Career Advice from an Oldish Not-Quite Geezer

In contrast to some terrible advice seen earlier this week, here is some GODO career advice featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Career Advice From an Oldish Not-Quite Geezer

You can’t count on your publications and awards to take care of you

By Robert J. Sternberg

Brad.K / Creative Commons

Over the course of my career, I’ve given and received a lot of advice. Much of it was wrong. Sometimes it lacked the perspective that comes with age and experience. So now, as an official “oldster” at 65 (proof: thanks to my age, I just got $25 off upon joining a botanical society), I offer the following advice, from someone who has thought and written about academic careers for 40 years.

Put your family first. Academics often have trouble doing that. I know I did. Starting out in academe at age 25, I had so many career issues to worry about — getting hired, getting publications, getting grants, getting promoted, getting tenured, getting promoted again, getting (I hoped) awards. The crucial word there is “getting.”

Like many academics, I was more concerned about getting than about giving, and giving to my family always seemed as if it could wait another day. The trouble is, the family really can’t wait. Intimate relationships can grow rusty, and children just grow up. I’m lucky that my kids — so far! — have turned out well. But I’ve seen many academics wait too long to attend to their family relationships, only to discover there’s not much of their relationships left.

You can’t count on your publications and awards to take care of you. You need your family now, and you’ll need them more later. More important, they need you now.

Make your health a close second. When you are in your 20s and 30s, you often can get away with not eating well or exercising enough. In those years, your not-so-great health habits may not show themselves in any tangible way. But they will show, probably starting in your 40s, and certainly by your 50s. And then you’ll be well on your way to the “I should have taken care of myself sooner” phase.

You can’t always control your health. Some people have to stop working when they get older, while others can work in only a limited way. But you can help nudge things in the right direction with a lifetime of eating smart and exercising regularly.

Save as much money as you can. Years ago, I remember my faculty mentor retiring and blurting out to me, “I’m rich!” Chances are, you won’t be doing the same. If you think you will, that’s rich — and that’s about all the richness you are going to get.

There was a fairly prolonged period in which stocks kept an upward trajectory and interest rates were high enough to make bonds an attractive investment. Today the stock market goes up and down in fits and starts, and interest rates on bonds are at historic lows. The upshot is that many people reach an age at which they might want to retire but can’t. Fewer and fewer academics are on defined-benefit plans, while more and more are on defined- contribution plans — if they have any retirement savings at all. The latter usually don’t cover the full cost of what today is a much longer and more expensive retirement than was true in the past. So start saving early, and save as much as you can.

If you’re in the wrong place, get out. Most academics today have multiple jobs over the course of a career. At some point, there is a pretty good chance that you’ll land in a department (or even an entire institution) that feels dysfunctional.

In your 20s and 30s, you might somehow convince yourself that “things will work out.” As you get older, you realize that a bad match between an academic and an institution usually stays that way. If you really care about teaching and your university doesn’t, the university is probably not going to change. If you care about excellence and the people around you take pride in their mediocrity, chances are that will not change. Rather, they will perceive you as just a grand annoyance, or as a threat. So if you don’t fit, start looking before you’re told to start looking.

Stay away from jerks. Academe, like any other profession, attracts its fair share of creeps and dirtbags. You can waste a lot of time trying to figure out how to deal with them. The reason people are still trying to figure that out is because no one ever quite has.

The best thing you can do is to stay away from them, to the extent possible. You’ve got better things to do. The time you spend trying to deal with them, or avenge yourself against them, is time lost to far more productive endeavors.

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Help solve the mystery of the disappearing PhDs

Where do PhDs go after completing their degree?  Only a small percentage go on to get tenure-track position, so what career paths do all the other PhDs follow? Highlighted in Science CareersMelanie Sinche of theLabor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School is trying to figure out what PhDs go on to do after their schooling.

“If you earned a PhD in any of the physical, life, computational, engineering, or social sciences between 2004 and 2014 and have ever worked, trained, or studied in the U.S.,” you can help by participating in a confidential online survey estimated to take about 15 minutes.

The hardest part about being a scientist today may be finding a job – Bryan Gaensler @ConversationUK

Maybe the hardest nut for a new scientist to crack: finding a job

By Bryan Gaensler, University of Toronto

The typical biography of a scientist might look something like this.

At a young age, a boy or girl discovers a love for science. Their dream is to become perhaps a geologist, a chemist, or a marine biologist.

At school they work hard at math and science, and they supplement this with everything else they can get their hands on: books, documentaries, public talks and visits to museums. They take all the right courses at college and then embark on a PhD in their chosen field.

After many years of hard effort (including chunks of time racked with doubt and frustration), they complete a solid body of work that contains some genuinely new discoveries. They’ve had the chance to meet some of the big names they read about as a kid, and now actually know some of them on a first-name basis.

The day a young graduate receives his or her science diploma is the most thrilling and satisfying day of their life. They are finally, officially, a scientist.

But there’s one thing that all those years of study and research has not prepared them for: the job market.

Pounding the pavement as a scientist

No matter what your profession, job hunting is not fun. But for scientists and other researchers, it’s a weird world of intense competition, painfully long time scales, and uncertain outcomes.

The strangest thing about a scientific career is that the application deadlines are often ridiculously early. Hoping to find a university position starting in September? If you wait until February or March to begin your job search, you’ve likely left it way too late. The application deadlines for some of the juiciest positions were way back in November and December.

Because of this advanced schedule, only the things that someone accomplishes a year or more before actually needing a new job will matter for their career prospects. Any amazing discoveries made after the application deadline are largely irrelevant.

The problem is that this is not always how science works.

For many important research topics, all the headline results emerge only at the very end. Students whose research is part of a massive longitudinal study or who are members of a big project team suddenly find themselves at a huge disadvantage, because they often can’t provide instant evidence of the quality of their work a whole year before needing a job.

The other daunting thing is the intensity of the competition. For most specialized scientific topics, there are far more PhD degrees than job postings: across all of science, doctoral degrees outnumber faculty positions by a ratio of 12 to one. An advertisement for a fellowship or junior faculty position will routinely draw hundreds of applications, and only 1%-2% of graduates will eventually land a coveted professorship.

How to proceed, when the odds are so stacked against you? Inevitably, the only way to counter the competition is to apply for lots of positions. A budding scientist is expected to apply for a dozen or more jobs, spread all over the world.

This situation immediately creates some challenges and problems.

By increasing the quantity of applications, the quality suffers. In an ideal world, an applicant will provide a carefully wrought narrative, weaving a story as to how their skills and background perfectly dovetail with the interest of the department they hope will hire them. But there’s no time for that. Instead one typically sends out a generic CV and research plan, and then essentially just hopes for the best.

The process is also incredibly inefficient. Professors all over write endless careful letters of recommendation, most of which have little bearing on the outcome. Selection panels spend hundreds of hours reading huge piles of applications, but can only afford a scant 10-15 minutes considering the merits of each candidate.

What’s more, not everyone can freely pursue jobs anywhere the market will take them. Young children, aging parents and other personal circumstances result in a large pool of outstanding scientists with strong geographic constraints, and hence limited options.

Overall, the harsh reality is that many applicants will simply not get any offers. A lifelong dream of being a scientist, combined with an advanced postgraduate degree, is tragically not a guarantee of a scientific career.

Good scientists should be able to find jobs

The frustration, disappointment and disillusionment grow every year. Things need to change.

First, employers need to make much more of an effort to tell applicants what sort of scientist they are looking for. Instead of reducing the job searching process to the scientific equivalent of speed dating, advertisements need to set out a clear and detailed set of selection criteria, with lots of context and background on the role and working environment. By properly telling the community what they’re looking for, labs and research institutes can focus their time on candidates with useful qualifications, and applicants can focus their energy on only those jobs for which they have a realistic chance.

Second, we need to create flexible career paths. Part-time positions, “two body” hires for couples with both members in academia, and accommodation of career interruptions need to become de rigueur, rather than whispered legends we’ve all only ever heard about second- or third-hand.

And finally, a specialist science degree needs to move beyond the expectation that it offers training only in one particular type of science.

A good scientist graduates with passion, vision and brilliance, and also with persistence, organization, rigor, eloquence and clarity. A scientist can incisively separate out truth from falsehoods, and can solve complicated problems with precious little starting information. These are highly desired attributes. The scientific community needs not just accept but celebrate that the skills and values we cherish are the paths to a wide range of stimulating and satisfying careers – both in and out of academia.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

the SCIENTIFIC 23 – Amazing website interviews and profiles scientists about their careers and lives!! @sjblakemore


Check out this awesome website, the Scientific 23, which interviews and profiles scientists, asking them 23 questions. The website was made possible by the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award 2013 awarded to Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

We have interviewed a number of scientists and people who work in science-related fields, such as science policy, science journalism and science museums. Each interview consists of 23 questions submitted by teenagers. We hope the website can be used as a resource to provide secondary school students with an insight into different scientific professions, and in doing so perhaps encourage more young people to consider choosing science.

You can view the profiles and interviews with the scientists or people with science-related jobs. It is also possible to see what different interviewees answered to a particular question. Some questions are straightforward (What do you work on?), while others are much more interesting and thought provoking. Check out some of my favorites below!!

What did you want to do when you were 14?

When did you know you wanted to become a scientist?

How will your research benefit humankind?

What are you most proud of?

Who’s your favourite scientist and why?

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

How do we gauge scientific productivity?

Last week, I was fortunate enough to have lunch with the scientific director of intramural research at NHLBI, Dr. Robert Balaban.  At one point, he asked our group of about 10-15 postdocs and postbacs to raise our hands if we wanted to continue on the academic track… and I was shocked to see that only ONE person in our group raised their hand.

But then again, I wasn’t that shocked…  At CauseScience, we have posted several times on the current crisis facing the biomedical research enterprise, and how difficult it is to pursue a career in science.  There are several flaws in the current system, including too many trained scientists for too few academic positions.  Another flaw that has spawned from this hyper-competitive atmosphere is how we acknowledge the productivity of scientists.  Currently, there is this unrealistic expectation that one must publish in a high impact journal (what does the “impact factor” mean?) in order to obtain a tenure track position- that a high impact publication signifies high quality research that is superior to publications in other journals.  But this method of evaluating research is broken and detrimental to all in science (not to mention other side-effects that stem from this, such as fraud and publishing costs). In order to navigate our way out of the current unsustainable biomedical research system, we must change the way in which we gauge scientific productivity.  Several scientists have come together and signed the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) supporting this notion that a journal impact factor should not be the judge of ones scientific contributions.  That being said, how then, do we gauge scientific achievements and productivity?

One idea is to gauge productivity, not by the impact factor of the journal the work is published in, but instead by its actual impact.  Independent of the journal it is published in, is the scientific work novel? Does it contribute to the field? Is it well done? Many agree that these are the questions to ask when determining the value of ones scientific research, but how are these questions converted into a tangible metric to evaluate research?  An idea is to examine how often a finding is cited in relation to the impact factor of the journal it’s published in.  For example, if one publishes a research finding in a low impact factor journal, but this work goes on to be cited numerous times, far more times than suggested by the impact factor of the journal, the actual value/contribution of the work is much higher.  Conversely, if one publishes in a high impact journal, but the finding is not cited often at all, that should also be noted. This way, one measures actual impact. The NHLBI has begun to adopt some new methods to evaluate scientific productivity, and Dr. Balaban discusses these in the Journal of General Physiology.

Dr. David Drubin, at UC Berkeley, also discusses ideas on how to measure scientific productivity without using the impact factor scale.  For example, the NIH has been taking steps to change the format of the CV or “biosketch” in grant applications.  To discourage grant reviewers from focusing on the journal in which previous research was published, NIH decided to help reviewers by inserting a short section into the biosketch where the applicant concisely describes their most significant scientific accomplishments.

Furthermore, Dr. Sandra Schmid at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, has conducted a search for new faculty positions by asking applicants to submit responses to a set of questions about their key contributions at the different stages in their career, rather than submitting a traditional CV with a list of publications.

While there is still work to be done to implement these types of metrics for evaluating productivity on a larger scale, it’s refreshing to see that steps are being taken to address this problem and potentially fix it. 

#Science and Health Communication Internships at National Cancer Institute! #scicomm @NIH


Two more great opportunities for scientists/researchers interested in gaining experience in science and health communication!! Check out the site here for more info and the application!

The HCIP gives highly qualified graduate students and recent graduate degree recipients the opportunity to participate in vital health and science communications projects in one of the many offices that make up the NCI.  Interns will select an area of emphasis: Health Communications or Science Writing.  Six-month and one-year internship terms are available.

Info below on the two distinct internships!!

Successful Health Communications applicants have some science background as well as experience and/or education in any of the following areas:  public health, epidemiology, public relations, health education, communications, science writing, statistics, social marketing, or journalism.

Successful Science Writing applicants have a science background with the ability to translate complex scientific concepts into material suitable for a lay audience.

Turns out academic research is only one career option for biomedical scientists!! #science #NotAlternateCareerPaths

CSHL Press has a new resource for biomedical scientists (Edited by Kaaren Janssen and Richard Sever) looking for career paths other than academic research. Turns out there are a lot!!

Also, these are NOT alternate career paths… they are career paths.

Most people who do a PhD and postdoctoral work in the biomedical sciences do not end up as principal investigators in a research lab. Despite this, graduate courses and postdoctoral fellowships tend to focus almost exclusively on training for bench science rather than other career paths. This book plugs the gap by providing information about a wide variety of different careers that individuals with a PhD in the life sciences can pursue.

Covering everything from science writing and grant administration to patent law and management consultancy, the book includes firsthand accounts of what the jobs are like, the skills required, and advice on how to get a foot in the door. It will be a valuable resource for all life scientists considering their career options and laboratory heads who want to give career advice to their students and postdocs.

@ErinGoBrain…. defining science communication by what it isn’t #WedORF #science

Check out this great post from Erin Go Brain. It is part of the blog’s weekly feature Wednesday Open Reading Frame, which highlights “non-journal articles that, just like a biological ORF*, should be read all the way through. No long reflections; no stop codons. Just good reading.” Love the nerdiness… so clever! This week’s ORF post highlights a NatureJobs article about science communication as a career choice. In the words of Erin Go Brain:

The take-home point: science communication is a lot easier to define by what it ISN’T than by what it IS. It ISN’T just print media any longer, it ISN’T a sure thing, and it ISN’T “the easy alternative” to a research career. It’s often grueling, time-consuming, and promises at least as insecure a future as academia.

A plea for scientists to advocate for scientific research… and themselves! #CauseScience

Scientific research is currently facing major hurdles in both general support and monetary funding. At CauseScience, we have posted about the current science funding crisis, the negative impact it is having on science, as well as some potential solutions suggested by experts. We have also posted about opportunities for individual advocacy via a number of terrific research advocacy organizations (!). However, the visibility of research advocacy is too low to effectively sway public opinion or politicians to support broader scientific funding. How can we fix this?

If you are in scientific research, or follow research related news, it is hard to go a day or two without hearing about the current funding crisis. And rightly so! Stagnant funding (graph below) has crippled scientific research, innovation, and the morale of many scientific researchers. Over the last decade, funding has flatlined or decreased. Despite the fact that the US spends more than any other country on biomedical research (as well as on other research and development), the percentage of the federal budget supporting this research has declined. AND other countries, like China, are increasing their support for research and are on course to leave the USA behind (Shout out to the EU’s Horizon 2020).

The decrease in US research funding suggests that research has become less of a national priority over the last few decades. And why would’t it? The majority of the public is not aware of science and research (first graph below), so most politicians don’t have the motive to make science and research a priority. Luckily, increasing numbers of Americans support more federally funded research (second graph below), and the White House BRAIN Initiative indicates that political support of research may be changing.


Making scientific research a national priority will help increase funding for research, but this can only happen if support for science and research is loudly and broadly voiced. Luckily, there are amazing advocacy organizations fighting to increase support for research (see list at bottom of post). These organizations advocate for science and research funding at a national level, but as importantly, they make individual advocacy super easy. With a few clicks on their websites, one can send emails to politicians, sign petitions, and engage in social media campaigns. CauseScience has participated in the Research!America Ask Your Candidates campaign and the new Act 4 NIH campaign. Each took only a few minutes.

While advocacy organizations have put in place a terrific advocacy pipeline, it is unclear how many people are utilizing it. A simple twitter search for the social campaigns (#Act4NIH and #AYCResearch) reveals a relatively limited number of participants. It is awesome that a few minutes of effort, a selfie, and a tweet made CauseScience a featured picture on the Act4NIH website, but it also indicates that the website is not being overwhelmed with supporters, which is what we need.


In an ideal world, all citizens and politicians would be advocates for science, especially for biomedical and health research. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Who would make a good base of research advocates? I think a good start would be a group of people who love and value research… and maybe also the people who depend on science funding for a job (Ahem). If you haven’t caught my drift, I’m talking about graduate students, postdocs, career scientists, technicians, and principle investigators that depend on scientific funding. These researchers know firsthand about the impact and consequences of funding cuts, and also about the amazing possibilities of well-funded science (shout out to the Science Coalition blog, Science 2034).

If scientists aren’t willing to advocate for science and research, how can we expect citizens and politicians to voice support for science research? 

I know scientists and researchers are extremely busy. The priorities of scientists should be performing research, mentoring young scientists, and writing papers and grants. AND should also include engaging non-scientists to maintain support for the aforementioned responsibilities. It is in scientists’ best interest to capitalize on work already being done by research advocacy groups to increase the visibility of people supporting scientific research. Simple and quick ways to advocate for research include participating in social media campaigns, signing political petitions, and calling or writing YOUR congressional officials. Media campaigns raise awareness of science funding issues, but more importantly they increase the visibility of people concerned about, and supportive of scientific research.

Perhaps voluntary participation is not enough. Some grants already require outreach and communication activities, perhaps advocacy should be added to this. If NIH, graduate programs, postdoc associations, and institutions and universities consistently required members of the research community to participate in advocacy, it would make a HUGE impact. In New York State alone, there are 31,618 research people supported by NIH!! If even half of these people tweeted or posted on Facebook that they #Act4NIH, or more importantly, emailed their representatives, it would massively increase the visibility of research supporters! On the same note, research institutions and universities should encourage advocacy and provide incentives for researchers who participate in any form of advocacy. 

Now is the time for action. Scientists and researchers need to stand up for themselves and their research – and break out of the silos of academia and research institutions to engage the public in science. The visibility of science and research needs to be improved if we want funding to improve. Advocacy groups are doing A LOT, but they need and deserve the participation of the people doing the research they are fighting to support. If scientists increase the visibility and effectiveness of advocacy efforts, the public and politicians will not be able to ignore it.

And maybe people that are unaware of the problem, will learn about it, start to care about it, and join in the cause.

Advocacy Groups and Organizations: 


United for Medical Research

AAAS – Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy

AAAS – Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering


Society for Neuroscience

AIBS Public Policy

Science Coalition

American Society for Cell Biology

Coalition for the Life Sciences

Emory Science Advocacy Network (EScAN) 

Union of Concerned Scientists

APS science policy

AGU Science Policy

Stand with Science

Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

Forum on Science Ethics and Policy

@NatureNews and @MitchWaldrop look in-depth at LGBT’s in #science


Nature News has published a terrific article on being LGBT in the scientific community by M Mitchell Waldrop. The article examines acceptance and discrimination faced by LGBT scientists, as well as their comfort level being out and pround at work. It includes personal stories and a number of great quotes from a personal hero of mine, Ben Barres. Thank you Mitchell Waldrop for this article, and kudos to Nature News for recognizing the importance of LGBT issues in science!

Still, without minimizing the challenges that remain, older LGBT scientists stress how far the world has come in a remarkably short time. “When I’m contacted by young people,” says Barres, “I always tell them that the fears are so much greater than the reality. And I always encourage them to be open, because they will be so much happier. If you’re doing good science, if you’re a great teacher — that’s what matters.”