected to endure.

Now 44, Trent came from a village in rural Zimbabwe, where, as tradition dictates, she was married off to a much older man at age 11. Most girls subjected to such conditions have ended up illiterate and poor, tending to small plots of land or herds of livestock. But 12 years after her marriage, Jo Luck, president of the rural aid organization Heifer International, visited Trent's village, and encouraged the village women to talk about their dreams and at least try to make them a reality.

Trent wrote down her dreams -- to go the United States and get an education -- on a scrap of paper, put the paper in a box, and buried it under a pile of rocks. Heifer International gave her a goat and she began to make extra money selling its milk. Later, she went to work for Heifer International and other aid groups as a community organizer in Zimbabwe. When she finished secondary school, the income saved up from her work at Heifer International helped her enroll at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, in 1998.

You're probably imaging smooth sailing for Trent the rest of the way. Think again. By the time she started school she had 5 children that she was not ready to abandon to their traditional and abusive father. Her husband agreed to let the children go with her to Oklahoma, but on one condition: that he could come along as well. The airfares soaked up much Trent's savings, Kristoff says, and she and her family lived in a ramshackle trailer with little income -- with nothing but beatings from a frustrated and abusive husband to welcome her home after class.

Financial and other help came, eventually, from a university colleague and the Stillwater community, and that help enabled her to complete her B.A. degree in agricultural education -- and to get her husband deported. When he would return later, frail and suffering from AIDS, Trent took him back in until he died of the disease. (Kristoff says Trent tested negative for the HIV virus.)

Trent continued at Oklahoma State, getting an M.S. degree in plant pathology, marrying her current husband, plant pathologist Mark Trent, and becoming Heifer International's Deputy Director for Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation. Her interest in assessing effectiveness led her to an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at Western Michigan University, in evaluation. Her dissertation is called, "Toward an Integral Systematic Evaluation Approach in the Face of HIV/AIDS in Developing Countries."

She returned once to her village in Zimbabwe and found the pile of rocks under which she buried the box with her goals written down, Kristoff says, and she checks off her goals as they are achieved. Trent checked off the last item after defending her Ph.D. dissertation. The degree will be awarded in December.

Whether it's good news or bad news depends on your perspective. A new report from the American Institute of Physics (AIP) shows that physics degree production is up dramatically. The most recent data are from 2006.

* In 2006, 5373 students earned bachelor's degrees in physics, up 5% over the previous year and 47% over 1999.

* That same year, 1380 physics Ph.D.s were granted, up 11% over the year before and 26% over 2004.

* Undergraduate astronomy degrees was up 98% in 2006, over 1997.

AIP also released a Focus on Astronomy Degrees, with slightly more recent data. These data showed the number of astronomy bachelor's degrees dipping in 2007 compared to a year earlier.

Those of you who were too young to experience the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 may soon  witness the metaphorical crumbling of another diplomatic wall: the U.S. embargo on Cuba. This time science may be at the leading edge.

As Elisabeth Pain and Kate Travis described last week in Science Careers, the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago opened up many opportunities for scientists in Eastern Europe to travel to the West for study and research. In Cuba, the United States is playing catch-up, since Cuba already has normal diplomatic and economic relations with most other nations. But right now there's a delegation of American scientists and policy experts visiting Cuba, as reported last night by our colleagues at Science Insider.

The goal of the U.S. delegation, says a news release from AAAS (publisher of Science Careers) is "to explore research issues and multilateral science venues that might be conducive to U.S.-Cuba scientific cooperation."

While many such delegations are long on rhetoric and short on action, this group of visitors may benefit from something of a tropical thaw. Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and one of the delegation members, says in a Washington Note blog post that the atmospherics between the U.S. Interests Section in Havana -- the U.S. does not have an official Embassy there -- and the Cuban government have improved tangibly. "There is a marked, highly noticeable change in the attitude and 'posture' of the Cuban government towards US State Department and other US officials assigned to the embassy-lite operation in Havana," he says. "Cuban authorities, apparently, are engaging the U.S. government personnel constructively -- and this just didn't happen before" This is one of several indicators Clemons found pointing toward more bi-lateral cooperation.

Clemons separately highlights Cuba's use of its medical schools and staff as diplomatic tools, which he feels could serve as a template for exchanges between Cuba and the United States. Cuba in recent years sent has teams of its doctors to help local populations recover from natural disasters in Pakistan and elsewhere. Partially as a result of those early contacts, Pakistan has since established diplomatic relations with Cuba. Today, Pakistani students attend the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana.

Last month on this blog, we talked about more employers using reference checks as part of thorough investigations into applicants' pasts. Today's Wall Street Journal says that employers are taking that process further to include checks of arrests and convictions, which applicants must be prepared to explain or remove from their records.

You say you're not a criminal?  What about that campus demonstration and sit-in where the police arrested everyone blocking the entrance to a building on disorderly conduct charges? Or what about the traffic stop, where the officer found a joint in the back seat of the car you were driving? Perhaps you ended up paying a fine or even having the charges dropped; there are still traces of those arrests on official records that may come up when an employer starts looking into your past.

Arrests in the United States are hardly uncommon. Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told the Journal that an estimated 60% of American men have been arrested, up from 50% in 1967, which he attributes to more arrests for minor drug and domestic violence cases. The Journal highlights Department of Justice figures showing that arrests for pot possession more than tripled, to 1.8 million, between 1980 and 2007.

Granted, arrests are different from convictions, and the Journal cites the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which says employers cannot make hiring decisions based on arrests that did not result in convictions. Still -- when a hiring manager is faced with a choice between two equally qualified candidates, only one of whom has an arrest record, who is more likely to get the nod?

In some states you can petition the authorities to clear past arrest records for minor crimes, which means having the official records of your arrest erased (expunged is the legal term) blocked, or sealed.  The processes and categories of offenses vary from state to state, but more often than not, you'll need to hire an attorney.  A Chicago attorney, Tamara Holder, specializes in such cases for Illinois residents, and advertises her record-clearing services on a Web site. The Journal says legal-aid organizations and public defenders offices can also be enlisted to help.

The process is neither quick nor fool-proof. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state's pardons board handles record-clearing cases, and faces a 3-year backlog in requests. A new law in that state allows local courts to process the petitions, which could speed things up a bit. Even after the official record is expunged, sealed, or whatever, iit may take some time for commercial public records databases -- some with fees as low as $10 a search -- to catch up.

If you have an arrest record, even if it has been cleared, you may want to disclose the information before the employer finds it in a background check. "If someone has a criminal history, we can work with them," a Chicago-area executive told the Journal. "But if they have one and lie to us, that's pretty ominous."

In a New York Times Economix column this week, Steven Greenhouse tells about the large percentage of American workers do not get paid if they stay home sick. As a result, with the H1N1 and seasonal flu viruses among us, we can expect to encounter many people during the workday in less than the best of health.

Fortunately, for science and engineering professionals and technicians, a large majority of our employers provide paid sick leave. Greenhouse cites Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data showing that 85% or more of teachers, management, business, professional, and government workers can take off if they are sick and get paid for at least some of those days.

We often come into contact with other people at our jobs who do not have this benefit. Take, for example, the truck driver delivering new lab equipment. Only about half (54%) of transportation and material moving employees get paid sick leave.  Or how about the salespeople who drop in to talk about new products or services: Only a few more of those workers (56%) can stay home when sick and get paid for it.

The further down the pay scale you go, the less likely you find paid sick leave. For people in the lowest wage quartile, less than 4 in 10 (37%) get paid sick leave. That group includes many of the maintenance, cleaning, and security staff we rely on every day. In comparison, 86% of the top wage quartile have paid sick leave. One notable exception among the higher-paid group are health care professionals, whose compensation is based on the number of patients they see. If they stay home when not feeling well, it gets reflected in their take-home pay.

The size of the organization you work for also makes a difference. Only about half (52%) of the workers at companies with fewer than 100 employees get paid sick leave, compared to 8 in 10 staff (80%) at companies of 500 employees or more.

These disparities in sick leave make it all the more important to take the necessary precautions to stay healthy during this flu season, not just for ourselves, but also for everyone we interact with. And dude, that means you.

A Wall Street Journal reader wrote to Toddi Gutner, one of the newspaper's careers advisers, about a question uppermost in the minds of job-hunters over the age of 40: How do you deal with your age in interviews and resumes? The reader said, in his question published today, that he received conflicting advice from people he trusted.

While most Science Careers' readers are early-career scientists, this is not a far-fetched issue for some of our readers. Among our Facebook fans, for example, 6% are age 45 or older. Our  Science Careers story last week about the career of Patricia Alireza, who earned a Ph.D. in physics at the age of 45 after raising a family, got a few "thumbs up" on our Facebook page.

In one respect, the current tough job market may give older job-hunters an advantage. "This is a good time to position yourself as a deeply competent and confident professional in your area of expertise and experience," Rabia de Lande Long, a consultant and executive coach told Gutner. "In uncertain economic times, employers can be drawn more to experienced workers who join with ready-to-use skills and a shallow learning curve."

One specific question the reader asked was whether to include the dates of college degrees on your resume, since they enable hiring managers can calculate your age. Gutner says that in most cases it's a good idea to include the dates. If you don't, it suggests that you have something to hide, which would raise even more questions among H.R. departments and hiring managers. Plus, employers frequently verify dates of previous employment and educational attainment, so there is little reason to hide the dates on your resume.

If you are in your mid-50s and older, be prepared for more resistance among hiring managers. But there are ways to deal with it. A flattering photo on your LinkedIn profile may dispel some doubts. But more importantly, says career coach de Lande Long, you want to use your cover letter to differentiate yourself from the common perception of older candidates, "by showing results, (understanding of) technology and demonstrate ease in interacting with colleagues of all ages," she says.

Another professional advises older job-seekers to avoid the 'been there, done that' attitude. Instead, show interest, commitment, enthusiasm and energy. "If you're bored with your profession, you can be sure that comes through in an interview," says Susan Chadick, a principal at Chadick Ellig, an executive-search firm serving small and mid-size companies and startups.

It seems a bit nonsensical, but sometimes a good place to look for a job is with a company that just announced layoffs. That's the advice from Aleksandra Todorova this week in SmartMoney.

Todorova found a number of companies, including employers of scientists and engineers such as Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sun Microsystems, that had many advertised job openings at the time they announced substantial layoffs. When the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb announced layoffs of 113 full-time employees at two facilities in the U.S., it was still seeking applicants for 165 open jobs. Likewise, computer and software maker Sun Microsystems announced layoffs of up to 6,000 employees in November 2008, but Todorova still found the company trying to fill 43 openings.

John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told Todorova that companies hiring and letting go staff at the same time is not unusual. "Larger companies especially," says Challenger, "are big, complex organizations, often with many different lines of business."

The reasons for simultaneous layoffs and hiring are varied. When companies consolidate facilities, for example, it may mean layoffs in one location but openings at the location where the combined units join forces. In some cases, the positions may move to the new location, but the people originally in those jobs decide to stay put.

At other enterprises, says Todorova, management uses restructuring to clean house, i.e., cut staff who are not performing up to expectations. A human resources consultant told Todorova that executives "are exploiting the economic environment to find great talent."

Similarly, companies use this opportunity to change corporate strategies, which can mean shedding jobs in older lines of business but adding positions in newer and growing fields. For example, firms in the energy business may be cutting back on work involving fossil fuels, but adding staff knowledgeable in renewable energy.

If you find yourself being considered by a company who recently announced layoffs, you still need to do your due diligence in making sure the job won't soon be on the chopping block. "If given the opportunity, says Todorova, "use a job interview to ask about the reason behind the recent layoffs and how they would affect the position you're pursuing."

As a science journalist, I've had the opportunity to interview several Nobel prize winners. Such high-profile scientists are usually pretty obsessed with their science and more than happy to talk about it all day. But it's one thing to ask a Nobel winner to explain how her research fits into our greater understanding of life. It's another to ask if she has any tips for balancing family life with lab life.

Yet I had just such an opportunity earlier this month when I got to listen in on a conference call of this year's four science/economics women Nobel laureates, convened by Science deputy news editor Jeff Mervis. Jeff started off with the policy-oriented issues: What immediate steps should be taken to increase the number of women going into science and improve conditions for those already in the field? Are gender-based awards useful? How is it possible for an organization such as the National Institutes of Health to launch an award competition and announce a class of grantees that is all men?

Once everyone had warmed up a bit, we started in with some more personal questions. For example: To what extent do you have to blend your personal and your professional lives to achieve a balance? Has there been anything that's helped you be successful in terms of managing your time?

Here are some highlights of the conversation:

On work-life balance:

- Elizabeth Blackburn, age 60, professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: "I think that the message of balance is somewhat overplayed, in my view, because if you're doing something intense like having a family and doing science, they're both intense things, and so this idea that somehow every day is sort of balanced I think it's really a bad message, actually, to try and send people. ... So I try and send the message, for goodness sake, don't go for balance. That sounds very boring to me, you know, in this sort of 9 to 5 and you're balancing your life. Go for these things intensely in the periods when you have to go for them and the balance will take care of itself over decades."

- Carol Grieder, age 48, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: "It's actually very nice to be in science because what we're judged on in the end is how productive we are and what we get done and it's not necessarily 9 to 5, and so I feel like I do have a lot of freedom. You know, I'll go out for my son's play at school at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and then come back again, and that kind of freedom to have a flexible schedule, I think, is not always true in other professions. So it's a reason for people to choose science over some other careers that they might have."

- Ada Yonath, age 70, professor of structural biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry: "In my day-to-day life, I don't sit and think about this, it just comes. This is the way I am and this is the way I run my life, and I don't really sit and organize myself . ... It just happens. And I'm very happy that I have a very fantastic relationship with my daughter and granddaughter, although I'm not what is called a normal mother, if there is something like normal mother." 

On choosing family and career:

- Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom, age 76, the first woman to ever receive the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel: "Well, as a somewhat older participant, I had a clear decision and made a decision not to have a family because in earlier times that would have been a very, very difficult thing to accomplish."

- Greider: "I come from the other spectrum in that I was able to see around me a number of women, including Liz, who were able to have children and have a career, and although there were many fewer women in the higher ranks of academia, there were still some to suggest that it could be done. So just in the same way that you have to go forward with experiments sometime, not knowing what's going to happen, I just went forward with the experiment of having kids and the career and trying to do both full-time."

- Blackburn: "I think there's a lot of conventional ideas about what it should be to be a mother and, you know, certain sorts of formulary and stereotypes are there and I really think that they're not terribly helpful, some of these ideas, because I really think children are busy, you know, scientists do get family lives that are, perhaps, different in some ways but not less good."

And my favorite part of the conversation: Learning that Blackburn's secret to balancing a successful scientific career and motherhood can be found in your grocer's freezer section. I asked the laureates if there's anything that's helped them be successful in terms of managing their time. "Is it time for me to tell the Bagel Bites story?" Blackburn asked. "It's about producing beautiful cookies or cupcakes with beautiful icing and you're up till 2 a.m. making them for your children. This is what motherhood is supposed to be like, right?

"Well, it turns out that if you go to your supermarket, you can buy these little Bagel Bite things, they're called commercially, and you put them in the oven and they have cheese on the top and they bubble and they're lovely and brown and taste wonderful. And you take them to any children's function, and the children swarm over them, they love them, ... and it takes 12 minutes in the oven to cook. So my feeling is there's plenty of time ... to catch the essence of what it is that people like mothers to do, but you don't have to do it in a very laborious, conventional way."

Read more highlights of the interview in this week's Science, listen to highlights in this week's Science podcast, or listen to the entire interview.

And, for more on work-life balance (if there is such a thing) and other related Science Careers articles, check out Work and Life in the Balance, Mind Matters: On Balance, Scientists as Parents, and Reflected Glory: Life With a Nobelist Parent,  

October 27, 2009

Reference Checks Going Deep

Employers are starting to take reference checks more seriously, often triggering exhaustive investigations of applicants' backgrounds and character, according to Eve Tahmincioglu, MSNBC's careers columnist. She likens the process now to guerrilla warfare, where conventional tactics no longer suffice.

"Three years ago, if you had a live body and no one really hated them, then they were hired," Peter Engel, an executive recruiter in New York, told Tahmincioglu. "Now they're really looking much more closely."

Employers now have more tools available to confirm what prospective hires told them on resumes and in interviews, says Tahmincioglu. HR departments and hiring managers are increasingly probing applicants claims about skills, and their conflicts with supervisors or co-workers.  One job-hunter told Tahmincioglu that a reference he provided was grilled by a prospective employer for a half-hour, focusing on job performance and particularly his weaknesses.

Another tool for guerrilla reference-checks are social networks such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Hiring managers and HR departments are using the applicants' network contacts or friends to find co-workers NOT on the provided reference lists and bypassing the posted references often found on LinkedIn profiles. An executive currently in the process of filling several jobs told Tahmincioglu that he routinely checks 6 off-list references for each applicant under serious consideration, using LinkedIn profiles and contact lists.

Some employers get nervous about giving negative reports in reference checks, fearing legal action by former employees. But Tahmincioglu says companies are taking steps to  prevent that from happening, such as asking new hires to sign waivers stating that they will not sue the company if supervisors or co-workers say something negative about them in future reference checks.

Tahmincioglu lists a few ways for job-hunters to prepare for this closer examination:
- If you're in the job market, review your social network contacts and friends lists for co-workers who might give you less than a stellar reference, and if necessary, enable
the networks' privacy features to keep your contacts private.
- Call your references before the prospective employer can contact them to let them know about the job for your being considered and the kinds of tough questions they may ask.
- But be careful about over-coaching references on how to respond to probing questions about your background and relationships. HR departments are adept at noticing rehearsed answers.
- If a prospective employer asks to talk to former colleagues with whom you may have had problems, let the reference-checkers know in advance about the problems you had at the previous job. You want to limit the surprises the employer encounters during the reference checks.

In 1999, Peter Fiske offered readers of Science's Next Wave (the predecessor to Science Careers) tips on generating favorable reference letters in academic hiring. While the article is 10 years old, the advice is still good today.

A Science Careers story on scientists getting The Entrepreneurial Bug two weeks ago tells about three academic researchers who started their own businesses, and includes advice to academics thinking about making the same career move. Today's Wall Street Journal provides a few more pointers for budding businesspeople from the academic world.

Brent Eastwood, an adjunct political science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who started a political consulting company, tells the Journal's Alexandra Levit that academics should expect to encounter a mindset in the business world very different from the one they're used to on the university campus. "I've seen academics pitching to investors at venture-capital conferences get eaten alive," Brentwood says. "Professors aren't used to needing such a thick skin, and they have to develop it if they want to work in business."

The three researchers interviewed by Science Careers started their businesses early, as postdocs or junior faculty. Eastwood, however, recommends that university faculty time their entrepreneurial ambitions for the second half of their academic careers, after they have established their research, teaching, and publication credentials. Otherwise, if faculty members want to combine their academic and business careers -- as two of the researchers interviewed by Science Careers have done -- Eastwood advises "not to spread yourself too thin, or you risk getting passed over for tenure."

Faculty members considering a career with an already established business rather than starting their own should expect a different set of expectations and requirements. Cyndi Laurin, a business author and consultant, and a former faculty member in the College of Business at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, reminds academics that businesses have limited resources, particularly in tough times like these. In seeking out industry jobs, says Laurin, you have to show a record of results, particularly financial results. "Although your education, research, and publications are the high points of an academic résumé," Laurin says, "the business world wants to see how you've made a monetary difference to past employers."

Science Careers Tooling Up columnist Dave Jensen offers advice each month to researchers considering business careers. Jensen's August 2009 column explores several misconceptions about industry often found among academics.

Monday's announcement of the Nobel prize in economics brought the number of women honored in this year's Nobel Prizes to five (out of 13 total): "The largest number ever to join the ranks in a single year," noted the Web site.

It's tough to know whether this is something to celebrate.

Let's set aside the gender imbalance for a moment and instead focus on the women:

On Monday, Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to win the economics prize (officially called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) for her analysis of economic governance. (She's also a member of Science's Board of Reviewing Editors.) In an interview with Adam Smith from, Ostrom noted that economics is a male-dominated field. "I've attended economics sessions where I've been the only woman in the room," Ostrom said. "But that is slowly changing. I think there's a greater respect now that women can make a major contribution, and I would hope the recognition here is helping that along." (See also ScienceInsider's item on the economics prize.)

Last week, Herta Müller, a Romanian-born German writer, became the 12th woman (out of 106 recipients) to win the Literature prize. She, "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed," according to the Nobel committee.

Ada Yonath, professor of structural biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, was the 4th woman to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work on the structure and function of ribosomes. "I never thought about me being a woman or not when I did science," she said in an interview last year. Indeed, the wisdom she had for those of us in the audience at last year's European Platform of Women Scientists Annual Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, focused on the process of science rather than on any issue of gender:

"In the 27 years that I was working with ribosomes, ... I took away this fantastic piece of wisdom: According to some theory, almost anyone can be a genius if they focus on a single endeavor to the exclusion of all else," she said. "But how can people today maintain such focus when they face so many distractions? In my opinion, it can only be done by being allowed to work on demanding projects for relatively long periods, even when no physical results are emerging. We worked 20 years until we had the first structure [of ribosomes]. We had a huge puzzle to put together, and every piece was for us a big, gratifying moment."

In fact, it was a Nobel Prize-worthy puzzle. (Click here for ScienceNOW's coverage of the chemistry Nobel prize.)

Last but not least, this year's winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine included Elizabeth Blackburn, professor of biology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco; and Carol Grieder, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, for their work on telomeres and telomerase. (Click here for ScienceNOW's coverage of the physiology or medicine Nobel prize.)

People often note that there the telomere field seems to be dominated by women. Grieder addressed this in her interview and in Tuesday's New York Times. I like what Blackburn had to say in her interview with "It's fairly close to the biological ratio of men and women. It's all the other fields that are aberrant. This is the normal field," she said, laughing.

Smith asked Blackburn if she worked to promote women in the science. "I've only actively promoted what we always hope is good science. It's not as if one would favor a woman researcher in this area over a man researcher in the area. Women have come into this field, perhaps because ... of the kinds of things that I've been doing, and Carol [has been doing]. We are women, and we tended to have women students and postdocs--not 100%; they tended to be 50-50 men and women, which is already higher than the usual ratio. There's a self-perpetuating aspect to that." She continued: "You want women to have access to science because it's such a wonderful thing to do."

Blackburn's comments reinforce the notion that a mentor who looks like you can have a positive effect. So, while it's hard to know whether to celebrate or bemoan the fact that, for the first time ever, 38% of the new Nobel laureates are women, I am happy that these women have been recognized and hope they will be inspiration for the current and emerging generation of women scientists.

Engineers and architects, like many professionals, face a continuing tough job market, but the student engineers and architects taking part in this year's Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC, display an enthusiasm for their work and technology that belies their current job prospects. Science Careers talked on Monday with a few of the competitors, who not only look forward to a career in working with alternative energy, but also want to change the way their professions are practiced.

The competition, held by the U.S. Department of Energy every 2-3 years, gives teams of student engineers and architects worldwide a chance to show off their skills in designing, building, and operating an attractive and energy-efficient home powered by the sun. This year's Solar Decathlon -- it's called a decathlon because judges rate the teams on 10 criteria -- brought together 20 teams from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The competition provides the participants with a venue for demonstrating their talents while highlighting the practicality of green construction and sustainable design.

TomRauch_PennState_150.jpgTom Rauch, a sophomore at Pennsylvania State University in University Park majoring in energy studies in the school's engineering and business departments, is on the Penn State team. Rauch hopes the Solar Decathlon and his studies lead to a career in industry where he can help "change the way we're doing manufacturing." A Pittsburgh native, Rauch comes from a family of coal and steel workers. He has already done an internship in the coal industry where he was able to see first-hand its production and engineering processes.

HEWarren_Alberta_150.jpg Helen Evans Warren, a masters degree candidate in environmental design from University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, is a member of Team Alberta, which is made up of participants from several institutions in that province. Warren also serves on the interior design faculty at Mount Royal University in Calgary. She plans to use her research and teaching roles to help generate alternative ways of approaching design and to "generate projects that make a difference." Alberta, Warren notes, now relies heavily on oil and gas but the competition can show how alternative energies can make a positive impact on the environment.

JoeRice_UWMilw_150.jpgJoe Rice, who is getting a masters degree in architecture at University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, is one of 30 members of that institution's team in the competition. In his career, Rice wants to address "the unique challenge" of building sustainability in the design process, from the studio through the construction documents. While the competition focuses on homes, Rice says, the same sustainable practices can be applied to other structures such as offices and theaters.

The Solar Decathlon homes are on display 13-18 October 2009 (except for 14 October) on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Winners of the competition will be awarded on 16 October.

Update, 14 October 2009: Jon Taplin, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at University of Southern California, makes the case for a "Green WPA", modeled after the New Deal's Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, to save a potential lost generation of young workers caught in the current recession.

Photos: A. Kotok

October 9, 2009

Ruth L. Kirschstein

The death of Ruth L. Kirschstein, MD, on October 6 has deprived young scientists of one of the best official friends they have ever had. In a trail-blazing half century at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Kirschstein served as acting and deputy director of NIH, an advisor to NIH directors, and the first female director of an institute. She used her knowledge and influence to advance the interests of young people aspiring to careers in science. She spoke out, organized meetings, and worked both in the foreground and behind the scenes to open opportunities for future generations of researchers.

Her work won her many honors. The two most relevant to young scientists came from the United States Congress, which in 2002 added her name to the title of the National Research Service Awards supporting biomedical students and postdocs, and the National Postdoctoral Association, which gave her its first Distinguished Service Award in 2004. Science Careers will offer its own appreciation of her life and work at a later date.

                                                                                     - Beryl Benderly
Today marks the launch of Science magazine's spinoff journal, Science Translational Medicine. One of the papers in the inaugural issue is by a group of Canadian researchers who have developed a "lab on a chip" device that can measure levels of the hormone estrogen in a tiny sample of blood or tissue. The researchers hope that this device can be used in the future to measure the risk of breast cancer--which is closely linked to estrogen levels--or the effectiveness of certain therapies that affect estrogen levels.

I heard about this paper on Tuesday in a teleconference for reporters. What struck me as the most interesting part of the research is the group of researchers themselves. The paper is the result of a collaboration between two research groups: A group of chemists and engineers, headed by Aaron Wheeler at the University of Toronto; and a group of clinical researchers, headed by physician-investigator Robert Casper at Mount Sinai Hospital.

The lead author of the paper is Noha Mousa, a Ph.D. student working with Casper. She's also a physician. It was her initiative that got the collaboration going: "Me and Dr. Casper ... have many patients on aromatase inhibitors as a preventive therapy, and we wanted to measure [estrogen levels]," Mousa said in the teleconference. "I contacted Aaron and I told him about the idea, and he said, we can give it a try. So we got together and made a diagram of the device." They brought in more collaborators and people from both labs to fine-tune the idea,  build the device, and eventually test it. "We developed it gradually, step by step," Mousa said. "I was in Dr. Wheeler's lab all the time, and really enjoyed that and learned a lot from it."

I think this paper illustrates a key goal of translational research: To bring together research groups who normally wouldn't work together to solve critical questions to improve human health. Indeed, Wheeler summed it up nicely: "We live in completely different worlds, and I've learned so much working with this other group," he said in the teleconference. "This has been the most fun I've had in science."

October 6, 2009

More Bell Labs Nobels

As if to underscore the greatness of the monopoly-era Bell Laboratories, as described in the current Taken for Granted article on Science Careers, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today announced that half the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics goes to two veterans of the fabled  research center. Willard Boyle, age 85, and George Smith, 79, share the prize with Charles Kao, 75, who did his groundbreaking research at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in Harlow, England. The three are honored for advances in the study of light that laid the foundations of crucial technologies.

According to the Nobel Prize Web site, Boyle and Smith split their half "for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit - the CCD sensor" used in digital photography, which took place at Bell Labs. Kao wins the other half "for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication."

- Beryl Benderly

Few people know more about friendship than psychologist, blogger, and Science Careers columnist Irene S. Levine. Her new book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, tells how friendships between women begin, flourish, and end, with the breakup of best-friendships sometimes as painful as romantic endings. For the book, Levine conducted an online survey of some 1500 women, some of whom she says "poured their hearts out" telling of their friendships with other women.

We're proud of our colleague--that's enough reason to mention her new book here. But there's another reason: She also has lessons for the workplace.

Because the friendship of one woman with another can have an intensity rivaling that of romantic relationships, Levine urges women to enter workplace friendships cautiously. At a book-signing event last night in Rockville, Maryland (outside Washington, DC), Levine said close friendships at work can happen, but she recommends "building trust slowly" with your working colleagues.

Levine says that workplace relationships may not always be collegial, and can get complicated when supervisors and employees are involved. "Friends," says Levine, "can undermine you at work," when office politics and bureaucratic in-fighting create clashes with people you thought were your friends.


Levine has written her Mind Matters column on behavioral and social issues faced by early career scientists for Science Careers since 2005.

(Photo, A. Kotok)

Today's (29 September 2009) Wall Street Journal tells about students doing unpaid internships from the comfort of their own homes. These virtual internships are generally offered by small enterprises for tasks requiring a computer, Internet access, and telephone -- all provided by the intern.

Virtual internships would not likely work for most science students or trainees, where hands-on experience in the lab or field is vital. And there's more to an internship than conducting the required tasks. As Rachel Austin pointed out last December in the Science Careers feature on summer internships, "A planned, formal research experience offers many advantages, including exposure to new topics, techniques, and equipment; the self-confidence that comes from accomplishing things in an unfamiliar setting where your prior record doesn't matter; the opportunity to develop new friendships based on shared intellectual interests; and the chance to find new mentors and professional advisers."

Nonetheless, there are fields related to science where virtual internships are available. The Journal's story tells of Princess Ojiaku, a biology graduate student at North Carolina Central University in Durham, who is considering a career in science policy. Ojiaku is in a 6-month virtual internship with a Washington, DC-based policy organization, where she follows news developments and posts items on the organization's Web site while attending classes and working as a lab assistant. Ojiaku says the experience gives her a taste of policy work, although she admits that from a distance she does not get a real sense of how policy is made in Washington.

Ojiaku's experience exposes the strengths and weaknesses of virtual internships. On one hand, they offer real-life work experiences with real-world consequences and allow the organizations to see how the intern handles these experiences. But they do not provide the all-important teamwork skills learned only in the workplace. Nor do they provide, as Rachel Austin says, the opportunity to find new friends, mentors, or advisers.

Plus, there's potential for abuse. It would be tempting for an organization that needs a task to get done to try and find an unpaid, virtual intern rather than hiring and paying someone for the labor. Whatever value the intern receives could be offset by the negative impact on the job market, which that intern is likely soon to join.

Dear Editor,

I read with interest the following article: "A Physician-Researcher Thrives in the Balance" by Chelsea Ward, September 11, 2009.

I congratulate Dr. Regan Theiler on her accomplishments. However, I believe you are giving the wrong message to young women physician-researchers. In this article, Dr. Theiler had essentially stated that having a successful personal family life and a successful translational research career are both not possible. The author of the article further highlights this point in bold.

In the 21st century, I think that it is quite possible to be a physician-researcher and have a successful personal life. I am an example and so are many professional women that I interact with. The article implied that a career must be given up to have a good family life or vice versa. It is certainly not an example that I would share with my children or the upcoming women researchers of today. Perhaps it would be more important to share with others how successful women balance family and career.

Thanks for your attention.

Deepali Kumar MD MSc FRCPC
Assistant Professor of Medicine
Transplant Infectious Diseases
University of Alberta

Dear Dr. Kumar,

Thank you for taking the time to send us your thoughts about our recent profile of Regan Theiler. We are aware that Theiler's statement was rather provocative. (To remind us all, here it is: "This career path is not for someone who wants to have a big, happy family and go on three vacations a year with them and eat dinner with them every night. It's just not going to happen.")

We are dedicated to promoting women in physician-scientist careers, and I know her statement seems to contradict that. Nevertheless, we thought it important to convey an honest account of Dr. Theiler's experiences and opinions. In my interactions with the physician-scientist trainee community, there are many women (and men) who ask the question, "can I succeed at having both a family and a career?" Theiler gave her honest opinion, which I appreciate and I hope others do, too. But this answer will be different for people in different specialties, in different medical centers, and with different work ethics. Each person's work-life balance is unique.

We will tell stories in future issues of women with different opinions on the subject, and we'll tell the stories of women who do have families and different work-life interactions. Earlier this year, we published two articles on women physician-scientists -- "Women M.D.-Ph.D.s: Life in the Trenches" and "Perspective: Ensuring Retention of Women in Physician-Scientist Training".

I hope to publish more on the issue, and I hope there will be a lively discussion of the subject on our online community for clinical and translational scientists, which will launch in a few weeks. Meanwhile, I thank you for sharing your concern.

Kate Travis
Contributing editor, Science Careers
Editor, CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network

In January, we reported on Myron Rolle, a Florida State University football standout who turned down a sure-fire gig in the NFL for a Rhodes scholarship in medical anthropology. Yesterday, Rolle turned up at the Department of Interior in Washington, DC, where Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a new health and fitness program for American Indian schools, designed by Rolle.

Rolle's program, called Our Way to Health, provides fitness training, health education, and diabetes awareness, with the instructional material cast in the context of American Indian heritage and identity. He first designed the curriculum for fifth graders at a Seminole tribe charter school in Okeechobee, Florida. The Interior Department plans to expand that initial instance to five more schools in Arizona and New Mexico.

While Rolle's program is designed for children, he hopes it will "influence the adults in their lives to also begin adopting healthy life style changes," where obesity and diabetes are becoming more common in American Indian communities.

The Raleigh News and Observer (N&O) today has a story about retired professors in North Carolina's "Triangle"--Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill--offering their services to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as a way for the school to make up for budget cuts that threatened to eliminate classes on that campus. The offer was made back in February, and according to the N&O, the university has been cool to the idea.

Andrew Dobelstein, president of an association of retired UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members, says his group offered to help teach classes, write grants, supervise dissertations, and mentor students. Dobelstein says many of the retired faculty, 600 of whom still live in the region, have kept up with their fields. But the school has made little use of their services.

Ron Strauss, the university's executive associate provost, told the N&O that even with the budget cuts, the school wants to make sure there's a good fit for the retired faculty member, and not just throw a body into a classroom. But he admitted there was no formal campus-wide mechanism for connecting retired faculty to open positions, leaving those placement decisions to the individual departments.

UNC-Chapel Hill's political science department did bring back a faculty member to fill in during the budget crunch. The chair of that department asked Jurg Steiner, a 40-year veteran of the faculty who retired in 2000, to teach an honors seminar in European politics. Steiner, who continued doing research after he officially retired, told the N&O that he was happy to help out without compensation.

That experience may explain why other departments are leery of using volunteer teachers. What's to stop administrators from asking recent retirees to volunteer their time after the budget crunch is over? You can imagine the impact on morale of faculty members still drawing a paycheck.

Hat-tip: Terra Sigillata

September 21, 2009

Postdoc Appreciation Day

The National Postodoctoral Association (NPA) has designated this Thursday, 24 September, as the first annual Postdoc Appreciation Day, celebrating "the significant contribution that postdoctoral scholars make to the U.S. scientific research enterprise and, at the same time, increasing awareness of this contribution."

NPA created this celebration as a way for university faculty and administrators to let their trainees know how much their contributions are valued. Campuses all over the United States and one in Ontario, Canada, have scheduled events ranging from seminars to coffee-hours to cookouts. The NPA Web site has a list of events and locations. And there's a Facebook event page where invitees can tell if they plan to attend.

While some postdocs may not want to get too far behind in their lab work, they should not sacrifice those vital partying -- um, networking -- skills that can always come in handy later on.

Last Thursday, the White House announced this year's National Medal of Technology and Innovation winners, which include Esther Takeuchi, professor of engineering and chemistry at University at Buffalo (UB), part of the State University of New York system. Takeuchi talked to Science Careers in October 2007, soon after she joined the UB faculty, about her decision to join the academic world after 22 years in the private sector.

Takeuchi holds 140 patents, more than any other woman in the United States. Her best known invention is the lithium/silver vanadium oxide battery used in the implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), which monitors and corrects irregular heart rhythms. More than 200,000 ICD units are in use.

Takeuchi told Science Careers in 2007 that she made the jump to the academic world in order to expand her research into new fields, and according to a UB release, that's happening. Her research in miniature power supplies and sensors now extends to applications in storage devices for alternative energy sources, electric vehicles, and homeland security.

The National Medal of Technology and Innovation--the more applied companion of the National Medal of Science--recognizes individuals, teams, and organizations that make lasting contribution's to the country's competitiveness, standard of living, and quality of life through technological innovation. Takeuchi will receive the medal from President Obama at a White House ceremony on 7 October.

The House of Representatives approved today by a 235-171 vote the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (H.R. 3221), which plans to change the way many students pay for their college educations. The most dramatic change is to end the banks' role in making student loans.

Columnist Gail Collins in today's New York Times sums up the reforms this way:

Let us stop here and recall how the current loan system works:
1) Federal government provides private banks with capital.
2) Federal government pays private banks a subsidy to lend that capital to students.
3) Federal government guarantees said loans so the banks don't have any risk.

And now, the proposed reform:
1) The federal government makes the loans.
In wonkier terms, students now can borrow money from private lenders through the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which provides subsidies and guarantees to banks and other lenders. Students or their families can also borrow directly from the U.S. government's Federal Direct Loan Program. The bill would fold all lending into the Direct Loan program, leaving the private sector with a much-reduced servicing role.

Rep. George Miller (D, CA), the chief sponsor of the bill, says that ending the subsidies and guarantees will save some $87 billion over the next decade. The bill allocates about $40 billion of that amount for increasing Pell Grant scholarships annually from $5,350 today to $6,900 in 2019.

The bill also expands the Perkins Loan program to more campuses -- in the Perkins Loan program, students borrow from the institution, not from the government -- and simplifies the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The current FAFSA form is so complex that companies have sprung up to help individuals and families complete it.

The bill has other provisions: It keeps interest rates low on need-based student loans. Those rates were expected to double from 3.4% today to 6.8% in 2012. The bill forgives loans to reservists or National Guard members called up to active duty in the middle of their academic years. And it funds programs that broaden access to post-secondary institutions and encourage students to complete their degrees.

Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, called the bill a government takeover of the current private system of student lending that most institutions favor.

The bill, which has the backing of the Obama Administration, now goes to the Senate. Sen. Tom Harkin (D, IA), who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in a statement that the committee plans to soon write similar legislation.

Our colleague Eli Kinitsch has posted an exchange of notes on the Science Insider blog with two early-career scientists about the paperwork burden forced on junior researchers. Their particular gripe is the amount of time devoted to writing grant proposals.  The post is a response to a recent story in PLOS Biology from an anonymous British researcher bitterly complaining about the burden of grant writing to support a lab, including the "salesmanship and networking" required.

The two researchers offer ideas on how to reform the system, including a call for better training in the business skills needed to run an independent lab. It's worth a look.

Science Careers's Elisabeth Pain recently told how several early-career scientists in the U.S. and Europe who achieve independence are coping with this system and offers a list of resources (including related Science Careers articles) to help junior researchers achieve and keep their independence.

The Department of Defense (DoD) is confronting the mounting medical problems of members of the armed services and veterans with a new research and development funding program to help relieve their suffering.

From 2003 to 2007, an estimated 44,000 U.S. service members were diagnosed with some form of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Another 39,000 current or former service members suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) well after they returned home, according to the Congressional Research Service

To meet these needs, DoD is offering its Defense Medical Research and Development Program (DMRDP) Applied Research and Advanced Technology Development Award. This award is designed for independent investigators interested in conducting research on battlefield injury and care, particularly in the areas of PTSD, TBI, prosthetics, and restoration of eyesight and other vision-related ailments. Additional research topics include operational health and performance, rehabilitation, and psychological health and well-being tools for U.S. service members.

The DMRDP announcement calls for applied research, which it defines as "work that refines concepts and ideas into potential solutions". The intention is to enhance pharmacologic agents (drugs and biologics), diagnostic and therapeutic devices, behavioral and rehabilitation interventions, clinical guidance, supporting medical information, and training systems.

The DMRDP Applied Research and Advanced Technology Development Award is a three-year funding opportunity. Investigators will be awarded a maximum of $750,000 a year to fund their research efforts. DoD expects to make about 100 awards, divided between internal and external applicants. The deadline to apply is September 25, 2009.

For an overview of this grant visit GrantsNet. For the full announcement visit the DoD Web site.

- Donisha Adams

Donisha Adams is the GrantsNet Program Associate for Science Careers.

September 11, 2009

Hey Dude, Wash Your Hands

The H1N1 (a.k.a. swine flu) virus is spreading earlier than expected this year and particularly affecting children and young adults, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So you can depend on university students to wash their hands to keep the flu from spreading, right?  Guess again.

A new study in the Journal of Environmental Health shows that students on campus may talk a good game about taking preventive measures, like hand-washing, but it's mainly talk.  The study, by Brae V. Surgeoner, University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada; Benjamin J. Chapman, North Carolina State University in Raleigh; Douglas A. Powell, Kansas State University in Manhattan, studied the behavior of students at a Canadian university at the height of a norovirus outbreak. Norovirus is a family of ailments, often called the "stomach flu," with rather nasty symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

You can get norovirus from contaminated food, but it is often spread the same way as H1N1: by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and then placing contaminated hands in one's mouth, or by sharing contaminated utensils.  Students on this campus were urged to protect themselves against the spread of the norovirus by washing their hands.

The researchers compared self-reported surveys completed by students about their hand hygeine to their actual observed hand-washing practices. In the surveys, according to the journal, more than 8 in 10 students (83%) reported washing their hands to prevent the spread of the virus. However, when observed, students complied with the prescribed practices only 17% of the time. The authors recommend that institutions take a more assertive, proactive strategy aimed at students to prevent future viral outbreaks.

While institutions figure out this strategy, individuals can just do the right thing and wash their hands more frequently. And dude, use hot water!

September 10, 2009

Make Employers Fight Over You

Alexandra Levit's careers column last week in the Wall Street Journal tells about a 26 year-old job hunter in the commercial real estate field -- hardly a growth industry these days -- who got multiple job offers from employer prospects. This job seeker did nothing magical; he applied some of the lessons spelled out by Dave Jensen in his 20 February 2009 Tooling Up column, "The Cold, Hard Truth About Finding a Job in 2009". But he took these techniques one step further and made himself look indispensable to the employers.

Making companies fight over job-hunters seems far-fetched these days. While some signs point to an upturn in the overall economy, the job market remains weak. Companies are retrenching -- Doing More With Less as Jim Austin pointed out on this blog last week. As Levit notes and Jensen said earlier this year, some companies are hiring. But, as Jensen advised, job hunters need to expend a great deal more time and effort than in the past to find a job and use all of the job-hunting tools at their disposal.

Levit's column last week suggests that these extra efforts to connect with potential employers do not go unnoticed by hiring managers, and can make job-hunters seem much more valuable. She encourages job-seekers to research prospective employers, using the Web and their own networks, to learn as much as possible about their history, corporate culture, financial performance, and recent developments related to the company.

Job-seekers should then use that intelligence in cover letters and resumes to show how well they would fit in with the organization's plans and the value they would bring. "By the time the interview takes place," Levit says, "they are able to have an intelligent discussion about the value they bring to the position, and the employer can easily envision them starting tomorrow."

Another tip from Levit: You can create a "buzz" about your potential to the company. She recommends making multiple contacts in a company -- such as the HR department, personal acquaintances, and the hiring manager -- and letting these contacts know about the others in the organization with whom you've been speaking. In other words, get them talking about you, but don't assume they would do it on their own.

In this tough job market, you must work both harder and smarter. But contrast these practices with extreme job-hunting and so-called bold tactics discussed in other WSJ stories, which aim to grab the attention of hiring managers. Now put yourself in the heads of executives hiring for responsible jobs that pay a decent salary and require the the trust and confidence of colleagues. Which strategy do you think will more likely get you an interview or a job?

September 9, 2009

Sweat Equity to Fund Research

Sunday's Washington Post tells about Yuntao Wu, a professor of molecular and microbiology at George Mason University's Manassas, Virginia, campus, who augments funding for his research on HIV/AIDS with a New York-to-Washington, DC benefit bicycle ride. The ride's participants, including Wu himself, plan to pedal the 330 mile distance between 10 and 13 September.

Wu, 45, will join 50 other riders who together plan to raise about $150,000, money that Wu says will cover his lab's expenses for almost a year. Each rider pays a $100 registration fee and commits to raise at least another $2,500. This is the second year for the event, but the first time Wu himself has taken part as a rider. Wu's lab colleagues also participate as volunteers to help riders or the event organizers.

Wu's research explores the interaction between the HIV-1, the virus that causes AIDS, and a type of immune cells, called T cells, that protect against infections. His work has elucidated the process used by HIV-1 to invade, infect, and eventually destroy T cells. Wu's lab now focuses on therapeutics for strengthen the T cells' barriers against HIV-1 invaders. 

The Post's article tells how several of this year's riders are HIV-positive and says that Wu is looking forward to sharing this 4-day experience with them. 

The vast majority of Wu's funding comes from a 4-year, $1.2 million grant from NIH, which is probably a good thing. According to the event's Web site, organizers had hoped this year's ride would attract 100 riders and raise $250,000.

September 3, 2009

Doing More with Less

One of the few apparent bright spots in recent economic reports is in the area of worker productivity. According to the U.S. labor department, productivity increased by 6.6%, year over year, during the last quarter, which ended in June, the largest increase in worker productivity since 2003. That reflects an upward revision over original estimates.

So what's behind the increase? No surprise: The increase is the result of pinched wages, layoffs, and the remaining workers getting the work done.

There's a (reasonable) assumption that higher worker productivity should lead to higher wages, sharing in the gains they made possible. But as often as not over the last couple of decades, it hasn't worked out that way. And anyway, it assumes that there are gains: this time around, in the midst of the deepest recession in decades, some are saying that increased worker productivity seems merely to have helped employers stay afloat. Translation: Just be glad you still have a job.

That does not, however, seem to be the whole story. Quoted in the San Jose Mercury News, Bill Schultz, chief investment officer at McQueen, Ball & Associates in Bethlehem, Pa., says that "profits have recovered nicely." The problem is that they've recovered mainly due to cost cutting--layoffs--and not revenue growth. "It's more the way that they have recovered that gives people pause," Schultz says. "The key is to somehow blend this cost-cutting with revenue growth." If companies can pull that off, maybe we'll get raises next year, and maybe our economic futures will start to look brighter.
The Council of Graduate Schools released a report this week of a survey on factors that help graduate students stay the course and get their Ph.D. degrees. Financial help and mentoring were cited as two the key reasons, particularly for science and engineering students.  The report is part of the organization's Ph.D. Completion Project, a 7-year undertaking to better understand the reasons for Ph.D. completion and attrition.

More respondents cited financial support as a key success factor than any other reason. Eight in 10 (80%) pointed to financial factors, including at least that number of mathematics, physical science, life science, engineering, and social science participants. Those in humanities programs were somewhat less likely to mention money as a key reason for completion.

Mentoring or advising emerged as the factor mentioned second most often by respondents -- about two-thirds overall (65%) and somewhat more (67-70%) of engineering, social science, mathematics, and physical science graduates. Somewhat fewer life science graduates (61%) identified mentoring or advising as a key factor in completing their programs.

A third key element in completing a Ph.D., according to respondents, is non-financial support from families. More than half (57%) identified this factor, particularly social science graduates (61%). Majorities (53-57%) of life science, engineering, and physical science/mathematics respondents also cited this reason as important to their doctoral success.

Other key factors, shared by 3-to-4 in 10 science and engineering respondents, include the social environment or peer group support, the quality of their doctoral programs, and professional or career guidance (apart from academic mentoring or advising).

The survey explored the extent of financial support promised students at the outset of their programs, and science students in general received more of these guarantees. Nearly all (94%) of all respondents received some financial support, and 7 in 10 received guarantees of assistance for more than 1 year. Science students were more likely than those in other fields  to receive multi-year guarantees.  Three in four life science students (77%) were offered assistance for more than 1 year, as were almost as many (72-73%) in mathematics, physical sciences, and social sciences. Engineering students were, as a group, less fortunate; about 6 in 10 (63%) received multi-year financial guarantees.

The study team surveyed 1856 respondents enrolled in doctoral programs, at 18 participating universities, from May 2006 through August 2008. Of that number, 1406 had completed programs.

One lesson gained from Michael Moore's film Sicko, and from this year's health care debate, is that Americans can learn a lot about health care from other countries. Now, the Commonwealth Fund offers fellowships in health care policy for experts from Europe and elsewhere to come to America, learn, and teach.

The Harkness Fellowships in Health Care Policy offer an opportunity for mid-career health-services researchers and practitioners from Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom to travel to the United States to conduct research on health policy and share what they discover.

Awardees receive up to $107,000 to spend 9-12 months working with U.S. health policy experts. After completing their research, awardees will publish their findings in a peer-reviewed journal or a report for policy-makers. The Commonwealth Fund hopes that these reports will provide a mix of health care ideas that have worked in other countries that can be combined with a U.S. health care strategy. The foundation expects the research to contribute to a system that provides Americans with better health care options.      

The Commonwealth Fund is a New York-based foundation that promotes the development of a health care system that achieves better access, improved quality, and greater efficiency for all people, particularly the most vulnerable: people with low-incomes, the uninsured, minority Americans, young children, and elderly adults.

The deadline for applications is 15 September. More information about the Harkness Fellowships in Health Care Policy, is available on GrantsNet and the Commonwealth Fund Web site.

- Donisha Adams

Donisha Adams is the GrantsNet Program Associate for Science Careers.

A survey of hiring managers in the United States suggests that there will be more employment opportunties in the next year, with technology jobs among the first to recover once the economy turns around.

This year's Employment Dynamics and Growth Expectations (EDGE) report, from staffing consultant Robert Half International and CareerBuilder.Com, says more than half (53%) of the respondents expect to hire full-time employees over the next 12 months. The report cites technology, customer-service, and sales as the departments that will add positions once economic conditions start improving. Currently, employers are first looking for staff in sales, customer service, and marketing; technology jobs are likely to follow.

The EDGE report indicates employers will focus on working-level rather than management jobs. About a third (32%) plan to hire professional staff and almost that number (28%) intend to add entry-level workers. In their hiring, employers plan to look particularly for candidates with initiative, problem-solving creativity, and multi-tasking abilities.

Employment opportunities should also increase for temporary and part-time staff. Some 4 in 10 (40%) hiring managers anticipate hiring contract, project, and temporary workers in the next 12 months. About the same number (39%) expect to hire part-time staff. Only about a quarter (23%) of employers have no hiring plans in the next year. Nearly half (44%) expect the 2009 stimulus bill -- officially, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- to create job opportunities in their organizations over the next 2 years.

Also surveyed were people already in full-time jobs. About 9 in 10 said they were satisfied with their current work situation, but nearly half (45%) expressed an interest in changing jobs once the economy improves. The survey asked employees about the factors that would keep them at their current employers and, not surprisingly, the factor cited most often was salary (49%). Another 20% chose benefits and perks. Among the on-the-job perks considered most important to employees were technology upgrades (79%) and tuition or training subsidies (61%)

The survey for the report was conducted by telephone with 500 hiring managers and 500 full-time employees in April and May 2009.

Companies contracted by the federal government for information technology (IT) services say they have run into a campaign by their agency clients to hire away their IT professionals. In some cases, a few federal contractors claim, the agencies' tactics are unethical.

In a story appearing yesterday in Federal Computer Week (FCW) magazine, Stan Soloway, CEO of the industry trade group Professional Services Council, claimed that agencies are resorting to what he calls "heavy-handed tactics" to steal away IT staff from contractors

Soloway cites a major military command -- he did not say which one -- as having "a list of 750 contractor employees that they are one-by-one recruiting specifically." Soloway says agencies are offering top dollar for contractor staff, in one case as high as a GS-15 salary ($98-127,000 per year), the top non-executive government pay grade.

Anne Reed, president of the government contractor Acquisition Solutions Inc. called the situation "the Wild West." She told FCW that agencies have hired away several of her key IT pros at higher pay and with more authority than what Acquisition Solutions could offer. Reed adds that had she matched the government's pay offers, she would not have been able to bill the agencies for the employees' work.

Reed accused some agencies -- again unnamed -- of under-handed tactics such as spreading false information about contracts being canceled, making employment offers from the agencies more appealing. Soloway says contractors and private-sector clients often have non-solicitation clauses in their contracts that prevent their business customers from hiring away staff. Soloway's group has proposed adding a mutual non-solicitation clause to government contracts.

The FCW article did not address how the IT professionals, whose skills are now in high demand and who are reportedly being offered more money, feel about the situation. They may have a different take than the contractor executives quoted in the article.

For the first time in 5 years, admission offers from American universities to foreign grad students--including science and engineering students--dropped compared to the year before. Grad-school applications from foreign students increased slightly for the 2009-2010 academic year, but the increase was the smallest since 2005. These findings come from a Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) survey released last week.

The number of applications from foreign students rose 6% in social sciences and psychology, but life sciences applications remained flat and physical sciences, earth sciences, and engineering applications rose just 2-3%. In 2005 and 2006, these fields recorded double-digit increases in applications.

U.S. graduate schools offered fewer admissions to these students, a trend reflected in most other disciplines as well. While the number of offers to social science and psychology students increased by 1%, offers to life science students dropped by 1%, and engineering, physical science, and earth science offers dropped 4% in 2009. Overall, the number of offers to foreign grad students was down 3% compared to 2008.
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The number of grad-school applications from South Korea and India were both down 16%  in 2009. Applications from China, and from Turkey and the Middle Eastern countries, were up by double-digits over 2008. Offers to Chinese grad students increased 13% in 2009. For students from Middle Eastern countries and Turkey, offers rose 10%. . The survey report does not give data on students from Europe or the other American countries.

Universities with the largest numbers of foreign grad students continued to offer more foreign science and engineering students positions in their graduate departments. The 25 institutions with the largest foreign-student enrollments made 10% more admission offers to engineering and life science students from overseas in 2009, while social science and psychology offers increased by 5%. For foreign physical and earth science students, the number of offers barely increased (a 1% gain). For institutions with smaller numbers of foreign students enrolled, the numbers of offers were either flat or declined in 2009.

CGS conducted this survey in June, the second of three surveys of international graduate students conducted each year. The first survey in February provides a snapshot of initial applications. The last survey, in October, assesses foreign-student enrollments.

August 21, 2009

Disaster-Proof Your Career

With summer and tropical-weather season upon us (1 June to 30 November), the blog Career Hub this week, offers advice on keeping your career on track should a hurricane hit.

Some of the blog's advice applies to anyone in an area threatened by tropical weather: board-up windows, stock up on water and flashlights, have an emergency contact plan for your family, and follow evacuation orders. For those with jobs, Career Hub also recommends checking into your employer's disaster plans, for back-up operations and emergency contact numbers. We would add that those working in labs should have plans for the care of lab animals and securing potentially dangerous materials.

Even if you re able to stay in your own home or go to work after a storm, Career Hub reminds job-hunters to be prepared for an extended period without electrical power, landline telephone, and Internet access. Keep contact lists in electronic form, if possible in a third-party directory (e.g., Hotmail, GMail) that has regular backups, since local Internet service providers may be flooded out or have their power cut off. Store electronic copies of your resume and other important documents, such as references, in online storage services, such as Skydrive or Google Docs. Another Career Hub tip: use the LinkedIn "recommendations" feature for documenting references.

If you're on the job market and you have to evacuate, be sure to take along proper interview attire. A prospective employer will probably understand if you showed up for an interview in jeans, but why take the chance? Also have on hand your documents indicating citizenship or residency, identity, and employment eligibility to complete an I-9 form for employment verification.

While Career Hub focuses the advice for those in areas prone to hurricanes, it can apply as well as to Tornado Alley in the spring or the vicinity of the San Andreas fault any time of the year.
A new study of networking shows that white men get more job leads than women or Hispanics in their routine conversations. The study, authored by North Carolina State sociologist Steve McDonald and two colleagues, surveyed a national sample of 3,000 respondents to find out about the amount of job information people learn in their day-to-day conversations.

The advantages for white men are particularly pronounced for management jobs. White men, McDonald reported, receive more job leads in their routine conversations than white women or Hispanics of either gender, but about the same number of leads as African-American men and women. White males, however, receive more job leads when they are high-level supervisors, whereas African-Americans generally learn about new jobs while in non-managerial positions.

McDonald and his team found that some of these differences in job leads could be explained by differences in the extent of networking among white males compared with networking among women or minorities. The white males in the study tended to have more and better contacts in different fields of employment than Hispanics. However, white men and women had equal amounts and quality of networking, yet white males continued to get more job leads in their routine conversations. McDonald couldn't explain the greater number of leads for white men in management jobs.

The findings will be published later this month in the journal Social Problems.

Alexandra Levit, the Wall Street Journal's careers columnist, offers advice this week on salary negotiation, geared to tough times. Levit stresses the importance of getting the best possible salary deal upon hiring. In this economy, she observes, "raises are small and promotions are often slow in coming..."

But, in this economy, when jobs are not plentiful, is it still wise to wheel-and-deal on compensation? Levit advises readers to still negotiate, but prepare well. Levit tells of a health-care professional in Boston who was hired for a new job and was prepared to accept the employer's first offer, even though it meant a salary cut. But before taking the offer, she did some homework, writing out a list of ways she could add value to the position. She called the hiring manager and presented her case. The result? She got the salary she was seeking. "The advance planning made me feel a lot more confident going into that conversation."

In preparing for salary negotiations, Levit advises, find out what the industry is paying people in similar jobs. Web sites like can help, but you may need to supplement the public data by talking frankly with friends doing that kind of work. You also need to know compensation practices of the industry and the type of organization doing the hiring. Some businesses offer bonuses based on profits or sales (at least in good times), for example, while government positions often have built-in annual salary increases.

Dave Jensen's two-part series for Science Careers on salary negotiations talks about preparing for and dealing with offers from science and technology employers. Part 1 of the series discusses salary negotiations in general, while part 2 describes the finer points of academic and industry compensation practices. Chris Golde's article, "Be Honorable and Strategic," provides advice for scientists negotiating for academic jobs. While written before the worldwide economy went south, these articles can still help negotiators get what they need in today's job market.

Today's New York Times tells how some recent American college graduates are finding better job prospects in Shanghai and Beijing than in Chicago and Birmingham. Chinese employers apparently value the Americans' entrepreneurial attitudes and practices, which, they say, are not often found in Chinese workers.

China has so far weathered the global recession better than the United States, and the job market there is not nearly as dire. As China's total economic growth rate (measured by the Gross Domestic Product or GDP) declined to 7.9% in the last quarter, the United States suffered through a 1% decrease in GDP. Unemployment in China's urban areas is reported at 4.3%, less than half of the U.S. rate of 9.4%.

A Science Careers feature in December 2006 outlined many scientific opportunities in China, but according to the Times, it's American business skills and attitudes Chinese employers now want to tap into. The story quotes a partner in the Shanghai branch of McKinsey and Company, an international consulting firm, who says that more young Americans are coming to China to take part in the country's entrepreneurial boom, particularly in the energy sphere, a field where graduates with science and engineering degrees often have an advantage.

Americans, the article says, are more likely tan their Chinese counterparts to take initiative, a trait observers quoted in the article attribute to the differences in education systems. In the United States, students have more incentives to experiment and take risks, while Chinese students are encouraged more to defer to their instructors.

Jason Misium, a recent Harvard graduate with a degree in in biology, has started an academic consulting business that helps Chinese who want to study in the United States. Misium tells the Times he found it easy to start a business in China, financed with his own savings.

Apparently, Americans find career progression more rapid in China, compared to the more sluggish United States. A 23-year old graduate of Barnard College in urban studies, recently hired as program director of a dance company in Beijing, tells the Times, "There is no doubt that China is an awesome place to jump-start your career. Back in the U.S., I would be intern No. 3 at some company or selling tickets at Lincoln Center."

New research shatters the myth that university engineering students are more likely to drop out of their undergraduate programs than other majors. That same research, done by  Matthew Ohland, an associate professor in Purdue University's School of Engineering Education, and others, also shatters another myth: that women are more likely to drop out of those programs than men.

Ohland manages the MIDFIELD (Multiple-Institution Database for Investigating Engineering Longitudinal Development) database, with 70,000 engineering students from 9 institutions in the southeastern United States. Only the southeast is represented because the database is new and so far only these 9 schools, including two historically black institutions, have joined.

Ohland and his team report that engineering retention rates over the traditional 8 undergraduate semesters varied considerably among the 9 schools, from 37 to 66 percent. But overall dropout rates among student engineers differed little from other disciplines, and women dropped out at approximately the same rate as men.

The problems, the research suggests, is not that people drop out of engineering, but that nobody steps in to to replace the ones who drop out. About half of graduates awarded bachelors degrees in the social sciences started in the social sciences; that percentage rises to 60% for other sciences. But Ohland found that almost all engineering students--93%--started in engineering; very few students, in other words, started in other majors then moved into engineering. "The road is narrow for students to migrate into engineering from other majors," Ohland notes. Recruitment in general--including recruitment from other majors, the research suggests--is particularly important for increasing the percentage of women, who comprise only about 1 of every 5 engineering students.

Ohland traces some of these recruitment problems to university policies. Only one institution, for example, offered a common calculus course for all disciplines. There, if a life-science student at that school wanted to transfer into engineering, he or she could apply the credits from that calculus course. At most of the sampled institutions, however, different departments required calculus courses. At those institutions students who wanted to move into engineering might have to repeat (a different version of) calculus.

Ohland's team's findings have been accepted for publication in Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. Other results from the research were published last year in Journal of Engineering Education.

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".

July 20, 2009

Studying Humans in Space

Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. But four decades later, how much do we know about how space flight affects the human body?

A new master's degree in human space exploration sciences at the University of Houston (UH) aims to open up the science behind human spaceflight. According to a cleverly timed press release, the new course will cover human physiology in space and how humans may cope with environments on Mars and the moon. It will also teach techniques for building and testing hardware used in space flight, management skills, and the history of the space program.

The course, it says here, is aimed at a variety of people, from students hoping to continue into Ph.D.s in human spaceflight to current space industry workers looking to broaden their knowledge. Course faculty will include NASA's Gary Kitmacher, an expert in astronaut health and habitat; Johnson Space Center's Charles Layne, a human coordination expert; and William Paloski, a UH professor of health and human performance and former NASA researcher in how space flight affects postural stability of astronauts.

Although this may be one of only a handful of degrees devoted to the subject, there are several research groups around the world studying the effects of space flight on the body. Here are some of them:
Space Life Sciences division, Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas
Universities Space Research Association's Division of Space Life Sciences (DSLS), Houston, Texas
National Space Biomedical Research Institute, Houston, Texas
Cleveland Clinic Center for Space Medicine, Cleveland, Ohio
Vanderbilt Center for Space Physiology and Medicine, Nashville, Tennessee
Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Köln, Germany
The Yuri Gagarin Russian State Science Research Cosmonauts Training Centre, Moscow

-Claire Thomas

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.

An article published last week by The Scientist looks at the short- and long-term consequences of scientific misconduct on the careers of those who perpetrated it.

In Life After Fraud, three scientists give their versions of the facts that led the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) to declare them guilty of scientific fraud. These scientists were barred from applying for federal funds for up to 5 years, and their names appeared in official documents together with details of their wrongdoings.

While guilty scientists have their names removed from official blacklists once they've paid their dues, remaining traces of their wrongdoings on the Internet keep haunting them long afterwards. All three scientists in the article managed to stay in science, but they had to deal with a tarnished reputation, which sometimes led employers to withdraw job offers after doing a Google search.

In an accompanying editorial, The Scientist's editor and publisher Richard Gallagher finds that "the current ORI procedure for the investigation of fraud seems fair. And the range of penalties for the guilty look, if anything, too lenient." But Gallagher argues that scientists found guilty of scientific misconduct suffer harsher penalties than intended. "A debarment from receiving federal funds for 3 years can effectively turn into a life sentence for researchers, permanently shutting down opportunities and eliminating career advancement," he writes. Gallagher makes a controversial call for a new system of dealing with fraud that also allows the rehabilitation of offenders.


The Science Careers feature last week on career renewal has pointed us towards several stories involving strange career turns, including this report, spotted by editor Jim Austin, on Wayne Marasco, M.D., Ph.D., appearing today on the U.S. News and World Report site.

According to the article, Marasco developed a technique for identifying common antibodies in viruses that could lead to a breakthrough for more comprehensive vaccines to treat viral illnesses, such as influenza or HIV/AIDS. He is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and research staff of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and is also founder of the National Foundation of Cancer Research Center for Therapeutic Antibody Engineering.

Marasco's path into science was most unusual. After college, Marasco took a job as a technician in a kidney dialysis lab, where he developed an interest in medicine. This interest had to wait, however, because he started a roofing and siding business that became successful. His interest in medical science stayed in the background until he decided to return to the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1980. Marasco later did a postdoc at University of Michigan Medical School, where he also got an M.D. degree in 1986.

A decade ago, Marasco started compiling a library of 27 billion anibodies. Researchers can mix the antibodies in his library with target viruses and catch the antibodies that bind to the target. His work has been applied to the H5N1 (SARS) virus and most recently to the H1N1 (swine flu) virus.  In the H5N1 case, Marasco's technique led to the discovery of a common feature of bird flu viruses that rarely mutates--and a common antibody that binds to it--and thus could make possible a common vaccine against these viruses. Vaccines now must target specific strains; when the viruses mutate, the vaccines become less effective. Marasco's discovery could change all that.

While our country needs good roofers, Marasco's career choice will likely have more widespread and beneficial consequences.
Biology doctoral student, blogger, and Science Careers Facebook fan Danielle Lee points us to a competition that gives the winner an all-expenses-paid trip to Antarctica. The contest offers bloggers--Danielle is one of the contestants--a chance to post an essay on why they deserve to win the voyage. Visitors to the site vote on who they believe most deserves to go.

Quark Expeditions is holding the contest. The company says it has conducted commercial polar expeditions since 1991. Bloggers must post their essays, no longer than 300 words, on the Quark Expeditions site. The contestant who receives the most votes and a companion will receive a free cruise in February 2010 on one of Quark Expedition's vessels, plus round-trip air travel to Ushuaia, Argentina, where the ship departs.   

So far, 188 hopefuls have entered. A quick review of the entries shows that many science students and early-career scientists from around the world have signed up, as well as environmentalists of all ages. The competition opened on 19 June and continues to 30 September. Registration with the site is required for voting.

Up to this year, National Science Foundation (NSF) offered artists and writers opportunities to visit Antarctica, but that program has been put on hold. Here's last year's GrantsNet entry describing the program. NSF hopes to continue it after 2010. 

It was just a coincidence, but last Saturday I went to see a movie that tied in with the career renewal feature we published just the day before on Science Careers. If you get a chance, go and see it. It's a lovely story providing food for thoughts for academics.


'The Visitor' features a university professor in Connecticut who has spent his career researching and giving lectures on the economic development of poor countries. But, as 62-year-old Walter Vale (played by Richard Jenkins, an Academy award nominee for best actor) writes his fourth book, he realizes that it has been years since he felt excitement for his subject. All Vale has been doing lately--though he has been doing it very successfully--is pretending to work.


The pretence starts to crumble when a colleague he wrote a paper with gives birth and is unable to present the research at a conference in New York City. Asked to substitute for her, Vale initially declines. His contribution to the work was to put his name on the paper--nothing more. But Vale eventually agrees, to avoid having the issue go to the dean.


The conference becomes a life-changing experience for Vale, though not for academic reasons. Upon coming to stay in a flat he owns in New York City, Vale finds out it has been illegally rented to a couple of young immigrants. Vale allows them to stay until they find another place to live, and an unlikely friendship develops between Vale and the young man, a musician from Syria. Under his guidance Vale enters a new musical world that revitalizes his life and awakens a new passion in him--playing the African drum.


Vale is dragged into yet another world as the young musician is arrested for being an illegal immigrant. Despite Vale's passionate efforts to help him, the young man is deported back to Syria. The movie stops there, but it is easy to imagine Vale's encounter with the young man renewing his professional life. Left with a feeling of injustice, anger, and uselessness, Vale may have felt compelled to document the everyday struggles of citizens of developing countries who come and live in the United States, and other countries, as illegal immigrants.

One section of the climate-change bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday (officially, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, or ACES), creates a series of clean energy innovation centers under the Department of Energy with three objectives:

"(1) leverage the expertise and resources of the university and private research communities, industry, venture capital, national laboratories, and other participants in energy innovation to support cross-disciplinary research and development in areas not being served by the private sector in order to develop and transfer innovative clean energy technologies into the marketplace;

"(2) expand the knowledge base and human capital necessary to transition to a low-carbon economy; and

"(3) promote regional economic development by cultivating clusters of clean energy technology firms, private research organizations, suppliers, and other complementary groups and businesses."

The new centers will focus on clean energy technologies, those produced from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and tidal. They will also conduct R&D on improving energy distribution, encouraging smart grid development, enhancing energy efficiencies in buildings and industries, producing materials with energy or energy-efficiency applications, improving water management and conservation, and enhancing energy efficiency in transportation (e.g., developing electrical vehicles).

This section of the bill (sec. 171, sub-title H) authorizes establishing eight of these centers, each with a particular research focus. ACES requires the centers to be composed of consortia, each with two research universities and at least one other qualifying entity, defined as a state institution or non-government organization with research or commercialization expertise.

Commercialization plays a key role in this part of the bill. Each center is required to have a commercialization unit, with the task of speeding to market the research generated from these centers. The bill tasks these units with making sure the private sector participates in the centers and and that the centers do not displace work already undertaken by for-profit companies.

An analysis of ACES by the Brookings Institution applauds the establishment of these centers, but considers the funds authorized for them "paltry". The analysis notes that ACES establishes an important principle by devoting a slice of the funds generated by the cap-and-trade system established in the bill, a slice that's likely to amount to about $1.4 billion per year.

Brookings says the U.S. needs to invest $20-30 billion in energy R&D per year to create technologies deployable on a large enough scale to make a difference. The House version of ACES, according to the Brookings report, projects at most a total of $9 billion in annual spending for the innovation centers and other development projects from 2012 to 2025.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) reports in its latest Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering that the number and diversity of grad students and postdocs in these disciplines increased in 2007.

The report says that in 2007 the number of engineering and science students increased 3.3% over 2006, the largest one-year jump since 2002. Science graduate students outnumber engineering students by a 3-to-1 margin (about 385,000 to 132,000), but the percentage of engineering students increased more sharply in 2007, up 5.9% compared to 2.4% for science students.

The science and engineering student population continued to become more diverse in 2007. The number of women rose slightly more (2.9%) than men (2.6%) in 2007. Women now make up about 44% of the science/engineering graduate student population.  And the percentage of students from underrepresented groups--Asian, African-American, Hispanic, and Native/Alaskan-American students--increased in each group from 2.7 to 3.7%. While the number foreign graduate students (temporary visa holders) increased by 8,424 in 2007, the percentage of foreign students remained about the same (29%) as in 2006.

The postdoctoral population also grew, from just under 35,000 in 2006 to more than 36,000 in 2007, a jump of nearly 2.9 percent. And while the number of foreign postdocs continued to outpace the number of U.S. postdocs in 2007, the percentage of American postdocs edged up from 40.4% to 41.7% in 2007.

A new study finds a strong correlation between hidden or unconscious stereotypes that link males with science and mathematics to higher achievement among males in those fields. The findings, by University of Virginia psychology professor Brain Nosek, are published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study matches data from two independent databases, one on common biases and the other on science/math achievement. The first database, dubbed Project Implicit, examines hidden, unspoken stereotypes lurking among people in all walks of life, even those who consider themselves fair and open-minded. The project gathers data on gender, race, age, religion, and other social stereotypes and has collected data on the attitudes of more than 4.5 million people worldwide. Project Implicit has used Web-based questionnaires for data collection since 1998.

Nosek and his team matched the Project Implicit data to the achievement results in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). TIMSS gathers achievement data from 4th and 8th grade students worldwide. The latest TIMSS effort collected achievement results in 2007 on 8th grade students in 48 countries and 4th grade students in 36 countries.

Using the TIMSS 8th grade data, Nosek found that 70 percent of the Project Implicit participants in 34 countries with TIMSS  results hold implicit stereotypes connecting science and math to males more than females. And in those countries where the stereotypes were most pronounced, the gender differences in test scores were also more pronounced.

Project Implicit asks respondents to quickly associated male terms (e.g., he, father, son) or female terms (she, mother, daughter) with science terms (physics, chemistry, biology) or liberal arts (literature, history, arts). Most participants associated science terms with male terms rather than with female terms. The study also found these implicit connections at about the same rate among male and female respondents.

Nosek used data collected by Project Implicit from July 2000 through July 2008. The Gender-Science Implicit Association Test is one of the several demonstration tests on the Project Implicit site, if you want to test your own potential biases.

Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who qualify for graduate degrees in science will have access to some of the country's top private research universities under a special program included in the new G.I. Bill signed into law last year. Yesterday (15 June) was the deadline for schools to declare their participation in the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA's) "Yellow Ribbon" program, which reduces costs for veterans who enroll at private institutions.

Under the G.I. Bill, the VA will pay for the college or university tuition of returning veterans up to an amount equal to the highest-priced public institution in the veteran's home state. To offset the tuition costs at the (normally more expensive) private institutions, the VA will match the amount of the institution's financial aid, in effect reducing the institution's burden by half. This "Yellow Ribbon G.I. Education Enhancement Program" is a voluntary initiative; the participation of individual schools is subject to VA approval.

According to VA's list of institutions taking part, some of the leading private research universities are making financial aid available to veterans under this program. Matching up the VA's list of participating institutions at the graduate level to private universities in the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's classifications of research and science/engineering doctoral programs shows a number of opportunities for advanced science or engineering training:

Alfred University
Case Western Reserve University
Clark Atlanta University
Clarkson University
Columbia University
Dartmouth College
Duke University
Fordham University
Georgetown University
Loyola University Chicago
Marquette University
Polytechnic Institute of New York University
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Saint Louis University
Stevens Institute of Technology
University of Denver
University of Tulsa
Wesleyan University

The Carnegie classifications include research universities with "very high" or "high" research activity and doctoral-granting institutions with a plurality of degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

The list published by the VA is still in flux. Harvard University, for example, has announced its participation in the Yellow Ribbon program but does not yet appear on the VA's roster.  Also, many institutions restrict the number of students who can receive financial aid, although a few on the list will fund all student-veterans accepted

Any organization that tries to make a wholesale upgrade of its key computer systems anticipates problems, but NIH's electronic grant submission systems seem to have encountered more than their share over the past 3 weeks. As of this afternoon--12 June--NIH says its grant submission systems are working again, but the trail of messages to users during this time shows that the journey has been anything but easy.

On 19 May NIH told its electronic systems users that it planned a major upgrade for the end of May, costing $2-3 million. The upgrade promised to improve system performance and stability, offer better back-up in case of equipment failure, and provide an estimated 16 times its current capacity to handle future expansion.  The agency closed the electronic submission functions from 22-26 May (a span that included the long Memorial Day holiday) for the upgrade. But when they tried to bring the systems back up, they ran into problems.

The scheduled relaunch on 27 May had to be pushed back a day while NIH worked through problems that a message to users called "residual issues." When the systems finally did come back up in the afternoon of 28 May, users could not upload documents, such as reference letters, to the electronic Research Administration Commons (eRA Commons), the home base of NIH's submissions functions. Later that afternoon, eRA Commons and its Internet Assisted Review systems (which offer critiques and preliminary scores on applications)  had to be taken offline to fix more problems that developed.

On 29 May eRA Commons came back online and electronic submissions were being accepted--but the systems were working slower than normal and not all applications were processed  correctly. Some users received system error messages. By 3 June, NIH had resolved the document upload problems, but the slow performance continued, apparently.

Yesterday (11 June), NIH decided to restart the systems, to resolve the performance problem.  At 9:00 am, a message gave users 5 minutes to save their work and log-out of eRA Commons. What was expected to be a brief outage extended into the morning of 12 June, when eRA Commons came back up, and NIH announced that they "were able to isolate and fix the network/server issues that were the root cause" of the problems. But shortly after 10:00 am, NIH had to take the eRA Commons back down. By 2:00 pm, NIH was able to bring eRA Commons back up again, while closely monitoring its functions.

We'll keep you posted on how NIH progresses with its electronic submissions, a topic we've been following almost from the beginning.

The image of an engineer single handedly finding solutions or tossing out the rulebook to solve problems their own way can make for entertaining reading, and apparently has become the way many engineering students believe work in their field gets done. But the lone-wolf approach can hurt engineers' chances of succeeding in the real-world workplace, where teamwork is more highly valued than many students realize, according to a study published in April.

In a study published in the Academy of Management Journal, Paul Leonardi, a faculty member at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and his team interviewed 130 engineering students over several years and observed their lab and group-project behavior. Leonardi found that when students entered engineering school, many believed that good engineers work alone, not in teams. He found that students, when asked to work in a team, would often split up work rather than collaborate. He also found many students would ignore instructions from their professors and find solutions their own way, even if finding a solution on their own meant more work.

Leonardi also found that many student engineers procrastinated on problems--what Leonardi calls "delayed initiation"--in order to prove they could figure out the problem in a short period of time as a way of demonstrating their prowess.

These practices and values can quickly become liabilities in the workplace, particularly in industry, where as Leonardi and others have noted, teamwork is highly valued. Last May, for example, Dave Jensen described for Science Careers how some academic scientists encounter difficulties in adjusting to the team culture encouraged by many companies.

To break down this culture, Leonardi recommends that companies hiring engineers get more involved in students' training. He suggests programs like internships and work-study programs to give students first-hand experience in the workplace before they start their careers for real.

The New York Times reports this week that the Justice Department has begun an investigation of recruiting practices by information technology and biotech companies, looking specifically for suspected collusion among the companies that violates antitrust laws. The inquiry is in an early stage, but apparently involves purported agreements among companies not to raid each others payrolls for key staff.

Sources told the Times that Google, Yahoo, Apple, and Genentech received requests from the Justice Department for documents and other information as part of this inquiry; the story notes that receiving these letters does not mean that they are targets of the investigation. The Wall Street Journal says Microsoft and Intel were also contacted. The Justice Department has so far declined comment, but the Journal says Google and Genentech representatives confirmed receiving Justice Department letters.

Hiring technical talent from other companies is a common, continuing practice in the IT and biotech industries. The technology blog Tech Crunch routinely chronicles the staffing raids of one company against another in Silicon Valley. Our own Tooling Up columnist Dave Jensen encourages joining industry committees as a way of networking to discover new opportunities and get yourself better known in your industry.

But a follow-up story in the Times notes that unwritten rules sometimes interrupt this free-for-all. The story quotes former HR managers and contract recruiters who say some companies have hands-off lists when it comes to recruiting, lists that usually include corporate partners and collaborators.

Apparently, there is case law backing up the application of antitrust statutes to hiring practices. In 2001, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of geologists and petroleum engineers who sued Exxon and other oil companies for colluding in hiring decisions that led to suppressed wages. The judge writing the decision: Justice Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court.

Hat tip: John Travis, Science magazine

Women are at least as successful as men when they compete for tenured and tenure-track science faculty positions at academic research institutions and when they stand for tenure and promotion--and usually more successful.

Yet in almost every scientific field, women consistently applied for academic jobs, and stood for tenure, less often than men. As a result, they continue to be hired and promoted less often than their male colleagues.

That's the conclusion of Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty, the latest report from the U.S. National Research Council's Committee on Gender Differences in Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty, which was released moments ago.

The new report is strikingly different in its approach and conclusions from the previous National Academies report on gender disparities in the sciences, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, which was released in 2006 by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP).

According to the new, data-driven report, academic institutions have done very well in hiring and tenuring the women who apply. For example, in biology, 26% of applicants to tenure-track faculty positions at R1 universities were women, but a larger percentage--28%--of interviews went to women, and 34% of offers went to women. In electrical engineering, 11% of applicants were women, whereas 19% of interviewees were women, and 32% of job offers went to women. This trend--towards better-than-average success by women--holds across all six disciplines studied.

Unfortunately, another trend was just as consistent: the percentage of women who applied for tenure track jobs was consistently well below women's representation in the Ph.D. pool. For example, while 45% of recent (1999-2003) Ph.D. graduates in biology were women, just 26% of R1 job applicants in biology were women. The descrepency is smallest in fields where women are the least well represented; in physics, women are 14% of the doctoral pool and 12% of the applicant pool; in electrical engineering, 12% of the Ph.D. pool were women, while 11% of the applicant pool were women.  Yet the general trend of under-representation in the applicant pool persists across all six of the disciplines studied.

At the tenure decision the pattern was repeated. Again, women were consistently more successful than their male colleagues. But the percentage of women going up for tenure was smaller than women's representation on the R1 tenure track. And again, this under-representation was most dramatic in the fields--biology and chemistry--where women are best represented. In biology, 36% of R1 assistant professors are women, but only 27% stood for tenure. In chemistry, the numbers were 22% and 15%, respectively.

Other interesting findings:

* Strategies intended to increase the number of women applying for jobs were generally unsuccessful. Yet, representation of women on the hiring committee--and having a woman at the head of the committee--was correlated with greater representation of women in the applicant pool. 

* Both men and women took advantage of "clock-stopping" policies at their universities, extending the amount of time before the tenure review, but women took advantage more than men. 19.7% of women stopped the clock, while 7.4% of men did. Stopping the clock did not seem to affect the probability of eventual promotion and tenure.

The study points out the need for a "deeper understanding" of career paths in the sciences. Specifically, the authors argue for more and better longitudinal data (their study is a "snapshot"), and more attention to the question of why women apply less often than men.

Designer Geoffrey Beene LLC is leveraging its iconic status in the men's fashion world to help elevate the status of science among students. The Smart Set blog points out that Geoffrey Beene's philanthropic arm unveiled a new ad campaign in the June issue of GQ magazine featuring photos of high-profile rock stars getting down with leading scientific authorities.

The campaign, called Rock Stars of Science, aims to increase support for public research funding, particularly for Alzheimer's research, a continuing concern of the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back philanthropy. But the campaign also promotes awareness of research issues and seeks to improve the image of science among students. The Rock Stars of Science site plans to add an online petition and allow visitors to nominate future Rock Stars of Science.

The spread in GQ leads off with Francis S. Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project at NIH and Harvard neurology/genetics professor Rudy Tanzi (both in shades), along with Aerosmith's lead guitarist Joe Perry. And don't miss the Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am getting rhythmic with Ron Petersen of the Mayo Clinic, Steven Dekosky of University of Virginia, and Sam Gandy of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

My favorite: Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, accompanied on guitar by Grammy Award winner Sheryl Crow.

Combining a high profile in the fashion world with the cause of science is nothing new. L'Oréal Paris has joined with UNESCO since 1998 to highlight the contributions of women scientists and encourage other women to join their ranks. Disclosure: The company sponsors a booklet on young women in science now on the Science Careers Web site.

Hat tip: Ric Weibl, AAAS.

[Updated 29 May 2009]

Federal agencies with science-related missions scored high on the latest biannual report of employee satisfaction released this week. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission received the highest overall rating among large agencies (more than 2,000 employees), with NASA, the intelligence community (individual agencies not broken out), and the Environmental Protection Agency in the top 10. The National Science Foundation also scored high--no. 5 of 32--among the smaller agencies.

The "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" report is issued every two years, with the first publication in 2003. The non-profit organization Partnership for Public Service and American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation prepare the report. They draw the data from the Federal Human Capital Survey conducted by Office of Personnel Management, with the last survey in August and September 2008. The survey is sent to 417,000 executive branch employees, with 212,000 responses (51% return rate).

Respondents rate their agencies on 10 main dimensions:
  • Match between their skills and the agency's mission: the extent to which employees feel that their skills and talents are used effectively
  • Strategic management: the extent to which employees believe that management ensures they have the necessary skills and abilities to do their jobs
  • Teamwork: the extent to which employees believe they communicate effectively both inside and outside of their team organizations, creating a friendly work atmosphere and producing high quality work products.
  • Effective leadership, with further ratings of empowerment, fairness, respect for leaders, and respect for their immediate supervisors
  • Performance-based awards and advancement
  • Training and development
  • Support for diversity
  • Family-friendly culture: telecommuting and alternative work scheduling, along with personal support benefits like child care subsidies and wellness programs
  • Pay and benefits
  • Work/life balance: extent to which employees consider their workloads reasonable and feasible, and mangers support a balance between work and life.
The report also breaks out employee satisfaction at 216 subdivisions within agencies, some of which employ large numbers of scientists. Several NASA space flight centers and EPA regional offices scored high among these operations, reflecting their overall agency ratings. National Institute of Standards and Technology in the Commerce Department ranked 19 of 216 components overall, while National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also in the Commerce Department, ranked 35th. NIH came in at no. 72, USDA's Agricultural Research Service ranked 77th.

Other agencies and departments employing scientists received mediocre or lower scores. The Department of Energy ranked 19 of 30 larger agencies. (None of the subdivisions in DoE or national labs were broken out separately.) The Food and Drug Administration in HHS came in at no. 86 of 216 components, Interior's U.S. Geological Survey, ranked 108, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in HHS ranked 143.

Rated dead last among the larger agencies was the Department of Transportation; among smaller agencies it was the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

If this year's college graduates needed a reminder of the severity of the job market they're entering, a recent (9 May) Wall Street Journal article provided it, and then some. Sara Murray's "The Curse of the Class of 2009" cites economic studies and anecdotal evidence showing that bachelor's degree recipients during recession years generally get lower starting salaries than those who get their degrees during boom years, and tend to earn less for some time after they graduate.

The smidgen of good news in this report is for science and engineering graduates: Their immediate prospects may stink, but if they can land a job in their fields, their earnings bounce back quicker than their non-science and non-engineering counterparts.

Murray cites Yale economist Lisa Kahn, who mined the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a government database, to find pay trends for white males who graduated from college during the deep recession in the early 1980s. Kahn found that those getting bachelor's degrees during those recession years earned 7-8% less than similar graduates from non-recession years in their first year out of school.

And to compound the problems faced by recession-era grads, it took many years for their pay to approach the pay of their non-recession colleagues. After 12 years, Kahn reports, recession-year graduates earned 4-5% less than those who graduated during economic-growth years. Even 18 years following graduation they still earned 2% less than those who graduated during better times.

Many grads during recession years, Murray says, must make hard choices between taking lower-level, lower-paying jobs outside their fields and continued unemployment. Grads interviewed by Murray said they are working as bartenders, models, and in part-time or temporary jobs, to make ends meet. And while they work in these non-professional and lower-paying jobs, they are not keeping their professional skills sharp, which will hurt their chances of getting better jobs when times improve.

A key factor in future wage growth seems to be the ability to land a job in your field. Murray cites Till Marco von Wachter, a Columbia University economist, who studied wage data of Canadians graduating from 1976 through 1995. He found that those who took jobs in the fields that they studied for, even lower-paying jobs, were able to land better jobs with more comparable pay to their colleagues when economic times improved.

Von Wachter found this pattern particularly with science and engineering graduates. Recession-era graduates with degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering who got jobs in their fields tended to catch up to their peers quicker than those who studied in other fields.

What can you do when even low-pay jobs in your scientific or technical field aren't available? Murray says more graduates are taking public-service positions in programs such as AmeriCorps or Teach for America. A teaching job in math or science, for example, may not be the research position you really want, but it may keep you close to developments in these fields.

Or, if you can swing it, get a graduate degree. Murray says more college grads are pursuing this option. She cites Council of Graduate Schools statistics that applications for the 2007-2008 were up 8% over the previous year.

When hunting for a job or evaluating a job offer, a nagging question is, "Will I fit in with this employer?" In order to fit in, you must share your employer's values--or at least have compatible values--because an organization's values are embodied in its corporate culture. And finding out what those values are is not easy.

Organizations of all sizes and types, not just corporations, have corporate cultures.  Writing this week for our colleagues in the Science Careers business office, Emma Hitt has outlined some of the factors you need to take into account in a corporate culture, including the emphasis on job security, encouragement of risk-taking, and respect for work-life balance. To discover these values, Hitt encourages networking with recruiters and industry associations, and reviewing financial reports, if the organization makes them public.

Our Tooling Up columnist Dave Jensen, wrote articles in February and March 2007 on employment due diligence, with the March segment devoted almost entirely to corporate culture. Jensen gives prospective hires clues to look for when visiting an employer, including for example, how office space is allocated and what's on display in the company break room. (I once visited a major business publisher that had a stunning corporate board room, but the workers toiled in the junkiest cubicles I've ever seen.)

Yesterday, Rusty Weston, on his blog My Global Career, suggested a more high-tech tool for investigating corporate culture: your online social networks. Weston urged mining contacts on the more business-oriented networks such as LinkedIn or Xing. Using those networks, you may be able to find current or former employees of companies or institutions within your own network or connected to your immediate contacts. And once you've found them you can talk to them.

Even, or especially, in tough times, doing your homework--due diligence, as Dave Jensen put it--can prevent a career move that you will regret.

Our colleagues at the ScienceInsider blog (like Science Careers, also published by AAAS) note that on Friday, NIH requested comments from the public to help write new conflict of interest rules.

Contained in a Federal Register notice, the request for comments covers the scope and definition of conflicts of interest and ways institutions report and manage conflicts. The subject has received increasing attention from Congress (subscription required) and from the Institute of Medicine, which issued a report on the subject last month.

A Science Careers article in November 2008 offers advice to researchers and looks at the response by professional and academic organizations to the conflict-of-interest issue.

Comments are due to NIH by 7 July.

May 8, 2009

Goodbye Columbus

The 2010 fiscal year begins on 1 October--and among the cuts the federal government's 2010 budget, announced on Thursday, is $1 million the Obama Administration decided not to spend on the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation (CCFF), an organization established to recognize the accomplishments of researchers and science students and educators.

This foundation started in 1992 with a mission defined by Congress to "encourage and support research, study, and labor designed to produce new discoveries in all fields of endeavor for the benefit of mankind." CCFF's 2008 annual report refined its mission as "to raise awareness and honor the 'cutting edge' research being conducted by Americans around the country, whether in schools, universities, companies or government labs and to encourage community service."

Somewhere along the line, says the Obama Office of Management and Budget (OMB), CCFF decided to spend far more money on itself than on researchers, students, and educators. OMB noted ...

This Foundation has not demonstrated clear outcomes from its awards and has high overhead costs. Because of its high overhead rates, the Foundation would spend only 20 percent of its 2010 appropriation on awards. Several other Federal agencies offer fellowships for those who are producing new discoveries in science, security, and other fields of endeavor. For example, the National Science Foundation spends more than $90 million per year through its Graduate Research Fellowship Program, with much lower overhead and more measurable outcomes.

The group's original endowment came from the sale of commemorative coins beginning in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery. The OMB report says CCFF, based in Auburn, New York, has largely burned through that endowment and now depends on government funds and private donations.

CCFF's funding programs cover a wide range of targets. The group's Web site describes four different categories of awards that recognize what they call Columbus Scholars for achievement in the life sciences, homeland security innovation, middle-school science projects, and honoring a teacher with disabilities. The amount of the annual awards on the Web site come to $96,000. However, the group's 2008 annual report reported a net cost of operations that year of just under $583,000. In other words, only 16.5% of its operating budget was spent on the awards that are ostensibly the group's main mission.

Judith Shellenberger, CCFF's executive director, told the nearby Elmira, New York Star-Gazette that the OMB budget cutters did not take into account other activities, such as trips to Disney World and leadership training provided to the middle-school science students, and other contributions made by the foundation. "I think everything we do is what the Obama administration is promoting," Sellenberger told the newspaper. "Since Obama's staff is new, they are just looking for places to cut. But it's more than dollars and cents. It's the lives that it touches around America. We are talking about scientists, schoolteachers and students. It's who America is."

Tomorrow (Friday, May 8), Science Careers and the Cambridge Research Institute are putting on a day-long workshop, "Broadening Your Scientific Career Horizons," here in Cambridge (the U.K. one). Topics will include industry career paths, bioentrepreneurship, making the most of your postdoc, and networking.

If you don't happen to be in Cambridge, never fear: I'll be live-Twittering the event on @mysciencecareer and with #sciencecareers, doing my best to extract the key messages in 140 characters or less. (If that sentence made no sense to you, just go to some time tomorrow to read short, hopefully useful tidbits and tips from the workshop.)

And if you're in the mood for even more career advice, check out the archived Webinar, "Nontraditional Careers: Opportunities Away from the Bench," which was recorded April 28 in Washington, D.C.

AND, don't forget to become a fan of Science Careers on Facebook, where you'll find links to recent blog posts, articles, and upcoming events.

In Miami, aspiring CSI technicians can now get bachelors degrees at Miami-Dade College, one of 10 formerly 2-year institutions in Florida that now offer 4-year degrees. The New York Times on Saturday described how a handful of schools like Miami-Dade College (which used to be called Miami-Dade Community College) are challenging the traditional 4-year colleges,  many offering science- and technology-based curricula leading to bachelor's degrees.

According to an online index provided by the Community College Baccalaureate Association, 34 community colleges in the United States and 23 community colleges in Canada are now offering 4-year degrees. The Times article says that these community colleges are training candidates for high-skilled positions, including positions in science and technology, that the traditional 4-year colleges don't fill, or at least not quickly.

For example, in Florida, all 10 community colleges offering bachelors degrees have programs to train math and science teachers for middle schools or secondary schools. Six of the 10 also offer degrees in health-related fields such as nursing and veterinary technologies.  Forensics courses are offered by four Florida schools with degrees in public-safety or fire-science management.

Other examples: Great Basin College in Nevada offers bachelors degrees in digital information technology, instrumentation, land surveying/geomatics, and management in technology. Bellevue Community College in Washington State has bachelors degrees in radiologic and imaging sciences.   

According to the Times, some 4-year colleges aren't happy. Lobbying by the four-year colleges has stalled legislation in Michigan, for example.  The Times quotes Mike Boulus, an executive of the State Universities of Michigan organization, who called these degrees "a solution in search of a problem." Boulus adds, "Community colleges should stick with the important work they do extremely well, offering 2-year degrees and preparing students for transfer to 4-year schools."

But community college officials say they're helping to fill gaps in needed skills, and offering access to college to students seeking a more vocational approach, or who can't afford to attend traditional, 4-year institutions, which are typically more expensive. Eduardo J. Padrón, president of Miami-Dade, tells the Times that community colleges are complementing, not competing with, 4-year colleges. "You won't see us starting a B.A. in sociology," says Padrón. "We're offering degrees in things the universities don't want to do."

Besides, Padrón says, Miami-Dade serves a population that the 4-year schools ignore. He notes that 80% of its students work, and that 58% come from low-income households. "The universities that handpick their students based on SATs and grades get three times the funding we do," says  Padrón. "We are the underfunded overachiever."

Science Careers editor Jim Austin reported on this blog on 29 April about the struggle faces from the sharp increase in grant applications to NIH and other agencies, because of the 2009 stimulus bill (officially: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009). That same day the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), Congress's watchdog agency, published a report critical of agencies and for issuing a confusing set of submission policies and procedures, which could lead to differing treatment of applications for grants issued under the stimulus bill. serves as the central U.S. government portal for funding announcements, registrar for people and organizations seeking government grants, and the initial recipient of the electronic grant applications. This vital service to agencies giving grants and people or organizations seeking grants is an unusual government entity. While ostensibly under the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), it operates as a consortium of 26 grant-making agencies and is funded by contributions from those agencies. Its staff consists of people detailed for short periods of time from federal agencies. The Department of Health and Human Services hosts on its computers.

As Austin pointed out,'s systems were not engineered for the high volume of applications expected from the large funding increases in the stimulus bill. GAO's report noted that on 9 March, OMB warned federal agencies that the volume of traffic on was exceeding its capacity to such an extent that it posed a serious risk to implementation of the stimulus bill. OMB authorized agencies, from April through August 2009, to accept grant applications outside of, through their own electronic systems, fax, e-mail, and postal mail.

GAO found that as a result of this flexibility, the various agencies enacted widely different application procedures, often varying from one grant program to another even within the same agency.  Environmental Protection Agency, for example, generally allows hard-copy or e-mail grant applications. NIH, however, which invested heavily in all-electronic application systems (see our article What You Need to Know about Electronic R01 Submissions), told GAO that accepting hard-copy or even e-mail applications would be "incredibly impractical."

The GAO found a number of practices, some not directly related to the stimulus bill, that confuse rather than simplify the application process:

  • sometimes accepts grant applications after agencies close their applications.  NIH, for example, has a 5:00 pm deadline, but continues to accept those applications until midnight, putting applicants in a position where they can receive a confirmation of on-time submission to, but a late notice from NIH.
  • Agencies have varying definitions of "meeting the deadline." Most of the agencies responding to GAO's survey consider a timely submission as one that is accepted by  However, 1 in 6 agencies say has to first validate the submission--i.e., make sure it meets initial technical requirements, a process that can take up to 48 hours--before considering it an on-time application. E-mail and hard-copy applications are not subject to validation, and would thus have one less hurdle than those sent through
  • Agencies have different ways of notifying applicants about whether their submissions are late or on-time. About half of the agencies say they let applicants know soon after the deadline if their applications are late, but some 13 percent wait until the grant is awarded or don't bother notifying late applicants. E-mail and hard copy submissions have no-built-in methods for acknowledging successful receipt of applications.
  • Agencies have different criteria and methods for handling appeals of applications deemed late.
GAO found one of the biggest problems causing delays is the complex registration procedure, which can take up to two weeks, as opposed to the 3-5 business days  advertised on the site. Another problem is the need for a case number to appeal a late submission for technical issues on; but what do you do if one of those issues is that you aren't given a case number?

GAO said this report, provided in a letter to a senator and three members of Congress, focused on providing the office's initial observations on the problem. GAO expects to issue a more detailed and systemic report in June.

Elisabeth Pain's article in Science Careers last week about professional service explained how many academic scientists consider it, at best, a necessary evil. Here's a story that will give you a good reason to make mentoring school children and other service to the community a bigger part of your academic life.

The University of Florida's medical school witnessed a new surgical technique last week that simplifies sutures and reduces complications from hysterectomies. What made this demonstration notable, aside from its medical substance, was the fact that the procedure was developed by a 14 year-old middle-school student.

Tony Hansbury II is a student at Darnell-Cookman Middle/High School in Jacksonville, Florida, a magnet school with a focus on medical studies. Hansbury, whose mother is a registered nurse, learned the basics of suturing in his 8th grade classes at Darnell-Cookman, and last summer he interned at University of Florida's Center for Simulation Education and Safety Research, also in Jacksonville.

Bruce Nappi, the center's administrative director and an MIT-trained engineer, noticed Hansbury's enthusiasm and encouraged him to explore topics he found interesting. One of those areas was the center's surgical lab.

During the internship, an OB/GYN professor asked Nappi and Hansbury to solve a vexing problem involving the use of a new tool to ease the sewing up hysterectomy patients. The use of the tool, called an endo stitch, had stumped expert surgeons, who apparently could not get it to work properly. But Hansbury, working independently, discovered a way of using the tool that was both simple and effective. With no surgical training other than what he picked up in his classes and as an intern, Hansbury was able to triple the speed of the endo stitch.

On 24 April, Hansbury demonstrated the technique as part of the university's medical education week. The audience included many board-certified surgeons, some with practices running longer than Hansbury's young life.

Makes you want to run out and start mentoring, doesn't it?

Hat tip: Daily Kos

Portugal has added Harvard Medical School to the list of American universities it collaborates with extensively.

On 27 April, Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology, and Higher Education announced a long-term collaboration in translational research and education. The HMS-Portugal Program, to be launched officially on 21 May, will fund 12 collaborative translational and clinical research projects, streamline postgraduate medical training in Portugal, and provide career development awards to Portuguese M.D. trainees.

The overall aim of the new program is to "help populate Portuguese research institutions with an increasingly sophisticated clinical and translational research capacity, and to expand the rate and quality of Portuguese clinical and translational research contributions to the international community. The program is also designed to foster longlasting collaborative ventures, both within Portugal and between Portuguese and Harvard research groups," the press release states.

The HMS-Portugal program is part of a broader initiative launched in 2006 by the Portuguese government to give a boost to the country's research and education capacity. Already, similar programs exist between Portugal and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the University of Texas, Austin (UT Austin).

To get a glimpse of what it's like to be involved in one of these programs, from both sides, read former Science intern Sara Coehlo's article on Science Careers.

Prior to the 27 April deadline for the NIH Challenge Grants--the main grant program resulting from the economic stimulus act--program officers and research administrators were predicting a huge volume of proposals, perhaps enough to destabilize, the federal government's already creaky electronic grant-submission system.

The proposal volume does seem to have been impressive. A research administrator at a major cancer-research center reported that her facility had submitted  64 proposals a full week before the deadline, with more to follow. Arizona State University reportedly filed more than 150 before the deadline.

As the 27 April deadline approached, some research administrators--who have already been encountering errors with the electronic submission system--predicted that would crash and burn under the huge load.  Some administrators suggested, half in jest, that some of the stimulus funds should be used to upgrade, or replace,

But today, 2 days past the deadline, disaster seems to have been averted. did, reportedly, go down at least once, but there wasn't much damage and the site was back up quickly.

Most administrators agree that things went more smoothly than they had feared. "I was pleasantly surprised by the relative ease with which I could submit my Challenge proposals," writes one research administrator. Another writes, "We submitted several over the course of the day, with the last one submitted at what should have been the worst time: 4:50 PM EST. In every case the submissions went through quickly and smoothly, with rapid email confirmation of receipt," writes another.

Not everyone was so lucky.  Some problems were reported as the deadline approached. "We had only one that was really at the wire and I sat and submitted over and over from 3:30 until 5 with no success," writes a third research admin. "I tried the tricks...--nothing worked." There were also complaints about unclear or contradictory instructions. There was also some confusion over which budget form to use, NIH says, and there were some false errors over DUNS numbers.

Despite the absence of major problems, some administrators and PI's remain nervous. That's because they haven't yet received the e-mail "validation" NIH sends out confirming successful submission. NIH anticipated this; the normal "window" for sending out these notices is 48 hours, but last Friday NIH announced it was extending that window to 5 days in anticipation of the large proposal volume. But not everyone got the word.  And until those emails are received, there's no guarantee that the proposals have made it through the final hoop, and PI's and research administrators may not sleep soundly.

Update, 30 April. Yesterday I asked NIH for information on the total volume of applications received in response to the Challenge Grant solicitation. This morning I got a response: It's too soon to tell, so call back in a week or two.

Essential Reading: What You Need to Know about Electronic R01 Submissions.

Earlier this month, we commented on an article that describes how private foundations serve as a source of funds for research, particularly family foundations that focus on specific diseases. Last week, a study released by the Foundation Center tells how private foundations are able to keep going during these tough times.

The Foundation Center surveyed some 5,000 private American foundations earlier this year and got more than 1,200 responses. The findings show the recession hitting foundations hard: Nearly two-third (63%) of the respondents expect to reduce the number of grants they award, with nearly half (44%) anticipating a reduction in multi-year grants, the kind often awarded for research. Larger foundations--those giving $10 million a year or more--are not cutting back quite as much as the smaller funders. About 4 in 10 of the larger foundations are reducing the total number of grants and the number of multi-year grants.

The good news is the vast majority of foundations (8 in 10) intend to maintain their programs, albeit at lower levels.  The study shows that despite the cutbacks, foundations are taking bold--and some might say risky--steps to keep their programs going. Nearly 4 in 10 foundations (39%) expect to dip into their endowments for grantmaking; in a typical year foundations use the investment income from those endowments to fund their grants, preserving or increasing their endowments.  A few foundations expect to make up some of the shortfall through new gifts from donors (17%), and by dipping into discretionary funds (13%) or reserve funds (9%).

Coping with the crisis means finding ways of achieving their missions in ways other than handing out money. About a third (32%) of the respondents, and nearly half (44%) of the larger foundations, say they had made changes in their operations to enable them to weather the current storm.  One of those strategies is a shift to non-grant activity. More than half (54%) of the respondents say they are engaging in more non-grant projects as a result of the economic crisis, such as partnerships and collaborations, and advocacy.

Another survival strategy, as one would expect, is cutting costs. Nearly 1 in 10 foundations say they cut staff and other administrative expenses.

Eve Tahmincioglu, MSNBC's career columnist, has a decidedly downbeat story today about job fairs. She reports that many professional and technical attendees at these events find themselves waiting in long lines only to discover that few employers are really hiring.

Just the words "job fair" or "career fair" suggest an abundance of potential employers and potential jobs, and that idea seems to attract huge numbers of job seekers. One job fair at Rancho Cucamonga, California, earlier this month attracted four times the expected number of attendees, forcing police to turn away others who wanted to attend the event.

Tahmincioglu says that in today's brutal job market few companies have jobs to offer, including the ones that set up at a job fair. She notes that many employers participate in job fairs today for promotional purposes or as a form of community outreach--not necessarily to fill job openings. Other employers use job fairs to get information on future job applicants, to have candidates in the pipeline when the economy improves and hiring starts.

None of that, of course, helps unemployed workers immediately needing a job. Tahmincioglu tells of job fair attendees who were surprised to discover the companies would not even take their resumes when offered. She found that many companies prefer receiving resumes online so that they can be managed electronically.

(Memo to employers at job fairs: If you don't want to sort through a pile of paper, why not take electronic resumes at a job fair on flash-memory drives, or from laptops and smart-phones over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth?)

As Dave Jensen points out in his February Tooling Up column, in today's tough job market, you have to do much more than attend job fairs. You need to combine job fairs with the other job-search tools: informational interviewing, networking, responding to employment ads, and headhunters. "You've got to have all the bases covered," says Jensen.

Tahmincioglu quotes recruiter Jay Meschke who says you need to do your homework before going to a job fair: "Find out who's attending the fair, whether those employers are really looking to fill positions and what type of jobs they are looking to fill." For scientists and engineers, there are some career fairs, such as the European Career Fair at MIT, that are regular annual events and include seminars and sessions with employers arranged in advance. These events will likely have better opportunities than the general job fairs hastily arranged in suburban hotel ballrooms.

And if you attend a career fair, know what to do before, during, and after the event. Even if you do not find employers hiring right away, you can still make good contacts in the companies and learn about their future plans. You may not get a job at the job fair, but it can still be worth your time.

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a bill yesterday that would create a Science Envoy program in the U.S. State Department. If the bill comes law, Science Envoys would be established scientists who receive grants for short-term visits abroad to help build links between U.S. academic and scientific institutions and their international counterparts.

Science Envoys, says Lugar in a statement released by his office, "will be recognized world leaders in their fields of expertise and will demonstrate that the United States is serious about engaging other nations in issues of mutual benefit and concern in science and research."  Lugar adds, "Science and technology provide non-controversial avenues through which we can build relationships that will strengthen not only our institutions, but foster greater understanding between our nation and the rest of the world."

According to a draft of the legislation (S.838), scientists in the program would be selected by the Secretary of State, but the program itself would be run by the Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

UPDATE, 6 May 2009: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Science Envoys legislation that now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

Ric Weibl, director of the Center for Careers in Science and Technology in AAAS (publisher of Science Careers), tells us of SACNAS's Summer Leadership Institute, which will be held 28 July - 1 August at AAAS's offices in Washington DC.

SACNAS, an organization devoted to advancing opportunities for Hispanic and Native American scientsts, offers this training to underrepresented minority scientists interested in building their leadership skills. The institute also intends to establish and support a network of leadership-minded scientists and provide participants with take-away tools and individual planning to put their skills into practice at their home institutions. SACNAS designed this intensive 5-day course together with AAAS and includes topics such as team building, decision-making, delegation, conflict management and resolution, and building a personal leadership-development plan.   
SACNAS has funding to support registration, travel, lodging, and meals for some participants. Postdocs and professionals are encouraged to apply by the 15 May deadline. Additional information and application materials are available on the SACNAS Web site.
The Scientist this week has an article about private foundations as a source of research funding. With all the recent talk science depending on government largess, and the consequences of that funding, this piece shows that there are other ways of getting your research funded, particularly in the life sciences.

Author Carol Milano tells about foundations that fund research focusing on particular illnesses or classes of illnesses. While some foundations have familiar names like Lance Armstrong and Michael J. Fox, many smaller family foundations were also formed to fund research, often in commemoration of family members afflicted with those diseases. Milano talks about one such foundation, Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer, which has given some $19 million for 80 projects in pediatric oncology over the past 10 years.  

Founded by Jay and Liz Scott of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, this foundation was named for their daughter Alexandra (Alex), who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer. At age 4, Alex set up a lemonade stand and raised $2,000 for the hospital where she received her treatments, a practice she continued every year until her death 4 years later.

Like many funders, some small family foundations have suffered the ravages of the recession and, in some cases, fallout from the Bernie Madoff scandal. But Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, according to Milano, has seen an increase in both its resources and applications.

Milano also tells how to find these foundations on the Web, including a list of grant aggregators with our very own GrantsNet among them.

This week, Sheril Kirshenbaum over at The Intersection published a great list of science policy fellowships she assembled with the help of AAAS staff and interns. We wrote about getting into science policy this time last year in the article, "A Matter of Policy," where you can read about several scientists who did policy fellowships. Factoring heavily in both our article and Sheril's summary are the AAAS science and technology policy fellowships. Applications have closed for this year, but definitely bookmark that link and that of any of your professional societies that also offer policy fellowships.

Here in the U.K., I just got an announcement that the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Wellcome Trust are offering 3-month policy internships to Wellcome Trust-funded Ph.D. students. They're offering four internships, one at a time, between September 2009 and September 2010 to basic biomedical students in their third or fourth year of their Ph.D. The deadline is April 27, and there's more info here.

The Los Angeles Times reported today that the demand this year for H-1B visas has dropped to such an extent that the U.S. government has extended the deadline for applications through the end of September or until the annual quota is filled. Every year 65,000 temporary visas are available for skilled workers from outside the U.S., but so far employers have applied for only about half (32,500) of them.

In previous years, as reported on this blog, temporary worker visas have been snapped up quickly, particularly by employers in technology-based industries. So, as in previous years, authorities planned a 5-day window during which applications would be accepted, but that period ended on Tuesday with the quota about half full. The L.A. Times says last year American companies filed some 160,000 such applications.

An additional set of H-1B visas, reserved for graduates of American universities with masters degrees or higher, has been largely matched by applications, however. A spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security told the Times that the bureau received nearly 20,000 applications for these visas, almost meeting the annual number allotted.

The severe economic downturn, accompanied by extensive layoffs in companies that would normally apply for H-1B visas, has dampened the demand, says the L.A. Times. Microsoft, for example, told the Times that it planned "substantially fewer H-1B applications" this year. Microsoft announced some 5,000 layoffs in January.

Beryl Benderly reported on Science Careers in January on the controversy surrounding temporary worker visas. She noted that many technology and life-sciences companies say they need high-skilled workers from overseas to make up for the lack of this talent in the U.S. Benderly found several experts who have studied the American science and technology workforce that dispute the companies' argument.

The Science Careers Blog reported last month that recent reports of fraud in the H-1B program, along with most visas last year going to Indian outsourcing companies, have also caused a cooling of Congressional support for raising or eliminating the caps on these visas, as advocated by some companies. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California, who represents the district that includes Silicon Valley, told a press conference at that time that any action on H-1B visas would have to be part of comprehensive immigration reform. The New York Times reports today that President Obama plans to address that issue, as early as next month.

Despite today's dismal employment report, the Wall Street Journal today tells how a few employers are using the current recession as a way to bolster their workforces or get an edge on competitors. Some the companies mentioned in the article are hiring staff with science and engineering backgrounds. They are making sure that those hired during this slump will still be around when the job market improves.

As a result of the current weak market, applicants are flooding the few employers that are still hiring.The pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk A/S, based in Denmark, has seen its revenues jump from sales of a new diabetes drug, which in turn has enabled the company to staff its research facility in Seattle, Washington, which opened in October. Novo Nordisk employs some 27,000 people worldwide including 3,000 in the U.S. The company received 4,000 applications for 80 openings in Seattle. Quoted in the article, a company human-resources manager says that the applicants include former research directors laid off from other companies. Many were highly qualified and willing to work in lower-level jobs.

Some companies fortunate enough to keep hiring are using the opportunity to become better positioned to deal with larger competitors.  Silicon Valley-based software maker Model N told the Journal it plans to add 30-40 employees to its 275 person staff in 2009. The company is focusing its hiring particularly on former workers at larger competitors such as Oracle and SAP AG--companies that have either frozen hiring or are shedding professionals.

Mistakes in hiring are no less costly in a recession than at other times--and making good choices can be hard with so many applicants to choose from. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin expects 1.5 million applications for  20,000 positions anticipated this year. Ken Disken, the company's V.P. for human resources, told the Journal, "We want to make sure they want to come to Lockheed Martin to pursue a career, not a job."

Still, in a companion article Disken noted that Lockheed Martin is still trying to be flexible--to remain able to accommodate what he calls "pop-ups," last-minute applications from recently laid-off workers or graduating seniors who have had their original job offers rescinded.

A mathematics whiz serving with Harvard's financial management arm claims she was dismissed back in 2002, for trying to alert Harvard's leadership about the university's risky strategy in trading in exotic financial instruments. Iris Mack, whom Science Careers profiled in 2004 after she left Harvard, is the subject of a story appearing Tuesday in Harvard's Crimson newspaper.

Mack, who earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard in 1986, joined Harvard Management Company (HMC), the division of Harvard University that manages its endowment, in 2002. Before then she worked as an investment analyst for Banque BNP Paribas in London, in the United Kingdom, and Enron Corp. in Houston, Texas. According to the Crimson, on 30 May 2002 Mack sent an e-mail to the chief of staff in the office of Harvard's president, at the time Lawrence Summers, warning about HMC's use of exotic financial instruments like derivatives, a practice she called "frightening". She also criticized HMC's lack of a portfolio management system, its high staff turnover rate, and lack of productivity among its managers.

Mack told the Crimson  she was assured by Summers's chief of staff that her e-mail would remain confidential, but on 1 July, she was called into the office of HMC's chief Jack Meyer and confronted with the e-mail message. The next day, says Mack, she was fired. Mack later took legal action and all parties agreed to an out-of-court settlement. Lawrence Summers has since become a chief economic adviser to President Obama.

HMC's ability to manage Harvard's endowment is a hot topic on the Harvard campus because of the recent large drop in the endowment's value, a condition faced by many American colleges and universities as a result of the slumping stock market. Since July 2008, the value of Harvard's endowment has dropped 22%, with a 30% decline expected for the entire year. The Crimson says HMC enjoyed double-digit returns in the years leading up to 2008, but since then the use of derivatives seems to have dearly cost the university. The Crimson, using a report from the rating agency Standard and Poors, says the value of one type of derivative alone--interest-rate swaps--used by HMC would have cost the university some $571 million to terminate as of October 2008.

Recent stories in the media have tried to pin the current banking and investment troubles on the quants, as the mathematics experts who devise the complex models used in finance are called. Mack's story suggests that Wall Street's management should at least share that responsibility.

Mack told the Crimson, "I have mixed feelings, on the one hand, I wasn't crazy, I knew what I was talking about. But maybe if more and more people had spoken up, the economy wouldn't be the way it is now."
Science Careers's writer Clinton Parks caught up with Mack in August 2004, after she had left Harvard and started her own company, called Phat Math, and written a book that combines entertainment with education to teach about mathematics and finance. Mack's background includes not only the Ph.D. from Harvard, but an MBA from the London Business School. In addition, she was a semifinalist to become an astronaut for NASA.

Science Careers has also written about employment opportunities for science, engineering, and mathematics graduates in the world of finance as recently as November 2008, when the current economic slump had begun to accelerate.

Hat tip:
The New York Times reports today that Google will soon announce an expansion of its fledgling Google Ventures arm. According to the Times story, Google plans to invest $100 million over the next 12 months in what it considers promising startups in fields such as Internet technologies, clean energy, and the life sciences.

The expanded unit has a strong science and technology background. Heading Google Ventures is David Drummond, a senior vice president at Google and the company's chief lawyer. Rich Milner, one of the managing partners of Google Ventures, has a Ph.D. in computer science from University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and led development of the Android operating system now used in Google's G-phone. Milner joined the company in 2005 when Google acquired Android.

Bill Maris, the other managing partner, has a bachelor's degree in neuroscience from Middlebury College in Vermont, during which he conducted basic research at the Duke University Medical Center. Maris opted for a career as an entreprenuer, but later applied his science background as the biotechnology and healthcare portfolio manager for the Swedish investment company AB.

The Times says Google Ventures has already invested in two startups. One of the companies, Silver Spring Networks, makes software for utilities to build and manage smart electrical grids. The other supported firm is Pixazza that develops software that adds marketing information to images of products on Web pages, to let consumers learn more or buy the products online.

Today's Wall Street Journal describes what it calls the revival of the nuclear energy industry, which comes, they say, with new job opportunities and renewed academic interest.

 In 1979, a partial meltdown at the Three-Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania soured the U.S. on nuclear power, raising questions about its safety, as well as related questions about what to do with of spent nuclear fuel--the term the industry favors over the broader and more loaded "nuclear waste".

The Journal says the comeback is driven by issues related to the economy, foreign-policy, and climate-change. Right now, the journal says, nuclear fission generates some 20% of the electricity used in the United States, but utilities have applied to build 26 new nuclear plants. Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse (now part of Japan's Toshiba Corporation), which plans to build 6 of those plants, added 1,400 workers last year. The company expects to add another 650 jobs each year for the next 5 years.

The uptick in job opportunities has sparked more interest on nearby campuses. A new undergraduate class in nuclear engineering at the University of Pittsburgh was expected to enroll 25 students; instead, 75 students  signed up. 104 students are pre-enrolled for next year. We reported explosive growth in nuclear engineering programs--and multiple job-offers for graduates--back in 2002.

At nearby Carnegie Mellon University, engineers at the Field Robotics Center have built robots to clean up the sites of nuclear accidents, and are researching others with potential uses in that industry.  

There are still concerns about what to do with the spent nuclear fuel. Plans to reprocess fuel into plutonium raise serious security concerns, since plutonium is used to make nuclear weapons.  And plans to store spent fuel at a new facility in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, have been put on hold by the Obama Administration.

The National Spent Nuclear Fuel Program at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls is conducting research on what to do with spent nuclear fuel. That lab has current career opportunities if you're interested in helping find a solution.
People in college and university communities may find themselves with better employment prospects than the U.S. at large, according to a story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. The tough economic environment is forcing town and gown to work together, with benefits for both parties.

In January, six U.S. cities had unemployment rates below 4%. Three of those--Morgantown, West Virginia (home of West Virginia University, WVU), Logan, Utah (Utah State), and Ames, Iowa (Iowa State)--are college towns. Iowa City, Iowa (University of Iowa) and Manhattan, Kansas (Kansas State) are not far off the mark, at 4.1% and 4.2% respectively. That's still less than half of the latest national unemployment rate, which is 8.5%. All of the rates are not seasonally adjusted.

College and university towns often have associated units and enterprises that generate jobs, such as medical centers and research institutes. Many research universities also have programs that encourage business spinoffs and technology transfers; these too can create jobs. Plus, the universities themselves are major employers, for both academic and support positions. The story notes that West Virginia University in Morgantown currently has 260 openings. "We're hurting for people, especially to fill our computer and technical positions," says a university vice president, quoted in the article.

These college towns may be economic powerhouses, but tough times are starting to cramp even their economic engines. Reduced endowments and state budget cuts have caused institutions to freeze hiring (see "Discouraging Days for Jobseekers" in Science Careers), cut back on capital projects, and reduce employers' retirement contributions, according to the WSJ article. To counteract the drag of the economic downturn, institutions like WVU are partnering with their host cities on development projects expected to benefit the communities.  The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are starting up similar projects.

Dubbed "communiversities," such projects go beyond economic development, the article notes, increasing educational opportunities for city residents and bringing volunteers from the campus out into the community.

If you're interested in a career in information systems security -- protecting citizens and institutions against hackers -- these are indeed good times. A story in today's Government Computer News says that federal agencies want to hire large numbers of IT security specialists. Plus, there's a scholarship program to cover much of the cost of training.

Current federal job openings in the systems security field number at least in the hundreds. The U.S. government's job board,, lists 634 separate announcements for IT security specialists (series 2210), with many of those announcements for multiple positions. Some of the advertised jobs are in the Washington, DC area; others are in regional and field offices around the country. 

While the entry-level pay for junior specialists at some of the field offices is comparable to entry-level postdoc salaries (about $30,000 per year), those with advanced degrees can start at higher levels: at least $41,000 for masters degrees and $49,500 for Ph.D.s. The actual amount will vary depending on amount of relevant experience and location. And most of the positions have job growth built in: You can add more responsibilities over time with commensurate salary increases, often up to, and sometimes beyond, $100,000 per year.

The scholarship program to train IT security specialists is called Scholarship for Service (SFS). A joint undertaking of Department of Homeland Security and National Science Foundation, SFS provides a 2-year stipend for students in certified information assurance university programs, and currently supports 250 participants at 26 institutions. About 80% of the current participants are getting masters degrees, with most of the remainder getting bachelors degrees, plus a few Ph.D. candidates. In return, participants agree to work for two years in a Federal agency.

The program's graduates get jobs right away. According to Victor Piotrowski, NSF's director of the program, nearly all (97%) SFS graduates get placed in federal jobs. An annual job fair for SFS graduates attracted 75 federal agencies this year, up from 29 agencies in 2005.

Advancement in these jobs is apparently swift, particularly for those technical specialists who are also knowledgeable in the government's underlying security policies, as we pointed out in a 2005 article about federal information security in Science Careers. Since then, the need, if anything, has increased.

Mischel Kwon, a 2005 SFS-sponsored masters degree graduate from George Washington University,  is now director of the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, part of Department of Homeland Security.  She told Government Computer News, "We're looking for analysts who can get to the real crux of the threat, and we're looking for writers who can articulate our geeking and beeping so that management, Congress, and the public can understand what we're talking about. With that in mind, there's a huge, critical demand for qualified people in the information assurance field."

A new report this week from the Computing Research Association (CRA)  shows enrollments and degrees rising among bachelor's degree and Ph.D. students in the U.S. and Canada. For undergraduates at least, this marks a reversal of a trend going back to 2002. The report, which describes changes between the 2007-2008 and 2006-2007 academic years, includes data from 192 of the 264 members of CRA, consisting of computer science, computer engineering, and information science departments in North America.

For undergraduate students, the 6.2% increase in course enrollment and 8.1% increase in declared majors were the first recorded in 6 years. At the other end of the undergraduate spectrum, the news wasn't as good: The number of bachelors degrees awarded in these disciplines decreased 10% to about 12,800. Nonetheless, this rate represented an improvement over the extraordinary declines documented by the previous year's survey; that survey showed a 20% decline in bachelor's degrees from the year before.

The number of Ph.D. degrees awarded by these departments grew 5.7% over the previous year, to 1,877. The number of Ph.D. students passing their thesis candidacy exams--a common feature in computer science departments--increased by about 7%. The number of master's degrees awarded remained about the same as in the 2006-2007 academic year, about 10,000.

While students from overseas make up a large proportion of the graduate degrees in computing disciplines, they are less common among undergraduates. About half (49.5%) of the masters recipients and a majority (56.5%) of the Ph.D. degrees were non-resident aliens. But only 6.2% of bachelors degrees awarded in 2007-2008--about 1 in 16--went to non-resident aliens.

Women are a distinct minority in computer departments. Only 1 in 8 bachelors degrees (12%), 1 in 4 masters degrees (26%), and 1 in 5 Ph.D.s (21%) went to women. Whatever their gender, a majority (56.6%) of new Ph.D. recipients were hired by industry, up from 52% in the previous year. Some 3 in 10 (29.4%) took academic positions, while another 3% went to work in government. Less than 1% reported being unemployed.

The 3 in 10 new Ph.D.s taking academic positions in 2007-2008 represents a sharp decline from the 6 in 10 recorded in the 2004-2005 survey. Of the new academic hires about one-third  (9.4%) received tenure-track positions, about the same number (10%) became postdocs, and the remainder became researchers, non-tenure track faculty, or took other academic jobs.

The authors of the report caution that these data were accumulated mostly before the economy deteriorated drastically (most of the last data were gathered in the fall of 2008).

At a news conference by the Technology Policy Institute (TPI) last week, which was organized to build support for increasing high-skilled immigration to the United States, a key congressional backer of increased immigration for highly skilled workers put a damper on the audience's expectations.

American companies can now hire up to 65,000 foreign workers with H-1B visas. Another 20,000 H-1B visas are set aside for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees. Supporters think these limits need to be revised upwards, while critics blame the H-1B program for low wages in high-tech jobs, among other sins.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who represents Silicon Valley, gave the keynote speech at the 10 March 2009 meeting and immediately dampened hopes for lifting the caps on H-1B visas for high-skilled workers. Lofgren said she shares the opinion that increasing the numbers of immigrants with advanced degrees in engineering and science has benefits for the United States. "Anybody who wants to build our economy and grow our jobs," Lofgren said, "has to deal with the issue of how ... we attract and retain the Ph.D.s who are graduating from American universities, who are not residents and not U.S. citizens." Non-citizens, she noted, make up 42% of the masters degree candidates and 64% of the Ph.D. candidates in engineering at U.S. universities. The numbers are similar--39% for masters and 61% for Ph.D. students--in computer science. Of all science and engineering doctorates granted in the past 2 years by U.S. institutions, she noted, 43% were not citizens.

Lofgren added, however, that congressional action to raise the limits on H-1B visas would have to be part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, because other industries -- she cited Western farmers and Chesapeake Bay fisherman as examples -- also have expressed a need for increasing the numbers of temporary immigrant workers. Measures that single out high-tech immigrants for immediate action, she suggested, would not attract the needed  support.

But the prospects for such a comprehensive immigration bill are slim, she continued: One such bill failed to pass in the last Congress, she pointed out, and there seems to be little appetite now to revisit the issue.

March 9, 2009

Avoiding Plagiarism

It seems like a no-brainer that you shouldn't take someone else's research or words, slap your name on it, and submit it to a journal. However, quite a few scientists out there seem to have missed this simple lesson. Consider these responses by authors who duplicated content and citations from earlier published articles:

"To be honest with you, I was not aware of the fact that I need to take prior permission of the authors of the original article."

"Our main goal was to spread the knowledge into the local investigation community, so it was published in a local journal as a review article."

"I was shocked when I saw the attachments... Only idiots can do such a thing, which I am not."
These are some of the responses that Harold Garner, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and colleagues got when they presented authors of published scientific articles with their published article and an earlier published article with which there was substantial amounts of overlap in citations and/or text. They describe this process in this week's Science Policy Forum, "Responding to Possible Plagiarism"  (subscription required to view full text).

Garner and colleagues have started a database called Deja vu, which identifies highly similar citations in Medline. So far, the database has identified more than 9000 articles with "high levels of citation similarity and no overlapping authors," Garner, et al., write. They then started doing full-text comparisons on these papers, and, so far, have identified 212 articles "with signs of potential plagiarism."

The research group developed a questionnaire and sent it to 163 sets of authors of original (potentially duplicated) articles, authors of the later (potentially fraudulent) articles, and the journal editors of both articles, along with copies of both published papers. They got a surprising (I think) 88.3% response rate. Some 93% of original article authors weren't aware their work had been duplicated. Authors who duplicated their own work denied wrongdoing 28% of the time, and 35% admitted to having borrowed from previously published materials.

What's this got to do with careers? A LOT, especially when it's your career. Plagiarism falls under the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy's definition of research misconduct. There are probably people among the survey respondents who knew exactly what they were doing. But probably most of them were unaware that copying material without permission or without crediting the other group is considered research misconduct, or they simply weren't involved enough with the final manuscript to know that plagiarism took place. Consider some of the responses that Garner's group got to their questionnaire:

"I was not involved in this article. I have no idea why my name is included."

"My contribution to the article was limited to the collection of clinical data: [the senior author] alone was responsible for the use of the data provided."

These people are now in danger of being guilty of research misconduct, and they didn't even know it. What can you do?  Make sure you know what papers your name goes on. If something smells fishy, ask questions. "The integrity of research is everyone's responsibility," Nick Steneck, University of Michigan emeritus professor, said in an article we published last year on research integrity. "If you see something that you don't think is right, all professionals have a responsibility to raise their concerns."

For more on this topic, see Research Integrity: Making the Right Choices, Dealing With Deception, A Pressure Cooker for Postdocs?, and Scientific Integrity and Ethics: A Dilemma. Also, the current issue of The Scientist this month has an article on tips for preventing research misconduct (registration required).

As If job hunting in a recession wasn't tough enough. Information Week reports that identity thieves are now posting fake employment ads to steal vital data from job hunters. Fake job ads, apparently, have more than quadrupled in the past three years, many aspiring to identity theft, or so says the Association for Payment Clearing Services, a financial trade group in the U.K.

The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) urges job hunters to be cautious about divulging personal information to prospective employers. This may be good advice, but it presents a problem: How do you answer a employment ad without giving out your vital details?

ITRC offers these tips:

  • Before sending out résumés or CVs, make sure your computer's security software is deployed and up-to-date. Job-hunters, because they are eager for responses, are often inviting targets for scammers and phishers.
  • Do not put your social security number on your CV or résumé, or give it to an employer prospect until you have a serious offer.
  • Set up a separate e-mail account for your job search, which can limit the threats from phishing and spam sent to your regular e-mail address. If this alternative e-mail address is compromised -- hijacked by a spammer, for example -- it will not affect your primary e-mail service.
  • Do some research on companies placing employment ads. One place to turn is the Better Business Bureau. Another source is the consumer protection authorities in the state where the company is located. Having an impressive Web site these days doesn't mean much, since posting a site takes little financial investment or technical skill.
  • Avoid Web site registrations that require you to provide sensitive personal data, such as Social Security Number, home address, or driver's license number. Most legitimate sites don't ask for such sensitive data (except for credit card numbers of course, at merchant sites) and those that do will make that sensitive data optional.
  • Double-check on the bona fides of the contact at a company. Be wary, for example, when the contact's e-mail address is not from the company's Internet domain. If someone is not employed by the prospective employer, find out the person's relationship with that company. It is not uncommon for companies to hire headhunters or contract recruiters, but legitimate outside recruiters will not mind answering that question.
The article has more tips and links to more resources.

Hat-tip:  TechAmerica

Yesterday's New York Times tells about increasing problems with visas encountered by foreign postdocs and students in the United States, particularly those in science and technology disciplines.

The problems, according to the article, involve delays, missing paperwork, and less-than-helpful U.S. embassy staff. They appear to be more serious for visitors from China, India, the Middle East, and Russia. A postdoc in genetics at MIT, from Belarus, ran into 3 months of bureaucratic delays and lost documents when she tried to renew her visa with the U.S. embassy in Minsk on a visit home. She ended up having to go to Moscow to get the visa.

An anonymous State Department source told the Times that delays like these (2-3 months) are common and a result of "an unfortunate staffing shortage." The Belarus postdoc, by the way, has decided not to do further work in the U.S.

The international student director at MIT says the problems often occur when the students or postdocs leave the U.S., for brief visits home or to attend scientific meetings. Trying to get a visa to return is when the problems often begin.

Visa procedures tightened markedly after the 11 September 2001 attacks but in recent years, the U.S. government improved the procedures that cut delays to about two weeks, and students began returning. In the 2007/2008 academic year, according to the Open Doors survey by International Institute of Education, the number of international students on U.S. campuses jumped 7% over 2006/2007. And the 2006/2007 year itself showed a 3% gain over 2005/2006. The Open Doors surveys also show that life science, physical science, computer science, engineering, and mathematics account for more than one-third (34.5%) of foreign students in the United States.

The problems, according to the article, caused AAAS (publisher of this blog and Science magazine) to convene a meeting with the National Academy of Sciences and several dozen other science organizations, to bring those problems to the attention of the State Department.  As the MIT international student director told the Times, "There are other countries that want these folks. They are the best of the best. They have other options."

Update: The Times story reminds us of a 2004 account in Science Careers of Haitham Idriss, a Thomas Jefferson University postdoc who went to Canada one weekend for some R&R. When he tried to reenter the United States, he was told he needed to register for a program called NSEERS, the provisions of which he found onerous. He refused and was not readmited. Outside the U.S., he never found another scientific position.

The last time we spoke to Idriss, we learned that he had given up on research and started a new scientific journal, Annals of Alquds Medicine, which now seems to be defunct. It was a pretty standard journal in all but two respects: it didn't allow submissions from an Israeli address, and it didn't allow references to evolution--which, Idriss maintained, contradicted Islamic orthodoxy. Make of this what you will. 

March 2, 2009

Bulletproofing Your Job

Published last fall by headhunter-turned-author Stephen Viscusi, Bulletproof Your Job: 4 Simple Strategies to Ride Out the Rough Times and Come Out On Top at Work, offers advice on how to keep your job in tough times.  This is no time for half-measures or the faint of heart, Viscusi says: "You must understand that your job is your most valuable asset, and your primary objective is to protect it."

Viscusi says the single important factor in keeping your job is what your boss thinks about you. "Here's the cold hard truth: If you don't click with your boss, all that merit and pedigree won't get you anywhere when your job is on the line," writes Viscusi in the book's introduction. "People make this mistake all the time, thinking it's their good work and fine resume that matters. What really matters is what your boss thinks about you. That's it, in a nutshell."

His four strategies are: Be visible. Be easy. Be useful. Be ready. Time magazine's review says that being visible means getting to the office before the boss, staying late (at least for a few minutes) after the boss goes home, postponing that long vacation or sabbatical, and no telecommuting.

Being easy means cut the whining about your workload, or the cubicle, or anything else. Even in good times, the boss doesn't want to hear it. Being useful means taking on the extra task or doing your regular job with extra flair.

And being ready requires having alternative survival plans in case the first three strategies don't pan out: adding to your bank account, keeping your résumé current, and maintaining your network of contacts.

In science and engineering at least, Viscusi's strategies won't hurt, but you still have to produce--the "be useful" part. If you miss a grant application deadline that your department is depending on, or fail to get a major grant or several publications during the first several years of your tenure-track appointment, being visible or easy probably won't help much. 

To keep your job in bad times, you'd better nail the "be ready" part as well.

Going back to the workplace after being away for a number of years can be difficult for anyone, but especially for parents who choose being a full-time mom or dad. Today's Wall Street Journal reports that companies and institutions in science and engineering are setting up programs to help women (many more moms than dads leave the workplace for parenting) return to their former professions.

For employers, career re-entry, as this process is called, offers a source of experienced, skilled, and reliable talent. Even in tough economic times, their investment apparently pays off.

The Journal article by Sue Shellenbarger cites re-entry programs by companies such as Honeywell, IBM, General Electric, and BBN Technologies that provide training, mentoring, and referrals -- and sometimes even jobs -- to help women rejoin their working colleagues. The article also mentions programs by the British government and a General Electric initiative at its research center in Bangalore, India, as examples outside the U.S.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge offers a 10-month "Career Re-engineering" training course for engineers and scientists returning to work. MIT expects enrollment to grow from 10 to 24 by next fall.

Science Careers has covered career re-entry in some detail, particularly as it affects women outside the U.S. A story by Chelsea Wald in March 2008 detailed a number of career re-entry programs in Europe. And last month James Pauff and Misty Richards looked at this and related issues affecting women physician-scientists.

The Web site, described in the Journal article, has additional advice and resources.

Note: Paragraphs 3 and 4 corrected, 25 February 2009

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 signed into law last week (a.k.a. economic stimulus bill) contains provisions that make it more difficult for some companies -- those involved in the TARP financial bailout package -- to hire workers on H-1B temporary work visas. Beryl Benderly discussed the impact of H1-B visas in her column last month in Science Careers.

According to ComputerWorld, an IT industry publication, the stimulus bill says that for 2 years companies receiving funds from the government's Troubled Asset Recovery Program (TARP) are deemed "H-1B dependent." This designation, usually reserved for companies where H1-B holders comprise 15% or more of their workforce, imposes limits on companies seeking to hire more H-1B staff.

Companies deemed H-1B dependent must attest that they've made good-faith efforts to find American workers to fill their openings before recruiting H-1B talent. These employers must certify that they have offered minimum prevailing wages during their recruitment. The measures are aimed at preventing the company from claiming that they could not find workers while offering unrealistically low pay.

There are other restrictions on H-1B dependent companies. They cannot lay-off an American worker 90 days before or after filing an H-1B petition. And they must also have offered the job to to an American worker who applied and is at least equally qualified than the H-1B worker. If a company claims to have followed these rules, but a subsequent audit shows they did not, they can be banned from further participation in the H-1B program. According to the immigration law firm Shihab & Associates, the Department of Labor has recently increased these H1-B audits. 

The practical impact of this provision in the stimulus bill on hiring will likely be minimal. The limits affect new hires, not existing holders of work-related visas. And while the amount of TARP money is staggering, the number of companies involved -- generally in the financial services industry -- is relatively small. Only about 1 percent of workers in this industry have H-1B visas. Our look in November at the financial services industry as a source of alternative employment for scientists suggests this segment of the economy isn't poised for explosive growth anytime soon.

The stimulus bill also does not impose any limitations on outsourcing, which according to Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira, has increased among American banks since the rescue bill passed last fall. Charles Kuck, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, however, told ComputerWorld, "These banks will not able to hire qualified foreign talent to pull them out of this mess -- if that was necessary." Kuck added,  "Maybe we've got all the homegrown talent we need to pull us out of this mess, because now we have to hope we do."

Update, 25 February 2009: The Economic Times of India reports a growing protest in India to the stimulus bill's provisions, including calls for a boycott of American multinationals.

Update, 10 March 2009. The Charlotte Observer reports today that Bank of America has rescinded job offers to "a small number of foreign-born business students" who held H-1B visas, because of the restrictions in the stimulus bill. The bank, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, did not say how many offers were rescinded. The story reported, however, that in 2008 Bank of America applied for less than 100 H-1B visas to work in North Carolina, mainly in computer engineer and programmer positions.

For life scientists with good people skills looking for an alternative to basic research, work as a genetic counselor may be to your liking. According to today's Career Journal, an online supplement to the Wall Street Journal, genetic counselors are in demand and the pay isn't too shabby.

Genetic counselors work for hospitals, private physicians, and genetic-testing companies. Sarah Needleman, a Career Journal writer, says genetic counselors conduct genetic tests and study patients' medical and family histories to uncover risks of contracting genetic conditions, particularly in prenatal medicine and oncology.

Cathi Ruben Franklin, a genetic counselor in Madison, New Jersey, tells Needleman that the work lets her be both a scientist and a teacher. This interaction with patients, which requires strong person-to-person communications skills, provides both the highs and lows in the job. Talking with families, some counselors say, lets you learn the details of their stories. Peter Levonian, a genetic counselor in LaCrosse, Wisconsin says, "It's that daily glimpse into the good and bad of human experience that makes the job fascinating and rewarding."

The other side of that coin, of course, is that genetic counselors must break bad news to some of the same patients. "You can't guarantee success" in preventing or treating a genetic disorder, says Elizabeth Leeth, who serves with a maternal health service in Evanston, Illinois.

Becoming a genetic counselor often requires at least a masters degree in genetic counseling. The American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) lists 33 graduate programs on its Web site. A certification examination (PDF), also from ABGC, is required by many employers.

Needleman says demand for genetic counselors remains strong despite the slumping economy. Pay ranges upwards from a starting salary in the upper $40,000s to the $100,000 neighborhood, with a median salary of $63,000. The number of opportunities in the field is expected to grow by 20% over the next 7 years.

The National Society of Genetic Counselors Web site tells more about the profession, and offers listings of employment opportunities through a list-serve subscription.

Science Debate 2008, the people who encouraged discussion of science issues in the 2008 elections, have prepared a summary chart showing the status of science-related line items in each of the House of Representatives and Senate versions of the economic stimulus package. A House-Senate conference committee is now reconciling the two versions of the bill, and the chart shows where each agency and program wins or loses.

For example, according to the chart the House version of the bill gives more money to National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the NIH, and the Department of Education. The Senate's bill favors NASA, the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office of the Department of Energy, and the Advanced Broadband Program in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (part of Department of Commerce).

The chart also shows that to understand what's going on, you need to look beyond the bottom lines and get into the details. Each version of the bill, for example, gives about equal amounts to National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST). However, the House version adds funds to the NIST's Technology Innovation and Manufacturing Extension Partnership programs, while the Senate bill does not.

The page's authors keep the page updated, since events are happening quickly. The page also gives the names of the conference committee members and links to their Web-site contact pages, if you want to add your voice to the debate.

Full disclosure: AAAS, the publisher of Science Careers, is a cosponsor of Science Debate 2008.

Hat-tip: Daily Kos

Update: Associated Press/MSNBC reports Congressional conferees have reached a deal on the stimulus bill.

Welcome to those of you coming here from the Cambridge Media Event -- and welcome to everyone else, too! We often get questions about careers in science writing, editing, and similar careers. So, I thought I'd take the occasion of the Cambridge Media Event to assemble some links to our many features and articles on this subject.

Starting a Career in Science Writing

Careers in Science Editing: Feature Index

This feature contains more than two dozen profiles of scientists who have found careers in scientific editing, whether it's at book publishers, journals, or international agencies.

Getting the Message Across: Scientists in Public Relations

More than a dozen profiles of scientists who've found rewarding work in public relations at agencies and scientific organizations.

Science Broadcasting: Feature Index

Scientists from around the world talk about working in radio and television, whether it's full time or an occasional thing.

Careers in Medical Writing: Opening Doors *Feature Index*

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

If you'd like to try out a career in the media, why not apply for a media fellowship? The two largest programs available are the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program and the British Association for the Advancement of Science Media Fellowships. (We wrote about the BA fellowships earlier this month; the deadline for applications is March 10.)

In Science Careers this week, Siri Carpenter and Kate Travis tell how scientists working at natural history museums make Charles Darwin's research come alive.  Harvard's Museum of Natural History is strutting its Darwin stuff as well. In fact, the entire Cambridge, Massachusetts campus is getting in on the act.

Harvard's museum features a lecture by Janet Browne on Thursday 12 February, Darwin's birthday, on his cultural significance, particularly how Darwin has come to symbolize scientific progress. A science historian at Harvard, Browne is developing a course at Harvard on the role of natural history museums in science.

On Saturday and Sunday, 14-15 February, the museum's Darwin events feature family-oriented programs. On Saturday, author Kathryn Laskey and illustrator Matthew Trueman discuss their children's book, One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin, and how Darwin's early life collecting beetles stimulated his later research. On Sunday, evolutionary biologist Andrew Berry -- in a unique example of faculty outreach -- appears at the museum as Charles Darwin himself to talk about Darwin's life, display some fossils, and lead a walk through the museum's zoological galleries.

The campus-wide Darwin Day celebration starts off Thursday morning with a Bloomsday-style reading of Origin of Species at various points on the Harvard campus, followed by a birthday cake at noon, and a Darwin Day party that night at a local pub.

One of the fun parts of working for Science Careers is that we get to meet people -- all sorts of people. And when you meet someone who's so totally passionate about her or his science that it's infectious, well, that's great fun.

For this week's article Keeping Order, I interviewed entomologist Erica McAlister in the staff cafeteria at London's Natural History Museum. We had a good conversation, but it was during a tour of the collection later that afternoon that Erica's excitement and enthusiasm really came through. She  lights up when she's explaining the insects, and she was incredibly patient with me in explaining even very basic concepts about insects. And when I later listened back to our interview and started writing up the article, I found myself thinking how cool it would be to be a curator in entomology. (I have absolutely no qualifications to do this.)
In Career Journal (the Wall Street Journal's online careers supplement) last week, Sue Shellenbarger discussed an increasing trend in career-related summer jobs for students, where students or their families pay a fee to participate in the internship experience. The fees go to for-profit companies who place students in established internship programs, or to marketing consultants who promote the students' skills to employer prospects, or to charity auctions where students or their families bid on the internship.

Parents worried about their kids' job prospects are often the ones willing to pay.  Internship-placement services, Shellenbarger says, report a 15-25% jump in the demand for their services over a year ago. The fees mentioned in the articles range from $799 to $9,000. Shellenbarger says that middle-class families, not necessarily the rich, are paying these fees.

For science majors, there are fortunately many internship programs available that are funded by institutions, government agencies, or foundations--and that pay the students, not the other way around. In December, a Science Careers feature on internships describes and benefits of internships for undergrads, and provides a list of summer research opportunities in Europe and North America. We update that page as we learn of new opportunities.

Update: Timothy Noah in Slate gives his views on this subject. Here's a sample: "Whoever said a summer internship was something you had to pay for? The idea of getting a job is that they're supposed to pay you."

January 29, 2009

A Small World

A recent post at the new Science Origins blog resonates strongly with Science Careers. The post is by Janet Iwasa, who became a scientific illustrator with support from NSF's regrettably discontinued, much lamented Discovery Corps program, which also trained Geoffrey Bothun, who Science Careers profiled in 2004. The post also mentions Graham Johnson, a scientific illustrator I profiled the following year.

Apart from the Science Careers connections, it's a good read, describing how one scientist made a successful career transition, from studying small, hypothetical structures in early forms of life to animating them.
Our colleagues at ScienceInsider report Wednesday that Canada's prime minister Stephen Harper is taking a different tack from U.S. president Barack Obama in funding for science in that country's economic recovery package. In Harper's new budget, released Tuesday, funds for the three councils that support research in science, engineering, and the humanities will be cut $113 million over the next three years.

Harper's budget does increase funds for maintenance and upgrades of Canada's scientific infrastructure. Some $1.62 billion of a total of $10 billion for infrastructure improvements is devoted to scientific facilities. The budget also proposes $71 million for 1,500 graduate scholarships and $1.6 million for a feasibility study of a new Arctic research station.

Some of Canada's scientific leaders feel Harper is missing an opportunity. Pierre Noreau, president of the French-Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science told the CBC that the budget focused too much on the short term and missed the big picture of research spending. "Infrastructure spending is ... important for the research world," said Noreau. "But it's a very short-term decision. Yes, you need the building, but in the long-term you need people, and to get them you need to commit to work that may not have an immediate benefit."

The difference in direction in research funding between the United States and Canada also has some scientific leaders worried about a new brain drain from Canada. Claire Morris, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, told ScienceInsider, "You know how many people we attracted back with our Canada Research Chairs program. The flow can go both ways." The Research Chairs program, described in Science Careers in 2004, was designed to keep more of Canada's home-grown talent from going outside for opportunities and attract more international scholars.

Late last week the Senate passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which extends the length of time after a wage-discrimination offense that a suit can be filed. The vote was a filibuster-proof 61-36.

The bill is named for Lilly Ledbetter, who worked for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Gadsden, Alabama. As Ledbetter neared the end of her career with the company, she received an anonymous note from a co-worker that said the company was paying her 70-85% of what her male counterparts made for doing the same work.

Ledbetter sued Goodyear, in a case decided by the Supreme Court in 2007. The court ruled against Ledbetter in 5-4 vote, saying that the 180-day statue of limitations in the civil rights laws began when company began its discriminatory practices--not when she learned about them. In Ledbetter's case, the discrimination lasted for her entire 19-year career. As she told MSNBC, "I started out at a lower salary, and they gave me lower raises, over and over again."

The legislation tackles this problem by restarting the 180-day clock each time the company pays a discriminatory wage. Thus, someone who believes his or her employer is engaging in wage discrimination can sue up to 180 days after the last instance of discrimination--the final or most recent insufficient paycheck--not the first instance as the Supreme Court ruled.

The House of Representative passed a similar bill earlier in January, but the two houses need to resolve their differences before passing on a reconciled bill to President Obama for his signature. President Bush vetoed comparable legislation last year, but President Obama invited Ledbetter to ride with him on the train to his inauguration the weekend before his swearing in--evidence that he probably will sign this year's version.

Update 29 January 2009: President Obama signed the legislation today.

January 19, 2009

Life After Big Pharma

OK, my last C&E News related update for a while. Their 8 December issue includes their employment outlook--which, tellingly, focuses on alternatives to traditional employment--specifically, on contract-research jobs. (We covered contract research a year earlier, but with a focus on pharma and biotech.)

In slightly related news, this issue of C&E News describes AAAS's On-Call Scientists program, which provides scientists with science-related volunteer opportunities. Such volunteer work can lead to new expertise and new career opportunities.
Continuing my attempt to catch up on Chemical and Engineering News...

In the 15 December issue, lots of bad news. Leading off is news about massive layoffs at Dow, DuPont, and other companies.

Just two pages later comes Hard Times for Academe, which describes the effects of severe budget cuts on chemistry departments resulting from state revenue shortfalls and endowment losses.

Want more bad news? The suffering isn't limited to the United States. Germany's chemical industry, the largest in Europe, expects "stagnation in 2008 and decline in 2009."

And finally, amidst all this bad employment news comes word that the number of chemistry degrees awarded at every level continues to increase: more people seeking fewer jobs. (ACS membership required for access.)
I'm catching up on my reading of careers coverage in Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) from the American Chemical Society (ACS).

According to an article in the 22 December issue, the representation of women on U.S. chemistry faculties has edged up--slowly--reaching 16% in the latest survey.

Also of interest in this issue: Lots of bad employment news, with short items ("Business Concentrates") on planned (and since consummated) job cuts at Bristol-Meyers, Pfizer, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, EntreMed, and Panacos. And if you're a chemist you should probably read the Chemical Year in Review, which highlights some of 2008's biggest chemistry advances.

More recent bad news from the same publication: the chemical industry lost 15,000 jobs in 2008, about 1.8% of the chemical-industry workforce. 
Our colleagues at the ScienceInsider blog highlight an analysis by AAAS (which publishes Science Careers) of the draft economic stimulus bill released yesterday by the House Appropriations Committee. According to the analysis the bill calls for $16 billion in research and development spending over the next 2 years, with $9.9 billion of that devoted to research.

Here are some of the proposed increases for research and related spending by agency. Once again, under the draft bill these increases would be spread over 2 years.
  • National Science Foundation. $2 billion for research grants; for comparison, the 2008 budget for research and related activities was about $4.8 billion, and the total 2008 NSF budget (including major equipment, education, and a few smaller items) was $6 billion.
  • National Institutes of Health. $1.5 billion to fund research, distributed across the institutes. The 2008 budget was just under $30 billion.
  • Department of Energy, Office of Science: $2 billion. This number includes funding for facilities upgrades and advanced scientific computing, as well as research grants.
  • Department of Energy, energy programs. $2 billion for "energy efficiency and renewable research, development, demonstration, and deployment projects"
  • Department of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy. $400 million for start-up, authorized in 2008 but never funded
  • NASA. $400 million for earth science climate research and $150 million for aeronautics research
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). $100 million for NIST lab research.
  • Department of Defense. $350 million for energy-related R&D.
  • Department of Health and Human Services. $430 million for advanced biodefense countermeasures R&D in the new Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority
The draft bill also calls for spending on new facilities and equipment at government labs as well as at universities and non-government research institutes.

Two big cautions are required at this point. First, this is only a draft of a bill, which has not even been introduced, let alone passed, reconciled, and signed by the President. Thus, many of these numbers will change.

Second, as Science Careers editor Jim Austin pointed out in November, we need to keep an eye what happens after this stimulus bill is passed (assuming it passes). The commitment to science and the career development of scientists needs to continue over an extended period of time. It can't be just a one-shot deal.

Myron Rolle, star defensive back at Florida State University, has chosen a Rhodes Scholarship studying medical anthropology over the immediate riches of an NFL career. Rolle completed his pre-med undergraduate degree in 2 1/2 years and is considered a top prospect at strong safety by NFL scouts.

Unlike most student-athletes, where the emphasis is on "athlete" rather than "student," Rolle found as much satisfaction in the classroom and lab as on the football field. Tim Logan, a biochemistry professor at Florida State, recognized Rolle's talents and offered him a chance to conduct research on metabolic characteristics of human mesenchymal stem cells. For this work, Rolle received Florida State's 2008 Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Award.

Getting the Rhodes Scholarship turned out to be a minor adventure as well. The interviews for Rhodes finalists were scheduled for Saturday 22 November, in Birmingham, Alabama,  the same day as Florida State's game at the University of Maryland. Rolle went to Birmingham for the interviews--then, with the help of a police escort and a private airplane, flew to College Park, Maryland (outside Washington, DC) in time to play the second half of the game, where Florida State trounced Maryland 37-3.

After completing his master's degree at Oxford, Rolle intends to enter the 2010 NFL draft. He also plans to go to medical school. There's no word whether Oxford intends to recruit Rolle for its rugby side.
A third U.S. Army social scientist has died while on duty. Paula Loyd, 36, an anthropologist in the Army's Human Terrain System program, died earlier this week from burns received in a November 2008 attack in Afghanistan.

Cary Clack, a columnist with the San Antonio Express-News, described the attack as unprovoked. "Loyd was in the Afghan village of Maywand on Nov. 4 when she began talking to an Afghan man. Without warning he doused her [with a flammable liquid] and set her on fire." The attack left Loyd with second- and third-degree burns over 60% of her body. The Taliban, added Clack, took credit for the attack in a Web site statement. She died at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where she had been transferred.

Wired's Danger Room blog says Loyd was the third social scientist in the Human Terrain program killed in the line of duty, and the second one killed in Afghanistan. Michael Bhatia, a political scientist in the program, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in May 2008. About 2 months later, Nicole Suveges, an economist working for an Army contractor, died when a bomb destroyed a community building in Sadr City, Baghdad.
The Human Terrain System's purpose, as described by its Web site, is "to improve the military's ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed; however, in the long-term, HTS hopes to assist the US government in understanding foreign countries and regions prior to an engagement within that region."

The Open Anthropology blog notes that Loyd's death still has not been mentioned on the Human Terrain's Web site, as of 8 January 2009.

Update, 13 January 2009. The Human Terrain System Web site now has a memorial page for Loyd. That page says the attack took place on 5 November, not 4 November as reported by Cary Clack.

Update, 9 January 2009: Ms. Loyd's age corrected. BAE Systems, the company that employed Loyd, released a statement today.
Danielle Lee, a grad student at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, tells how getting more ethnic diversity in the science workforce will take more of the special programs that give students hands-on experience that they don't necessarily get in the classroom.

In an article in the 31 December St. Louis American (a weekly newspaper on African-American topics), Lee describes the process of educating students as a pipeline, where the number of students at one level depends on the flow of students from earlier on. She tells how the number of minority school children interested in science often slows in high school and almost dries up by college and graduate school. And even the small number of science students in college often switch majors by their junior years.  The pipeline metaphor to describe this process is not new, but you do not often see it spelled out this way in the popular media.

Lee, herself a grad student in Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, recommends that students take advantage of special after-hours programs in science, summer hands-on research experiences (camps for younger students and internships for working-age students), and attend scientific meetings to regenerate interest in science. "I realize not everyone who participates will necessarily stay in the sciences,' says Lee. "But I believe having such experiences solidifies a student's certainty in his or her future direction."

Lee, a Science Careers Facebook Fan, has her own blog, and blogs for the Young Black Professional's Guide, where she gave our December feature on undergraduate internships a nice plug.

At this point I don't know why, or what she'll be talking about, or how long she'll be talking. But I've learned that Science Careers writer Beryl Benderly, who writes our Taken for Granted column, will appear on CNN's Lou Dobbs Journal tonight. The show starts at 7 p.m. eastern time, at least on the east coast. 
Elizabeth Blackburn is perhaps best known for her work on telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that gradually erode as we age, and for co-discovering the enzyme telomerase. She's now studying whether certain lifestyle interventions can promote telomere repair.

An excellent article in this weekend's San Francisco Chronicle outlines this new line of research--and provides a nice profile of Blackburn, her career path, and her dual role as scientist and mother. I like this quote from her husband: "There is no question that one of the nice features of Liz is that she's shown young women scientists that you can make it and also have a family, that it's not one or the other, and that it's fun. You go home at night and feel like there are some interesting new ideas, even after you've been doing it for 30 years."

Dr. Albert has hit the nail right on the cheesehead!  My daughter (Allison H. Bartlett, MD , a pediatric infectious disease specialist raised in Madison, WI) sent me Albert's article this am.  I am a graduate of UW-Madison medical school as is my husband, trained at Washington University in St. Louis and moved back to raise our family and practice in Madison.  My daughter Allison attended Princeton University, medical school at Washington U in St. Louis, and residency through fellowship and is now on faculty at Baylor U/Texas Children's Hospital. My son, a musician, attended school in New York, London, and recently lived 2 yrs. in Philly.

We talk about this phenomenon often, as we have all experienced it, but Dr. Albert has described it very precisely.  It brings a chuckle to all of us.  Both environments have their merit, but growing up in the Midwest, I (we) prefer the cheesehead environment.  This extends into most aspects of life, I (we) have observed--well beyond the science/academic/research environment.  It is really the Midwest vs. the East coast values/ethics/mentality.

Thanks to Dr. Albert for the interesting article.

Cheryl A. Bartlett, MD
Every scientist has heard of "back of the envelope" calculations, and many have had the experience of sketching out ideas for a project or grant proposal on the back of an envelope. The University of Alabama-Birmingham's School of Public Health has taken this idea one step further with its Inaugural Back of the Envelope Awards.

Applicants for these seed grants, which are funded from state coffers, are required to submit  proposals on the backs of standard letter-sized envelopes. The department received 19 applications and made 4 awards.
While reviewing this week's article "Smarter Than the Average Desk" I had to ask what the term "digital natives" meant. The answer, once you hear it, is obvious: 'digital natives' are the youngish people who grew up surrounded by digital technology. In the article, we note that scientists, engineers, and educators are designing classroom technology that must meet the needs of these digital natives, who have been exposed to electronic gadgets and fast-paced multimedia since birth.

On his blog Zero Percent Idle, Tim Windsor elaborates on digital natives by excerpting from Don Tapscott's book Grown Up Digital. This new generation (or 'Net Generation,' as Tapscott says) wants freedom in everything they do, loves to customize and personalize their technology, and seeks entertainment in all aspects of life: work, education, and social life. These are the factors that those in education technology have to keep in mind when creating devices and learning technologies meant to captivate their audiences.

These characteristics will be on display as this generation enters the workforce; for example, this cohort is used to constant socializing and collaborating through social networking sites and online projects. Understanding these generational characteristics will be important for employers who want to recruit and maintain their workforce. We discussed these issues in last year's article, "The Truth About Gen Y."

January 2, 2009

'Early Stage' at NIH

Those of you in the biomedical-research world are no doubt aware of the weirdness surrounding early-career independent investigators. Under Zerhouni, the organization worked very hard to ensure that scientists at the beginning of their careers got their share of research grants. They've been pretty successful.

But their success has come at the expense of some strangeness. Let's review. First there were the "FIRST" awards, a competition that was open only to scientists who hadn't been funded before by NIH. These were relatively small compared to R01s and carried a certain stigma; as a result, NIH found in a study, FIRST awards were ineffective in helping scientists get their first R01s. Rather than increase the size of the awards to make them more effective in this respect, NIH discontinued the program.

Next, NIH created "New Investigator" status for its R01 applicants. If you've never before received a real NIH research grant (an R01 of equivalent), you get special treatment. Standards for "New Investigators" aren't so much lower as different, with less emphasis on preliminary data and more emphasis on potential. Anyway, that is how it's supposed to work.

Then NIH discovered that approximately half of their "New Investigators" were not early in their careers. So they created a new status: "Early Stage Investigator." An early-stage investigator is a new investigator who received their doctoral degree within the last decade. 

Here's the latest twist: Now you can apply for an extension in your early-stage-investigator status if you've had a period of less-than-full-time research for reasons "that can include medical concerns, disability, family care responsibilities, extended periods of clinical training, natural disasters, and active duty military service."
In an article titled "How to Fix Your Life in 2009," Wednesday's Wall Street Journal offers a list of helpful hints for 2009 covering personal finance, retirement planning, health care costs, and a few career issues. The piece has contributions from several of the Journal's writers and focuses on particularly troublesome issues related to the recession.

The career-related hints, however, seem to apply to any economic conditions. If your job hunt has hit a dead-end, Sarah Needleman recommends investing time in networking, attending business meetings and events, and fixing your Facebook or MySpace profile so it does not display inappropriate content. She also suggests creating profiles on more business-oriented networks (e.g. LinkedIn) and hiring a career coach to critique your resume and improve your interviewing skills.

(On the last point, we think you could save a little money and read Science Careers to get much of the same information. Admittedly, we're a little biased.)

Elsewhere in the article, Joseph De Avila tells how to get your name off embarrassing photos that others might post on Facebook and MySpace, and how to avoid it in the future.

Sarah Needleman returns later to advise readers how to update the resume they haven't touched for 5 years.  Start with an objective that summarizes the kind of job you are seeking, says Needleman. Then outline your work history, describing your contributions to each employer. Then have someone review and proofread the text. If you want to use an outside resume service, Needleman tells how to go about choosing one.

Other timeless advice in the column includes how to keep your produce from rotting too quickly (store fruits and vegetables separately) and what to do about those four-inch stiletto heels that are killing your feet.
With all of the bad news about employment, it is nice to see that some sectors of the economy are still hiring, particularly those that hire scientists and engineers. Last week, Jack Chang of McClatchy Newspapers highlighted three sectors that have added jobs in the past few months, while others have been cutting: education, health care, and information technology (I.T.).

Chang notes that from July to November 2008, while the entire non-farm workforce lost 1.4 million jobs, health care and education organizations added 140,000. Not all of these jobs, are high-paying professional scientific and engineering positions--very likely, only a small minority are good technical jobs--but it's good to know there are sectors of the economy that are still hiring people with technical training.

Chang talked to Gary Burtless, a labor economist at the Brooking Institution, who says that governments at every level consider the  education and health care sectors--vital services supported largely by public funds--worth saving. Educational institutions also absorb many laid-off workers who use the opportunity to retrain for other kinds of work--creating jobs, if only in the short term, for people capable of teaching those skills.

In the I.T. sector, Chang relies on more anecdotal evidence and less on statistics. He talked to Trevor Loy, a venture capitalist in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who says many of the technology companies he finances are hiring. Loy gives as examples companies that develop advanced water purification systems and a new generation of survey cameras used in construction. Loy says these companies plan to continue hiring through 2009.

Barry Lawrence, a spokesperson for the employment search site Jobfox, tells Chang that I.T. plays such a fundamental role in businesses that employers want to avoid losing their I.T. staff. Jobfox, Lawrence says, sampled 4,000 of its job listings from 2,000 employers over a 4-month period ending on 28 October. Software designers and developers were fifth on the list of workers most in demand. University faculty ranked 22; sales representatives ranked  no. 1.

Lawrence believes Barack Obama's much-discussed economic stimulus package will spur many more technical employment opportunities. If the package gets enacted, Jobfox anticipates more staffing needs in civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, as well as in construction management.

Emily Mendell, vice president of strategic affairs for the National Venture Capital Association, tells Chang that alternative energy is another field that should benefit from the Obama presidency, and thus should serve as a source of new jobs. Financier Loy adds that developers of innovations that can save energy for businesses are doing well right now, including one firm in his financial portfolio that makes illuminated display signs requiring much less energy and maintenance than current illuminated displays.

December 24, 2008

A Really Good Personal Blog

I really like good science-related personal blogs, especially when the writing is vigorous, quirky, and--especially--unpretentious. Reclaiming Miss Havisham qualifies. The blog is written by a young woman named Leslie who describes herself as "a medical research scientist and bio-ethicist by trade" who "approach[es] frivolous topics with inappropriate belligerence." She currently works (if I'm reading it right) as a compliance officer overseeing animal care, though she has announced her resignation due to ethical conflicts with her supervisors and applied to veterinary school. She intends to stay on in her current position until her replacement is hired and trained.

In case you haven't read Dickens, the "Miss Havisham" reference is to the eccentric, rich widow in Great Expectations who (if I remember right) has kept the same feast rotting on her dining room table for decades. I'm not sure what's implied by the reference; presumably Leslie feels a personal connection to Miss Haversham.

Reclaiming Miss Havisham is witty, funny, and poignant. This is NOT a science blog--though it sometimes touches on animal care--but an often profane, deeply personal account of a life lived on the edge of the scientific world, written by an idiosyncratic, compassionate, deeply human soul.
The New York Times on Saturday described the U.S. State Department's accelerated efforts to recruit more foreign service officers (FSOs), the people who staff American embassies and consulates overseas. While FSOs come from a wide range of disciplines, some scientists find these jobs rewarding, particularly when they can apply their earlier training. For example, a few years ago Joan Woods described for Science Careers her transition from biology studies to public health work in Malawi for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the agencies mentioned in the Times article.

FSOs represent the United States in political, economic, consular (passports and visas), press, cultural, and administrative positions overseas. In addition to salary and the usual benefits, FSOs often receive housing (either directly or through reimbursements) for themselves and their families and bonuses for agreeing to serve in hardship posts. But FSOs must agree to serve anywhere in the world, including dangerous and difficult places where they may face long separations from their families. Many months can be spent in full-time language training to prepare for these assignments.

Even with these caveats, the competition for FSO spots is intense. The Times article says that 12,000 to 15,000 applicants compete for an average of about 450 new positions each year. Applicants must pass a written exam, an interview, and a full security background investigation. Those with foreign-language skills, particularly in Middle Eastern and Asian languages, receive preference.

For those with science or engineering backgrounds, the State Department hires FSOs for specialist positions in information technology and security work. USAID also seeks experts in public health and agriculture, as well as social scientists. Some officers who enter as specialists become generalists, learning the political and economic policy issues needed to advance to management positions in embassies and in Washington.

Full disclosure: the author is a former foreign service reserve officer and current board member of the Public Diplomacy Alumni Association.

In the new (19 December) issue of Science Careers, Brian Vastag describes a number of training programs to produce translation scientists, who conduct biomedical research with a direct connection to clinical practice. Among the most prominent of such initiatives is the Med Into Grad program, created by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).  Yesterday, HHMI announced an expansion of this program that will increase the number of training centers from 13 to 38.

According to a news release, HHMI is adding $25 million to its spending for Med Into Grad, which it hopes to distribute to another 25 institutions. HHMI sets general objectives for the institutions, but, as noted in Vastag's article, universities have considerable leeway in configuring the education they deliver to participating students.

HHMI asks for institutions to register their intent to compete for the grants by 6 January 2009. Full proposals are due on 27April 2009.

The arrest of financier Bernard Madoff on 11 December on investment fraud charges has sent waves crashing into scientific institutions and philanthropies that invested in Madoff-backed schemes. Madoff contributed widely to and served on boards of various Jewish and Israeli charities and institutions, many of which invested in his hedge fund. Prosecutors say Madoff's fund was a $50 billion scam.

Yeshiva University in New York, home to the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, has apparently taken a significant hit. The Albert Einstein school is a major research facility, as well as a medical training institution. Sources at Yeshiva told the JTA news service that the school has lost at least $100 million from its endowment because of Madoff investments. Madoff served as treasurer of Yeshiva's board of trustees.

Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, Israel, invested in Madoff's securities, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, which estimates its losses at about NIS 25 million ($6.5 million).

Victims of Madoff's apparent fraud include foundations headed by household names such as Nobel laureate Elie Weisel, Senator Frank Lautenberg, and film director Steven Spielberg, as well as many smaller family foundations and institutions that serve Jewish communities in North America, Europe, and Israel. Madoff managed most of the investment income of Spielberg's Wunderkinder Foundation, which donated some $3.3 million for medical research to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Charities with larger exposure to Madoff's schemes were less fortunate. The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation of Salem, Mass., which supports exchanges of teachers and students between Israel and the United States, invested all of its $8 million in Madoff's fund and has shut down.

The Madoff scandal has further shaken an already nervous environment for philanthropies. John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York told JTA, "Already in the context of a very challenging economic environment this will present another significant difficulty. We don’t know yet the extent of the wreckage."

When you interview with an employer, it's not unusual to get introduced to staff members other than the interviewer during your visit. Dave Jensen's new Tooling Up article on interviewing includes this advice (number 18, under During the Interview) for that very situation:

  • Assume that everyone you talk with on interview day will be involved in the decision to hire, no matter how they are introduced. Answers to the "candid" questions you're asked by prospective peers often make it back to the hiring manager. You are interviewing no matter where these conversations take place--in the hallway, the lunchroom, or while walking through the plant.

Last week, a posting in the Careers blog at U.S. News and World Report directly supports this piece of advice. Business owner G.L. Hill, one of the bloggers at U.S. News, says his company uses these meet-and-greet encounters as a way of finding out how an employee prospect interacts with coworkers. Hill says mastering these brief meetings is crucial to the candidate. Yet, says Hill, "Most fail due to lack of planning. Or they believe the job interview is over-and are trying their best to get out the door and have no time to be nice to some random person they just met."

Hill adds, "Realize that the interview is not over until you are out of sight. This does not mean you have to develop an oversize personality overnight and become Mr. or Ms. Extrovert, but know that how you interact with others has become more important than ever."

Hill suggests practicing for these seemingly impromptu encounters, because in Hill's company--and probably many others--there's nothing impromptu about them.

The U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) has signed on to help the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) implement the 21st Century G.I. Bill, VA's third implementation strategy in as many months. This new plan, outlined by Keith Wilson, the VA's director of education services, was the focus of testimony on 18 November before the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Veterans and university administrators must be wondering if VA can implement the bill in time for its August 2009 mandated launch, given the department's abrupt shifts in strategy. In early September, the department first announced plans to have a contractor computerize the new bill's entire claims process. A month later, after veterans' groups and members of Congress complained about that plan, VA reversed course and announced it would use its own resources to implement the bill. Now, a third approach has emerged: use the resources of another federal agency.

Wilson, who talked to Science Careers about VA's implementation plans in September, told the House committee that SPAWAR will provide program management and information technology support that will help meet the August deadline. For the August launch, the VA and SPAWAR will develop a system based on the VA's current benefits-delivery system with extensions to meet the specific needs of the new G.I. Bill.

Wilson says the VA will add some 400 claims specialists to its regional offices to determine eligibility and benefits. They will work with the new computer system to generate the payment authorizations for the Treasury Department (where the money for tuition and other benefits comes from), track benefit usage, and store the beneficiary's claims history.

While this is a short-term solution to meet the initial deadline, VA also envisions a long-term solution with much more automation and fewer people. The long-term strategy, says Wilson, is for "an end-to-end solution that utilizes rules-based, industry-standard technologies for the delivery of education benefits." VA will partner with SPAWAR  on this longer-term solution as well.

The new G.I. Bill, for returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, provides funds to cover tuition at any public university in the veterans' home states. The previous bill offered fixed payments, which, as tuition increased over the years, covered less and less of veterans' costs. The new bill also provides more generous housing, books, and fees allowances. Science Careers has followed the bill since it passed Congress in June, because of the bill's potential to rapidly diversify the American science and technology workforce.

On MSNBC today, contributor Eve Tahmincioglu talks about the pros and cons of non-compete agreements--mainly the cons. A non-compete agreement is a pact between you and your employer in which you agree that, if you leave the company, you won't go to work for a company in the same line of business for a specified period of time. It is often one of the forms you are asked to sign when you start work with a new company.

Companies in competitive scientific and technology industries often ask new hires to sign non-compete agreements. An employer may consider the knowledge behind its marketable goods or services its competitive edge; the non-compete agreement prevents another company from hiring away a staff member--and their knowledge.

Tahmincioglu recommends that new hires resist signing non-compete agreements because, she says, they make it difficult to change jobs within the industry or to start a new business in the same field. Worse, some non-compete agreements are written so that you are bound by the agreement even if the company lays you off.

In a tough job market--like the one we're in now--new hires will be tempted to sign these agreements even if they hurt their long-term interests. Tahmincioglu offers a few ideas that may give new hires a little more flexibility.

First, know what you're getting into. Check with your state's labor department or an attorney on the legality and scope of non-compete agreements. According to attorneys quoted in the article, courts in different states interpret non-compete clauses differently. Florida courts, for example tend to side with employers, while California is friendlier to employees.

Second, don't be afraid to suggest alternative language. The article suggests narrowing the scope, for example, so you might have a chance at landing a job at a company in a related but not competitive industry.  Tahmincioglu says the employer may say "take it or leave it," but who knows? You won't know if you don't try (tactfully, of course ... it is your first day on the job after all).

Third, if you are laid off by the company and stuck with its non-compete agreement, try and negotiate lifting the agreement as part of your severance package. Here again, check what the law allows in your state or city; a layoff may negate being held to a non-compete agreement. You may have more success escaping the non-compete agreement when leaving a company than when entering it.

If you think the academic world might escape today's tough economy, think again. Saturday's New York Times reports on many institutions, private and public alike, cutting faculty jobs, freezing new hires, reducing financial aid, and in some cases raising tuition.

The economic downturn--what former Labor Secretary Robert Reich now calls a "mini-depression"-- has reduced the returns from many university endowments, which depend largely on investment income to fund a part of their operating expenses and student financial aid. Vassar College in Poughkeepsie , N.Y., for example, saw the value of its endowment drop almost 10 percent since June. And Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. saw its endowment drop 20 percent since that time.

The bad economic prospects are forcing students to consider public colleges over private institutions, but states are also facing tough times as sales, income, and property taxes go down. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed another $65.5 million cut for the state's university system, on top a $48 million cut already announced for this year. In New York , some state schools have already announced tuition increases to cover budget shortfalls.

Faculty at public and private institutions face job cuts and hiring freezes. University of Florida has cut 430 faculty and staff positions, and is expecting another 10 percent cut in state funding next year. Arizona State University has ended contracts with 200 adjunct faculty. Boston University, Brown, and Cornell have announced hiring freezes.

Some campuses, particularly private institutions, that had previously announced more generous financial aid for students, are finding it harder to stick to those plans. Tufts University in Medford, Mass., has had a "need-blind" policy for two years, where the university would admit the best qualified candidates regardless of financial needs. Tufts has suspended its capital projects to make more funding available for student financial aid, but that may not be enough.

Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts, told the Times, "The target of being need-blind is our highest priority. But with what's happening in the larger economy, we expect that the incoming class is going to be needier. That’s the real uncertainty."

The Associated Press yesterday identified the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an agency likely to benefit in the upcoming Obama administration, with employment implications for scientists. During most of President Bush's time in office, the FDA has languished in terms of both funding and a diminished mission, though this blog pointed out in May, that in the last year of the administration the FDA had begun recruiting more scientists at attractive salaries.

The AP story said that food safety and control of tobacco will be high priorities in the next administration. Senior campaign adviser Neera Tanden told AP that the president-elect thinks that it "is a fundamental role of government to ensure that people's food is safe" and that Obama "has been concerned that we are not in a position to ensure that." Democrats in Congress have also written legislation to increase inspections of food and drug imports, key FDA missions, prompted by tainted products in China and elsewhere.

Control of tobacco is another area likely to benefit from increased funding and attention. In this case, the president-elect's interests are personal; the AP story notes Barack Obama is a reformed smoker concerned about a potential relapse. As a senator, Obama co-sponsored legislation with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to give FDA more control over tobacco products. The Bush administration had opposed the legislation.

If the AP story is accurate, FDA should continue to be a fruitful and expanding source of scientific employment in the next few years.

The New York Times today (1 November) offers a feature, "Combat to College", on the 21st Century G.I. Bill described in a June 2008 feature in Science Careers on veterans returning to school to study science and engineering. The Times feature today includes a video of Ismael Valenzuela, a former U.S. Marine making the transition to studies at a New York City community college after two tours in Iraq. 

In the video Valenzuela describes many of the same experiences discussed by veterans in the Science Careers feature: his reasons for taking advantage of educational benefits, the battle with memory loss from post-traumatic stress disorder, and  the value of veterans' support groups on his campus. The clip also shows how an admissions officer at the school helped Valenzuela with the enrollment process; the admissions officer describes the importance of college administrators being sensitive to the needs of returning veterans.

Until the new G.I. Bill goes into effect in August 2009, community colleges, because of their lower tuition costs, will likely absorb many more of the returning veterans such as Valenzuela. Our feature in June told about eight veterans who returned from service in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea to undergraduate and graduate studies at universities. The veterans told Science Careers how the current (Montgomery) G.I. Bill defrayed some of their college costs, but most of the veterans interviewed had to supplement the G.I. Bill with other means, such as state or institutional financial aid.

The Times feature also has a primer on the new bill's benefits and a page with additional resources for veterans.

In early December, three German research organizations are offering information sessions in Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles about research and research training in Germany. The sessions, called "Research Careers Made in Germany: Explore Opportunities in German Academia," will include representatives of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG), the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH).

The meetings are aimed at current and prospective Ph.D. students, postdocs, and faculty. The presenters will discuss Germany's Excellence Initiative to promote university research and support young scientists. The meetings will also cover the academic job market in Germany and opportunities for international collaboration.

Here's the schedule for the sessions ...

Washington DC:
  Monday, 1 December 2008
6:30 PM to 8:30 PM
  German Historical Institute
  1607 New Hampshire Avenue NW
  Washington, DC 20009

San Francisco:
    Tuesday, 2 December 2008
6:30 PM to 8:30 PM
    530 Bush Street
    San Francisco, CA 94108

Los Angeles:
    Thursday, 4 December 2008
6:30 PM to 8:30 PM
    5750 Wilshire Boulevard
    Los Angeles, CA 90036

To enroll in one of the meetings, send an e-mail to by Monday, 24 November 2008. DAAD asks enrollees to put "Info Session SF," "Info Session LA," or "Info Session DC" in the subject line. More details are available on the DAAD-New York Web site.

In an abrupt reversal, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced late Friday it will rely on its own information technology staff to implement the 21st century G.I. Bill rather than contracting out the work. As recently as 3 weeks ago, VA officials told Congress that they needed outside help to meet the tight deadlines in the bill.

VA's press release said the department did not receive enough proposals from
qualified private companies to do the work. VA Secretary Dr. James B. Peake cited "external misconceptions" over the scope of the work that made vendors reluctant to bid. Peake added, however, that "VA can and will deliver the benefits program on time."

The new G.I. Bill, which Science Careers has followed since it was passed in June, makes a university education much more affordable for returning service members and has the potential at least of expanding the size and diversity of American science and engineering talent. VA originally planned to computerize many operational aspects of the bill's implementation and outsource the development of those systems, largely because of the mandated 1 August 2009 start date.

On 23 September,
VA Assistant Deputy Under Secretary Keith Pedigo told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that "VA is seeking contractor support to implement the Post-9/11 GI Bill because we do not believe that we could deliver the systems necessary to administer the program within the time required utilizing our existing information technology (IT) resources." Friday's announcement indicates VA has the in-house staff needed to deliver the systems.

ScienceOnline09 holds its third annual blogging conference on Saturday and Sunday, 17-18 January 2009, in Research Triangle Park, NC. The event covers blogging in science--a subject obviously near and dear--but it also branches into issues that can help researchers communicate with colleagues and the general public.

For bloggers, the conference covers practical topics such as working with multi-media formats and intellectual property issues, as well as the prospects of actually getting paid for your blogging. The event has sessions on more general issues of science communication: the Semantic Web, putting one's lab notebook online, differences between print and online rhetoric, and the role of art and illustration in scientific media. Plus there are panels on race and gender issues in science, the open access movement, and social networking, among others. If you think a critical issue is not being covered, the conference organizers say they are still open to suggestions for other topics.

The event has lab and museum tours on the preceding Friday 16 January, along with networking opportunities throughout the weekend.

Hat tip: Danielle Lee , who is leading one of the conference sessions.

We've learned plenty in the past few weeks about economic conditions, government policies, and bank mergers, but we don't often hear how ordinary people working in the sciences are coping with hard financial times. You can find one of those stories at "I’ve Paid For This Twice Already ..." , a blog by a Ph.D. geneticist working part-time to support her family of four.

The blogger, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells how her family learned to live frugally and pay down their combined student loans and credit card debt. When her husband lost his job, she became the family's sole source of income. She and her husband were forced to make drastic changes in lifestyle, but their key decision was to abandon credit cards. They had relied before on credit cards to bail them out each month, which added to a crushing debt burden. Even after he found new employment about 6 months later, they decided to keep to their strict financial regimen.

In June 2007 she started the blog, which includes a summary of their current finances and progress in paying down their debt. At that time, she and her husband had nearly $36,500 in debt;  as of 23 September they had cut to about $15,000. The blog tells about their methods of getting control of their finances: making a complete inventory of assets and liabilities, living within a budget, and paying down the principal on loans any time they could. The blog gives tips on living frugally, which at this point in our history is not a bad idea for anyone.

The title of the blog, by the way, comes from her estimation that using credit cards for purchases increases costs to such an extent that you end up paying twice the amount on the price tag.

Hat tip: Laura Rowley Money & Happiness

October 3, 2008

Be True to Your School

Summer offers students a chance to make a little money, have fun, goof off, or--as in the case of 10 recent alumni of Eleanor Roosevelt High School (ERHS) in Greenbelt, Maryland--redesign the school's engineering curriculum.

One of the elite institutions in Prince George's County, Maryland, with rigorous enrollment requirements and often a waiting list, ERHS asked a group of its recent graduates to spend 6 weeks this past summer bringing its engineering curriculum up to date.

About one-third of ERHS's 2700 students take part in the school's science and technology magnet program. The program requires all freshman to take two introductory engineering classes, but those classes had changed little since they started in 1976. Located north and east of Washington, DC, Prince George's County is 63% African-American, making the program a key source of minority talent in science and technology for universities.

Jane Hemelt, coordinator of the science and technology program, recognized the need for a new curriculum, but like many public schools, needed help finding the resources--skilled staff and money--to make it happen. For the skilled staff, Hemelt called on Rocco Mennella, a mathematics faculty member at ERHS who also teaches at nearby Catholic University and Prince George's Community College. Mennella had already recruited a group of recent ERHS graduates to tutor university pre-calculus students over the summer. Hemelt convinced Mennella and his tutors to help with the curriculum upgrade as well. Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) provided a grant.

Those former ERHS students returned from some of the country's leading institutions: Caltech, MIT, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Georgia Tech, and University of Maryland. As the project got underway and the students and faculty adviser began exchanging ideas, Mennella decided to step out of the picture let the students run the show. The students got input from some 50 engineering professors and fashioned a program with academic rigor, combining physics, math, and computer science. The classes expose students to civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering, adding practical hands-on exercises (e.g., designing the Taj Mahal, building an SUV) to provide a dose of reality as well as some fun.

HHMI's Web site tells more about this program. There's no indication if the ERHS grads were also able to sneak in a sun tan.

The financial crisis in the United States has started to affect operations of smaller colleges and universities. The New York Times reported yesterday that Wachovia Bank has limited access to a fund used by many smaller institutions for short-term financing of their day-to-day operations. This move has forced some institutions to scramble to find the money for payroll and other immediate obligations.

Until Monday, Wachovia Bank served as the trustee for the Commonfund, where some 1,000 institutions in the U.S. deposited their cash receipts, then drew out funds using lines of credit to pay staff, purchase supplies, and conduct other day-to-day transactions. On Monday, according to the Times, Wachovia resigned from its trustee role with Commonfund. The bank also limited access by institutions to the estimated $9.3 billion in the Commonfund to 10 percent of their accounts' value. On Tuesday, Commonfund was able to sell some of its government-backed securities to increase its liquidity.

For institutions depending on Commonfund, Monday's announcement hit hard. The University of Vermont says that half of its liquid assets--some $79 million--are in Commonfund. The University of Akron had $800,000 in Commonfund, but could withdraw only $80,000 when it heard the fund was in trouble. Many institutions have been forced to negotiate separate lines of credit with other institutions at a time when credit is tightening.

Wachovia was one of the banks hit particularly hard  by the financial crisis. Citigroup announced this week the purchase of Wachovia's banking operations. Commonfund had invested its funds in high-rated government and corporate bonds, avoiding the the mortgage-backed securities considered among the root causes of the financial crisis. But the central role of Wachovia with Commonfund appears to have crippled the fund's work.

The Times also reports that Boston University, while not a Commonfund participant, announced a freeze on hiring and new capital projects as a precaution, given the uncertain financial conditions.

UPDATE, 3 October 2008: Associated Press reports this morning that Wells Fargo & Co. will acquire all of Wachovia's assets, pushing aside the earlier deal with Citigroup.

September 23, 2008

Two Cheers for Tenure

Cary Nelson, president of American Association of University Professors defends the tenure system in the September-October issue of Academe, the organization's magazine. Nelson's essay describes the advantages of tenured faculty over part-time, adjunct, or contingent faculty, arguing persuasively that campuses benefit from the community, shared-governance, and academic freedom that come when faculty members have tenure.

But Nelson misses altogether another key argument that applies particularly to science departments. He makes no mention that universities are much less likely to invest in contingent faculty for laboratories, equipment, meeting attendance and other professional development, research administration, or technology transfer. Those goodies will most likely go to the "lifers".

Adjunct faculty makes a lot of sense on many campuses, particularly in cities where you have people ready, willing, and able to make contributions to the university community. Institutions are under pressure to cut costs and having adjunct faculty teach some classes can help keep staffing costs in line. And having a steady stream of new ideas or perspectives can benefit students and tenured faculty alike.

Must contingent faculty be segregated from their tenured colleagues? Nelson points out how at some campuses, adjunct faculty teach night classes--referring to them half-jokingly as "vampires"--while tenured faculty dominate the campus's daylight hours. Incorporating adjunct faculty into the university community is a challenge each department head and university administrator needs to address. But this is no different a challenge than many executives in other businesses or organizations face, and many do it well.

Building a campus's intellectual portfolio doesn't come cheap, either in money or management skill. Adjunct faculty may teach classes, but if that's all you expect than that's all you will get.

Hat tip: Ric Weibl, AAAS

Today's front page of the Washington Post (free registration required) notes the increasing popularity of public health courses, all involving science in one way or another, among undergraduates. The story cites a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities that showed that 16 percent of the group's 837 member institutions now offer majors or minors in public health. And among those schools, two-thirds of their programs require fieldwork or research.

For example, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, which has an entire School of Public Health, has 311 undergrad majors compared to 159 studying the field in 1976. The College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, offers a freshman seminar in emerging diseases.  The instructor says the two sections of the course fill up instantly.

Undergrad programs often include courses in epidemiology, immunology, and statistics. Thomas Coates, head of the global health program  at the University of California at Los Angeles, attributes the recent popularity of the courses to the high profile of global diseases like AIDS and SARS. The story cites other unnamed faculty who say that the ability of the Internet to connect American students to people in other cultures, and the desire by many students to work or study abroad have also fueled the trend.

Science Careers covered opportunities for scientists  in public health in March 2008 and earlier in 2004.

In an interview with Science Careers and in testimony to Congress yesterday, Veterans Affairs (VA) officials laid out more of the department’s plans to outsource its G.I. Bill operations.  VA plans to build a computer system to determine G.I. Bill eligibility and benefits for veterans based on a series of rules spelled out in the legislation.

 Science Careers has followed the new G.I. Bill since its debate in Congress this spring and reported on its potential impact on the scientific workforce. And as reported in earlier blog posts, veterans organizations and members of Congress had expressed skepticism over VA’s outsourcing plans

Keith Wilson, Director of Education Service in VA’s Veterans Benefit Administration told Science Careers that the motivations behind the new system are the rapid schedule for implementation and the department’s overall strategy to automate as much of its operations as possible. Wilson said that when the G.I. bill was signed on 30 June 2008, it set the enactment date as 1 August 2009, “just over a year” as he explained.

Wilson added that VA’s “current eligibility and mechanism cannot account for variables in the new program” and they could not modify the current system to meet the new requirements. Also, Wilson said, the department had already signaled its intention to automate these processes in its 2008 and 2009 budget submissions to Congress.

Keith Pedigo, Associate Deputy Under Secretary in VA’s Office of Policy and Program Management, told the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee yesterday that the contracting would be limited to the computer system and not the overall operations themselves. Pedigo told the committee …

It is important to understand that the contractor will not have full responsibility over the administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Instead, the contractor will be responsible for development of the information technology (IT) solution, and general administrative or data entry functions. Claims that are rejected by the automated process and require a manual eligibility determination will remain the responsibility of trained VA personnel.

Wilson noted that the proposed system would be based on “accepted industry standards and best practices,” a point also made by Pedigo in his statement to the Committee. When asked if there was a current system in operation by a company or organization the department planned to use as a model, Wilson said there was no such system yet developed. He said that department intended to spell out the variables for bidders to consider, and let the companies come back with their best solutions.

Wilson referred questions about any cost-benefit analyses of the proposed system and whether the department would issue an open request for proposals to the department’s general counsel.

Derek Blumke, president of Student Veterans of America, provided more details about plans by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to outsource its implementation of the 21st Century G.I. Bill. Science Careers has followed the new G.I. Bill since its debate in Congress this spring and reported on its potential impact on the scientific workforce.

Blumke told Science Careers today that Keith Pedigo, VA's Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Policy and Program Management, discussed these plans at a meeting of the American Legion's economic commission during the Legion's annual convention last week.

According to Blumke, Pedigo said the bill's many new provisions and quick timetable -- it goes into effect on 1 August 2009 -- required VA to get additional help. However, Pedigo also said VA planned to use outside organizations to run its day-to-day G.I. Bill operations, and that idea generated the negative reactions by Blumke, the American Legion, and Rep. Harry Mitchell, the bill's House sponsor.

Blumke said his reaction to the idea is based on hard experience. In an e-mail, he explained his first-hand experiences with VA's contractors ...

I feel we should have learned our lesson from the private contracting of the educational benefits call center two years ago. This being the same call center that I and veterans across the country would call and either be placed on hold, at times exceeding an hour, or would simply be hung up on with an automated message of: “we are experiencing too high of a call volume. Thank you.”

Science Careers has asked VA to tell us more about its outsourcing plans. Stay tuned.

At the 2008 American Legion convention in Phoenix, Arizona, last week, representatives of the Department of Veterans Affairs took part in a round-table session on the new G.I. Bill, where they discussed plans to outsource the bill's implementation. According to participants at the roundtable, the department's plans received a frosty reception from veterans organizations and members of Congress in attendance.
Derek Blumke, president of Student Veterans of America and one of the roundtable participants, said in a Facebook message that the department plans to outsource not just the start-up of the new G.I. bill--which will deliver education benefits for veterans on par with those enjoyed by WW-II-era veterans--but the long-term operations as well. His message said "The feedback around the table was unanimous. No one wants this to happen!!!"
Blumke cited the likely problems in holding the department accountable for its performance when contractors are involved, and recent experiences in outsourced telephone help lines, which reportedly had long waits on hold and automated systems that hung up on callers.

The American Legion passed a resolution at the convention urging the department to hire regular staff instead of outsourcing. In a related statement, Marty Conatser, the national commander of the American Legion, said, "Our newest generation of veterans deserve the benefits administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, not outside contractors."

According to the statement, Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., the House sponsor of the new G.I. Bill, told Legionnaires he was disappointed as well. "I just cannot believe that we'd ever allow this to happen," Mitchell said. "The level of service won't be the same."

The Boston Globe reports today that 11 unions representing faculty and staff at state colleges and universities in Massachusetts filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the state's board of higher education and the University of Massachusetts (UMass) board of trustees. The complaint accuses the boards of bargaining in bad faith by not submitting any new salary proposals after months of negotiations.

The unions represent some 10,000 faculty and staff at the three UMass campuses and nine state colleges. The Globe says negotiations began in January 2008 and most contracts expired in June. The unions are seeking a 4% salary increase. Governor Deval Patrick has offered 3.5%, but the unions say that amount will not cover the full rate of inflation.

The last time Massachusetts university unions filed an unfair practices complaint was in 1997.  According to the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission, each complaint triggers an investigation, and if supported by the evidence, can lead to further hearings and even litigation.

In statements responding to the complaint, officials of the board of higher education, UMass, and the state's administrative and finance office promised to continue negotiations to find an equitable solution.

Hat tip:

A report from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) confirms what most of us have suspected: That federal support for research and development is declining. According to NSF, real support for research and development fell 1.6% after inflation between 2006 and 2007. This decline is much larger than the 0.2% decline between 2005 and 2006, the report says.

Here's the report, and here's a press release.

Do you have buzzing around in your head the Next Big Thing in biomedical research, some revolutionary and innovative breakthrough?  If so, NIH wants to hear it, by 28 October.
NIH announced last Friday this year's competition for Exceptional Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration (EUREKA) awards. With EUREKA, NIH seeks "unusually bold and potentially transformative research ... that, if successful, will have an unusually high impact on the areas of science that are germane to the mission of one or more of the participating NIH Institutes." To underscore NIH's seriousness about breaking the mold, it has set up new proposal requirements and reviewing procedures.
EUREKA is a joint undertaking of National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), the National institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and the National Library of Medicine (NLM). For proposals to even get in the door, they need to address the goals of these participating institutes. The announcement recommends including cover letters to one or more institutes spelling out the relevance of the proposals to the institutes' work.
Proposal requirements for EUREKA funding generally follow the basic R01 procedures, but have a few novel wrinkles all their own. Research plans are limited to eight pages and must be self-contained. No appendices are allowed, but a one-page 'Literature Cited' section may be added. Biosketches of each research team member cannot exceed four pages, with no more than 10 publications cited. The announcement suggests that those citations include the most risky and innovative projects undertaken (and brought to fruition) by the investigators. And you better get your proposal right the first time; no updates are accepted.
NIH will convene special interdisciplinary study sections to review EUREKA proposals. While the reviewers will consider a series of factors in making their recommendations, significance and innovation are the important variables ...
- NIH explains 'significance' with questions, such as: "Does this study address an important problem? If the aims of the application are achieved, how will scientific knowledge or clinical practice be advanced? What will be the effect of these studies on the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field?"
- For EUREKA reviewers, 'innovation' covers the degree to which the research ideas challenge existing paradigms or methods.
Another difference from the usual R01 proposal: There's only one proposal due date, 28 October 2008, not the usual three dates per year. Letters of intent are due on 29 September; while not required, they are highly recommended.
GrantsNet has an overview of this year's EUREKA ann