Tuesday, 22 May 2012

How to Successfully Not Leave Academia

A Guide to Making the Transition from the Bench to the Other Bench

1. Leave all thoughts of career paths and job options until After you finish your thesis and do your Viva. After all, it’s just way too hard to worry about your future and career while you’re racing to submit a 300-page manuscript and gearing up to defend it in front of a panel of academic meanies.

2. Once you’re done, take loads of time off. After all, you deserve it, right? You’ll worry about jobs and careers after you’ve traveled a bit, caught up with the best/worst TV series of the last three years, read all five (seven?) of the Game of Thrones books, and resuscitated your ailing social life. This is where the money that you made teaching those snotty medical students comes in handy.

3. Once you’ve decided to start the Job Hunt, spend a lot of time reading about alternative careers and how people successfully got off the academic career bandwagon and went on to do fulfilling, high-paying, fun jobs where their PhDs are appreciated and their talents made use of. Do all sorts of online tests about what kind of career would be right for you (am I a doer or a thinker or an organiser or a creator?). Buy books on Amazon written by so-called ‘career doctors’ who will tell you not to make spelling mistakes on your CV and not to wear ripped jeans that show your bum to an interview. Join LinkedIn and Twitter (but only professionally!) and get your mailbox swamped each morning with emails from groups you’ve joined and about people you’ve never heard of following you. Start a blog about your experiences.

4. Apply to jobs. Be extremely picky. Apply only to jobs that pay well and sound fab and are in cities that you’d like to live in. Spend hours tailoring your CV and Cover Letters to sound less academic and more well-rounded and apply to more jobs. Apply to jobs that pay less well and sound less fab, but still only in cities you’d like to live in. Apply to unpaid internships in cities you really don’t want to live in. This is where the money that you made teaching those snotty medical students starts to dwindle.

5. Be too embarrassed/too proud to network. This one’s important, because apparently 80% of people get jobs through their social network. But you have a PhD, you shouldn’t have to go around begging for jobs!

6. Go through an existential crisis. Ask yourself what you’re doing, where you’re going, and what it all means. Ask yourself why you’ve studied so hard all your life, gotten good grades, won competitions, participated in extracurricular activities, worked long hours in the lab, and defended a 300-page manuscript to a panel of academic meanies, when you were only going to end up an undervalued, unemployable bum. Ask yourself why you’re trying to sell your soul so badly when no one seems to want to buy it.

7. In a moment of weakness, apply to one, very unlikely, post-doc. Just to see if you can get it. Just to be doing something. Just to fill up the time while you’re waiting for the people from your last job application to get back to you. But then get really excited about the project and do loads of reading and come up with cool ideas for experiments and ace the interview. And get the position. And move there a month later.  And find that you’re kind of looking forward to teaching those snotty medical students. And you can always try leaving academia again next year.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Pen is Mightier than the Pipette

Why Writing can Make, Break, or Fake your Science

We scientists are just a tiny bit disdainful of what we call ‘the humanities’. Just a tiny bit. We are, just admit it! We know writing is important, but in the end it’s the science itself that’s going to change the world, right?

I only really started to think about the importance of writing recently, when I was given an editing test as part of a job application a couple of months ago. The test was a scientific paper that had sentences like this:  “The method is also laborious in pursuing the subject except in case when several fixed stations were set in closed waters.” This paper had already been through a first edit: all the grammatical and spelling mistakes had been fixed, and now my job was to try and make sense of it. Don’t worry, it didn’t make sense to me either, and I assume it didn’t make much sense to the editors when they first received the paper for publication, or else they wouldn’t have made it into an editing test, the sole purpose of which, I assume, is the slow torture of job applicants. (Note: the experimental ‘subject’ is a fish which the authors were having trouble to catch to do the experiment on, for anyone who’s dying to know.)

The point is, no matter how good your science or science idea, if you can’t write about it properly, you’re going to run into trouble. This puts scientists whose first language is not English at a serious disadvantage, and there are companies that have started making truckloads of money by capitalising on this. The most obvious point at which writing matters, is publication. If you can’t write about it in a way that makes sense, it’s going to be difficult to get your science published, which, as we’ve established, is all that really matters. But good writing skills are crucial even before you pick up that pipette, when you’re trying to persuade those funding bodies to give you money to BUY that pipette. If you’ve got Mad Writing Skillz, you’re more likely to get a grant in the first place.

So writing lets you do the science and lets you get it published. But it becomes even more crucial, if possible, when you’re trying to explain to people outside of your geeky science circle what it is you’ve done with your pipette. Because it is here that it influences how people and companies use your science, how science policy is made, and arguably most importantly, how people think the world works.

One of the most famous cases to illustrate this is the big scare around 2001 about the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine being linked to autism. As is explained here quite nicely, the main problem was not the actual first paper published in 1998 (which later did turn out to be a bit dodgy), but the exaggerated coverage by the media. There are countless of other examples where press releases reach the public before the science is properly peer-reviewed. And don’t even get me started on the careless way in which many scientific findings are misrepresented or exaggerated in the media today. Many good blogs already talk about this, like this one and this one.  

Can you think of any other ways in which the pen is mightier than the pipette? According to this article on science blogging, I haven’t really been engaging my readers in debate so far. Mostly because I know my readers agree wholeheartedly with everything I write.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Death by Anticipation

The article that won last year's Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize (as of today, they're accepting submissions for this year's round) was on the so-called 'Nocebo effect'- an unpleasant version of the placebo effect that instead of curing you, kills you. This comes as no real surprise: we've all fallen sick after a big deadline or exam (Have we? Or is it just me?). And beyond common knowledge, scientists have known for a while now that your state of mind can have a tangible impact on your health, by causing the release of neurochemicals/hormones that directly impact various systems in your body. For example, thinking stressful thoughts can cause our stress hormones to surge, and chronically high levels of these hormones have a multitude of harmful effects on your body and brain. But can you actually die by believing you're going to? Are your thoughts really that powerful?

I thought this was especially interesting since I had just been asked to translate a story from Arabic that had a similar theme. It's 'whispered tale', a spoken story from a Lebanese village, written down word for word the way it was spoken. I've decided to include it here, with credit to the brilliant Sabine Choukeir, who gave me the story to translate. I must say, a lot of the poetry and humour is lost in translation, but at least this gives you the gist of the story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

*    *     *

Selim in Purgatory

There was a man from Bekaa named Selim
Selim fell into a coma.
He was in a coma for a month, two months, three months, four months, then he woke up.
He came back to life completely I mean.

They say that while he was in a coma
He saw people in Purgatory who he knew from before, and people he met while he was there
And you, why are you here? And you, why are you here? You haven’t been dead for long.
And one told him that he had stolen five cents from a widow
One said because I cursed the dead
One said because I did a bad deed
And such stories and tales

And they swore on the Virgin Mary and Heaven and all the angels that this story was 100% true
And that he saw all these people in reality
And they told him go, it is not your turn
Your turn is after the parish priest, Father Mirshid
And the priest at that time was 60 or 65 years old
So Selim rose from his coma and came back to life
And was living like a dream

Every time someone in the village got sick he asked who who who?
He was worried it might be the priest
They told him your turn is after Father Mirshid
Every day he inquired about the Father
Every time the funeral bells rang in the village
Who, the priest?
No, God be thanked, he was relieved
Every time they told him the priest is unwell
Selim would feel unwell and stressed and his stomach would hurt and he would cringe
And every time the Father grew older by a day, the worry grew with it
And every time the Father’s worries grew heavier, Selim’s worries would grow heavier with them

One day
The priest started to deteriorate
His situation worsened and he was suffering
And he neared death
And our friend Selim was crying and breaking down
And he neared death

And then one day there were two garages that they were roofing
And his house was over the road and they were roofing the garages over the road
I mean there was a main road between the garages and his house
He had twenty workers and they were pouring cement on the roofs
The bell tolled
And they said Father Mirshid died
He left the cement spade on the ground
And said stop, I don’t want a roof and I don’t want to work I want to live these last few days
Beside my wife
And he’s crossing the road to go home
It’s over, my life has ended

A Volvo car was passing
With metal rods for construction in the back of the car
He had put them in the back of the car
He did not have a pick-up
And one of the rods was sticking out of the back like a hand
Selim waited until the car passed
So he could run home
The rod caught his leg
And the people were shouting at the driver
And the driver had just recently learned how to drive
Hey hey hey Milhem
Milhem Shehade was his name
And Milhem did not see and did not hear
He kept dragging him a distance like here and the market down there
And he did not know
And our friend did not sneeze

The two of them died on the same day
And they buried them in the same hour

*   *   *

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Case Against Hard Work

Science is hard work. We spend  long hours in the lab and get frustrated when things don't work out.  It's all part of being in science, and we put up with it because we love science. But I say we've got it all backwards. 

Why does science have to be hard work? When things don't work out, the solution is not to work harder and do more experiments. The most important step is to think out your experiment properly. You need to read the literature. You need to identify a problem/question that is novel and interesting. You need to come up with a good idea on how to solve/answer it. You need to figure out an efficient way to conduct the experiment within the limitations and methods that are available to you. Then you need to plan your experiment, draw up a schedule, order/book/check the equipment and materials you need, make sure everything is available ready to go. Then you need to conduct the experiment in an organised, calm, accurate, and correct way. And then, you need to analyse and interpret the results, and think about how they fit into the big picture. 
This is the beauty of the scientific process; and it’s not just about lab work. The lab work is only a small part of it, and not even the most important part. The most important part is coming up with a good question. Because you could do all the experiments in the world and then find out you’ve answered an uninteresting, irrelevant question. Or even worse- a question that has already been answered. Significant does not mean interesting. And as I was reminded in the pub the other night, contrary to popular belief: not significant does not mean not interesting.

The first problem is that as PhD students, we tend to rely on our supervisors to do that first bit for us. And we completely trust them to be coming up with questions that are novel and interesting. This is frequently not the case. We turn into lab-robots, making up solutions and doing the pipetting, but having little say on what it is we’re working on. When, at the end of it all, we find that there was a problem with the original question, it becomes our fault.

The second problem is that the way we conduct experiments is often not optimal. A lot of the time, the methods and protocols we use are whatever we’ve been taught to use. When we are focused on producing as many results as possible before the weekly lab-meeting, we end up not caring  too much whether our methodology is optimal.

The third, and biggest problem, is 'publish or perish'. If it were up to me, I’d ban this expression from the scientific dictionary. Could there be anything more negative, more counter-productive, more stress-inducing than the idea that there’s no point to any of your work unless it gets published? It just zaps all the fun  and excitement out of science. It also threatens to undermine scientific honesty and integrity. Publication is supposed to be for 1) peer review and 2) dissemination. Instead, it has become a scientist’s lifeline, and I know that that’s the system and we're not going to change it. But I do think we need to straighten out our priorities. Instead of viewing the lab as a publication-printing-press, we need to take a step back and take a critical look at the science.  It is much more important to conduct a good experiment that answers an important question. And if you do that, there shouldn’t be any problem in getting it published anyway. And you can 'publish and flourish' then without anyone doing any nasty perishing.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

What I learned at Careers Services

I came across an article today in the Irish Times. It was about how PhD graduates apply to non-academic jobs as if they're applying to academic jobs. Interestingly, that's exactly what my careers adviser said when she read my CV and cover letters. You can't expect your non-academic employers to care about all the amazing research you did.

1) Cut down your CV. Take out your research topics, project titles, laboratory methods, publications, abstracts, presentations and references. I was a bit reluctant to do this: isn't the whole point that I've done all this sciency stuff? Won't it make people more likely to hire me? Apparently not. Apparently employers take one look at a 3-page CV and chuck it in the bin.

2) Put in a list of Key Skills Developed. You know those things that you do during your PhD and kind of take for granted and never think twice about (because they don't really have any direct effect on whether or not you get published?) Here are some examples.

  • Writing and editing skills (papers, posters, abstracts, websites, reports, thesis, educational content)
  • Computer skills (statistics software, data analysis, programming)
  • Teaching and training experience (lectures, tutorials, problem-based learning)
  • Design and supervision of (undergraduate) projects
  • Clear and effective communication skills (poster presentations, talks)
  • Excellent interpersonal skills
  • Time management and organisation skills
  • Ability to work both independently and as part of a team

3) Apply directly to companies you might be interested in working for. Don't wait for a vacancy or graduate program to be advertised, go ahead and send them an email. Say you're a PhD graduate interested in working for their company, CV and cover letter attached. You would be willing to consider any suitable position. get them to make you an offer. The idea is to get your foot in the door, and after some time, after they've seen what you can do, you can start working your way up. Interestingly, a good friend of mine told me she was planning to do this way before I'd heard of it from careers.

She also provided me with at list of pharma companies in Ireland, gave me a few more tips on my cover letter (talk less about yourself and more about the company) and told me to just keep at it, and to come back or email if I had any questions.

All in all, I thought it was more a lot more useful than I expected and ran home to put in a 'Key Skills Developed' section right away.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Step (I've lost track): Declining a Job Offer

So long story short, I didn’t go to Japan. Those of you who see me still lurking around already know this. They offered me the job (my first job offer!), and they even said the offer was not set in stone, and that I could make a counter-offer, i.e. ask for more money. But at that point, I had already made up my mind that this was not what I wanted. There were definitely perks, but the bottom-line was, the job was too far away. Too far away from science. Too far away from Europe. Too far away from home. Too far away from everything. And of course, the voices in my head pointed out all the obvious things: It’s just temporary, you don’t have to stay there forever, you get paid to travel and give talks, this is an amazing opportunity. And of course: you don’t have a job, you just got offered one, with a good salary and a fancy title, so just take it. If you were really brave and adventurous you’d take it. The voices in my head can get quite mean.
But I told them to zip it. I didn’t want to take a job because I needed a job, or because it had a fancy title, or because I needed to prove to someone (mostly myself?) that I was brave and adventurous. Or even because I got to travel or give talks. I wanted to take a job because I genuinely wanted to do the job. I felt like I owed it to myself: seriously, I have been studying for 10 years! 10 whole years! The least I can do at the end of it all is get a job I actually enjoy and want to do.
So it was back to the job-hunt for me. This time, I decided to change my strategy a little. I stopped sending in applications right and left. The Japan-experience taught me a few things: 1) that I wanted a job in science (if not in academia or research, then something where I got to think, talk, read, plan projects, or write about science), and 2) that I wanted a job in Europe. Preferably in a capital city. Or at least one of those not-capital-but-still-awesome cities that had a lot going on.
And the first thing I did, which in retrospect was probably my second-best decision of the new year (the first being NOT to go to Japan), was to book an appointment with the careers advisory services in college.
Coming up next: What I learned in that appointment and how it changed my life. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

False Memories Vs Job-hunt (0:1)

I know I haven't been posting; I'm still writing (always-it's how I think things through), but it's not always easy to decide what should go into cyberspace and what should just stay safe and anonymous on my hard-drive. I read a how-to on blogs (WikiHow knows everything about everything), and you're supposed to keep them as topic-specific as possible. The whole point, originally, was for this to be a science blog. Except that so far, my blog has not been about science at all. And every time I sit myself down to write about science, I get writer’s block. I can write about other things, the job-hunt, butternut squash, the abuse of domestic workers in Lebanon, but for some reason, I can’t seem to write about science.
And again, I blame my PhD. I’m currently struggling to write a couple of papers from my thesis, and it’s been a lot harder than I expected! I always thought the writing part would be easy, but the truth is: I just can’t motivate myself to do it. At first I thought I was just burnt out, but now it’s been a month, and I still can’t do it.
I’ve had an idea brewing in my head for weeks now, since I read an article in New Scientist on how scientists were able to create ‘false memories’ in fruit flies using lasers and gene manipulation.  I wanted to write about false memories and confabulations and Korsakoff’s disease, and I wanted to tie it in with the Lebanese civil war. I wanted to show a clip from Waltz with Bashir (the one about false memories in the amusement park), and write about how revenge was such a powerful motivator for committing atrocities, and how you could create an army of brain-washed super-soldiers if you could implant false memories to make them believe that the other side had killed their family. And how to do that you would need to make the memories labile, and how that happens in some forms of therapy, and how you could possibly do that with drugs. And how Ranformation is a form of confabulation. And about how dreams are a form of confabulation, according to the activation-synthesis hypothesis.  And about how the fMRI machine could potentially be used as a lie detector. And there are all these half-cooked ideas swimming around in my head, but I just can’t seem to sit down and write about them.
Because every time I sit down to write, I end up looking for jobs.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Maid in Lebanon

(no, not as a potential career option)

Last week, a bar in the hip-and-happening neighborhood of Gemmayzeh in Beirut (it’s Gemmayzin’!) attempted to organize a fancy-dress event in which the best costume would receive a 100$ prize. And yes, that is our local currency. 
The event caused so much controversy and online criticism, lead by Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement, that the event was promptly cancelled. Not only that, but the bar’s advert for the event was reposted on facebook status messages and blogs across cyberspace. The reason? Patrons were being asked to dress up as migrant domestic workers.  
For the hilariously and blatantly racist advert along with details of the story click here.
I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of controversy this issue caused. The bar owner defensively assured us that “’It was supposed to be for fun”, and call me cynical, but I assumed that a lot of Lebanese would agree. After all, Lebanese racism against foreign workers has pervaded our culture and  jokes so deeply, that I did not think this would be taken as seriously as it was.
I have countless stories to demonstrate this, but instead I'm just going to link you to this little exerpt form Shankaboot (incidentally the actress is a friend of my brother's!). For non-Arabic speakers, remember to click on captions!

And should it be taken this seriously? Some people argue that in our attempt to eradicate racism, we have become a little over-sensitive. This Halloween, for example, I decided to dress up as a dark elf. For the costume to be really cool the way I could see it in my head, I decided to paint every inch of my exposed skin completely black. I hadn’t thought about it as being controversial at all before one of my friends pointed it out to me. ’Don’t you think that could be perceived as racist?’ I agonized over it briefly, looked up ‘Blackface’ online, and decided that my costume was not racist, and anyone who perceived it as such was being overly sensitive. (Interestingly when I finally showed up at my friend’s Halloween party, someone there was in deliberate Blackface get-up which promptly relieved me of any controversy!)

But in the case of the maid in Lebanon, where racism is only starting to be acknowledged, the situation is so serious and disturbing that blowing things out of proportion might not be such a bad idea. In Lebanon, it is estimated that we have around 200,000 migrant workers, most of them Asian and African. It started with a huge influx of Sri Lankan workers in 1993 (hence 'Sri Lankan' has become eponymous with 'maid' in Lebanon: 'Is your Sri Lankan Ethiopian or Filipino?). Shockingly, it was also reported that between 2007 and 2008, one maid a week committed suicide in Lebanon (although it is unclear what percentage of this was actually at the hand of their employers). With inadequate laws to protect them, and a deeply-entrenched racism cultivated against them among the Lebanese people, foreign maids have always had a tough deal. But perhaps with stories like last week's, and the growing power of social media, all of us can have a little say on whether or not this sort of thing should be acceptable.

For a documentary describing the 'complex relationship between domestic workers and the Lebanese household' click here.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Job Interview II: The Interview

The first thing I noticed, once the Skype video came into focus, was that my interviewer was eating a banana. I had to try very hard not to giggle.
My interviewer introduced himself and the company, and then started asking me questions.
Q1: “The first thing I’d like to know is: what is your understanding of the job you’re interviewing for.”
So I explained as best I could, using the job description posted in the advert. He added a bit more information from his side, and the more he talked about it, the more I became convinced that I would love the job!
Q2: “We’ve had a lot of applicants. What do you think makes you stand out as a candidate.”
I excitedly jumped into my prepared answer: 1) my science background, 2) my communication skills, 3) my personality.
To my surprise, my interviewer thought this was perfect. “That’s exactly what we’re looking for,” he said, with a smile. “I couldn’t have put it better myself.” Yay!
Q3: “It says here you have a diploma in statistics. I find that especially interesting since this is an area where a good statistical knowledge is very valuable. Can you explain to me what a Mann-Whitney U test is?”
As luck would have it, that was the main test I had used during my Masters, so I told him that it was used to compare the means of two groups when your data is non-parametric, which is pretty much all I could remember. (I was surprised at my own confidence, especially since my statistics knowledge had received a bloody beating during my Viva). My interviewer seemed satisfied.
Q4: Can you tell me a little about your time-management skills?
I told him that as a PhD student, I was teaching three times a week, supervising undergraduate projects, was on two society committees, and still found time to have a social life, so yes I had to develop some mad time-management skills.
Q5: I have some case-studies that I’m going to ask you to solve, but first I want to ask you if you have any questions you would like to ask me.
So I asked my prepared ‘intelligent questions’, and relaxed while my interviewer had to do the thinking and talking for a while. I was a little worried about solving ‘case studies’, but by now I was feeling pretty confident.
Q6 (first case-study): You are the senior editor and you receive a complaint from one of our clients. The author used our editing services and his paper was still rejected. The referees listed ‘language is not good enough’ as one of the reasons. What do you do?
Q7 (second case-study): You receive a paper that has been edited by the first editor, sent back to the author for some minor changes, and then re-edited by a second editor. The problem is that the second editor made big changes, basically rewrote the whole paper, and sent it back to the author when the author had been told by the first editor that it was almost ready to go. What do you do?   
Here’s where I realized that my homework was really paying off. On their company website, I think it was in the FAQs, they actually explained what company policy was in similar situations. I added a bit more of my own justification, mostly common sense, but felt like I was doing well.
Q8: “When can you start?”
This one took me by surprise. I explained that I was still doing my thesis corrections, writing papers, had a few things to sort out, so maybe end of February? I was also desperate to take some time off, but didn’t want to say that! But my interviewer said, “I would need you to start as soon as possible, in a couple of weeks.”
To close, he said I would be talking to a few more people from the company, and I would have to do an editing test, but that in general the interview had been very positive and he was looking forward to talking again after I had jumped through some of the other hoops.
And my first ever job interview was over.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Job Interview I: Preparation

My first job interview was for the position of Senior Science Editor for a rapidly expanding pre-publishing company in Japan. I'd found the job advertised on Naturejobs, and had applied by sending in a cover letter and CV. The job, in a nutshell, was teaching Japanese and Chinese scientists (Korean and Middle-Eastern to follow) how to communicate their science more effectively.

Job Content:  
  • Editing and rewriting of manuscripts as required (less than 15% of work-load)
  • Project management of non-editing services
  • Contribute to development of new services
  • Development of educational content and delivery vehicles
  • Contribute to the development of publisher co-branded educational seminars
  • Give educational lectures, seminars and workshops at Society meetings in conjunction with publishers
  • Give educational lectures around Japan, China and elsewhere as needed
  • Rescue editing and editor feedback as needed
  • Dealing with client complaints as needed
  • Development of science community building activities
  • Within Japan to give educational lectures and workshops
  • To China as needed for educational lectures and conferences, as well as to share knowledge with staff in China.
  • Potential for travel to other worldwide destinations as our business expands

So, as you can imagine, the job description got me pretty excited. I get paid to travel the world and give lectures and workshops on science communication? Really? Of course, it was moving quite far away from actual science (among other things), but I decided not to worry about that, and to just throw myself into the interview. I’d never done a proper job interview before, except for some teaching positions during my PhD, and if nothing else, it would be good experience.

So this was my job interview strategy:
1) Understand the company and the job
2) Prepare answers to a list of anticipated questions
3) Prepare a list of intelligent questions to ask my interviewer
4) Decide what to wear and get a good night’s sleep

To understand the company and the job, I did a bit of research: I read through the company website, and tried to understand what they did and how they worked. (I took especial note of things like ‘the 3 distinguishing features of the company’ and ‘the company ethos’). I even read through the frequently-asked questions which taught me how the editing process worked, and how the company dealt with client complaints.
The only anticipated questions I could think of were:
Why did you apply for this job?
Why do you think we should hire you/you are suited for this job?
So I prepared three points for each (to keep things brief and to the point). This had worked well during my PhD interview, so I thought it might be worth recycling.
List of intelligent questions (adapted from various online suggestions)
  • The job advert includes a long list of responsibilities that I would be involved in. What would you say would be my main responsibilities if I get the job?
  • What kind of opportunities will I have for training and skill development?
  • It is important to me that I receive feedback on my progress. How will my performance be evaluated?
  • What would you say are the most rewarding/challenging aspects of working for your company?
Although I was dying to ask about salary and benefits, a wise and trusted source (Google) said not to, but to wait for them to make me a job offer.
My interview was going to take place on a Monday, at 9am, over Skype, so I spent most of Sunday preparing (as described above). I then got up, took a shower and went and had dinner with my boyfriend’s family. I got home around 10, got a good night’s sleep, and woke up early to straighten my hair, get dressed, and have a banana before the interview. I dressed ‘professionally’ (shirt, skirt), despite the fact that none of this would really show on Skype, but I wanted to feel professional (and opted not to go with pyjama bottoms as a friend of mine had suggested). However, I had gotten a pair of woolly cow-socks for Christmas that I absolutely adored, so I kept them on. Maybe as a reminder not to take myself too seriously.
At 9 am, sharp, my Skype phone rang.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Step 2: Job Application

(a.k.a Tying the Noose)

In a flurry of job-hunt-induced-excitement and under a mounting pressure to ‘get a job already!’ (mainly from myself), I applied to a bunch of jobs over Christmas.
I was freshly burnt-out from handing in my thesis, still sizzling a bit at the ends, and utterly convinced that my Viva had gone terribly and that I had been outed as a ‘bad scientist’. So I did not apply for any post-docs. In fact, every time I read a project description for a post-doc advert, I felt a little sick in my stomach. And then of course, there was the small but rather important fact that I did not want to work with animals anymore (I might write a bit more on this in another post). And since most of my Masters and PhD training had been on animal work, this narrowed down my post-doc possibilities significantly.
So instead, I decided to apply for medical writing and editing jobs. To be honest, they were the only ones I felt like I had some kind of an idea of what the job was actually going to be like. And why not? I’m interested in science, especially biomedical science, and I’ve always loved reading papers, interpreting data, researching and writing. Of course, loving something does not mean you’re any good at it, and I didn’t actually have any kind of work experience in any of those things (does my baby-turned-monster count?).  But I applied anyway. Where? Anywhere, I didn’t care about location. I was still living out of a suitcase at this point, so it seemed quite easy to just zip it up and hop on a plane. I applied to journals, pharmaceutical companies and publishing companies. Basically, any editing or writing job on Naturejobs that required a PhD in a biomedical science. Most jobs only asked for a CV and a cover letter, so I spent some time updating and polishing my CV, and writing a flexible cover letter that I used for several jobs applications with minor changes. And I tried to emphasise the non-researchy bits in my background like teaching, languages, presentations, and society work. And then I hit send (a bunch of times), took a deep breath, and went off to enjoy my holidays.
And a few days after New Year’s, I got invited to my first job interview.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Step 1: Finding a Job (a.k.a. The Hunt)

So you’ve handed in your baby-turned-monster (a.k.a. the Thesis) and you’ve managed to survive the snake-fight (a.k.a. the Viva). And now you’re ready to head into the Real World and get a Real Job. If you’re not one of those lucky people who get jobs handed to them on silver platters (i.e. have well-connected supervisors), this can be a little tricky. The main problem is access to information. And of course, Step 0 (which you will notice I have conveniently chosen to skip) is to figure out what kind of career path you want to follow in the first place. But if you, like me, have decided to see what’s out there first before you commit, keep reading.
So, where are the jobs? (And it looks like I’m not the only one asking this- also, I’ve been accused of being a bit of a doomsayer, so click here and here for a couple of  *mostly* happy articles on this for a change!)
The bottom-line is: we definitely need some kind of career orientation service for PhD students. So far, my career orientation has consisted of drunken pub-chats with post-docs and a random man giving me career advice in a restaurant. First, we should be given a realistic and honest overview of career prospects within academia. Second, we should be informed about what else is out there. And third, we should be able to get this information without that snobbish, narrow-minded, elitist, borne-of-frustration-attitude that assumes that unless you’re toiling away in a lab somewhere you’re not doing something that’s worthwhile, important, intelligent or interesting.
Disclaimer: This list is by no means complete (suggestions are hugely welcome), but I’m just sharing what I’ve found out and found useful so far in the job hunt. Also, I am assuming you have a PhD in neuroscience, but most of these would work for PhDs in any biomedical science. Jobs have been divided into 1) Academic Post-doc  and 2) Alternative Careers, and I’ve classified post-doc in industry as being an alternative career (although some sources disagree on the terminology). I guess ‘alternative’ could mean ‘alternative to academia’ or ‘alternative to ‘research’, the point is it's something different. 

1) The Academic Post-doc
This job is the easiest to describe (look around at your post-docs!): it means doing more of what you’ve been doing for your PhD, with a bit more responsibility and a bit more pay. Job responsibilities include doing experiments in the lab, analysing and interpreting results, supervising graduate and undergraduate projects, and maybe some teaching. You’re also likely to be involved in writing grant applications and will have (hopefully) more to say on where your project is going. As an academic post-doc, if your publications start piling up and you’re on the right (as in correct) side of your department’s political dynamic, you could find yourself on the way to becoming an ‘academic’.
Where to look for jobs (in order of how useful I’ve found them!):
www.fens.org (Note how for every 5 PhD adverts there’s one post-doc advert!)

2) Alternative Careers

1. Post-doc in industry
This includes basic research, drug development, and clinical trials among other things. 
e.g. Novartis and Proclinical (a Pharma Recruitment Agency) currently have job adverts up for neuroscientists.

2. Science Editing
This could be for a journal, website or a publishing company.
Typical job responsibilities as editor of a journal:      
  • reading and selecting articles
  • researching, commissioning and editing articles
  • writing for the journal
  • attending national and international meetings
Typical Requirements:
-          a PhD in neuroscience
-          a broad interest in neuroscience
-          excellent communication skills (written and oral)
-          commitment to the communication of scientific ideas
-          ability to learn new skills
-          previous writing/editing experience is a significant bonus

To find editing jobs (and there are loads!) go the following sites and type is 'science editing' or 'science communication' as keyword.
e.g. Nature Neuroscience (based in New York) is currently looking for an assistant editor.

3. Writing
If you are a good writer (and have proof !) and have a science background, you can get into different types of writing. This website has a brilliant list and lots of upbeat information on this topic. 
1) Science journalism (popular science magazines, websites)
This sounds like a lot of fun, but is difficult to make a living from.
2) Technical Writing (grants, patents, handouts, protocols, brochures)
This sounds a bit boring, but there is a huge demand for it.
3) Medical writing (more grants, patents, brochures, but also articles?)
This sounds like it could have interesting and boring bits. For a good overview of this job, click here.

4. Consultancy
I’m actually still not quite sure what this means, but it sounds very glamorous. I’m also told this pays extremely well. But I have very little information on how you would get into this and what the typical job responsibilities would be. I’ll post as soon as I find out more.
You could be working for:
-          law firms dealing in patents and intellectual property
-          pharmaceutical companies, e.g.  clinical trial management
-          biotech companies
-          government agencies (Science Policy)
-          consultancy companies like McKinsey, PWC etc
-          museums
-          non-profit organisations

5. Business and Marketing
This blog talks about this in detail (also he Stole my idea...back in 2005- actually the number of blogs out there about this is an indication of how difficult it is to find information!)

6. Teaching
-          In schools, but you need a teaching diploma (unless you go abroad)
-          Sabbatical replacement jobs.

7. Graduate Medicine
We’ve all thought about this one. What’s another four years of studying if you come out qualified, employable and making a difference to the world? And why on earth did we not all just do medicine in the first place?
More to come...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

To post-doc or not to post-doc

It was a Thursday night, sometime last year, and my friends and I were having dinner in a restaurant in Dublin. The food was lovely, the atmosphere jovial, but the conversation drifted, inevitably, towards our PhDs. One of us was having problems with his supervisor and with his project, and had actually decided to quit. One of us had a lovely supervisor, but her project just wasn’t kicking off, and she was getting worried. One of us loved his project, but his supervisor was a ghost, he had very little contact with him and found himself making all of his own decisions without knowing if they were ok. One of us liked his project and his supervisor, but had just been scooped. He told us how he was at an international conference the week before and someone presented graphs that were identical to graphs he had produced in a series of experiments he had done two years ago. Since he hadn’t published it yet, he would now not be able to.
So as we were talking about all this, a strange man came up to us from another table and said: “Look, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation, and I hope you don’t think I’m being nosy, but I just want to tell you this: Do a post-doc. You won’t know whether or not you want to stay in science until you do a post-doc. It’s completely different from the PhD. I hated my PhD. I have now been a post-doc for 15 years and I absolutely love it.”
We were a little flabbergasted at the time (and very embarrassed that someone had overheard all our whinging), but now I find myself thinking about that random piece of advice in the restaurant. My dad has said the same: ‘Just do one post-doc. See how you feel about it. Don’t give up just yet.’ And of course, that makes you feel like you’re backing down, being a quitter, that you couldn’t handle it, and were supposed to be stronger etc. Dads have the unique, subtle ability to make you feel that way.
But why do a post-doc in the first place?

Doing a post-doc is the only way for you to actually remain a ‘scientist’. No alternative career will allow you to do that. Of course you can keep on doing experiments in your kitchen, but unless you live in the 16th century and paint Mona Lisa’s in your spare time, it doesn’t really count. In the modern world, there is a system which you have to be part of if you want to be a scientist. The system involves politics, publishing, and pain (no not painting). And of course, some perks. One of them being simply the fact that you are a scientist, which is kind of cool. And in a lot of ways, it is precisely that part, the being a scientist part, that is the hardest to give up.    

Friday, 6 January 2012

Future Shock

Strangely, I’m having a hard time moving on, every bit of me is resisting the change, all I want is to go back in time, to still be writing my PhD, to still be living in the small apartment with the small balcony, to still be running along the quays to alternative rock music, to still be doing Pilates classes with my Eastern European instructor who once had a stroke and told us that everyone has their own little health problems.
I know it was the same when I moved from Germany; all I wanted was to pack my bags and move back to Germany, to still be in my little room in the student housing, to still go for walks in the forest next door, to still go to the huge supermarkets that had everything, to still have everything clean and clear and organised, and to still have seasons: summer, autumn, spring, winter.
But then a couple of months after I moved to Dublin, something changed. A new friend gave me a hug one day when I was upset, and from then on, things started to get better and better. A year later, I couldn't believe I had had a hard time getting used to Dublin, it felt like it was my city, I was so comfortable, so happy, so glad I had moved and experienced this new place, with its own quirks and culture and fun.
With the future as a way of life, and everything in constant motion, I know I will get up and pack that suitcase and board that plane when the time comes. But now, for just a little while, I'm allowing myself a bit of nostalgia.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Curiouser and curiouser

Are non-scientists more interested in science than scientists?
In the olden days, when neuroscience was still only my hobby, and not my career, I used to read about science in my free time. I would use the money I saved up from tutoring hyperactive school kids to buy popular science magazines; Scientific American, Discover, New Scientist. I ended up with quite a collection, and my mom still has them displayed at home, complete with post-its marking my favourite articles! (Yes, I was a lonely lonely child in the olden days.)
Last week I bought a New Scientist for something to read on the plane to Oslo, and read it cover to cover. It was the first time I had bought a popular science magazine in 6 years, since I started my Masters in Neuroscience (followed by a PhD in More of the Same). What changed? I had just defended my Viva a couple of weeks earlier. And now, with my PhD behind me and the rest of my life ahead of me, I’m becoming interested in science again.
Of course, I’ve always been interested in science, that’s why I decided to study it in the first place. And I loved my PhD, was genuinely interested in the topic, and enjoyed reading the literature and writing my thesis, all of it. But I stopped being curious about the Rest of Science.  
Last month, I gave my Viva talk in Dublin and then flew to London to give talk to a group of non -scientists the next day. It was the same topic: exercise-induced cognitive enhancement (how exercise makes us smarter-fascinating stuff!), but I was just blown away by the number of interesting, novel, and lively questions my lay-audience threw at me. Whereas during my Viva talk, interest was minimal, and the questions were, let’s just say, lacking in imagination. Another example of this disturbing phenomenon is the Neuroscience Seminar Series, which I helped organise throughout my PhD. Our biggest problem was getting people to speak. Our second biggest problem was getting people to attend. Then our biggest problem became getting people to organise it, because everyone was sick of trying to get people to speak and attend.
Ok, ok, I know I’m being unfair. Scientists have to be around science all day long, they don’t want to have to think about more science in their free time. And they’ve got enough watermelons to juggle with their own science, without getting a butternut squash thrown at them at random. But I do feel a twinge of regret when my sister texts me at 3pm in the afternoon from Oxford with the words: ‘what’s a macrophage?’ ‘White blood cell that eats up toxins/intruders.’ I texted back, and then added ‘Why?’ The reply: ‘Just curious’.
 In the lab, despite our best intentions, science stops being about curiosity and more about producing data. I know it wouldn’t work any other way, to do science you need funding, to get funding you need publications, to get publications you need results (of some sort), and to get results you need to work hard and try different things and troubleshoot and learn new techniques and then troubleshoot them and then repeat the whole procedure ad nauseam, and somewhere along the way, our curiosity gets serially diluted.  You get it back sometimes, brief moments when you’re doing a particularly interesting experiment, but then that’s your Project Curiosity, and you’ve got to hold on to that one to some degree throughout your PhD just to be able to get yourself out of bed in the morning.
But what about the Rest of Science Curiosity? Is there a way to get it back while you’re still in science? Or do you have to get to High-King-Professor level, when you’re not actually doing any science yourself, before you can afford to regain your Rest of Science Curiosity? And if there was a way to get it back while still in science (latex-gloves-on-science) would it make us better and more satisfied and more productive scientists?
I don’t know, but I intend to find out. Will keep you posted.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

End of an era

I thought it would all come apart at the seams, but it hasn’t, not yet, and I’m still here, breathing, typing, thinking, on the other side. The truth is, I can’t tell for sure that I’m on the other side, I’ve been in limbo for so long that I don’t think I can tell one side from the other anymore, but it feels like the edge of something, the end of an era or the beginning of a new one. It’s very jaggedy.
The end of last year was the end of an era, and it ended with a bang, not with a whimper. I submitted my PhD thesis end of October and flew to Lebanon for a month (where I got to see my family, lovely friends and cousins), spent a day in Budapest, flew back to Dublin to defend my thesis, and on the same day flew to London (Joannaland, as I like to call it). Four days in London, then another four days in Stuttgart with my sister (where the whole of the city centre was one giant Weihnachtsmarkt!), and then back to Dublin for Christmas with my boyfriend’s family. Two days later, my boyfriend and I caught a flight to Oslo, and then took the overnight train to Bergen, where we spent two nights, and then rode back to Oslo on the amazing Bergen-Oslo Railway. After a brilliant New Year’s Eve with friends in Oslo, we flew back to Dublin.
But now the era is truly over: a new year, a new life, a new job, possibly a new country, it’s all still very murky waters after that. Six countries in one month, around the world (or what seemed like it!) in 30 days. As of today, I am homeless, jobless, heading fast for penniless, and determined not to worry myself into a puddle.
While at home, I found a diary that I’d lost for years, the one I wrote after finishing university. I was so passionate back then, I had so many dreams of places I wanted to go and things I wanted to do. With a bit of a shock I realised that every single one of those dreams came true. My first dream was to get a scholarship to go and do a Masters in Europe. I did that. I dreamt of living alone and being financially and otherwise independent, I dreamt of going out with friends and having fun in pubs and going to the theatre and concerts and films and I did that. I dreamt of becoming fit, exercising, and being able to 'run like the wind'. I did that (to some degree- always room for improvement on that one!). I dreamt of doing a PhD in something that I was truly interested in, somewhere where I wasn’t expected to work too hard, where I could still do other things, like hike with a group of friends through beautiful countryside, be on society committees, take dance classes and go swimming, and I managed to do exactly that. I dreamt of teaching classes and labs and explaining science to students, and I did that to my heart’s content, and made a good bit of money on the side (all my current savings!). And I dreamt of travelling around the world, getting to know different people and cultures, and since I’ve left Lebanon I've been all around Europe and even made it to India, where I ran in to a friend of mine from Lebanon at the Taj Mahal. And never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would travel so much.
And here I am, at the end of an era, and I realise that I’ve run out of dreams. I genuinely do not know what I want to do next.  I was so sure for years that I wanted to become a scientist, a university professor, but now I am not so sure anymore. I love the idea of it; I love science, especially neuroscience, and I love  reading and writing about science and coming up with ideas for experiments, I love teaching and I think I’d love being involved in a bit of administration (my supervisor’s job at the moment looks like my ideal job!), but the problem is that to get to that point I would have to do a lot of research and research means sitting in a lab for long long hours doing the same thing over and over again and I don’t think I’m up for that anymore. I might just need a break (a bit of PhD burn-out maybe?), but I do know that I when I do decide what I want to do next, it will be something that I want to do. And maybe it’s ok not to be entirely sure what that is yet.

Monday, 2 January 2012

So, what's next?

Can people please stop asking me that?

As a PhD student in my final year, this has got to be the single most frequently asked - and most dreaded - question. My friends ask it to commiserate; my parents ask it with a worried undertone, and a little old lady at the bus-stop asks it to make conversation. A few months ago, someone posted a link to an Economist article on my Facebook wall with the alarming title: “The Disposable Academic: why doing a PhD is often a waste of time”. The article spread like wildfire among my disillusioned PhD friends, along with a YouTube video of a Lady Gaga impersonator in a lab coat singing “Bad Project” to the tune of “Bad Romance”. With a few months to go before we submit our dissertations, we’re all aware of the ticking clock, the diminished job-market, and the horrifying rumours of the PhD graduate now working in a sandwich shop.

So, bar the sandwich shop, what are our options? First of all, the job that our PhDs have made us uniquely qualified to do is a post-doc in the field of our PhD research. And the truth is that the post-doc seems like a bit of a nightmare. After taxes, your wage comes to little more than that of a PhD stipend, but with double the pressure and triple the responsibility. You’re supposed to know your stuff now and no longer have the ‘I’m a student, I’m here to learn’ excuse to fall back on. Your lifestyle is as hectic as that of a final-year PhD student (definitely not what burnt-out final-years want to hear!) Job security is minimal, especially in today’s economy, and the battle for funding is desperate and bloody. And to top it all off, even if you do secure a nice post-doc in a good lab, doing a well-funded project that genuinely interests you, there is no guarantee that you’re headed for that comfy, coveted position at the top of the academic ladder with the fancy office, big(ger) pay-check, and enthusiastic minions to do your bidding. We know all this, and it scares us. Even our revered post-docs are warning us off post-doc-ing.

No wonder so many of us turn to that delightful concept called an ‘alternative science career’, a bit of a buzzword nowadays among my peers. These are science jobs that make use of your ‘transferable skills’ and include consultancies in biotech and pharmaceutical companies, law and intellectual property, science writing, science education and science outreach. So you won’t end up making sandwiches.

Many of my friends admit they feel like they just rolled into their PhDs, and for them an ‘alternative career’ is especially appealing. In school and college, science was their best subject, and a PhD just seemed like the next natural step. And now, a few years into a particular project with its technical problems, narrow focus, constant pressure, and long tedious hours at the bench or computer, they realise that this is not what they want to do at all. It's hard for me, because up until now, an academic career is all I ever wanted. I grew up doing experiments with my dad in the kitchen, and always felt destined to head my own lab someday to do the experiments I want to do, simply because they fascinate me. And I absolutely loved my PhD, even the tedious, overspecialised parts, because it felt like the stress and the boredom was worth it when I found a solution to a problem, or got to design an experiment to test out one my own ideas, or just got to peer down a microscope to see something small and beautiful and alive.

Sentimental and romantic, maybe. But you always hear that in science, you've got to truly love it to stick with it. And I do love it. But it's starting to dawn on me that love might not be enough.

And now the question is, what's next?