Maintaining your personal infrastructure
Aug17

Maintaining your personal infrastructure

Recently, Christine announced her return to the lab after her internship. She wrote that she found she had a more positive attitude toward completing her graduate research after her much-needed break. I find that I’m similarly energized by my own return to the lab, although my circumstances are quite different. Since my current employer is just getting off the ground, there have been some long days, which haven’t left a great deal of time for much else. But it’s well worth it. The setting for my new position is quite different than my former one within a large chemistry group in Big Pharma. Gone is some of the infrastructure to support the day-to-day functioning of the lab from which I had the luxury of benefiting in my last role. Walk down to a supply room down the hall to get a box of gloves or pipettes? Nope. Place a call to laboratory services to have such-and-such piece of equipment sent out for maintenance? Not so much. Enjoy a leisurely brunch on the deck of my yacht? Not likely. Oh, wait—that never happened. Those of us in this much smaller group will serve as a significant portion of our infrastructure (once our current arrangement of sharing lab space is complete), along with our other duties. Having more to do is also a welcome change after more than four months of unemployment. I bring up the notion of infrastructure, as it has been fairly topical in recent years. In a broader context, it refers to the services, structures, and organizations necessary to support a society. You know, the kind of things one takes for granted every day. Much of the discussion regarding the infrastructure here in the U.S. has the word “crumbling” appearing with unfortunate frequency, particularly with the current condition of the economy. Although the topic in this context is very important, I believe each of us has our own personal infrastructure. Sure, there are the gadgets and conveniences that help us live our lives. I’m more interested in the part that is internal rather than external. It’s what keeps us anchored and helps us weather whatever storms come our way….and there will be storms, often without any warning. It’s a good idea to prepare yourself and build up your infrastructure. But how? Just about anything you do (assuming it’s not to someone else’s detriment) that helps you grow as person and feel positive about yourself can qualify. There are a few somewhat random things, though, that helped me get through my own stormy period, and continue to help me as I continue to acclimate into my new position. One...

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Jump in and discover what you love
Jul20

Jump in and discover what you love

A few close friends expressed their concerns to me after reading my post about finding your dream job. They said it’s easy to figure out what you want to do when you know who you are. But many people feel stuck trying to figure out who they are. I totally agree. Choosing a career has many parallels to romantic relationship— it helps to know who you are and what you’re looking for in a partner. It’s okay to not know yet. It takes time and life experience to discover what you love. But there are practical steps to take to help you along on the road to discovering what you were made for. Mostly, you’ve got to just jump in and start trying different things. I love how Stephanie Chasteen, also known as sciencegeekgirl on her blog, describes how she “felt” her way into her alternative science career: I tell this to all people who ask me about my career, which defines the word “alternative.” “I’m like bacteria,” I tell them. Bacteria… do not “know” that the hot spot or acidic island is “over there.” They have no overall map of their surroundings to direct their movement in a straight line towards what they seek. What they sense instead is a local gradient — a small change, right next to them. It’s a little warmer that way. They move slightly. They feel it out again. Move. Feel. Move. And feel. The resulting path is a somewhat jagged, but non-random, path toward the thing that they love. And so is mine. Here are the practical steps I took that led me to discover my passion. Until about a year ago, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career. Research was okay, but I wasn’t convinced it was my passion. Then I stumbled across science writing and my ears perked up. After a bit of googling, I found a ton of information and realized there were many possible paths. To narrow down the options, I started testing the waters. I had some experience writing research proposals, so I thought maybe I could become a grant writer. I bought a book that offered tips for writing grants and attended seminars on the topic. I volunteered to help my PI write a grant proposal for my project. All along, I made mental notes to myself about what I liked and didn’t like. I also thought about journal editing. I found an opportunity to be an English editor for an international chemistry journal. It was free labor, but a good experience, nonetheless. I was most intrigued at the thought of doing science journalism, since...

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Chemist-turned-marketing director in the computer software industry
Jun30

Chemist-turned-marketing director in the computer software industry

Profile: Philip Skinner, Field Marketing Director for PerkinElmer, San Diego, CA Electronic laboratory notebooks are the way of the future for scientific records, and Philip Skinner is helping pave the way for them. Philip is a field marketing director for PerkinElmer, where his current focus is promoting E-Notebook products to companies and laboratories. But he wasn’t always in the software industry. He is a trained synthetic organic chemist who received his Ph.D. at the University of Durham in the North East of England and did a postdoc at ETH Zurich before landing a job in med chem. While working in med chem, Philip helped asses E-Notebooks for his company. This experience helped him develop professional partnerships within the computer software industry. Little did he know that the time and effort invested would eventually develop into a full-time job just when he needed it. In 2009, the pharmaceutical company where Philip had worked for eight years cut 40 percent of its staff and Philip was left unemployed. He spent nine months actively exploring other career options, including project management and consulting. Finally, the software company developing E-Notebooks decided to expand their sales team, and they offered Philip a job. Shortly after, he moved up in the company into a marketing position and is now a director of field marketing. Philip said he would not have been so lucky had he not had the training and connections with the folks in the software industry. “I met a lot of people networking, but I got this job from contacts I had made and nurtured for many years, and people I had actually worked in partnership with,” he said. For the most part, he works from home, where he spends his time preparing for product demonstrations, participating in conference calls and talking with customers. “One of my main roles is essentially a translator,” Philip said. “As an experienced lab scientist, I understand the way at least the drug discovery world works. I can speak with the scientists we are working with, but also to our software people.” To expand the company’s client base, Philip demo’s the products at trade shows and visits companies all over the country– so there is a good deal of travel with his job. Philip said the best and worst part of his job is working from home since he said it makes it very difficult to maintain work/life separation. But he said he is very happy with his career move. “I enjoy the work, I like the people, it gives me a lot of freedom,” he said. “I feel valued and useful… and I feel that I have somewhere I can actually grow.” For chemists who may be interested in breaking into the software industry, Philip suggests doing research on both the companies and...

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Do what you are: A recipe for your dream job
Jun28

Do what you are: A recipe for your dream job

My mind went daydreaming today and I got this crazy idea I want to share.  I want everyone reading this blog post, particularly those trying to figure out what to do with their lives, to just take ten minutes to forget about the failing economy, the saturation of the chemistry job market, and all the worries that arise when you wonder how you will support yourself and pay off your loans after you graduate.  Take the next ten minutes to dream— I’m going to guide you through it.  Before you navigate away from this page thinking I’m some kind of nut, please let me explain. I’m going to give you the recipe for figuring out what job you were made for.  In other words, I’m going to help you figure out what kind of job will let you do what you are.  Take a piece of paper and draw lines to create four sections. Or type it out, whatever works.  Causes I am passionate about Activities that get me excited Work environments I thrive in My dream job(s) For sections a through c, write out anything that comes to mind. Be honest and just let it flow.  Now, here is the recipe for your dream job: Think of ways you can work for the causes you’re passionate about by doing the activities you love in a work environment you thrive in.  What’s the idea behind all of this? As you learn more about who you are, you can start figuring out what you were made to do.  Here’s the awesome part: You are free to add and remove items from your list as you go through life and learn new things about yourself. Your dream job may change many times as you yourself change and grow. That’s okay, that’s all part of it.  Now, what does this all have to do with alternative careers in science?  A lot, in fact. For example, you might think you’re passion is research because you’re in grad school and that’s what you do and, for the most part, you enjoy it. But as you dig deeper to figure out what drives you, you may find that your root passion is problem solving, or perhaps project management, mentoring, or on a broader scale, working for a noble cause. While you once thought you were limited to a research career, you might find that you could be happy doing anything that allows you to fulfill that inner longing.  So be creative and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. As you open yourself up to careers off the beaten path, you might find that you have...

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Permadocs as an alternative career path— plausible or improbable?
Jun20

Permadocs as an alternative career path— plausible or improbable?

Chemistry currently suffers from unemployment issues that stem from there being too many PhDs and not enough jobs. I’d like to open up a can of worms and ask your thoughts on the creation of professionalized postdoc positions in chemistry to address this problem. This idea was proposed in Nature News back in March by Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist trained at University College London. Speaking from her experiences in the life sciences, she argued that academia is broken and would benefit from the creation of permanent, university-funded, long-term research positions, which she termed professionalized postdocs: “To avoid throwing talent on the scrap heap and to boost prospects, a new type of scientific post for researchers is needed… we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone… “The scientific enterprise is run on what economists call the ‘tournament’ model, with practitioners pitted against one another in bitter pursuit of a very rare prize. Given that cheap and disposable trainees — PhD students and postdocs — fuel the entire scientific research enterprise, it is not surprising that few inside the system seem interested in change… “An alternative career structure within science that professionalizes mature postdocs would be better. Permanent research staff positions could be generated and filled with talented and experienced postdocs who do not want to, or cannot, lead a research team — a job that, after all, requires a different skill set.” In less than three months, this blog post got more than 3,000 comments, with responses varying from raving support to derision. Many commenters agreed the system is broken and in need of a complete overhaul. Others agree but feel the system is beyond repair and that the changes proposed are too idealistic. Another camp felt that a makeover in academia would only be possible with major infrastructural changes within universities and funding agencies. It would need to be shown that although full-time permanent research positions are more costly, the money would be well spent: long-term scientists would be two to three times more productive than new grad students or postdocs, and the high turnover rate of talent in a lab would be reduced. Wait a sec, I thought. This sounds an awful lot like a technician or research scientist. Commenters who pointed this out said there is nothing to change since such a position already exists. The key difference, Rohn pointed out in her response to such comments, is that the position would be long-term and not be dependent on the renewal of a grant, resulting in greater job security. Additionally, professionalized postdocs would do original research...

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Networking: Getting connected is not such a scary thing
Jun01

Networking: Getting connected is not such a scary thing

My first impression of networking, gleaned from a workshop in college, was: “Get to know people so that you can use them to advance your career.” It came across as very… selfish, sleazy almost. Schmooze with people in high places, then leverage those relationships to reap benefits for yourself. I could never take that approach, I thought to myself. But that’s not what networking is all about. Professional networking is about getting to know people and having people get to know you. Yes, it may lead to job offers (in fact, an estimated 80% of jobs are landed through networking), but that’s not the ultimate motivation or even the end goal. The goal is to gather information by talking to people who have a wealth of knowledge about your field and can help you break into the field. For non-traditional science careers, you’re taking the road less traveled, so networking is particularly important. If you’re in grad school, there are a plethora of resources out there to help you break into academia or industry. But what if you want to do something your adviser or career counselor has never heard of before, like be a science writer, science librarian, or get into publishing, or molecular jewelry making? You’re a bit more on your own in navigating those paths, so getting to know other people who have gone ahead of you is all the more vital to your success. Here are a few of the networking basics I have gathered through reading about networking and trying it out myself. I link to lots of very useful articles that delve into each topic in much more detail than I could cover here. Take initiative. Networking isn’t something that just happens. If you don’t send that email, make that phone call, set up that in-person meeting, you will not get to know people who are in your field (see: Networking: how to get a good connection). If you prefer email, that’s fine for the opener. Introduce yourself and ask if you can set up a time to talk on the phone, or in person if they live in the same city. Be curious and ask honest questions. When preparing for that first conversation or informational interview (see: Tooling up: the informational interview), don’t think about what you’re going to say as much as what you’re going to ask. What do you want to know? (See this list of sample questions for an informational interview). They’ll want to know about you as well, so have that elevator speech prepared and tell them why you wanted to talk to them and what career options...

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