Archive for the 'career issues' category

Rat Race

Mar 22 2011 Published by under career issues

Blogging has taught me many interesting things about academic ecosystems other than my own. I have been particularly fascinated to learn about the inner workings of various disciplines, departments, universities, countries, genders..

Every year, I attend quite a few conferences, visit other universities, advise a lot of students, review and edit 57 million manuscripts and proposals, and collaborate with quite a few other scientists on several other continents, but my view of the academic world would nonetheless be quite limited without blog-input and e-mail from readers.

However, much of what I have learned, although fascinating, has been second-order compared to this:

People in the biomedical sciences seem to suffer a lot more than those of us in just about every other STEM field.


My data: 87% of my blog-related e-mail is from unhappy, bitter, troubled, distraught biomed grad students, postdocs, technicians, and early-career faculty. Others write to me with problems, but these tend to be of the "I'm frustrated with my advisor" sort rather than the "I'm being tortured, abused, deported, sued, and I fear my academic career is over" sort that I routinely get from biomed people.

I specify biomedical rather than the life science in general because, as far as I can tell, the ecologists and botanists and ornithologists and whatnot seem to be reasonably content, or, at least, not more stressed out or bitter than your average chemist, physicist, or engineer. No, it's you people doing the important disease-curing research etc. who really seem to have the most difficult academic lives of all.

Of course there are happy biomed people. I can think of at least 2, maybe 3. And I hasten to admit that I don't really understand much of what I read in some of the biomed blogs, especially all the posts focusing on NIH R2D2 grants or whatever. So maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but the e-mail data nevertheless indicate that something is going on over there in the biomedical departments.

What could explain this phenomenon? Possibilities include:

- My database is flawed, my assumptions are baseless, my conclusions are wrong. Perhaps there are lots of happy biomed people, including biomed bloggers and blog-readers, but the bitter ones make the biggest impression (and write to me more often than the others). The happy ones have no reason to write, and have other hobbies.

- There are more biomed bloggers and blog-readers and this gives the artificial impression that there are more unhappy biomed people.

- Biomed is a total rat race. Postdocs in my field are respected, paid well (+ benefits), and get good jobs, whereas most biomed postdocs seem to be serfs with bleak futures. Biomed people work in large, fractious groups involving people with huge egos stomping on the peons who do the real work. NIH grants are large, but are not large enough, and are difficult to get. And so on.

Of course, those of us who are not curing cancer are glad that others are working on this, but, if biomed is a difficult and unrewarding career path for many who try to pursue it, can anything be done to fix this? Or is it actually a more exhilarating and rewarding career path than one might think from my e-mail inbox and from semi-casual grazing of the biomed blogs?

Obviously, I have no answer to this question, but perhaps some readers would care to comment?

105 responses so far

Left Behind

Mar 09 2011 Published by under career issues, graduate school

An occasional theme of e-mail that I get from readers involves angst, anxiety, or anguish about possibly (or definitely) "leaving" science. In these cases, the "leaving" in question is voluntary and stems from a lack of interest (to put it mildly) in an academic career and/or a discovery of an interesting non-academic career path.

Keeping in mind that I am speaking as someone who has long been a science professor and has never had any other job since college and that I am therefore speaking from the point of view of a science professor and advisor, my advice is: Don't worry so much. It isn't really "leaving" science if your career will somehow involve science, even if your new career is not research-oriented. And even if you do "leave" science, partially or entirely, why feel bad about that? What's so bad about leaving something you don't want to do?

I know, some people do in fact feel very bad because they have spent several (or many) intense years with a group of peers who are focused on science careers, academic or otherwise, and it can be difficult to admit to wanting something else; perhaps something that friends and co-workers might not respect (even if the rest of the world would).

Some of my readers worry that they are letting down their advisors by "leaving" science. I have colleagues who do, indeed, feel that their *most successful* advisees are the ones who are clones of themselves -- science professors at major research universities. I admit that it does feel good when an advisee wants to pursue a similar career path as my own rather than run screaming from anything that resembles having a life like mine. But that doesn't mean we professors don't like and respect those who choose other careers, and it doesn't (necessarily) mean that those who want to have a different kind of career are repulsed by the thought of being like their advisor (although some are).

I will say, though, that some advisors will not appreciate it if an advisee uses the fact that they don't want a research-focused career as a reason to scale down their efforts while still in graduate school. Just because someone wants to have a career in which they never have to publish, give a conference presentation, or write a grant proposal doesn't mean that they don't have to write papers, give talks at conferences, and perhaps contribute to grant proposals while they are still a graduate student. Maybe they don't have to be quite as intense in some ways as those revving up for an academic job at a university, but an RA supported on a grant has responsibilities no matter what their ultimate career goal.

Even so, if you are working hard and thinking of a different life, don't feel guilty or anxious.

So: I personally do not feel let down if a PhD advisee wants to pursue a non-academic career, but, to be completely honest, I am not sure I have always felt this way. I think that it gets easier to feel this way, as an advisor, when you've been around for a while -- long enough for various advisees to follow various career paths.

And that leads me to my questions for readers:

To those who are or have been the advisor of PhD students, especially those in fields in which academic careers tend to be valued (within academia) over non-academic careers: Do you feel particularly satisfied when students choose to pursue a research-oriented science career (preferably in academia?)? What do you think of those who "leave" science? Do you just want them to be happy, or do you feel that time and money have somehow been wasted?

To those who are or have been a PhD student who does/did not want to pursue the career path that is widely viewed to be the *best* by others in your department: Did you admit to your interests in an "alternative" career and/or your desire to "leave" the field chosen by most of your peers? If not, why not? What did you fear most? And if you did, how do you think you were viewed as a result? Do you have any advice for others in your same position?

51 responses so far

Why We Are Awesome

Feb 22 2011 Published by under advising, career issues, graduate school

Yesterday in my FSP blog, I mentioned that graduates of my research group, which is comprised of 4 professors, have been very successful obtaining jobs that are relevant to their doctoral research. Most are in academia (in tenure-track or tenured positions); others are in industry/business or government positions. The database I discussed covers graduates from the past 20 years. We are equally proud of them all, PhD and MS graduates.

One factor in the success of our graduates has been that there have consistently been academic and other PhD-relevant jobs available; some years/decades are better than others, but there have always been some academic jobs. Even in drought years, however, our graduates have done well on the job market, so, although the availability of jobs is certainly important, a discussion of possible reasons why our graduates have done well needs to consider other factors.

The success of our graduates is primarily a testament to their talents and hard work. There is no doubt about that.

Even so, we (the professors) like to think that we had some role in launching these careers. I should say here that I am using the research group 'we', although I am the youngest professor in the group and #3 in terms of number of PhDs graduated, so the credit primarily goes to my colleagues.

In any case: What, if anything, do we do that maximizes the chances of post-graduate success for our advisees? Earlier today, I discussed this with one of my research group colleagues, the most successful mentor of us all. We came up with the following, only somewhat-self-serving hypotheses:

1. We encourage our advisees to consider their doctoral research in a broad context. We expect that their research talks (in the department, at conferences, in job interviews) and published papers will start with an explanation of why the work is interesting and important. This sounds basic, but it is surprising how many people (at all career stages) don't do this. Anecdotal evidence from a recent graduate who has been interviewing for faculty positions confirms that this characteristic of our group members is noticed and appreciated, particularly by those whose research expertise is not closely related to ours; this can be an important factor in job interviews.

2. We work with our advisees to find interesting research topics. Some grad students work on part of a much larger project, but there is nevertheless something special about each project. We therefore try to find a balance so that the student is at the same time closely identified with our research group and yet can get credit for their own work and ideas.

3. A combination of 1 & 2: we encourage breadth and depth in the research topic, so that most of our graduates who seek academic positions can apply for a jobs in more than one subfield. This increases the number of jobs for which they are qualified, and increases the number of funding programs to which they can apply, the journals to which they can submit papers, and the courses they can teach. It can also lead to more varied future research topics, collaborations, and other fun things like that.

4. Most of our graduates are supported by a combination of research and teaching assistantships (and some by fellowships), resulting in a range of experiences that are desirable for being competitive in academic jobs. Many also help mentor undergraduates in research. We encourage them to participate in workshops and courses designed to prepare grad students (and postdocs) for academic careers, if they so desire. Nowadays, it is important for academic job applicants to have teaching experience: for most jobs, they need to include a teaching statement in their applications, and I (as a letter-writer) am specifically asked to describe the applicant's teaching and mentoring abilities, even for applications to Major Big Huge Research University.

5. We push them to publish, attend conferences (and present their research), and write proposals. I had to think about what verb to use in that statement: encourage? (not strong enough), force? (too strong); 'push' is probably about right, implying some force but not excessive force (I think). The other options was pull/drag. In any case, we very strongly encourage, semi-force publications, conference participation etc. no matter what the career goal of the individual. This is important because (1) career goals may change; you want to have as many opportunities as you can and not close off any options; (2) the research group will cease to function at its current level/scale unless everyone participates as much as possible in communicating interesting research results.

I have stated many times in the FSP blog, and probably here in Scientopia as well, that I view a research group as a community: a community of people who work together and who, by the work of the individuals and the group, help each other. Today's topic is a great example of the community concept: If graduates of our research group are successful at getting good jobs, this becomes widely known and attracts new excellent students to our group, and the cycle continues for as long as we are fortunate to have ideas, students, grants..

17 responses so far

Target of Resentment?

Feb 03 2011 Published by under career issues

Today over in FSP I discuss a reader's question about whether accepting a faculty position that was specifically identified as a "target of opportunity" for hiring a person from an underrepresented group is a bad idea. Would a targeted hire be forever treated differently (and not in a good way)?

This reader is particularly concerned about finding herself in a toxic environment of resentment and disrespect if she is hired based on characteristics unrelated to her qualifications.

What to do?

3 responses so far

Half Time

Jan 31 2011 Published by under career issues, postdocs

An early-career reader wonders whether faculty would be receptive to the idea of a half-time postdoc.

For some research projects, I think that a half-time arrangement would work just fine. In fact, I have had part-time (including half-time) postdocs cost-shared with a research facility or with another colleague at a different university. Although these postdocs were full-time researchers, the fact that they didn't spend 100% of their time on research that involved me has not been a problem.

I have not had a half-time postdoc who spent the other half doing something else entirely (e.g., being a half-time so-called stay-at-home-mom or -dad), but I would certainly be willing to work with someone in this type of arrangement. Certain projects would not be suitable for a part-time postdoc of this sort, but many would be.

So, faculty readers who supervise postdocs: What do you think?

Do you, have you, or would you work with a half-time postdoc, even if the other half was not spent on research or other discipline-related work?

19 responses so far

Faculty Movers

Jan 19 2011 Published by under career issues, faculty

A swarm of recent questions relates to the topic of moving from one faculty position to another. 'Tis the season for offers and decisions for faculty moves?

As I have described in the FSP blog at various times, I moved from University 1 to University 2 after several years as an Assistant Professor. Before University 1, I taught at a small liberal arts college, but I was there very briefly, so my main move was between universities. The reason for my move was because of my so-called "two body" situation, not owing to any unhappiness with University 1 (in fact, I was very happy there) or because I wanted to move to a higher ranked program (although that's what I did).

The specific reasons for my move may or may not be applicable to others contemplating a faculty move, but a general question is:

When and how do you tell colleagues, administrators, and students at University 1 that you are (contemplating) leaving?

There is no one "right" answer because there are so many variables, but I can describe what I did, and perhaps other readers can share their own stories.

When I was at University 1, I was very dedicated to my institution, department, and students. I had great colleagues, some of whom became (and still are) my friends. I was open with colleagues and administrators about being on the job market and my reasons for doing so. I did not talk about it constantly, but neither was I secretive about it.

I didn't have to tell them, of course, but news travels, and I figured it was better that I tell my colleagues what was going on than that they hear rumors. I felt that this was the right thing to do for me, but I think it would be perfectly fine if someone did not inform their colleagues of any efforts to move. They might hear about it anyway, and some might ask about it. I think that, if asked, it is best to be honest, but you can be vague in your response if you want.

When I was at University 1 but keeping an eye out for jobs where my husband and I could live and work near each other, my graduate students were generally aware of the situation, but I did not inform them of the details (applications, interviews). I think they knew that I would not abandon them -- i.e., that if I did move, we would discuss it then and make a plan for each -- but I saw no reason to go into the gory details until it was relevant to do so.

When the offer from University 2 came, I immediately told my chair and a sympathetic associate dean, who leaped into action and came up with a retention package that included a tenure-track position for my husband (who, by the way, was more than qualified for a faculty position there). That was nice, but it also made the decision about staying vs. leaving a wrenching one. I understand why they couldn't create a position for my husband until pushed to do so, but even so, one reason we left was so that we could both start fresh in a new place.

I ended up staying at University 1 for an extra year, for various reasons, and this allowed my graduate students to finish before I left.

Since then, I have had a few occasions to contemplate leaving University 2 for another university. As a more senior faculty member without a "benign" reason (like a two-body problem) for leaving, I have told only my very closest colleagues about these moving opportunities. I see no reason why anyone else (including students) should know until there is something substantive to tell. There is no point in everyone's being on alert or making alternative plans until there is a real reason to do so.

When I discussed this in the FSP blog before, it was controversial. Some think that students have a right to know everything, even if moving is just the faintest glimmer in their advisor's eye. I can understand that, but I don't agree with it. The process of possibly luring a professor to a new institution can be a very long and indirect courtship, and can involve offers and counter-offers. Unless someone is 100% determined to leave, which I am not, I don't see the point of keeping a research group on alert for possible major disruption when there may not actually be any disruption.

There is a well-known advantage of possibly-moving in that this is how you demonstrate your worth at some universities (unfortunately) and this may be the only way to get some big-ticket items (a major raise, a job for your significant other); it can also be a route to early tenure and promotion. To my surprise, I have found that the rumor of having outside offers from excellent schools can have an energizing effect on some administrators; in some cases, it is not necessary to have an actual offer in hand.

Supposedly, men are better at negotiating retention packages as a result of outside offers, whereas women worry about being seen as disloyal, or they may fear that they won't get an offer of a retention. I don't know, but I don't think it is disloyal and I wouldn't worry about not getting a retention offer. Even if you get an outside offer, you don't have to take it. You can present it, see what happens, and then decide what is best for you and your family.

My advice, in summary: If you want to move or have to move, and you have the opportunity: just do it. Do it well, though, taking care of your graduate students and postdocs, if you have them, and dealing with all the bureaucratic fun of moving grants and other research-related stuff and figuring out a new university system and moving your cats.

29 responses so far

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