Coming out as a non-academic

I recently made a massive transition. I left my postdoc at Martin-Luther University, and started a job as a data scientist for a fintech. Full on transition from academia to industry.

And telling my academic colleagues was, and still is hard.

Which is why I found this article about the similarities between coming out as a proud gay woman and coming out as a non-academic so interesting.

And great insight for those of us who might also be thinking of making the transition.

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Scientists at Work

This year’s Nature #ScientistAtWork photo contest winners and runners up are revealed and they are awesome.

Here are a few, but the whole collection can be found here.

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Field Work! I have actually been in this same spot, but with a mini van in the Hebrides Islands.

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At the March for Science, because science should be diverse.

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Volcanic Salt Plains in Ethiopia.

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Lowering a boat to abseil a boat into a 40-metre sinkhole in Arnhem Land to investigate the area’s geological record.

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Space, from antarctica

Alternatively academic

Danielle is another excellent scientist that I’m happy to count as a friend. She’s smart, funny, interesting, and gives excellent advice on a wide variety of topics for which she is considered an expert. These topics include (but are not limited to): roller derby officiating, traditional cocktails, bird pheromones, and being a science boss lady. While her role is still very much an academic position, it is not a traditional position. As a result, she was happy to share her thoughts on “alternate academia”. 

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I get a lot of questions about my job, because although I am an established academic at a university, I am not a professor. My official title is Managing Director of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, headquartered at Michigan State University. My position is a blend of administration and research.

I am responsible for the operations of a multi-institution, multi-disciplinary NSF Science and Technology Center. We have over 600 members at 5 universities, and it is my job to ensure that all members have access to the resources they need, like cross-disciplinary training, seminars, funding opportunities, collaborators, and our annual conference. I am our primary liaison with our funder, the National Science Foundation. One of my primary responsibilities in that capacity is compiling and submitting our Annual Report, which typically runs well over 200 pages long and documents dozens of research and educational efforts, as well as our collaborations with industrial affiliates and efforts to increase diversity in STEM. I coordinate and run our annual NSF Site Visit, in which we spend a (very) full day presenting our research, education, diversity, and knowledge transfer efforts to a panel of external reviewers, who determine whether we are meeting our goals and decide whether to recommend that our funding be continued for the following year. I organize our annual BEACON Congress, a 3-day conference for our members and other interested visitors. This conference features concurrent tracks with contributed talks, member-organized symposia, workshops, and brainstorming “sandbox” sessions where people can discuss new ideas and collaborations.

These administrative activities account for about 70% of my work efforts. Most of my remaining time is spent on research. I maintain an active research program in evolutionary biology and animal behavior. I study chemical communication in songbirds, which involves both field and lab work and collaborations with chemists, microbiologists, and other evolutionary biologists. I supervise a postdoctoral researcher, and I have also served as the external member of two doctoral dissertation committees. Finally, I also do a fairly significant amount of service to the field, reviewing journal manuscripts and grant proposals and serving on NSF review panels.

How did I get here? Well, to be honest, I was initially interested in a more typical tenure-track career. I applied to well over 100 tenure-track positions over a couple of years, was invited to a handful of campus interviews, and received one job offer that did not suit my needs. After the last round of interviews, I had begun to sense that the realities of a tenure-track position did not match the career I had envisioned, and started to consider alternative paths. I was a postdoc at Indiana University at the time, and started looking around at the other researchers I admired there. I realized there were quite a few people involved in running research centers who appeared to have the perfect job, in my opinion anyway. I started thinking about looking for these kinds of opportunities, but I didn’t really know where to start.

Lucky for me, just a few weeks later, a job ad was posted on the Evol Dir listserve that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for – a brand new NSF-funded center was hiring a Managing Director. They wanted a person who was an active researcher in evolutionary biology, not a pure administrator, so that the person in this position could understand and communicate the science done at this center. I had no idea whether they would consider me even remotely qualified, but I worked harder on that job application than I ever had on any tenure-track application. I was invited to interview, and shortly afterwards they offered me the job.

It’s difficult to give advice to someone who is interested in a similar career, because there is no defined path, and there is no central resource to find jobs like mine. Often, these “alt-ac” jobs are what you make of them. I tell people to keep your eyes open and network as much as you can. If you are looking to make a career change, make sure people know about it. Graduate students are often afraid to admit that they don’t want a tenure-track job, for fear of “disappointing” their advisor. In my experience, most advisors just want their students to be successful, on whatever path they follow! Jobs like this are often not advertised as openly as mine was. If people know that you are looking for an opportunity, they will mention your name when they hear about such things. Things don’t always work out the way you think they will, and that can be for the best.

The down side of my position is that it has an end date. NSF STC funding lasts for a maximum of 10 years. We are currently in the second half of year 8. Where do I go from here? It’s too soon to know for sure, but there are a number of possibilities that interest me. At the top of my list is working for the National Science Foundation. I’ve learned a lot about how NSF works in my time here, and also through experience serving on proposal review panels. I am particularly interested in the STC program itself, as their model of facilitating collaborative “team science” is inspiring – and it’s working!

More Advice for Graduate Students

The unfortunate consequence of having completed graduate school is that we think we know everything about getting through. Which is likely why I’ve read about a dozen “advice for graduate students” columns.

However, this one from Dorsa Amir really stands out among the pack.

Best piece of advice: Other people’s successes are not your failures.

But really they are all good. Read it here.

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I didn’t really understand how unjust the academic system was for career advancement for women until I had children  

In an exceptional piece over at Scientific American, Rebecca Calisi talks about the difficulty of not only being a woman in the science work place, but of being a mother.

I have pulled out some of the interesting passages below, but you really should stop what you’re doing and go read the whole piece.

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“I never used to notice these things. Of course, I was keenly aware of various other challenges women faced in the workplace, having both seen and experienced sexual harassment and gender bias on many occasions. I was also aware of the gut-wrenching statistics that revealed how having a baby negatively impacts career advancement for women. In an attempt to combat and overcome such things, I took a proactive approach: I attended women-in-science meetings and workshops, served on multiple committees to address women-in-science issues and participated in various outreach programs to support girls in science.

But I didn’t really understand how unjust the academic system was for career advancement for women until I had children.

From the moment we enter the beginning stages of starting a family, many of us are forced to do battle with various health issues, including nausea, nerve and lower back pain, dehydration, anemia and flat-out exhaustion. In the U.S., however, we are met with little to no prepartum assistance in the workplace. The time afforded to us for maternity leave, paid or unpaid, is hugely insufficient, and the severe lack of postpartum medical care for mothers in our country is unconscionable. Despite a mountain of research findings emphasizing the importance of maternal physical and mental health for both mother and child, our policies to support women during this time—or lack thereof—are illogical and shortsighted.

Concerning my own experiences, I could talk about how the only medical care I received postpartum involved a quick physical checkup, followed by a mental health questionnaire that alerted my doctor to my level of “baby blues.” But this only led to recommendations like, “try to get some more sleep,” “don’t forget to drink lots of water” and “maybe try talking to a therapist?”

I could tell you about how women who deign to pursue a career and have a family are often sentenced to the expectations that we must work as if family did not exist—and parent as if work did not exist.

Being a woman, a scientist and now a mother in a system created for and by white men with stay-at-home partners obviously has its problems. Many of us are either pushed out or decide to set sail for smoother waters. Sometimes when I hear exclamations of “we need to inspire more women to pursue the sciences!” I think: We’re here! We want to do science! But how can we when, to advance, we’re forced to run at double the speed of our male colleagues on a career track clouded by bias and covered in LEGOs?

Sometimes people ask me why I bother to stay in a career so hostile to women. I remind them the culture is changing, more quickly in some places than others. I also remind them it is not just science or academia in general that harbors this sex-biased hostility. My friends in law, business and entertainment have horrified me with unjust tales from their workplaces. And yet many of us stay the course, determined to both overcome and overturn obstacles in our paths to pursue our goals and passions. We do so by standing on the shoulders of fierce women who came before us, our forward momentum toward a destination made visible by their efforts, a hand hopefully extended behind us to pull up those even less privileged.

That’s when it occurred to me. The conference organizers wanted to support the needs of their nursing attendees—or at minimum avoid negative attention. They just didn’t know how. I got to work on listing all of the ways conferences could make their events more family-friendly, especially for working mothers, and why this benefits everyone.

Realizing my suggestions were born out of my own experiences and viewpoints, I called upon the power of diversity to help solve this childcare-conference conundrum. I organized a working group of 45 fellow mothers-in-science, composed of postdocs, assistant and tenured professors, scientists working in industry, National Academy of Science members, science journal editors, and an MD. In addition, approximately a forth of us were members of underrepresented groups in science in the U.S.. I uploaded my manuscript draft to a shared cloud drive and witnessed edits, suggestions, and revisions pour in from my co-authors in real time.”

 

 

Being the non-academic boss lady

Dawn is one of the smartest, most dynamic, most interesting scientists I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with. Her decision to move into a non-academic setting started me thinking about making the shift myself. In summary: she’s been a role model and a good friend for a long time. When I approached her about writing a post for this series, she was happy to provide some thoughts on her experience.

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I have become the person my academic friends send their students to when they make noises about leaving the academia. I even have a piece out for Versatile PhD that delves into why I left; how I modified my resume and cover letters; and advice I’d give to those heading into non-academic positions. While my experience is captivating and illuminating, it is a singular event and no one should (have to) approach leaving academia by the seat of their pants the way I did. In fact, one of my biggest professional pet peeves now that I am entrenched outside of academia, is how non-academic job prospects are considered an afterthought. Or worse, when people think, “If my academic thing doesn’t work out, I’ll just get a job in industry,” but don’t consider what other skills they might want or need to develop to thrive in a career outside of academia. It is the anthesis of science, leaving something so important to chance rather than trying to control or at least be aware of all the variables!

I for one would have taken communicating my research more seriously and committed to doing it with intention and impact by enrolling in a marketing course and attending workshops on social media engagement, writing blog posts, and understanding google analytics. My first job out of academia was the Director of Conservation Education and Research at the Huyck Preserve and Biological Research station a 2,000 acre preserve in upstate New York. During my tenure I was not only responsible for connecting research activities to conservation and education programs, but I was also tasked with expanding the school field trip program to more school districts and growing the recreation program. I certainly figured out how to create and implement a marketing and communication plan for both programs, ultimately reaching five school districts and over 600 students with a research-based invasive species monitoring program and doubling guided hike attendance, but those skills were acquired while I was also figuring out how to write a curriculum suitable for K-12 students and pursing collaborations with local university students and professors to provide expert led guided hikes.

Did I mention at the same time I was also developing a high school research course from scratch and managing a research grant program? Because that’s where I could have used a finance or accounting course, helpful for when you are managing your own grants, an entire granting program, and for when you’re trying to determine the appropriate tuition to cover program expenses. Also handy for when you go head to head with the Board of Directors over the annual budget after getting promoted to Executive Director 2.5 years later. Speaking of boards, I would highly recommend a course on meeting facilitation. Robert’s Rule’s only scratches the surface and really doesn’t apply to entering a strategic planning process with a regional network of colleges/universities, non-profit preserves, and government agencies intent on informing regional sustainable management practices. I can also say that someone with facilitation skills makes working groups infinitely more productive placing you at the top of the list for research collaborations.

Oh, and before I forget, start talking to someone now about achieving work-life balance. I would like to directly challenge the wholesale statement that leaving academia leads to a life of leisure. It depends on the job, culture of the organization, and your personality. For example, non-profits, because they operate on charitable gifts, may not be staffed at capacity leading to a few people wearing many, many hats (case in point: Director of Conservation Education and Research, that kids, is three jobs in one!). I erroneously thought when I left academia that a majority of non-academic positions were 9-5 and then proceeded to work 50-60 hour weeks (80-90 Memorial through Labor Day) for five years because I loved what I was doing and there was no one else to do it. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world (well maybe a little) but it also wasn’t sustainable. I would have seriously benefited from a training on managing work-life balance so that I could have set boundaries for myself and my employers.

I know I am one data point and it’s easy for me to offer a list of courses and trainings now that I am done with school (although I frequently contemplate going back to school for my MBA) but my opinions are also colored by my newest position as the director of a postdoctoral fellowship program, NatureNet Science Fellows, and internal science professional development for scientists at The Nature Conservancy. I talk to a lot of people about what science professional development should look like within and outside of the Conservancy. If you must prioritize, science communication, specifically the ability to speak or write about your own research and identify appropriate outlets for outreach, ranks high on the list along with skills in project management, including budgeting and managing a team. After that, it really would behoove you to consider, “If I left academia, what job would I take and what skills would I need to succeed?”

 

 

How Not To Talk About Race And Genetics

“In his newly published book Who We Are and How We Got Here, geneticist David Reich engages with the complex and often fraught intersections of genetics with our understandings of human differences — most prominently, race.

He admirably challenges misrepresentations about race and genetics made by the likes of former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade and Nobel Laureate James Watson. As an eminent scientist, Reich clearly has experience with the genetics side of this relationship. But his skillfulness with ancient and contemporary DNA should not be confused with a mastery of the cultural, political, and biological meanings of human groups.

As a group of 67 scholars from disciplines ranging across the natural sciences, medical and population health sciences, social sciences, law, and humanities, we would like to make it clear that Reich’s understanding of “race” — most recently in a Times column warning that “it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races’” — is seriously flawed.”

Read about it here.

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Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in Science Press

Women in science face a gauntlet of well-documented systemic biases. They face long-standing stereotypes about their intelligence and scientific acumenThey need better college grades to get the same prestige as equally skilled men, they receive less mentoring, they’re rated as less competent and less employable than equally qualified men, they’re less likely to be invited to give talks, they earn less than their male peers, and they have to deal with significant levels of harassment and abuse.

Additionally, women are literally being written out of science stories.

Read about Ed Yong’s desire to combat this pattern, and what he learned in the process, here.

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Moving for Science: the Coming to America Edition

In our ongoing “When I Grow Up” series, my close friend and great scientist Dr. Simon Uribe-Convers writes about the experience of coming to the United States for Science. In additions to his scientific contributions, he was notorious at the University of Idaho for two things: 1) He was a great mentor to other PhD students who were moving to a small town in Idaho from various South American countries and 2) He started the tradition of the PhDerailer (it tastes like angel tears and happiness). Both lasting legacies of his time at Idaho. 

It’s been over eight years since I arrived in the United States from Colombia to start my graduate career. I began with a Ph.D. in Biology at the University of Idaho, followed by a postdoc at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and a second postdoc at the University of Michigan. Not only have I lived in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, a large sprawling city in the Midwest, and a buzzing college town crazy for (American) football, but I have driven from coast to coast, traveled to more than 20 states, and married an American—so you can say I know the country quite well. When asked to write about my experiences in this country as a foreign scientist, I took the opportunity to think introspectively and to reflect about it all. Even though I am writing these words with the US in mind, they can completely be applied to other countries—I lived in Germany and Spain for a year each and the experience of being a foreigner is, as a whole, similar. By the way, I’m not going to mention some very important things to keep in mind because a friend of mine just wrote about them last week!

Do your homework and find a good principal investigator (PI) to work with 

This one is straightforward and also applies to Americans, but it is absolutely essential. You will spend a lot of time with your graduate or postdoctoral advisor—they will guide and influence your research and take decisions that will affect your development as a scientist, so working with a person with whom you have nothing in common is a bad move. As foreigners, we are mostly aware of the big universities (i.e., Ivy League schools) but the US has so much more to offer! Instead of focusing only on the big name schools, focus on the person you want to work with first. A good approach is to think of the scientific papers that you like or that have had an impact on your research, and to pay attention to the author list. You should also do this with a few scientific journals that are relevant to your field. Do you see people that keep popping up? These are the people you should work with! Write them an email—almost everyone is nice about getting questions about working with them—and start a conversation. Be aware that people are busy and that PIs get many (~100) emails a day, so be patient and don’t get discouraged if you don’t get a response immediately. Also, and this is key, be sure to send a polite and casual reminder with your first email attached to it if you haven’t heard back in a week or so. Again, people are busy and your email might have gotten lost among the others.

Integrate—you are not in your country.

So you traveled to the US to pursue a Ph.D./Postdoc. That’s great, enjoy it, but don’t forget that life exists outside of school! Now is the time for you to adapt, integrate, and familiarize with the local culture. First off, do you feel comfortable with the language? If not, try to take courses before you arrive or soon after, as this will make the transition to your new life much smoother. Second, learn about the acceptable social norms and abide by them, and be accepting and respectful of the way people operate here. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t like for a foreigner to come to your country and disrespect what makes your country special for you. Don’t be that person. Third, make local friends. We are always drawn to people who are similar to us (e.g., same culture) but if you are, for example, Latino and you only have Latin friends, you will not learn anything new about the local culture. Having American friends will also help you with my first and second points because you will speak English constantly and friends will let you know if you are disrespecting their local culture. Moreover, you will experience things that depending on where you are from, you haven’t been exposed to; such as skiing, sledding, or other winter sports. Bottom line, go make friends; carve pumpkins in Halloween, get invited to a proper thanksgiving dinner, and be open to new experiences within a community.

Share what’s yours

Now that you have American friends, be sure to share your own culture, language, and social norms! Throw a party to celebrate one of your country’s holidays, make some of your country’s food, and show people a part of your heritage. The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world and people love experiencing new cultures and cuisines, so share what’s yours and highlight your own culture!

Understand the American system

Each country has its own way of doing things and the United States is not different. Within the first two weeks of arriving you will have to: get a social security card, a phone, a driver’s license or state ID, open a bank account, etc., and each of these transactions will require different documents and forms. It’s not difficult but it can take time to figure out. The good thing is that most universities have a group of people in charge of international students, and who will give you lots of information about all this. Take advantage of the facilities that your university has and make your life easier. One thing I struggled with (as many people from all nationalities including Americans) was understanding the healthcare system. What’s a deductible, what’s a co-pay, what’s covered and what’s not? These are complicated questions and are different in every state and insurance company, so make sure you understand them well and if you don’t, ask for help! Again, universities have people who can help you with this, so do your homework and avoid massive medical bills. Concerned? Don’t even get me started with taxes! Bottom line, find the information and help you need to navigate the system and you’ll be fine.

Enjoy your time in the United States!

I have traveled throughout the country, camped in breathtaking national parks, visited cities that blew my mind, and most importantly, created long-lasting friendships along the way. This country has been very good to me and I hope that it is as good, or better, to you. Now, go explore it!

Do you have any questions, comments, or recommendations for someone coming to the US? Leave them in the comments below, I would love to hear what others have to say about their experience!

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