Uprooting my Research From the Bench and Planting it in an Office

By Heather D Marshall, PhD

My mind would often wander while dissecting mice, smashing spleens, and filtering cell suspensions from one tube to another.  Occasionally, I would set the centrifuge and grab a notebook to jot down an idea.  Over the course of more than a dozen years in a lab, I had notebooks full of pages with “young parents aren’t scared of measles” and “No GMO – I don’t want DNA in my food! (haha)” scratched about them. After many long days in the lab, I would often come home and write.  I wasn’t working on a grant proposal, nor a manuscript, protocol, or presentation—though there was a never-ending supply of that to do.  Instead, I would transcribe my notes and create pitches for my as of yet nonexistent, hypothetical science blog.

I enjoy communicating science with the public and have participated in science literacy outreach in my community.  I also designed and taught a course for non-science majors at Yale, dissecting science in the media ranging from Crichton’s Jurassic Park to Soderbergh’s Contagion.  And I’ve taken workshops on science communication with notable voices including Bob Bazell and Carl Zimmer.  As I reflect, the one thing preventing me from starting my blog back then was time.  As a postdoc with these various extra-curricular activities, I had very little of the so-called “free” kind.  Although I tried my hardest to find the holy grail of work-life balance, it was impossible for me to stop thinking about research—a paper that almost scooped my project, a fellowship needing revision, the next experiment to set up, data to analyze, or how my work fit into the grand scheme of life.  I quite literally didn’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with much else.  So time and again I would scribble notes about interesting story ideas that went seemingly nowhere.

After a number of years as a postdoc at Yale, I started applying for faculty positions.  It was the career I had always envisioned for myself, leading a lab of young scientists to investigate how immune cells respond to viral infections and immunizations.  I submitted what seemed like an endless number of applications, and although I had a couple interviews, no offers came in.  I had many friends and colleagues doing the same and getting similarly disappointing results.  At one point, I was shocked to discover that I personally knew every single applicant interviewing for one of those faculty positions (a friend nabbed that one—nice work B!).  Over the course of about a year, I was tired and stressed.  I needed a change.  I needed to do something that I enjoyed.  I needed to start my blog.  So I did.

That was the pivotal moment that changed the entire trajectory of my career.  It was evident from the start that I loved writing about science, and I wanted, nay—needed, to foster that professionally.  I stopped applying for faculty positions and started applying for science writing and editing jobs.  To get one wasn’t any easier.  I didn’t have a lot of experience as a writer and apparently failed grant proposals didn’t count.  I finally landed a medical writer position at DynaMed, a part of EBSCO Health at EBSCO Information Services.

DynaMed is a point-of-care medical reference for clinicians.  At DynaMed, we create a living database that is continuously being updated and adjusted to reflect the most current, useful, and rigorous evidence in medical research.  Like myself, the majority of medical writers at DynaMed have life science PhDs and backgrounds in research, which is excellent training for the objective appraisal and reporting of evidence in the medical literature.  My immunology expertise allowed me to immediately contribute to the infectious disease publishing group. In this role, I research pathogenic microbes, evaluate study design and rigor, and write about signs and symptoms, diagnostic assays, and treatment regimens for diseases caused by pathogens.  In collaboration with clinicians, we synergize my research analysis with their clinical perspective to craft this living, working database to be used by doctors in the clinic. For an inside peek at DynaMed, check out our Ebola virus disease page, which was made open-access during the 2014 outbreak.

Truly the best aspect of this career transition has been the ability to take a step back from the basic science to consider how all of research from mice to men comes together to help patients.  I recently researched a viral pathogen called BK virus.  Most of us have BK just hanging out, virtually asleep in our kidneys and bladder, not causing any problems at all.  However, if you’re unlucky enough to need a kidney transplant, you may well be wary of some tiny hitchhikers coming along with that life-saving gift.  One issue that arises is that the surgery can cause inflammation that awakens BK virus in the donor kidney.  Secondly, the very powerful drugs needed to suppress your immune system’s attack on your new kidney also make it possible for BK virus to make lots of viral babies.  Finally, all those viruses that have grown in the donor kidney may be able to hide from your immune cells, unless the donor just happened to be your identical twin.  Alas, in up to 10% of kidney transplant recipients, a perfect storm brews allowing BK virus reign over that new organ.   As I wrote about BK virus in DynaMed, it was evident that my background in immunology and virology coupled with my interests in science communication had perfectly merged to provide me the opportunity to actively contribute to the medical community as a writer at DynaMed.

As I look back on my trajectory though, I’m surprised by how close I was to becoming a PI (principal investigator) and I ponder how many others may be in a similar situation.  We’re all in the same boat when we start this journey.  We begin our research careers with lofty aspirations of curing cancer or discovering something that changes medicine.  In reality, the observations we make in the lab extend our knowledge in tiny increments and in all sorts of directions (sometimes even backwards).  But we put our heads down and continue to do it because we’re a curious bunch.  I’m still just as curious as I always was, and although my job no longer requires me to gown up to inject mice with viruses in a biosafety level 3 containment lab, it still affords me the ability to satisfy these curiosities from my cubicle.

Given the variety of nonacademic careers available to life science PhDs today, it’s bizarre to me that the training process continues to be an apprenticeship—grooming us for our own labs.  No doubt a major reason for this is that as students and postdocs, we look up to our mentors.  We want to have a similar impact on science, medicine, and life as they’ve had on us.  But the reality is that there are far too many PhDs and far too few academic jobs.  And yet, this needn’t be disheartening as there are so many ways for a scientist to contribute to society.  I challenge you all to think outside the proverbial academic box when considering your future careers in science and medicine.  As a postdoc, I was strategically aware of how my extracurricular activities in teaching and communication would contribute to aspects of being a PI.  However, it wasn’t until I started blogging that I realized that my particular combination of attributes and interests aligned more closely with a career outside of academic research.

Think about your strengths and weaknesses early and often.  Be open to new opportunities (like blogging!) that may alter your skill sets.  And don’t be afraid to trail blaze your own path by doing whatever inspires you.  For me—someone with a comprehension of the immune system, a thirst for knowledge, a motivation to communicate science, and a passion for writing—a Medical Writer position at DynaMed should have been an obvious choice much sooner.  And yet, it’s never too late to do what you love.

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Please feel free to contact me for any additional information on medical writing, DynaMed, or even my lowly Red Sox (there’s always next year!).  You can reach me at Cloudy Media Blog, hmarshall@ebsco.com or on Twitter @cloudymediablog.

Self Appreciation for Postdocs: You ARE Employable!

By Sally Burn

This week was NPAW2015 – no, not National Prosthodontics Awareness Week (which shares the same acronym), but National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2015. The organizers, the National Postdoc Association, champion our rights year round but use this week to focus wider attention on our 90,000 strong ranks and make us feel appreciated. They have their work cut out. If we take salary, job security, academic job prospects, mental health, and work/life balance (particularly for female scientists) as metrics of institutional gratitude, it rapidly becomes clear that postdocs are not poster children for appreciation.

A postdoc, according to Wikipedia, is “a person conducting research after the completion of their doctoral studies (typically a PhD) as part of a temporary appointment, usually in preparation for an academic faculty position.” The problem for modern postdocs, particularly in the life sciences, is that “temporary” is starting to last much longer and the coveted faculty position is becoming harder to attain than twenty years ago. Moving on then to “appreciation” – what does that mean? The first definition I found was “the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.” It suddenly struck me that instead of waiting for a pat on the head from our employers or the NIH, we should instead be focusing on self appreciation of the qualities that make us good postdocs… and recognizing how valuable these qualities are in the non-academic job market.

Transferable skills are something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year, as I prepare to leave the familiar yet cruel bosom of Mother Academia. When I first started thinking about what I could do next I came up with… nothing. Zilch. Nada. I know how to do embryonic dissections and make various chemical solutions. What possible good would those skills serve in the “real” world? I was, I concluded, likely unemployable as anything other than a postdoc. But I didn’t want to be a PI. And so I reached the internal conflict that so many postdocs encounter: we are single-mindedly trained for a mythical beast of a position and when we don’t attain that position, be it through choice or otherwise, we have no idea what else we can do.

Rather than fall into a pit of despair I’ve spent much of the last year educating myself about what else is out there and, more importantly, how utterly, awesomely qualified I am for it. Turns out, postdocs are super-employable. Not convinced? Here are Scizzle’s top skills that postdocs can bring to the table:

 

1) Research skills

There is a whole world of research outside of academia. And it usually pays way better. Whether your skills are clustered at the forefront of molecular biology, all in silico, or more about standing in rivers collecting insects, they will be highly prized by some employer out there. If you want to stay in research, there are many options: biotech, pharmaceutical, medical devices, government, the list goes on. You are very unlikely to be able to continue your exact current project (possibly a relief to some of us), so think laterally about how your skill set is applicable. You currently culture lung epithelium? Great, you are an expert on epithelial cell biology – cosmetic companies would love to have you in their skin lab. Your postdoc was all about the mouse immune system? Pharmaceutical companies would welcome your expertise in developing human monoclonal antibodies.

 

2) Project management

Postdocs know A LOT about project management; it’s something we do every day. We identify a question and then design a series of experiments to answer it. In planning our experiments we must take into account time, budget, and resources. As the project progresses we must react to failures or unexpected results by designing alternate strategies, again asking do these new plans answer the original question. Once we have data we analyze it and ask whether it answers the question and/or suggests new paths to follow. We often have a set deadline to achieve all this by (paper submission, lab meeting, conference). All in all, postdocs are project management bad asses. In the real world, this translates to being an attractive candidate for jobs as project managers in the pharmaceutical industry and also in many non-research environments.

 

3) Writing and communication

A common stereotype is that scientists are socially inept bad communicators. On the contrary, postdocs are communication polymaths. When you write a paper or grant you are taking your vast background knowledge and several years’ worth of data, and distilling it down into a concise summary of why the question is important, what you found, and what that means, usually for a reader outside of your niche. If you enjoy this process you may be ideal for employment at a medical communications agency. Perhaps what floats your boat is peer reviewing manuscripts, trying to decide whether a new finding adds to the field, and whether the authors really have shown what they say. If so, an editorial career could be in your future. Or maybe the biggest kick you get is presenting your work at conferences and then talking about it to anyone who’ll listen at the networking session. If you are adept at verbally communicating your science, particularly to a non-expert audience, you could thrive as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL). MSLs are experts in a field who interact with medical and academic professionals on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, conveying knowledge about a product to those involved with it.

 

4) Broad knowledge of science and the scientific process

If you are interested in science outside of your field – and are a good communicator – you may want to consider a career in science advocacy, policy, or diplomacy. Science advocacy entails relaying what scientists need, often to the government; science policy involves working on both policies that affect science and on how science shapes policies. On a more international scale, science diplomacy involves scientific collaboration between countries to solve a common problem (we’ve already discussed science diplomacy in depth – see here).

 

5) Ability to quickly assimilate new knowledge

One path taken by ex-postdocs is consultancy. A consultant may one week be asked to provide a solution to dwindling sales of a car, while the next advising a pharmaceutical company on why they should be switching gears to invest in biosimilars. Your postdoc wasn’t on cars or big pharma? Doesn’t matter. The key skill that you have is your ability to research a topic, assimilate the knowledge, critically evaluate it, and come up with new ideas relating to it. This is what consultants do. And they often get paid very handsomely for it.

 

6) Data analysis

All those hours spent processing and looking for patterns in your data have real-world value. Data scientists are in hot demand across a range of industries. And if you have coding skills to throw into the mix (particularly Python and R) then you’re even more attractive. If not, it’s never too late to learn – pick up Python online at Codecademy and R at DataCamp.

 

7) A sterling work ethic

NIH salary for a first year postdoc is $42,840, or $823.85 a week. I am not unique in having worked 12 hour days, seven days a week; a first year postdoc doing this will earn $9.81 an hour, a figure above the federal minimum wage ($7.25) but below the median wage at Costco ($13.14). While earning their $9.81 they will push themselves to get a seemingly hopeless experiment to work, all the while eschewing food, sleep, and normal human contact. Then, once the experiment finally fails they will go home to rest, perhaps cry, definitely eat some ice cream, and then come back again the next day to try something new. The capacity of the postdoc to work hard to achieve results on low pay, with little job security, and with no scope for promotion or financial reward is tremendous. Any employer would be lucky to have a postdoc join their ranks – don’t you forget it!

 

Want to know more about your next move? Do what you know best – research. Attend career panels at your institution, talk to ex-postdocs who’ve moved outside of academia, and set up job searches (for example on LinkedIn or Oystir) based on your skills – just to get an idea of what is out there. Then identify which skills need working on and gain experiences to improve these. An excellent use of your time would be to scoot over to the Independent Development Plan (IDP) website, where you can generate a list of science occupations you are most suited to, based on your answers to an extensive survey of your skills, interests, and values. Your personalized IDP then sets goals for the year, to help you on the way to your ideal career.

The Non-academic Job Hunt: Questions TO Interviewers

 

By Elizabeth Ohneck

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of your non-academic job interview! Well, except for that inevitable last question: “Do you have any questions for us?” After an intense period of answering tough questions from the interviewer, it’s your turn to drive the conversation, and for some of us, it’s the scariest part. It’s very important to ask questions, to show you are as interested in learning about the position and the company as they are in learning about you. Not asking questions cuts the conversation short and can be viewed negatively by the interviewer. But your first interview isn’t the time to ask about salary, benefits, dress code, etc. – these questions will be answered when an actual offer is discussed. Instead, you want to ask questions that continue to demonstrate your qualifications for, interest in, and commitment to the position, while providing you with crucial information about the job. So what kind of questions should you ask? Here are a few examples of general questions to get you started:

 

  • What do you enjoy most about working with this company? Initiating this conversation will connect you to the interviewer on a more personal level. The answer can also give you insight into company values, as well as an idea about how satisfied employees are with their jobs – if the interviewer struggles to come up with an answer, it could be a red flag about the working conditions.

 

  • Can you tell me about the team I will be working with? By asking this question, you are demonstrating your readiness to be a team player. The answer will tell you about the people you will work with on a daily basis and give you an idea about how individuals contribute to accomplishing team goals.

 

  • What constitutes success in this position and at this company? This question shows your desire to be successful in the job, and the answer can provide useful information about whether the position is a good fit for you, as well as how to succeed and get ahead in the company.

 

  • What skills and experiences would make an ideal candidate? The answer to this question will reveal exactly what the employer is looking for, and can give you the chance to affirm how your background meets those criteria or to discuss how you plan to gain or develop the desired skills.

 

  • What is one of the most important challenges currently facing your team, and would I be in a position to help resolve this problem? This question shows you are already thinking about how you can help the company. It also encourages the employer to envision you actually working in the position.

 

  • Do you offer continuing education or professional training? This question shows your interest in expanding your knowledge, developing skills beneficial to the job, and growing with the company. The answer may give you an idea as to how new employees are trained, and the value the company places on supporting the professional development of its employees.

 

  • What is the next step in this process? This is an essential last question. It shows you are interested in moving the process along. You may also gain insight into how many other candidates are being interviewed, and will get an idea about the timeline, giving you a chance to prepare for the next step.

 

If possible, it’s a good idea to talk to contacts that have interviewed for or currently hold similar positions to identify questions you can ask that are specific to the job for which you are interviewing. Also, be sure to thoroughly research the company, as it may stimulate relevant questions. Type out a list of your questions and have it easily accessible when the time comes. Having a physical document shows you have put thought and effort into preparing for your interview. It’s also beneficial to practice asking your questions out loud, to ensure you can readily and clearly ask them.

 

Don’t be afraid of the unavoidable last question! With a little preparation, you can confidently guide the end of the interview to provide useful information about the position, the people, and the company, while simultaneously shining a last bit of light on your stellar qualifications.

The Non-academic Job Hunt: Questions FROM Interviewers

 

By Elizabeth Ohneck

Congratulations! You’ve just been asked to interview for the non-academic job of your dreams! Now it’s time to prepare. But an interview outside of academia can be very different from graduate school, postdoc, and faculty position interviews, and after years spent at the bench, it can be difficult to think of your talents and goals outside of the academic box. For a successful interview, it is crucial to talk about your skills, experiences, qualifications, and goals as applicable to the non-academic environment in which you’ll be working. Preparation of answers to some common questions can help you proceed with confidence through the interview discussion. So what kind of questions can you expect? Here are some frequently asked interview questions, with tips for thinking about your answers:

 

  • Tell us about your scientific/research background. Be able to explain your research in a clear, concise manner at a level appropriate for the audience. Think about your “elevator speech” – if you only had one or two minutes to explain your research, what would you say? Your answer might be very different if you’re in the elevator with another research scientist versus an accountant, an English teacher, a mechanic, or your grandmother (not joking: I was asked how I would explain my postdoc research to my grandma). Someone from the Human Resources department will likely want a different answer than someone working in a position more directly related to science, so make sure you can give answers accessible to multiple audiences.

 

  • Why do you want to leave the bench/academia? For most, the answer to this question is obvious. The challenge is explaining your reasons in a diplomatic manner. “I hate bench research” or “I don’t want to be a PI” may be the simple answers, but what are the deeper reasons for wanting a different career? Perhaps you’re leaving the bench because you feel your strongest scientific talents, like writing or teaching, would be better utilized in a different environment. Maybe you don’t want to be a PI because you want a career that will allow you to spend more time at the bench than many PIs are able. Rather than focus only on what you don’t like about the bench or academia, explain how your strengths and passions are better fit for an alternative career and the position for which you are interviewing.

 

  • Why are you interested in [position]? It’s important to emphasize that you are not applying for this position simply because you can’t get a job in or are desperate to leave academia (even if that is the case). What aspects of this career do you think will be most fulfilling for you? How do your talents and background make this position a good fit for you, and vice versa?

 

  • What are your strengths/what can you bring to this company? The answer to this question may be more difficult for those applying for non-research positions. As graduate students and postdocs, we don’t often think about the skills we are developing other than the technical skills that make us successful at the bench. Reflect on the non-technical aspects of research at which you excel, and relevant experiences away from the bench. Are you a great writer or a stellar presenter? Have you mentored undergraduate and graduate students in the lab that have gone on to be successful in their own research? Did you design a new assay or come up with a novel approach to solve a difficult research question? Think of specific examples of experiences that demonstrate your expertise in qualities essential or beneficial to the position to which you are applying.

 

  • What are you weaknesses? The trick to answering this question is to be honest without being negative. A good suggestion is to frame the negative with a positive on either side. For example, perhaps you have trouble speaking up in large group meetings. You might say something like, “I’m a good listener, which allows me to synthesize the ideas and opinions put forth in a group discussion, but in taking into account everyone else’s comments attentively and in detail, I can forget to or have trouble speaking up and providing my own input. In most cases, however, I am able to find an appropriate time to provide my input to help move the project forward.” But again, be honest – we all have weaknesses, and the interviewers want to see that you can critically evaluate your own performance, so “I don’t have any weaknesses” isn’t an appropriate answer.

 

  • How do you handle multiple projects and deadlines? This question should be one of the easiest. As grad students and postdocs, we balance multiple projects all the time. As a grad student, how did you balance classes, studying, and time in the lab? How do you plan for multiple experiments in a day or week to efficiently utilize your time? How do you keep track of multiple research projects? With a bit of reflection, you should be able to come up with some specific examples that show off your time management skills.

 

  • After working as an individual/alone, how will you adapt to working on a team? Many people outside of research have the misconception that scientists work alone, isolated from others at the bench, mired in their own projects. It’s important to (kindly) dissolve this stereotype. Scientists collaborate within their labs, their departments, their institutions, and with outside institutions. We participate in lab meetings, seminars, and conferences to get feedback on our research and provide insight and ideas to others. Discuss with the interviewers your experiences working with other scientists and how these experiences have prepared you for working in a team-oriented environment.

 

  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years/what are your long-term career goals? Your answer to this question should show your enthusiasm for the position and suggest your commitment to growing and developing your career with the company. Why is this position a good next step for you? What skills are you hoping to develop and what experiences are you hoping to gain? You might express interest in taking on management responsibilities or getting involved in certain areas or projects. Show motivation and realistic ambition in this career path.

 

It’s beneficial to talk to other people who have recently applied or currently work in jobs similar to the position you are applying for to get an idea of potential questions specific to the position. Take some time to really reflect on your answers to come up with specific, concise, and sincere answers. Most importantly, practice answering these questions out loud, perhaps with people from a variety of backgrounds – a coworker, a scientist from a different field, someone who works in the career you are pursuing, your grandmother – to ensure you can quickly and efficiently verbalize your thoughts. With preparation and practice, you can ace your non-academic interview and get the job to put you on your way to a fulfilling career.

21st Century Science: an Academic Pyramid Scheme?

 

By John McLaughlin

Academic science is traditionally built on an apprenticeship model, in which a student works under the mentorship of a principal investigator, learning the skills of the trade and preparing to be an independent researcher. After a few years of training as a post-doctoral fellow, a scientist would likely obtain a tenure-track position at a university (if choosing the academic route) and mentor the next generation of scientists, continuing the academic circle of life. In the past few decades, this situation has drastically changed.

 

As most graduate students and post-docs have probably noticed, there has been an enormous amount of discussion on the difficulties of landing a good academic job following the PhD. In searching for the causes of this phenomenon, commentators have described several factors, two of the most salient being the recent stagnation in NIH funding (adjusted for inflation), and a dramatic increase in the number of PhDs awarded in the natural sciences. To provide context for the situation in the U.S., in the past three decades about 800,000 PhDs were awarded in science and engineering fields, compared to ~100,000 tenure-track positions created in the same time frame. These forces have changed the structure of the scientific academy, the result being a new arena in which many PhDs are competing for a smaller number of academic jobs, and with those who land one often shuttling between low-paying adjunct positions with meager benefits and no possibility of tenure.

Economists studying the U.S. scientific academy, particularly the post-doctoral fellow system, have gone so far as to describe it as a “pyramid scheme.” This type of financial scheme operates by luring new investors with the promise of an easy payout; but the players nearer the top profit the most, at the expense of those at the bottom.
Post-doctoral fellows, often the main workhorse of a biology research lab, are cheap (~$40,000 starting salary in U.S.) and replaceable, owing to the large excess of PhDs on the market; graduate students are even cheaper, as they often teach to earn their salaries. And a principal investigator (PI) running a large, well-funded lab will gain status and prestige for all grants and publications generated by their personnel.

 

Despite the less than ideal job prospects awaiting science PhDs, the government and media continue to strongly advocate education in the STEM fields, encouraging more undergraduates to pursue STEM majors and thereby increasing the number at the graduate level. While U.S. society’s general enthusiasm and respect for science is definitely positive, it is irresponsible to push so many young people into this career path without making substantial funding commitments. Certainly, not all PhD students intend to pursue a career in academia, and those who do may later find that their passion lies elsewhere, for instance in a biotechnology field. However, one should keep in mind that the past decade has also been rough for the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. Since 2000, thousands of U.S. and European industry research positions have been lost, while several “big pharma” firms plan to open new R&D centers in Asia, where costs are lower.

 

Although the outlook might seem bleak for those currently navigating these turbulent academic waters, the calls of post-doctoral advocacy organizations for increased salaries and benefits may finally be making a difference. This year, the NIH increased the base salary of its National Research Service Award post-doctoral trainees, and other institutions have increased post-doctoral pay and benefits, resulting in higher post-doc satisfaction.

 

These proposals will not only increase the quality of life for current post-docs, but also change the incentive structure of the marketplace: as laboratory personnel become more expensive, PIs will hire more selectively. Fewer PhDs will enter the post-doctoral route, either opting to pursue a career in industry or another field entirely. It may take years for these policy changes to be fully implemented, but hopefully academic scientists will be able to pursue their passion without fearing for their livelihoods or career prospects.