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Job search

How do you interview for positions and ask for recommendations when you don't want your employer to know that you're looking for another job?

First, consider whether secrecy is really as important as your knee-jerk reaction says it is. "If you're in academia, the notion of a secret job search is sort of anathema [but] in industry it's pretty much the norm," Mark Borowsky says.

If you have a really good boss who would understand why you're feeling the need to look for another opportunity, David Barker says, it may be worth talking to him or her. That's one source of a recommendation.

And if you do decide to keep your job search off the radar, just "be direct with the people that you're contacting and tell them that this is confidential," Barker adds. In that case, you'll have to use references from prior jobs.

How do I handle gaps in employment?

Whatever you do, don't try to hide gaps. "Certainly when I interviewed people, the gaps just jump right out," Barker says. "I think you have to deal with them directly. … Everybody interviewing looks for these gaps and will ask about them anyway."

How do you give a job talk when your previous employers won't let you show your data?

Don't panic, Barker says. A job talk isn't necessarily about data that you generated the week before. "In a job talk, what people are looking for is as much presentation style [and] confidence," he says. It's normal for companies to keep their latest data confidential, but Barker says that industry scientists tend to forget that the rest of the community may not be aware of what's been going on at any given company during the past couple of years. He recommends using slightly older information in your job talk that's been made public, but would probably still be interesting to your audience. Specifically, he says, "talk about what your role was in it" and remember that "it's not so much what you talk about as how well you do it."

How do you negotiate salary for a new job?

Just like any other negotiation, you want to have all your facts, says Borowsky. Talk to your colleagues and mentors — particularly "people who are a little further along the career path than you" — and ask what appropriate pay for that kind of position would be. "Don't overlook the benefits," Borowsky adds. "The most important thing is to have a really solid and detailed understanding of what you're asking for and how it fits into the landscape."

When you're talking to people to find out what the right salary range is, says Tim Gardner, try to match the region and level of position so you get comparable data. Also, he notes, don't stress over it. Once an organization has made you an offer — even if it's not what you'd hoped for — you know the hiring team is interested in you. "Try to understand their perspective," Gardner says, and then go through what you truly need to make the offer work. "Be creative about how they can meet your needs," he says. "Most companies are willing to negotiate" but flexibility and understanding are critical for both parties.

When is the best time to look for a new job?

While "when you're sick of your current job" seems like the right answer, Gardner says that you should look to move when things are going well in your career. "You want to sell yourself when you're on top, not on bottom," he says.

Negotiations, transitions, and advancement

I've heard that there are salary differences between men and women who work at the same level. Why is this? Do most men negotiate for salary, even as postdocs?

"We know that women tend not to negotiate the same entry-level salaries as men, but they also don't get promoted at the same rate," Joan Herbers says. For example, a small study of engineering majors at Carnegie Mellon University showed that the starting salary negotiated by women graduates was about $4,000 less than that negotiated by their male counterparts.

"What the studies show us is that young women think that the playing field is absolutely level," Herbers adds; most women, she says, don't figure out the need for negotiation until their late 30s or early 40s. And while salary differences between men and women may not start out as that significant, even so-called "micro-inequities" add up to a major disparity over time, Herbers says. "Women need to understand the world of negotiation, and need to accept that this is part of the deal. Women give up sooner than men as well, even when they do negotiate."

How do you ask for a promotion?

First, go to your boss and have a chat, says Win Hide. "Say that you're planning your career development" and that as part of your assessment, you'd like to know where you stand in terms of opportunities for promotion, he says. That's a good way to "establish what your boss regards as milestones for promotion" without being overly aggressive or demanding. Once you understand what's required for a promotion, keep track of everything you accomplish and sit down with your boss again once you feel you've earned it.

How do you deal with subtle sexism — including how to not let it hinder opportunities to advance?

Sexism in science isn't what it used to be, Herbers says. "The instances of blatant sexism have declined. … It's not as bad as when I was a grad student." However, she says, what remains is "the insidious stuff that nobody intends." One example: holding meetings outside normal work hours, which tends to affect women more as they're generally responsible for child care.

In general, Herbers advises people to compare notes with each other if a situation doesn't feel right or you think that something hasn't been handled properly. "Knowledge is key," she says. "Then you don't assume it's your fault." This is a good practice for scientists of all ages, she adds.

For senior researchers who have more than 20 years of experience but are not ready to retire for at least another 10 to 20 years, what is the best way to make a career change?

"At that point in your career, you can get rejuvenated by taking a risk, going to do something new," Barker says. That could be in the form of going to work for a startup, switching your research focus, or starting your own company, among other possibilities. "Taking a little risk and getting some changes … keeps people growing and learning new things," he adds.

How do you go from general programming to a more scientific focus?

While you could "learn some of the specialized biology packages, like Bioperl and BioJava," Borowsky says, your time may be better spent learning approaches to biological data, such as heavy-duty statistics packages. And be targeted about how you learn. "If you think you're going to go after a job in human genetics, then learn about genome-wide association studies," he adds.

Hide recommends getting a graduate degree, or taking on a project "that gives you an opportunity to learn the biology of the system." He also suggests attending relevant workshops and meetings, which he says are "a very effective way of getting trained."

Working abroad


What's the best strategy when you want to work in a country with normally lower salaries than where you currently work?

Hide says he faced this problem frequently while running his bioinformatics institute in South Africa. "The hiring place often is not in a position to offer an internationally competitive salary," he says, "but they are in a position to let the scientists raise their own funds." Make sure the salary you're accepting is competitive locally, and get an agreement from the organization allowing you to compete for international grants. Hide says he "topped up" his institute salary with "grants from overseas," which gave him the level of compensation he was looking for.

Paul Flicek says this is a question he hears a lot while recruiting as well. He tells people to look at the median salary of the country they currently live in and figure out how their salary relates to that; then, look at the median salary in the country you're thinking of moving to and see how the salary being offered compares. "That's a really good way to judge how you will live in that country compared to how you live [now]," Flicek says.

What's the best route to taking a postdoc in another country? Are there visa requirements?

Most countries offer some kind of training visa, says Flicek. "For the most part, the host institute is your first point of contact" for cutting through the red tape to get a position.


Our panel of experts took on your toughest career questions:

David Barker, retired in 2006 as chief scientific officer of Illumina and now serves as an advisor to several startups

Mark Borowsky
, director of bioinformatics at Massachusetts General Hospital

Paul Flicek, team leader for vertebrate genomics at the European Bioinformatics Institute

Tim Gardner, associate director of computational biology at Amyris Biotechnologies

Joan Herbers, a biology professor at Ohio State University and president-elect of the Association for Women in Science

Win Hide, founder of South African National Bioinformatics Institute and visiting professor at Harvard School of Public Health

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