At many universities, graduate students rotate through a number of labs before settling on one, and the Genomic Repairman has advice for students as they work their ways through the department. First, he says, don't forget to study for classes. "If you fail out you are worthless to the labs, plus you undergo extra scrutiny when you have a less than stellar academic record," he says, though he adds that students should be careful not to spend time studying that they should be in the lab. Further, he says to be on time and to respect the lab technicians. "Let's face it, most of them have been doing science longer than you and at a higher level than you ever have," the Genomic Repairman says. And, he says, if you want face time with the PI, bring some data.
Current training for science PhD students and postdoctoral fellows doesn't necessarily prepare them for the careers they will eventually have as more and more people trained in science seek jobs outside of academia. Bruce Alberts, the editor in chief of Science, and Jim Austin, the editor of Science Careers, write that individual development plans could help make sure graduate students and postdocs get the training they need. They note that government agencies and private sector organizations have used such IDP plans to set goals for employees. "The aim is to ensure that employees have an explicit tool to help them understand their own abilities and aspirations, determine career possibilities, and set (usually short-term) goals," Alberts and Austin write. "In science, graduate students and new PhD scientists can use an IDP to identify and navigate an effective career path."
A related article, also at Science Careers, presents an interactive tool, called myIDP, to help scientists develop their own plan. The tool is based on the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology's Individual Development Plan for Postdoctoral Fellows, and contains four steps: self-evaluation, exploration of possible careers and identification of preferred careers, setting goals to attain that preferred career, and putting the plan in motion.
While the road to a science PhD is long and increasingly won't end in an academic position, Daniel Lametti, a current graduate student, writes at Slate that a science PhD is still worth the effort. Lametti argues that only about half of science PhDs even want to pursue a career in academia and that a science PhD opens doors in other professions like investment banking or journalism. He says that unemployment for people with doctorates in scientific fields is low, citing numbers from a 2008 US National Science Foundation study that found a 1.7 percent unemployment rate for science PhDs and an American Chemical Society figure for this year showing 3.4 percent unemployment in its PhD ranks.
But blogger Chemjobber writes that he finds the "essay very frustrating. It is suffused with youthful optimism, which is no substitute for a cold look at the facts." He writes that the NSF figures Lametti uses are old, from 2008, and that the American Chemical Society has noted that 2011 saw the highest levels for unemployment for its overall members — 4.6 percent — since it started tracking unemployment levels in 1972. Chemjobber adds that the US Bureau of Labor Statistic has pegged the unemployment rate for chemists is at 6.1 percent.
With tighter budgets, getting funds to carry out your research program is ever more difficult, but Ellen Moran at Bitesize Bio shares a few tidbits on how to increase your chances of grant success. First, she says, research the funding opportunities early in the year and jot down any relevant dates on your calendar so you can plan ahead. Then while writing your grant, she recommends making sure your application fits with and is tailored to the grant program's aims. Of course, she adds, "you need to appear to have a realistic view of what can be accomplished within a designated time frame and budget." Finally, she says to start working on applications early — that way you can ask colleagues to look it over before sending it in and easily gather any signatures you need. And, "if you don’t succeed [at] first try, try again!" she adds.
While academic researchers largely enjoy what they do, they are often "uneasy about their future," a survey conducted by Nature says. Indeed, about 67 percent of male respondents and 63 percent of female respondents said they were very satisfied or satisfied with their job. However, not everything is rosy. One respondent wrote in that "the shortfall in grant funding and the decline in state revenues both mean substantially more work writing grants that have a lower chance of funding."
And the global economic outlook is also taking its toll. "I do not think the recession dramatically impacts me as a postdoc currently," another respondent writes. "But the recession does add to my anxiety about finding a faculty position in an increasingly competitive job market with no clear indication that funding will increase in the near future."
While graduate students learn a lot while pursuing their PhDs, how to run a lab might not be one of them. "I felt a doctorate trained me well to be a post-doc. But when I started my current gig, I had a lot of moments where I [felt] I hadn't been warned what I was in for," writes Zen Faulkes at NeuroDojo. While he says that his job negotiation and grantsmanship weren't strong areas, the biggest task he didn't feel well-trained for is bookkeeping and budgeting. "I didn't have to worry about tracking money in any significant way as a grad student or post-doc. Spending money at an institution is not like spending your own money. You have layers of people and paperwork that stand between you and purchases," he writes, adding that "I've learned that I despise trying to keep track of grant money."
Sally Rockey, the deputy director of extramural research at the US National Institutes of Health, dives into the source of the increase in grant applications seen at NIH. At the Rock Talk blog, she notes that between 1998 and 2011, the amount of money requested by research project grants increased from $4.4 billion to more than $13 billion, while competing application funding increased from $1 billion to $2 billion in that same timeframe. Rockey adds that the total number of applications has nearly doubled and that the average number of applications per applicant has also increased. "However, the major contributor to the increased demand is a large growth in the number of applicants — from about 19,000 in 1998 to approximately 32,000 in 2011," she writes.
DrugMonkey also examines the data at his blog. "These numbers make it really hard to sustain the notion that the 'real problem' is greedy individual PIs who are receiving too many awards, for which presumably they have to submit more applications," he writes. "The 'real problem' is clearly that we have too many mouths to feed. The solution, consequently, is not to further squeeze and constrain the good PIs with budget cuts, dismal success rates and limits on the number of grants, or grant dollars they can hold at a time."
With competition for positions as stiff as it is, early-career researchers need be on the lookout for any edge up they can muster. So, how about a sharp, succinct, standout CV?
"The distinctions between a lengthy, technical CV and a snappy résumé can make a big difference in a job search," Nature's Karen Kaplan says. Noting international stylistic inconsistencies — chiefly, that 'CV' and 'résumé' are generally synonymous in the UK and European Union, whereas in the US and Canada, CVs are comprehensive while résumés are concise — Kaplan says its important that early-career researchers understand their intended audience when documenting their credentials.
"Applicants can ensure that they are prepared for any eventuality by keeping multiple versions of résumés and CVs," she says. "In all countries, it is likely that the first viewer of an industrial application will not be a scientist, so an applicant's résumé (in the US) or CV (in the UK and EU) should be peppered liberally with words and phrases mined from the advert."
"Let's talk numbers," says Princeton University's Ethan Perlstein in a post at his blog. "How much does it actually cost to run a small academic lab?"
To answer that, for himself and others, Perlstein has posted a budget for his $200,000 per year, two-employee lab. On average, his lab spends around $17,138 per month, though he notes that some months are considerably more expensive than others. For example, those in which major equipment purchases are made.
"The single most expensive line item is — you guessed it — personnel, which [consumes] well over half of my budget," Perstein says. "Experienced technicians are more expensive than trainees (graduate students and postdocs). Based on these numbers, one can begin to understand why the pitched cries over protracted apprenticeships as a form of indentured servitude have a basis in reality."
Second to that, he says, is the combined cost of consumables, reagents, and services.
In a comment, Perlstein breaks down his group's shopping habits, calling Fisher Scientific "the Wal-Mart of laboratory supplies/reagents," and dubbing research service marketplaces Science Exchange — where he has commissioned an ongoing project — and Assay Depot "Craigslists for experiments."
"Couple hiring can help build a more diverse, equitable, and competitive workforce, especially with regard to gender," write Stanford University's Londa Schiebinger, Andrea Davies Henderson, and Shannon Gilmartin in a new report on dual-career academic couples. In a survey they conducted involving 9,043 full-time faculty from 13 research universities, Schiebinger and her colleagues found that female scholars are more likely to have academic partners than their male counterparts and that "rates of dual hiring are higher among women respondents than among men respondents" — 13 percent versus 7 percent. "This means that couple hiring becomes a particularly relevant strategy for the recruitment and retention of female faculty," the authors say.
Further, Schiebinger et al. report having found that "the number-one reason women refused an outside offer was because their academic partners were not offered appropriate employment at the new location." Because of this, they add, "couple hiring is important to attract more female faculty to fields where women are underrepresented, such as the natural sciences and engineering."
The authors also report having found differences in how male and female academics negotiate for couple hires. "Historically, men more than women have used their market power to bargain for positions for their partners," they write. For their survey, male respondents comprised the majority of first hires — 58 percent — and only 26 percent of second hires. However, the authors suggest that "gender ratios of first and second hires may be changing with time, which suggests that there is an increasingly equitable share of bargaining power among women and men." They add that "recruiting women as first hires breaks the stereotype of senior academics seeking to negotiate jobs for junior partners."
Within India's growing biotech industry, "most jobs are currently available in the private sector and for research and development, marketing, sales/business development, and customer support," The Economic Times reports. Covering a recent talk given by Novozyme's GS Krishnan, vice president of the firm's India/Bangalore presence, The Economic Times adds that "demand at the entry level in the biotechnology industry may not be encouraging [as] the industry is still at a nascent stage in India." Still, according to Krishnan, "career opportunities in fields such as bio-pharmacy, bio-service, bio-agriculture, bio-industrial and bio-informatics is burgeoning."
During the same session, Merck Serono's Lawrence Ganti, general manager/country head for India, said that "many pharmaceutical companies have established R&D centers in India and are considering tapping India's talent." He adds that "graduates with good academic results, relevant experience, and strong soft skills can look forward to a range of positions in the field."
These days, even long-time renewal grants are having a tough time securing federal funds. That's the case for New Mexico State University's Minority Access to Research Careers program, which has been funded by the US National Institute of General Medical Sciences for the last 36 years, reports NMSU's Janet Perez in the Las Cruces Sun-News. (An NIH RePORT query retrieved NIGMS renewal records since 1985, and a total funding amount for 32 projects of $8,479,977.)
The program — which, according to Perez, "seeks to increase the number and capabilities of biomedical researchers from underrepresented groups" — accepts honors undergraduate students who "expressly want to go onto a PhD program and biomedical research," says director Michael Johnson, professor of inorganic chemistry and biochemistry at the university. Johnson has been PI on the NIGMS grant since 1998.
"Every five years, it's a competitive renewal and with all the budget cuts across all agencies this year we were worried," Johnson tells the Sun-News.
But the grant was renewed. Johnson and his colleagues "were awarded a grant worth $3.8 million that extends MARC funding until 2017," Perez says. "The grant will allow Johnson to award MARC fellowships to as many as 24 undergraduate students each year of the grant."
Among other things, Johnson says, the program offers up a "holistic approach to preparing for and getting into graduate school."
In a guest post at Inside Higher Ed's GradHacker blog, KD Shives shares tips for choosing the right lab. Shives, a PhD student at the University of Colorado, says choosing a lab to for your thesis research "is extremely important as you will end up spending more time with these people than your family, and establishing good working conditions is critical to finishing your dissertation in a timely fashion."
Before the semester starts, she says, "find a lab with funding." If the lab is without current funding, Shives adds, it's a good idea to "try to find a group with a good funding history." If the lab is currently funded, Shives suggests reading its grant thoroughly. "It is a long and boring document but it is the heart of the modern academic research group," she says. "What the lab wants and needs to accomplish for funding purposes is all right there in the grant and provides an invaluable guide to what you will be doing in a group."
Shives also suggests reading the group's recent publications and speaking with lab members other than the PI. "You cannot discount how important it is to work well with your labmates," she says.