Postdoc

You have your PhD, now what?

Recently, I have been asked by a number of my younger (in terms of degree, not necessarily age) friends and colleagues about how to find a postdoc, what to look for, and what questions to ask.  As I am currently in my third postdoc, I feel I am somewhat an expert on how to find a mentor and what makes for a good postdoc experience, and I am honored that people think enough of me and my career to ask.  So, the following are some tips based on my experiences…

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Before you do anything else, decide if a postdoc is really for you.  Sure, a postdoc seems like the next logical step.  Maybe your current PI is not supportive of a career outside academia or you have dreamed your entire life of running your own lab.  Whatever your circumstances are, make sure that your heart is in it.  The current world economic status does not make life easy for an academic scientist.  Grants are hard to come by.  Faculty positions are elusive.  There are plenty of hurdles that you have to jump over.  It is possible to be a successful academic, but if you aren’t committed, maybe you should think about an alternative career.  There are several options…medical science liaison, entrepreneur, policy, scientific writer, clinical research associate, industry, patent lawyer (with a law degree)…many of which pay more than being an academic researcher and have better hours.

 A new program designed by Science Careers called My Individual Development Plan is a great resource for scientists looking to pursue alternative career paths.   You can learn more about it here.

Start looking early! 

It is never too early to start making connections, thinking about how you would like your research career to evolve, and what you are willing to sacrifice (location?) to get what you really want (the ideal mentor?  a specific research project?).  This is especially important if you will be moving to a different country (you will need time to apply for the correct visas and other documents).  I suggest coming up with a short list of people you would like to work for or the type of research you would like to pursue (be as specific as possible) about a year in advance, if possible.  Start asking your current PI, your committee members, and other connections if they know the person or anyone at the university.  Get on LinkedIn and see if you know anyone that could make an introduction.  Make a point to introduce yourself at a conference and talk to their current and past students and postdocs.  These are the people that will give you an honest interpretation of the laboratory environment that you’re looking to enter.  Or better yet, visit RateMyPI.com to see if they have been reviewed or to search for PIs with good reviews at specific universities or by location.  The more information you have the better. 

Apply for your own funding.

If you have an idea for the research that you would like to do, apply for your own funding (most grants/awards have border restrictions, so be sure to check).  There are several avenues to obtain funding, not just federal.  Think outside the box.  You are much more appealing to PIs if your salary and/or research is already covered.  This might be the only way to work for your ideal PI since funding a post doctoral research takes a large chunk of funding from already tight budgets. 

Get everything in writing.

You are about to graduate or have recently received your degree.  You have a postdoc lined up.  Things are great!  Hopefully everything goes as planned, but be prepared for some bumps.  Before completely committing to a postdoc (or any position, for that matter) get a signed (by you and the PI and even another authority at the university if possible/appropriate) offer letter detailing anything and everything.  It should include your salary/year, the hours/week you are expected to work, the project you will be working on, the length of the commitment, the amount of paid vacation and sick days, where your funding will come from, and anything else you think might be important.  It should detail what is expected of you and what is expected of your supervisor.  This is not only for your benefit (you don’t want to pack up and move to another country only to realize that your new supervisor does not have the funds to support you…and I speak from experience on this one), but also for your new PIs benefit (the standards that you will be held to are spelled out).  I cannot stress the importance of this enough.

Think ahead.

I personally think that experiencing a postdoc in another country is a wonderful idea.  It puts you outside your comfort zone, you get to look at your research from another point of view, you can start making worldwide collaborations, and you get a chance to travel and grow both personally and professionally.  However, if you decide to do this, the day you start your new position, is the day you should be thinking about your next.  Will this postdoc only last a year or two and then you will do another one?  Maybe you plan on staying there longer and then go straight into a faculty/professor/research position?  Whatever the case, know what will be expected of you to make the next transition.  Did you know that it can be harder to obtain funding from your country of citizenship if you do not currently reside/work there, even if you are planning on returning?  Even if you have a great research plan, you may need to be associated with a university in that country before you can get funded.  This could mean doing another postdoc before you get funded so that you can have a strong application for that faculty position.

There you have it.  That is my first round advice for researchers that will graduate soon or have recently received their PhD.  Please help others by leaving your comments and let me know if there are some other questions you want answered.

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So you want to be a medical science liaison?

As more and more PhDs are being pumped out, funding diminishes, and it becomes harder (or less desirable?) to obtain faculty positions, many scientists are making the switch to industry to pursue a career as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL). 

We recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Samuel Dyer, who has over 12 years of experience as a Medical Affairs professional and is the Chairman of the Board of the Medical Science Liaison Society.  Below is an account of the interview. 

RateMyPI.com: What exactly is a MSL?  

Dr. Dyer: MSLs (also known as Medical Liaisons, Medical Managers, Regional Scientific Managers, Clinical Liaisons, and Scientific Affairs Managers) are members of the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, Clinical Research Organization (CRO) and other health-care industries that have advanced scientific training and academic credentials generally consisting of a doctorate degree (Ph.D., PharmD., M.D.) in the life sciences.  MSLs help to ensure that products are utilized effectively, serve as scientific peers and resources within the medical community, and are scientific experts to internal colleagues at companies.  However, the primary purpose of the MSL role is to establish and maintain peer-peer relationships with leading physicians, referred to as Key Opinion Leaders (KOL’s), at major academic institutions and clinics.

RateMyPI.com: In your opinion, what is the most rewarding aspect of being a MSL?

Dr. Dyer: Being at the forefront in the latest in clinical medicine and being able to be a part of something that can actually improve patients lives.

RateMyPI.com: Do you have any advice for young researchers interested in becoming a MSL?

Dr. Dyer: I always advise those looking to break into the MSL role to apply to only those roles in which match your scientific expertise and where you can position yourself as an expert.  For example, if you focused on a specific area within Oncology during your Ph.D. DO NOT apply to roles that are within CNS.  In other words focus on those roles that highlight and match your experience with the needs of the role.  Applying to roles that are not within your Therapeutic Area of expertise or that you have no experience in that particular disease is a complete waste of time and I can almost guarantee your CV will not be reviewed.

RateMyPI.com: What do you foresee as the biggest challenges facing MSLs in the next 5-10 years?

Dr. Dyer: There are numerous global regulatory changes that will be implemented over the next several years including the Sunshine Act here in the U.S. that will have an impact on the MSL role and the pharmaceutical industry in more general.  I also believe that as the role continues to grow, how the MSL is utilized and how to measure the ROI (Return on Investment) will be an ongoing challenge.

RateMyPI.com: You recently launched the Medical Science Liaison Society, can you please tell us a little more about it?

Dr. Dyer: The MSL Society is a Non-Profit organization exclusively dedicated to serving as this voice and advancing the global MSL career!  The MSL Society provides resources for those interested in the MSL role, as well as, professional growth and development opportunities for current MSL Managers and individual MSLs.  Some features of the MSL Society are live conferences featuring prominent speakers where members can interact and share ideas, training for experienced MSLs and candidates who want to break into the role, knowledge-sharing, educational materials, networking opportunities, and career services.

RateMyPI.com: How can The Medical Science Liaison Society help researchers trying to make the transition from academia to a MSL position?

Dr. Dyer: One of the ways to break into the MSL role is to be part of the MSL community.  Joining the MSL Society will enable you to interact with, communicate with, and network with MSLs and be part of their professional community without actually being an MSL yet.  The society will also provide numerous very valuable resources to understanding the MSL role and how to speak the language of the role during interviews.  It will provide a way, during your job search, to be on the inside, rather than being on the outside looking in and be able to position yourself as an expert even when you don’t have MSL experience.  This is the essential way to address the lack of MSL experience obstacle.

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How Do Sexist Comments Affect Women in STEM?

The annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience brings together neuroscientists from around the world to discuss cutting edge research relevant to their fields of study.

Unfortunately, this year’s conference will be known less for advancements in neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders and more for the comments of one participant—evolutionary biologist Dr. Dario Maestripieri from the University of Chicago.  On Sunday, October 14, 2012 Dr. Maestripieri posted the following message on Facebook,

“My impressions of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans.  There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women.  The super model types are completely absent.  What is going on?  Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience?  Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain?  No offense to anyone..”

We can argue whether or not these comments are merely an observation made by a prominent, tenured faculty member specializing in evolutionary biology.    After all, Dr. Maestripieri has openly commented on his blog  that, “Good-looking people are more appealing as potential sex partners and other people choose to interact with them (to spend time near them, talk with them, buy insurance from them, and hire them as employees) so as to increase the chances to have sex with them.”  Or, as some have suggested, a private “joke” intended for 400 Facebook friends and colleagues (personally, the phrase “No offense to anyone..” disavows any claim that this was intended to be a joke).  Regardless of his intentions, these comments provide a real world example to a recent PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy for Sciences) article examining gender biases among scientific faculty in academia.

In case you are unfamiliar with this study, Moss-Raucusin et al., determined that scientific faculty members hire fewer women, offer lower wages, and provide less mentorship to female scientists compared to their male counterparts.  In other words, female scientists, even with credentials identical to their male counterparts, are often viewed as incompetent.    Prior to this study, the misconception for a lack of tenured females in STEM fields was due to family obligations.  It was incorrectly hypothesized that women were at a disadvantage since the critical period in an associate scientist’s career typically coincides with starting a family, thus resulting in lost research year(s) necessary for tenure procurement.  Moss-Raucusin’s study has driven a rather large nail into the coffin of that theory.

Why do I bring this up?  After all, Dr. Maestripieri’s comments did not state any gender bias.  Rather, his comments have taken us further down the rabbit hole.  These comments dig directly at a rarely spoken but prevailing fear of many women in STEM.  Look unattractive and colleagues won’t pay attention to you.  Look too attractive and your research won’t be taken seriously.   There’s no better example than  Nobel laureate Dr. James Watson’s comments in The Double Helix regarding Rosalind Franklin “neglecting to emphasize her feminine qualities.”  I think we all know what happened with her X-ray crystallography data.

The most disconcerting aspect of all of this isn’t that the comments were said (obviously, one must look past the blatantly sexist remarks… made at an international convention… with 28,000 of his peers), but rather Dr. Maestripieri’s role at the University of Chicago.  Whether it be lab managers, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, associate or tenured professors, Dr. Maestripieri has had a role in determining their career progression.  His feelings towards attractive women may or may not have influenced hiring or promotions (either consciously or subconsciously), regardless, Dr. Maestripieri has shown extreme bias towards sexualizing female colleagues while simultaneously denigrating their scientific prowess.

Dr. Maestripieri, with your Facebook post, you have single handedly trivialized every achievement made by female scientists.  Maybe it’s time to hang up your Journal of Neuroscience subscription for some other periodicals.

I think Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt can accommodate.

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Kickstarting Your Career: Crowdfunding for Scientific Research

Christopher Columbus spent 7 years convincing private investors and heads of state to fund his idea of finding a faster trade route to the East Indies.  As research scientists, we’re not much different than Columbus.  Instead of requesting court with Kings and Queens, we propose ideas to government agencies that allocate funding to academic researchers.  But, as governments around the world are looking for ways to reduce spending, grant funding is becoming more and more difficult to obtain.  This leaves young investigators floating in a never ending sea of postdoctoral positions.   Even well funded researchers are looking for alternative sources of financial support in order to fill the downtime between the 12-18 month R01 grant cycles. 

Popularized by such sites as Kickstarter, crowdfunding has become a main source of financial support for entrepreneurs with ideas ranging from clothing lines to social media.  Unfortunately, Kickstarter prohibits projects for health and medicine, making the site useless for academic researchers.  To fill this gap, Petridish, iAMscientist and MedStartr have come online in the past 6 months.  These sites are devoted to helping academic or not for profit tenured, postdoctoral and graduate scientists obtain funding for their research ideas.  Simply propose a research idea, upload video and photos describing your proposal, set a minimum funding requirement and use your social media network to alert your colleagues. 

It’s too early to determine how beneficial crowdfunding is for scientific research, nevertheless, using these sites has several pros and cons that research scientists (especially young investigators) need to consider.

Pros

High Benefit to Time Ratio

Crowdfunding sites state a good proposal can be created in 1-2 hours and successfully funded projects receive their financial support in 90 days.  Compare this with the numerous sleepless nights preparing an R01 grant that will take approximately 18 months before funding is received.  Even if your online proposal doesn’t meet its minimum funding requirements, the amount of time spent is miniscule compared to submitting grants to the NIH or NSF.

Building Your Network

Building a network of colleagues and peers is essential to career development.  At the very least, crowdfunding can provide an additional forum to discuss your research ideas.  This allows like-minded individuals to connect and collaborate on projects, which may lead to employment opportunities down the road.

Corporate Sponsorship

Many research scientists are turning into entrepreneurs to develop their ideas beyond the lab bench.   Crowdfunding provides unique opportunites for corporations to back potential ideas.  This can lead to corporate partnership that provide resources for product scale-up and distribution.  In other words, helping you take your product from development to market in considerably less time at reduced costs.

Cons:

Minimal Funding

To date, most of the successfully funded projects on MedStartr, Petridish and iAMscientist have received fewer than $10,000 USD.  A small drop in the bucket compared to a R01 grant.  Don’t expect crowdfunding to provide you with enough money to land a tenure-track positon.  You’re still going to need to rely on government support to run your own lab.  But, crowdfunding might be just what you need to take your research in a new direction.

Fraud

You take a big risk proposing ideas on social media sites.  Since the majority of projects don’t reach their funding goals, it’s easy for well funded researchers or corporations to run with your idea and claim it as their own.  If applicable, you may want to consider obtaining copyright or trademark licenses prior to posting to crowdfunding sites.

Since crowdfunding in academic research is an extremely new concept, some potential conflicts also exist that need to be considered.

Overhead Fees

Do laboratory overhead fees apply to crowdfunded sources?  I don’t know the answer this, but I have a feeling if crowdfunding becomes commonplace in research science, academic institutions are going to want their cut — potentially 50%.  While graduate students and postdoctoral researchers don’t have to worry about overhead fees, this could quickly change if scientific crowdfunding increased in popularity.

Property Rights

As a young investigator, all the equipment you use or data that you collect is “owned” by the principal investigator.   What happens when a young investigator uses crowdfunded sources to buy laboratory equipment to support their research needs.  Who owns that piece of equipment?   What happens when you leave that laboratory to continue research elsewhere?  Does that equipment come with you?  After all, it was YOUR proposal that was funded.  But I’m willing to wager some PI’s and maybe even the academic institution would lay claim to that piece of equipment.  This is something that you should discuss before posting your crowdfunding proposal.      

Scientists are generally slow to adopt new ideas, but in this tough fiscal climate, we need to consider all avenues of public or private support.  For young researchers, crowdfunding provides a unique opportunity to support your own research ideas while learning how to manage a budget.  Although government funding will be needed, at least in the foreseeable future, to land coveted tenure-track position, successfully crowdfunded proposals can give you a leg-up on your competition.

Has anyone tried crowdfunding to support their research endeavours?  Let the other readers know your thoughts on the process.

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