The need for staff scientists

By: Huri Mücahit

Edited by: Manjula Mummadisetti and Aminat Saliu Musah

 

The following blog post is a summary of “Biology needs more staff scientists” by Steven Hyman, “Staff scientists find satisfaction in playing the support role” by Maggie Kuo, and “Wanted: staff-scientist positions for postdocs” by Kendall Powell.

 

To remain a research scientist, graduate students are expected to advance from graduate school, work as a post-doctoral student, and eventually, become an academic principal investigator (PI) running our own labs. Unfortunately, the likelihood of becoming a PI is becoming increasingly rarer, as less than 10% of PhD students will become tenure-track faculty. In addition, many students fantasize about freely leading innovative projects that interest them, however, they soon face the reality that projects requiring extensive collaboration must be avoided due to the lack of funding, resources, and time. The alternative is to become a “perpetual postdoc” in which PhDs sacrifice high salaries for the sake of remaining in science. To solve this problem, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have launched the Broad Institute, employing “staff scientists” to circumvent the limitations posed by academic labs.

 

Although seen by some as a “perma-postdoc”, staff scientists fill a crucial niche between faculty members and graduate students in that they have the experience students may not, but lack the obligations of faculty members to train students. As such, these scientists can lead projects, collaborate with faculty members and other scientists, and provide creative and innovative solutions that a faculty member may not be able to due to administrative and funding limitations. In addition, staff scientists can have the freedom to work at the bench without worrying about the administrative and grant funding requirements that PIs must focus on; essentially, staff scientists form a hybrid role between lab manager and research scientist for their PI.

 

Powell, 2015
Powell, 2015

 

While it may appear that there is no room to grow and succeed as a staff scientist, the opposite is true. Staff scientists have won 36% of federal grants as of May 2017, are invited to give keynote lectures, and can publish high impact papers on their own and through collaborations. In addition, working in a collaborative environment, such as the Broad Institute, which employs Harvard and MIT faculty members, as well as staff scientists, allows for mentoring opportunities. Staff scientists can educate laboratories about cutting-edge techniques and become a valuable resource due to their expertise. Such interactions provide a means for personal development.

 

Top15Employers
Staff scientists employed within academia, 2015

 

Why is there a resistance to the role of staff scientists? Many faculty members fear the potential competition for tight resources and funding, the perceived infringement on ideas, and the inability to keep up with staff scientists who do not have teaching responsibilities. In addition, staff scientists are seen as expensive when compared to postdocs. However, the truth is that although staff scientists earn double the pay of postdocs, they increase productivity due to their extensive training, and provide a means for education and support for their colleagues. To make the transition easier for faculty, institutions can provide opportunities for faculty members to play a key role during the hiring process, such as interviewing their future colleagues to better understand the potential for collaboration.

 

Ultimately, while staff scientists may not follow the traditional path in research, their expertise, ability to train colleagues, and room for creativity provide key advantages to the scientific community. More importantly, such a position enables many scientists to earn a reasonable salary while remaining in science. When science advances, we all benefit.

Career Advices from Industry Leaders for Graduate Students and Post-docs

By Jennifer Casiano

As a member of the organizing committee for the 11th Annual NIH Career Symposium, I had the opportunity of selecting the topics and looking for speakers that were part of the industry career panels. In addition, the day of the symposium I was able to moderate two of the career panels: “Finding the Right Size Company” and “Breakaway Careers” in industry. Finding the Right Size Company consisted of a panel designed to compare start-ups, medium, and large size companies in order to help trainees decide what company size would be a good fit for them. The next panel, Breakaway Careers in industry explored non-bench career options in the industry. I was also the assistant moderator for the section in which we discussed options in Research and Development. In this post, I want to share some industry related career advices from the panelists and other things I saw as part of the organizing committee. In addition, I had the opportunity to host a networking event at the NIH in which scientists from shared their experiences working at this company and talent acquisition. For simplicity, I will divide the information gathered by subtopic.

Pay attention to your Resume

            Industry professionals appreciate when you submit a quality job application. For example, never apply with a generic resume. Highlight what differentiates you from the rest of the applicants and the required skillset for that position. Prepare the resume for the specific position that you are applying to and add measurable achievements such as experiments that you developed, your research contributions to science, and experiences gathered away from the bench. In addition, it is advised that you apply for positions that you are a 75-80% match for. Many companies are not only interested in your skill set, they want to know how motivated you are to try new things; you could write a short paragraph about who you are and list your accomplishments and experiences.

Another piece of advice was to explore the typical qualifications of other applicants’ vs yours. For example, at the NIH the majority of the trainees (around 4000) are post-docs, so graduate students need to highlight their resume with experiences so that they can compete with applicants that have more training. Experiences such as number of publications, simultaneously working on different projects, public speaking, internships, and volunteer work are some examples of experiences you can include that will add value to your resume.

 Transferable skills are very important

 On previous posts, we have discussed how important it is to highlight your transferable skills on your resume and during interviews. For example, one of the skills that allowed me to be a host and a moderator was my capacity to talk to others and not having a fear of public speaking. These abilities added to my management, communication and interpersonal skills portfolio. Be aware that if you are looking for a position in pharma, public speaking is very important and being confident doing so will set you apart. In line with this point, at the MedImmune networking event they mentioned that it is common to give frequent presentations, networking, and collaboration. The speakers from MedImmune mentiones that Pharma and Biotech companies value the learning process of their group; learning experiences happen through collaborations and training. Industry positions offer a collegial work environment, prioritizing team work.

The panelists from the research and development section mentioned that internships are useful because it can give you industry experience in case you are lacking it. Networking within and outside your school is important and volunteer work demonstrates your dedication to the community.

Transition to industry can be tough

            If you already have a job offer in industry you should know that a new job position needs a new mindset. You should plan your first day and talk to your new boss, that includes a 30/60/90-day plan of goals and expectations. During the first few weeks you can learn the culture of the company and adjust yourself by adapting to the culture in order to succeed. Ask for information such as arrival times, lunch, free-time activities, and networking events inside the company. , and things that the company value most such as group dynamics, frequency of social interactions, independence, and goals. Follow policies on overtime and respect the personal time of others.

In addition, if you pursue a career in industry you should be prepared for different challenges such as working across departments, , and possible financial issues like layoffs and mergers. If you have several job offers you should not only compare the science and your interest but also the culture, dynamics, and the expectations associated with each offer. Industry is very different from academia in many aspects, but the key is to adjust and demonstrate your value.

Furthermore, in industry everything needs to be complete transparency; for example, never hide from your PI, never hide any experimental mess, never start a project or collaboration with other group before discussing it with your supervisor, and don’t take days off after a big deadline or work from home without consultation. Some of the common challenges faced when working in an industry are the lack of schedule flexibility, the fast-paced environment, and the definition of indepence where now you are responsible of your work but your group is usually involved. However, you will notice that interpersonal skills and mental wellness are important for many companies.

Pharma is an industry of constant change

            Based on the stories of the panelists I can tell that transitioning from a scientist into a manager or a group leader is very common. You can easily transition from bench to non-bench work, to different departments, and from one company to another.  In addition, if the company have a successful year and you are part of that success there are usually salary increment by performance reviews and experience gathered.

 Company and personal goals

            If you start a job in industry you will notice that the biggest emphasis will be in fulfilling the company goals in a determined timeline. However, many big companies are aware that each individual have personal and career development goals. For example, if you want to keep working on your publication record companies like MedImmune and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) encourage scientists to publish their data. Remarkably, MedImmune published 44 publications in the first quarter of 2016, 23 of them were a product of collaboration between the company and academia.

            Being a moderator of several industry panels taught me a few things. First, it is completely normal to find a career outside the academia. In fact, less than 10% of the graduate students will become professors (). Academics are realizing that there is a shortage of faculty positions and industry can offer a great career as a scientist. Secondly, the field is full of many success stories so don’t be afraid of move out of your comfort zone. I feel that being part of the committee allowed me to be more comfortable speaking to others about my future plans, research, and interests. I invite you to do more career exploration on iJOBS events and to check the website from NIH www.training.nih.gov for more information from the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) at NIH. In the following months we will have a Career Symposium Newsletter that will include a synopsis of the panels for more in depth information.

 

Reference:

Sauermann H, Roach M (2012) Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36307. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0036307

Junior Editor/Senior Editor: Tomas Kasza/Aminat Saliu Musah

My Interview with Mercedes Gyuricza

Mercedes Gyuricza, Ph.D., is a Rutgers iJOBs alumnus and currently works as the Post-Doc Engagement Manager at Janssen Pharmaceuticals. Her role at Janssen is to create, implement, and manage a Post-Doc program for the more than 75 Post-Docs at Janssen. During her time at Rutgers, Mercedes participated in the iJOBs program, which gave her the skills to make the transition from academia to industry. While no transition is without flaws, Mercedes shares what helped make hers a smooth one. iJOBs blogger, Urmimala Basu, talked with Mercedes about how her involvement with the iJOBs program paved the way for her first job.

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

 

I started out at Rowan University. I was a Biology major and wanted to go to graduate school. However, before I committed years of my life to graduate school I wanted to try out lab work as an undergraduate. With opportunities limited at Rowan, I transferred to Rutgers and graduated from there two years later. At Rutgers I was a Molecular Biology and Biochemistry (MBB) major. I think the rigor of the MBB program at Rutgers prepared me well for graduate school.

 

  1. Please tell us about your graduate career: What did you work on at Rutgers? What was your motivation behind going to graduate school?

I joined graduate school because I wanted to be a researcher: I wanted to uncover information no one else knew. I did my thesis work in the laboratory of Dr. Kim McKim at the Waksman Institute. I studied mechanisms for proper chromosome segregation in oocytes: how the proper number of chromosomes get into egg cells. This is important because we know that the wrong number of chromosome in the egg can lead a woman to be infertile or have children with birth defects.

 

  1. I understand that you were part of the Science Alliance Leadership Training (SALT) at the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS). What skills did you pick up during this training and how did it contribute to shaping your career aspirations?

SALT, offered by the New York Academy of Sciences, is a one week program designed for graduate students to gain the leadership skills needed to make the jump into their first post-graduate position. We learned tools to help us better communicate in unpredictable situations (most useful when you are interviewing and don’t know what the interviewer will ask). We also learned, and witnessed, group and team dynamics and how they can affect a goal. Overall, this was an experience that I am so glad I had. I would recommend this to anyone who is willing to put the time and effort in this experience: you get out what you put in! Most importantly, the program introduced me to 25 like-minded graduate students that are all part of my network today. It truly is a unique and difficult to characterize experience.

  1. You also participated in the SciPHD program at Rutgers iJOBs. What skills did you pick up during this training and how did it contribute to your career development?

The SciPhD program, offered through iJOBs, is also a 40-hour program. This program helps the participants to gain confidence in their knowledge. In graduate school, there are a lot of skills obtained, but relating them to skills required in industry is not always straightforward. This program helps with that. During this program, you will also learn communication techniques for interviewing (or anytime in life, really) such as asking questions to clarify what the interviewer really wants to know. If you aren’t sure what the interviewer wants to know (or you are sure, but are wrong) you aren’t going to be giving the answer that they want to hear. So, it is wise to narrow down, specifically, what the person is talking about before giving your answer. There were many other techniques given in the program that were useful such as writing a targeted resume and using emotional intelligence.

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

Although I entered graduate school thinking that I would end up at the bench, during my tenure as a graduate student I changed my mind. I loved science and learning, but I felt that bench work was not for me anymore. Therefore, when I set out to find my first post-graduate job I was looking for something where I could still be involved in science without actually doing the pipetting.

I found my current role when a recruiter e-mailed me about it. At first I wasn’t sure what the role was about, but I figured I would apply and find out!

  1. Please describe your current job at Janssen. What are your duties and how do you manage them? What are some of the major challenges you face?

At Janssen, I am the Post-Doc Engagement Manager. Before I joined Janssen, there were many Janssen Post-Docs but no program that served all of them. My role is to create a program, and manage it. Some of my duties include talking with Post-Docs and stakeholders internally and externally and making recommendations for what the program should include. I also plan networking and engagement opportunities as well as seminars and symposia. Staying organized helps in managing my role and completing tasks as early as possible because something always comes up last minute! One of the biggest challenges for me was transitioning to industry life, and learning all about the company. Luckily, I knew some people from my iJOBs site visit to Janssen that I reached out to with questions when I started.

  1. What is your view of the iJOBs program running at Rutgers?

 

The iJOBs program is quite unique in the opportunities that it offers to graduate students. Students should take full advantage of the chance to meet and network with each other, alumni and employees of prospective employers.

 

  1. What is your parting advice to graduate students interested in transitioning to a career similar to yours? What skills do you think will make one succeed in a job like yours?

If you are interested in making the jump from academia to industry, you need to talk to as many people as possible and tell them you are on the job market and what you are looking for. You never know who is going to be hiring, or who might know someone who is. Taking advantage of the opportunities that iJOBs offers is a great place to start. Update your LinkedIn page, put your resume on job websites and let recruiters know what you are looking for.

 

Exploring Your Skills

When it’s time to start thinking about a future career, one of the first questions that might come to mind is, “What am I good at?” This can often be a difficult question to address, and unfortunately, it may be easier to think of things we are not good at. Laura N. Schram, an academic program officer at the University of Michigan, along with humanities students learned five useful lessons for Ph.D. students interested in identifying their skill set, in an eight-week career exploration program. These five lessons are broad enough to be applied to almost any field, including STEM.

5.10 article

 

Lesson 1: Examine any negative assumptions about skills

First we need to define what is meant by the term “skills.” The dictionary definition states that a skill is, “the ability to do something that comes from training, experience or practice.” Schram states that, if you are pursuing a Ph.D., you are gaining highly specialized training, experience and practice within your field. Last week, I completed my Individual Development Plan (IDP) for my yearly evaluation. Within the IDP, there is an entire section on “assessing your skills,” where you must rank skills from 1 (needs improvement) – 5 (highly proficient). After you rank yourself, you give the same list to your PI to complete. The list includes laboratory/bench skills, general research skills, professional skills, leadership and management skills, and interpersonal skills. These are 5 broad categories, ranging from specific science knowledge to skills that are important for all fields, such as punctuality, conflict resolution and communicating clearly in conversation. In order to be successful as Ph.D. students, we have to communicate clearly, manage projects and time, be receptive to feedback, have independence, and solve problems. Initially, I had very negative assumptions about my skills; it was easy to go through the list and give myself low scores. Talking about these skills with my PI opened my eyes to how critical I was—he gave me much higher scores than I had given myself! What I learned from this experience is, it is important to not sell yourself short. Furthermore, it is important to remember that, in addition to the science, we are developing important soft skills, which are crucial for finding a future career.

Lesson 2: Believe you have transferable skills.

In terms of transferable skills, Schram refers to skills that have been acquired in one work setting that can be productively applied in another. Think about the skills you have, and areas you might want to improve on before engaging in a new professional experience. As mentioned in “Lesson 1,” we are all gaining abilities, during our Ph.D. training, that will be relevant in other contexts. Whether it is grant writing, running a lab, teaching a course or leading a committee, the skills used and developed in these activities can be brought into a new context. This was a highly discussed topic during SciPhD workshop as well (read about it here). We are gaining transferable skills every day, however, it can be hard to look outside of the box. How can running western blots be a transferable skill? Well, running experiments take time and project management, as well as punctuality. If you have undergraduates, you are also managing a team. When a problem comes up, you will use creativity, problem solving, and it is possible you will have to respond to a failure. Already, this is a large variety of transferable skills that you may not have thought of before. If you are interested in reading more about this, there is a list of Ph.D. transferable skills created by the University Career Center at University of Michigan, which can be found here.

Lesson 3: Don’t underestimate how quickly you can acquire skills.

 Sometimes it can feel like learning something new takes an incredibly long time, especially in regards to research. However, in terms of more general skills, the process might be quicker than expected. Schram states, “taking on a part-time job opportunity can expand your existing skills in more ways than you might expect.” She believes that by working in a new setting, even if it is for a relatively short time period, one can expand his or her range of transferable skills, even more than anticipated. While it might be difficult, or impossible, to get a part-time job opportunity while pursuing a Ph.D., it might be possible to do a summer internship. This will allow you to gain more transferable skills, such as: forging effective relationships through improved communication (“managing up”), cooperating and collaborating on team projects, networking and forming new collaborative relationships inside and outside the organization, managing projects from beginning to end, and implementing plans or solutions. At the same time, internships have been thought of as being an important entry point for getting a job in industry. Therefore, by doing an internship, or a similar out-of-lab-experience, you have the possibility of gaining skills and setting yourself up for the future.

Lesson 4: Broaden your skills outside of your department.

This might seem like another impossible task, but it does not have to be. Schram states that translating skills from one setting to another is a skill in itself, so working outside of your department can broaden your skill base simply through working out how to translate your skills in a new setting. You might be wondering how you can get started? When Schram was a doctoral student, she found joy in teaching and talking about teaching with colleagues. She sought out professional development workshops at her campus’s teaching center, and applied for part-time pedagogy-related employment opportunities outside of her department. She states that it was through these smaller engagements that she developed confidence and career clarity, ultimately leading to a career in educational development. To build skills outside of your department, you can start looking for smaller professional opportunities, such as attending workshops and seminars that may help in future career development.

Lesson 5: Skill building is not a zero-sum game.

After reading the previous couple of lessons, you might be thinking that exploring professional opportunities outside of your department will take away from the progression of your Ph.D. However, this does not have to be the case. Pursuing these “outside activities” can help you develop skills necessary for the next step in your career, make you a more competitive candidate, and more effective in your career. An expanded skill set is valuable for everyone, such as those who strive to be future faculty members in academia, and those looking to leave academia. Schram spoke with students who have pursued opportunities in professional settings, and they have reported that they expanded their core scholarly skills, such as the abilities to link ideas, identify sources of information applicable to a given problem, teach skills or concepts to others, and effectively convey complex information. Therefore, while you will develop core skills through your Ph.D., you can expand on your skill set through applying those skills in different settings outside of your department.

While this is just a brief list of suggestions to help you explore your skills, it is a good starting point. As a science Ph.D. student, I often struggle with imagining how my specific set of lab skills will be translatable for a future career that might not be on the bench. The advice provided by Laura Schram was useful in understanding how a lab task such as troubleshooting a failed experiment, can also be thought of as creative problem solving, or analyzing an issue. A Ph.D. teaches us so much more than just science and it is important that we do not sell ourselves short.

skills

 

Junior Editor: Eileen Oni / Senior Editor: Paulina Krzyszczyk/Maryam Alapa

How to be successful in your career

 

The following is an article review of “The Core Traits of Success” by David G. Jensen.

Dr. David G. Jensen is a writer, a world-wide speaker on career issues, and the founder of CareerTax Inc. He has written about the issues that scientists and engineers face when transitioning from an academic environment to the industrial employment. In his article, The Core Traits of Success, Dr. Jensen reflects on the traits needed to have a successful career. Very early on in his career he became interested in what makes a scientist stand out. Through his conversation with a person at a biotech company, he learned about the traits that many recruiters and hiring managers usually look for in a candidate. These traits were persistence, focus, inner beliefs, flexibility, network, and critical thinking. I also agree that these are traits you must have and work on in order to be a successful, professional scientist. I also think that having a plan, setting goals, and following through are important when making your transition. For example, persistence comes in when a plan (or experiment) does not go as expected, but you do not immediately give up; you take a step back, re-evaluate the process, make adjustments, and try again. This is a trait important in every aspect of your life, especially for graduate students. Many recruiters will ask if you have ever had a recurrent problem and how you handled it. They want to know if you were able to follow through or if the stress was too much for you to bear. Be sure to keep this in mind in every aspect of your life—not just in science!

Flow chart

It is also important to focus on your goal. Remembering why you started doing a project or task, and what makes it important to you will help keep you motivated and stick with the plan. Dr. Jensen also discusses inner beliefs; in other words, believing in yourself. For example, scientists, especially those early on in their career, must believe in their potential, including completing publications and successfully graduating. This is a trait that I have not thought much about but have recently heard a lot people discussing. Have you ever heard the phrase “fake it until you make it”, or have seen some people do the superman pose before a talk or a surgery? These are just little tricks to give yourself self-confidence, and yes, the people that believe in this are right; when you believe in yourself and in the work you are doing you tend to perform better! The next trait that Dr. Jensen talks about is flexibility. This means being open and willing to learn new techniques. In this era, new techniques in the laboratory are quickly emerging, so we cannot stay stuck repeating the things we have already learned. We need to be flexible in order to move forward. Networking, the importance of which many of us have heard of before, is a really important trait to be successful. You need to build a network of future collaborators and potential employers. The final trait is critical thinking, which scientists are trained to do. We learn how to approach a problem from different angles and figure out the most efficient way to do it. Keep in mind that when looking for a job what will set you apart from others is how you an approach a problem and what options you have to solve it. This is what critical thinking is about, we all know the science, but the key to success is having a critical mind on how to approach the science.

Jensen concludes his article by saying that the most important trait of all is having passion for what you do. Having passion for your work will help you tie together the other six traits and achieve your goals.

If you want to be successful, set a goal, make a plan, follow through, and add in the six traits. Good luck!!

Edits for this post was provided by Eileen Oni, Paulina Krzyszczyk and Maryam Alapa

Vision-goal

The Rutgers Grad Experience: A Few of my Favorite Things

By: Paulina Krzyszczyk

Edited by: Eileen Oni

Having spent several years within Rutgers’ campuses, I have had some time to learn about the university and reflect on my experiences here. Although there have been ups and downs throughout the progression of my Ph.D. (as expected!), I have identified a few things about Rutgers that have enhanced my graduate experience.Rutgers Experience Quadrant

First up: Diversity. Rutgers (including Rutgers-Newark campus) has consistently held top rankings in diversity across U.S. universities for several years (e.g. 2018, 2015, 2008). Speaking from my own experience, Rutgers has truly exposed me to individuals from every background, religion, race, ethnicity, and culture. My graduate school experience has been enhanced by learning about different kinds of people and their rich culturesand traditions. In my research lab alone, there are males, females, Christians, Buddhists, Orthodox JewLab Photo 1s, Atheists, Indians, African Americans, Asians, Latinas, and individuals raised in various socioeconomic classes. We are quite diverse. During many lunch sessions, you can find me inquiring about one’s culture or traditions to learn more about their lifestyle and who they are. It is intriguing that, despite coming from such different backgrounds, all of our paths brought us to the same place, where we are able to effectively work together. Our research lab is a microcosm of America: one melting pot of races and backgrounds, working together to improve lives—in our case, through biomedical engineering.

Second on my list of favorite things about Rutgers is its status as a BIG 10 large research university, complete with medical hospitals (Robert Wood Johnson and University Hospital, Newark) and several centers such as the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, Child Health Institute of New Jersey, and many more. Coming from a smaller undergraduate university, it is impressive that Rutgers has separate buildings on campus for many different sub-fields of medical sciences, including biology, chemistry, biomedical engineering, proteomics, public health, and more! The research opportunities at Rutgers are vast. This means if you are looking to borrow a reagent, test out a piece of equipment or connect with an expert about a specific lab technique, chances are, there is a lab close by at Rutgers that can help you out. This network has been invaluable to the development of my research project at Rutgers.

On a less serious note, there are plenty of fun things to do and beautiful places to see among the Rutgers University Campuses. Rutgers Gardens is beautiful in the spring, complete with a weekly farmers market. Several spots on College Ave and Cook Douglas campuses are also quite serene and photogenic. For the art lover, the Zimmerli Art Museum is free for Rutgers students and has interesting, rotating exhibits that warrant return visits. Off-campus attractions include Duke Farms, a prime location to enjoy a bike ride. If you like to hike, I recommend Eagle Rock Reservation and Norvin Green State Forest. For slightly further trips, Princeton, Philadelphia, and New York City are just a simple car or train ride away! And, if you are looking for a thrill to shake up the monotony of days and weekends spent in lab, visit Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ!

On a similar note, the Rutgers New-Brunswick Campus has several delicious restaurants and bars that have kept me well-fed. In New Brunswick, there is Destination Dogs, Brother Jimmy’s, Harvest Moon, and more. Nearby, the town of Highland Park has quality dining spots, such as Midori Sushi, Pithari, Chef Tan, Pino’s, and even some Kosher options (Sushiana, Jerusalem Pizza). Other noteworthy restaurants and bars in the area include Brickhouse, Stagehouse Tavern, Sushi Palace, and Thai Lanna.

Thank you, Rutgers, for being my home for the past several years! To all those reading who are considering Rutgers for graduate school or a postdoctoral position, or are just starting out on your academic career, remember that at Rutgers, you will be immersed in a diverse environment with boundless research opportunities, as well as great food and entertainment!

Information Navigator

I cannot stress how important informational interviews are in helping you decide your career track. I first learned about regulatory medical writing at an informational interview session. I became so interested that now I am trying to learn more about the career track as a phase 2 iJOBS trainee. Informational interviews give you an opportunity to ask detailed and essential questions about a career and help you learn how to prepare for it. Another great thing about informational interviews is that they can help point you to other career tracks, even ones that you may not have considered. The more interviews I do with scientific professionals, the more career trajectories and great tips/advice I get. Recently, I did a half-day set of interviews at Merck (Rahway, NJ), where I met with six women in various careers. Learning from them was incredibly rewarding!Presentation1

My first meeting was with Cathy Doherty, the program operations lead for clinical operations. Her therapeutic focus is on the bladder. It was exciting to learn that she has been involved with many different products that are now on the market! I was delighted to get in-depth information about her role at Merck and learn about how her work contributes to clinical operations. Her major duties involve project planning for clinical trials and ensuring that the trials run according to plan. She sets a project timeline, helps choose the facilities that are compliant for a clinical trial, deals with queries that arise, and often examines the data from the trials. In the beginning of her career, Cathy loved analyzing data and interacting with people, but was more interested in having a quantifiable impact on human lives. Her bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, Masters in Business Administration and previous job experiences outside of pharma, all helped prepare her for her current responsibilities at Merck. She finds her current career very rewarding because she knows that she continuously helps people live better lives.

The field of medical writing, specifically regulatory medical writing, is of interest to me, therefore, I was introduced to Radha Naik-Murti (Ph.D.), the director of medical writing.  At the beginning of our meeting she said to me, “loving to write is key to loving a position in regulatory medical writing because it is like writing a thesis every day.” One can infer that knowing how to write effectively and loving the process is essential for a position in this field. What is not so obvious, is that one must also possess excellent reading skills and know how to analyze texts, which are almost as crucial as the writing. Luckily, these are skills that we are already learning as Ph.D. candidates (and enhancing as iJOBS bloggers!).  According to Radha, there is no typical day in the life of a regulatory medical writer; each day varies, so being flexible is very important as plans can change at a whim. Interestingly, Radha went through a similar journey as a lot of us. She earned her Ph.D., and then did a postdoc. After these experiences, she was not interested in academia, but could not find a research position in industry, as many companies were struggling at the time. Medical writing was one of the other alternatives she had. She told me, “Becoming a medical writer should not be a way to get your foot in the industry.” What she meant was, if, you are not interested in writing, do not pursue this path. Make sure you consider other options and find what makes you happy. So, if you are considering a career in this field, take her advice into consideration. My conversation with her was an eye-opener and it allowed me to really reflect on what I truly want in a career.

The next interview was with my phase 2 iJOBS mentor, Dr. Melissa Tice, who had graciously planned my visit. Our meeting was less of an interview and more of a discussion, as I was already familiar with her background. Dr. Tice studied Chemistry as an undergrad and did her Ph.D. in Neuroscience before transitioning to the NIH for postdoctoral training. She started her career as a researcher at Schering-Plough, which later merged with Merck. Prior to the merge, she made a lateral move and transitioned to regulatory affairs where she is currently an executive director.  Some of her responsibilities include managing crises that may arise with clinical trials or health agencies, reading and approving new projects, reviewing and editing documents, developing strategies for drug testing and acceptance, and dealing with drug supply issues. She has spent many years in her current field and often interacts with many of the women I interviewed. To that note, a role in regulatory affairs often allows one to work with a wide range of professionals— from clinical scientists to worldwide product labeling professionals to R&D scientists. In my own job search, she advised me to look at job postings, highlight the job descriptions and determine how I can fit the roles that companies are looking for. She also told me about other career tracks within the industry such as drug advertising and promotion, medical affairs, and licensing and technology. If any of these sounds interesting to you, then you should dig deeper as well!

Worldwide product labeling (WPL) is another career opportunity I learned about that day when I spoke with Judyann Wiltsie, who recently transitioned to WPL. Prior to that, she did bench research at Merck. If you work within this field, you are expected to write health-agency authorized drug information that physicians use in prescribing a drug. You also write product labels for drugs approved in other countries, so, much of your time will be spent in meetings with representatives from foreign countries. Product labels can differ in each country because each has their own standards, which may be guided by culture and religion. At Merck, for each drug, three different product labels are written: US format, EU format and one for the Merck headquarters. The last one serves as the basis for all health agency formats, however, it also has all of the collated information about the drug. Once a product label is written, it will be reviewed by regulatory affairs professionals, physicians, clinical scientists, and statisticians, among others.  After the necessary changes are approved, the label can then be sent to health authorities for review. It was exciting to find out that there is a high demand for new hires in this field and companies look for candidates with different backgrounds, e.g. research, nursing and pharmacy.

At Merck, I spent my lunch time interviewing Tessa Carducci, Ph.D., who does analytical testing at the R&D facility.  Although she has been with the company for less than 5 years she is currently the lead for her team. Her current role involves managing projects, collaborating with teams from other groups, writing memos, and training new staff. She spends about half her day in meetings by representing the analytical team and transmitting the information back to her team members.  In research, timing is everything, so Tessa sometimes works late and spends weekends in the lab. As she puts it, “having experimental obstacles does not change deadlines in the industry”, so she often finds herself working extra hours. She loves what she does and has a great team of people, which makes the work easier. Her least favorite thing about her job is doing things that have nothing to do with bench laboratory work, meaning administrative and logistical tasks that must be completed The common theme that I took away from  the day was that, being flexible is important in industry, and Tessa agreed. If you are interested doing research in the industry, keep in mind that you are already trained for most of the skills (hard and soft) needed. It is your responsibility to know how to use those skills in marketing yourself.

My last meeting was with Karni Schlessinger, Ph.D., who also works within regulatory affairs with Dr. Tice. She started her career doing bench work, but found her niche in regulatory affairs. According to her, postdoc experience is almost irrelevant in the industry if you want to stay in research. Karni says this because, despite having a postdoc experience, it did not have an impact on her responsibilities in industry, and did not necessarily put her ahead. This may be because the goals and mindset in industry are very different from those in academia. In her current position as a regulatory liaison, she enjoys coming up with the next disease target for the company. She designs protocols for clinical trials, learns the regulatory rules, and liaises between the company and health agencies. She enjoys researching information and coming up with new ideas, which are skills we learn while obtaining our Ph.D.’s. As someone considering regulatory medical writing for a starting career, she advised me to plan further ahead. According to her, “the width of change might be smaller if you start out in medical writing.” This means that someone who starts out doing research in industry may find it easier to make a lateral change than someone who starts out in medical writing. In other words, your starting position can either widen opportunities or narrow them. So, do not just plan your next step, always plan 2-3 steps ahead. Better yet, determine your ultimate career goal, plan backwards, and start from the career opportunity that gets you to the ultimate goal.

In general, the common theme during the interviews was that working in industry requires flexibility. While most of the interviewees can work from home a few times a week, they still have to be able to make changes to their schedule at a whim. Additionally, teamwork is crucial in industry as teams are essential in efficiently moving projects forward.  Many of the skills (team work, project management, flexibility etc.) that these pharmaceutical industry professionals have are ones that we also possess. They are skills that will help you in any career trajectory, whether it is in academia or industry. For now, your job is to plan ahead; schedule informational interviews, network and determine your career moves.

The Alarming Mental Health Crisis Among Graduate Students

By: Jennifer Casiano-Matos

Edited by: Eileen Oni & Paulina Krzyszczyk

Isolation, the nature of research, feelings of inadequacy, and lack of consistent achievements are several reasons why graduate students are at a greater risk for mental health issues than the general population. Several journals, including a March 2018 publication in Nature Biotechnology, titled Evidence of mental health crisis in graduate education, have warned of overall poor mental health among graduate students in the majority of academic settings. This article adds to the numerous testimonials, anecdotes and studies on this issue. For example, a 2014 study in UC Berkeley found that 43-46% of graduate students in biosciences were depressed. In addition, a 2015 report from Arizona University found that doctoral students reported “more than average” stress.

It is alarming that graduate students have six times greater risk of experiencing depression and anxiety as compared to the general population. The 2018 study, published by Dr. Theresa M. Evans, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, surveyed graduate students from different areas of expertise such as humanities, social sciences, biological, physical, engineering and other fields. A total of 2,279 individuals were surveyed by email and social media platforms. The results were consistent with other similar studies that found that women and transgender or gender-nonconforming graduate students are more likely to experience anxiety and depression: a total of 43 and 55 percent respectively and compared with a 34 percent in men. As a result, one of the main open questions after the study was, why are women more susceptible to anxiety and depression and what we can the system do about it? This question is still being explored.

Many of these studies also acknowledge that physical and mental well-being are influenced by work-life balance. The study found that 56 percent of the interviewed graduate students that were experiencing severe to moderate anxiety agreed that they lack a healthy work-life balance. In contrast, only 24 percent of those depressed agreed. Since work-life balance is essential to mental health, a cultural change may be needed to maintain balance.

Another important aspect of the graduate school experience that the survey examined is the mentor/trainee relationship. These statistics were particularly alarming to me: the study found that half of the group did not agree that their advisor served as a valuable mentor or provided enough support. Graduate students that have high anxiety and depression feel that their advisors do not provide mentorship, support, positive emotional feedback, or guidance with career development. These statistics underscore that a successful mentor/mentee relationship can have great value.

Nature Biotech Image

What should be done about the problem? The article suggested several strategies to minimize the problem of poor mental health among graduate students. The first strategy is increasing access to support them. Here at the NIH, we have the Office of Intramural Training and Education. This office provides training in aspects such as grant writing, communication, leadership, education and career/professional development. The idea is that service and activities from this office can be implemented in various academic institutions to help graduate students during their trainee development. Another vital aspect for graduate students is career development and exploration. At Rutgers, the iJOBS program can help graduate students and postdocs explore and pursue their career goals. This program is especially helpful to students whose advisors may not know how to individually guide them in their career development. On a similar note, graduate students should understand that having multiple mentors can be a good idea and a great advantage. Multiple mentors can provide different insights on research issues, career development and how to deal with work-life balance. PI’s and mentors play an essential role in the transition from a graduate student to a professional scientist. As Dr. Evans said, PI’s do not necessarily add the role of emotional counselor, but they should receive training in ways to detect that their trainees need professional help. One example of this is the train the trainers model, in which faculty and staff are trained on how to act as better support systems for trainees.

The findings of the study should not be taken for granted and an imminent change in culture is needed. More effort is needed from academia and perhaps even policy makers, to ensure that future graduate students have a better experience and quality of life. Efforts such as support groups, career development programs, mental-health seminars, policies on work-life balance, and recognizing the value of having several mentors should be implemented. Another suggestion, perhaps on the individual PI-level, is acceptance of an 8-9-hour work shift for graduate students, instead of pressuring them to spend endless hours in the laboratory. We can start working inside the organization and academia while policy changes are being made and find ways to help trainees. Overall, we must acknowledge the problems that exist and determine how to successfully deal with them in order to promote individual well-being.

iJOBS Bloggers are well-aware of the mental health crisis, and we have several articles that talk more in deep about this problem such as Stress and Burnout in Graduate School: Recognizing, Preventing, and Recovering, and Burn Out –  #Takebreaksmakebreakthroughs. I invite you to read them, share them and apply the tips that they provide to your everyday life!

 

This post is a summary of several posts and articles including:

https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.4089

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/06/new-study-says-graduate-students-mental-health-crisis

 

Data Scientist to the Rescue!

By Tomas Kasza

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard of the job title, data scientist. Heralded as one of the new, hot jobs of the 21st century, it has made its way to several top ten jobs lists across the news  (1, 2, and 3). You may have thought you missed out on this opportunity, however I have some great news for you! A data scientist can receive training at any level of college or post-college education, and there are even specific jobs within data science that an individual with a Ph.D. is more suited for. This post will answer some questions that you may have about being a data scientist.

What exactly is a data scientist?

Data scientists extract meaning from data. They interpret and communicate this data by using a combination of statistics, programming, and presentation skills. Throughout history, scientists have collected and organized data in order to make predictions about the world. However, in modern times, there has been an explosion in the quantity of data generated due to advances in technology. As a result, individuals with data analysis skills are now in high demand.

Do I need programming knowledge to be a data scientist?

Yes, you will need to learn a programming language like python or Java and a data visualization language like R or SQL. A more complete list can be found here. R and Python are free to download on your computer from their online websites. Check out the graphic below for the skill traits of a complete data scientist! It is important to remember that these are powerful tools for interpreting and visualizing substantial amounts of data. As many of us are bench scientists, our current work involves observing changes in experimental systems and interpreting the results that are generated.  Programming is the same in principle. Think of it as learning a new bench technique that will allow you to interpret data more easily!

Data scientist graphic

Programming seems complicated—do you think I would be able to learn it?

There is a cornucopia of online materials available to aspiring data scientists. Fortunately, most of these tools are free—you can just sign up for them and teach yourself. You can also obtain several Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) for each language, also available for free online. IDEs will help you learn, design, and debug code. For online learning, DataCamp tutorials are extremely helpful. You can also find some courses on Coursera and edX. These will help point you in the right direction for further learning. When you need help accomplishing a specific coding task, visit the developer forum, stack overflow.  It is likely that another person has asked the same question, and someone else has already explained how to accomplish that task!

What are the requirements for the career?

As mentioned above, one specific requirement to be a data scientist is to know how to program in a data visualization language and a programming language. The number of resources available is daunting at first, but there are many online guides to let you forge a learning path for yourself. There are also classes you can take, such as boot camps, and degrees at Rutgers in order to show that you have the knowledge to succeed in data science. Personally, I have talked to my advisor about my interest in this field, and he has suggested taking several courses, beginning with linear algebra and research statistics.

python graphic

Will a career in data science be a good fit for me?

This is a question you will have to ask yourself. I think it is a great career transition for someone who loves understanding technical data interpretation. From my perspective, understanding data, asking  questions about it, and learning even more, is one of the reasons why I got involved in science in the first place. It is a natural progression for me to pursue a career in this area because it is so similar to the scientific process that I already practice. I used to be apprehensive about learning programming, but I have found that once I learned some basics, it became much less daunting. I have also found that I enjoy learning about new techniques and technological advances within data science, which is important to do in any prospective career.

I hope that you have enjoyed my review of data science, have obtained a better understanding of what a data scientist does, and find the links that I have provided to be helpful. I hope that you remember that data science can be a rewarding career for any Ph.D. student or postdoc!

Edited by Sangeena Salam and Paulina Krzyszczyk

iJOBS Career Fair: What you Can Do with a Ph.D.

Job SearchThe annual iJOBS/BioNJ career fair is the epitome of what you can do with a Ph.D. The iJOBS program stresses that Ph.D.’s can do much more than practice science in the traditional sense. The opportunities are essentially boundless. There is demand for Ph.D.’s in medical writing and communication, consulting, project management, manufacturing, and of course, research and development. The companies present at the career fair ascertained that this is, in fact, true. Companies from each of these different fields were represented and looking to hire fresh talent.

PTC Therapeutics, which was started by a professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and is located in South Plainfield, was a very popular booth at the fair. This company uses technologies that identify novel small molecule therapeutics that can modulate protein expression and treat disease. The company currently collaborates with Roche and the SMA Foundation for the development of a small molecule to treat spinal muscular atrophy. There are currently several openings for Ph.D.-level research scientists across the RNA Biology/Chemistry/Pharmacology fields. Teligent, a generic drug company, also has several open chemist, microbiologist and quality positions. Amicus Therapeutics, an orphan drug company, has some scientist andclinical scientist opportunities at their headquarters in Cranbury, NJ, and a lot of other open positions across the country. Celgene was also present, with openings in manufacturing.

In the medical communications/writing field, there was The Lynx Group and PRN Experts; contract research organizations (CROs) present were BioTrial and Biotech Support Group; and for project management/consulting—The FlexPro Group. Although these areas may not necessarily be the immediate next step in my career, I had meaningful conversations at each booth. Gaining more information about possible career paths is always important–you never know where life may take you! Your dream job when you were single and in your 20s may not fit your lifestyle if you have children, or find yourself wanting to work from home one day. Luckily, the Ph.D. process teaches us transferable skills, which can help transition from one field to another.

Not everyone might have the same experience finding a job. If you are having trouble, there are several options available to help you in the search. One option is working with a recruiting company. There were two of these present at the fair—Aerotek and Adecco Medical & Science. Recruiters interact with hiring companies and help immensely with the job search. By working with a recruiter, you can find a position and company that is a right fit for you! If you think your resume or interview skills are the problem, then you should consider reaching out to a career coach. During my conversation with Juliet Hart, from Hart & Chin Associates, LLC, she gave me suggestions for framing the skills that I have gained during my Ph.D. studies in a way that is meaningful to companies and will make them more likely to consider me as a candidate. Lastly, if you feel that you are lacking practical, hands-on skills for the job that you desire, you can enroll in short-term training programs at Sollers College in Edison. They offer 3- or 5-month programs in several tracks, including clinical research, drug safety and data science. Their website boasts that, “Sollers bridges the gap between the theory and the applied skills required in the workplace.” The training can include an internship, and the first payment is due only after you secure a job.

The iJOBS/BioNJ Career Fair was a good opportunity to network with not only potential employers, but also with some of my peers who are also on the job search. These conversations, and my overall experience at the event, reminded me about a few important things:

1) Be patient with the job search. Although it may be lInterview Girlong and frustrating at times, don’t forget that you are highly qualified. Do not lose confidence that your Ph.D. provided you with many valuable and transferable skills that will bring you success.

2) Explore opportunities. Even though you may have pictured a career in research, perhaps another field may also be well-suited for you!

3) Use your network. Reach out to students who graduated before you and ask how they like their jobs. They may even know about some potential job openings!

4) Consider additional training, certification, or involvement in a professional society. Not only will these activities add to your resume, but they can also widen your network and aid in the job search.

5) Start the search early! Finding a job takes time, so, it is best to start looking and applying before you graduate, in order to secure your next position and make a smooth transition.

The career fair broadened my perspective on what life/work will be like after the Ph.D. It was nice to see firsthand, all of the different tracks that Ph.D.’s are recruited for, and to interact with potential employers. Here’s to the goal that, one day, it will be me on the other side of the booth!

 

This post was edited by fellow blogger, Sangeena Salam.