Thursday, December 13, 2012

Welcome STEMinists

If you've come here because you have ready my profile on STEMinist, I'm glad you stopped by!  As you will see, I kept this blog primarily about my job hunt after graduating- and now that I have a job I've been pretty terrible at updating it. 

BUT if there is anything you'd like to know more about or people I might be able to connect you with I'm still monitoring the site and would be happy to chat with you more.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On feeling good about the job

As excited as I am to start my new job, I've had some mixed feelings about pursuing this route.  Working as a curriculum writer in career education doesn't require the exacting touch of a molecular biologist, or a PhD.  Like many people, I struggled with the idea that I might be "wasting" my education.  For a long time I was looking for jobs in industry because I wanted to believe all those years of hard work would pay off in form that I could predict.  But, the longer I looked, the more hurdles I put in my own way- I don't wanna be at the bench, I can't do sales or marketing, I'm over academia, I don't want to travel 50%... Whether or not I was aware of it, I was backing out of science.  There is something like a mourning process when you give up on your dreams- and eventhough I can't say it was My Dream to become some big deal scientist, it was certainly the path that I'd been fixated on for so long.

This transition might have felt easier if I had any certainty about where I'd go instead.  There were lots of options, but I was resistant to admit I was backing away from science, and equally unwilling to back away from science completely.  Maybe I could find work at the science center?  Or as a medical writer? Or something that would use my science in a way that I felt more comfortable with?  Does such a job exist?  And even though I had tons of misgivings about traditional careers in science, it was easy to be nitpicky about other careers as well.  Work at a non-profit?  The pay is terrible.  However, I felt like I was living with the pressure of using this PhD, and I tried to let that go. 

Over the spring, I recognized that I didn't have a hard time convincing people I should be able to write well.  This was part of my internship, part of my dissertation, part of my contract work, and something I was enjoying.  Fortunately or not, just being able to write doesn't paint a clear career path. Meanwhile I seemed to have a really hard time convincing anyone I would be a good scientist- there was always some technique or experience that I didn't have yet, like ADME or animals or even clinical trials. By this point, I felt desperate to work and figured I should reconcile myself to working outside of science. And contracting with this new client was going well.  I like the work- thinking about teaching- an awful lot more than teaching itself.  When I thought only about the job, I loved it, it felt like a great fit, but when I would think about keeping it for any period of time I felt guilty that I wasn't doing something in my field (whatever I believed that to be anymore).  Eventually I decided I'd rather be someone who "failed to be a scientist" than someone who "failed to get a job, ever."  I expect these feelings of guilt to pass.  I'm good at my job, and not everyone can do this type of work, which does make me feel like I am using my education and experience.

Even as I felt better about this transition stick, I started to have more criticisms of any potential employer.  Specifically, we create educational models for schools and teachers who can afford to buy them. Does this undermine the public school system?  Does it really help teachers and students?  Although I actually think we do more good than not, my client's work was in a flattering piece by Fox News, which certainly gave me pause. Is this work that I should do? This feeling surprised me a lot.  Finding a career that I felt comfortable with was one thing, now I was feeling skittish about actually taking a job?  After talking with some friends, I realized that there is usually some component of the work that seems.... not quite right.  I know someone who selflessly works at a food bank that buys their supplies from Walmart since they have the cheapest prices. A physician charges people for medical care, just because they lost the health lottery. I rationalized that even if I were working to cure cancer, I'd eventually wonder about the ethical sourcing of my suppliers (all those plastics come from China), the footprint of my lab, or whether my work was taking money from other more promising projects.  It's just the reality of the working world.  Like I said, I really do think that this type of work provides support for rather than undermining public schools.  Working with start-ups, I realized I preferred the honesty of admitting that "we have to make money to stay afloat" compared to the nebulous assessments that result in success for grant funded operations.

Really, for me the emotional journey had three major hurdles: the idea that I needed an Important Job because of the PhD, the idea that the PhD was a waste if I wasn't in science, and the idea that I needed to work (as a saint) for saints.  Getting over that has helped me find a job a like in a field that interests me.  I'm not using my "science" persay, but I got the job in part because I can learn and write very quickly.  The PhD wasn't a waste, and I expect in the long-run may allow me more upward mobility.

Monday, October 15, 2012

I got a job!

I've been waiting to write this blog post for longer than I've been blogging here.  It's a pretty big day!  I accepted my offer letter and am officially going to be a curriculum writer with one of my favorite clients! 

I've got lots of reasons to feel good about this (it's a job!), but I wanted to walk back through some of the key choices and experiences that helped me actually get into a position to take a job I'd never hear of in an industry that didn't exist when I entered school (Lo', those many years ago...).

I struggled a lot with the idea of really moving into a field that is very distant from my previous work.  The job (write a HS curriculum about vocational programs) is certainly not something I need a PhD to do, or a background in virology.  I'll write more about that struggle later, but there were some  things I did in grad school that did help me get this job.  And not just the "hard work and transferable skills" stuff.  I designed a course for undergrads that I taught one semester.  I enjoyed designing the course, but was petrified as an instructor.  That made me think I didn't want to get into education (one reason I hesitated to pursue this).  I also wrote a lot, and made an effort to develop that as a skill.  This was mostly just a couple manuscripts and a dissertation, but while I had colleagues who would rather die of papercuts that put words to paper, I enjoyed the process.  (Although I did totally hate parts of it too).  I hated revisions, so this made me think I was too sensitive to let writign be my primary skill.  By the time I left grad school, I knew I didn't want to be at the bench forever, and I was scared to teach or write.  Nifty.

The day I stopped working I started volunteering at the Carnegie Science Center.  I believed that I probably had some workplace competencies that etc.) my adviser would not be able to speak to (showing up to work on time, dressing appropriately, and I wanted some structure in my long, tedious days of job hunting.  This transformed into a much more responsible position that I had been able to predict, and I was able to (among other things), write and execute scalable demos (for 1-many students, and for all ages).  I did handle a small budget and some other project management skills, but developing demos was the key.

I made a HUGE effort to build up my LinkedIn profile.  I did everything anyone suggested there, including improving my profile to include all my skills and experience, not just my science background, and joined tons of groups.  One group I joined (Possibly a subgroup of Science Jobs- the Freelance group), someone asked for help writing some science lessons.  It didn't sound like anything I'd done before, but I wrote some letter with hubris that said I've got a PhD, I worked at the science center, I can totally smash you lessons.  This lead me to my first client, Words & Numbers.  Work there was sporadic, and after having tried plenty of other routes, I realized I had months of experience in this field (curriculum development), and there seemed to be a lot of off site opportunities.  While I was trying to amass more clients, I ran across an ad for a local company in this industry and applied- again with a letter I thought was ridiculous.  I've often that that I should amend this entry to say that as crazy as I thought the letter was, it was read, and I got the job- well, not the job I applied for but I was able to quit working at the bank to take on writing full time.

After working with them for several months, telling everyone there how much I enjoyed it and how interested I was in more work (and several contract renewals), I decided to take matters into my own hands and told the guy who hired me I was looking to apply to another job at the company.  This prompted a discussion about how I could continue to work with his team in a more permanent basis that VERY SLOWLY (I sent that first email in August) turned into a full time job offer.  Tada!

Obviously, I couldn't have predicted this combination of things, and a lot of the other stuff I was doing prepared me to respond well to what turned out to be the key opportunities.  A few things turned out to be help for me.  I never got good at 'leveraging contacts' to open doors to invisible job opportunities.  I did met loads of folks who gladly shared information about their careers, but I decided that the easiest way to impress someone was by doing the job- that's why I volunteered and took contracts.  And that did give me a chance to impress the people who gave me my job.  And of course, I work for a company that makes online curricula for credit recovery and educational development.  5 years ago the publishing industry wasn't prepared for ebooks, and now there are any number of companies making mixed media learning tools.  It's just not a job I could have gotten prepared for by any traditional route. 

I promise at least one more write up on the internal components of getting and taking this job as well. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What's negotiable?

Lately, I've been trying to learn a bit about negotiation.  Specifically, what is negotiable at the start of a job.  I have a general sense that the starting salary is, but I don't know how I would ask for that.  I've also heard plenty of internet blabber that Everything Is Negotiable.  But at the very least, no one is going to want to sit down with the new hire and negotiate every little dumb detail about the job before they are clear you are pretty much onboard.  So I surveyed some friends and colleagues to see what is common to expect from a professional job, and what/how to ask for other things.

Basically, everyone said you should negotiate your salary, and this was across the spectrum of "Take'em for all their worth!" to "it never hurts to ask."  What was interesting to me what what was suggested as things to factor into this number.  A friend said, you have to get out of "Ohmigosh, I'll do anything to work for you!" sucker mode, and move quickly into, "My skills are valuable, and valued at X price."  But really, if you think of yourself, your potential, you as The Whole Package, it can be hard to distill all that into one number, especially when it's hard to gather objective evidence about your market value.

Several people (with enough work histories I am inclined to believe them) said vacation, health insurance and retirement aren't usually negotiable.  But I need to find out about them so I can adjust the required salary accordingly. Terrible health plan?  I'm going to need extra cash to make up for the fact that your competitors would include this in my package.  Several people recommended I look at and to be sure that the number was in the range for the position, and use this as the start point to add extra salary on to.

As for these other things, what can a professional still expect these days? Healthcare is a yes.  Hopefully details of the plan can be made available before just accepting that "Health Plan" = "Good."  There should be a 401K, with matching, most people said matching at 5% was standard (still), although it may take time to vest.  I heard 3-4 weeks of paid vacation.  I find that odd, since my husband only gets 2 weeks of "vacation time'" but he also gets another 10 days of holidays during the year.  I suppose it all works out.  The idea is, if an offer is lacking in any of these things, you ask for more salary to make up for it (since that makes for good leverage).  No one addressed how to respond if these were all above average- probably thank your lucky stars and keep your mouth shut.

I also asked about other things like parking, bus pass, gym membership and other random perks.  Most people said it's ok to ask for and about those things, but I should wait until the salary number is already lined up.  When the question of salary is still on the table, it seems like you might walk.  And it would be weird to turn down a job because you had to get your own bus pass, right?  Or worse, if you are fussing about the parking, you are cool with the crappy salary number, right? You often have more leverage for those little things at that point.  By the time an employer has gone through the HR hoopla to get you that far, they are keenly aware of how much they want you and need to make you happy to get you. Of course, if it was generally considered that these perks were valued by employees and available, they might think to mention it during the hiring process.  That being said, the corporate goon who hires me might not be aware of how amazingly liberating I think it is to work flex time, so I will ask rather than assume someone will tell me about this nonsense. If I have learned anything in looking for a job, it is that what is important to me as a job-hunter is not what is important to a potential employer.

And then tactics.  With luck, the employer will make the first offer, which gives you a number to start from.  Countering with 5-10% more (and valid, sound reasoning), seems pretty much expected.  Since I am terrible with arithmetic under pressure, I would make a table of annual and monthly salary numbers to compare with.  I also heard that it is ok to take day to think about it- do your due diligence, and prepare a thoughtful counter offer.  (Seriously? That's allowed??)  And the valid, sound reasoning for your counter offer should include other offers, previous salary, the accepted salary for the industry etc., not so much personal budget issues (I've got this HUGE mortgage).

That's what I've learned so far about negotiations.  This seems like a pretty key moment to have a spine and stick up for yourself, which isn't a good time to decide you dont't need one.  I should probably practice this stuff.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Blogging Professionally: Interview with Chemjobber

One of the things that I have realized while job hunting is that there are plenty of ways to do important, professional things that aren't paid, which means I have a lot more choice about participating.  One model that I really look up to is Chemjobber.  Chemjobber is a blogger who writes about jobs and the job market for chemists.  Chemjobber follows the movements of the American Chemical Society, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and various commentary by science writers on this theme.  It's all very thoughtful stuff, and the blog attracts equally thoughtful commentary and readership.  You don't have to spend much time there (or be a Chemist) to feel like this provides an important place for a community to discuss the under-discussed issue of chemist unemployment and under-employment.

And Chemjobber? He's not paid to maintain this blog, he does it because he wants to.  And actually, that got me curious.  So I asked if he would be willing to talk to me about it: why blog? And of course, he was glad to. I was SO pumped about this conversation before and after so I wanted to share here.

Chemjobber is a really nice guy, the kind of guy who would dedicate hours a week to writing about the issue of employment even though he actually has a job. He sees average chemists struggling, and a lack of dialog about that issue and uses the power of his blog and pseudonym to address it. By blogging, he can collect resources, add to (or start) the dialog and be a fact-checker for other writers.  All this helps get thoughts in order, it allows for ideas to be shared with a critical audience, and sometimes it's even a service.

When asked if it's worth it, he told me that as a scientist he has learned to take his wins very narrowly.  He's been able to connect a few people with jobs, or be an ear for someone navigating some career mystery, and that seems equally, if not more important than being quoted by famous bloggers, or even print journalists.  For him, connecting people with information and elevating a dialogue about the very scary struggle of the average chemist is important.  Worth dedicating time away from his family for.

To be honest, I probably could have guessed most of that about Chemjobber, although I was surprised to learn that he didn't choose to write about this issue because he had experienced unemployment.  Seriously, he just writes about it because it seems important for the community. He's just that kind of guy.

I also wanted to know about the pseudonym, and not just the funny story about how he picked it (someone should make him explain it).  Does a pseudonym protect you?  Give you different freedoms?  He sighed when I asked about this, and said a pseudonym is never better that writing with your own name.  Instead, he uses it to divide this hobby (blogging) from his work.  This is a little surprising, he rarely mentions his work on the blog, and he told me few people at work know he is Chemjobber.  People often don't trust the pseudonym (and this is a good rule of thumb). When he has been contacted by reporters, they can't credit him as a source.  And I think that is part of the reason he maintains the strict difference- the journalist will site Dr. Jobber, chemist at ChemCo, and that isn't really who he represents as a blogger.  Even though we may never fully understand the motivations of the pseudonym, it seems to provide the space for Chemjobber the blogger to be thoughtful, critical and objective (and prolific) in a way that he might not if he thought his employer might read it.

And this got us into the subject of blogging generally.  Chemjobber had lots of thoughts about how to develop a following and encourage discussion with a generally positive community. (Hints: Write lots, and don't pick fights.)  Using a specific mission statement, there seems to be an unending amount of content, but he hasn't seriously discussed women in chemistry or immigration and jobs.  He's found the chemistry community to be dominated by other thoughtful, objectively critical folks who make the dialogues much more engaging (and man, I wish people left such great comments on my blog- seriously, go look at some of that stuff). We talked about how there isn't a similar blog covering the issue for Biologists, or even all of STEM.

My purpose in my own blog so far has been simply to document what I am doing, it's very autobiographical.  I thought it would help me to collect my thoughts on my job hunt, and possibly provide a record for me to share with others, and it certainly has done both.  But I'm coming to a point where I might not need to blog about job hunting anymore.  Would I blog about looking for clients or contracting? Could I do that in a meaningful way, or would I have stumbled on a topic even less likely to spark discussion?  As Chemjobber told me, "It's not nice to write about people on the internet" and I don't want to be whining about my editors or clients. I like blogging, but I think this iteration may have run it's course.  Do I shut it down?  Change course?  Talking with Chemjobber certainly got me thinking about using my blog as a forum to discuss the science policy issues I am interested in.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Work and Life and Balance

In the desperate throws of job hunting, I found it really hard to consider work-life balance.  I mean, you need a work life to have that problem, right?  But endless hours surfing the web and lining up interviews with strangers made me realize that neither of these activities makes me appear like the thoughtful, bright and engaged person I want to be as a professional.  I don't like having deadlines and to-do lists hanging over my head, but I'm a lot better at dealing with those things when I have taken some time to collect myself.

Working from home moves the work life-balance into a much starker contrast.  Aside from being in a position to micromanage every single aspect of my career (Which client is worth spending the time to impress?  Who is more likely to send me lucrative contracts in the future?), I'm also faced with the immediate consequences of those choices.  I literally get to choose: should I continue working or go do something fun with my spouse? 

However, being able to micromanage my work-life (I tend to have a pretty good idea of how long it should take me to write certain documents, so I can work on various projects for a set amount of time) I also notice when I'm not as sharp as I need to be.  It's been illuminating to notice that when I start working too many hours, or working on too many different things during the day (there is an energy cost to switching tasks, perhaps?) I'm way less productive.  The work I produce takes longer and often isn't as good.  It's tempting to just say, "I can't write at my best when I am busy! I have so many things going on!"  But I'm a professional.  I get paid to produce decent (not Pulitzer prize winning) writing.  My editors don't really care that I have a lot of other things on my plate right now, I've committed to producing things for them. 

It's been refreshing to realize that, for me, at this time, work-life balance means that I have to limit the amount I work so that I can be better at the work I do. Seriously, I have to go do something fun, with other people, and make sure my home is dealt with (I am no domestic goddess, but the absence of clean clothes and dishes is distracting), or I can't work at my best. I'm sure this was true in grad school as well, but I wasn't attuned to it in the same way. That internal sense of dysfunction just seemed like part of the sacrifice I was making for my career, not that I was failing to be my best. It's liberating to get away from the guilt of "not working enough;" having a social life contributes in a meaningful way to my ability to do my job and advance,  it's not a distraction.

I still have occasional fits of "there might still be work to do" panic, but for the most part, it's getting easier to clock out when that time of the day arrives when I remember that I need to.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Investing in my business- as a Medical Writer?

Today I am on day two of my medical writing course.  The course is going to be helpful both  for gaining some experience writing and certainly on the business end- which I feel is the biggest risk of the whole affair.  I am waffling between feelings of gung-ho "Small Business Built America!" and what-have-I-gotten-myself-into-ness, with a very acute sense that I need to learn about odds ratios and the statistics of risk ASAP.  The course is very oriented towards "How to:" run the business, write the documents, find the clients, keep the clients etc etc. It is not so much of the wishy-washy "is this for me?" day dream I am constantly having.  And of course, it is just the tiniest fraction of what I am spending my time on for the next couple weeks.

Just to make the note for myself, I am currently hoping to work 20 hrs a week for my favorite client, as I am trying to convince them to offer me a full time job in the form of a promotion.  I have suddenly received all manner of work that was delayed from my other client, which is awkward timing at best.  I'd hoped to be done with every last iota of that contract by Friday, but I'll be lucky if we aren't still doing this in October.  And while my internship has formally moved into wrap up stage, we decided to write a pre-proposal for a commercialization grant that I am trying to be involved in.  I've never written a grant before, but it appears to be all-consuming, especially when you are working with a nascent idea like ours.  But I wanted to stick around to see what that process is like, since I've never been involved in a grant submission before.

I decided to take the course regardless because I wanted to do something concrete for my career, and I thought enough of the topics would be valuable to me even if I chose to keep freelancing in curriculum development. All of the above is keeping me quite busy, but in 6 months will any of it propel me forward to the next stage of my career?  No. I need to invest in myself and my future a bit, and when you replace "me" with "this business," it seems a lot more obvious where the investment is needed.

In the continued interest of investing in this business, I bought a second monitor.  I have been doing all this work from the laptop I bought after my old mac fizzled out after my defense.  It's a nice laptop, but I notice I work from AT LEAST 3 windows (not counting needing to monitor 2 email accounts and leaving Pandora running), which is cludgy on one small window.  The new monitor is splendid for that, and it makes me feel like I could get a system in order for being a professional in this so called office of mine. My next investment for the business will be figuring out about finances and taxes and other mysteries of being your own bookkeeper. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Individual Development Plan

A new e-friend sent me a link to a tool on the Science Careers website to help PhD level scientists develop an Individual Development Plan.  It's great, it does a skills assessment, interests assessment and values assessment and then compares your scores to various career paths.  Ironically, entrepreneurship (starting your own business) and K-12 education (specifically curriculum developer) ranked as the bottom two on my list.  Ironic, because I am actually running a sole-prop based on my ability to write curriculum.

I look forward to using these tools more in the future, but wanted to share the link here.

My IDP at Science Careers

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Option Two: High RIsk, High Reward

In my last blog post, I laid out 4 realistic directions for my career that popped up last week that will take my career and my life in completely different directions.  I addressed why I wouldn't be post-docing, and I want to address the conundrum of the other science job, which is perhaps non-traditional.  I've been interning with a small start-up that is developing a surface coating technology for the past 6 weeks.  The details of the job aren't important, but the company is run by chemical engineers who have some great technology, are reasonably well grant-funded (SBIR) and hoping to expand.  These are very good signs when looking at a start up.  However, grant funds tie your hand a little: NSF doesn't pay anyone more than half time, so everyone at this company is there half time. They have a technician they love who is leaving to go to grad school, and they offered me her position with the opportunity to help write some additional grants/seek investors (I am the business development intern).

Yes, you read that right.  Get a part-time wage to take on a monumental (and full time) task. If/when money comes in, I've earned my first promotion.  High risk, high reward.

Let's look at the risk first.  In principle, I don't have to give up contracting to take this job, but I probably would so that I could do the job well. Taking a job as a tech wouldn't be bad if I were promoted quickly/moved on to another position quickly, but it will be hard to find a job to follow-up that one if I have used my PhD as a tech for any period of time.  As I explained to my Dad, would you trust a Physician who worked as a CNA after med school?  In particular with the job market here being so tight, I don't need any question marks on my resume. But I am not being paid in equity (lesson learned), and the grant should last at least a year, so there is some stability.  I'm unlikely to just abruptly lose my job if the company goes under (which they seem unlikely to do).  Oh, and I am not a chemist.  For some reason, they aren't really considering the possibility that I might be terrible at this job, and there is no evidence to suggest I won't be.  Failing at this job (either as a tech or a grant writer) would be bad for the company and bad for my prospects moving forward. 

How about the Reward?  Well, getting a chance to write myself as a PI on a grant is not something I thought I would be able to do at this stage of my career.  That's a big one- if we get funded, that's awesome, but for many reasons I want experience grant writing. I will also get to learn some cool chemistry techniques (however, given the dismal career prospects for chemists, I'm not sure that's more than an intellectual bonus). Looking for investors could help me expand my network (I'm not sure this is a talent I posses or will develop though- so add that back to risk), should I ever decide I am done being a Chemist. And I can create for myself a position in this company that is young and growing that could really take me places.

There are other perks as well.  It would be gratifying to tell my old boss I am working at a start-up, it would make sense to him.  I would be working in a cool neighborhood, with cool people, which is something I miss about grad school.  I've actually been offered this job.  It was all I could do not to say "YES, I'll take it!" when offered the position. Wasn't this what I've been working so hard for?? 

The two questions I am struggling to answer though, are do I have this kind of appetite for risk, and where does this position take me?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Stability in Science Careers

That recent post, about how you need a post-doc to be a scientist, is a place holder for one part of my internal dialogue on what I am supposed to be doing with my life. For the last couple weeks I've been quite busy with two big curriculum development contracts and my business development internship, which got me thinking two things:  1) I can stay on this track of having work and getting paid and not worrying about the bills for a pretty long time. 2) I think I want to know where my career is going more than that.  So ideas were had, contacts were pinged and a bunch of things happened last week.

1) I was accepted into a 6 week training program for PhDs to become Freelance Medical Writers.
2) I was offered a part-time tech position at my internship to support writing grants and getting investors to support myself full-time in a scientist role.
3) I pre-interviewed for a post-doc with an innovator I know from my first internship at C4C.
4) I spoke to my favorite current client about moving into a more permanent role with them.

Each of these four things clearly takes my career (and my life) in a completely different direction.  I'll discuss more about my hesitation to give up freelance work, with zero commute and my own priorities on how to spend my time etc etc, soon.  But today I wanted to talk about my discussion about the post-doc job.

Since moving out here, I have not had a chance to connect with many people who really know my skills and abilities AND understand the job market in Seattle.  This innovator/faculty member happens to be someone I endeared myself to as a professional (believes I am smart, a quick learner and creative), has been here for several years and is married to someone finishing a post-doc and looking at the job market right now.  The conversation started with the usual, "What do you want to do after a post-doc?" type questions which I answered vaguely ("work, y'know, in industry probably"), but I was able to articulate the things I do know.  It's important to me to stay in Seattle.  It's important to me to have stability in my career- which is why the soft money research institute or grant funded academic role do no appeal.  And that got us onto a fairly horrifying tangent about the state of science.  Yup, payline at this institute are around 10%, which is making it hard to get and retain good scientists.  Many of those folks move on to the larger pool of positions in Industry (we've got Amgen, Dendreon, Zymogenetics, Novo Nordisk and more here), but those employers are resorting to more brutal hiring practices themselves with limited investor funds and shrinking pipelines.

Bench laborers (and I can confirm this is a lot of highly experienced PhDs, not just techs- just look on LinkedIn) are hired for project for 6-18months, then laid off when the project ends.  This used to be the case that folks would just move around from hiring pool to hiring pool fairly seamlessly, but these days Pharma does much less Research, and limited development.  Those projects are becoming fewer and farther between as the pipelines are drying up, and the pool of highly qualified people looking to get back on the bench is becoming deeper and deeper as the layoff times last longer and more people leave academia to give it a shot.  I have met too many scientists here who are among the long term unemployed.  One way to deal with that problem is move for a job, which is where the #ScienceNomads tag came from.  I don't want to be spending 6 months out of every two years looking for a job.  Sure you could think of that big Industry salary as the equivalent of a 9 month academic position, but I just don't think this will work for me.

It's been said a lot: science is no longer a meritocracy.  Sure, you have to be good at science, but just being smart and working hard isn't enough to ensure you a job.  Writing a grant with solid science and important questions that is in the 90th percentile of all grants submitted might not get funded. Being perfectly qualified for a position might not be enough where there is a list of lay-offs hoping to get rehired.  For someone in my position, I don't just need to get my first job to make it- I will probably be fighting for a job for the next couple decades.

This was really the final piece I needed.  I've seen the unemployed researchers, I've seen the openings I have no hope of scoring, I've seen the work histories of people on LinkedIn who have a handful of different positions for every decade they stayed at the bench.  I just don't think I am going to be a scientist who works at the bench ever again.  Or maybe it's better to say I don't have to work at the bench- I've got other opportunities to be paid to work hard and be smart. That OK.  My last experiment was making alginate worms for the Science Center, and that's a high note I am happy to go out on.  I'm feeling quite at peace with that.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why do I want to be a Medical Writer?

One of the email lists I've been subscribed to for a long time is the Hitt List, a listing of open positions for medical writers across the country.  It's been interesting to see the types of roles that qualify as medical writers, everything from writing CMEs to filing regulatory documents.  It's intimidating, because some of this I clearly something have no business doing, but there is a lot out there that I could do with a little guidance.  I've had the pleasure of speaking with some medical writers, and frankly the position appeals a lot.  You write documents, based on other peoples work.  Sometimes this is copy editing, sometimes this is pulling together bits of other documents into forms, sometimes this is working from raw figures.  The deadlines are often short (days to months) (which I've decided I like much better than very long deadlines, where you can be haunted by your early, naive choices), and the specific work environment can be incredibly flexible.  People do this anywhere from freelance to part time to full time.  And did I mention that it is well paid?

Great, there is some magical job out there that I am still not qualified to get.  I've joined AMWA and try to keep an eye on the listservs, but that hasn't yet helped me figure out how to "be a medical writer."  However, Emma Hitt (of the Hitt list) offers a 6 week course to get people (PhDs and MDs) up to speed on starting this freelance career. I'm working on my application right now.  The part that is hard is trying to explain why I want to go into medical writing.  Clearly, it is a good career path that would take advantage of my education.  It would challenge me to keep up with trends in my field, and I really enjoy writing so this seems like a good fit.  I applied for the course, and was accepted.  Interestingly, this is about to conflict with some other opportunities, so now I need to start making some of those choices about what I want to do with my life.  More on that later.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Scientists don't have just a PhD

I don't want to be pessimistic about my job hunt. I have been learning a lot about careers, employment and how to get there over the last year, however, and it is quite obvious that Seattle does not support a job classification for people to be employed as scientists who have a PhD but no post-doc. Of course, if you know someone really well, if your PI is part owner in a start-up, maybe this can happen for you.  But I've met a lot of people who work here, working as a scientist (at the bench) requires a post-doc.  (For the record, working as a tech with a PhD is regarded as a very bad idea.)

For the last year, I've been quite confident that I could find something that wouldn't require a post-doc, and here is what I've come up with. 
You don't need a post-doc to become a medical writer. 
You don't (always) need a post-doc to teach, particularly at non-research schools.
You don't need a post-doc to get into patent law, or that arena of intellectual property, but you do need to pass the patent bar or have some significant business savvy. 
And you don't need a post-doc to just have a job- many positions (again, not at the bench, but administration springs to mind) don't actually require that PhD in the first place, but if you can make the case that you are well qualified it shouldn't preclude you working. 

So if just a job is the goal, a PhD is great- it shows you can work hard, learn challenging things, juggle multiple projects with changing priorities.  But you might not use your science at all. And frankly using that science is what people will pay the most for.

Now I am wondering, it's been a year, and I still don't have my dream job (although I am a lot less dissatisfied with contract work), and I don't actually know what that dream job looks like (I've found fixating on a single position has not been that good for me). Perhaps I should keep trying things to see what sticks.  Right now I am looking at medical writing.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Mentors and Mentoring

Much has been said about the importance of mentors helping trainees navigate their career, provide opportunities and offer guidance and encouragement. Ideally this person is an adviser, someone more senior with both experience and influence. Perhaps they even help us see ourselves in a way that we can't, by recognizing our latent talents, strengths and interests. But most of us don't navigate our careers with the fairy godmother of mentors looking out for us, I think it is much more common for us to cobble together the role of the perfect mentor from the offerings of people around us. 

Fortunately, I had some experience with this earlier in my career.  My graduate project was in a field (virology) that is only tangentially related to my adviser's core interests (yeast genetics and quality control). We worked closely with a collaborator who is a world class virologist, and I often thought of him as my scientific adviser.  My graduate adviser would help me design experiments in terms of "this is how we will show this figure, we need these controls..." and my scientific adviser would help me get those experiments to work. So I am open to the idea that often there isn't one person who has all the answers.

As I started thinking about my career in graduate school, it became pretty clear that while both of my advisers wanted me to succeed, the only path to success they knew was their own.  Since I don't want to be a R1 faculty member, I didn't get a lot of specific career advice from either of them. Still, it was nice to know that when I was writing applications for policy fellowships or getting phone interviews with state agencies, they were pleased. After my defense, I left the bench prepared to do this battle on my own.  It surprised me a little that these guys (or any faculty at Pitt) weren't more involved at this point, but I felt prepared to be independent.  When I moved to Washington, I found it easy to find and meet people who were willing to share what they know about the job scene here and how it should be navigated.  Again, no one ever had all the answers, so it seemed important to get wide perspectives.

A fellow AWIS board member sent me this link recently, to the Science Mentor blog, which is full of great tips for figuring our how to find your own (internal) resources to navigate your career.  It breaks my heart a little to think that Self-Mentoring might become en vogue (are so few people willing to help each other?  Do we really think we are an island unto ourselves?), but if the people serving as your mentors have gaps in their ability to help you, sometimes it is easier to fill those yourself.

And yet, there have been a couple times when I have had a fairly objective question about where I stand in my career that I need some external, engaged but disinterested party to help me answer.  Is it a bad idea to take a job as a tech? Should I leave my unpaid internship for a paid internship? Or the very common, is this cover letter ok?  Without a real community here, it has been a challenge to answer some of these on my own.  Fortunately, my colleagues at AWIS have served as great ad hoc mentors, because they have local knowledge and a variety of experience.  I have been really pleased with how valuable getting involved with this group has turned out for me. 

I still think I need more help. When I consider what my barriers to finding a real career are, I think lack of focus and indecision have really held me back. And although I know this, I don't know how to overcome it. Sure, everyone wants the fairy godmother scientist to make their dreams come true.  At this point I would settle for any type of enduring support.  This is why I've signed up to join the Seattle AWIS mentoring program next year.  It should be a good opportunity to build my professional community and spend some time thinking about my professional goals.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Is this enough job?

There are lots of things to like about my current gig.  It's never boring, I'm paid between fine and well depending on who I am working for, and it's really gratifying to have work.  But I continue to blog and look for other opportunities because this doesn't seem like enough, somehow.  Don't get me wrong, I am busy as all heck.  Two of my contracts are committed to about 40 hours a week, and I have another with regular weekly deadlines, so I'm working lots.  I just can't really see this working out long term.  Am I going to be 35 and juggling 3 clients every week?  The sensible thing to do is keep multiple clients, when one doesn't need me as much, I can still get paid.  But maybe the magic number there is two.

And then there is the bureaucracy.  I should figure out a better system for keeping track of my invoices, so I don't spend 30 min trying to submit an invoice for $350.  It really eats into my effective hourly rate.  For some irrational reason, I loath signing contracts too, which is a pretty regular feature of my work.  I don't mean to complain, but these were problems I didn't really want to have when I got "a job." 

An opportunity has come up that I should think about, but I am really having a hard time making the comparison.  My internship (at the surface chemistry company) needs a part-time tech.  They like me, and I think the company has a lot of promise if they can be well managed.  Although, is a part-time tech position in a chemical company a step up from making fine money in my living room?  Is this the opportunity I have been hoping for to get "industry experience," or is being a tech going to be a black mark on my CV that will create a life-time of hurdles for me?  Is inventorying monomers and validating SPR results better than writing about IT and Biology and thinking about how kids learn? 

A parallel to this entry, I'm going to write soon about mentors. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

My Publication Record

My manuscript got accepted!  Anytime a manuscript gets accepted, it's gratifying, and this one is especially so.  As a grad student, I wrote a draft of a manuscript in my 3rd year that continued to be developed until shortly after graduation.  I submitted this just before I stopped working.  At the time, it seemed like the missing piece- the paper will get out, I'll update my CV and get a job.  So simple! This paper went through 3 journals and was finally accepted on its 6th submission.  It's about time!

There is lots of time to think during 6 submissions.  Can you really believe you are a good scientist if your peers won't publish your work?  If your 'peers' only ask dumb questions about your science, do you really have to respond?  How many submissions would it take before you'd just scrap the idea all together.  Fortunately, before I came up with answers to those questions, we were able to address the actual issue with most of those rejections.  My super specialized/limited-audience work wasn't ideal for a general Biochemistry type journal, we really need a specialized journal.  Antiviral Research gave us legitimate feedback that was reasonable for us to respond to (Thank you!), and now I've got my second first author publication.  Phew!

As long as this process has drawn out now, I'm not sure it is going to be the fix-all I imagined.  Other papers came out in the field (it figures that drug discovery in polyomaviruses is trendy now), so my work isn't exactly seminal.  But more than that, it has been a long time since anyone asked about my publication record.  I told a industry scientist once that I've got a couple papers to my name, and he gave me a sort of patronizing look.  I've gotten less interested in bench work, where it might come up more often.  Neither internship asked about papers.  I've tried drafting resumes to technical writing positions that include my papers, but they seem like a cumbersome way to demonstrate "I have communication skills."  I'm still figuring out the best ways to use these.

This also raises a few questions.  I no longer have a semi-regular excuse to communicate with my old adviser.  We had discussed writing a review, based on the intro to my dissertation.  That's easily a year out of date now, so it would require significant effort to update, and there was some doubt anyone would publish such a thing (and after this ringer, I'd love to write something that could get published).  But would it make a difference?  I don't think I've had a hard time finding a job because my Antiviral Res paper wasn't out yet, I think it's because I don't have preclinical experience or a background in immunology.  Would publishing a review change my prospects as all?  Is it a good idea to require semi-regular updates with my old adviser while I am looking for a position?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"So what ARE you doing now?"

I just got back from a trip to Pittsburgh to see my classmate, labmate and scholastic role model defend her PhD.  In the last year I've really come to value being able to support and care for people that I care about, so it was awesome to celebrate this big moment with her.  It was also perfect timing for me to dig through my notebooks regarding the resubmission of my primary manuscript, and to catch up with tons of people in the department. 

I've been struggling for a long time to explain what I am doing and how it is going, and it felt even harder to drudge up the words and confidence to discuss it with faculty who have seen my career develop.  Some people can take "I'm self-employed" as a reasonable answer, but my letter writers cut me off with a skeptical "What does that mean?" And then I mumble about having some contracts, and networking.... even though this is an arrangement I am reasonably happy with*, I can tell no one else is impressed.  Or understands.  It's hard for that not to undercut my fragile confidence.

Fortunately, I was staying with a good friend who reminded me that the reason I've having a hard time describing what I am doing is because I have so many things going on.  I can't figure out which is the priority at this point (contractinginterningbeing a board member? seeking out new training?).  Of course, I should work on this.  Being able to tell my story in a way that helps people connect, asks for help or implies confidence is important.  But until I can get that story streamlined, it's ok if I don't feel like a failure anyway.

*I turned 29 recently.  I'm not normally a very age focused person, but realizing that I'm not yet thirty and I don't have my career in order seems ok.  Normal even.  I would LIKE to get my career in order, but I've got time.

Monday, July 30, 2012

What I should have said to my high school science teacher

I went home for a visit recently.  I grew up in Juneau, Alaska and I don't get there often.  The timing of this visit actually seemed quite lovely, here I am wondering what I am doing with my life, and I get to revisit my roots to reflect.  I got to spend some time at low tide looking at sea cucumbers and digging in tide pools, which reminded me why I enjoyed science when I was younger- it legitimized my curiosity.

At the end of the week, I ran into my high school oceanography teacher.  He was the drummer for the wedding band, so I had some time to think about if I should talk to him at all, and if so, what should I say.  In the spirit of revisiting my past, I said something like "Mr. ____, I'm not sure if you remember me.  I took your Oceanography class as a 5th year senior.  I just wanted to thank you, and let you know I earned my Ph.D. in Molecular Biology."  He laughed a little, and said, "And you owe it all to me?" He continued with pleased congratulations (he only vaguely remembered me), and then said, "In class you never can tell who is going to make it, and who is going to be a bartender for the rest of their life."  It was a sore point with me for a long time that getting out of high school was such a struggle to finish- I did a year of foreign exchange for my first senior year, and came back to finish a credit and a half and collect my diploma- but I my teachers were very supportive.  Obviously, I liked science before this time, or I wouldn't have taken Oceanography as an elective.  I didn't really need to thank him for helping me be interested in science, but after our conversation I realized what I should have said.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I understood that to get ahead academically, I had to work hard.  I worked on good study habits, and took a lot of courses that emphasized problem solving.  However, this oceanography class encouraged curiosity for its own sake.  Every day, we had to turn in 5 questions about the ocean.  They could be totally lame, or incredibly thoughtful, we got the same grade.  At first, I didn't really know how to pose questions.  How deep is the ocean?  How many kinds of fish are in the ocean?  As the course went on, and there was more content to pull from, my questions got better, How do fish sense brakish water?  How does low oxygen levels affect bacteria? But more importantly, I stopped needing to be a know-it-all.  We were just asking questions to ask them.  They almost never got answered, and it was still fun to pose them.  And that turned out to be a huge key to shaping my temperament for science.  Science is a field where curiosity is essential for driving success, but rarely rewarded directly.  I'm glad I had a chance to develop that separately in the supportive atmosphere of the high school science classroom.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Business Development Intern

While I was thinking about productive, lucrative, ways to spend my time, I ran across a whole  new arena to spend time in.  I'm currently working as the business development intern for Zwittertech, a start-up that can put non-fouling polymers on a variety of surfaces.  The technology is fairly well developed, but they are at that strange point in a start-up's life cycle where is it is time to decide what they are going to make, and how that is going to make money. 

Before I started working at the C4C, I'd never given much thought to how you convert good ideas (example, cure for the common cold) to profitable businesses (curing colds).  At some point, some savvy entrepreneur decides how that idea can make money, and puts all the pieces in place to get it made, on the market and used by people.  I'm starting to realize this is a unique problem in biotech- well, not unique but incredibly expensive.  Imagine, if you will, trying to turn any assay you developed in grad school into something as reliable as a mini-prep.  AND reagents are expensive, AND distribution is monopolized AND your clients are worried about their funding and uninterested in taking a risk on new products.  This might explain the stagnant growth of the biotech industry in the last few years. 

All that aside, my task for the next few weeks is to help Zwittertech decide on thier first product, of the minimally viable product (MVP).  The sooner they can get something on the market that makes some revenue, it will add stability to their balance sheet, which can allow them to develop more of the products they are interested in long-term.  To figure out what the MVP is, I am using a text book called The Startup Owner's Manual.  I'm developing business canvases, and hope to be moving into customer discovery next week.

Monday, July 16, 2012

I'm self-employed

When I stopped working, I felt like I lost an important part of my identity.  I had been working for years and years in the pursuit of my PhD, and once I earned it, I had nothing left to replace that project with.  People always ask, "What do you do?" and I would cringe and mumble about being 'between things,' or apologize for being a new grad.  Even knowing that I had a pathetic response to that question, repeated rehearsals of a better answer always sounded canned and false.  Sure, I can say I am a freelance writer/editor/marketing intern, but it's such a weird arrangement that I never see that look of understanding from the questioner and I abruptly change the subject. 

Recently, I've had a fair amount of contract work.  I've started a new (paid) internship (stemming from my contacts at the C4C).  It occurred to me that I don't have time to look for a real job for a while, I'm too busy making money.  I'm still making up my mind if what I do now is worth the taxpayer investment in my education, but after a year of seeking a little self-respect, it feels righteous to make a sold paycheck. My phone rang this morning with someone asking if I would be interested in a two month contract, and I got to say I am booked solid for the next two months. I would rather be worried about how I am going to get all this work done than how I am going to get work.

This morning, I was asked, "What do you do?" and without hesitation I said, "I'm self-employed."  How cool is that??  I'm still looking for a long term solution, but I'm so happy to have a short term solution that seems to fit really well.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Off-site contractor culture

I just got off the phone from a meeting with a new team I'll be working with for my previous client.  I'm starting to feel like being a off-site contractor for a while could work. I might be able to get this work, I like this work and it might help me get some other kind of work later.  BUT it's hard to know if I am doing it right.  This client is great, because they are very communicative, but how am I supposed to know how many hours they expect me to work?  I have a non-exclusivity clause with them, which is good, because I just signed another contract with Words and Numbers for a big chunk of work.  I just don't see how I can do both without either knowing.  Do they want to know?  Do their other contractors let them know?

I've mentioned before that it's awesome to have a relationship that is based almost exclusively on my work performance.  (In this phone call, the other contractor who has seen my name on our last project said she had assumed I was a guy.)  I worry a little that there is supposed to be more (or less) in that relationship.  When I started, I was asked why my anticipated hours might be, but that was from the perspective of timezones, not accountability.  So, when I take a long midday break, do they care?  I assumed not if I make the work goals.  What about when we are setting those goals? 

The purpose of this phone call was to kick off a new project, and the timing is such that I now am going to be fairly busy with other contracts for a while.  I was SO relieved that there was another contractor on this phone call.  The editor just asked, "How much work do you think you'll get done on this project?" The other contractor just said, "I've got another project right now, so I am looking at about 25 hours a week."  I was so excited that was an acceptable answer, I may have said that verbatim. And that was fine.

Another component of this is that my editor reiterated several times that he wants to be supportive and helpful, he wants to get questions, he wants to provide answers and please email him a lot.  Ok.  It was really great to get that clarified, especially since this particular contract involves some work that I am not experienced with.  It's nice to know that he hadn't thought I'd been hired because I am good at this type of work, just that I should be able to learn. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Better, cheaper, faster, easier

In my internship at the C4C, part of my job was to help innovators determine if thier idea would be better, cheaper, faster or easier than the current standards.  If you can be one (or all) of those things, you've got a shot at success- or a market advantage.  (If you have none of these things- go back to the drawing board.) This type of assessment is something I'd like to bring to my job hunt.

I was discussing careers with a friend from graduate school, who was describing her resistance to taking on the PI path.  It's no surprise that it's a hard job, with responsibilities that not everyone wants to be good at (grant writing, mentorship, teaching and lab administration pop into mind).  But the people who are successful at it enjoy those aspects, or don't find them as miserable as I might. Or they find it worth it for the exciting and fun parts (assay design, designing projects, pursuing interesting scientific questions).  My friend said, "I'm not going to be better than my old boss at the fun and exciting stuff, and the hard parts won't be any easier for me."  I'm not going to be better at it, and it won't be easier for me.

This got me thinking about what I am doing right now.  I'm not sure it's my dream job, but curriculum development and instructional design are pretty easy for me.  I came from a standards based education that was very participatory, so assessing objectives and meeting educational standards isn't a struggle.  And I seem to be decent enough at it that I'm fairly busy with it for the moment.  I don't know that I am better that anyone at it, but I don't find the work emotionally hard (unlike, say, developing a blank Western at 6pm on a Friday), which leaves me a lot of energy to put into my real life. 

It might not be my dream job, but if a market advantage can score me a stable paycheck, maybe that is good enough.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Looking for a payoff

When I finished grad school, I quickly understood that my life would be strangely unstructured for a while.  I wanted the chance to try out some different things, such as volunteering and writing more, and I wanted the flexibility to drop things that weren't working for me.  As a result, I have been able to do lots of different things, but I haven't been paid much.  It's fantastically easy to get experience in things if you are willing to go without pay, but now I need to figure out how to transition those opportunities into a steady paycheck.

Of course I would just love to get hired to a solid job and collect one paycheck, but I am not convinced that this unstructured time in my life is over yet.  Instead, I am trying to find ways to get paid for some of the things I am doing, and only take on opportunities with a clear pay-off.  For example, I am volunteering at the Life Science Innovation NW Meeting, because that will allow me to go to this expensive, but important biotech event. I'm considering an internship with a biotech start-up in business development, because it is paid.

Now that I've tried a few different types of things, I have a better sense of what might count as a payoff.  I realized that there are things that I have done that I have a hard time weaving into my transition story (case in point, working at the bank). For some things, it took me a while to figure out how my participation made sense in the context of my interests and other experiences.  For example, I found myself participating in a lot of informal STEM education events.  Other things just weren't related- remember when I was going to learn Python?  For me, a payoff would be more experience in a field I am interested in (medical writing, editing or curriculum development), making better connections in those fields, or actually getting paid.  I don't feel very focused yet, but I can see that this is progress from where I was last year.

This is also a major cultural shift.  I think I internalized an idea that in science, you can't be selfish.  I worked hard for abstract reasons that weren't good money and a lifestyle of my own choosing.  A manuscript might open doors, and basic science might help us better understand disease.  In science, hard work is no guarantee of success and that's hard to take.  I'm trying to find ways to make my hard work turn into success, and to make "success" something of my own definition.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Do contractors ever get hired?

I am currently working on a contract in instructional design.  I write lessons for high schoolers and edit exam questions.  This is really fun; I get to learn about lots of different things, and it is a great way to get back to my early education that was standards based.  It's been going really well, outside of the usual contract drama (if I finish this today, can I still earn money tomorrow?).  I like the team, I like the work, and I like that they are located in Seattle.

I've heard mixed messages about transitioning from a contractor to a full-time employee.  On the one hand, being a contractor may indicate the work is unpredictable and unlikely to require a full-time person.  And working offsite makes it hard for employers to form a full impression of you.  At the same time, I'm objectively assessed on my work habits- that's the only thing they know about me.  And having a known entity come on board is less scary that seeing what you get from a job posting.  I've been thinking about how I could make this experience more stable for me- either by having some confidence in more long term contracts or getting hired.

My plan is to keep being as awesome as possible, staying in touch and reiterating how much I like the job.  And then to be clear about my intentions: I want a full-time job.  That's actually proving to be hard to drop casually into emails (again, the off-site conundrum.  These things don't just "come-up" around the water cooler). But they need some onsite work soon, so that may prove a better time to have those conversations (and figure out who to have them with).

Friday, June 29, 2012

Vignettes from my semi professional life

Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive after my last post, it really means a lot. It can be a little hard to explain the ups and downs of my life as a job hunter/contractor. I do still feel quite lost, but I am trying to enjoy the journey. Today felt like one of those significant days on the journey.  I'm not sure how to respond to any of it, so I will just throw it out there.

Some things that happened today:

I woke up early to finish part of a writing contract.  Have I mentioned I am really digging my current instructional design contract?  I promise to write more on that later, but yeah, it's going really well.

I was at the Hutch to interview a scientist about her job in academic administration.  Very cool job, and she is a very interesting lady.  I will be writing that up for the Seattle AWIS newsletter- I promise to link to that later.

While entering the Hutch, I was passed by a professorially looking type.  While I was filling out the visitor info, I noticed he approached a group of people centered around a young woman who was OmiGushing that she was soexcited, and sohappy, and so couldn't believe this was happening.  I figured she must have defended or something.  I wasn't paying too much attention until one of the photographers turned and said, "We'd love to get a picture of the two of you by your Nobel Prize."  Why hello, Dr. Hartwell.

After the interview, I agreed to meet a contact for lunch in South Lake Union- this is the part of Seattle where most of the biotech and research institutes are centered, and it sits right on the lake.  I was stunned to find myself sitting in a much too nice restaurant overlooking a marina and watching the float planes.  This was a "what am I doing here?" moment.  Turns out, this guy wanted my advice (MY advice) on this STEM program he is thinking about, and how it should be developed and what are the needs there.  And he bought me that fancy lunch for the privilege of my opinion.  Someone was schmoozing me!

I'm submitting an invoice for the most money I have ever made in a single two week period in my entire life.  That's right, my time and effort are valuable. 

As I said, it feels like a lot has happened.  I learned about a whole new avenue for careers, I've decided I'm actually really loving my current line of work, I miss being starstruck by famous nerds, and somehow, despite spending all week at home in my PJs, people find my opinions and my work valuable.  Huh.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Happy Birthday to my Ph.D.

I've been dreading writing this post.  Today marks 1 year since I defended my Ph.D., 1 year since I started introducing myself as "Dr. Sandlin" (I'm kidding, I never do that).  It's been a year since the idea of finishing grad school stopped being abstract.  A year ago today, I gathered all my favorite people around and enjoyed a fantastic party to celebrate all the hard work and good friends that got me to the magnificent point of potential that is graduation day.  I remember thinking that nothing could ever be as hard as graduate school was.

Confession: I did not love my dissertation project with my whole heart and soul.  It was a good project, and it was important work, and it gave me some great training opportunities, but I had not always dreamed of being a polyomavirus researcher.  As a result of my work, the world has not responded with a greater need for polyomavirologists.  So I always knew that what I was doing would be confined to my graduate school experience and that I needed to find some other way to make something of my career.  I wanted to be able to transition away smoothly, and look back confidently and say "I was right, I didn't need a post-doc to do what I wanted to do."

This marks a big day for me.  I don't have a real job yet.  I don't know what I want to do with my career, and I don't know if it will be possible to do in Seattle, even though I knew I would have this problem.  That sucks.

On the one hand, it's been a good year.  I've done a lot of things I couldn't have done if I hadn't gone to graduate school (Scientist in Residence at the Carnegie Science Center, STEM panelist, instructional design, and I get to meet people all the time).  Sometimes I hate living in the shadow of this degree, but it has helped me open doors for myself.  And I get to live in Washington, where my family and friends are (not the ones I went to grad school with-but they'll all be moved in another year or so anyway).

On the other hand, this isn't what I wanted for myself.  I freelance because it's a kind of work I can do that helps pay the bills, not because it's what I aspire to do.  After a year of looking for my dream job, it's about time to get real, and just get a real job.  To me, this doesn't mean finding a post-doc, it means settling into some non-dream career path with full-time work and waiting for the economy to turn around.  I guess it's time to admit that my aspirations are getting in the way of having any form of success.  I met someone at the UW who is looking for a virologist to help their drug discovery project.  It's not a post-doc position, it's a scientist job and I applied.

So what else have I learned?  I've tried lots of things- that's what the blog was meant to cover.  Not all these experiments have panned out.  Blogging has not made me some important voice for my peers, but it has given me a nice outlet for some of these ideas.  The same for Twitter.  I'm generally too embarrassed to tell people I meet in person about either, so it's hard to connect these to my real life.  Volunteering and interning have felt useful, but neither has led to job offers.  I didn't want to become the blogger for the struggles of the underemployed PhD.  It's time to think a bit more about how some of these activities fit into my ultimate goal of being employed, and how to best use my energy to get there.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Transition story

I have been thinking quite a bit about my transition story, especially in the context of story telling.  As a blogger, I can tell stories as long and convoluted as I like, but as a job hunter I need to get this baby tamed into one tweet.  So I got to thinking about stories and how they are told.  Following a comment from the previous transition post,  I did a little research on the basic elements of a story.  A story has a character- usually a protagonist, and a challenge.  A good story has a beginning a middle and an end.  And for a short story, that is probably all I can get in there. 

At the start of my story was me, before I started graduate school.  I can go back and read my admission essay (gawdawful) and senior seminar writing assignments to remember what I was thinking about then.  What I wanted then was rather vaguely to "help people" and "change the world."  I went to graduate school because I knew that science provides the tools to that, and because I thought that I could explore what I meant by "change the world."  I never really WANTED to be a professor, but at the time, the idea of getting dragged into academia seemed inevitable and not that bad. Unlike 4 years at a liberal arts college, graduate school is not meant to be a journey of self discovery, so I never really got to the bottom of that question. 

But, I did learn several things about myself that lead me to believe I am not well suited for academia or a bench position.  I'm very much a big picture person. I need to finish things, by which I mean I like short time frames and dynamic content.  I like working with a team.  I enjoy writing.  I'm not ready for the responsibility of being in charge of other people.  Grant funding scares me.  I am happiest when I am working on several different things- like assays for two different stories, running a journal club and creating career workshops for grad students.  I get bored easily. When my experiments don't work, I feel like a terrible human being. In the context of my story, all this needs to get distilled down into something more pointed that leads me in a new direction.

And this is the part of the story I am struggling with.  In my perfect transition story, I would know where the story ends.  You know, "I went to graduate school because I thought that was the best way to cure cancer, but I have a bigger impact on how people with cancer are treated as an FDA regulator."  Or "Graduate school appealed to me because I thought I could have an impact on people's lives, but I found that teaching had a more direct and fulfilling impact."  The story I was using for a while was "I wanted to go to graduate school because science solves complex problems.  Some of the most complex problems we have right now are in policy, and I think I can bring science to bear on those problems."  This story oversimplified my interest in living in the same time zone as my family, and the challenge of a two-body problem.  While most of the story has slipped away, I now tell people that "I moved to Seattle over the winter, and I am committed to finding a way to make my career here."  That's not where my story ends, but it is where I got stuck telling it.

My view of my own career has taken a lot of collateral damage over the last year- I just don't believe that I am going to find a track to jump on and find smooth sailing until retirement.  I also don't believe that what I do next is going to be tied to what I was doing before.  For better or worse, this means I expect to pick a story, see where it gets me, and maybe write a new one in a couple more years.  I'm not quite ready to decide where my story is today, but I am closing in on a version that might look something like this.
I went to graduate school because I have always thought deeply about my own education. Rather than teaching in just one classroom, I want to bring the same kind of passion that propelled me to be a successful student of science to a wide range of students, which I why I am an instructional designer.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Editing manuscripts

I've got a contract to substantially edit a manuscript this weekend that, um, is in serious need of my services.  I'm also trying to deal with comments from my own manuscript that will be celebrating a birthday along with my PhD soon.  Honestly, dealing with the revisions of my own paper makes me feel like a terrible scientist.  Looking for old files lost in what passed as my 'organizational system,' and trying to find ways to respond to very reasonable reviewers comments is really stressing me out.  Trying to navigate this all with my old adviser and our ever growing team of collaborators just feels messier and messier as we go through each resubmission. I just got an email from him that said, "Check submission 4, we used a different supplemental figure 4 there."  Oh. Uh.  Right. I can't keep this straight because, seriously, if I believed that publishing this paper would improve my career prospects, it would have torn me to bits months ago. 

This is why editing someone else's manuscript right now is fantastic.  Their manuscript is pretty rough.  The manuscript came with comments from two previous submission- one in 2006, one in 2008.  Both said the language needs help, but also such silly comments as, "it wasn't clear until halfway through the paper that there would be two drugs tested" and "You need to include the IRB approval" and my favorite "Please discuss the limitations of this study."  I'm not very far into this paper, but I suspect the experiments were well done.  They have just not been presented well at all.  And if THESE people can publish their paper, with it's outdated references and scattered presentation, I've got a shot for sure. I often feel like I must be the worst scientist ever.  Being an editor means I get to see other people's work before it is polished, I get to see the weakness and struggles they have, and it's nice to know others go through that too.

My manuscript is, in the scheme of things, probably pretty close to publication.  I'm looking forward to being done with it because I feel like I never really finished grad school while this keeps coming back into my life.  I'm completely resigned to the fact that it won't change my prospects at all.  Other, more interesting papers have come out in the last year.  And much more importantly, I'm able to get paid to do stuff that has nothing to do with small molecule inhibitors of polyomaviruses.  I'd like to talk more about this later, but I'm pretty sure I am not going to be employed to continue my grad work or anything like it.  So finishing it up would be a HUGE relief.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Interview with a Former Molecular Biologist

This networking thing is still a real challenge for me.  I'm working hard to introduce myself in terms of where I am going (I'm a freelance editor and I work in instructional design) instead of where I was (I have a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology).  When you start with the second one and then say, "I am looking for a job," you get a look that says 'how smart do you think you are?' and someone suggests you get a job at a University.  'Uh, I had one of those,' and I usually get too flustered trying to explain why after 10 years at the bench I would walk away form that, instead of focusing on what I am doing to develop better communication skills.  I had this problem again at a networking event for Women in Science that was part of the Seattle Science Festival recently.  It was a great mix of people in outreach (ALL the museums were there), trainees and working professionals.  One of the people I met there introduced herself as a "Former Molecular Biologist."  Fortunately, she agreed to meet with me after the event and tell me a bit about that path.

She realized in graduate school she wasn't going to stay at the bench, and ended up working at Science Magazine.  Some of her experiences won't be relevant to the current job market, but she understood that.  For example, she said that science writing these days is possible to break into, but it can be a bit dicey to make a living at it.  Places like Wired Blogs or SciAm blogs make it easier to have a voice, but they don't cut big checks.  From there she transitioned into her current position as a usability expert at Philips.  They design new products, and she helps engineers make them impossible to use incorrectly.  We actually talked very little about her current job, although I'm curious about it now.

What we talked about instead what how to make that first step away from the bench.  She is fortunately very well connected to many people who had moved away from bench science at various career stages, and had a lot to say about what worked well for them.  Her biggest piece of advice was to create a transition story for yourself.  A good story can save you from that flustered babbling in and scenario.  And I need a story that shuts the door on a career as a scientist.  Not burn the bridge, just make it clear that I am going somewhere else now.  These days I feel like grad school is a bit of a black hole- I just can't move beyond the clutches of having a Ph.D. and the trappings of an academic career path. 

In her case, she enjoyed the challenge of research, but wanted much more human interaction.  She had a friend who was often in an organizational role in lab, and moved from a post-doc to an Operational position.  Her partner took a couple classes in bioinformatics and enjoyed the computation, and ended up in a support role a tech company.  See how that works?  And no one  says to them, "but your dissertation work seemed so promising..."

So how does the transition story come together?  She suggested I go back to what motivated me to go to grad school in the first place, because that probably hasn't fundamentally changed.  Then think about where I want to go, and weave the story so that my transition to this new place I am going (that suits my motivations and values) is inevitable.  In her case, she loved the process of solving problems, but found bench work was too small scale for her.  Helping teams catch and solve problems is much more inline with her interests and abilities.  She said most people have had a transition of some sort, and if you tell the story with optimism, they can identify with it.

What does this mean for me?  I'm still working on my own transition story.  More on that as it develops.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Perks of working from home

There are parts of all jobs that suck.  I think finding a job where the parts that do suck are manageable is really important to finding career happiness.  For me, part of that is recognizing the parts that don't suck.  I don't love working from home- spending so much time with my cat makes me feel like a crazy cat lady.  But taking editing contracts for foreign scientists and writing curricula from home are the jobs I keep getting. I used to have really fun coworkers and went to work in a very interesting neighborhood and I'd like to have all that again (but get paid more to work less).  Until that job comes to my door, there are some really great things about working from home.

1) I set my own hours.  Even working on an hourly contract, I just put the hours in where they fit for me.  Today is too beautiful and I gotta take a long walk?  Fine.  My sweetie is gone for the evening, I'll put some hours in.
2) No commute.  I quickly realized that my 20 hr a week bank job takes at least 25 hours of my week, including a 30 min drive on both ends.  No commute give me that time back for whatever I feel like.
3) No dress code.  Yeah, I am one of those freelancers that works in my PJs.  At least until I feel like a mid-morning shower.  For the bank job, it takes me almost an hour to go through the ritual of showering, and putting on make-up, and getting dressed, and packing a lunch.... Add another 5 hours a week to that 20 hour a week job.
4) No workplace drama.  Yes, I miss my coworkers, in no small part because it's good to have a cohort you can share those stressful experiences with.  Can you believe the department chair did that?  Who took the last of the free seminar food? As another off-site worker told me, "There is no one at the office that I don't like."
5) I set the play list.  My old lab had the best taste in music, don't get me wrong.  But sometimes when we would turn the music up too loud the department chair would just turn off our radio.  As I was blasting some sweet tunes this morning, I was relishing that no one was going to turn them off for me.
6) Contracts are low commitment.  All that phobia about what might suck about a job (terrible coworkers, awful work, tedious tasks) seems more manageable when it's only for a few days or a few weeks.  It also means I've done a lot of different things in the last year.
7) All I need to work is an internet connection.  I could work from Starbucks, or the library.  I'm currently planning to go to my parent's house for a week and work there.  My client doesn't care- they just want to see the work done.  (I have mixed feelings about combining working and vacations- it makes work more fun, but it is much less like a vacation when you are looking for 40 hours to get some work done).
8)  I'm at my house.  I don't live in a super trendy neighborhood with fun shops and restaurants, but my office is the same place I cook, it's where my garden is, it's where my mail gets delivered and I sign for packages.  We need to schedule a repair guy, no big.  I want to get some laundry started, cool, I'll take a break.  Especially for a dual career family, it's nice to have someone who is/can be at home.
9) Time worked = Dollars earned.  Science is frustrating because hard work is not always tied to success.  For a pretty simple definition of success (financial reward), I just put in the time and out comes the money.  It's easier to feel detached about doing the work when you get the pay-off that way.
10) I like to talk to editors by email.  I'm not sure if it's because editors make their money from writing, or they understand that our relationship is based predominantly on written communication, but they clearly go out of their way to be polite and professional.  When you see your coworkers/collaborators all the time, it's ok to send brief, unfriendly emails "Here's the figure you wanted."  It's hard to interpret that as passive-aggressive if you just shared a laugh over coffee.  My editors don't have that luxury, and they seem to put a lot of context into their email. ("Great questions," "I appreciate you asking about that...," "Thanks for pointing out those problems.")  I always found it hard to take criticism in person, even though that is a big part of professional work.  "The figure is unintelligible.  Please make it better by doing the following...."  It's a lot easier to write the email that says, "Great, I will incorporate those suggestions," than to try and say it while not pulling a face.
11) My editors understand the challenge of being a contractor.  They treat me like I am doing them a real favor to be on their team, and try to make all the other stuff (getting paid, understanding the task, understanding deadlines and expectations) as clear as possible so that the only hard part of the job is the job itself.  Of course, this just shows I am working with some really great editors right now.
12) I enjoy this work.  At the moment, I don't have any single employer to fill my time, I am compiling most of my work from a variety of sources.  Basically, I get to find projects I like and work on them.  I can't say every one has been as much fun as a pony ride, but I also can't think of any that have been as miserable as a day in the cold room that ended in colossal failure. 
13) Comparatively, I can make a lot of money (compared to doing the same work in grad school).  I make money now for editing scientific manuscripts and designing courses.  These are activities that I actually would have scheduled to do outside of my normal working hours as a grad student.  In fact, the course I designed and taught as a grad students occurred almost exclusively outside the normal work day.  I'm currently editing a 6 page paper for 354RMB (or about $50), and working on a contract with a pay rate of $45/hour.  All this for work I would have done outside of my real work.  Nice!
14) This job doesn't have things I disliked about other jobs.  Examples include brutal protocols that needed to be repeated ad nauseum, and then rehashed in yet another painful lab meeting.  Or irate customers.  Or fickle equipment that is prone to failure.  Actually, I would say that I like how much more of this job is in my control compared to being a grad student or working at the bank.

Yes, I am giving myself a pep-talk about how much fun I'm having at this job, but in the interest of fairness (and for the benefit of others who might be wondering about the lifestyle), there are some fundamental ways that being a contract laborer is different (and arguably less ideal).  The downside:
1) It's all me.  I find my own contracts, I set my own hours, if the work doesn't get done, it's my bad. No pressure.  And when the contracts as short, it's hard not to feel like each on is an interview to see if they consider giving you another. 
2) I'm a LOT more involved in my own taxes.  I have a small business license to cover this work, which means that I pay business taxes.  I also have no withholdings in my paychecks- so what seems like a lot of money now is going to feel like a lot less come April.  I am also buying my own health insurance and retirement plan.
3) Invoicing feels much more tedious than just filling out an hours sheet, or better yet, being salaried.  The form takes a little more time to fill out, but it takes some of my clients 45 days to cut me a check.  That's a big lag between doing work and getting paid.  This is annoying for me, but manageable because I don't provide the primary income at our house.  If I did, I'm not sure I could swing this career step.
This list of perks is still much longer, and looking over them, we can say that I like to be in control of my day to day.  Interesting insight.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Interview with a Medical Writer

At an AWIS event recently, I met a woman who is a Medical Writer.  That is one of the jobs that I am told people with a Ph.D. can do, but given my non-medical background, I wanted to know more.  She generously agreed to tell me more about the position: how she got it, what it's like and why it's great.

First, a quick background on her; she has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and realized towards the end of her time in graduate school that she didn't want to be at the bench and wasn't sure where else to go.  She joined American Medical Writers Association, and started looking for jobs.  Although she said she had not special training for the role, I think that the membership is the magic piece that helped her get the job.  The job she eventually was offered she found on Monster, although she applied for other jobs on the HittList and other places.  She started on site at a pharmaceutical company in Chicago, and for personal reasons has moved to Seattle as an off-site contractor with the same company and position.

Her job now is a combination of writing tasks.  Sometimes she writes 'primary literature'- data is provided in the form of polished figures and she writes manuscripts to tie them together.  Sometimes she writes 'content' for clinical trials.  When a doctor recruits a new patient, the patient will be given a brochure with all the legalese and descriptions of the trial methods.  Sometimes she helps in filings, which she says makes her feel less like a writer, and more like an aggregation.  Other people have done most of the writing, and she copies and pastes bits of documents together to make a new document.  She has more of a management role on some projects as well.  She said she likes the work because it changes, and she never feels too married to any of her work to take criticism.

Most people who are medical writers are not Ph.D.s, many have clinical backgrounds.  This may make them better at navigating the medical lingo, but as far as writing up figures, methods or any research stuff goes, she felt completely prepared to to do the job.  And she loves it- the work is interesting and challenging, and the pay is great.  According to AMWA, the average Medical Writer makes $92K annually.  Starting salaries are high for those with Ph.D.s and there is room for career advancement.

It sounds like a great gig to me.  Although I am loathe to work off-site, a well paid job with a contract route of entry seems achievable.  I like writing, and could be happy having someone else tell me what to write.  I've joined AMWA ($160 annually), in hopes that might legitimize my application to these types of roles.  Now I just need to find them.