Are you giving an oral presentation at Experimental Biology or elsewhere? Check out this comprehensive list of tips to make your best presentation yet!

By Susanne Ulm

How To Improve The Presentation Skills Of PhD Students

Hey PhD student! Do you enjoy giving presentations? Probably not. Improving the presentation skills can reduce your public speaking anxiety and increase the joy of giving talks.

Nothing paralyses PhD students more than having to present at a conference. But nobody teaches us how to give a speech. Supervisors and PI focus mainly on science, not on making the presentation skills of PhD students better.

It’s a scary task and our scientific career depends on how well we talk in public. Fortunately, improving your presentation skills is possible if you know how.

Let me share some simple advice with you to improve your presentation skills.

A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest6.’ – Winston Churchill

Presentation Skills Of PhD Students 101

When I started my PhD I didn’t really have a clue what it meant to be a PhD student or even finish my degree, although there are many things you should know before starting a PhD.

I learned that doing a PhD means you constantly challenge yourself and improve your skills. Apart from managing your PhD research project and science writing, you are also faced with the big challenge to present your research to a wider audience by holding scientific talks.

Giving talks at group meetings and conferences is a common task in academia. Unfortunately, the presentation skills of PhD students are poor.

Let’s be honest, most of us don’t like speaking in public because we all fear to completely embarrass ourselves.

You might be presenting in front of a handful of your lab members. You might be showing the highlights of your PhD to 500 people at an international conference.

What’s sure is that you’ll get that funny feeling in your stomach and lack some oxygen. Don’t worry. Practice and good advice will turn you from a passing out presenter into the Obama of scientific presentations.

Here are some tips to improve the presentation skills of PhD students. It’s time to tame that scary monster of public speaking.

1. How To Prepare For A Talk

Most PhD students are nervous in front of an audience.

 ‘There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars.’ – Mark Twain5

You are nervous and I’m nervous. Guess what? Giving a talk makes everybody nervous. Giving a talk makes everybody scared. Even experienced speakers never overcome this fear. However, they have learned to cope with the anxiety and so can you!

Don’t Panic And Think Positive

There are plenty of public speaking tricks. Many presentation skills of PhD students can be improved. But nothing beats good old fashioned preparation.

If you prepare yourself well for a talk you’ll be unstoppable.

The first step of your preparation is to accept your destiny. Only by changing a bit of wording you can completely turn around your attitude: DON’T say: ‘I have to present a talk’, DO say: ‘I’m allowed to / I get the chance to present a talk’.1

It might also help to find a purpose for your talk. Your presentation might:

  • Tell the audience about your topic.
  • Raise awareness.
  • Address important issues about your research field.
  • Acknowledge someone’s work.
  • Be at a conference in a cool country.
  • Improve your presentation skills.

You can even dedicate your presentation to someone you love or admire.

If you are still overwhelmed by your task of ‘holding a talk’ make a plan and divide this big project into many smaller steps. Don’t worry if these steps seem ridiculously small like choosing your outfit for the talk.

As soon as you have created your plan, work from one step to another without thinking of more than one step at a time.

Start Your Preparation 

As a general rule, the more time you have for preparing a talk the better it will be. Try not to push everything until the very last minute. But don’t over do it.

The best thing is to create specific times in your schedule for your talk preparation and stick to them. You should aim to have your slides 95% finished 3 days before your talk. The goal is to have a few days to rehearse your talk and change little details in your slides.

Some people can prepare whole talks in their head before writing anything down. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for most of us. With the usage of computer it is easy to start in between.

Generating Ideas For Your Talk

Writing your ideas down often helps clarifying your thinking and focuses you on your task. In a normal state your mind is full of different emotions and thoughts so writing helps putting your thoughts into a right logical order.

Don’t worry if your ideas seem silly at the beginning. Try to capture everything that comes to your mind. Editing yourself is always easier than sitting in front of a blank page and trying to come up with perfect ideas.

Often the ideas hit you at unexpected places and times. I usually have a small notebook with me where I can scribble down ideas. Smart phone addicts can use Evernote free.

In addition, inspirations are everywhere:

  • Things you read on the internet or in magazines.
  • People you talk to.
  • Your own experiences
  • A random conversation you overhear on the bus.
  • Movies
  • Music

The list will be endless if you keep an open mind. If you don’t know exactly where to start just start anywhere. Additional ideas will follow later. The hardest step is the first step.

Know Your Audience 

Knowing your audience and their background has a high impact on the quality and structure of your talk.

The amount of introduction required for your field, each technique and each problem will depend on how much the audience knows about your topic.

You should know your audience

If your audience comes from a broad range of backgrounds you will have to introduce your field of research saying what it is about and why it is important to do research in your field. Don’t take for granted that they know the techniques you used. Your audience will appreciate a basic description.

If most of your audience consists of scientists in your field you can skip introducing it and spend more time on the novelty of your research.

A great speaker gets the attention of the audience very quickly at the beginning with either a personal story or with addressing an issue the audience faces.

Think about problems or fears these people have and answer their ‘So what?’ question. Which questions might your audience raise? This will help you understand their mindset and see your presentation from their perspective.

You can’t give to school children the same presentation as you hold in front of scientists. If you can’t bring something your audience can relate to it will be very difficult to build up a connection and people will stop listening to you. So at the end your message won’t get heard.

‘The success of your presentation will be judged not by the knowledge you send but by what the listener receives.’ – Lily Walters4

Learn From Others

Keep calm and always remember you are not the first person walking that path! Have you already attended talks?

Talks can come in different forms: journal club, seminar series, annual society talk, conference talk, even a guest speech at the last wedding you attended is a talk. You can learn the most from either great or bad speakers.

Which ones did you really enjoy? What exactly made these talks great? What were the mistakes in awful research presentations? Why were these talks so bad that you wished yourself somewhere else?

Now be honest to yourself: Do you make similar mistakes when you are nervous?Only by analysing these talks you might already get hints on improving your presentation style.

If you can’t remember enough talks you can find presentations nearly everywhere:

  • Often local libraries or event websites of your city advertise public talks.
  • If you work at a university you will usually find talk announcements in your email newsletter.
  • The most time-independent and largest source is the internet. For example, you can find lots of speakers on TED (technology, entertainment, design). TED organises non-profit conferences to ‘ideas worth spreading’. Its speakers come from different backgrounds and are given up to 20 minutes to describe their projects. YouTube offers more opportunities for observing talks.

How To Prepare Slides For Your Talk

Collecting ideas in slides can produce a chaotic presentation. Do you want a more organized way to create your slides? Start from the end. It goes like this:

  • First of all you need to think about the main message of your talkIf you had to sum up your talk in one or two sentences, what would you say?
  • Create the acknowledgement slide. It helps to fill up at least one slide and avoid the paralysis by a blank page.
  • Create the conclusions slide. Here you should list no more than 3 take-home messages. You could also include no more than 3 things to improve, aka future lines of research.
  • Decide which results you want to show. Create the slides with the images of your results.
  • Create the slides with the methods that people need to hear to understand how you reached your results.
  • Create the introduction slides. In these first slides of your talk you motivate the audience to listen, show the importance of your research and explain the choice of methods that will come later in your talk. The type of introduction slides depends on your audience. Sometimes you will need to introduce your whole field of research, other times just the narrow problem you are tackling.
  • Create the title slide.

Title Page

It’s easy to underestimate how important the very first slide is. However, the title page represents the first impression of you. Your audience will see this slide for the longest time.

It’s important to check the spelling and make sure you add some details apart from the title, such as institution, your name, your email address and funding sources.

Put in your title as many keywords as possible so people can guess what your talk is about. But make it short enough so people can remember most of it after they finished reading it.

Tips For Making Better Slides

You might be able to understand your data easily but for the audience you are often the expert in your field. Even a scientific audience can get overwhelmed by your data very quickly.

Here are 12 tips to simplify your slides:

  • Slides are not books, so avoid having too many lines of text that you will read out loud. If you write everything on your slides and you don’t add anything extra in your speech, why are you giving the talk anyway? Just print the slides as handouts and save your audience from hearing you recite them.
  • It might sound too simple but the best thing is to put only facts on your slides you want to mention during your talk. Often speakers show extensive overviews so the audience can taste the whole story. However, these slides tend to overwhelm and confuse the audience. If you really can’t live without such a slide you should say: ‘I’m using this slide to give a quick glance of the pathways/mechanisms BUT I won’t go too much into detail.’
  • Bullet points are often easier to read than full sentences. Avoid using more than 5 bullet points on each slide. People can remember facts best in 3s so 3 bullet points per slide are the sweet spot.
  • It’s best to avoid repetitions: If you compare two experiments don’t explain both in detail. Instead, explain the 1st experiment in more detail and while explaining the 2nd experiment concentrate on the differences to the 1st one. Otherwise people get bored and stop listening.
  • Make the graphs and charts simple and not too detailed. Often people don’t like numbers and so it’s best to use only the data that emphasise your story. You can think of using colors or percentages (or both) instead of numbers. For instance, if you want to show that number A is 20% increased versus number B, then use a 20% in green.
  • As general estimate of time used for a talk: 1 slide = 1 minute of your talk. So if you have 10 slides including the title page you will probably talk around 10 minutes because you can explain some slides quickly while others need more time. Forget about talking faster to squeeze more slides in the same time.
  • What you write on your slides should only support what you say and not the other way around.
  • Avoid using abbreviations; even if you explain them at the beginning it won’t mean your audience still remembers them 5 minutes later.
  • While presenting data avoid saying ‘It shows a tendency’. Always remember, your results are either significant OR not significant. However, there is the exception when you present preliminary data. Then you can use the term if you have planned further experiments to clarify your results.
  • If necessary raise rhetorical questions or ask questions to keep your audience concentrated.
  • The more complex your topic is the more important is the use of analogies and metaphors instead of jargon definitions. Therefore, it’s again very crucial to know your audience members and their backgroundknowledge.
  • You might also use humour to explain a problem. However, stay away from making fun of anything else than yourself! Otherwise you might experience the depressing, long awkward silence after a bad joke.


I love pictures and I’m sure so do you. As a matter of fact, we all love pictures! Therefore, it’s always good to use some pictures to attract your audience.

Use pictures while explaining a difficult topic: A picture is often worth a thousand words.

If you are presenting pictures or figures that are not yours please make sure you cite the source.

As a tip: If you want to present data from a paper have a closer look on the website that published the paper. There, you can often download the specific picture as PowerPoint slide (with references already included).

It’s convenient to test your slides with a projector and not only on your computer screen. Colours may vary much on a projector screen and it might be difficult to see some colors.


On average the audience only grasps less than 30% of your data. Therefore you should summarise or repeat some data if necessary. You could say: ‘ This experiment shows…which is in contrast to the earlier experiment that showed…’.

During talks I often imagine explaining the topic to a child which loses attention rather quickly and thus repetitions in between are necessary to keep up the interest.

If your data is excessive give a summary for each main chapter in between. Don’t mention it on a separate slide because often only one summary sentence is enough, such as ‘To sum up / Taken together / So far these data show that….’.

Keeping your summaries short also prevents you from overdoing repetitions which might make your presentation boring.

At the end of your presentation you should present you ‘take-away’ message for your audience.

‘If I had only sixty seconds on the stage, what would I absolutely have to say to get my message across.’ – Jeff Dewar

This message can take up to 2 slides. During your summary try to avoid repeating too many results and generalise as much as possible.

If you have trouble creating a summary of your talk: Think about your main message and from there explain briefly the facts that support this idea with sentences like ‘The protein is important because…’ and ‘The role of x is still controversial….’.


Acknowledgements are important as they show your audience that you don’t take more credit than you should. Again, as we love pictures, a group photo would be nice. Otherwise, tell the audience full names of contributors and what they shared.

This doesn’t have to take up too much time and one short sentence for each person is plenty. It’s often enough to say: ‘I would like to thank x for providing/ contributing to the x data’.

Tips To Create Slides Faster

Microsoft PowerPoint SmartArt allows you to create flow charts, lists and arrange pictures in an easy and quick way.

I also keep a ‘talks’ folder which includes all my talks and their first drafts. This type of folder is very useful to find inspiration and you could use slides as templates or re-use them completely.

Most scientists use older slides as starting points. If you don’t have slides of your own yet, ask colleagues for their slides as source of inspiration.

In fact you should also try to store slides from other people. If you attended a presentation and you liked something of it – a plot, an image or a description – ask kindly for the slides. Tell the speaker in advance that you are going to use only image A and that he/she will be duly cited.

How To Be A Confident Presenter 

We are often afraid that people will notice we are scared to death. We think they will discover our fears by the tone, or by the accelerated breathing, or by our sweaty foreheads.

Luckily there are several things we can do to gain confidence and become a comfortable speaker and to rock our scientific talks.

Giving presentations is a stressful situation for most people because after all public speaking is NOT a talent but a learned skill (only practice makes perfect). To transform yourself into a confident speaker you should try to fake it until you finally become it.

To achieve presentation nirvana there are 4 tips:

  • Prepare and rehearse your presentation. A good preparation boosts your self-confidence in general.
  • Know what you are presenting. Don’t invent anything. Don’t present something you are not 100% sure how it was done. Don’t present anything that you do not believe in.
  • Talk to the audience. Don’t just spit out memorized ideas.
  • Improve your behavior. As you give your presentation the audience not only listens to you but also analyses your non-verbal communication. Don’t worry, everyone communicates this way.

Practice Your Talk

Even the best notes and slides are worth nothing if you can’t remember what you wanted to say because you didn’t prepare well enough. Therefore, practice makes perfect.

You should practise your talk on your own and with an audience.

If you practise your talk 30 times it might be too much. You could try to cut your repetitions gradually from one talk to another until you reached a healthy number below 10 times.

Giving your talk in front of an audience (your group members) helps to get honest feedback. Let them shoot at the design of the slides, the content, your articulation, your rhythm and anything they think will improve your presentation.

I have problems with learning a lot of sentences. For me it’s easier to remember the main facts only.

Memorizing your talk as bullet points also gives your brain a chance to talk in a ‘normal’ way during your presentation. If you prepare your slides wisely they will guide you through what you want to say and remind you to keep track.

Learning full sentences often ends up sounding like you are reading from a book and if you forget only a few words you will panic.

If you tend to lose track of time practice your talk repeatedly with a timer. After several iterations you will fine-tune your message so it fits in the time you have for your talk.

On the day of your presentation simply keep a watch in front of you or near the projector. In addition, PowerPoint allows to move to the next slide after the same amount of time you did while practicing at home.1

Enough of the preparation part: Now let’s see which presentation skills for PhD students are necessary on the day of the talk.

2. How To Give A Talk

 ‘The only person who listens to every word of your speech is you.’ – Unknown

Arrive Early

You should arrive early to have enough time to talk with the chair of your session. Th chair of a session is the boss running the show.

Introduce yourself to the chair and advise on the pronunciation of your name and provide a short bio, so she/he can introduce you. Don’t forget to hand over your slides.

Ask the chair to test your slides on the computer used for the presentations. Check that the projector displays colors, transitions and videos flawlessly.

If during the presentation some slides don’t show up as they should, don’t panic! Simply tell the audience at the right time about the faulty slide by mentioning what they should see and move on. Don’t dwell on it because things like that happen all the time!

If you are unsure about anything, like the length of time for question, you can ask the chair in advance. Thereby you avoid looking confused and panic during your talk because of unexpected things, such as the chair stopping you to answer questions.

Also, arriving early will give you a chance to get used to the room itself and its surroundings. Go on stage and visualize yourself at the time of the presentation. Once you go up the stage for real, it will feel familiar and less intimidating.

You will also have a quiet moment to find a place where you prefer to stay. Everyone should see you, so don’t hide behind the projector. Hiding also makes it more difficult for your audience to understand you clearly.

I also arrive early because it allows me to talk to people who arrive early as well. It often helps to ease my tension and makes me realize that the audience consists of normal people and not of monsters waiting for my mistakes.

Extra tip to reduce panic: Ask something at one of the talks before yours. Doing so gives you the feeling that ‘you have already talked in public that day’. This helps to start your talk more relaxed.

Things To Bring To Your Presentation

  • The most important thing to bring along is of course yourself. Don’t worry, your presentation will be over soon!
  • Take a water bottle with you, just in case. It’s nothing worse than having a cough attack in between.
  • Your notes but only BEFORE the talk. I tend to repeat some passages in my mind before the talk and not remembering some things can create panic. So I keep my notes handy. But try to avoid using your notes during your talk. Otherwise you tend to stick to them too much and don’t talk freely to the audience. Also, having your notes nearby will help in case of a total blackout.
  • The laser pointer enables you to point out things in detail.

Body Language 

Non-verbal communication determines how people feel and think about each other. It’s one of the most important presentation skills of PhD students (and any presenter!). You can give the wrong first impression with the wrong body language.

In general every one of us may send out 2 different kind of ‘messages’:

  • Expression of power (body language: You take up the space of the room you are in and basically open up your posture).
  • The feeling of powerless (body language: You close-up, wrap yourself up and make yourself small).

When you feel powerful you will show a powerful body language.

Can you remember one of your biggest achievements? How did you feel? You probably felt powerful and showed a better body language.

Powerful people are more confident, optimistic and more laid back in response to stress. This is reflected by their hormone levels with high testosterone and low cortisol levels.

BUT when it comes to power it goes both ways.

You don’t have to feel powerful to become it. If you pretend to be powerful you will more likely start to feel it and become powerful.

Only 2 minutes of keeping a powerful pose are enough to make your hormone levels switch significantly. This tiny tweak of 2 minutes ‘power posing’ can lead to big changes in body language.

Other Tips To Improve Body Language

  • With gestures it’s like many things in life: not too much and not too less. Try to find a middle point where you avoid overly dramatic hand gestures or keeping your arms as still as if they are dead. If you tend to get stiff try to loosen up a bit and if you are often overexcited make an effort to relax. After all, everything will be over soon anyway.
  • Take your time to breath properly in between and don’t rush through the talk as if it is a race.
  • The most important thing: Smile! Be friendly while talking. Also, smiling relaxes your body because it goes both ways: We smile when we are happy but when we force ourselves to smile we start feeling happy.
  • If you get shaky hands avoid using a laser pointer. Instead you can use words like ‘In the upper left corner of the figure we see…’. If you do have to use a pointer use two hands, one for the pointer and the other one to hold your wrist; this will reduce the shaking.

Additional Tip For Women: If you usually don’t wear high heels avoid wearing them during your talk or make sure you practise walking in them for some days in advance. Otherwise you tend to lean your body too much forward, which looks awkward for the audience.

Be Honest To Yourself And The Audience 

Do you have any rituals before a talk? Ignore your urges to do them before your next talk. Your body associates these rituals with the scary situation of giving a presentation. This gives your mind time to create panic and fear. The next time simply ‘shock’ yourself and just do it!

Especially in stress situations like holding a presentation be true to yourself. So don’t try to copy someone who is the opposite of you. Your audience will recognize this falseness and won’t trust you and your competence very much.

‘Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.’ – Judy Garland

It’s also good to know your minor faults. If you know you usually talk too fast during talks make the conscious decision to speak slower than it might feel right for you. In contrast, if you tend to speak slower try to speak faster than it feels correct for your own instincts.

I tend to speak quietly, so I try to speak louder.

Should You Allow Questions During Your Talk?

You can say if you prefer questions in between or at the end of your talk. The decision fully depends on you and your preferences.

I say at the beginning of my talks: ‘If you have at any point problems understanding me please let me know’. Being upfront gives my audience the chance to raise awareness and I won’t get paranoid by questioning myself all the time.

You can point when exactly you want to answer any questions by asking at specific moments: ‘Are there any questions so far?’

If you are very nervous it might be better to get the talk over and done with and leave the questions until the end.

Keep in mind that allowing questions during your talk will make your presentation last longer. If the chair of the session is strict with the time allotted to each talk you might find yourself out of time before you presented your most interesting findings.

Nobody Is Perfect

Now imagine you are in the middle of your talk and everything runs smoothly.

Suddenly you have a blackout and can’t remember how you started your sentence.

You have to re-start a sentence and you feel the panic rise. You are somehow sure the audience thinks you are a complete idiot.

If you tend to have these feelings completely IGNORE them! Most people either don’t realize your mistake or are likely to look over it.

While being in a stressful situation we tend to lose track of reality and that’s why we panic because of a lot of minor things. In these fearful moments suddenly seconds seem like minutes or even hours.

It’s important that you don’t push yourself too hard by saying: ‘I want this talk to be perfect’. This goal is impossible to reach and you will likely start to panic during your talk when you make even minor mistakes, for example miss-spell a word or say a sentence in a wrong order.

The audience usually knows what you are going through and understand that you are nervous. Remember, it’s ok to make some mistakes.

‘If you present yourself as perfect – we will not believe you and we will hate you. We like you when we see that you are imperfect like we are.’ – Unknown

My personal goal of each talk is: ‘I want to be better than the last time’. This task takes the pressure of being perfect and at the same time it prevents myself from treating the talk lightly.

Audience/Eye Contact

If you can’t look at people directly during your presentation you can look at the horizon line just above the heads.  OR better: Look randomly at people without analysing their expressions.

Make sure you look at every ‘section’ of the room from time to time (e.g. left side/ middle/right side). So no one within your audience feels left out.

3. Questions & Answers Time

After your talk comes one of the most scary moments for PhD students: Questions and Answers.

Depending on the audience, leave at least 10 minutes for questions at the end of your talk.

If you are too shy looking people directly into the eyes, concentrate on a point between their eyes. People don’t realise the difference and still think you keep eye contact.

The best advice for answering questions is to understand them in first place.

If you don’t understand a question double-check before talking about something the person didn’t want to know. In that case you may be very blunt by asking: ‘Do you mean….? Are you asking about this or that….?’. These questions might also give you some additional time to think about your answer.

It’s good to repeat the question even if you understand it. In this way everybody in the audience can hear it and you double-check that you understood it.

Don’t panic if you don’t have an answer to every question. Even the best expert can’t know everything.

Instead of saying: ‘I don’t know’, acknowledge the question by saying: ‘That’s an interesting point of view, I haven’t really thought of this aspect yet’.

Another standard reply you must memorise is: ‘We haven’t looked into that yet, but it is [on our to-do list / one of our future lines of research / the next idea we want to explore]’.

questions and answers

You could try to give the person who asked the tricky question an option for an answer. For example, if you have the data somewhere on your computer you could say: ‘Unfortunately I don’t have time looking for the data now but I could look it up after the talk if you could spare some minutes afterwards’.

This trick of suggesting to discuss further after the talk works like a charm when the person asking gets too pushy. You reassure her/him that you will consider the ideas and you also leave room for somebody else to ask more questions.

Don’t take questions too personal. Even if it seems they make your research look silly. Even if the tone and attitude of who is asking seems too aggressive. Stay cool. Be polite. You don’t want to start a cat fight in front of the audience.

Most of the times people don’t mean anything bad with their questions. There is nothing some minutes of clarification after your talk can’t smooth.

4. After Your Talk

‘There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practised, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.’ – Dale Carnegie

You made it to the end of your presentation. Congratulations!! This deserves a celebration.

talk is over

You finished it without passing out. You didn’t look like a fool.

Now people understand your research and think of you as a promising PhD student.

But your work is not over yet. There are a few things you must do after your presentation:

  •  The first thing you should do is to relax. Be proud of yourself that you made it. Enjoy it!
  • People might come up to you in person and have extra questions. This might not necessarily mean they are picky, maybe they were simply to shy asking questions in front of others.
  • The time after your talk offers you a good chance to do networking by exchanging contact details, discuss experimental settings or setting up possible collaborations. Have some business cards at hand!
  • After the stress is over and the audience is gone, find a moment of quiet and analyse yourselfWhich things could you do better the next time? You can also ask a colleague for some feedback. Don’t be too harsh to yourself and don’t overestimate every tiny mistake. Don’t take criticism too hard or be offended if someone didn’t like your presentation at all. Different presentation styles exist and therefore you can ignore unhelpful feedback.
  • If you haven’t done it yet, it’s time to socialise at the scientific conference.

In a tiny nutshell, if you want to improve the presentation skills of PhD students:

Prepare your talk well and keep things simple.

It’s important to create a relationship with your audience by understanding their background and knowing their needs.

While presenting, be confident and don’t panic in between because everyone makes mistakes, even the most experiences speakers.

Be yourself, be who you are and your audience will feel comfortable.

Finally, enjoy.


‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ – Carl W. Buechner

Do you have a poster presentation at the upcoming Experimental Biology meeting? Check this blog out to see why poster presentations are great for trainees!


By John Finn

Six reasons why PhD students should make poster presentations

When visiting other institutions, I love learning about people’s research  by reading their posters. Here’s a picture of the wall outside my own office…
Are research posters a good use of time and effort? I’ve been intending to write a post about posters since PhDSkills began…so here it is! I’ve been putting it off because there is so much to talk about, and this will be the first of several posts on posters. Here, I outline six advantages of posters.

I think that early-career researchers are much more able to disseminate information via posters than many of  their senior colleagues. This was very apparent to me at a recent conference, where I witnessed a 6-foot tall poster (it was more like wallpaper) with size 12 font – the authors (three senior researchers) seemed to have simply copied and pasted an entire research report into a poster format. This poster attracted the attention of everyone at the conference – but no-one noticed its research content!

I am a keen advocate of poster presentations for PhD students (and all researchers) for a number of reasons.

  1. Posters clarify thinking. This is probably the most important function of a poster, especially at the early stages of a PhD or any research project. The creation of a poster is a form of writing, and like all writing, forces the writer to focus on clarifying and expressing a clear message. This is probably one of the most important functions of a poster for PhD students, as it is probably one of your first public dissemination of your work. This is a great opportunity to focus some energy on thinking about: What is my main message? What are my priority arguments or pieces of evidence? Why are they important to my target audience? How can I best present my main message?
  2. Posters are an effective dissemination tool. When well-designed, posters can be an excellent way of disseminating research information. This doesn’t have to be at a conference! As in the picture above, the use of posters in your own research institution are a great way of informing others about your research. These ‘others’ are not just visitors from somewhere else! You will be amazed at how little your colleagues know about your research – a poster can be the easiest way method to address this. When your colleagues know more about your research, they can better discuss it, offer new perspectives and perhaps spark up new collaborations and projects – which can mean a new research article or a new job.
  3. Posters will help you travel the world. Many researchers can only justify their attendance at a conference or workshop if they are making an oral or poster presentation. For early-stage researchers, a poster presentation can be less threatening than an oral presentation at a conference. Many conferences now allocate a 3- or 5-minute oral presentation for poster presenters to advertise their wares – I think that these are really effective. Use this time to generate an emotional attachment to your work (a short relevant anecdote, the importance of your work, relevance to policy, unexpected results etc.) to attract visits to your poster, rather than trying to cram all your results into 3 minutes.
  4. Poster sessions can sometimes be more rewarding than oral presentations.The most rewarding conferences are those where you have made good links with other researchers or stakeholders with an interest in your work, and vice versa. Oral presentations are generally a one-to-many flow of information, with the exception of the questions at the end. This question time can generate great questions, but the discussion is always a little stilted when in front of a crowd. In contrast, poster sessions where you stand by your poster and engage passers-by can allow you to engage in more extended one-to-one discussion with people who are interested in your work.
  5. Posters can complement your online profile. There are numerous online repositories of posters, and more conferences are now uploading posters (not just related abstracts) to poster galleries. This can help you use Twitter, Facebook or other social media to link to and promote the content of your poster. Similarly, you can include a QR code on your poster to link to your blog or other relevant online resource. I occasionally practice what I preach, and used a QR code on a poster for the first time recently, (bottom left of poster below) to link to the abstract of a journal article on which the poster was based.
  6. Posters can help extend your network. See points 2, 3, 4 and 5.

PhD Skill: The ability to create effective poster presentations is an important research skill. Make a poster about your research today – even if it just to describe what you intend to do in your research. There are at least six reasons why this is to your advantage!
There are LOTS of great online poster resources, and I’m going to collate some of them in a future post. If I had to pick one, it would be ‘Designing conference posters’ by Colin Purrington.

Attending Experimental Biology in San Diego? Check out these tips for effective conference networking!

By Carolyn Beans

At my first academic conference I didn’t introduce myself to anyone. As a first year graduate student I directed every bit of bravery toward my talk, which left nothing extra for approaching the scientists I admired.

At the next conference I fully intended to introduce myself to every evolutionary biologist in sight. But at every coffee break and social mixer most professors were locked in conversation with each other. To talk with these scientists, I needed to break in on the conversation—a seemingly impossible task.

I found, however, that with a few tricks and a lot of preparation, introductions at conferences become much less intimidating. Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the years, which I wish someone had told me before I headed out to my first big meetings.

1) Jump in on the conversation—Even though you may feel awkward, silly, or rude, you must join in on conversations. The first time I approached a scientist at a social mixer, I waited for what felt like 20 minutes for her to turn from her colleague and acknowledge me. I actually considered backing away slowly and then making a run for it. In reality, the wait was probably about 20 seconds. Ten minutes later she invited me to give my first guest lecture.

2) Have an opening ready—Immediately launching into your elevator talk seems unnatural. Instead, open with a question or observation about a scientist’s work. Then he or she will inevitably ask what you study. Cue elevator talk.

3) Get over insecurities about your work—Maybe you hate your elevator talk because your research isn’t going well. No one is more empathetic about failed experiments and underwhelming results than professors who have endured decades of them.

4) Practice ahead—Practice introducing yourself and transitioning into your elevator talk with your fellow graduate students before heading to the conference.

5) Use connections—If you can’t bring yourself to break into a conversation, ask a professor you do know to make the introductions.

6) Email ahead—Check out the program as the conference approaches to see who is presenting. If there is a professor you are especially eager to talk with, then email him or her to ask about setting up a time to meet. You can also use social media to connect with many delegates. Emailing ahead eliminates that uncomfortable introduction period. Also, for large conferences, scheduling a meeting ensures that you actually find the person you’re looking for.

7) Book a room nearby—Networking can be tiring for even the most extroverted conference attendee. Last summer I stayed in dorms located a solid twenty-minute walk from the conference venue. When networking fatigue set in, there was nowhere to escape unless I wanted to miss out on a good portion of the afternoon. When a classmate and I confessed our exhaustion to our professor, she suggested that next time (if we could afford the expense), we should book a hotel room close by. This gives you a place to break away for a quick 10-minute recharge without missing much of the action. There you can take a few deep breaths and enjoy some silence. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll want to listen to some music to pump you up for more. My personal favorite songs for conference confidence boosting are ‘Lady Don’t Tek No’ by Lyrics Born and ‘As Cool As I Am’ by Dar Williams.

So at your next conference, prepare ahead, book a recharge room, blast some tunes, and then go meet your future postdoc adviser.


A Twitter argument about how many hours academics should work prompted Lucy Foulkes to seek out advice for early career researchers


Taken from

Last week a tweet about academics’ working hours went viral:

I tell my graduate students and post-docs that if they’re working 60 hours per week, they’re working less than the full professors, and less than their peers. 

It clearly hit a nerve on academic Twitter. Many argued that they didn’t work these hours, and critically, they would never want to push this idea on junior colleagues. This hit home with me. During my PhD and postdoc, for a number of reasons, I almost exclusively “just” worked office hours. Now at the start of a lectureship, I feel a massive expectation from the wider academic system that my working hours will have to change. Reading all the responses on Twitter was genuinely eye-opening: I just had no idea that so many successful academics clock in at 40-45 hours a week. If I didn’t know this, maybe other early career researchers (ECRs) didn’t either. So I contacted lots of people who responded to the tweet to answer a simple question: How can you be a productive academic without working long hours? Here I’ve collated the responses to create more helpful – and more realistic – advice for ECRs.

Working outside office hours doesn’t mean working 60 hours a week

Many people agreed that they worked in the evening or at weekends, some occasionally, some regularly. However, what was clear was that, typically, people work at these times because they are not at their desk during office hours, and so overall they spent a similar amount of time working.

I had to be a bit flexible when my kids were little … but I tried really hard not to change the number of hours I worked in a typical day.
Jenni Rodd, reader in experimental psychology, UCL

Others said they started later in the day because they preferred to work in the evening or at night. Critically, people often seem to be working long hours because they work (and send emails) outside of office hours, but this doesn’t mean they are working round the clock.

Periods of working longer hours are temporary

Most people said they occasionally worked longer hours. For some, this varied week to week, such as Philipp Berens (group leader in ophthalmic research, University of Tübingen):

If something really important has to be finished, I occasionally work a few hours on the weekend or evenings (less than once a week).

For others, it varied at different life or career stages, such as working longer hours before having children or in the build-up before getting a promotion. Everyone has periods where they work long hours, but this didn’t happen every day throughout their career. And it is perhaps this notion – the idea of relentlessly working long hours – that is such a toxic message to send out. Few students would be intimidated by a career that involves temporary periods of hard graft; implying that this happens all the time is what is so unhelpful and inaccurate.

Maximise your efficiency

Since I have never worked long hours, I’m always interested to learn how people work effectively within limited time frames. Many people I contacted mentioned strategies for dealing with email, often checking it less frequently: “If I really need to concentrate I just close my email tab on my internet browser for a few hours,”said Nichola Raihani, professor of evolution and behaviour at UCL, “I probably check and reply to emails about 4/5 times per day.” Others scheduled time for intensive tasks:

I use my online calendar to schedule out my time, I make sure I blank out time for thinking and writing (often the first things that can disappear from your planning) and I protect that time fiercely. I try to load all my meetings into a few days a week so that I have better windows for analysis and writing.
Victoria Simms, lecturer in psychology, Ulster University

I put a timer on Google that beeps after 40 minutes (or a timer on your phone). I then only allow myself to focus on that one single task for the entire 40 minutes….I do not let myself open other windows than the one I’m working on, even if it’s to check a reference- I make a note to do it at another time in the current document.
Charlotte Brand, postdoc in human behaviour and evolution, University of Exeter

Many people said that having a family at home made them more focused at work, such as Kathryn Asbury, senior lecturer in psychology in education, University of York:

If I have promised to be home for bedtime stories at seven, then that really focuses the mind when there are tasks that need to be finished (and there always are).

The specific strategy varied across individuals, but what seemed essential to working fewer hours was learning how to maximise productivity in the time you had.

Personal working schedules shouldn’t be pushed on others

Some academics choose and are able to work long hours, often because they enjoy it. But for many, external circumstances dictate the hours they can work, and sending the message that this precludes an academic career is damaging. One senior lecturer in humanities said this:

A long-hours culture excludes everyone with caring responsibilities, illnesses, and disabilities, which could be any one of us at any time during our lives.

Everyone agreed that, whatever your own circumstances, the expectation to work long hours should not pushed upon students or other colleagues. “I think I am very explicit to them that I never expect [students and postdocs] to put in time outside the normal hours, unless they want to themselves,” said Joost Dessing, lecturer in psychology, Queen’s University Belfast. “If they get the enjoyment out of work as I did, they may want to come in extra hours, but this is never my expectation.”

A better message for ECRs

All academics work hard, but not all of them work long hours, and it’s a mistake to conflate the two. There’s a hundred reasons why someone can’t or doesn’t want to work 60 hours a week, and this shouldn’t rule out a productive academic career. So this is the message to people starting out: you are going to work hard, no doubt, and sometimes that will mean working long hours – but not always. I’ll end with one of my favourite comments:

Having a happy, relatively secure time in academia whilst working the kind of hours that allow for a healthy work-life balance is clearly possible, because there are lots of us that do just that.
Elli Leadbetter, reader in biological sciences, Royal Holloway


By Gundula Bosch

Taken from

Under pressure to turn out productive lab members quickly, many PhD programmes in the biomedical sciences have shortened their courses, squeezing out opportunities for putting research into its wider context. Consequently, most PhD curricula are unlikely to nurture the big thinkers and creative problem-solvers that society needs.

That means students are taught every detail of a microbe’s life cycle but little about the life scientific. They need to be taught to recognize how errors can occur. Trainees should evaluate case studies derived from flawed real research, or use interdisciplinary detective games to find logical fallacies in the literature. Above all, students must be shown the scientific process as it is — with its limitations and potential pitfalls as well as its fun side, such as serendipitous discoveries and hilarious blunders.

This is exactly the gap that I am trying to fill at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where a new graduate science programme is entering its second year. Microbiologist Arturo Casadevall and I began pushing for reform in early 2015, citing the need to put the philosophy back into the doctorate of philosophy: that is, the ‘Ph’ back into the PhD. We call our programme R3, which means that our students learn to apply rigour to their design and conduct of experiments; view their work through the lens of social responsibility; and to think critically, communicate better, and thus improve reproducibility. Although we are aware of many innovative individual courses developed along these lines, we are striving for more-comprehensive reform.

Our offerings are different from others at the graduate level. We have critical-thinking assignments in which students analyse errors in reasoning in a New York Times opinion piece about ‘big sugar’, and the ethical implications of the arguments made in a New Yorker piece by surgeon Atul Gawande entitled ‘The Mistrust of Science’. Our courses on rigorous research, scientific integrity, logic, and mathematical and programming skills are integrated into students’ laboratory and fieldwork. Those studying the influenza virus, for example, work with real-life patient data sets and wrestle with the challenges of applied statistics.

A new curriculum starts by winning allies. Both students and faculty members must see value in moving off the standard track. We used informal interviews and focus groups to identify areas in which students and faculty members saw gaps in their training. Recurring themes included the inability to apply theoretical knowledge in statistical tests in the laboratory, frequent mistakes in choosing an appropriate set of experimental controls, and significant difficulty in explaining work to non-experts.

Introducing our programme to colleagues in the Johns Hopkins life-sciences departments was even more sensitive. I was startled by the oft-expressed opinion that scientific productivity depended more on rote knowledge than on competence in critical thinking. Several principal investigators were uneasy about students committing more time to less conventional forms of education. The best way to gain their support was coffee: we repeatedly met lab heads to understand their concerns.

With the pilot so new, we could not provide data on students’ performance, but we could address faculty members’ scepticism. Some colleagues were apprehensive that students would take fewer courses in specialized content to make room for interdisciplinary courses on ethics, epistemology and quantitative skills. In particular, they worried that the R3 programme could lengthen the time required for students to complete their degree, leave them insufficiently knowledgeable in their subject areas and make them less productive in the lab.

We made the case that better critical thinking and fewer mandatory discipline-specific classes might actually position students to be more productive. We convinced several professors to try the new system and participate in structured evaluations on whether R3 courses contributed to students’ performance.

So far, we have built 5 new courses from scratch and have enrolled 85 students from nearly a dozen departments and divisions. The courses cover the anatomy of errors and misconduct in scientific practice and teach students how to dissect the scientific literature. An interdisciplinary discussion series encourages broad and critical thinking about science. Our students learn to consider societal consequences of research advances, such as the ability to genetically alter sperm and eggs.

Discussions about the bigger-picture problems of the scientific enterprise get students to reflect on the limits of science, and where science’s ability to do something competes with what scientists should do from a moral point of view. In addition, we have seminars and workshops on professional skills, particularly leadership skills through effective communication, teaching and mentoring.

It is still early days for assessment. So far, however, trainees have repeatedly emphasized that gaining a broader perspective has been helpful. In future, we will collect information about the impact that the R3 approach has on graduates’ career choices and achievements.

We believe that researchers who are educated more broadly will do science more thoughtfully, with the result that other scientists, and society at large, will be able to rely on this work for a better, more rational world. Science should strive to be self-improving, not just self-correcting.


Nature 554, 277 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01853-1

By Emily Sohn

Taken from

Jennifer Mankoff

Jennifer Mankoff, who experiences extreme fatigue, studies technologies for people with disabilities.Credit: Dennis Wise/Univ. Washington

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.


Legal protections exist in the workplace for people with chronic conditions, and support is available, although details vary from country to country.

European Union

The European Union follows the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The Academic Network of European Disability Experts evaluates EU laws and policies that affect disabled people.

In the United Kingdom, specifically:

The National Health Service offers advice for employees with long-term medical conditions.

The Equality Act 2010 protects those who have certain conditions, including multiple sclerosis, against discrimination.

United States

Federal laws include the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The American Association of University Professors offers guidelines for accommodating disabilities and explores legal implications in academia.


Legal protections include the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act.

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.

Stephanie Zihms

Geologist Stephanie Zihms, who has multiple sclerosis, urges researchers to keep copies of all their medical records, especially if moving internationally.Credit: Heriot-Watt University

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, 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.”

Leonard Jason

Leonard Jason.Credit: DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief

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.”


doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-00112-7


As researchers, we are unlikely to spend much time reflecting on one of the often-forgotten pillars of science: scientific publishing. Naturally, our focus leans more towards traditional academic activities including teaching, mentoring graduate students and post docs, and the next exciting experiment that will allow us to advance our understanding. Despite our daily dependence on the research produced by our colleagues and contemporaries in scientific papers, and an equal dependence on journals to present the results of our own research, it is uncomfortable to think that we as scientists have lost control of the majority of this infrastructure.

Traditionally, scientific publishing was controlled by learned societies such as the Royal Society and the National Academy of Science (in the USA), alongside publishers associated with key universities, Oxford University Press being one. However, as large multinational companies such as Roche, Sigma-Aldrich, and Agilent have evolved to dominate the markets for chemicals, research equipment, and various researcher services; the publication of scientific results from commercial publishers has become a highly profitable endeavour. The three largest publishers—Elsevier, Springer Nature, and Wiley-Blackwell—now represent around half of the ten billion GDP scientific publication industry, their dominance following years of consolidation in the industry. With profit margins outdoing even those of tech giants Apple and Google, it seems incredible that we as scientists are contributing significantly to the success of these journals, largely for free!

However, the scientific publication industry is undergoing dramatic changes. The number of journals continues to increase, competing for the best papers, as evidenced by the large number of invitations we receive. With many journals remaining in the traditional format, relying on library subscriptions alongside ever tighter library budgets, there are a number of new journals opting for the open access route. In this model, it is the authors paying the fees. Following acceptance (or a pre-determined embargo period), their paper is then made freely available for all.

The rapid development of open access journals, including PLOS ONE, Nature’s Scientific Reports, and Biomed Central’s Genome Biology, to name just a few, is supported by many funders who are now requiring that research papers are open access. Furthermore, the European University Association recently published a document recommending all member institutions to install policies ensuring a reduction in publication costs, that authors retain all publication rights, and that all research papers are open access.

With many journals offering ‘hybrid’ journals, a combination of open access papers and traditional library subscriptions, it could soon become problematic for these journals to maintain income from library subscriptions if more and more papers are published open access. Although fully open access journals can operate at lower costs, article processing fees are unlikely to be able to fund those journals run by editorial teams, who not only handle papers, but also provide much of the front matter including perspectives, book reviews, and research highlights. If the industry does eventually become totally open access, it is likely we will lose the various news coverage and perspectives provided by many of the high-end journals.

Another development to consider is the introduction of so-called predatory journals. Several different scenarios can result; some fake journals will request submission, take the article processing fee, and never publish the paper. Others will fake the peer review process, publishing without any kind of quality control. The severity of this problem was well illustrated by a study in Science earlier this year, in which the authors created a fictitious scientist, complete with falsified CV, and requested enrollment as an editor on several editorial boards – and was successful.

This example demonstrates the financial opportunity scientific publishing has become; therefore we as scientists need to be careful where we submit our papers. There are some key questions we need to ask:

  • Are the members of the Editorial Board well-respected scientists?
  • Does the journal have a clear editorial policy?
  • Are publication fees clearly stated?
  • Is the journal indexed, in PubMed for example?
  • Does the journal publish papers on similar subjects to your own?

Finally, one vital question to ask: Who is publishing the journal? It is now more important than ever that we provide support for publications driven by not-for-profit organisations, either in the form of learned societies, academies, and others, who have clear objectives for supporting the scientific community. We as scientists benefit from these society-run journals. Why publish in a journal where profits are going to a board of investors, when instead it could be put towards a scholarship for your next post doc, or a grant for a PhD student to join an international conference? FEMS Yeast Research belongs to this last category, supporting various conferences and research fellowships through the work of the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS).

Finally, I’ll end with my original question: where is scientific publishing heading? Niels Bohr said “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”, and of course it is impossible for me to know with any certainty. However, I do think that the traditional library subscription model will eventually disappear – and perhaps this will be good science and society as a whole. Either way, I encourage all editors, reviewers, authors, and readers to share your thoughts on journal policies, and engage with these kinds of discussions in the wider community.

Featured image credit: Office by Free-Photos. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Chris Woolston 

Nature 550, 549–552 (26 October 2017) doi:10.1038/nj7677-549a Published online 25 October 2017

Nature’s 2017 PhD survey reveals that, despite many problems with doctoral programmes, PhD students are as committed as ever to pursuing research careers.

Adapted from Getty

Science PhD students love what they do — but many also suffer for it. That’s one of the top findings from Nature‘s survey of more than 5,700 doctoral students worldwide.

The survey is the latest in a biennial series that aims to explore all aspects of PhD students’ lives and career aspirations. Respondents indicated high levels of satisfaction with PhD programmes overall, but also revealed significant levels of worry and uncertainty: more than one-quarter listed mental health as an area of concern, and 45% of those (or 12% of all respondents) said that they had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies (see ‘A challenging road’). Many said that they find their work stressful, worry about their futures and wonder whether their efforts will pay off in earning them a satisfying and well-compensated career. For some, it’s almost too much to handle. “Every university should have a special room reserved for graduate students to get some crying time in when they are feeling overwhelmed,” said an ecology student at a US university, in the survey’s comment section.

Responses also uncovered a strong, perhaps crucial, connection between a well-matched PhD adviser and the student’s success. Good mentorship was the main factor driving satisfaction levels. Most respondents were happy with their adviser, but nearly one-quarter said they would switch advisers if they could. Students can survive and thrive during a PhD programme — challenges and all — but they generally can’t do it alone. “I’m a happy PhD student,” a genetics student from South Africa wrote in the comments. “This life is difficult but it’s what I’ve wanted to do my whole life, so it’s worth it. I also have a fantastic supervisor who is understanding, helpful and ready to push me to the next level.”

Widespread struggles

The respondents to the 2017 survey came from diverse scientific fields and from most parts of the world. Asia, Europe and North America were all strongly and equally represented. The survey was advertised through links on, in Springer Nature digital products and through e-mail campaigns. The data (which are available in full at were fleshed out by interviews with a small group of respondents who had indicated that they were willing to be contacted.

There were many positives. Overall, more than three-quarters of respondents were at least somewhat satisfied with their decision to do a PhD, a strong endorsement for such a massive commitment. That result closely mirrors those from other surveys of PhD students, says Katia Levecque, an industrial-relations specialist at Ghent University in Belgium. “About 80% of PhD students are satisfied or very satisfied,” she says. “It’s a consistent finding in most universities.”

The fact that 12% of respondents sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD underscores the stresses of the graduate student life, Levecque says. “You’re expected to take responsibility, but you aren’t given control over a lot of issues,” she points out. And because the 12% includes only people who sought help for their distress, it almost certainly understates the prevalence of anxiety and depression among all respondents to the survey.

The Nature survey also found that students with anxiety don’t always have an easy time getting help. Of those who sought assistance, only 35% said that they found helpful resources at their own institution. Nearly 20% said they tried to find help at their home institution but didn’t feel supported.“There are so many cultural and financial barriers to seeking help,” says Levecque.

In the Nature survey, nearly 50% of students who reported seeking help for anxiety or depression said that they were still satisfied or very satisfied with their doctoral programme. Kate Samardzic, who studies pharmacology at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia, was one of the hundreds of respondents who live with that apparent paradox. She’s satisfied with her programme, but she is also under considerable stress. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in becoming a researcher,” she says. “You’re under pressure to please your adviser and do everything in a certain time frame. And you don’t know what kind of job you’ll get at the end of the day. I’m halfway through and I still don’t know where it’s going to lead.”

Samardzic knows that she isn’t the only one going through this. She had read a study published in March by Levecque and colleagues (K. Levecque et alRes. Pol. 468688792017) showing that PhD students were about 2.5 times more likely than highly educated people in the general population to be at risk of depression and other common psychiatric disorders. To tackle this problem, Samardzic, a student representative who serves as liaison to the university board, helped to form Research Resilience, a university group that holds regular seminars designed to help students cope with the emotional toll of PhD studies. “I sensed that there wasn’t enough support for people who are feeling anxious or upset about their PhD programmes,” she says. “That should be more of a priority.”

Research Resilience holds monthly seminars that draw 30–40 students. Recent topics have included tips on mindfulness and the pitfalls of impostor syndrome — the pervasive feeling that one doesn’t really belong with the rest of the PhD crowd ( “We’re all high-achieving individuals, which makes us even more prone to those sorts of feelings,” Samardzic says. Indeed, nearly one in four respondents to the survey listed impostor syndrome as one of the difficulties they face.

Among them was Andrew Proppe, who studies physical chemistry at the University of Toronto in Canada. Like Samardzic, he is satisfied with his PhD, despite hefty doses of anxiety. For him, feelings of alienation were exacerbated by the fact that, for a while, he also felt physically out of place.

Proppe had started a PhD programme at Princeton University in New Jersey, but left after about a year and a half because, despite having an excellent adviser, he didn’t feel fully prepared for the programme or the town. He had grown up in culture-rich, populous Montreal, and felt disoriented in the relatively small town of Princeton. “It was no fun at all,” he says. “I hadn’t factored in how important the environment would be to me. I gave up everything I had back at home to go out there, and it didn’t seem worth it. I was unhappy.”

Proppe’s current adviser, Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto, was eager to add Proppe to his team. “He was working with one of the world’s best physical chemists at Princeton, so he had some skills that were a clear benefit to my group.” Proppe was also able to provide some insight into how his previous adviser ran his lab. “I asked him to engage in academic espionage,” Sargent jokes. “You might think that after 20 years I have this completely figured out, but it’s still an evolving process.”

Returning to Canada helped Proppe to regain his footing, but it didn’t completely remove the anxiety of PhD work. “I was running the day through my head,” he says. “At three in the morning, I’d be thinking about data sets.” Having never had to deal with much stress or anxiety before in his life, it took him a while to recognize the problem. Once he realized how much his PhD worries were affecting his life, he started to make changes. “I stopped trying to stay at work until 11, to instead make more time to play guitar, exercise and be with my girlfriend,” he says.

A worthwhile commitment

PhD anxiety can have a variety of causes. Among other issues, the survey uncovered widespread concerns about future employment. Only 31% of respondents said that their programme was preparing them well or very well for a satisfying career. But more than three-quarters agreed or strongly agreed that it was preparing them well for a research career, suggesting that many see a significant distinction between a research career and a “satisfying” career. And although two-thirds of respondents said that a doctoral degree would “substantially” or “dramatically” improve their future job prospects, one-third had a more tepid outlook.

Not all respondents are certain that the labour and stress of their programme will pay off. Hannah Brewer, a data scientist at the Institute for Cancer Research in London, says that she second-guesses herself whenever she Googles job openings in her field. “A lot of those jobs only require a master’s degree, so I don’t know if a PhD is going to help in any way,” she says. Still, she’s happy with her decision to get a doctorate. “I wouldn’t do it differently if I could go back,” she says. “I appreciate the level of skill that I’m working at, and I’m excited about my research.”

Important advice

Mentorship contributed more to respondents’ overall satisfaction with their PhD programme than did any other factor. Specifically, guidance from, and recognition by, an adviser proved to be the top determinant.

Yet, a sizeable proportion of survey respondents are unhappy with the mentoring they receive. Beyond the 23% who said they would swap advisers if they could, nearly one-fifth of respondents, or 18%, said that they do not have useful conversations about careers with their advisers — the person who is uniquely well positioned to help doctoral students to identify their ideal career path and learn how to pursue it.

Respondents said that conversations with their supervisor about non-academic careers are notably absent. “My adviser looks down on non-academic jobs and thinks they’re only suitable for people who aren’t very motivated,” wrote a chemistry student in the United States in the comments. Around 30% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that their supervisor has useful advice for non-academic careers, about the same proportion as in Nature‘s 2015 survey of graduate students. Slightly more than half of respondents in this year’s survey agreed that their supervisor was open to their pursuing a degree outside of academia, which also echoes findings from the 2015 survey.

Sensing an institutional indifference towards career development, Samardzic and other students have started organizing careers events in which graduates and other experts talk about their options. She helped to arrange a recent talk by a PhD student who had gone overseas for a workshop on entrepreneurship and biomedical innovation. “There needs to be more of that,” she says. “I feel like I don’t know about half of the jobs that exist out there.”

The survey responses suggest that many PhD students lack a clear vision of their future. Nearly 75% of respondents said that they would like a job in academia as an option after they graduate, whereas 55% said that they would like to work in industry. That might partly be down to indecision: nearly half of respondents indicated that they were likely or very likely to pursue a career in either sector.

The strong interest in academia echoes findings from the 2015 survey in which 78% of respondents said that they were likely or very likely to pursue a career in academia despite a lack of job opportunities. The dearth was highlighted in an analysis published in 2015 (N. Ghaffarzadegan et alSyst. Res. Behav. Sci. 234024052015), which estimated that in the United States, there are on average 6.3 PhD graduates in biomedical sciences for every tenure-track academic job opening.

Doctoral studies don’t seem to be prompting large numbers of students to rethink their commitment to research. Nearly 80% said that the likelihood that they will pursue a research career has grown or remained unchanged since they launched their PhD programme — up from 67% in the 2015 survey.

With an already tough academic job market getting tougher, many hopefuls will need guidance. But that’s not always easy to come by. Only 15% of respondents said that they found useful career resources at their institution, down from 18% in the 2015 survey.

To a large extent, students are serving as their own career counsellors. When asked how they arrived at their current career decision, almost two-thirds chalked it up at least in part to their own research on the topic. Just 34% credited advice from their adviser.

Laying some groundwork with an adviser early on can go a long way towards improving the PhD experience, Proppe says. After leaving Princeton for Toronto, he immediately had a direct talk with Sargent, his new adviser. “I asked all of the questions I wished I had asked when I first started graduate school,” he says. By the end of the conversation, he had a good idea about how the lab operated, how often he’d see his adviser and how much supervision he could expect.

Alberto Brandl, a student in aerospace engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of Turin in Italy, knew his co-supervisors before he started his PhD programme. “I hoped they would be great mentors, and I’m very satisfied,” he says. It helped that his advisers were very accommodating when his daughter was born, early in the PhD process. “They said it was a beautiful thing,” he says. “I didn’t take much time off, but they told me to take as much as I needed.” He feels that his advisers give him just enough guidance to make his own decisions, instead of dictating every step. “It’s the difference between a boss and a leader,” he says. Brandl counts himself fortunate. “I know people who have abandoned their PhDs because of their mentors.”

Survey responses can only go so far, and sometimes there’s a deeper story beneath the data. Yissue Woo, a microbiologist at the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering, gave his adviser high marks, but says that he and his supervisor have had no career-related discussions. For now, Woo is too preoccupied with his studies and research to broach the subject with his adviser.

“I’m not new to research, so I’m not surprised by setbacks. When things don’t work, I know that’s just how it is.”

He also rated his PhD experience highly, but that’s partly because he’s learnt to take failures in stride. “I’m not new to research,” he says, “so I’m not surprised by setbacks. When things don’t work, I know that’s just how it is.”

Perhaps one student, who studies medicine in Israel, summarized it best. “Doing a PhD is hard and frustrating,” wrote the student in the comment section. “But the small successes are worth it all.”

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.

Science Related Jobs | Cheeky Scientist | Alternative Careers For Scientists
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 benefits of offering support to someone else.
Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Find her on Twitter or read more on her website.

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.