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.

Samantha Yammine uses Instagram to share her research and enthusiasm for science

The power of science communication

Samantha Yammine is a PhD candidate in her final year at the University of Toronto in Dr. Derek van der Kooy’s Neurobiology Research Group. She is also a science communicator.

Although science communication manifests in different ways, at its very core it’s about explaining science-related topics and research to non-experts. Scientists generally do this by stripping their research of jargon and voicing their message in ways that can be easily understood by the general public.

Yammine started out in science communication by writing tweets for the Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine during the second year of her PhD studies. Since then, Yammine has moved her passion for science outreach to her Instagram account, science.sam.

According to Robert A. Logan in his article “Science Mass Communication,” science communication started out in print during the first 30 years of the twentieth century in the US. Some scientists sought to educate the public about science to make rational public affairs decisions and improve the quality of their lives through science policy, public affairs, and public opinion.

The purpose of science communication hasn’t changed much since.

Yammine explained to The Varsity that by communicating her research through various social media platforms, she hopes to pique her audience’s interest in science.

“We talked a lot about policy and science policy and why communication is important so that we can have a positive impact on science policy in Canada,” said Yammine at the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada conference she attended two weeks ago in Ottawa.

At the conference, Yammine and fellow science communicators discussed the role that social media plays in this field. With the rise of Twitter and Instagram, science communicators and journalists have had to keep up with social media’s pace and influence.

Yammine regularly posts on her Instagram account, which has over 9,600 followers, and she has shared over 240 posts. She takes around 40 pictures a day, and only one or two will make it onto her Instagram. She shares pictures of brain stem cells, laboratory equipment, and different science events around Toronto. Last month, she covered the Dunlap Institute’s coverage of the solar eclipse and shared photos from the event.

“I picture my lab mates reading and I also picture my sister reading who is not in science,” said Yammine when explaining her process of posting content.

Instagram is her social media outlet of choice because she is able to share both photos of her in the lab and of her doing normal things like going out to dinner. “If people aren’t going to listen to science, it’s because the people talking about it… might not relate to them or think that they’re trustworthy,” said Yammine.

As a teaching assistant, Yammine noted that the classroom may be an intimidating setting for many students. “I think that communication needs to be taught more in science… It is a skill to learn, and I think science undervalues quality of writing to its detriment.”

Yammine stressed that learning how to communicate through writing will be useful, especially for students considering graduate school, where they will eventually author publications and write grants. “Even in a lab report, your intro has a point — you’re introducing the topic that you’re studying.”

In fact, she recommended that students learn to write concisely by using Twitter or Instagram, whose character limits force students to summarize their findings in short sentences.

Science communication has been a rewarding experience for Yammine so far. Her favorite part is receiving messages from students who tell her they are motivated by her posts. She also loves seeing posts from other young women who are inspired to pursue science.

“If you value science, and you want to combat pseudoscience and fake news, put your engagement, your clicks, your likes, your comments where your values are,” she said.

Chris Woolston, Nature 549, 553–555 (28 September 2017) doi:10.1038/nj7673-553a

Choosing a lab of the right size is crucial for early-career development.


Group discussions are one aspect of postdoc life that can be very different between large and small labs.

While looking for a postdoctoral position, Michael Mitchell could have joined any number of small, intimate labs with a couple of colleagues and an ever-present lab leader. Instead, he decided to go big. In 2014, after earning a PhD in biomedical engineering, he accepted an offer from Robert Langer, also a biomedical engineer, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Mitchell shares the lab with some 40 other postdocs, a host of graduate students and a rotating cast of visiting researchers. The sheer scale of the enterprise becomes clear every summer, when the lab gathers for an annual party at Langer’s beach house. “Bob has to rent three to four buses to get us down to the house,” Mitchell says. “He gets an entire ice-cream truck for dessert.”

Of all the factors that potential postdocs must consider when choosing a position, lab size should be near the top of their list: it can shape a junior researcher’s career. Scientists say that small labs may be isolating, but that members tend to have great access to the lab leader. Conversely, whereas trainees in larger labs may have less time face-to-face with their mentor, some data suggest that they have more chances to collaborate and publish.

Those considering a postdoc position should think carefully about what would suit them. “It’s quite a personal choice,” says Kerstin Kinkelin, the training and career-development project manager at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “There’s no general rule about which is better or worse, but people need to think about which lab size works for them personally.”

A large lab was the right choice for Mitchell. “I knew Bob’s lab would have the resources to allow me to pursue the range of research ideas that I’m interested in,” he says. “But I was also looking for an excellent mentor. I would have worked for Bob even if I was the only one there.”

Publishing paradox

The size of a lab may affect the quantity and types of paper a postdoc publishes. Mitchell notes that postdocs on a large team might have a chance to make small contributions to the many projects run by other members of the lab. This could lead to a slew of undesirable middle-author papers. “In a large lab, you want to be very focused on your own research project,” Mitchell says. “It’s more important to get first-author publications that you can take ownership for. Ultimately you’re going to be judged on your independent work.”

Lab size can also affect the likelihood of a postdoc publishing high-profile papers, says Christopher Liu, a former biochemist who studies strategic management at the University of Toronto in Canada. In an unpublished study of 91 biology labs at MIT, Liu found that larger labs tend to publish more articles in top-tier journals. Specifically, adding one person to an average-sized lab of 11 members increases the impact score of publications by 1.5%. In other words, Liu says, postdocs could increase their chances of getting published in journals such as NatureScience or Cell by joining a large lab.

“Large labs hit more home runs, but they also get fewer at-bats.”

The data also suggest an important caveat: adding a postdoc to an average-sized lab reduces the number of publications per person. That means that postdocs who join a large lab could risk slightly decreasing the quantity, although not necessarily the quality, of papers published by lab members — themselves included. “Large labs hit more home runs,” says Liu, “but they also get fewer at-bats.” In a similar vein, a 2015 study of UK biology labs found that publications per person decrease as lab size increases (I. Cook et alPeerJ 3e9892015).

Valuable mentorship

Liu sees an obvious explanation for the relative lack of efficiency in large labs. Every postdoc who decides to join the team automatically dilutes the amount of time that the principal investigator (PI) can spend with each lab member. He adds that even though postdocs tend to be more independent than graduate students, time with a PI is still a valuable commodity.

Even the best postdocs need at least occasional guidance from their lab leader, agrees Ann Miller, a molecular biologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “In a smaller lab, you’re going to get more attention from your PI,” she says. “And that PI is going to have a more vested interest in your success.”

Miller runs a lab with just one postdoc and a couple of graduate students. Even with such a small group, she takes mentorship seriously — she won the 2017 Exceptional Mentor of the Year award from the university’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. Because she doesn’t have a large team, she ensures that each new member will fit. She’s particularly selective about postdocs and hired her first in 2013, two years after she started her lab. “In a small lab, each postdoc is chosen very carefully to fit with the science and the lab culture,” she says. “I interviewed several other people but I was looking for just the right person.”

That first postdoc, Tomohito Higashi, accepted a faculty job at the Fukushima Medical University in Japan this year. He says that more time with Miller significantly helped his career. “I had research discussions and casual conversations with her almost every day.”

David Smith, a molecular evolutionary biologist who shares a single postdoc with another lab at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, would caution any prospective postdoc about the possible downsides of joining a large group. “I know faculty members who did their postdocs in labs that were so large that the PI wouldn’t even write reference letters,” he says. Such labs can sometimes breed a culture in which postdocs battle one another for resources, for the attention of the PI and for authorship on papers. “A lot of people don’t thrive in that environment. It depends how well they can handle the competition, the drive and the tempo.”

Survive and thrive

Many postdocs rise above the challenge of life in a large lab. Mitchell is one example. Early next year, he will move to a new job as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He has also earned recognition for his work, winning a 2016 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface, a US$500,000 prize given to researchers combining biology and engineering.

Mitchell says that he owes much of his success to the size of the Langer team. “If I read about an exciting technique and want to do it but don’t know how, I can knock on a door down the hall and find someone who does,” he says. “We can have coffee, talk about an idea — and we’re doing an experiment that night in the lab.” He adds that one high-profile paper on which he was first author — about using polymer nanoparticles to enhance the effects of immunotherapeutics on tumour cells (M. J. Mitchell et alNature Commun. 8141792017) — was sparked by a conversation over coffee with a colleague.

Mitchell says that the lab doesn’t breed cut-throat competition, partly because Langer emphasizes teamwork and carefully evaluates applicants to make sure they can fit with the rest of the lab. “It’s like a faculty interview,” Mitchell says. “The potential postdoc comes in for two days, meets with other scientists and postdocs, and gives an hour-long seminar. Bob gets a lot of feedback from people throughout the lab.” And unlike some leaders of large labs, Langer makes himself available to his students and staff. “Bob is notorious for responding to questions from postdocs or graduate students over e-mail within minutes,” Mitchell says.

Suzanne Tainter/MCDB/Univ. Michigan

Ann Miller (centre) carefully selects postdocs to ensure that they are a good fit in her small lab.

Alessandra Breschi, a geneticist and bioinformatician who just completed a postdoc in the large lab of Roderic Guigó Serra at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, says that working in a lab with some 30 other people forced her to be more independent. “You have to learn to find information on your own,” she says. Breschi spoke to Nature shortly before starting her new postdoctoral position in the lab of Michael Snyder at Stanford University in California, where there are already around 40 postdocs. She hopes that her large-lab experience will serve her well.

Likewise, Amelie Baud, a neurobehavioural postdoc at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, UK, has found success in the rapidly growing lab of Oliver Stegle. When she first joined the lab in 2013, she shared it with just two other people: a PhD student and a master’s student. “Joining a tiny group is potentially risky,” she says. “I like the idea of an average-sized group that has a critical mass at lab meetings. You can get feedback on presentations and organize journal clubs.”

The Stegle lab now includes eight postdocs, along with several graduate students and visiting scientists. “It’s a large lab even for this area of study,” Baud says. “As the lab grew, I never noticed a change in atmosphere. The lab is dynamic, and there’s a lot going on, but I haven’t heard about competition in the group, and I don’t think it exists.” As the lab expanded, Baud thrived. In 2014, she won a £250,000 (US$332,000) four-year Sir Henry Wellcome postdoctoral fellowship.

Liu’s analysis of MIT labs suggests that top-tier postdocs tend to excel no matter the lab size. In that sample, postdocs who had won fellowships — a marker for excellence — didn’t hamper efficiency when they joined a lab. The data, according to Liu, suggest that outstanding postdocs don’t necessarily need to worry about staying productive in a large lab. But for postdocs who aren’t superstars, large labs have clear dangers. “If you feel that you would benefit from more attention from the PI, maybe you should consider a smaller lab,” he says.

Real-world training

In addition to more interaction with the PI, smaller labs might also provide realistic training for a career in academia, Miller says. “Some of my friends who come out of large, highly funded labs were used to having a lot of technical support and money for anything,” she says. “When you start your own lab, it can be a bit of a shocker.”

Smith has seen similar consequences in Canada. “Students and scientists who have been in big labs their whole careers can have a skewed view of academics,” he says. “Reality isn’t massive research teams and Nature papers and million-dollar grants.”

Miller completed her postdoc in a small lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Without a technician or other postdocs, she had to learn every detail about managing a lab, from writing animal-care protocols to mixing reagents. Because of this, she didn’t stumble when it was time to start her own lab. “I was ready to go,” she says. She also didn’t have to compete with other postdocs to give talks at meetings, review papers or join key projects. “All of these things are good for your career development and visibility in the field,” she says.

Looking ahead, Miller says that she would eventually like to have two or three postdocs and several graduate students — a lab that falls between the extremes of size. “That’s kind of reaching my capacity for being fully invested,” she says.

Postdocs can find success in labs of any size, says Kinkelin. They need only to decide if they want to stand out in a small group or find their own space in a larger one. Either way can work — especially if postdocs are aware of the potential trade-offs ahead of time. “People have to think about what they want to get out of it.”

Author information

  1. Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.