A recent investigation finds that an alarming number of “academic” journals offered a completely fake scientist a position on their editorial boards. Read the article, published in Nature, in which the authors describe their sting and give further information on avoiding predatory journals.
Finding time to write can be difficult. As a young scientist, one can be constantly bombarded with experiments, classes, meetings… The list goes on and on. It can seem as if writing gets pushed further and further back in the “To Do List”. Developing a strategy early in one’s career to stay on top of writing projects can be extremely important. One thought is to try “the 1-hour workday”:
Written by Arunodoy Sur, Ph.D.
A postdoc was not for me.
I knew this well before graduating.
I simply did not want to pursue a tenure track position.
Too many postdocs and assistant professors I knew were too miserable for me to ever want to be one of them.
I wanted to explore options for alternative careers instead but my University provided me with no resources for doing so.
It was very surprising to see how little the University knew about transitioning into non-academic careers.
It was also surprising to see how limited the University’s network was outside of academia.
To make matters worse, I was an international student.
As such, immigration laws required me to be formally employed in less than 90 days from my graduation.
Three months is not a lot of time to find a job.
I did not have the luxury of spending half a year on a job search after graduation, let alone taking a break for a few months and then starting my job search.
To get more information about career options, I started asking other science PhDs and postdoctoral researchers about their career plans.
Many of these students and postdocs said they were also interested in an industry career.
But, oddly enough, they had chosen to only apply for postdoc positions.
A Postdoc Is Not Your Only Career Option
Most PhDs transition into an academic postdoc, even when they would rather transition into an industry position, because they believe a postdoc is their only option.
Their academic advisor and the entire academic system has led them to believe this is their only option.
What does this mean?
It means the reason most PhDs do not get PhD jobs in industry is because they lack the information they need to get these jobs.
They also lack information on which non-academic career options are available to them and which of these positions fit their goals and lifestyle.
If you’re a PhD or postdoc, it’s crucial for you to understand all the opportunities you have in front of you.
You need to gain in depth knowledge of all the career tracks available to you, not just one or two.
You should also pay close attention to changing trends, making sure to note which job sectors are rising and which are falling.
10 Top Non-Academic Jobs Alternative For STEM PhDs
Gain a thorough understanding of your career options.
Otherwise, you will be forced by circumstances to take a position that is not in alignment with your long-term career goals.
To avoid this fate, we’ve collated a list of the top 10 hottest non-academic jobs.
Understanding which industry positions are on the rise will help you see what’s available to you outside of a traditional postdoc or professorship.
There are many alternative career options available to STEM PhDs.
It will also help you make an intelligent decision on which positions you would enjoy and which you may not enjoy.
When choosing the next step in your career, be sure to consider not only the title and salary you want to have, but the lifestyle you want to live.
Don’t make the mistake of chasing something that will ultimately make you miserable.
This is how many PhDs ended up in poor and unhappy postdoc positions in the first place.
Here are 10 top non-academic careers for PhDs to consider applying to…
1. Market Research Analyst
Marker Research Analyst roles exist in most industries, but they are especially significant in innovation-based sectors such as electronics, IT or biotechnology.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics this profession is projected to experience a job growth of 20% from 2004 to 2014.
Market research analysts are expected to gain a complete understanding of the commercial landscape associated with a specific technology or sector.
A PhD’s ability to analyze large amounts of information and identify comparative advantages between two technologies is very valuable to this role.
As a Market Research Analyst, your responsibilities include gaining information about commercialization opportunities as well as evaluating the key advantages and disadvantages of your products versus competitor products.
You will apply this information and your technical expertise to create reports that outline key niches for commercialization, estimate market size, identify current major players in the sector and recognize prospective future competitors.
Your reports will act as essential tools that administrative teams will use to plan an ideal commercialization path, thereby avoiding pitfalls and maximizing revenues.
Since Market Research Analysts provide key market information and collaborate with strategic decision-maker, this role can open up doors to higher management positions.
As innovation based industries grow and continue to globalize, there will be an increasing demand for science PhDs in Market Research roles.
2. Business Development Manager
A recent career survey by CNN Money found that Business Development Managers, or BDMs, ranked in the top 100 careers worldwide with a projected growth rate of 16.4%.
The name of this role might suggest that it’s only for professionals with a business degree.
But, nowadays, science PhDs are being increasingly hired as BDMs.
This is because many PhDs excel at understanding complex technologies, which is crucial to technology-based sectors such as biotechnology, software, consumer electronics, and pharmaceuticals.
A BDM’s key responsibilities include developing new business opportunities, managing existing products, developing market strategies, and building new business partnerships.
As a BDM, you will have to prioritize innovative products based on market needs and competitor positioning.
Thorough knowledge of not only a company’s technology, but its culture and products is key to this role.
BDMs are required to use a combination of scientific knowledge, analytical skills and market trends to forecast things like revenues, profits, and losses.
Your presentation and teaching skills are also valuable to this position because BDMs are expected to present to management and marketing teams regularly.
3. Competitive Intelligence Analyst
Competitive Intelligence (CI) Analysts main role is to gather information about products that are in a competing company’s pipeline and analyzing these products to determine how they will affect the market.
A Global Intelligence Alliance survey of global software, healthcare, pharmaceutical, financial, energy and manufacturing found that the hiring of CI analysts will increase dramatically in the coming years, with 60% of hiring managers reporting that they are actively looking for candidates.
As a CI Analyst, you will turn information about your competition into actionable intelligence for your company.
You will be required to gather information from key opinion leaders (KOLs), intelligence databases, scientific conferences and online resources.
These inputs will be used to determine both threats or opportunities in the market.
CI Analysts play a critical role in supporting a company’s management team in making strategic marketing decisions.
PhDs have already have many of the skills required for this role, including strong scientific and technical knowledge, strong information gathering skills, and the ability to analyze large data sets.
CI Analyst positions often act as a gateway to higher executive positions as these Analysts already contribute to a company’s executive decision-making.
CI Analyst positions are abundant in not only technology-based companies, but also inn specialized CI firms that are dedicated to offering CI services to a wide range of clients.
4. Product Manager
Product Managers (PMs) are responsible for managing the entire life-cycle of an innovative product.
They oversee the development of a product and the management of product after it launches.
An employment survey conducted between 2012 and 2013 found that the demand for Product Managers in technology-based sectors is increasing by 23% annually.
PMs are responsible for analyzing a product’s market performance as well as determining ways to boost a product’s commercial success while simultaneously determining how to phase out or terminate older versions of the product.
PM roles are multifunctional and demand collaboration spread across multiple divisions of an organization.
As a PM, you must be able to quickly identify market needs, communicate those needs with your marketing team, and find innovative solutions for these needs.
You must also possess a unique blend of business acumen and creativity. Successful PMs are able to envision new products and clearly understand the competitive landscape of their market.
PM roles are available for PhDs in most technology-based sectors, including electronics, aeronautics, IT and software, and of course, biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors.
5. Management Consulting
Ten years ago, most consulting firms only employed MBAs.
Things have changed.
Thanks to the steady rise of technology-based business sectors, there has been a significant increase in the number of science PhDs being hired by these firms.
According to a Bloomberg Business report, the consulting market is expected to experience an overall annual growth rate of 3.7%.
The same report stated that the management consulting market recently grew by 8.5% to a total value of $39.3 billion.
STEM PhDs are in high demand for consulting positions because they have a strong technical background and are specifically trained troubleshooting difficult problems.
Many PhDs fail to pursue Management Consulting positions because they believe that these positions require extensive industry experience. This is not true.
Even the most reputed global consulting firms have specialized job opportunities for PhDs.
As a Management Consultant, you will be required to leverage your problem solving skills. You will also be required to design unique strategies for overcoming these problems.
Management consultants must be able to work in collaborative “teamwork” environments where communication and leadership skills are crucial.
You must be able to present your findings both orally in PowerPoint presentations and in written form through detailed reports.
A key advantage of securing a Management Consultant position is that it will open doors for a variety of opportunities including executive management, venture capitalism, and entrepreneurship.
6. Quantitative Analyst
There are many opportunities for science PhDs to transition into Quantitative Analyst (QAs).
Most of QA positions are available in major financial institutions involved in financial trading.
A report by Recruiter showed that over the last 10 years, employment opportunities for QAs in the U.S. have grown by 29%.
A similar report based on U.S. labor statistics showed QA positions will grow by 20% through 2018.
QA responsibilities include quantitative data analysis, financial research, statistical modeling, and pattern recognition—all related to predicting trades.
Science PhD with backgrounds in “quant” related disciplines such as Mathematics, Statistics, Physics, Engineering, and Computer Science are highly sought after for these positions.
However, many Life Science PhDs are also being hired as QAs. This is due to increases in financial trading in the biotechnology industry.
Science PhDs continue to be preferred by QA firms because of their proven ability to conduct independent research and their detailed understanding of the scientific aspects of technology-based sectors.
As a QA, you will be expected to have a strong scientific background and to be able to work under pressure with little supervision.
You will also be required to gain deep financial knowledge of your markets and be able to grasp advanced mathematical concepts quickly.
7. Medical Communication Specialist
Medical Communication Specialists are broadly described as technical writers involved in the development and production of communication medical and healthcare related materials.
A Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that Medical Communication Specialist positions are expected to grow by 15% between now and 2022.
As a Medical Communication Specialist, your responsibilities will include writing and editing materials that healthcare organizations will use to communicate with patients, clients and medical professionals.
You must be able to organize, edit, and present information in a manner appropriate for your target audience.
Medical Communication Specialists must also possess excellent written communication skills and have a strong understanding of the ethical or regulatory guidelines in their field.
The main reason for this is that Medical Communication Specialists often work to produce a variety of documents, including patient education brochures, Web content, physician articles, sales training materials and regulatory documents.
8. Healthcare Information Technology Specialist
In 2009, the US government enacted the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH Act).
According to this new government initiative, there is a massive push for adoption of healthcare technology by healthcare providers.
One of the major criteria of this act is to convert all healthcare related data into an electronic format.
This has made the role of Healthcare Information Technology (HIT) Specialist one of the fastest growing jobs.
A recent HIT Specialist related survey reported that there were a total of 434,282 HIT-related job postings between 2007 and 2011.
As a HIT Specialist, you will be responsible for organizing patients’ medical record into electronic databases, verifying patients’ medical charts, and communicating with physicians to ensure the accuracy of their diagnoses.
Science PhDs who are trained in Life Science fields and have experience with online databases such as Genomics and Bioinformatics are highly sought after for this position.
You must have a strong background in medical research as well as medical terminology.
You must also be willing to learn about medical coding, information technology, clinical database management, and medical billing.
Hospitals, ambulatory healthcare services, clinical research centers, academic research institutions, and health insurance providers are the main sources of employment for HIT Specialists.
9. Operations Research Analyst
Operations Research Analysts are responsible for investigating complex issues, identifying and solving operational problems and facilitating a more cost-effective and efficient functioning of an organization.
In short, these Analysts are very high-level problem solvers. Their job is to systemize organizations as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Operations Research Analysts were first implemented by the military a few decades ago but now they are used in almost every sector.
The demand of this role has increased investments in big data analytics platforms.
Job reports show that Operations Research Analyst positions are estimated to grow by 27% per year until 2022, making it one of the hottest jobs of the next decade.
As an Operations Research Analyst, you must be able to use data mining techniques, mathematical modeling, and statistical analyses to provide real-time operational guidance to large biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies.
STEM PhDs with academic training in Mathematics, Statistics, Computational Modeling, and Data Mining are highly sought after for these positions.
Although a bachelor’s degree is often mentioned as the minimum qualification in Operations Research Analyst job postings, graduate degree holders are heavily favored.
10. Medical Science Liaison
Becoming a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) is a rapidly growing opportunity for STEM PhDs.
A recent McKinsey & Company report found that MSL roles will continue to increase rapidly through 2020. The same report also showed that advanced degree holders with a strong scientific background will be hired more and more for these roles.
A international recruiting survey found that MSL positions have increased by over 38% and is one of the fastest growing, science-related jobs in the world.
MSL positions can be found in a variety of healthcare-based sectors including pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device sectors.
The biggest misconception regarding MSL positions is that it is a sales position. This is not true.
In reality, MSLs act as scientifically trained field personnel who are considered to be part of a company’s medical staff. Most MSLs are not even allowed to discuss drug prices or conduct sales.
This provides MSLs with more freedom to learn and teach. As a result, they gain a deeper knowledge of therapeutic areas and are able to discuss detailed medical and scientific issues with physicians.
As an MSL, one of your key responsibilities is to build rapport with KOLs in various therapeutic research areas.
You must have extensive clinical or medical knowledge and, at the same time, be a “people-person.”
Strong communication skills are important but you must also be able to work independently and travel extensively.
Twenty years ago, MSLs were selected from experienced sales representatives that had strong scientific backgrounds. This has changed. Now, PhDs with relevant scientific knowledge are often hired.
Currently PhDs with medical knowledge have a significant advantage in finding employment.
However, MSL positions are highly competitive with only 1-2% of applicants getting hired.
You can make yourself a more competitive candidate for these positions by first taking a Clinical Research Associate (CRA) position.
A PhD combined with CRA experience is considered by industry experts as the best way to prepare yourself for an MSL position.
The two most important lessons you will learn by searching for an alternative career is that there are several jobs available to you and other PhDs outside of academia. You do not have to do a postdoc or continue doing a postdoc. The key is that you must work to change your situation. In order to secure your ideal industry position, you must prepare yourself by gathering as much information about alternative career options for science graduates as possible. You must also begin to grow your non-academic network. Only then will you be able to transition into the non-academic career of your choice.
To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.
The new tax plan introduced by House Republicans could have negative implications for universities, graduate students and those with student loans.
Many grad students — especially in Ph.D. programs — receive tuition waivers in exchange for teaching classes or doing research. Under current law, that money isn’t taxed as income. But the new bill calls for those tuition waivers to be counted as income and subjected to income taxes.
That means graduate students would be paying taxes on money they never receive.
Kelly Balmes is finishing up a master’s degree — on her way to a Ph.D. — in atmosphere and sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Balmes, 24, is from Chicago, so her out-of-state tuition is $30,000 a year. It’s paid for through grants; money she never sees.
The university pays her a yearly stipend of about $30,000 in exchange for her work in research and as a teaching assistant. That’s considered minimum wage in Seattle — about $15 an hour.
In 2016, she paid income taxes on her teaching stipend and ended up owing the government $2,334.
If the tax bill passes, the grant that covers tuition will be viewed as additional income. If the numbers remain the same, Balmes’ total income before deductions becomes $61,398 — nearly double what she filed last year.
She would owe $7,488, about $5,000 more.
“This makes graduate school unattainable for anybody not already very well off,” Balmes says. “It also creates a diversity problem, which graduate STEM programs already have.”
What else will be affected if the bill is passed:
- Endowments: The bill would levy a tax of 1.4 percent on net investment income for well-endowed private colleges. After an outcry from some universities, the language was adjusted so the tax would apply only to well-endowed colleges with $250,000 or more in the bank per full-time student.
- Student loan interest, tuition reductions and education assistance: If you make less than $80,000 and are paying back your student loans, you will no longer be able to deduct up to $2,500. Also, employers who cover some of their employees’ college costs would have that money taxed.
- College tax credit consolidation:Three tax credits — American opportunity tax credit, lifetime learning credit and Hope scholarship credit — would be consolidated into one credit. This would include a $2,000 credit for families spending money on college tuition, books and supplies.
- Coverdell Education Savings Accounts: The bill would phase out Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which allow families to invest money for college without the funds being taxed.
- Tax bills for death and disability:The House plan would put an end to forgiving student debt because of death or disability.
Of the 145,000 students in graduate programs receiving these tuition waivers, about 60 percent are in STEM programs, according to the Department of Education.
If the House bill passes, Balmes might have to reconsider getting her Ph.D. and stop her education at a master’s, she says. “It’s upsetting because it wouldn’t really be my decision.”
She hopes that the Senate’s tax plan will be passed instead because under that one there are no changes to tax credits or tuition waivers.
Colleges and universities have also raised concerns about the House bill.
Carnegie Mellon University, a private school in Pittsburgh known for programs in science and technology, is one of the many schools — including Boston University — speaking out.
CMU sent faculty an email saying it was monitoring how the bill would impact students and faculty.
“Any provision that would make higher education more costly for students, effectively reducing access, will harm American families and undermine the mission of higher education and CMU,” wrote interim President Farnam Jahanian. “That includes proposals to tax graduate student stipends, eliminate tax deductions for student loans, or reduce incentives for employers to contribute to tuition.”
He said there are long-term benefits to investing in graduate students.
“The education we provide undergraduates and graduate students is one of the most powerful engines for their future success and ability to contribute to society.”
The benefits of offering support to someone else.
Honestly, I had no intention of becoming anyone’s mentor. I was deep into the “make it work” stage of my academic career: my dissertation was stagnating, I was teaching a new course in a new discipline, my partner had gotten a job across the country, and I was having health problems.
Nevertheless, despite my being lost in the fog of graduate school, an undergraduate found me and turned me into a mentor. And I am thankful every day that she did.
Oddly enough, I was never even C’s teacher; she was never my student. I was an intern archivist, she was a student assistant, and we shared a basement workroom in the library. Chatting to keep our minds occupied while processing a collection and keep our bodies from freezing, we became good friends over a mutual interest in history, archival management, and Ryan Gosling memes.
In many ways C is like a better-prepared version of myself. She is pursuing a degree in history, loves digital humanities, and wants to work in a library or museum. Already in her fourth year, she has a clarity of purpose and knows what she wants from life—things I still sometimes struggle to put together.
Although she had the broad strokes of her academic career outlined, she was missing some of the finer details. She just needed some nuts-and-bolts type information about being a public historian. Answers to questions like:
What sort of topics make good research projects
How do you find a valuable internship?
What do you do in library school?
What jobs can a history major do?
What is the best way to write a grant proposal that will be funded?
All things in which I am expert!
There are a lot of ways that mentorship benefits undergraduates and even first-year graduate students. People with mentors, for example, are more likely to matriculate, have higher grades, and feel more included in their university, which are all markers for academic success. Mentorship in this case, however, isn’t superficial. It requires a long-term commitment with frequent meetings, emails, and check-ins—a truly active can professional interest in the success of your mentee.
In modern universities, especially in large research institutions, this sort of deep commitment is nearly impossible to give to an individual student, let alone an entire class. Being a mentor is not a job requirement and adds strain to an already tight schedule. Moreover, many of the benefits to the instructor are intangible, meaning they do not result in a new line on your CV.
Yet, I argue that it is important, especially for graduate students, to take on an undergraduate mentee or first-year graduate student. Even if it is just one; even if it is for a short period of time. Setting aside all of the benefits to undergrads and any altruistic rationales, being a mentor will improve your sense of well-being, your overall graduate school experience, and professional satisfaction.
In my experience, mentorship helps graduate students in four ways:
Fight impostor syndrome. While I helped C piece together her awesome future—from discussing possible careers to line editing an occasional statement-of-purpose—she was also helping me see my own value as a scholar. I might feel like an impostor when I am writing my dissertation or talking at conferences, but C never saw me that way. Instead, she saw me as an expert in my field (which I am), a resourceful research assistant (yup), and a fluent speaker of academic-ese (oh, yes). Working with a student one-on-one allows you to put your knowledge to good use and the rest of academia into perspective. You are no impostor, and a mentee will prove that to you.
Deepen your community. Even the most anti-social amongst us spends graduate school putting together a network of people, one which consists of professors, advisors, other scholars in our field, peers, classmates, friends, students, and helpful administrators. In fact, graduate school could not happen without this community. Every person we interact with enriches it, especially when that person is a mentee. Mentorship requires you to build a different type of relationship than any other in your network. It is informal and familiar while still being professional and, to a certain extent, hierarchical. No syllabi or grading, just coffee, advice, and dialogue.
Articulate yourself. One of the most unexpected benefits I gained from working with C was the ability to better articulate what I do. When she asked questions, I had to think about not only the answer to those questions, but also the best way to make that information accessible to her. This involved many discussions about framing arguments, for example, and selling research to grant committees. Mentorship is great practice for everything from writing a teaching philosophy to perfecting your elevator pitch, since the stakes are low and there is no search committee to impress. It is just a mentor and her mentee chatting about school, careers, and life.
Doing good while making friends. Being a mentor takes a lot of time and mental energy—a point that I do not want to understate—but the results far surpass anything you put into it. Motivation, however, to help a student in this way must come from within, since it will not appear on an evaluation or performance review. Like donating to a charity or contributing to the Creative Commons, helping C made me feel good. I was doing something worthwhile, something with long-term meaning. Likewise, it sets you up to be a fantastic graduate and undergraduate mentor in the future. Also, she became my friend, which was its own reward.
Over the summer C participated in a prestigious digital history internship on the east coast, and she is currently doing university-funded research into the exploitation of Guatemalan women by American scientists in the 1950s. Trust me, I brag about her all of the time! Although she has done all of the hard work, I can’t help but feel proud of her achievements.
From my position as a late-career graduate student, I recommend you find someone who needs some advice. Schedule an informal meeting, buy them a cup of coffee, or send them an email. If you take some time to get to know a student and teach them something outside of the classroom, then you might just be surprised what they have to teach you about being a graduate student in return.
Samantha Yammine uses Instagram to share her research and enthusiasm for science
Samantha Yammine is a PhD candidate in her final year at the University of Toronto in Dr. Derek van der Kooy’s Neurobiology Research Group. She is also a science communicator.
Although science communication manifests in different ways, at its very core it’s about explaining science-related topics and research to non-experts. Scientists generally do this by stripping their research of jargon and voicing their message in ways that can be easily understood by the general public.
Yammine started out in science communication by writing tweets for the Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine during the second year of her PhD studies. Since then, Yammine has moved her passion for science outreach to her Instagram account, science.sam.
According to Robert A. Logan in his article “Science Mass Communication,” science communication started out in print during the first 30 years of the twentieth century in the US. Some scientists sought to educate the public about science to make rational public affairs decisions and improve the quality of their lives through science policy, public affairs, and public opinion.
The purpose of science communication hasn’t changed much since.
Yammine explained to The Varsity that by communicating her research through various social media platforms, she hopes to pique her audience’s interest in science.
“We talked a lot about policy and science policy and why communication is important so that we can have a positive impact on science policy in Canada,” said Yammine at the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada conference she attended two weeks ago in Ottawa.
At the conference, Yammine and fellow science communicators discussed the role that social media plays in this field. With the rise of Twitter and Instagram, science communicators and journalists have had to keep up with social media’s pace and influence.
Yammine regularly posts on her Instagram account, which has over 9,600 followers, and she has shared over 240 posts. She takes around 40 pictures a day, and only one or two will make it onto her Instagram. She shares pictures of brain stem cells, laboratory equipment, and different science events around Toronto. Last month, she covered the Dunlap Institute’s coverage of the solar eclipse and shared photos from the event.
“I picture my lab mates reading and I also picture my sister reading who is not in science,” said Yammine when explaining her process of posting content.
Instagram is her social media outlet of choice because she is able to share both photos of her in the lab and of her doing normal things like going out to dinner. “If people aren’t going to listen to science, it’s because the people talking about it… might not relate to them or think that they’re trustworthy,” said Yammine.
As a teaching assistant, Yammine noted that the classroom may be an intimidating setting for many students. “I think that communication needs to be taught more in science… It is a skill to learn, and I think science undervalues quality of writing to its detriment.”
Yammine stressed that learning how to communicate through writing will be useful, especially for students considering graduate school, where they will eventually author publications and write grants. “Even in a lab report, your intro has a point — you’re introducing the topic that you’re studying.”
In fact, she recommended that students learn to write concisely by using Twitter or Instagram, whose character limits force students to summarize their findings in short sentences.
Science communication has been a rewarding experience for Yammine so far. Her favorite part is receiving messages from students who tell her they are motivated by her posts. She also loves seeing posts from other young women who are inspired to pursue science.
“If you value science, and you want to combat pseudoscience and fake news, put your engagement, your clicks, your likes, your comments where your values are,” she said.
We all have a unique story of how we got to where we are now – the path is rarely straight and narrow. A recent article in Science by Wei Ji Ma highlights the often hidden struggles we all face. In the article, he discusses his co-founding of an event series that focuses on discussing common challenges while working in science.
Choosing a lab of the right size is crucial for early-career development.
Group discussions are one aspect of postdoc life that can be very different between large and small labs.
While looking for a postdoctoral position, Michael Mitchell could have joined any number of small, intimate labs with a couple of colleagues and an ever-present lab leader. Instead, he decided to go big. In 2014, after earning a PhD in biomedical engineering, he accepted an offer from Robert Langer, also a biomedical engineer, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Mitchell shares the lab with some 40 other postdocs, a host of graduate students and a rotating cast of visiting researchers. The sheer scale of the enterprise becomes clear every summer, when the lab gathers for an annual party at Langer’s beach house. “Bob has to rent three to four buses to get us down to the house,” Mitchell says. “He gets an entire ice-cream truck for dessert.”
Of all the factors that potential postdocs must consider when choosing a position, lab size should be near the top of their list: it can shape a junior researcher’s career. Scientists say that small labs may be isolating, but that members tend to have great access to the lab leader. Conversely, whereas trainees in larger labs may have less time face-to-face with their mentor, some data suggest that they have more chances to collaborate and publish.
Those considering a postdoc position should think carefully about what would suit them. “It’s quite a personal choice,” says Kerstin Kinkelin, the training and career-development project manager at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “There’s no general rule about which is better or worse, but people need to think about which lab size works for them personally.”
A large lab was the right choice for Mitchell. “I knew Bob’s lab would have the resources to allow me to pursue the range of research ideas that I’m interested in,” he says. “But I was also looking for an excellent mentor. I would have worked for Bob even if I was the only one there.”
The size of a lab may affect the quantity and types of paper a postdoc publishes. Mitchell notes that postdocs on a large team might have a chance to make small contributions to the many projects run by other members of the lab. This could lead to a slew of undesirable middle-author papers. “In a large lab, you want to be very focused on your own research project,” Mitchell says. “It’s more important to get first-author publications that you can take ownership for. Ultimately you’re going to be judged on your independent work.”
Lab size can also affect the likelihood of a postdoc publishing high-profile papers, says Christopher Liu, a former biochemist who studies strategic management at the University of Toronto in Canada. In an unpublished study of 91 biology labs at MIT, Liu found that larger labs tend to publish more articles in top-tier journals. Specifically, adding one person to an average-sized lab of 11 members increases the impact score of publications by 1.5%. In other words, Liu says, postdocs could increase their chances of getting published in journals such as Nature, Science or Cell by joining a large lab.
“Large labs hit more home runs, but they also get fewer at-bats.”
The data also suggest an important caveat: adding a postdoc to an average-sized lab reduces the number of publications per person. That means that postdocs who join a large lab could risk slightly decreasing the quantity, although not necessarily the quality, of papers published by lab members — themselves included. “Large labs hit more home runs,” says Liu, “but they also get fewer at-bats.” In a similar vein, a 2015 study of UK biology labs found that publications per person decrease as lab size increases (e989; 2015). et al. PeerJ 3,
Liu sees an obvious explanation for the relative lack of efficiency in large labs. Every postdoc who decides to join the team automatically dilutes the amount of time that the principal investigator (PI) can spend with each lab member. He adds that even though postdocs tend to be more independent than graduate students, time with a PI is still a valuable commodity.
Even the best postdocs need at least occasional guidance from their lab leader, agrees Ann Miller, a molecular biologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “In a smaller lab, you’re going to get more attention from your PI,” she says. “And that PI is going to have a more vested interest in your success.”
Miller runs a lab with just one postdoc and a couple of graduate students. Even with such a small group, she takes mentorship seriously — she won the 2017 Exceptional Mentor of the Year award from the university’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. Because she doesn’t have a large team, she ensures that each new member will fit. She’s particularly selective about postdocs and hired her first in 2013, two years after she started her lab. “In a small lab, each postdoc is chosen very carefully to fit with the science and the lab culture,” she says. “I interviewed several other people but I was looking for just the right person.”
That first postdoc, Tomohito Higashi, accepted a faculty job at the Fukushima Medical University in Japan this year. He says that more time with Miller significantly helped his career. “I had research discussions and casual conversations with her almost every day.”
David Smith, a molecular evolutionary biologist who shares a single postdoc with another lab at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, would caution any prospective postdoc about the possible downsides of joining a large group. “I know faculty members who did their postdocs in labs that were so large that the PI wouldn’t even write reference letters,” he says. Such labs can sometimes breed a culture in which postdocs battle one another for resources, for the attention of the PI and for authorship on papers. “A lot of people don’t thrive in that environment. It depends how well they can handle the competition, the drive and the tempo.”
Survive and thrive
Many postdocs rise above the challenge of life in a large lab. Mitchell is one example. Early next year, he will move to a new job as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He has also earned recognition for his work, winning a 2016 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface, a US$500,000 prize given to researchers combining biology and engineering.
Mitchell says that he owes much of his success to the size of the Langer team. “If I read about an exciting technique and want to do it but don’t know how, I can knock on a door down the hall and find someone who does,” he says. “We can have coffee, talk about an idea — and we’re doing an experiment that night in the lab.” He adds that one high-profile paper on which he was first author — about using polymer nanoparticles to enhance the effects of immunotherapeutics on tumour cells (14179; 2017) — was sparked by a conversation over coffee with a colleague. et al. Nature Commun. 8,
Mitchell says that the lab doesn’t breed cut-throat competition, partly because Langer emphasizes teamwork and carefully evaluates applicants to make sure they can fit with the rest of the lab. “It’s like a faculty interview,” Mitchell says. “The potential postdoc comes in for two days, meets with other scientists and postdocs, and gives an hour-long seminar. Bob gets a lot of feedback from people throughout the lab.” And unlike some leaders of large labs, Langer makes himself available to his students and staff. “Bob is notorious for responding to questions from postdocs or graduate students over e-mail within minutes,” Mitchell says.
Suzanne Tainter/MCDB/Univ. Michigan
Ann Miller (centre) carefully selects postdocs to ensure that they are a good fit in her small lab.
Alessandra Breschi, a geneticist and bioinformatician who just completed a postdoc in the large lab of Roderic Guigó Serra at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, says that working in a lab with some 30 other people forced her to be more independent. “You have to learn to find information on your own,” she says. Breschi spoke to Nature shortly before starting her new postdoctoral position in the lab of Michael Snyder at Stanford University in California, where there are already around 40 postdocs. She hopes that her large-lab experience will serve her well.
Likewise, Amelie Baud, a neurobehavioural postdoc at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, UK, has found success in the rapidly growing lab of Oliver Stegle. When she first joined the lab in 2013, she shared it with just two other people: a PhD student and a master’s student. “Joining a tiny group is potentially risky,” she says. “I like the idea of an average-sized group that has a critical mass at lab meetings. You can get feedback on presentations and organize journal clubs.”
The Stegle lab now includes eight postdocs, along with several graduate students and visiting scientists. “It’s a large lab even for this area of study,” Baud says. “As the lab grew, I never noticed a change in atmosphere. The lab is dynamic, and there’s a lot going on, but I haven’t heard about competition in the group, and I don’t think it exists.” As the lab expanded, Baud thrived. In 2014, she won a £250,000 (US$332,000) four-year Sir Henry Wellcome postdoctoral fellowship.
Liu’s analysis of MIT labs suggests that top-tier postdocs tend to excel no matter the lab size. In that sample, postdocs who had won fellowships — a marker for excellence — didn’t hamper efficiency when they joined a lab. The data, according to Liu, suggest that outstanding postdocs don’t necessarily need to worry about staying productive in a large lab. But for postdocs who aren’t superstars, large labs have clear dangers. “If you feel that you would benefit from more attention from the PI, maybe you should consider a smaller lab,” he says.
In addition to more interaction with the PI, smaller labs might also provide realistic training for a career in academia, Miller says. “Some of my friends who come out of large, highly funded labs were used to having a lot of technical support and money for anything,” she says. “When you start your own lab, it can be a bit of a shocker.”
Smith has seen similar consequences in Canada. “Students and scientists who have been in big labs their whole careers can have a skewed view of academics,” he says. “Reality isn’t massive research teams and Nature papers and million-dollar grants.”
Miller completed her postdoc in a small lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Without a technician or other postdocs, she had to learn every detail about managing a lab, from writing animal-care protocols to mixing reagents. Because of this, she didn’t stumble when it was time to start her own lab. “I was ready to go,” she says. She also didn’t have to compete with other postdocs to give talks at meetings, review papers or join key projects. “All of these things are good for your career development and visibility in the field,” she says.
Looking ahead, Miller says that she would eventually like to have two or three postdocs and several graduate students — a lab that falls between the extremes of size. “That’s kind of reaching my capacity for being fully invested,” she says.
Postdocs can find success in labs of any size, says Kinkelin. They need only to decide if they want to stand out in a small group or find their own space in a larger one. Either way can work — especially if postdocs are aware of the potential trade-offs ahead of time. “People have to think about what they want to get out of it.”
First, a confession: I never meant to be a science communicator.
I’m an aerospace engineer specializing in fluid dynamics, the physics of how liquids and gases (and granular materials and pretty much anything that’s not a solid) moves. As an undergraduate, I fell in love with the subject in part because of the incredible photos my professors used to help us see and understand how fluids behave. As a PhD student, I was frustrated by how little information there was online for the public to learn about this subject that impacts our daily lives.
From that frustration, my website FYFD was born as a place where I could share the beauty of my subject with the world at large.
Like many scientists, I began communicating science for selfless and altruistic reasons. But along the way, I learned there’s a lot to be gained for the communicator as well. So I’d like to share a few of the selfish reasons to communicate science.
The first one may seem a bit obvious, but engaging in science communication is a great way to hone your communication skills. Whatever path your career leads you down, those skills are key. Communicating science to the public, whether online or through local means, is generally a low-risk operation, but it’s an opportunity to practice and improve your skills so that when it really matters you can nail that job interview or research proposal.
Participating in science communication regularly is also a great way to develop expertise in your subject area. When I started writing FYFD, it seemed like spending part of every day reading journal articles that had nothing to do with my research might be a waste of time. After all, learning the latest on how droplets splash was not going to help my work on high-speed aerodynamics. But toward the end of my PhD—after a few years of writing FYFD—I noticed that when professors and other students had questions that reached beyond our own area, the first resource they turned to was not Google Scholar—it was me.
The first time a professor asked me if I knew anything about the unexpected behavior they were seeing in an experiment, it was a revelation for me. I had unwittingly turned myself into an expert, not simply on the subject of my own research but on fluid dynamics in general. That broad familiarity with the field continues to be valuable today. It allows me to see connections between disparate studies and subjects, a skill that’s key to discovering new avenues for research.
If you choose to use science communication to raise awareness of your own work, it can help you gain exposure. A recent study showed that social media use can help increase a scholar’s scientific impact. It can also help you gain the notice of journalists, and there is evidence that media coverageof papers leads to more citations. Personally, my science communication efforts have almost exclusively highlighted the work of other researchers, but I have nevertheless benefited in terms of networking and new opportunities within my field.
Of course, setting up a Twitter account or a blog is no guarantee that you’ll start seeing your papers in The New York Times. Fortunately, that kind of audience isn’t necessary to see some personal benefits. One of my favorite aspects of science communication—especially in-person—is witnessing a positive-feedback loop of enthusiasm. When you’re genuinely excited about a subject, whether it’s fluid dynamics or unionid bivalves, that enthusiasm impacts your audience and can get them excited. Seeing that excitement in others simply reinforces your own enthusiasm.
Maintaining that reserve of enthusiasm for your subject is vital for motivating yourself when things are going poorly. As an experimentalist in graduate school, I faced a series of setbacks in my research, including spending half of the last year of my PhD rebuilding lab infrastructure instead of gathering data. We all periodically face moments when we ask ourselves: why the heck am I doing this? For me, spending a part of every day searching for a piece of my subject to share with the world was a chance to remind myself of what I love about fluid dynamics. Communicating science is an opportunity to see your field anew and renew your motivation to carry on in spite of the daily frustrations.
As you can see, there’s a lot to be gained, both personally and professionally, from engaging in science communication. If you’d like some resources or guidance on how to begin, UCS is a great place to start. AAAS also offers resources for scientists and your professional society may as well. For guidance to better online science communication, I recommend Science Blogging.
Good luck and remember to have fun!
Nicole Sharp is the creator and editor of FYFD, a fluid dynamics blog with a quarter of a million followers that has been featured by Wired magazine, The New York Times, The Guardian, Science, and others. Nicole earned her M.S. in aerospace engineering from Cornell University and her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University with experiments on the effects of surface roughness on airflow near a surface moving at Mach 6. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado, where she enjoys hiking, cycling, and skiing. You can find her online at @fyfluiddynamics or nicolesharp.com.
Nature 548, 489–490 (24 August 2017) doi:10.1038/nj7668-489a
When set up properly, individual development plans can be powerful tools for shaping a career.
Lia Rae Edmunds was annoyed when her department asked for an individual development plan (IDP) after she started her postdoc in developmental biology. “I thought it was an unnecessary hoop to jump through,” she says.
But despite her misgivings, Edmunds’s IDP has helped her to establish, review and update her goals and achievements with her supervisor. “As postdocs we have very loose guidelines on what we’re supposed to do, day in and day out,” says Edmunds, who works at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.
She used her IDP to set a weekly plan for activities in and outside the lab that would help her to complete her year’s goals, including writing a first-author paper (which she has now started) and mastering specific in vivo metabolic techniques. It has essentially become an informal contract between her and her supervisor. “We’re on the same page,” says Edmunds.
Not every university, study programme or lab head requires PhD students and postdocs to prepare or maintain an IDP, but many junior researchers say that it helps them to identify their skills and skill gaps, set professional goals and objectives with specific timelines and build a positive relationship with their supervisor, particularly around shared aims.
Those who have used IDPs say that to be most effective, the plan should be reviewed and updated at least once a year, with input and guidance from the principal investigator or mentor.
IDPs and similar tools, including career- and personal-development plans, have long been used in government and industry, particularly in Western nations, as a way to help employees to achieve short- and long-term career goals and to improve their performance on the job. Data are sparse on the number of researchers who use them, but science-career experts who advocate such tools say that it is crucial that the a plan has specific, detailed objectives.
Some junior researchers agree that IDPs are most useful when they are highly detailed and have multiple sections. Uschi Symmons, a molecular-biology postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, created a customized version by merging the university’s graduate-student IDP template with one for postdocs from Stanford University in California. She used her university’s section on self-reflection, skills analysis and goal setting, and Stanford’s progress-review section. The personalized plan helps her to consider and identify her skills and objectives in a clear way, she says. She knows that she wants to stay in academia and her plan has helped her to tick off important steps towards that goal, including publishing a paper and learning to do peer review. “It was useful to write down goals that I could measure, that I could influence,” she says. “If I hadn’t had that, achieving those goals would have been tougher.”
An IDP should include four components, says Philip Clifford, an associate dean for research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has been developing templates for and advocating IDPs since 2001. Those include sections for self-assessment and reflection; career choices and pathways; short- and long-term goals; and ways to achieve and implement those goals. All goals need to be specific, with timelines and action plans for each, says Cynthia Fuhrmann, an assistant dean of career and professional development at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester (see ‘Goal setting’).
Box 1: Goal setting
Research suggests that people who use professional-development plans such as the individual development plan (IDP) rank themselves higher on indices of success and achieve greater success within science and other fields according to some metrics (T. W. H. Ng et al. Pers. Psychol. 58, 367–408; 2005).
Cynthia Fuhrmann, an assistant dean of career and professional development at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, recommends that researchers apply the SMART principle — specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, time bound — to their goals. “It will transform planning from vague goals to specific ones, with timelines and action plans,” says Fuhrmann. Here are some of her tips for using the principle.
- Create specific, clear goals that are based around these questions: What do I want to accomplish? Why is this goal important? Who is involved? Where do I need to be? Which resources or limits are involved? If, for example, you want to improve your writing skills, you might consider what you will do, who can help you, when you can do what’s required and what improved writing skills would look like.
- Establish concrete criteria for measuring your progress. Write down each step you will need to take and how you will know when you have reached that goal. When you can measure your progress, you are more likely to stay on track and reach your target dates.
- Make sure your goals are action-oriented. Ask for the resources you need and mark check-in dates for the goals in your diary. Each goal should have a series of smaller sub-goals that you can tick off as you complete them.
- Create realistic goals that fit into your research schedule (and study programme if you are a student). Your goals are realistic if you truly believe that you can accomplish them.
- Give each goal a time frame. Without a deadline, there is no sense of urgency.
Gary McDowell can attest to the power of self-assessment. Now in his main role as head of Future of Research, a scientist-advocacy group in San Francisco, California, McDowell had initially aimed for an academic research career. But candidly reflecting on his life’s goals as part of his IDP helped him to realize that advocacy was his true interest. “I was looking at what I actually valued,” he says. “And had I done it earlier, this would have been a more obvious route.”
Reflection, together with considering career choices, also proved invaluable to Sarah Saminadin-Peter, who advises clients on food-contact regulations at Intertek, a quality-assurance company based in Brussels. While doing a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, she found that her IDP helped her to determine that she has superior organizational and project-management skills, and led her to mull alternatives to academia. “From there, I started to explore career paths that could match my competencies,” she says. She also wrote in her plan that she wanted to meet people from industry through conferences organized by her postdoc association. Soon afterwards, she connected with the consulting company Dr Knoell Consult in Mannheim, Germany, where she worked as a project manager for two years before moving to her current position.
Some researchers use other techniques. Rachel Yoho, a research associate studying science education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, uses job advertisements to identify gaps in her competencies. “If an ad says that I need a specific skill, I can see I need to go out and get it,” she says. She learnt through scanning ads that employers in her speciality sought candidates with strong teaching and leadership skills, so she bolstered hers through short courses. Yoho has since landed a faculty teaching position that she starts this month.
Some universities place little value on IDPs. Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, doesn’t advocate them for its graduate students and postdocs, says vice-provost for graduate education Zlatko Skrbis. Instead, Monash offers activities that are led by alumni and external trainers on career planning, project management, networking, negotiation, leadership and entrepreneurship, along with other topics relevant to professional development. The university encourages students to collaborate with their supervisors in coming up with a customized scheme. Research students can attend all activities for free and, depending on their doctoral programme, may be required to complete at least 120 hours of such training modules during their studies.
Those who are working on a written IDP, however, should ensure they discuss it with others to stay on track, says Furhrmann, who recommends that researchers share it with their principal investigator. “Discussing elements of your plan with your supervisor or mentor means that he or she is aware of the goals,” Fuhrmann says. Some universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, are experimenting with formal mentoring committees that connect a researcher with two or more academic staff members. These mentors can also help the junior researcher to stay accountable to their development plan and review their progress. “If you do have a disagreement over a project, technique or goal with one mentor,” says Edmunds, “there are two other people who signed off on the IDP”.
Occasionally a supervisor or principal investigator is not the best choice to confer with. Some graduate students and postdocs report that their principal investigator objected to non-academic career goals they had set out in the plan and tried to steer them into an academic-research trajectory. McGill University in Montreal, Canada, for example, will tell junior researchers not to automatically involve their supervisors when it launches a mandatory IDP initiative next year. “The idea is to not presume that the supervisor is the person with whom they should have that conversation,” says Lorna MacEachern, McGill’s graduate career-development counsellor. “A lot of students report anxiety around discussing their professional-development plans with their supervisors.”
Although Edmunds was initially sceptical about the value of an IDP, she is now a believer. In addition to helping her to articulate and achieve her goals, it has provided leverage. “You can use the IDP to advocate for yourself,” she says. “And that puts you in a stronger position in your current job — as well as for your future career development.”
A psychology professor at the U.S. Naval Academy on why professional guidance doesn’t always work out as planned
B.R.J. O’DONNELL JUL 28, 2017, The Atlantic
For The Atlantic’s series “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with W. Brad Johnson, a professor in the department of leadership, ethics, and law at the United States Naval Academy. Johnson talked about how his career came to focus on understanding mentorship, how these relationships can unravel, and what can be done to salvage them if they do. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
B.R.J. O’Donnell: What do you see as the most critical element to get right when it comes to mentorship?
W. Brad Johnson: Intentionality on both sides really matters. If there is one variable that shows if mentorship relationships are likely to take off or not, it’s frequency of interaction during the first several months of the relationship. I find that very often mentors are so busy that they may notionally commit to mentoring somebody and then never follow through. And I think an absent mentor, somebody who never responds, can be profoundly toxic. It may unintentionally convey to the mentee that they are just not that worthy or important.
O’Donnell: Some would say that the mentee should just be persistent in a situation like that. When faced with a distant mentor, should they just keep pushing for a response?
Johnson: Sometimes mentees view their mentors as being so accomplished that they have trepidation about approaching them, and they are hesitant to reach out. So if both of those elements are present, what you actually have is two people who just never interact, and that isn’t mentorship.
O’Donnell: In your experience, what is the biggest source of conflict in these relationships?
Johnson: I think if expectations are not aligned, you will often get conflict. If the two parties work to align their expectations around what the relationship is going to be about, and what functions a mentor is going to provide—how they will work together, what the mentor’s role will be in the life of the mentee, and how often they meet—then this is a pitfall that can be sidestepped.
O’Donnell: When mentorship isn’t going as planned, what can improve the situation?
Johnson: Too often, in any relationship where there is dysfunction, the two people don’t talk about it transparently. I would say that basic communication is essential. A mentor can avoid an awful lot of that simply by bringing up their concerns. It can be as straightforward as saying, “I’ve noticed that you don’t drop by anymore. Am I contributing to something that’s problematic? Help me understand.”
Also, self-awareness is key. If I’m a busy mentor, and I travel too much, and I don’t follow through with mentees, and that leads to hard feelings, then I have to solicit that feedback. And then I have to reflect. Perhaps the way I say things or the way I communicate is tricky and off-putting. If my own personal life is not going well—maybe my primary relationship is on the rocks, and I’m getting needs met, subtly, by mentees, and that’s uncomfortable for them—I’ve got to have self-awareness about that. I think the mentor has got to take responsibility.
O’Donnell: You’ve found romantic attraction to be a problem in some of these relationships. If someone does find themselves attracted to the person on the other side of the desk, what would you say to them?
Johnson: Occasionally, mentors have trouble with ethics and boundaries, and I know that is an issue in academia. It’s certainly an issue in corporate contexts. You will find people crossing boundaries, being intrusive, folks initiating romantic relationships. And those things that take away from the focus on the mentee’s career trajectory and personal development are toxic, and they can definitely lead to conflict.
I think mentors also need to come to terms with the idea that all of the things that lead to better mentoring may also lead to some attraction at times: self-disclosure, an increasingly bonded, trusting relationship, some measure of increase in warmth. Good boundaries are essential. Just like a mental-health professional might recognize that they have feelings of attraction towards a client, that doesn’t give them the green light to act on those feelings. In fact, in the field, there are very clear ethical guidelines prohibiting that, and for very good reason. In my view, it’s never going to be in the best interest of the mentee to sexualize or romanticize that relationship. So I put that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the mentor, to accept but not act on attraction.
O’Donnell: What is the most effective way to approach building these relationships, especially with people who are different from you?
Johnson: I really encourage and counsel humility, and this often comes up in the case of mentorship across differences in gender, differences in race, culture, sexual orientation. You need to be really careful about approaching someone with a different set of experiences from your own, with a sense of humility and a learning orientation. And for me, that goes beyond situations where there is conflict or dysfunction. I would say that humility is one of the hallmarks of really good mentorship in general.
Reading scientific papers can be a difficult and frustrating task – even after years of practice. A recent post by Science has highlighted some tips from a dozen scientists. Feel free to share your personal tips and tricks with us!