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.