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.