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?”

 

 

Competition for the “best” REU applicants is outrageous

“Do you have a a high quality REU program? Do you know that your mentorship and research opportunities can put your REU students on a path towards success in STEM? Then how about you stop fighting with other REU programs over the students with the most amazing applications, and instead invest your time and effort into students who might not have another opportunity? Know that you’re actually making a difference.”

In another awesome piece at Small Pond Science, Terry McGlynn writes about the pressure for Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs to get the “best” students. Getting an REU is not the same as getting an early career grant, but it does put on you the path to future success. And I agree, looking for the most competitive students might be further disadvantaging under represented students.

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Defying writing conventions

“A good writer knows the conventions that their reader expects. Then they slavishly follow these conventions 95% of the time so the reader doesn’t get distracted by convention violations and instead keep their attention on what you’re trying to communicate. A good writer also occasionally and very deliberately violates these conventions as a sort of exclamation to highlight and emphasize points.”

Want to help figure out when it’s a good idea to defy and when it’s a good idea to fall in line?

Take this poll, or dread about it here.

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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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No regrets

Dr. Wesley Loftie-Eaton is one of my favorite microbiologists. He has a flair for adventure, an impeccable sense of style and an entire outfit for “action adventure” purposes. In a former life he studied plasmids, and road his bike across various countries in Africa to raise awareness about antibiotic resistance. This his post as part of the “Academia to Industry” series. 

It has now been one year, almost to the day, since I made the switch from academia to industry. Do I regret it? Hell no!

I am South African and it is in my home country that I earned my PhD in Molecular Microbiology. It is also where I first started working as a postdoctoral scientist. But my desire to work abroad was huge. I soon moved to the USA to work as a postdoc and with the idea of landing a position faculty position in academia. Eyes on the prize, keep moving forwards.

However, science is not my only passion.  I have an insatiable wanderlust, am an avid outdoors person, incredibly social, and love making cinemagraphs (animated still photos). But all these were put on the back burner while I was in the US, and the latter completely fell away. I rarely did any of my other activities because I was spending all my time in the lab – until I heard a comment from our director; “If you are not in the lab working at 10 o’clock on a Friday night, then you’ll not get anywhere because somebody else is and that person will get the grant”. It’s then that I realized what it would cost me, personally, to stay in academia and I started thinking about my career differently. I am a scientist, but that’s not all that I am.

So when the time came I left academia (and the US) in pursuit of a work-life balance where I did not have to feel guilty about taking weekends for myself. I found this balance working as a Senior Scientist in the Research and Early Development Department of Roche Sequencing Solutions, Cape Town.  Now, when I go home at the end of my day, work stays at the office and my weekends belong to me again. In fact, work-life balance, stress management and other “soft skills” are regarded as important for the overall health and success of the employees and company. For that reason all our employees are presented with personal development courses on a regular basis. Unheard of in academia, right?

The best part is I still get to do exciting science. Sadly, I cannot discuss our research here for confidentiality reasons. That’s the worst part of the job. Not being able to share your discoveries goes against the principle of science. But I can tell you that we are working on developing a new single molecule DNA sequencing technology and I spend about 80 to 90% of my time in the lab working on my contribution to this effort. We also have weekly lab meetings specific to our research group, I get to attend international conferences and our department has regular journal clubs and seminars. Sounds pretty familiar, right? However, one of the biggest differences is that our directives come from the top, and your research is not your own, as it is in academia. But the scientific creativity with which we achieve those goals, remains our own. Creativity is encouraged and overall the research faces a much less constrained by budget.

In hindsight, when I was intent on a career in academia, I was blind to the possibilities in industry. I always felt that industry was a betrayal to science.  As a result, I only allowed myself to look at what possibilities existed once I realized that academia, in its current format, may not be the perfect fit for me anymore. I was very wrong. Science in industry can be equally as fun, stimulating and rewarding as in academia.

And, at the end of the day you have to ask yourself what you want, what you expect, and what you are willing to give up to enjoy what is important to you. Neither academia nor industry are perfect. I traded the scientific freedom to work on projects of my own interest, and to discuss my research openly for more freedom in my personal life. It has honestly been a worthy trade. But I don’t regret my time in academia. Had I not had the research experience and publication record, I probably would not have stepped into this research-intensive position as a Senior Scientist and probably then would have enjoyed industry much less.

So, looking back at how I got to where I am now, industry via academia, did I make the right choices? Hell yes!  

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Let’s move beyond the rhetoric: it’s time to change how we judge research

Impact factors were never meant to be a metric for individual papers, let alone individual people. They’re an average of the skewed distribution of citations accumulated by papers in a given journal over two years. Not only do these averages hide huge variations between papers in the same journal, but citations are imperfect measures of quality and influence. High-impact-factor journals may publish a lot of top-notch science, but we should not outsource evaluation of individual researchers and their outputs to seductive journal metrics.

So what can we do to combat this? What’s the solution? 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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A new series! Scientist in Industry

Last year, NiB ran a series called “When I Grow Up”, providing insight on various stages of the academic career ladder (undergrad, MS, PhD, Postdocfinding a faculty job, having kidsthe early years).

This year, to compliment that, I’m running a series about leaving the academic ladder and going into industry. I’ve been pretty openly talking about the research showing that there are very few jobs in academia, and more importantly, that those jobs may not be the jobs we want.

So in this space every Tuesday, we’re going to hear about other professional possibilities, what it’s like out there, how researchers decided to leave the ivory tower, and what the other side looks like.

Stay tuned.

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Atheism has a jerk problem, and so Science has an atheism problem

In a really interesting post over at small pond science, Terry McGlynn talks about the problem facing scientists of faith.

“Our scientific communities do not fully accept scientists of faith. As I’ve said before, this is a problem, and it actively hinders our efforts for equity and inclusion.

You can be a great scientist and still be religious. You can fully accept an empirical worldview for the laws and theories that govern life and matter as we know it, but also be part of a religious tradition.”

He then goes on to note that the most visible New Atheists (Bill Maher, Jerry Coyne, Michael Shermer) are loudmouth arrogant jerks. It’s how they win people over to their argument! But, by them being the face of atheism, and also associated with science, we all look like loudmouth arrogant jerks.

I’m not sure where I fall on this argument. I agree that science and faith really don’t have anything to do with one another. And I’m passionate about science communication and think that loudmouth jerks are not good ambassadors of science. But I’m not sure how to fix it, or whether or not it even needs fixing.

Read the whole blog post here, and let me know what you think!

 

 

Free Posters Celebrating Mighty Women in Science

Designer Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya has created a series of incredible posters celebrating women in science. They are perfect for displaying in a classroom, in a kid’s bedroom, or on the wall of your office! Also great for lab spaces and communal break rooms.

The six posters featured here, were created by Amanda, a science-trained designer, to connect the Women’s March to the March for Science as part of her Beyond Curie design project focused on women in science.

Over at A Might Girl, they included an introduction to each of the featured scientists as well as recommended reading for both kids and adults. Find the posters here! Download and enjoy.

Katherine Johnson

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Rosalind Franklin

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Maryam Mirzakhani

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May Britt Moser

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Chien Shiung Wu

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Mae Jemison

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