STEM

Congratulations on graduating from college – now what do you do with that STEM degree?

Maybe you are graduating from college but feeling a little uncertain about the future? Some of your friends may be headed to graduate or medical school and others may be starting jobs with pharmaceutical or biotech companies. It may seem that everyone else has a career plan, but you are not alone, and you have plenty of time to explore career options to put your science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degree to use. Actually, taking a little time off to get some real world experience and help define your career goals can be more beneficial in the long run than jumping into grad school or a job that puts you on the wrong path… So, here’s your post-graduation homework: ten career development activities that will help you find a STEM career path that’s just right for you.

1.  Postbachelor/postbaccalaureate positions – consider a postgraduate research position or internship to test out different career fields, expand your skill sets and enhance your resume. Here is a short list of programs offering positions to recent college graduates (performing an internet search for “postbaccalaureate research programs” will yield even more results):

Oak Ridge Institute of Science Education

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Postbac IRTA program

NIH Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP)

Pathways Program at USAJobs.gov 

2. Certificate programs – some STEM careers (e.g., medical technology) require an additional degree program beyond the bachelor’s degree, so read up on education qualifications for any career paths of interest.

3. Professional science master’s programs – check out these graduate degree programs that teach students business skills along with advanced science courses to prepare students for careers in science management areas. There are also degree programs specific to entering engineering management.

4. Online professional communities – join an online community for career prep information, posting your resume and viewing job postings. Most professional societies maintain a career portal accessible from their main web page (e.g., MySciNet from Science Careers).

5. LinkedIn.com – create a free profile and start building a professional network, join professional and science groups and search job postings.

6. Career counseling center – check out your school’s career center and make an appointment with a career counselor to discuss career options in your field.

7. Career fairs – ask your local career center about ongoing career fairs and look up resources for resume and interview preparation from online career centers (e.g., University of California-San Francisco and NIH).

8. Faculty mentor – make an appointment to speak with a close faculty member that can point out your positive skills sets and offer career advice.

9. Informational interviews – conduct short interviews with professionals working in careers that interest you to learn more about entering that career path.

10. Job search engines – make a list of job search engines and check the sites on a regular basis or set up alerts for keywords. Even if you are not looking for a job right now, you can gain a lot of information about jobs open in your field and see what qualifications are needed to land that dream job. I like to keep a text file of website addresses to periodically check out jobs in my field. Here’s a few STEM-specific job sites to add to your list:

Science Careers

Nature Jobs

BioCareers

Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB)

Medzilla

BioMed Central Career Network

*Editorial note: This post was originally published on the ‘Science Mentor’ blog. Check out sciencementor.wordpress.com for more career development activities and tips. (c) Donna Kridelbaugh

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Is sensationalization of scientific findings unethical?

Gary Marcus recently published in The New Yorker entitled “Neuroscience Fiction”.  It presents neuroscience as a science littered with inconsistencies and inaccurate data, referring mainly to PET and fMRI brain imaging studies.  As a neuroscientist I take an exception to this.  I am also surprised that Gary Marcus, an author of several scientific papers and a professor of psychology at NYU, does not have a better grasp on how to critically review scientific papers.  The established peer review process is good, but it simply ensures sound scientific technique and interpretation of the data, not independent reproduction of the findings.  Within any of the vast number of scientific disciplines it is easy to find papers that seemingly contradict each other.  This is not something that is neuroscience specific and if you carefully read the papers, including the methods section (gasp), you can often determine the source of their inconsistencies.  When dealing with emotional responses to an image (regularly done in fMRI studies) you can get vastly different responses from two different subjects in the same study where every methodological detail is identical.  For example, one person may see a dog as a soft adorable cuddly animal while another person that was recently bit by a dog could experience intense fear.  Now, if someone else does a seemingly similar study, but uses different images or in a different order or with different thresholds and parameters, it is not surprising that these two studies could yield very different results.  That isn’t to say that something cannot be learned from comparing the studies and outcomes. 

The problem isn’t with neuroscience or science in general.  Scientists must publish and present their results so they can be scrutinized by other scientists, reproduced in an independent lab, and alternate explanations, interpretations, and theories (or further support) can be established.  Problems arise when the findings are sensationalized through irresponsible reporting and the scientist is either not able to or simply does not accurately portray their research to the general public.  Scientists need to learn to be cautious when disseminating their findings to the general public.  They should be careful to emphasize that their new, cutting edge discovery has the potential to do this or lead to that, but that it doesn’t actually accomplish it yet. There is a breakdown in communication between scientist, reporters and the general public and I see it every day on CNN, The New Yorker, and many other popular new sources. 

Tell us what you think…Is this a problem?  What can be done about it?  Should sensationalized findings be considered scientific/ethical misconduct?

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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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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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