Archive for the 'alternative career' category

Science administration: what’s that?

Sep 23 2017 Published by under alternative career

watchingforsunbreaks is a research administrator living in the pacific northwest. After getting a PhD in biochemistry, she switched to a career in research administration and hasn’t looked back. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, photography and travelling the world.

 

When I went to grad school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. During my undergraduate studies, I really liked working in a research lab. It was more fun to run experiments than study out of textbooks, so I figured I should just go get a PhD. Well, I got one and then realized I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. By the end, I was burned out. Instead of jumping into a postdoc, I decided I would take a break, try to find a job still related to research and de-stress. If I missed the lab in a year, I’ll try to go back, but if I didn’t, then I needed to move on and find an alternative career. Suffice to say, I didn’t go back to the lab and now several years later, I’ve ended up in a career path I never really thought I would be in, science administration.

Maybe I’ll go into how I got started in this career in another blog post, but for this one, I’ll just try to describe what Science Administration is, how my research background is useful and some pros and cons of the job.

Science administration – what is it?

I think of science administration as having two broad components, research administration and program administration.

Research administration covers everything related to grants, contracts, and sometimes project specific work if it is a large award encompassing multiple projects and multiple sites. People are often divided into pre-award and post-award, where pre-award is all about finding sources of funding, getting research proposals together, putting together a budget and making sure applications conform to not only sponsor requirements but also institutional requirements. Post-award is everything that goes into making sure once a proposal is funded, that the money is spent in accordance with the terms and conditions of the grant and that the project progresses in a timely manner.

Program administration is more generalized, more similar to admin you would find at any organization encompassing personnel onboarding/offboarding, providing support and guidance for program activities such as seminars and recruitment, and financial support for core funds (money that does not come from external sponsors). Program administration roles are often more strategic, looking into what the needs of the department/program or institution are and how to working toward fulfilling those needs through a mix of institutional resources and sponsored funding.

Do I use any of my science training?

Short answer is not really. Vast majority of science admins don’t have a science background at all. This is changing, though. Since I started in this career, I’ve seen more and more people with science backgrounds and even a few more PhDs starting in this field. I’m not sure if that’s in part due to there just being too many graduates in biosciences who are looking for alternative careers, or if the field itself is professionalizing more and thus looking for people with more science background.

While I rarely use my research training, I do find that it is helpful. I can look for funding opportunities that are more directly related to the work my faculty do, I lightly edit their research proposals (though more with postdocs than with PIs), I can put together budgets that are more in line with the actual project and not just based on generalized estimations. But mostly, I think it helps with just being able to anticipate the questions faculty have and be a better conduit between them and sponsors since I’m familiar with how they work and their thought process. I can speak in their language and that makes them more comfortable and confident in me, which then allows me to be better able to help them. There are lots of science admins who have no science background who are great at their jobs, so this is definitely not a necessity.

Pros

  • My values are aligned with the goals of the institution I work for. It might sound hokey, but the fact that the goal of the organization I work for is to cure cancer is really important to me. I still feel like I’m contributing to a cause I believe in even though I’m not doing the hands on research anymore.
  • Good work/life balance. I have regular hours and I rarely take my work home.
  • Good colleagues and work environment.

Cons

  • It’s boring sometimes. I’m always looking to learn more but most of the time, the work is not particularly challenging.
  • It can be hard to advance. People in this field tend to stay and hold on to their jobs for a long time since the pay is decent and the job is stable, so there’s not a lot of opportunities to advance within the organization.

That’s a pretty quick and dirty introduction to science administration. For researchers looking for an alternative career path, I think it’s definitely worth considering.

 


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Job Interview Questions

When I was first interviewing for jobs I got the question “what are your career goals?”  The question was something I had given a lot of thought to but I’d never actually transferred these ideas into an interview appropriate answer before.  I muddled through that interview, but I realized I could do much better if I forced myself to put my thoughts into actual words, so I started preparing for interviews by writing down potential interview questions and answers.  I think this has helped to make me more clear and succinct (when I’m nervous I tend to ramble) and I like that I get the chance to review what I said for previous interviews.

Recently, a lot of my friends and family have been applying to new jobs/promotions and I’ve been running practice interviews with them.  It feels good to have another use for all the research I put into finding/coming up with/remembering potential interview questions, so I’ve decided to also compile them here for our readers.  Please feel free to comment with any other questions you’ve come across.

Two general thoughts on interviewing…

  • Make your answers short and specific.
  • Keep things positive, if you want to highlight aspects that you didn’t like, try to put a positive spin on things, eg show how would improve things.

Best of luck to all the job applicants out there, I hope this helps!

Questions

– Tell me about yourself/how would you describe yourself?  This should be geared toward the job you are applying for not a general introduction.

– Tell me about your experience at ____ prior company/lab___.

– What did you like about ______ prior company/lab___?

– What do you wish was different about ___ prior company/lab___?

– Why do you want to leave your current position?

– What do you know about this position/company?

– What techniques/methods are you accustomed to using?

– What is your work style/how do you like to approach your work?

– What are your top 3 strengths/weaknesses?  Make sure to tailor this to the position.  If it was a R&D job I might feel ok mentioning that I get nervous talking in front of crowds (true) but if I was going for a science liaison position I would probably choose something else.

– Why are you interested in this job/company/institution?

– What are your expectations for this job/company?

– What is your management style/how do you like to be managed?

– Tell me about how you like to interact with your lab mates.

– How do you deal with conflict?

– What do you bring to this job/company?  This is an awesome opportunity to brag and really highlight why you should get the job

– Describe a setback and how you overcame it.

– Describe a conflict and how you overcame it.

– Describe a time you were working under pressure to get a project completed.

– Describe a mistake and what you did to correct it.

– Give an example of when you used scientific problem solving/a creative scientific approach to solve a problem.

– What motivates you scientifically?

– What are your career goals?

– Why are you leaving academia?

– What are your hobbies?

– Do you have any questions for me/us? You will probably use some up during the course of the conversation, so have a bunch.

– Do you have any concerns for us?

– How much do you want to make? I hate this one… I always try to say something like; I’m excited about this position and I would just like to be appropriately compensated. Ugh.

 

 

 


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Cherries and cherry pits

Aug 10 2017 Published by under alternative career, dream job, leaving academia

For a long time, I was looking for a job. This was my vague list of demands:

Use my scientific knowledge

Use my critical thinking skills

Participate in goal-driven work

Good boss

Good team

As a medical policy research analyst, my demands have been met. My job is to analyze medical research and write policies for a health insurance company. Now, every day, I use my scientific knowledge for a specific goal. I read, critique, and interpret medical studies. I use my critical thinking skills to decide whether the evidence supports a medical procedure. I have a manager and a team I can talk to and get help from. Everyone is helpful and understanding.

Medical policy is quite different than anything I have done before, but it is not unfamiliar. When prepared for my interview, I told myself that I had done this before. I told myself how I had made decisions based on evidence in the lab and how that prepared me to make policy decisions. I made myself sound very convincing, but I wasn’t sure how true it was.

It is pretty true. Critical thinking is critical thinking and evidence is evidence. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to learn. I need to learn what aspects of a study are the important ones. I need to learn how much evidence is “enough evidence.” But the basics of looking at evidence and making decisions? I have that.

So all that to say, while this job is different, it is also not so different. I will continue to do my job and to to learn. I will learn and grow and work and learn. And someday I will have a whole new set of skills and a new vague list of demands.


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Getting over burnout

Jul 14 2017 Published by under advice, alternative career, dream job

The month of May in the Northwest is lovely. So when the days became clear and warm I began taking my book and my food to a sunny spot outside. For a short time, I would escape my world, avoiding data, obligations, and the lab, and be transported to another world.

One day, an acquaintance was sitting in my sunny spot. So I set aside my book to chat. After initial hello’s we moved on to work talk. This acquaintance and I knew vaguely what each other do and our career stages, but our knowledge was shallow. The kind of knowledge you gain with brief hellos in passing.

He told me a little about his work as a pathologist. Then he asked me how things were going for me. “Fine,” I said, not able to muster the enthusiasm to elaborate. He sensed the burnout immediately.

While I love science and would not have said I disliked what I was working on in lab, I did not feel good about the direction my career was going and I was not sure that I was going to be able to know which way to steer it or how. For so long I thought and thought about how to make my career work for me. I talked to people and I tried to imagine a world where I was happy with my job.

I was trying to pick the perfect job and just didn’t know how. How do you know what job is going to be interesting, stimulating, enjoyable, and attainable? Despite not knowing what I wanted to do, I felt like a failure for not having moved on, for not finding that fit yet.

And then finally my networking paid off. A connection I made through a connection of a connection had a job opening in her group. A job I thought might be interesting and in town and with good work-life balance!

And an application turned into an interview turned into another interview and then waiting.

The waiting was so painful. It was a roller coaster of emotion. The waiting went on so long that most people gave up asking. I almost gave up hoping.

And then finally, one day, the phone rang. I was nervous so I let it go to voicemail. The recruiter asked me to call back. When I got her on the phone, she matter-of-factly offered me the job! It felt unreal. It still feels unreal. Years of waiting, for things to turn around in a matter of minutes.

I will post about the actual job another day. One month in, I do enjoy it. It is very different from academia, but I use many skills I gained there.

I feel incredibly lucky. I know I put in a lot of work, but it still feels amazing that this worked out. It feels like if the wind had blown the other way I would still be on the job hunt.

Before this, I kept hearing stories of people getting jobs. It felt like it should happen for me but at the same time like it couldn’t. I’m smart, I’m qualified, but still it felt unattainable. The applications with no replies piled up. I only actually had two unsuccessful rounds of interviews, but it was enough to make me feel like I was not good enough at interviewing to get a job.

So what I have to say to you, job seeker, at this moment of my success, is have patience. Keep talking to people. You think you’ve met everyone, but you haven’t. You may think that because networking hasn’t helped you yet so it won’t, but that’s not how it works. Keep at it. Because, just like in the stories I had been hearing, persistence paid off for me.

 


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When Your Postdoc Mentor Switches Institutions, or The Amazing Community of Women in Science

I am 9 months into my first postdoc. I am 6 months pregnant. I will be unemployed two days after my son is due to be born.

One month ago, my postdoc mentor announced that he has accepted an incredible promotion at a university on the other side of the United States. For several reasons — including having just relocated my family, the strain on my husband’s career and the expectation of a neonate at the time of the Great Move – I will not be translocating with the lab.

My “mentor” made clear to me last week that he will not be renewing my contract two days after I give birth even though he will remain at my institution for another 1-3 months. Even though he will renew current university contracts with at least one other postdoc for several months and lied to my face about doing so. My Postdoctoral Union, the Academic Resource Center and the university Business Office have nothing to say about this. I have no protections in this situation; it is my “mentor’s” choice.

I have spent three quarters of the last month in debilitating pain because my dentist managed to kill a perfectly healthy tooth and pregnancy hormones exacerbated the effects of necrosis, inflammation and infection (lack of effective painkillers did not help either). The other quarter of the month I spent frantically scouring my current institution for potential academic postdoc opportunities in a sea of unknown or inadvisable labs. Labs that are very unlikely to be willing to contract a woman who would just entered maternity leave at the time of ideal onboarding. By this time, I may or may not have transferable salary from any of the three fellowships I’ve just finished applying for. Likely the latter, which prevents me from sweetening the deal.

‘Just find a new postdoc position by next month,’ my “mentor” advises. ‘That way you can spend a month or two in the new lab before going on maternity leave. No one would refuse you a position because of the pregnancy, that would be outrageous.’ He proceeded at my overly laudatory request to recommend potential employers who were strikingly ill-suited to my career goals or experience.

“Mentorship”.

Given the timing of my imminent unemployment and my need for not only neonatal care but regular treatments for my autoimmune disorder, avoiding a lapse in health coverage is – for the first time in my life – a priority over my career aspirations. In a time when COBRA and biologic therapy are unaffordable, my husband and I must re-budget dramatically to pay our mortgage and loans and keep our neonate (and ideally, myself) alive. I have therefore stretched my feelers into a world I was not prepared to join for several years if (and only if) I could tell with more certainty that professorship was not in the cards: non-academic science.

Mid-pregnancy does not feel like the right time to be making a career-altering decision that could mean closing the door to academia for good. Then again, if my choice is between sacrificing my family’s well-being for a sliver of a chance at a reasonable academic postdoc or sacrificing my pipe dream for a potentially happier and more rewarding life, the latter is my clear choice. This is not what everyone should or would choose in these circumstances. This is likely not what I would have chosen 5 years ago. But I love what my life is becoming and am prepared to shift gears if it means being able to do rigorous, ethical and productive science in a healthy way.

Despite the extraordinarily strenuous timing, this transition is somewhat of a blessing as I have had a miserable 9 months with my current absence of any form of mentorship, the embarrassing dysfunction of this world-renowned lab and the excruciating oppression of both my “mentor” and a male adjunct faculty. This is my way out without being the one to set fire to any bridges.

While most days I feel lost and hopeless, I am grateful to no longer be in debilitating pain and I strive to protect my active little belly parasite from my own distress. I am fueled now more by adrenaline and awe of the circumstances than by fear and depression. And I have benefited from some wonderful advice.

You know who has advised me? Not my male “mentor” who has all but thrown me into the gutter. Women. Women who are senior post docs in my lab. Women who write for this blog. Women who have agreed to interview me for positions in their labs at my current institution. Women who have talked through the circumstances of my potential unemployment and financial crisis with me. Women who have helped me identify solutions. The woman who I interviewed with today.

The ball is rolling in a sluggish but mostly forward direction. Today I have hope because of the women I have met in science.


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Why I’m Hopeful

Today, it is easy to be discouraged about the state of the world. On NPR today, I heard about the hunger crisis. Yesterday, I talked to a P.I. at a large research institution in despair about the proposed budget and its impact on research. My students come to school on a regular basis in near tears about the state of immigration, health care or the most recent crisis of the day. I have been guilty of burying my head to some degree, for my mental health. But recently, I had the privilege of taking part in a panel regarding the role of STEM education on girls.

I was invited to participate in the panel because I coach a science extracurricular activity at an all-female school. I had few of my students participating, and other faculty and high school girls were invited to be on the panel. When the day rolled around, I was grumpy about having agreed to participate. My children were both sick, I had family in town and it was rush hour when I had to drive across town. Adding insult to injury, the audience was composed of a measly smattering of elderly people; I’m not sure what I’d expected, but I’d hoped for a least a few more people.

The point of the event was to showcase efforts being put into encouraging young women to go into science and technology. The responses of the teenagers astounded me. The totally understood the perceived and stereotyped behaviors of women in STEM in a way I never did as an adolescent. They demonstrated a value for their own collaborative skills. And they left me feeling hopeful about future of women in science and tech.

When the moderator started asking us me questions, I realized how odd it was for me to be on this panel. I was sitting there giving “advice”, as a young person who had recently left science. Inevitably, as I introduced myself and my history, the moderator asked me the question: “so why did you leave research?”. Sure, I’d been asked that question before, but I’d never had to answer it publically or succinctly. And without realizing it, I had a great answer: I love science. After grad school, I was no longer interested in doing research. I was (and remain) interested in talking about science and I find it fulfilling and challenging. So girls, you should do what you love—I am. Sure, there were lifestyle reasons, but it ultimately came down to my personal interests.

Interestingly, I recently got an invitation to complete a survey about myIDP. It forced me to log in and revisit the assessment I’d done during graduate school. I completed it long before I transitioned to teaching and sort of wrote it off. In retrospect, they had me pegged before I was ready to admit it. So I guess my other advice would be to be open to suggestion—perhaps I’d have discovered teaching sooner if I had been more willing to do so. I’m hopeful that the next generation will be able to value and identify their own skills in STEM much more quickly than I have.

Capture


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Your boss can’t always be your mentor

“You shouldn’t be afraid to tell your boss exactly what you want to do for your next step – it’s their job to mentor you,” is the advice I have given many people, particularly grad students and postdocs who decide they want to pursue careers other than strictly academic research but are afraid to tell their bosses. And now under similar circumstances myself, I have become very hesitant about what information to give my boss about my career plans. I see all the reasons that people would not want to be upfront with their bosses.

  1. I don’t want to get fired. If my boss thinks that I’m no longer right for this job, or the kind of person they want to train, they could just let me go.
  2. As far as I can tell, my boss is not interested in mentoring me for a career outside of academic research.
  3. I don’t want to appear flaky or uncertain. Mostly for reason #1, but also because I still want to be able to count on good letters of recommendation if needed.

At the same time though, there are reasons I should talk to my boss about this.

  1. I could use some advice, mentoring, and maybe even connections or referrals, and I still believe it is part of a boss’ job to provide those things.
  2. I don’t want to waste any more of our time or energy applying for research and training grants, if that is not a direction that will help my career.
  3. Doing so may actually push me to move out into the career I want – even if it was because I got fired.

Plus, I just prefer to be open and honest and I’m sure my boss would prefer that as well. So I will try to first get some mentoring outside of my boss, come up with a game plan for my next career steps, ideally a plan that includes a clear reason why my current position is valuable for my future, and then open up to my boss about it.

With this new perspective, I completely understand why people would not want to be completely open with their bosses, and I apologize for acting like it was so clear cut. That said, as many before me have noted, I do think that most PIs need to be more aware that the majority of trainees are not going to end up as PIs like them, and be open to the many career possibilities that appeal to PhDs. And let’s be honest, your PI probably can’t be a great mentor to you when you’re pursuing a career outside of academia, the only path they’ve traveled, an you’ll want to find another more helpful mentor anyway.


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I get it now: Reflections of a seasonal stay at home mom

I used to balk at the prospect of staying at home with my child. My mother in-law has frequently and less than gently suggested and touted the benefits of staying home with her own small children. “I’m a busy body,” I would respond, and “I like to feel like I have value outside the home.” I frequently reposted articles to Facebook that touted the benefits of staying in the workforce, partially to reinforce my decision. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/how-much-does-it-cost-to-leave-the-workforce-to-care-for-a-child-a-lot-more-than-you-think/). I’d vehemently disagree when people argued that childcare is too expensive to allow them to work. (Here’s my math: 2 kids in daycare at an average of $1,000/month is $24,000 dollars a year: A lot of money, definitely, but certainly not more than the annual income of many of my colleagues.)

I work part time as a high school teacher. I love the work, but the pay (especially as a part-timer) is admittedly low. Many perks counterbalance my small paycheck. Among these are ample breaks; I get every holiday off, plus two weeks at Christmas, a week for spring break and 10 weeks off in the summer. I cherish these breaks, both for my own sanity and the precious time with my small daughter (and soon to arrive baby boy!).

The first few weeks of summer, I often feel antsy. I frantically clean the house during naptime and create projects for myself. I organize, weed the yard and bake healthy muffins. Within a few weeks, though, my toddler and I get into the groove. I read books, listen to podcasts and frequent the neighborhood park. I make regular trips to Target, and we never run out of diapers or paper towels. I make dinner every night, get the laundry done at a non-frantic pace, and get us packed and unpacked from a multitude of summer trips. When my husband gets home in the evening, instead of flitting around the house to finish our chores and prepare for the next day as we do during the school year, we spend quality time together. We reflect on our days and plan for our future. We pour over the unreasonable number of photos and videos of our daughter I’ve accumulated in a short 10 hours, and climb into bed content instead of exhausted. My husband recently commented, “I feel like I’m on break, too,” despite working 55+ hours per week.

As a result, this summer, I have for the first time really, truly understood why many families choose to have one parent stay home (and I don’t think it’s usually financial). With one of us home, our relationship is better and our life is less stressful. We have time to chat about our days and energy to go out to dinner occasionally just the two of us (without feeling like our daughter lives in childcare).

I’m certainly not ready to leave the workforce. A lifetime of internal dialogue regarding the benefits of working when combined with a deep love for my work in science education is not outweighed by my recent revelations. However, I vow to be relinquish my previously judgment over those who choose to do this life differently than I have and to be more open minded. Maybe one day I’ll be a full time stay at home mom. Or maybe I’ll work full time. But for now, I’m thankful for this season.


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Mission Statement

There is so much that I love about my career as a Research Scientist in BioTech. I love the creativity and intellectual stimulation, the teamwork and independence, the opportunity to apply expertise but always keep improving and learning, and I love the puzzle of it all. But sometimes I feel drained, and recently I’ve been in a bit of a funk. I think part of it is from our continued fertility struggles; but I start thinking that maybe I’m not in the right job or even the right line of work…. Maybe I want to run away and be an illustrator or a farmer. I should go live on a commune and teach kindergarten in a tree house. But when I really sit down and outline what I want out of a career/my life I realize (again) that I’m doing it, I have my perfect job. So why do I feel so blah?

? I recently came across a blog post entitled “why a personal mission statement is key to career bliss.”  Based on this maybe the question I need to be asking myself isn’t what I want to be, but rather who do I want to be. I like this idea! I don’t need go external and look for a new passion project or do anything drastic to find my happy place, I just need to be more mindful of my “core motivators” and make sure that I honor that thought in my daily life. Here is my first attempt at a personal mission statement, it’s pretty broad, but I like that it applies to my work-life and my life-life.….

To be a compassionate and creative person who contributes to, and supports teams trying to make the world a better place.

I would love to hear from you, do you have a mission statement?  Has it helped you?


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Listen to yourself

For the last six months I’ve been co-facilitating a peer mentoring group for postdocs, a group initiated by our postdoctoral affairs office. We’re seven people, all in some kind of biomedical research, but not necessarily with the same career goals. The aim of the group is to support each other and give feedback as we move forward on our career development paths, focusing on a specific task each month such as conducting an informational interview about a prospective career option.

One thing that has really struck me about this group is that at over half the people have changed their top-choice career goal just in the six months we’ve been meeting! And it’s not like we’re fresh off the PhD and just bouncing around all the options – most of us have been postdocs for more than a few years, and several of us have done two postdocs.

There are two main ways people have been led to change their goals. The first is through some introspection. We used an Individual Development Plan (My IDP) to facilitate this – I highly recommend this to anyone as a way to clarify (and quantify) your interests, skills and values in a way that can show you more about yourself and good potential career matches. It certainly has some limitations, but it can be eye-opening. For example, the first time I used this tool it told me that, based primarily on my interests, my top career choices (i.e. Principal Investigator) were actually at the very bottom of my list of all the potential science career matches. So that was hard to swallow, and apparently I still haven’t dealt with it completely since that’s the main career I’m still pursuing… but this post isn’t about my problems right now, it’s about helping other people!

The other way that people have been led to awareness of a need for a shift in career choices is by being alerted by someone else that they’re not on the right path. This usually comes in the form of someone saying “When I hear you talk about -X- you sound really excited, and you’re clearly putting a lot of effort into it, but I never hear you sound that excited when you talk about things related to your current career path -Y-.”

My hope with this post is that those of you who are not feeling great about your current career trajectory can really listen to yourself as you talk about different parts of your job – what do you find yourself talking excitedly about, wanting to share with others, or putting ahead of other tasks you should be doing first? If you can listen to yourself and identify those things you’re truly excited about, then you don’t need another person to notice and tell you when you’re on the wrong path, and hopefully you don’t need to waste any more time waiting for someone else to steer you right. And if you’re better with numbers than hearing your own excitement level, the IDP can help you consider and quantify what your top interests are.

I try to check in with myself periodically and hear myself talk. The easiest thing to notice is that I am virtually never excited to talk about research. The next thing I notice is that I am more enthusiastic about things involving students. I first thought this meant that teaching was the right path for me, but when I really thought about what aspects of my teaching and interactions with students I liked the best, I realized that it was the mentorship and guidance that I valued more than teaching content. I’ve been mulling this over for the last couple of years, thinking about and exploring different jobs and careers that can best translate these interests and skills. I’ll keep you posted on where I’m headed!

Has anyone else made a startling discovery/decision based on the way they communicate about their jobs, or been in a position to convince someone else they have a better fitting path to pursue?


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