February 25, 2011

Job Advice: Your university might be the answer

by flickr user dullhunk
The problem with looking for alternative science careers is that there's no consistent way they are advertised. So far the most promising opportunities I've found have come from browsing through job listings by category instead of searching for a specific job title. Some good advice I've received recently is to search as broadly as possible, and your University just might provide the opportunity you seek.

Many departments in large universities hire administrative staff that deal with science and research issues, but aren't involved in the lab. For example, a Research Grants Administrator assists PIs in developing and submitting grant applications. If you enjoy science and writing this could be a great position. I actually applied for just such a position at Big University, and they were only asking for a BS degree and some research experience. As an MS holder with 3 years of graduate level research experience I feel I am well qualified for the position. Now I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for a response.

To find this position I went to the University's Department of Human Resources and browsed through their job listings. I suggest looking through all of the relevant categories as sometimes jobs might end up where you least expect. There were also a few IT positions that my tech savvy could qualify me for. I guess the key is to leave no stone unturned when looking for an alternative science career, especially in this economy.

February 14, 2011

A sea of possibilities lay before me

I dealt with a lot of anxiety and emotional turmoil as I made my decision to leave graduate school (more on that in a separate post), but the single most frightening and exhilarating question was "What do I do now?" I knew that I didn't want to work at a bench anymore, so that ruled out any lab positions. I also decided that at this point I was not interested in staying in academia, neither as a lecturer or high school teacher.  I had been casually looking into alternative science careers for some time, but I still felt like I didn't know of very many options. Here are a few I considered:
  • Patent Agent / Law
  • I didn't consider it for very long, but I was aware of it as an option. To be a patent agent you just need to pass that part of the bar, and can learn the necessary info by studying on your own. See this JAEP post for more on Patent Law.
  • Policy: Congressional Legislative Assistant
  • I learned about this from a post at JAEP, and looked into the mentioned fellowships (AAAS, ACS). Unfortunately, these positions seemed more competitive than I originally thought and required political experience that I lacked. (The AAAS also requires a PhD.)
  • Scientific Publishing
  • I enjoy writing and learning new science, so I thought this might be a good fit. Unfortunately to be an editor they expect you have a PhD. I could apply to be a publications assistant, and I did see a few openings with PLoS and Nature Publishing Group.
  • Hollywood Science Advisor
  • This sounds like the coolest job ever. You read over scripts and answer questions to assure the accurate portrayal of science in TV and movies. I learned about this from ScriptPhD, but was nervous about the "make your own way" aspect of it.
  • Science Librarian
  • I sat down and talked with the chemistry librarian in our department to understand her position. It sounds like a nice blend of education/communication and resource management, but it would a MS in library science and I didn't feel up to immediately starting a two year commitment. JAEP also did a profile of this position.
  • Technical Writer
  • This could combine my interest in writing and communication with my technical knowledge and skills. I learned at a job fair that most scientific companies hire or contract with technical writers (someone has to write all those manuals and online help pages).
Technical writing is the career path I've decided to follow for now. I realize that it's not the most glamorous position, but since I learned most of my new skills in graduate school by reading through product documentation, I understand the value in friendly, informative literature about a program or product. Also factoring into my new career path is the dreaded two-body problem; I want to stay in the area of Big University at least until my boyfriend finishes his degree.

So there we are. I'm starting to send out applications and since I'm so poignantly aware of how awesome I am, I naively believe that my time from now until the beginning of a new career will be short. I hope you enjoy my continued reflections on graduate school and forthcoming contemplations on the alternative chemistry/science job market.

February 07, 2011

Zombies inspired me to blog

Feed by Mira Grant
For the past few years I have had a growing fascination in post-apocalyptic survival stories, and they are all over the place. TV shows (Survivors, The Colony), movies (28 Days Later, The Book of Eli), video games (Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas) and books (World War Z) most of them recent provide intriguing examples of how survivors would cope after a major disaster. I find this survival and ultimately the rebuilding of society fascinating. And, of course, if you throw in zombies it's even more amazing (World War Z and Fallout 3 were the real initiators for all of this).

My interest in both post-apocalyptic survival and zombies led me to pick up the book Feed by Mira Grant at the end of last year. In it the world was exposed to two viruses, one that cured the common cold and one that cured all cancers, unfortunately the combination of these two viruses causes the recently deceased to reanimate. In this new world where most average people stay at home in their well-controlled secure neighborhoods, journalists have become the brave adventurers. And in this new world, it is not the large syndicated newspapers or TV channels of main stream media that people trust, but bloggers. Bloggers have risen as the authoritative voice of this new society because they were the first to take the zombie threat seriously and provide practical advice and help to get people through the first outbreaks. The mainstream media on the other hand tried to placate the public and assure them that everything was fine, even as deaths from zombie attacks were rising.

by flickr user antigone78
So the funny thing is that out of this whole back-story I found the idea of reanimated corpses attacking people more plausible than bloggers taking over from mainstream media. I started to give the idea more credence as I delved more into the world of science writing. I had a blog during my freshman year of college and used it as a place to broadcast my youthful sarcasm and wit, that's probably why I associate blogs with teenagers trying to be clever. Still, I've run across many very serious blogs in recent weeks. Professional scientists discussing both the science and business aspects of their companies and careers. It's also easy to find critiques of recently published work and speculation of the current scientific job market. As I start to gather more of my news from blogs instead of mainstream media I realize that this futuristic idea of a blogging news media might not be so far off.

Then I ran across a conference called ScienceOnline 2011, that invites anyone interested in discussing how web and social media can be used to promote science to register and attend. Unfortunately I came across this conference just as it was ending, but I look forward to the chance to attend next year's Science Online. For now I'll continue blogging and maybe it will lead to a career, if nothing else I'll be prepared to offer advice if zombies start rising up.

February 04, 2011

Waking up from the "Dream Job"

In earlier posts I have touched on the general sense of unhappiness I felt during the first two years of my graduate program. Each time doubts rose as to whether graduate school was the right place for me, the desire to attain that dream job -- being a professor at a small liberal arts college -- would keep me hanging on.

by flickr user StuartWebster
So why did I want to be a professor so badly? Several reasons: 1) I loved the chemistry faculty at my undergraduate institution. They were charming, friendly, enthusiastic, and very encouraging. Any of them would let me sit down in their offices for hours to chat about classes, science, life. I only realized after coming to graduate school how different professors must behave at large schools. 2) I loved teaching, and I still do! TAing the organic chemistry lab is what got me through my first year of graduate school. I enjoyed my students and I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment when I was able to communicate science to them and see them understand it. I also put a great deal of effort into including stories in my lecture that would relate that day's lab experiment to something in real life. When we did distillations for the first time I talked about liquor and gave them an understanding of Smirnoff's claim to being triply distilled. I always tried to find ways to highlight chemistry in action in the "real world" and many of the students thanked me for it. 3) From my observations as an undergraduate, it seemed like the best job you could have. You interact with and inspire students, you spend some time grading, you get time off in the summer (sort of, most schools expect you to carry on a small research program). Perfect.....right?

The fact that I am leaving the PhD program with my MS means something about my aspirations must have changed. What happened is that I got a wake-up call in the form of experience. I was allowed to co-teach a course, and really got knee deep into what it's like to be a professor. I think I had to deal with a little bit of everything in that one course. I felt under-prepared for lectures and had trouble getting the timing right, seeming to always go faster or slower than I had planned. Toward the end of the course I had worked out that issue, but I also began to see just how repetitive lectures would become as I taught the same course year after year. Between preparing for class and grading (and having a life) there's not a lot of time to revamp and revolutionize a course.

by flickr user rocknroll_guitar
I also struggled somewhat with the students. Previously as a TA I was responsible for grading lab reports and quizzes but the students understood that I was just an underling and they seemed mostly appreciative of my help. In this new experience, as a co-instructor for the course, many of the students seemed to think I owed them explanations and advice. I had the clingy students who were constantly by my side and in my office hours, asking questions about things I had already explained to them three or four times. I had the students who just seemed to go through the motions, --average scores on homework and exams-- never or rarely asking questions. And then I caught one student cheating. He fully copied one of the lab write-ups from a student who took the class two years earlier, data, graphs, everything. After looking back through old records we found the original lab report, but when we confronted the cheater he adamantly denied it. He even went so far as to blame us, saying if we knew him better we would know that he wasn't the type of student who would cheat. Overall I truly enjoyed interacting with the students, but the experiences highlighted here also took away from the rosy hue I had always had when viewing academia. I realized that not all students would approach their studies as actively as I had, and many of them would not respond to my most earnest efforts to educate them. Basically, I realized that professorship isn't the rose garden I thought it was.

Finally, I was surprised by the number of committees and non-teaching responsibilities that faculty have to attend to on a daily basis. Faculty meetings, department meetings, committee on committee meetings. I had the opportunity to attend some of these meetings and I realized how politics are intimately involved in academia. Each faculty member, each department have their own strong opinions on how the college should be run and their own agenda on how to accomplish this.

My disillusionment complete, I realized that even though I would enjoy teaching I wasn't sure it would be the perfect job I once thought it was. I also started reading more blogs and hearing stories from older grad students and post docs that the job market (even when the economy wasn't in the toilet) for academic positions is ├╝ber competitive. To be considered for a professorship at some institutions you have to have a remarkable publication track record as a graduate student AND complete one or two (maybe more?) post docs. So not only was the light at the end of my tunnel (perfect professor job) getting dimmer, the road was getting longer and longer (now I have to do a post doc too?).

Now what? I don't like research, being a professor seems less exciting. What are my options? Come back later for the next part of the saga.

February 03, 2011

Blast from the past: Personal Statement

Since I've made my decision to leave I have been actively seeking employment. In preparation for applications and interviews I have been going through old resumes and documents. I took a moment to read through the personal statement I used when applying to grad schools. I chuckled at my naivety and idealism and cringed a little at the cuteness of my closing paragraph. Here it is for your enjoyment, with a few minor alternations (*) to preserve my anonymity.

Science has captivated me for as long as I can remember, and I fondly recall watching “Bill Nye the Science Guy” in Mrs. Jones'* fourth grade classroom. Nye's joy and wonder jump-started my own passion for math and science. Upon discovering chemistry, I found the complexity of intrigue and challenge that could sate my ever-growing curiosity. The satisfaction felt when I gain a deeper understanding of chemistry matches only my desire to learn more. Not just an intellectual exercise or potential source of income, chemistry is one of my greatest passions.

Last year I participated in the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago, IL. It was inspiring to see 14,605 people disclosing new developments in areas like nanotechnology and sustainability. I made a small contribution by presenting a poster on the ACS Student Affiliates Chapter from Little College*. Back in Smallville*, I contribute to the field by organizing and performing chemical demonstrations with the other student affiliates for the local fifth grade class. The kids cheer while we spray methanol-salt solutions into a flame to see their blue, green, yellow, or purple emission spectra, and we explain that the same compounds are found in the fireworks they watch on the Fourth of July. I hope the excitement I provide them during these moments stays with them, just as Bill Nye's stayed with me.

I believe that the true value of science is in the lives it can benefit. My favorite presentation at the ACS National Meeting was by Arup SenGupta, who developed economically feasible, renewable filters to remove arsenic from drinking water in Bangladesh. Norman Borlaug, one of my personal heroes, fed millions through his development of several semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. SenGupta and Borlaug both reinforce my belief that a scientist should not hide away in the lab; a scientist should take her research where it will be of the most use in the world.

I am interested in conducting any research that has a clear benefit for humanity. Discovering the intricacies of protein structure and activity in relation to Alzheimer's, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or cancer is appealing both for the science and its application. Similarly, I am interested in medicinal chemistry; synthesizing analogs of natural products that have potential therapeutic value or attempting to design a new drug from scratch would be an exciting challenge. After earning a PhD in biological or organic chemistry, I hope to join the faculty at a small liberal arts college where I can be an involved mentor for my students and continue health-related research.

Ultimately what you get out of life depends on the effort you put into it. Thomas Edison said it simply, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” I know the key to my current success is a strong work ethic and the determination to finish what I start. Graduate school may be the greasiest pair of overalls I have ever seen, but getting a little dirty is a tiny sacrifice in exchange for the ability to improve the world.
Have any of you current graduate students looked back at your personal statement? Do you also see it in a new, skeptical light?

February 01, 2011

Cautionary tales for those considering a PhD in chemistry

As I began considering leaving graduate school more seriously, I started looking around online to see what sorts of jobs were available to holders of a PhD versus a MS. I ran into a fascinating debate that has continued to grow in popularity on whether or not we (as a society) are producing too many PhDs in the sciences.

by flickr user srqpix
If you are an undergraduate currently considering attending a chemistry graduate program, you should definitely read these articles. It's important to understand that the job market won't be easy when you complete your degree. In fact some people are predicting that it will continue to worsen as Pharma consolidates and continues to announce lay-offs.

If you are currently a first or second year in a chemistry PhD program you should also read these articles. The are very sobering and provide important facts for your consideration as you advance in your education and consider your future career.
  • Doctoral Dilemma: Is chemistry facing a glut of Ph.D.s? by Bethany Halford at C&EN
The most recent article I've come across. This one is excellent because it provides a lot of relevant statistics to support some of their speculation.
The link goes to the summary page for the four part roundtable, and links to the individual articles are in the first paragraph. 
The first article I read on this issue. It discusses science PhDs in general and not just those in chemistry. I didn't agree with everything, but it raises some good points.
The blogosphere seems to be running with this story. Have you noticed any other well-supported arguments either for or against this idea of "too many PhDs"?