Graduate students from The Scripps Research Institute share how they prepared to enter policy, law, biotech, and beyond.
By Anna Kriebs
Over the last month, I have been on a quest: To find out how those of us scientists searching for jobs outside academia were faring and if my own experience in looking beyond the ivory tower was an outlier or a representative measurement. As I was preparing to leave The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), where I had been a graduate student for the past five years, I wanted to understand why transitioning into a non-academic career could feel like taking the road less traveled, when it is, in fact, the path of most graduate students at TSRI and elsewhere.
Trained in biochemistry, I focused my graduate research on understanding time-of-day dependent metabolic fluctuations. Post-graduation, I was looking for a career that would draw on my experience but allow me to delve into a broader range of scientific discoveries. Thus, I became interested in science communication. In my current job search I am ruling out post-doctoral training.
Non-academic positions require applicants to pair their scientific knowledge and competence acquired during academic training with additional skills. Naturally, different non-academic career paths demand vastly different qualifications, the only commonality being the need to plan ahead. For instance, my former classmate Alex Krois, who earned his PhD in a structural biology lab, intends to work as a biotech-IP lawyer. He spent three months prepping for the Law School Admission Test (in addition to full-time lab work). He now studies at UC Berkeley School of Law on a scholarship.
The more inclusive that science is as a community and the more people we can call scientists, the more progress we will see.—Anne Kornahrens,
AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow
Our colleague Anne Kornahrens performed her graduate work in synthetic organic chemistry. I reached her in Washington, DC, where she is now a AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellow. Anne says she had to precisely time her defense to enable an elaborate 10-month application process. She also joined organizations outside of TSRI’s campus to practice outreach and STEM education, which ultimately became her policy focus.
In my informal survey of fellow students, it became clear that another important form of preparation for the non-academic world is connecting with the fields they wanted to enter in advance. This was pointed out by my colleague Bryan Martin, a protein biochemist and NMR spectroscopist, who is one of many transitioning into industry research. To make these connections he conducted informational interviews with former colleagues who have acquired positions in the biotech sector. This is a great way to gather information about the job and how they got it and to propagate a professional network.
My former classmate Rebecca Miller, who performed her graduate studies in structural biology and now works for a company developing plant-based protein—in a marriage of her passion for biophysics and a desire to act on climate change—even volunteered with industry conference organizers. Running the conference registration desk put her in a prime position for making acquaintances in the field she wanted to enter.
To create opportunities to connect with professionals and explore different careers, TSRI’s Career and Postdoctoral Services Office (CPSO) organizes on-site company visits, career panels, meet-the-alumni, and other networking events. “We also recently launched a career exploration pilot program at TSRI that allows students and postdocs to visit employers to gain real-world experience working on representative projects,” says Ryan Wheeler, the director of career, international, and postdoctoral services. “Each visit lasts just one or two days and aims to increase trainees’ knowledge about a specific career path and company culture.” These efforts continue to foster interactions between the academic and other scientific communities and are crucial in making the full range of careers suitable for PhDs more accessible. I highly recommend stepping into your local Career Services Office to find out about the programs they offer.
How to decide which career path to choose? The students I spoke to were driven by finding the best fit for their interests, skills, and values, often exploring several options at first. Completing an Individual Development Plan, an online tool that matches the results of a personal assessment exercise with possible career trajectories, is a great starting-off point in this process. Additionally, many of us took advantage of CPSO’s one-on-one advising appointments. In a personalized manner, CPSO connected us with alumni who had gone down the same path, pointed out resources and ways to demonstrate specific skills (a.k.a. building a resume), and provided feed-back on application packages.
Finding small ways to try a different career on for size helped me ascertain I was moving in the right direction. For instance, the first step I took was to volunteer with the TSRI Council of Scientific Editors. Helping others express their scientific ideas and goals in research manuscripts and fellowship or grant applications gave me a heightened sense of contributing to overall scientific progress.
I am excited to contribute to driving science forward in the role that best fits my talents and passions, and so are the students I spoke to. As Anne notes from her new vantage point in DC, “the more inclusive that science is as a community and the more people we can call scientists, the more progress we will see.”
Anna Kriebs is a graduate student at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.
Taken from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-01016-2?utm_source=twt_nnc&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=naturenews&sf179847268=1
Scientists in the United States are bracing for impact after lawmakers in Congress failed to agree on a plan to fund the government, triggering its indefinite shutdown on 20 January.
As a result of the impasse, thousands of federal researchers have been ordered to stay home, barred from accessing their government e-mail and phones. That will leave many science agencies staffed by small numbers of ‘essential’ employees, interrupting government research on everything from winter snowpack in the western United States to the inner workings of the brain. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will stop processing grants, depriving some academic researchers of crucial funding, and NASA may be forced to delay the launch of spacecraft that have spent years in development.
“We kind of feel like there’s not much we can do about anything,” says one NIH researcher of the current situation. “It’s very annoying. It’s very demeaning.”
For Bryan Jones, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the current situation brings back bad memories. The 2013 shutdown caused the NIH to delay, by several months, a grant cycle for which Jones had submitted a proposal. As a result, he says, his university had to cover the costs of running his lab while he waited for the NIH’s decision.
Jones again has a grant application under review at NIH — and he says that a delayed decision this time could force him to lay off some of his employees. “From a scientist’s perspective it hurts. We get angry,” he says. “But NIH is doing what they can do.”
Other researchers face the prospect that the shutdown could cause major delays to projects that are well underway. Chad Hayes, a plant scientist at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), says that he will lose a year’s worth of work if the shutdown persists for more than a couple of days. Hayes, who is part of a team developing a variety of drought-resistant sorghum, was set to travel to Mexico on 22 January. There, his team planned to breed the plants during the brief window when sorghum is pollinated — about one week each year.
But the USDA told Hayes to stay home if the government shut down. Now he worries that he will miss the pollination window, delaying his experiments for a year and wasting the money that his team spent to prepare for the Mexico trip. “It’s basically like walking away from your babies,” he says. “We’ve been building up to this project for a year now.”
At NASA, the funding lapse could delay the planned launch of the Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that is designed to monitor the Sun’s activity at close range. On 17 January, the probe entered a thermal vacuum chamber at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. There it is scheduled to undergo seven weeks of tests in conditions that mimic the extreme temperature fluctuations it will experience as it repeatedly swoops around the Sun.
If Goddard closes and the tests cannot proceed, the probe may not be ready to launch between 31 July and 19 August, the brief window during which Earth’s position relative to other planets in the Solar System would enable the probe to achieve its proper trajectory towards the Sun.
Some government programmes are prepared to weather a shutdown, at least for a few weeks, because they are operated by contractors who receive federal money in periodic chunks. Officials with the US Antarctic Program have told polar researchers that funding for the remainder of the current field season, which ends in February, is guaranteed. And the National Science Foundation recently gave a 30-day cash infusion to the construction managers supervising work on the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile.
Then there is the Department of Energy (DOE), which will continue normal operations until it spends money left over from prior budget years. “Bottom line: the Department of Energy will be open for business on Monday,” said spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes. She refused to say how long the department’s cash reserves might hold out.
DOE’s science facilities include 17 national laboratories that study everything from nuclear weapons to climate change. Sixteen are run by contractors, and should be largely unaffected unless the shutdown wears on for several weeks. An official at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico said that if that happens, that facility would seek to minimize disruption by slowly phasing in furloughs for non-essential employees. “We don’t at some point just magically turn off the lights,” said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter.
At the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 55% of employees will stay on the job during the shutdown, in part because a significant chunk of the agency’s funding comes from fees charged to industry for reviews of drugs and medical devices. By contrast, just 0.9% of the roughly 8,000 workers at the US Geological Survey are considered essential — including seismologists at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado, who provide real-time analysis of earthquakes worldwide.
The longer a shutdown lasts, the bigger the potential hit to government scientists’ morale, researchers say. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt said his agency had enough funding to operate normally into next week, but it remains unclear how long such an approach could hold. The agency’s posted shutdown plan calls for fewer than 800 of its roughly 14,000 employees to report to work. EPA’s Office of Research and Development will halt active experiments, although some employees will be permitted to care for laboratory animals and maintain equipment.
“Staff will be allowed to come in and feed the fish, but they cannot take the measurements for the scientists,” says Lesley Mills, an EPA biologist in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and president of the local chapter of a union that represents agency employees. “People are going to be upset.”
Across the country in Boulder, Colorado, a skeleton crew will keep watch at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory. The agency’s greenhouse-gas monitoring programme will continue to collect data, but many of the scientists who analyze it expect to be locked out of their offices. During the 2013 shutdown, which lasted for 16 days, some of the researchers ended up working from home — likely in violation of federal law.
And at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, which is headquartered on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder, researchers have been warned that they will lose access to some science facilities. That’s because the institute is a partnership between the university and NOAA, receives significant federal funding and occupies a mix of government- and university-owned buildings. And while scientists there can access their university e-mail during the shutdown, they are barred from checking their government accounts.
“We’re getting pretty good at this,” says a NOAA scientist of coping with a shutdown’s immediate effects. But the constant uncertainty over federal finances in recent years has made it hard for researchers to plan for the future, the scientist says: “Toss in some threats, like potential budget cuts, and it becomes degrading and counterproductive.”
Prepping for a shutdown poses a “real cost to agencies”, says Joel Widder, a former NSF deputy director who is now a lobbyist with the firm Federal Science Partners in Washington DC. “The threat of a shutdown makes people [at scientific agencies] not take decisions: grants have been held off. Graduate students’ stipends, traineeships, and the purchase of research instrumentation have been put on hiatus.”
A protracted shutdown could also pose more basic challenges for federal researchers — who will not be paid during a shutdown, whether they are ordered to continue working or stay home. In a 19 January e-mail, the National Institutes of Health told staff members that a private credit union associated with the agency would “provide interest-free loans to all NIH employees whose paychecks are delayed because of the shutdown”.
Although government employees are typically paid back wages after the shutdown ends, the situation tends to make many anxious, says William Hubbard, a former FDA official. Current employees may think about leaving; prospective employees may decide to work elsewhere. “A shutdown could push these people over the edge,” says Hubbard, who is now retired. “And the FDA already has a critical shortage of scientists.”
For now, researchers are left to watch and wait as politicians seek a new budget agreement. One possibility being floated in Congress is a stopgap funding bill that would run until 8 February — when the government could once again shut down if politicians do not approve another round of spending legislation. Michael Lubell, a physicist at City College in New York and a former director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, says that the current shutdown is likely to last at least a week. Beyond that, he says, “we could go the entire year with the threat of a shutdown.”
Jennifer Mankoff was a mid-career researcher in 2006 when she started to experience extreme fatigue. Her condition worsened during the following year with frequent flu-like attacks, a frozen jaw, hearing loss, memory trouble and problems with fine motor control.
In 2007, Mankoff was diagnosed with Lyme disease — a tick-borne illness that can be difficult to manage, thanks to disagreements in the medical community about how to test for, diagnose and treat it. She struggled to find medical solutions, but continued to publish, teach and win grants and tenure. But it took her a while to come to terms with her physical limitations.
“My image of who I could or should be didn’t match up with reality in terms of my productivity,” she says. “I would go back and forth between frustration and pride over what I had accomplished.” Today, as an endowed professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, she studies human–computer interactions and accessible technology for those with chronic illnesses or disabilities.
Mankoff is one of many scientists worldwide who face emotional and practical challenges in their work as a result of long-lasting or recurrent medical conditions. Working as a scientist can be physically and mentally demanding, in the laboratory and in the field. It can be even harder for those with physical limitations, who might need extra rest or days off work.
Researchers who are chronically but not terminally ill might also fear bias and stigma (see ‘Know your rights’ for a summary of protections available under the law) if they leave work early or ask for extra help. This is particularly true if they have an illness that’s ‘invisible’ to others, such as arthritis or diabetes.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
Legal protections exist in the workplace for people with chronic conditions, and support is available, although details vary from country to country.
Selective disclosure about a condition can help to foster understanding, and an acceptance of the need to accommodate physical fatigue or weakness, or additional time away from the lab, say some who have chronic maladies. They add that it can also be useful to focus on crucial tasks — such as completing a manuscript — when energy levels are highest. Ultimately, say scientists with long-standing medical conditions, perseverance is essential to success. Sticking with a research programme also signals to superiors and colleagues, and to others with chronic illnesses, that a diagnosis need not stymie a research career.
No firm statistics are available on how many scientists worldwide have chronic illnesses, syndromes, conditions or diseases; and definitions of these differ from nation to nation. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that around half of all adults in the United States have at least one chronic condition. Although it does not define such conditions, it lists diabetes and arthritis as examples. The World Health Organization defines chronic conditions as being “of long duration and generally slow progression”; its examples include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic pain and diabetes.
A neglected problem
The experience of balancing an academic career with a chronic health condition has been under-studied and its effects under-estimated, says Kate Sang, a sociologist at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, who has been working on a study on illness and disability in academia.
Sang, who has degenerative nerve damage in her arm, was told that she would have trouble finding even 10 or 15 subjects, but since launching the study, she has communicated with more than 70 researchers.
In interviews, a number of those scientists said that their chronic conditions make it difficult to write enough grants and publish often enough to advance their careers. Some scientists reported that they had switched fields to reduce the load on their bodies. Attending conferences was physically difficult for many: those who use wheelchairs said that meeting rooms and other facilities were often hard to access. One study subject could not get into a room to give her own talk.
Many subjects thanked Sang for listening to them. “I found that quite upsetting, to think that this is a very articulate, very privileged group of people — academics, people with PhDs — who still felt they didn’t have a voice in academia,” Sang says.
Getting accurate diagnoses can be difficult for scientists, who often need to move from lab to lab and nation to nation, and so have to continually find new physicians. For years, geoscientist Stephanie Zihms was told that her tingly limbs, blurry vision, fatigue and other symptoms were caused by benign cysts, carpal tunnel syndrome or stress. She has moved from Germany to Scotland to England, and is now back in Scotland, at Heriot-Watt University (where she knows Sang), but her health records haven’t always been transferred. At some point, they went missing altogether. Short appointments with new doctors in each new location hadn’t given her enough time to explain her history.
She finally learnt from a doctor that she might have multiple sclerosis, but it was another ten months before she got a definitive diagnosis, in autumn 2016. Zihms says that she received no advice on where to seek support or more information, and she wept in her car for 15 minutes before she could drive home. “I think having the same doctor would have led to an earlier re-check,” she says. She recommends keeping a copy of all medical records, including communications from providers, hospitals and other facilities, even if that means requesting them under freedom-of-information laws.
To tell, or not to tell
Many scientists grapple with the question of whether to disclose their condition and, if so, when and to whom. The timing of a condition’s onset can influence those decisions. Madison Snider, a master’s student in environmental science, was diagnosed aged two with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. As an undergraduate, she found it best to tell professors early on about her illness, to avoid having to explain it to them when she most needed help.
She adopted the same strategy in 2016 while being interviewed for her current programme during a two-day visit to North Dakota State University in Fargo. She learnt that she would need to move, fill and drain large tanks of water. Snider told her potential superior that she experiences pain daily and that on some days she cannot walk. He told her that he would make sure that assistants were available to help her with the tanks. “It’s an awkward conversation because when you look at me you don’t necessarily see my arthritis,” she says. “It was really nice that he was willing to work with me. It made me feel he had confidence in me.”
Yet some opt to conceal their condition for fear of damaging their career. There’s a fine line, Mankoff adds, between advocating for oneself and coming across as a problem, and staying on the right side of that line requires constant vigilance. Even now, she is willing to ask for a classroom close to her office or a chair to sit on during lectures, but she hesitates to request extra staff, for example, because she doesn’t want to argue about whether the funding should come out of her research budget.
Zihms opted to disclose her condition to her supervisor, who was sympathetic and told her to e-mail any time she needed to stay at home. But she didn’t tell her colleagues at first, and worried that they would think she was lazy on days when she could barely move and didn’t come in.
Ultimately, she says, she decided to be open, mentioning her illness in tweets and in a blog, and she has received much support. During a weekend when she guest-tweeted for Shift.ms, a UK-based social network for people with multiple sclerosis, a college student expressed gratitude on learning from her that a research career was still possible. “Younger scientists told me it took someone to be open about their disabilities for them to become suddenly aware that there was a career out there for them,” she says.
Focus on the essentials
Navigating a research career along with a chronic illness, say many researchers, requires zeroing in on what is most essential. Leonard Jason, a psychologist who was diagnosed in 1989 with myalgic encephalopathy/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), realized that he needed to be strategic about his work and careful not to overtax himself. His approach has led to recognition, including awards for excellence in research and, at one point, a position on a US federal panel advising about research on ME/CFS. He recommends that scientists pursue the work that matters most to them. “The reality is that you can’t do it all,” says Jason, of DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. “Prioritization is absolutely critical when one is in a diminished state. If it’s trivial and you don’t care about it, let it go.”
Overdoing it on good days can end up backfiring. Zihms was recently laid low with exhaustion for two days after spending six hours outside on a cold, windy day doing fieldwork in Brazil. She now prepares carefully before doing fieldwork in the depths of winter and sets aside time to recover afterwards. At conferences, she saves energy by resting between sessions and staying in a hotel nearby. And because her diet affects her fatigue levels, she makes her own breakfasts and lunches.
Mankoff finds it useful to break down large tasks into smaller ones of varying lengths so that if she has, say, two good hours or ten good minutes in a day, she can accomplish at least something that day. She honed that skill in her first year as a computer-science PhD student in 1996, when she developed a repetitive strain injury after using a poorly designed keyboard. She switched to voice-recognition software, but that led to a vocal-cord injury.
Although frustrated, she realized that she had learned how to prioritize tasks and to focus on her work when she was feeling well. Today, she limits Facebook and other social-media time to avoid distraction. She also recommends a blog community called Chronically Academic.
Therapy can be useful, Zihms adds. And self-care is important, too, says Snider. Adopting a kitten has helped to fend off the anxiety and depression that are common companions to arthritis. “No matter how down I get or how much my knees hurt,” Snider says, the kitten relies on her, and caring for it is not too strenuous a task.
Coping with a chronic illness requires planning for the unexpected, and could require a job change. Julia Hubbard, a biophysicist who has type 1 diabetes and the autoimmune disease lupus, packs suitcases two weeks before trips in case she lacks the energy to pack nearer the time.
Shifting the focus of her work has also helped her to accommodate her condition. When she first became ill in the early 1990s, frequent hospital appointments and sick days made it hard for her to conduct protein-chemistry experiments as part of her job at a pharmaceutical company. She switched to a data-focused position that allowed her to work remotely when she needed to. In 2001, she retrained as a protein crystallographer and is now a research scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, where her manager is sympathetic to her needs, and where working remotely is an option if she needs it.
Looking back, she says, she wishes that she had been gentler with herself when she first got sick. “You’ve got to adapt to it. It’s a loss and there’s a grief cycle.”
Learning to adapt can build confidence in a researcher’s ability to handle setbacks, Mankoff adds. In the past couple of years, she has been feeling well enough to increase her publication rate and to feel excited about the work ahead. But she also knows that she could relapse at any time. Still, with a battery of well-honed coping skills, she feels optimistic about the future.
“Even though I’m a full professor, I feel like I’m just getting started in an exciting way,” she says. “I’ll accept it if I relapse or go back to doing less. I’m just having fun digging in and solving problems.”
We are a little more than a week into the new year. Hopefully, everyone is keeping up with their New Year’s resolutions. Science recently released an article highlighting some resolutions from scientists. Feel free to comment with your own science resolutions!