Interview with Dr. J.D. Thomas

Urmimala talks with Dr. J.D. Thomas, Rutgers’ Assistant Dean for Project Management, Communications, and Special Projects about the development of his career in higher education administration.


Library with a book ladder and lamp

  1. Let’s begin with your early career: where did you go to school for your undergraduate studies and what was your field?

I attended Baylor University in Waco, Texas, from 2000-2004, double majoring in English and History with a particular interest in American literature and religious culture.

  1. Please tell us about your graduate career: where did you go to graduate school and what did you work on? What was your motivation behind going to graduate school?

Toward the end of my undergraduate career, I didn’t really know if I wanted to pursue a PhD, so I applied to a few master’s programs and eventually enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s graduate program in English. To make a long story short, I completed my master’s degree in 2006 and decided to take a year off from graduate school before pursuing a PhD. I was hired as the Assistant Director of USC’s Writing Center during that time, and I spent the year working with writing instructors, preparing my graduate school application materials, and finalizing a few papers for publication. I then applied and was accepted into Rutgers’ graduate program in English, beginning my doctoral work in the fall of 2007. In the years that followed, I turned my attention to early American literature and religious studies, writing a dissertation that explored the ways that children’s books shaped (and were shaped by) eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Protestant devotional culture.

  1. Please describe your current job at Rutgers. What are your duties and how do you manage them?

I work at the Graduate School-New Brunswick as the Assistant Dean for Project Management, Communications, and Special Projects, and I’m currently involved in a wide range of projects. This past year, I collaborated with one of our Associate Deans and a web application developer to create a new Awards Portal that students can use to apply for Conference Travel Awards. I worked with graduate program directors and administrative assistants across 70+ graduate program to ensure that all graduate program information was up-to-date and readily accessible. I re-activated old, dormant social media accounts so as to create new communication channels between our school, the Rutgers community, and the general public, and working closely with one of our Senior Administrative Assistants, I organized several faculty and staff awards committees. I am currently working with my graduate school colleagues and a team from the firm Ologie to develop a new website for the new School of Graduate Studies—a new administrative unit formed out of the merger of the Graduate School-New Brunswick and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences—and I’ve just finished interviewing applicants for a student photographer position.

Simply put, like so many administrators here at Rutgers, I wear many different hats week in and week out, which means that management—of projects, time, resources, etc.—is an important part of my day-to-day work.

  1. Please tell us how you happened to choose your current career path? How did you transition to this job?

This is a difficult question to answer succinctly. To put it as simply as possible, my priorities evolved as I made my way through graduate school here at Rutgers. I entered with a single goal in mind—a tenure-track professorship at an American university. But I changed over the years, and my priorities did as well. Several years ago, I was hired as a part-time graduate administrator by a unit affiliated with Undergraduate Academic Affairs, and I realized that I was well-suited to the position. A few months after my dissertation defense, I was hired as the Lead Administrator at a Rutgers humanities center, which helped me develop my skill set and prepared me to transition into my current position. Of course, this is a gross simplification of my professional journey. The actual transition from graduate school to university administration was much messier (as it is with most job searches), characterized by highs and lows, successes and mistakes.

  1. What were some of the major hindrances you face in your current job?

When I look back on where I was two to four years ago—and where I might have been today had I made a few different decisions along the way—I am so fortunate to be where I am because I could have easily ended up in a number of different, less satisfying work environments. My current position challenges me on a weekly basis, and this has led me to develop new skill sets to meet those challenges, which I find personally gratifying. In terms of hindrances, I can’t think of any. Except maybe Cornerstone (because I don’t understand Cornerstone). Lucky for me, two amazing business specialists work right down the hall from my office.

  1. What is a major caveat, in your opinion, of graduate education today? What is your parting advice to graduate students interested in non-academic jobs in university setting?

Looking at the current state of world affairs, I believe more than ever in the importance of graduate education and the value of cutting-edge research across the disciplines. Even though there is a great demand across this country for professionals with advanced degrees, the academic labor market is not what it used to be. I would encourage current and incoming graduate students to avoid professional blinders. I’m referring specifically to students who have committed so much of their mental and emotional energy to a single, overriding pursuit—in this case, the coveted tenure-track position—that they lose sight of the many exciting career opportunities that exist outside that single track. In a perfect world, graduate students (especially incoming students) would think of academia as merely one track among many, and they would prepare themselves for a wide range of career opportunities as they moved toward the completion of their graduate degrees.

What I learned in my own job search was the invaluable role of professional experience when it came to non-academic job searches. I’m sometimes amazed at how influential that first, part-time administrative position was for my professional career. Many students have excellent academic credentials, but their resumes sometimes lack the kinds of professional experiences that employers are searching for and expecting. I would encourage students to gain skill sets that are relevant to several different fields. That way, they will prepare themselves to pursue not one career track but many.

7. Recently GSNB organized the ‘Science Matters’ video shoot. Tell us about the motivation behind such an endeavor, your experience shooting it and the response that you got for the video.

I first learned about the video shoot from a colleague at University Communications and Marketing. To complement Earth Day, and in response to current events taking place at the national level, her office was hoping to produce a video that emphasized Rutgers’ continued commitment to scientific research. We were on a tight schedule, but I reached out to a number of colleagues across Busch campus and asked them for assistance. With their help, I coordinated the video shoot and worked alongside the university’s videographer. Initially, the question “Why does science matter?” surprised a few of the interviewees, but it helped to spark conversations about a wide variety of interesting, important research projects that our students are involved in.

8. What is your view of the iJOBS program running at Rutgers?

For the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure to work alongside Dr. Janet Alder and her colleagues, and I’m thrilled at the programs they have in place for iJOBS participants, from workshop to site visits to alumni panels. Compared to our partner institutions, they’re really at the forefront when it comes to graduate student professional development initiatives. I’m excited about the work they’re doing and think that iJOBS provides a model for the creation of future programs aimed at professionalizing students across the disciplines.

“Staff Scientist”: A viable academic research career option or just another name for a post doc?

staff scientist

The traditional organizational structure of an academic research institution, such as at Rutgers, is a collection of laboratories which may or may not have overlapping research goals, and independently run by Principal Investigators (PI). Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, argued for restructuring of traditional scientific organizations in his article published in Nature last May 2017(1). Specifically, he believes that progress in biological research can only be rapidly advanced through the introduction of staff scientists in academic institutions; a staff scientist is a PhD or postdoc who wants to keep doing bench research in academia but do not want to become a principal investigator. He proposes a new structural organization of research institutions, which incorporates the position of staff scientists working alongside faculty, such as in the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, and the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in California. He also mentions that although staff scientists are common and highly regarded in other scientific fields, there seems to be more of a resistance within the biomedical field, which he regarded as “irrational”.

One question is whether this structure should replace the old organization within all research universities, or will its feasibility and benefit be largely dependent on several factors, i.e. the focus of research, the size of the institute, etc. As a specific example, will this model work for the the Rutgers Brain Health Institute? Sadly, I think that may be a question of money; staff scientists will understandably cost more than a graduate student, and over the years, the budget for personnel in NIH grants have significantly reduced Another viable option would be the availability of grants specific for staff scientists, such as the NIH Research Specialist Award (2,3).

As this position is scarce and poorly understood, a significant resistance to the idea of staff scientist revolves around certain ambiguity and misconception about the position. Is a staff scientist a technician, who doesn’t necessarily need a PhD, or more like a PI who does not have to teach or write grants? The ambiguity of career development of a staff scientist is also an issue. Institutions need to have a clear career track outlined for staff scientists and must differentiate it from a postdoc for added security in this field. The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel has exactly this, where the staff scientist track is an academic tenure track broken down into 4 ranks: Assistant Staff Scientist, Associate Staff Scientist, Senior Staff Scientist, and Senior Research Fellow (4).

I agree with Hyman that staff scientist positions should become more available in biology. I think individual laboratories, and even institutions themselves, will benefit greatly from having highly-trained, non-tenure researchers focused on doing research. Staff scientists provide the kind of “continuity” you can’t get from less permanent graduate students and postdocs. However, there needs to be more clarity on what the position entails, how it is different from a post doc. Within the industry setting, staff scientist positions are a lot more common. As a lot of the current biomedical research nowadays require a more collaborative environment, academic institutions need to seriously think about whether an integrated institute with centralized staff scientists is the next step in progressing research.

References:

  1. Biology needs more staff scientists. http://www.nature.com/news/biology-needs-more-staff-scientists-1.21991?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20170518&spMailingID=54084575&spUserID=MTUxMDUyNjIyNzE5S0&spJobID=1162852950&spReportId=MTE2Mjg1Mjk1MAS2
  2. NCI Research Specialist Award. https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PAR-16-025.html
  3. Research Specialist Awards Highlight Important Work of Staff Scientists. https://www.cityofhope.org/staff-scientists-awarded-grants
  4. Staff Scientists @ Weizmann. http://www.weizmann.ac.il/Staff_Scientists/

Staying Close to Science in Public and Private Sectors

Lab Technician Using Pipette

By Jennifer Casiano

On May 11, 2017 I had the opportunity to assist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Career Symposium. I spent the day among wonderful scientists that shared their experiences in different scientific career pathways such as academia, industry, government and other non-traditional paths. This blog post is one of several in which I will be sharing my experiences and lessons learned at this event. One of the career panels that I assisted with was titled, “Staying Close to Science.”

In this panel, several scientists shared their experiences working in the public and private fields. From what I gathered from the event, many scientists want to stay at the bench forever, or want to be a Principal Investigator (PI), but do not want to be a professor within an academic setting. However, when looking for job positions, scientists often overlook some positions due to their titles, without noticing that those careers are actually close to their “dream jobs”.

A group of scientists discussed their experiences working as scientists at NIH or in private sectors. The group was composed of: Silvia Aredondo PhD., a staff scientist at the Center for Infectious Disease Research in Seattle; Rebecca Berman, PhD., staff scientist on the section of Cognitive Neurophysiology and Imaging at NIH; Ludmilla Kelly PhD., a senior scientist at BioReliance, and Uri Manor PhD., director of Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Core at Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Based on their experiences, they shared how a career change worked for them and also the obstacles they encountered. “Read the job description and if you love doing what is in the description, you should apply for it”, said Manor. “In some occasions, we didn’t even read the job description before deciding if we apply or not for a position; we decided if we apply or not just by the position title”, he added.

On the other hand, Berman mentioned that as a neuroscientist she felt that she was in a slow-moving field; in her case the Office of Intramural Training and Education at the NIH helped her in her search for a position as a staff scientist. Staff scientists, for those who are not familiar with the position, are senior scientists that have the responsibility of running experiments independently and working directly with PIs to achieve research goals. For Rutgers University students, the iJOBS program can help you explore career paths, whereas several other universities have similar programs.

Arredondo mentioned that, “Job hunting takes time. It can take three, six or even twelve months”. However, “you have to understand what the company is asking for and you have to sell yourself to fill that need”. – Kelly mentioned.  In industry positions, it is common that someone with a broad scientific knowledge prevails over the “expert,” since their knowledge can be applied in different settings. Manor added that you must be prepared for everything: to manage, to network with experts in your area and to be confident that you can do the job.

As mentioned in a previous post, and confirmed by Berman and Arredondo, networking is very important to build the next step of your career. “That dream job, in which we wanted to “stay close to science”, is closer than we think if we build a good network and talk with our peers about our interests after this step. Let them know that you are in the “market” and that you are looking for a job in their field of work.”

They also described how a typical work day looks for them. Arredondo shared that she is an independent researcher. She takes the lead and has autonomy on which directions the project takes. Kelly added that her job is similar, as she decides which projects are accepted or rejected. Manor likes that he has guaranteed pay and funding and that he is constantly teaching others his expertise without being a professor. He is still working with collaborators, grant-writing and holding meetings with other faculty/students to discuss experiments. Berman mentioned that most of her days involve grant-writing and attending meetings.

A main takeaway from the panel for those who want to stay at the bench, but do not want to be a professor, is that there are plenty of opportunities outside of academia to become a PI, such as at government institutes like the NIH and private sectors like pharmaceutical companies. One of the main ways to find these jobs  is through networking and communicating your interest to others. You can use networking platforms such as LinkedIn, career symposiums, and other extracurricular activities to sell yourself and communicate to others your interests. Whichever career path you choose, just remember that networking is key, especially if you decide on a non-traditional career path in the public, or private sectors. Good luck and keep your eye out for more posts from me on the NIH Career Symposium!

JCM

Get involved! The next generation needs you

iJOBS hosted a career panel, on May 22, 2017, in hopes of enlightening students about career opportunities in education and science outreach. The panelists included: Lucille O’Reilly Ph.D. (Science Teacher), Tiffany King, Ph.D. (BioBus), Patricia Irizarry, Ph.D. (The Rutgers Science Explorer Bus), Paul Winslow Ph.D. (Students 2 Science) and Kara Mann, MS. (Liberty Science Center).

Many of us are a source of inspiration to the children and young adults in our lives. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is a very demanding field and most of your high school mates probably majored in non-STEM related fields. For those of us who chose this field, there is a high chance that we got where we are today because of many people that encouraged us (teachers and family members) and programs that propelled our curiosity about the field. There has always been, and will always be, a need to have people working STEM jobs. Therefore, it is our responsibility as scientists to instill the love of STEM in the next generation. Whether or not you are planning for a career in science outreach, we should all be aware of what we can do to increase the number of people in STEM careers. Here are ways to get involved in science outreach:

High School Education: I bet you never imagined being a high school teacher after spending years obtaining your Ph.D.  However, there are several individuals with Ph.D.s who discover that middle or high school education is where their passion lies and one such example is Dr. O’Reilly. She started out as a community college adjunct professor while still in grad school, but quickly found out that she prefers high school education. How did she get there? Obviously, she has a passion for teaching, but in order to become a public school teacher she had to be certified by the state. From her Ph.D. courses alone, she was qualified to teach both biology and chemistry. It is no surprise that schools are in crucial need of science educators, but Dr. O’Reilly emphasized the importance of having great science educators –those who will not only teach, but also encourage and inspire students.

As a previous fellow in the NSF Graduate K-12 (GK-12) program, I can attest to the joy teachers experience while teaching young minds. It is a rewarding job and it is even more rewarding when you leave your students more inspired at the end of the school year. Children and teens believe that science is cool, but the goal is to make them believe it is still amazing after leaving high school.

Wondering about the pay? Public schools generally give a starting pay of $40,000/year, but higher degrees may allow you to start at a higher pay scale- depending on the district. For example, our panelist started at $56,000/year. Now she wants to switch gears and become a curriculum developer, a position that pays up to $100,000/year.

Con: associated state rules and regulations that come with the job.  All educators have to follow laws, such as anti-bullying laws, and make sure that students are well-accommodated in other ways. The other con is that you may not only serve as a teacher, but also a mentor or moral compass for your student(s), which can take an emotional toll on you. It is also a time-consuming job because you often take your job home with you.

BioBus: Have you ever seen kids walk into a bus and go, “wowwww,” with eyes wide open?  I doubt it! This is the experience you get every day as a staff member of BioBus. BioBus exposes children between 4th and 8th grades, to different science experiments.  The students get to use electron microscopes, study water samples from different areas and even learn how to extract DNA! The bus is also solar-powered, which serves as another way to teach children about science and technology. Dr. Tiffany King, a staff-scientist at BioBus, previously volunteered for Citizen Schools (another great program to check out) while obtaining both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Dr. King’s lack of interest in academia and her passion for hands-on science education made BioBus an ideal workplace.

BioBus has many volunteers that range from graduate students to post-docs. Graduate student and post-doc volunteers are welcome to apply for open job positions. If you have cool, educational ideas and want a company that will utilize them, check out BioBus or similar science outreach careers.  They need scientists, like you, to create lesson plans that will stimulate young minds!

BioBus pays in the upper $40,000 for starters, but can vary depending on your experience and the position.

Con: It is a small company so you may be pushed to do several tasks. The job varies from day to day (a pro and con) so it is not monotonous.

The Rutgers Science Explorer (RSE) Bus: If you want a career in science outreach why not check out one offered by your school. A lot of people have never heard about this educational outreach program provided by Rutgers. It is a lot like BioBus and caters to middle school students. The best part about programs like this (including BioBus and Students 2 Science (below)) is that they center their activities on students’ curricula. They learn a topic in the classroom and then perform hands-on experiments to further understand the topic. This form of active learning helps the students retain what they learned and provides you with an opportunity to inspire the next generation. FYI: RSE is hiring and in need of volunteers so apply here!

Dr. Irizarry is the current program director at RSE. She credits her previous experience as a GK-12 fellow and other educational outreach programs in helping her become a strong candidate for a position at RSE.  In addition, she is an associate director for the Rutgers Geology Museum and a board member of the Mobile Laboratory Coalition.

Con: The position requires you to have multiple responsibilities at different locations, and the mobile aspect can be stressful.

Student2Science: Here’s another nice program that brings science to middle and high school students through different events: career oriented and hands-on experiments/challenges for high school students and general science, or life science lessons for middle school students. They target under-served communities and have a variety of experiments for students to perform, similar to BioBus and RSE. They need up to 1000 volunteers per year and graduate volunteers often get to mingle with people who work in the industry (did anyone say “network”?).

FYI: they are currently looking to hire a curriculum developer, which will pay up to $100,000/year.  They also have 12-15 full-time positions available, which range from a career as an instructor to site-directors and they pay more than a public school teaching position.

Liberty Science Center (LSC): A trip to the Liberty Science Center (LSC) is fun for any age group. I took a trip there with my students while I was a GK-12 fellow and everyone, both teachers and students, loved it! LSC offers a wide range of STEM activities for students ranging from physical sciences to biology and engineering.  Employees also travel to schools for hands-on activities with students.

What is it like to be a STEM educator at LSC? You conduct assembly programs for large groups of people, conduct interactive workshops, engage in live demonstrations and develop new educational contents.

Con: It is not always a 9-5 job and the daily tasks vary, which can also be a plus.

Advice from the Panelists:

“Expose yourself! Get involved with programs and certifications offered by the school, which will give you an upper hand.” Dr. Irizarry  

Dr. Winslow advised us to find “what you value versus your perceived values”. He elaborated by adding, “Find a good mission-match, be passionate and decide how much money you can live with” J As he rightly said, you can’t fake it around kids- they will definitely sense if you have a lack of passion!

It is true that you will earn more (at least in the beginning) in academia or industry, but it is crucial that we find out what will make life more fulfilling. The common theme from this event was the passion that exuded when each panelist spoke about their work and how they are inspiring students from different backgrounds. If that is what will make you feel fulfilled, then think about volunteering, or finding a career in educational outreach!

 

Ph.D. Pet Peeves: A Place to Vent

 

For this post, I decided to do something different. Instead of doing the usual post about a serious topic, I wanted to lighten the mood. As graduate students and post docs, we all work long, hard hours. Our personalities tend to skew towards introversion, yet we must often work with, or at least near others. This can be frustrating, because, PEOPLE can be frustrating! Inevitably, pet peeves develop. For this post, I went around interviewing a handful of my peers, asking them what their lab pet peeves were.

As a disclaimer, I’d like to add that the pet peeves posted here are all in good fun. The graduate students and post-docs that contributed to this list realize that these complaints are a bit over-dramatic. We realize that we are all humans with different personalities and communication styles and we all find different things frustrating. Furthermore, a research lab is a place where mistakes happen and we are all just trying to “figure it out” in this game called life. Regardless, it is sometimes humorous to poke fun at our petty frustrations and blatantly point them out.

Here, I’ve created a space where we can anonymously vent, unite, and hopefully laugh at ourselves and our idiosyncrasies! Feel free to add your own and keep the conversation going in the comments!

Frustrated Girl

  • You need well plates for your latest experiment that you started setting up yesterday. You go to reach for the box and….nooooooo!! It’s empty!! Someone took THE LAST WELL PLATE and “forgot” to inform anyone so that more could have been ordered ….Sigh. You pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and make the journey down the hall to beg other labs to share some of their supplies.
  • I HATE IT when pipette tips are taken OUT OF ORDER! They should be taken from left-to-right, bottom-to-top, one-by-one! When I see a pipette tip box that is disorderly it gets to me! Confession: sometimes I rearrange the box to my liking before using it!
  • General public annoyance: “Wait, so like, you’re still in college?” Absolutely not! Grad school is hard! I don’t party at all! And, no. I DIDN’T choose to go to grad school because I couldn’t find a “real job”.
  • Annoyance #1 with students: constant emailing in the evening and on the weekend. And then forwarding their original email when I haven’t responded in only 12 hours. I have a freaking life, dude! Being your TA is NOT a 24/7 job!!!
  • To all the students that leave materials out overnight that needs to be frozen or refrigerated…..DON’T DO IT!!!
  • Constant interruptions by other students, especially if it is something you have already answered in the past and something that they should have written down in their notebooks! Also, when those people expect you to drop what you are doing and help them right away. 
  • When you tell people you are studying biomedical engineering and they look at you like you have five heads and say, “Wow…you must be really smart!”, or they say, “That’s too smart for me, I can’t understand it.” Saying that shuts the conversation down. I may actually be able to explain it in a way that you can understand! Side note: these interactions contribute to imposter syndrome, in my opinion. 
  • When you take a long time to craft the perfect email to an important professor and you get a one word response. 
  • “So….when are you graduating?” This is an unspoken pet peeve of all graduate students slaving away, hoping that one day, they will be considered worthy enough to be granted their Ph.D. This question may also lead to increased feelings of imposter syndrome.
  • Poor communication with advisors. It takes time and patience to learn how to communicate effectively with your advisor, both through email and face-to-face conversations.
  • Not putting $#*T away where it belongs. I don’t like people who don’t have good manners. Just put stuff back where you found it!
  • Lying and dishonesty. Catching people in a lie, especially about science, is the worst! One example: please tell me when you broke something or you lost it. I wouldn’t be mad if you just told me in the first place, because then I can fix it! And if I can’t fix it, then why am I here?
  • When it is 7 PM and someone who hasn’t shown up for weeks runs into you as you are packing up and says “Are you leaving already?” Already?! That is not your concern.
  • When people move or touch my stuff and move it when my name is on it. IT IS MINE! DON’T MOVE IT. Don’t even stare at it!
  • And lastly, as my friend from Italy would say: NWeird Green Guyew Jersey.

So, if you are someone who is guilty of some of these things, take a moment next time to think how your actions really get under some peoples’ skin. Yes, this post is all in good fun and some of these things are really not a big deal, but at the end of the day, it is our idiosyncrasies that make us the fun, quirky scientists that we all are!

MythBusters: The Thesis Committee

To continue (somewhat) a thought I touched upon on my previous blog post on the juggling act that is grad school, I wanted to highlight something that most grad students find annoying at best and terrifying at worst: the thesis committee, and the annual thesis committee meeting. For first year PhD students who have yet to take their qualifying exams, your thesis committee is a group of scientists/faculty who, along with your PI, will mentor you throughout the thesis phase of grad school. Your committee will decide whether, firstly, you pass your oral qualifying exam and become a PhD candidate, and on the other side of the grad school tunnel, whether you pass your thesis defense and receive your degree. Little wonder that the thought of your committee rarely brings comfort. However, my goal today is to attempt to bust several myths about the thesis committee, and hopefully, allow students to see their committee members in a new and positive light.

MYTH:  Annual committee meetings are a waste of time. The annual committee meetings are only a requirement you have to fulfill, but is not necessarily helpful. Your committee doesn’t really know, or care about your thesis.

FACT: Annual (or bi-annual) meetings with your thesis committee is actually extremely helpful in ensuring that your thesis is progressing at a good pace. At the very beginning, when you are just proposing your project aims, your committee can provide valuable feedback and make sure your objectives are sound and you are asking answerable questions. As you work towards completing your project, the committee meetings can be a sort of roadway check-up, to make sure you are on track. And while your thesis adviser is also there to provide guidance, sometimes you and your adviser can be too close to the work that you sometimes forget to see the bigger picture. In addition to this, your committee members can provide you with a fresh perspective on your work.

MYTH: Your committee wants you to fail. Committee meetings are annual “exams” you have to take, and your committee members are examiners with the goal of making sure you fail.

FACT: While it is true that your committee is there to intellectually challenge you and your scientific reasoning, their goal is not to fail you, but instead to sharpen your analytical reasoning, and make sure you are developing into a good scientist. They do ask the hard questions, but these are necessary. Your data needs to be challenged, the rationale behind your experiments need to be questioned. They are not trying to be mean, they are merely honing your skills.

MYTH: You only need to talk to your committee members once a year. The fewer contacts with your committee, the better.

FACT: More frequent discussions with your committee is helpful in ensuring you finish your project in a timely manner. Getting more feedback along the way can improve your thesis as a whole, whether it be a suggested experiment, or an analysis of your data that you have not thought of. Your committee offers their own individual expertise on improving your overall project. While the Rutgers graduate school recommends you set committee meetings twice a year, I think that you should reach out to your committee outside of these meetings. Pick their minds, and utilize this amazing resource available to you. They are there to help and guide you as you learn to become a scientist. And more importantly, they will be your colleagues in the future, and establishing a relationship with them provides you with a valuable foundation of scientific expertise and a start for your professional network.

Think of it this way: while it is true that your PhD thesis is your own individual work, and you are the driver of how and where your study ends up, it is at the same time a mental collaboration between you, your adviser, and your thesis committee. So good luck, and I hope you’re looking forward to that next committee meeting!

Pointers for Those Curious About Careers in Industry

 

In my experience, one of the more common responses after asking current graduate students what they plan on doing after graduation, is “find a job in industry.” While the transition from academia to industry can be challenging, a recent article by Angela Hopp and Rajendrani Mukhopadyay aims to outline some pointers for those that might be interested in a career in industry. The article is based on an interview with Kenneth I. Maynard, a member of the National Institutes of Health Common Fund’s External Scientific Panel for the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training program. This article went over three main questions: When it comes to finding a job in industry, how important are internships? Should a candidate wait until he/she publishes original work before applying to industry? Is it worth doing a postdoctoral fellowship before applying to industry positions?

Hopp and Mukhopadyay state that while internships are not crucial to finding an industry job, they can still provide an advantage. An internship may serve to expose the individual to the environment that s/he will be applying for in the future by experiencing every day tasks, time commitment, team structure, etc., and can aid in determining if it is the right career choice. One important point from the article is that internships can provide real-world experience such as emphasis on process, timelines, and working in teams, which are experiences less common when working in academia.  There is also the possibility of an internship turning into a full-time position. Something that everyone hopes for, right?  If an industry internship is not feasible for you at the moment, I recently learned that Phase 2 of the iJOBS program also allows trainees to shadow professionals in their area of interest. While you must apply to be part of Phase 2, this would be a great opportunity to feel out what it is like working in industry. In addition, the many networking opportunities that might open more doors are another plus.

Publications can also give the applicant a competitive advantage. Publications show that the candidate is an expert in a specific area, and can produce professionally written documents. However, publications are not always necessary for some entry-level bench positions. Hopp and Mukhopadyay note that there are instances in which publishing work may not have been possible, which can be explained to the hiring manager. To me, someone who will one day be applying for an industry position, publications seem to carry a lot of weight in making for a competitive versus an average applicant. In science, you often hear the quote “publish or perish” being thrown around, which contributes to this idea. Being in academia for several years now, I’ve noticed how important publications are, not only in applying to jobs, but securing grants, publishing future papers, and staying relevant in the field.

Finally, the authors state that if you hope to enter the pharmaceutical industry at the level of a group leader or a principal scientist, it is advantageous to have postdoctoral experience, or to have achieved the position of an assistant professor. However, this is not required if you are entering industry at a lower level and want to remain at the bench. With the competitiveness of the application environment, it could be beneficial to try to find a postdoctoral fellowship in industry. This, like the internship, might lead to a permanent position or further opportunities.

Overall I found this article to be insightful in the pointers they gave for someone who might one day be interested in industry. In my opinion, the biggest take away from Hopp and Mukhopadyay is the emphasis on completing an internship. If your PI allows for it, try to do an internship during graduate school. This might open doors into industry years before one even thought possible. Whether or not you want to go into industry, it is never too early to begin thinking about what you want to do after graduate school.

monal

Wanna GLP with me?

This piece was written after attending an iJOBS workshop entitled: An Introduction to Good Laboratory Practices presented by Melissa Elliott from Envigo on May 8th, 2017 in Piscataway, NJ.

Good laboratory practices (GLPs) are a series of regulations which standardize the quality of research used in clinical trials, or food development. Before human consumption, or treatment, there are several stages of research: exploratory, preclinical development, clinical trial, and manufacturing. The latter three stages are all federally regulated. From an academic viewpoint, it seems like an industry built on bureaucracy, not relevant to anything I deal with on a daily basis.

Yet, Melissa Elliott, head of Quality Assurance at Envigo , made it clear during her recent iJOBS workshop that the downstream consequences of GLPs, like patient safety, are dire and that GLP comes down to ethics. We were first shown one part of a British docu-series that detailed the horrors of Industrial Bio-Test (IBT) and the lack of GLPs. I won’t go too much into the scandal, as I would hate to deprive you of salacious internet searching, however, this video highlighted the necessity of laboratory regulation. It is a story we see time and time again: a scientist turns out to be human (to err is human…) —> the public loses trust (…to forgive, divine!) in an entire industry. And, findings that have been tested and proven through more than one method are questioned; in short, both sides suffer. This story is an exaggeration on both ends. The kind of malfeasance that occurred at IBT was not an error, but rather intentional deception. As one of the top contract research organizations (CROs), IBT was responsible for over one third of all products that came to market (Think: Roundup and aspartame.).

CROs are a growing industry, and if you work at a lab, you will likely do business with at least one of these in your career. In fact, you may have already if you order animals for experiments. Jackson Laboratories  and Charles River  are examples of CROs that provide rodents, both standard and transgenic strains, to many labs here at Rutgers. Envigo is another CRO to which many labs outsource pharmaceutical testing.

The workshop revealed that we as academics could be implementing GLPs upstream of any market-based product. Sometimes bad science is intentional and sometimes it is just an error. Yet, if following GLPs, we can at least avoid the need for situations that require the public’s forgiveness. Here are some of the highlights of the GLP workshop:

  • Keep your data! Most federal regulatory agencies require that data be kept at least 5 years after study completion. However, CROs like Envigo sometimes keep theirs indefinitely in an archive.
  • Speaking of data…raw is always better. But, make sure someone in the next decade will be able to read it. Scratched CDs and bent floppy disks are the stuff of nightmares.
  • Verify the integrity of your controls. If you are testing a drug, how sure are you that your control mouse wasn’t given a substance that your test mouse was? If it’s, “Because I remember!”, it’s not good enough.
  • Environmental conditions matter. A fire in an unconnected department will be noted in study notes. Humidity and temperature can lead to unwanted outliers.
  • Homogeneity of samples. Is that drug you are feeding your animal *actually* mixed into every bite he is taking?
  • Identification, Concentration, Expiration Date, and Storage Conditions. A great acronym for your reagent reporting! (Add Batch #)
  • Healthy and happy animals lead to clean results. Period.

tatianapic

As a basic scientist, it may be difficult to wrap your head around things like federal regulations that seem to have no impact on your exploratory research. However, one of the quotes from Ms. Elliott that I think hits home, “the data should speak for itself”. Something as simple as keeping a detailed lab notebook can ensure that your lab’s research and findings will outlive you. In academia, this is a choice (for now), but at CROs it is a mandate. The good news is that good science looks good wherever you go. Though you may not know where that next place will be, proper training will follow you just as much as sloppy technique, and will certainly take you further. While this workshop gave us a coveted look at how a CRO does quality assurance, the skills it taught us are translatable to all aspects of a scientific career.

 

 

The Art of Communicating Science to Non-Scientific Groups

by Jennifer Casiano

Social Media

In 2007, Larry Page, co-founder of Google stated, “Science has a serious marketing problem.” Ten years later, we are still struggling. We just haven’t learned how to effectively communicate science. We publish our results and present at symposiums, sure, but what about the non-scientific community? What are we doing to communicate the importance of our results to them?

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the Annual Fellows Workshop at the NIH. One of the main topics of the conference was science communication and how to engage the public. One of the speakers was Dr. Sara K. Yeo, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. Her talk and discussion panel provided useful information I could combine with my own personal experiences highlighting the importance of communicating science to others. Social media and other sharing platforms allow us ample opportunity for promoting science. People are often connected online, looking for innovation, answers, and inspiration from each other. Here are some examples of how we can communicate science to non-scientific groups using the web:

  • Join a scientific blog
  • Share scientific news stories and discoveries with friends and family and explain their importance, and try to spark conversations
  • Participate in and volunteer for science advocacy groups
  • Share peer-reviewed articles with a brief explanation of the issues discussed or share a summary of the article
  • Create a web page for a specific group (e.g. teenagers, young adults, cancer patients, people interested in infectious diseases, etc.)

In a study conducted by the NSF, less than 3% of the nightly news is about science, space, and technology; and 2% is about biotechnology and biomedical research. Despite the lack of news reporting, the study shows there is public interest in issues such as medical discoveries (60%) and new inventions (37%). Therefore, we can, and should, take the issue into our own hands and use social media, the internet, and our other resources to bring scientific news to the general population.

Network nightly news 1988-2014

Network nightly news coverage of science and technology: 1988–2014. (Based on ABC, CBS, NBC).

Dr. Yeo’s advice for people that want to start promoting science:

  1. Define what you want to promote: medical research, microbiology, immunology, etc.;
  2. Establish where you want to promote science: Facebook, YouTube, a blog, or your own website perhaps;
  3. Decide whether you want to have collaborators or tackle the project on your own;
  4. Tailor your communication to the audience you want to reach.

Public Interest 1981-2014Public interest in selected science-related issues: 1981-2014 (NSF)

The key element is to keep it simple. Ask non-scientific groups for feedback and see what they understand in your message. Use surprise and curiosity in your titles; show and explain the data. You should remember that the art of knowing and promoting science is to love it!

JCM

 

SciPhD: Recognizing the Industry Skills that the PhD is Nurturing

 

SciPhD Training LogoThis past February, nearly fifty graduate students and post-docs braved the winter weather and attended a four day long workshop called SciPhD to learn how to frame skills gained in academia to be marketable towards careers in industry.

The initial start date was set back a day due to Winter Storm Niko, but this did not deter the attitudes of the program attendees who were eager to learn the skills that would someday help them land the job.

SciPhD is a program run by Randall Ribaudo, Ph.D. and Larry Petcovic, M.S. (interviewed in a previous post here).  The website describes:

SciPhD provides training for scientists who want to transition from academia to non-academic careers. Various workshops, boot camps and certificate programs are designed to offer resources and hands-on training to identify and develop skills in communication, leadership, negotiation, team-building, networking, and project management.”

Between the two of them, Randy and Larry have extensive experience as academic and industry scientists, and are able to provide helpful perspectives regarding such career transitions.

Day 1: Program Overview and Defining Expectations

The program began by setting a good example for how any successful business project should begin: by providing an overview, setting goals and defining expectations. This interactive activity gave us a chance to share our interests and needs, and allowed Larry and Randy to tailor the workshop accordingly.

Day 2: Effective Communication

After the introduction in day 1, we began day 2 by completing a Myers & Briggs personality test which identified our 4 letter code describing if we are extroverted or introverted, sensing or intuitive, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving. What I enjoyed about this was not only getting my own results, but trying to retake the test with the mindset of another’s personality with the goal of yielding a different 4-letter code. The underlying message behind this exercise was “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” which ultimately helps you better approach working with people of different personalities. Without a doubt, this is a skill that industry professionals use on a daily basis.
M and M
We also learned the “M&M” trick. Ph.D. students are quick to answer when they are posed a question. They are like this for a reason: people come to scientists with questions and they expect answers. We are the experts and should not waver, especially during our “life-or-death” thesis defenses. We are trained to be this way! However, this behavior can come off as abrasive, especially during a non-technical conversation, such as some parts of the interview process. There is benefit in pausing, taking a minute to think about the question being posed, eat an M&M perhaps, and then respond. Even responding with a question is encouraged! The purpose of this is to truly understand the question and engage in conversation, rather than spitting out an answer like a robot.

Day 3: Team/Business Building and Networking

We started out with a physical group activity that mimicked what work in industry is like. We were given an array of objects, ranging from a roll of tape to a pepper and were told to toss the objects to each other in a certain order. After we mastered that, increasingly more difficult tasks were assigned to us. The pressure was on—we were competing against other groups to complete the tasks in the fastest amount of time. Another challenge was when new members were added to our team after we had already mastered the task at hand. Training a new person required time and patience! Needless to say, this activity required us to use innovation, creativity and communication—and we had a lot of fun doing it.

The team-building activity was my favorite part of the workshop. The analogies that I could draw between this practice and real-world industry work enlightened me. Both scenarios involve carrying out a project with multiple people and moving parts. This simple activity gave me a deeper perspective of why effective communication and project management are key factors in nurturing innovation and success, even while throwing around tape and peppers.

We next broke off into groups and set out to build biotech companies, complete with brainstorming sessions and flowcharts. We took the morning’s physical activity and applied it to a more relevant, biotech-related project by developing a business plan and presenting it to the class.

Students toss objects to each other in the interactive group activityStudents work together during the physical team activity

That evening, we had the opportunity to participate in a networking event and talk to several individuals from industry. Their insight provided us with genuine perspectives of what working in industry is actually like and we were able to glean helpful tips regarding the job search process. It was truly an eye-opening experience to be able to take what Randy and Larry had taught us thus far, and confirm those ideas from conversations with actual Ph.D.-level scientists working in industry.

Day 4: Finances and Workshop Conclusion

The morning of Day four, we were thrown head-first into the world of finances. After an introduction to the terms and concepts, we were assigned roles of different financial players in the biotech world, such as government agencies, non-profits and start-ups. We were tasked with making deals with other organizations in order to manage our finances.  Admittedly, I had no idea what I was doing during this activity, which further underlined the complexity of industry finances and my need to sharpen this understanding prior to entering the biotech workforce.

Each day concluded with aInterview mock interview. This was my least favorite part (please excuse my dry sense of humor). I dreaded this practice not because of doubt in its value—on the contrary I think it was extremely valuable—but because of the challenging questions that I did not feel prepared to answer. My brain was not used to answering such tough questions on the spot! Good thing these were only mock interviews otherwise I would have gotten four straight rejections! All joking aside, these sample questions were great to have. Debriefing with my mock “interviewer” afterwards helped us brainstorm better answers and I got some really valuable feedback. By the time I get to real-world interviews, I am confident that I will be prepared with several offer-worthy answers.

As the workshop came to an end, we revisited our expectations list and debriefed on what we had learned about each item on the list. We were also sent home with a SciPhD manual, a certificate, and several other valuable resources.

Now, a few months out from the program, what I take away most from it is keeping my eyes open to experiences that could be applicable in an industry setting. I have since experienced a time when I have had to use negotiation skills. I have practiced my project management skills by mapping out experiments and identifying potential risks and pieces where I will depend on other people to get the job done. I may have eaten an M&M or two during a conversation….and I have DEFINITELY worked with others who have different personalities than myself and have thought about how to better communicate with them. Day by day, I see how my experiences in academia are contributing to my growth and will someday transfer over to a position in a biotech company.

If you were an attendee of this year’s SciPhD program, or a previous one, please share your opinions in the comments below!

Also of interest may be a similar post about a previous SciPhD session held at Rutgers.