Promoting the Art of Communicating Science to Non-scientists

by Talia M. Planas-Fontánez

The following is an opinion article about science communication, adapted from the “Communicating Science” class offered at Rutgers University.

Have you ever tried to give your parents, or any family member, a clear explanation of what you do as a research scientist? How many unfamiliar technical format and jargon did you use? Science communication and public outreach is one of the biggest challenges in any field of research. Science journalism is expected to disseminate scientific knowledge; the goal is to make this knowledge widely accessible for audiences outside the scientific community. The media helps to secure social support and public legitimacy, and contribute to the transformation of scientific knowledge by relating it to concerns outside of science. However, despite the growing influence of science and technology in the economic, social and political domain, the communications gap between scientists and the public is wide.

The relationship between science and the public or the environment is characterized as “distance”, “gap”, and “creative tension”. Scientists and journalists are like strangers to each other, not able to understand each other’s language, and driven by different agendas. These difficulties are due, in part, to the lack of institutional support, work pressures and lack of communication training. For example, as part of our scientific training, we present our work at national and/or international meetings to other scientists and experts in specific field. However, participation is much more limited in other types of interaction with the public, such as talks, interviews with journalists, and publications of popular articles.

Let’s take action!

There are three critical components that can help us to improve science communication: (1) focus on key scientific questions; (2) know the expectations and needs of your audience; and (3) focus the message on the effect you want to achieve. Taking these components into consideration for any presentation or talk will make your message clear and effective. Always remembering that “the height of sophistication is simplicity” so the speaker should try to put himself in the audience’s frame of mind and then deliver the simplest, and strongest message. The audience will appreciate it and reward you for it.

Key scientific questions is about engaging your audience – it’s about the ‘so what?’ and ‘why does it matter?’ and ‘why should people care?’ of your message. Each scientific question is designed to answer important issues. The goal, after the interpretation of the data, is to communicate both the strengths and the risks of your data.

Target your audience. Who is in my audience and what do they need to know to understand my work? The statements should be clear, vivid, and use conversational language that your audience understands. Narratives are easier to comprehend and audiences find them more engaging than traditional logical-scientific communication. The use of examples, anecdotes, and analogies are ways to engage your audience and make them care about what you are telling them. The goal is to make your audience want to know what happens next in your story.

Know your goal. Your message should be focused on what matters most. For example, if you are working with a promising therapy for a specific disease talk about the background of this disease and the benefits of this new therapy. Avoid “the curse of knowledge”, a cognitive bias that assumes your audience knows the background, and connect with your public.

Finally, as modern scientists we can take advantage of the social media to reach more people and share our knowledge. It is an important medium that policymakers, media and other scholars follow. Many people don’t read primary scientific literature, perhaps because of a paywall or because of the unfamiliar technical format and language. However, if we train ourselves to write about our research in a simple and concise way it can be made into a video or shared on social media, such as a blogs, and Facebook. Re-defining science communication and making it available to everybody is still a work in progress in our society, but the scientific community is improving, step by step.

This article was edited by Maryam Alapa.

Meet the blogger: Vinam Puri

We all know what the journey of a graduate student is like, right? Well, not true for this one! Hello guys, my name is Vinam and I am a Ph.D. student in the Pharmaceutical Science program, however, my path in the program has been unconventional, to say the least. After completing my Bachelor of Pharmacy degree in India I transitioned into a Ph.D. program in America. I wasted no time and had my whole life planned for myself but life can, sometimes, throw you curve balls and I learned a few lessons along the way. We all have our map, to guide us, and while it may all be different it does not mean you are heading the wrong way. Let me take you through my journey:

I started my Ph.D. program in Industrial Pharmacy at St. John’s University, New York, but later transferred to Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers University. I was happy in the program: I had a Teaching Assistantship in the Division of Life Science, was taking 3 courses a semester and moving along with my project. Basically, it was all smooth sailing and I was on my way to completing my degree until I found out my Mother was sick, in India, and not getting the help she needed. My advisor and I then decided that I should take a one year leave of absence in order to help my mother. I had a very supportive advisor who was ready to help me continue my project upon my return. However, life had different plans for me as I ended up staying in India for 3 years. Not only did I stay longer than expected I also got married along the way. At that point, going back to finish my Ph.D. was becoming harder but I always had an unnerving sense that I had left a great work uncompleted. I realized that completing my Ph.D. degree was the best option for me. However, at this point, my advisor had a full lab and a shot at completing my project seemed bleak. I couldn’t waste any more time and I decided to approach another advisor, Dr. Bozena Michniak-Kohn, who studies drug delivery systems. I liked the ongoing projects in the lab, but it was different from what I had done in the past. However, I had been gone for three years and a new project would be a fresh start for me; I will have to learn new things. In this new lab, I was able to re-start my degree with all my course credits completed. My project involves studying the fungal disease of the nail, Onychomycosis. This is a challenging area but we are motivated to make a positive change to the drawbacks of the current treatment options.

Other than research, I have always had interests in communication, technology, and entrepreneurship. I tried to satisfy my creative urge through several media outlets and previously had a personal. I taught myself how to edit videos and started a YouTube channel to express my ideas. I absolutely love talking to people and engaging in meaningful conversations with them. This pushes me to attend events that bring people from different areas together. I took a course on Communicating Science to learn more about how to effectively communicate my science to people with different background. My interest in communication also led me to become the Social Media and Digital Content Coordinator for the Center for Dermal Research. I currently participate in the iJOBS program to learn about the career options that are available to a fresh Ph.D. By joining the Rutgers iJOBS blog, I am not only satisfying my desire for a creative outlet, but I am also going to try and use my social media expertise to get the deserved outreach to this wonderful program that was started by some great minds. In addition, I am taking a course in Social Entrepreneurship because my goal is to be an entrepreneur and I am eager to learn as much as possible.

I hope you will enjoy my work and I hope I can provide some quality content to the followers of iJOBS blog.

My Vlogging Setup (Traveling and Photography are things I like to do for fun) – My YouTube Channel

Where did all the women go? The gender gap in publishing and beyond

It is the dream of every young scientist; after many agonizing years filled with hard work and perseverance, you are at the finish line. Everything falls into place and you receive the most satisfying email you may ever receive: “We are pleased to announce that your manuscript has been accepted for publication in Nature”. This is the ultimate reward for all the long hours spent in the lab and undoubtedly a sign that your work matters. Of course, Nature is one of the most well-known and competitive scientific journals, so the chances of this scenario actually taking place are low. However, there is a large group of scientists for whom this dream comes true less often than expected: women.

In an editorial recently published in Nature1, a summary of recent publication statistics was provided, proving a very salient point: women are very under-represented in the journal’s articles. This includes contributors of commissioned content, referees of scientific papers, reviews, but most importantly, authors of empirical research papers. Specifically, only 16% of corresponding authors in all of Nature’s recent publications are women, which is much lower than the estimated 29% of women in science globally2. A recent study providing the same analysis across multiple high impact-factor journals shows that the higher the impact factor, the lower the percentage of women as first or last authors, with most journals falling below 30%3. Thus, this is far from an isolated problem and it is imperative to figure out why this happens.

The first question we should ask is, “when does the problem start”? Is there a specific stage in women’s academic careers that hinders their likelihood of publishing in highly esteemed journals? The answer is that it starts later than you might think. At the very early stages of higher education, women are very much present. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more women college graduates than men4. This trend continues onto doctoral studies, with women earning more doctorates than men across most scientific fields, with STEM fields being the only ones where they are slightly lagging5. However, this equity quickly starts falling apart as soon as we move on to academic faculty jobs. According to a recent study looking at public universities, women are clearly in the minority when it comes to both junior and senior faculty positions6. The only job categories that have a prevalence of women are lecturer and instructor positions7, which are usually part-time postings with a high turnover rate. Academic tenure is not an easy accomplishment for women either, with only 37% of tenured faculty being women and only 10% being full professors8. The data give us a clear indication as to why it is so difficult for women to publish in high impact-factor journals: it is hard to be competitive in research without a stable job environment.

Faculty representation by field, split by assistant and associate/full professors (Source: Li & Koedel, 2017, Educational Researcher Vol. 46, Issue 7, pp. 343-354 https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X17726535
Faculty representation by field, split by assistant and associate/full professors (Source: Li & Koedel, 2017, Educational Researcher Vol. 46, Issue 7, pp. 343-354 https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X17726535

What is the reason that women are less present in high-ranking academic jobs? This is a very complicated topic and by no means restricted to academia. In fact, statistics from industry positions show very similar trends, with women becoming increasingly rare when moving up the job ranks9. Some researchers believe that women are more likely to move away from male-dominated fields because minorities tend to prefer education or work environments where they are among people who share their characteristics10. Another hypothesis is that women pay what is called the “baby penalty” at a much higher rate than men. That is, women that have babies during the early stages of their academic career are much more likely to turn down a future in academia11. Furthermore, having children has been found to highly affect women’s pay, but not men’s12. These give a glimpse into why women are underrepresented in many science-related fields, both in academia and industry.

Percentages of women and men in various positions, from companies in the Massachusetts Life Sciences cluster (Source: https://www.biopharmadive.com/news/fortunes-most-powerful-women-list-stresses-gender-gap-in-pharma/505463)
Percentages of women and men in various positions, from companies in the Massachusetts Life Sciences cluster (Source: https://www.biopharmadive.com/news/fortunes-most-powerful-women-list-stresses-gender-gap-in-pharma/505463)

The evidence paints a bleak picture, but what can we say to the young women scientists that want to thrive against these statistics? During a recent iJobs event about women in academic biology, a panel comprised of accomplished female professors at Rutgers University had a few tips for rising women in academia. These tips are not limited to academia alone and can also be applied to industry positions:

– Good time management skills are necessary for juggling career and family life.

– Volunteering and networking can provide great opportunities for career development.

– Avoid changing your personality to adapt to male-dominated environments. Instead, the key is having more confidence to show your unique skills and thus prove your self-worth.

They acknowledged that unconscious bias definitely exists, but they all found a way to surpass obstacles and run successful labs.

Overall, there is plenty of hope. In fact, Nature itself is making important progress by recently announcing the first woman editor-in-chief, Dr. Magdalena Skipper, in its 149 years of history13. Progress is being made, albeit slowly. Recent studies show that the gender gap in science is closing in most fields, but it will take many years to reach equity14. Some schools are taking steps towards increasing their female faculty members, with government funds backing these initiatives15. Most importantly, awareness of the issue seems to be at an all-time high. As Emma Walmsley, the first female CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, said16: “We should be much more proactive about sponsoring and supporting all types of diversity to get to the senior leadership positions”. Hopefully, this spirit is slowly prevailing in science.

References:

1 Nature 558, 344 (2018).

2 UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Fact Sheet No. 43, 2017 (http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs43-women-in-science-2017-en.pdf).

Shen, Y.A., Webster, J.M., Shoda, Y., and Fine, I., Persistent Underrepresentation of Women’s Science in High Profile Journals bioRxiv 275362; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/275362.

4 News Release, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, April 26, 2018 (https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/hsgec.pdf).

5 Survey of Earned Doctorates, National Science Foundation, June 2017 (https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17306/static/report/nsf17306.pdf).

6 Li, D. & Koedel, C., Representation and Salary Gaps by Race-Ethnicity and Gender at Selective Public Universities, Educational Researcher Vol 46, Issue 7, pp. 343 – 354

7 National Center for Education Statistics (https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=61).

8 TIAA Institute, Taking the measure of faculty diversity, Research Overview, October 2016 (https://www.tiaainstitute.org/sites/default/files/presentations/2017-02/faculty_diversity_overview_0.pdf).

9 ”Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list stresses gender gap in pharma”, by Jacob Bell (https://www.biopharmadive.com/news/fortunes-most-powerful-women-list-stresses-gender-gap-in-pharma/505463/).

10 ”Examining faculty diversity at America’s top public universities”, by Cory Koedel (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2017/10/05/examining-faculty-diversity-at-americas-top-public-universities/).

11 ”The Baby Penalty”, by Mary Ann Mason (https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Baby-Penalty/140813).

12 ”Children hurt women’s earnings, but not men’s (even in Scandinavia)”, by Claire Cain Miller (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/05/upshot/even-in-family-friendly-scandinavia-mothers-are-paid-less.html).

13 ”Nature announces new editor-in-chief”, by Holly Else (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05060-w).

14 ”New study says the gender gap in science could take generations to fix”, by Luke Holman (http://theconversation.com/new-study-says-the-gender-gap-in-science-could-take-generations-to-fix-95150).

15 ADVANCE: Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers, National Science Foundation (https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5383).

16 “The first female big pharma CEO had the perfect response to a question about women in leadership”, by Lydia Ramsey (http://www.businessinsider.com/gsk-ceo-emma-walmsley-on-diversity-in-pharma-2018-1).

 

This article was edited by Maryam Alapa

Where are they Now? – Interview with Stephanie Veerasammy

Stephanie Veerasammy, Ph.D., is a Rutgers alumnus and currently a Scientific Writer at Regeneron.  As a scientific writer she writes about ‘nonclinical pharmacological studies performed to characterize the pharmacodynamics of a drug’. She credits the SciPhD program in preparing her for her career. It gave her the skills necessary to make the transition from academia to her current job. iJOBs blogger, Urmimala Basu, spoke with Stephanie to explore her journey from graduate school to the world of professional scientific writing.

 

 

Q1: Let’s begin with your early career: where did you go to school for your undergraduate studies and what was your field?

 

I decided to pursue my passion for understanding how living things work in the Biochemistry program at Cook College, now known as the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. I developed a deep appreciation for proteins during my time there. I absolutely loved the professors and the courses. There is so much that I still use on a daily basis that I learned so long ago with them!

 

Q2: Please tell us your experience working as an intern at the Colgate-Palmolive Company.

 

After contemplating my interests in the field of biochemistry and career possibilities during my junior year of college, I opted to join my college’s cooperative education program to get some real world working experience. I expressed, to the program coordinator, my interest in toxicology, and after reviewing relevant options for the co-op, I chose an internship opportunity with the department of Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety at Colgate-Palmolive in Piscataway. During my one-year internship, I worked with scientists to research the toxicological profiles of all base compounds used to make Colgate-Palmolive products. It was a great opportunity to experience industry and learn about the various roles that scientists have in an industrial setting.

Stephanie Veerasammy pic

Q3: You also worked at Roche Pharmaceuticals. Please tell us about your experience at the company.

I began working for Roche as a contractor at the end of the summer, after graduating with my Bachelors. I was hired to work under the direction of a scientist responsible for drug transporter studies with small molecule drug candidates. I helped her perform routine drug transporter assays that were required for IND (Investigational New Drug) applications, such as the characterization of blood brain barrier permeability of a drug, as well as other drug transporter assays that elucidated any ADME (absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion) issues scientists observed in nonclinical animal studies. After a year I was hired as a full-time regular employee, and over the next few years was given more research and writing responsibilities, in addition to the administrative duties within my department. I was really happy with the opportunity to grow within my department during my time there.

 

Q4: 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?

 

I began my graduate school career as a part-time Masters student in the graduate program at NJMS while I was a full-time employee at Roche Pharmaceuticals. I joined the Master’s program as a way to strengthen my knowledge base and become a better bench scientist. After a few years of working in the pharmaceutical industry, I felt that I wanted to revisit research in an academic setting and build a research expertise that would allow me to take on more responsibilities. I knew I needed training, at the Ph.D. level, to have the expertise I desired, so I made the decision to go back to graduate school as a full-time Ph.D. student. I was really happy to be accepted to the program at Rutger’s NJMS. I had an interest in neuroinflammation in the developing brain, and luckily for me, I found a lab that had those very same interests. I joined Steve Levison’s lab and developed a project using a mouse model to study the effect of inflammation on the premature infant brain.  The focus was on the hippocampal neural stem and progenitor cells and functional hippocampal development. Life as a Ph.D. student is challenging, to say the least, so working on a topic that I was curious and concerned about was crucial for my motivation.

 

Q5: Why did you transition from a research scientist to a scientific writer?

 

While I did consider a range of careers after my Ph.D. training, I realized that technical scientific writing was a natural fit for me. As a student, I had a quite a few opportunities to practice scientific writing. I wrote and edited grants and a book chapter and also reviewed papers as an ad hoc reviewer for a peer-reviewed journal. Through these activities, I found that I enjoyed the task of digesting technical information and coming up with a way to present those ideas in a concise and straightforward way. Aside from enjoying these tasks, I had often received positive feedback on my writing from my advisors, which gave me more confidence in the possibility of writing as a career.

 

Q6: Please describe your current job as a Scientific Writer for Regeneron. What are your duties and how do you manage them?

 

As a Scientific Writer, I am responsible for writing up reports that describe the nonclinical pharmacology studies performed to characterize the pharmacodynamics of a drug. These reports are presented to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) within an IND (Investigational New Drug) application in which pharmaceutical companies request permission to test the drug in humans. On average, my day consists of meeting with scientists to discuss their data in preparation to draft a report or to discuss comments and revisions to the report as it progresses through various cycles of review. In addition to these types of meetings, I spend majority of my time drafting reports on a daily basis. Drafting involves editing and assembling figures and tables of data and writing the text for all experimental details, including the overall interpretation of the data. On a weekly basis, I attend group, departmental, and research team meetings to keep abreast of the different goals my teams have at these levels. Even as a writer, I have to communicate with many different individuals and attend a lot of meetings, so my email and calendar are essential organizational tools that keep me moving along at my job.

 

Q7: What are some of the major hurdles you face in your current job?

 

I think the biggest obstacle for a Scientific Writer would be the constantly moving timelines. There are a lot of activities that are interdependent and occur simultaneously across research and development, so when one timeline changes it affects many other timelines. For this reason, a Scientific writer has to be flexible and very efficient at both multitasking and prioritizing.

 

Q8: What skills can students pick up in graduate school that can help with a career in scientific writing?

 

Aside from the ability to digest and communicate scientific information to your target audience, multitask, and manage timelines, scientific writing also requires excellent interpersonal or “soft” skills. Scientific writers must have the ability to collaborate, resolve conflicts, and communicate ideas efficiently and effectively, both in person and in writing. My advice to students interested in scientific writing or any corporate career path is to get involved in activities that require teamwork so you can hone these “soft” skills way before you start your job search.

 

Q9: What is a major caveat, in your opinion, of graduate education today?

 

I feel that a lot of students are afraid of taking time outside of the lab to work on professional growth. I often see students refusing to think about their future before graduating because they “don’t have time” and then struggling after graduation to find a job due to a lack of professional insight. While it seems like there is “no time” during your Ph.D. training, students need to acknowledge the importance of career planning and make time for associated activities. Just as important, students need to have the support of their advisors as they seek professional growth.

 

Q10: Have you ever been involved with the Rutgers iJOBS. How did it contribute to your career development?

 

The iJOBS program started when I was a bit further along in my Ph.D. training so I didn’t have the chance to participate in the full range of opportunities the program provides. Luckily, I participated in the SciPhD program hosted through iJOBS. The program was an excellent way for students to understand their potential in a non-academic environment and learn how to market themselves effectively during a job search. I found the SciPhD program very useful in my own job search, and I think most, if not all, of the students and post-docs who have participated in it would agree. I also had the opportunity to attend talks and events both on and off campus that were hosted or promoted by iJOBS or the ACA at NJMS. These events helped me network with professionals who gave me unique insights and career advice. I always felt more confident about my future after attending these events, and as a result, I developed a more positive mindset while chugging along in graduate school.

 

Q11: What is your parting advice to graduate students interested in scientific writing?

 

My advice to students who are interested in scientific writing is to actively seek opportunities to contribute to scientific writing. In your own lab, you can offer to proofread and edit your colleagues’ manuscripts and grants or even volunteer to coordinate and write a review article. Some aspiring scientific writers contribute to science blogs, which is a great way to both practice writing and showcase your thoughts as a scientist. In addition to getting more experience with writing itself, I would also suggest getting some experience working on teams since no scientific writer works alone. I think the most important piece of advice I can give to any student, whether they are looking for a career as a Scientific Writer or are interested in another field, is to take as many chances as possible to meet professionals and have extracurricular experiences outside of your lab activities. Aside from making you a well-rounded job candidate, these are the opportunities that will help you fully understand your interests and strengths, both of which are key factors to consider when planning your career.

 

This article was edited by Maryam Alapa

Enter the matrix: Scientist self-assessments that make sense!

Edited by: Aminat Saliu Musah

You approach the office of your program director with sweaty palms and little scientific progress. You have been dreading this progress meeting since your graduate program assistant asked you to fill out a doodle poll a month ago. As you enter their cluttered office you wonder about how you compare your progress to other graduate students and your own personal career and skills development. When will I graduate? What, if anything in science, am I good at? When will I be ready for the next step in my career progression? Like many unclear things in graduate school, self-assessments of strengths and weaknesses can be difficult. Graduate school is an apprenticeship and, unfortunately, some of us have advisors who believe no feedback is good feedback. While this “sink or swim” model has been successful when faculty positions were plentiful, if you read a few of the articles on the iJOBS blog it becomes clear that there are no longer enough faculty positions for the number of PhD scientists produced. How is it decided that certain trainees are better equipped than others for a successful scientific career? Often, that is a factor outside of the trainee’s control and is determined by being in the right lab at the right time.

In a recent article entitled “Point of view: Competency based assessment for the training of PhD students and early-career scientists,” several graduate and post-doctoral program leaders lament the lack of a national framework for assessing scientific development and future scientific career success. They describe how under the current American system “The success of a scientist is highly variable and depends on a number of factors; the trainee’s supervisor or research adviser, the institution and/or graduate program, and the organization or agency funding the trainee.” In contrast to other systems of PhD education the American system does not include a comprehensive assessment to determine the scientific potential of recently graduated or graduating scientists. This is problematic because there can be discrepancies between the quality of PhD programs between peer American institutions. The authors were able to identify 10 important core competencies that can be used to evaluate the scientific development of career PhD scientists and their development programs.

Ten Core Competencies for the PhD Scientist:

 

  1. Broad Conceptual Knowledge of a Scientific Discipline– This refers to a scientist’s ability to engage in scientific conversations across a discipline their discipline (biology, chemistry…)
  2. Deep Knowledge of a Specific Field– Encompasses the historical context, current state of the art, and relevant experimental approaches for a specific field, such as immunology or nanotechnology.
  3. Critical Thinking Skills– Focuses on elements of the scientific method, such as designing experiments and interpreting data.
  4. Experimental Skills– Includes identifying appropriate experimental protocols, designing and executing protocols, troubleshooting, lab safety, and data management.
  5. Computational Skills– Encompasses relevant statistical analysis methods and informatics literacy.
  6. Collaboration and Team Science Skills– Includes openness to collaboration, self- and disciplinary awareness, and the ability to integrate information across disciplines.
  7. Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) and Ethics– Includes knowledge about and adherence to RCR principles, ethical decision making, moral courage, and integrity.
  8. Communication Skills– Includes oral and written communication skills as well as communication with different stakeholders.
  9. Leadership Skills– Includes the ability to formulate a research vision, manage group dynamics and communication, organize and plan, make decisions, solve problems, and manage conflicts.
  10. Survival Skills– Includes a variety of personal characteristics that sustain science careers, such as motivation, perseverance, and adaptability, as well as participating in professional development activities and networking skills.

These core competencies are very broad, however, they give a potential scientist guidance towards developing successful skills and habits. You might find that some important skills like business and management are left out of these competencies. To address these issues, the authors included sub-competencies that fit under several of these categories.

How is this assessment different than other administered tests? Rather than using a self-assessment to measure a student’s proficiency the authors propose several observable measures of a student’s effectiveness. To evaluate the student’s effectiveness, the authors propose using a “milestone” model for student evaluation, whereby when a student achieves these milestones they have “progressed” to the next level. The authors then choose these proficiency levels for each student: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. You can see from the figure, as a student progresses, the following table would have to be filled out for each student:

Table 3 from paper including milestones

One criticism I had is that author’s do not list specific examples of how each competency can be represented and rely on the student and advisor to define what determines progress in each of these categories. To address this problem conversations should happen between the students and their supervisor or course director to identify areas of improvement as well as areas of strength. These competencies can be used in conjunction with course curriculum changes to develop fantastic graduate programs. The competencies can provide the student with clear personal objectives as well as providing feedback to the program directors on areas that students could improve upon. I think that implementing these competencies will help PhD granting institutions recruit higher quality students and post-docs by providing aspiring career scientists with a professional development structure. Adding in these objectives will give PhD students a greater chance at succeeding during and after graduate school.

This article discusses many of the frustrations I hear and have noticed at my own graduate institution. Graduate students struggle with advisors who have no clear plan, developing their own research project without prior experience of creating a project, and graduate programs that have no clear path for scientific development. I know that Rutgers has been taking steps to address it by passively having us fill out the AAAS Individual Development Plan (IDP). The IDP, when used properly, can help graduate students and their PIs track thesis progress as well as professional development progress. Ultimately it is still up to the individual student to determine, plan and navigate their competencies for career objectives. I think that progressive graduate programs can and will use these guidelines to mentor and develop students so that the students can reach their career goals and the graduate programs can produce fantastic scientists. In the future students will, hopefully, enter program director meetings with a positive outlook and leave with a clear sense of direction.

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

Where are They Now? – 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