Leaving the nest (MyIDP: career planning for graduate students and postdocs)

As I embark on the final quarter of my graduate career, I am often filled with a sense of uncertainty. Let me explain. My original goal was to return to graduate school in order to obtain a strong scientific foundation for a career in the pharmaceutical industry.

My plan was thus:

  1. Get a PhD
  2. Get a job in Pharma
  3. Work with other scientists to develop new drugs
  4. Save the world

However, I’ve had several bouts of doubt. I’m not sure this is what I want to do anymore. I’m not sure this plan aligns with what I really want to do for the rest of my life. As usual, I have decided to go about this by assessing my strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes.

So I said to myself: “Self, if only there was some cosmo type quiz I can take to determine what type of career I would be good at based on my likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses”…

Enter My Individual Development Plan,

History:

My IDP was modeled after the employee career development concept used in industry. It expands upon a structure proposed by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) for postdocs in 2003.

What it is:Individual Development Plan overview page

Did it help me?

Honestly, the first time I took it, I just breezed through it. I gave myself a lot of 5s: “highly proficient” on the skills assessment (self-love much?). Then I went back, and really thought through each question and answered truthfully.

The quiz is divided into 3 sections

Skills: here you rank your skills on a scale of 1(highly deficient) to 5(highly proficient)

Some things that rank for me at :

1,2 :Writing grant proposals and statistical analysis

4,5: Technical skills related to my specific research area, experimental design

Interests: Ranking from 1: (never do in my career) to 5(do often in my career)

For me:

1,2: Analyzing financial budgets and assessing business trends

4,5: Learning how to use new equipment and techniques and planning new scientific projects or developing new research directions

Values: Ranking from 1(unimportant) to 5 (essential)

For me:

1,2: Work alone and work in a low pressure environment

4,5: Help society, competition, job security and family friendly

Based on my answers, my top 3 career path matches were:

  • Product development scientist or engineer
  • Scientific/medical testing
  • Drug/device approval and production

Funny enough, “research in industry” ranks much lower on the list based on my skills and interests than i expected. Not surprisingly, principal investigator and research staff in a research-intensive institution rank even lower.

What I really like about this assessment:

  1. It gives you a framework to work with.
  2. It really does take into account your skills and interests.
  3. It links you to information about careers based on your answers.
  4. It  shows you your strengths and weaknesses and offers advice on how to improve on the weaknesses.
  5. You can download blank assessments and discuss them with your P.I (Ahmazing!).

Has anyone taken it? Did you find it helpful? I would especially love to hear from recent graduates who have gone on to careers in different fields.

PS: My opinions were not influenced by anyone directly associated with MyIDP. It was initially introduced to me by a friend and then again at a conference.

 

The Real Final Exam

I’ve had the opportunity to hear Donald Coffey speak about cancer and scientific research twice. And while I’m a sappy person by nature, his talks always leave me kind of misty eyed but very inspired.

Most people who decide to go into biomedical research do not do so for the glory and fame of it all (those that do are MDs…kidding!!) 🙂

 

Anyway, here is a short article by Donald Coffey called “The Real Final Exam”…it’s a nice short read that I think holds a lot of truth. My favorites are #7,9, 13-16..so true!

 The Real Final Exam

Donald S. Coffey
Professor of Urology, Oncology, and Pharmacology Brady Urological Institute,

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland

 SOME THOUGHTS TO PONDER ALONG YOUR WAY)

I have no more insight into science than many others; I was just naive enough to list the obvious to which most of us are blinded because of measurements by false yardsticks and examples which are always in vogue. I know that with time you can expand and improve your own list. In my weakness, I give students so many sheets or handouts of useless data to memorize that I thought a few important concepts might be worth sharing with you.


1.        IF THIS IS TRUE, WHAT DOES IT IMPLY?

Calculate the time it takes to do an experiment, then put down the percent of time you actually thought about the results; you will be lucky if it is 10%. We usually don’t need more experiments, we need more clear thinking. If you can practice this to an art, you will always have new ideas and insight. Inhibitions to generate ideas and present trends and concepts, tend to paralyze this important process.

2.       GENERATE MORE THAN ONE CONCEPT TO EXPLAIN YOUR DATA, THEN GIVE ALL POSSIBILITIES EQUAL ATTENTION AND EFFORT.

Your pet theory . . . . will usually turn out to be just that.

3.       YOU DON’T HAVE TO ASSUME ANYTHING THAT YOU CAN PROVE.

“When you assume, you are going to make an ASS-of U and ME” – Coach, in Bad News Bears.

4.        THE EXPERIMENT THAT DIDN’T COME OUT THE WAY YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD, IS THE ONLY EXPERIMENT THAT IS REALLY GOING TO TEACH YOU SOMETHING NEW.

The key observations are usually “swept under the rug” or rationalized away. The one fact that doesn’t fit the theory is always the most important fact.

5.        EVERY DATUM IS SCREAMING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING, BUT YOU MUST DO THE LISTENING AND THINKING.

If it isn’t worth thinking about, it wasn’t worth doing. A burning curiosity is the “ATP” of the laboratory.

6.        WHAT YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT WHILE YOU ARE COMING TO WORK DETERMINES YOUR REAL INTEREST . . . . AND WILL DIRECT YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS FOR THE DAY.

7.       A COMPLEX EXPERIMENT IS USUALLY THE LEAST PRODUCTIVE.

A 500 tube experiment is very susceptible to Murphy’s first law. Don’t try to answer it all at once. Do a few things right. Too much phenomenology provides more complexity and little insight.

8.       IT IS TIME TO DO SOME EXPERIMENTS, OTHERS MUST WAIT.

There are many experiments worth doing but only a few great ones. Don’t do the next experiment to come to mind. Try to think up a critical experiment that will go to the heart of the question.

9.        YOU ARE GOING TO BE SURPRISED AT THE SIMPLICITY AND BEAUTY OF THE REAL ANSWER.

Almost a billion years went into selecting the system that you are studying. Remember, Crick and Watson didn’t make the double helix, they only discovered an ancient system still operating today. It had plenty of time to be perfected.

10.    ALL NEW IDEAS ARE RESISTED BY YOU -AUTHORITIES – THE EDITORS – STUDY SECTIONS- DEPARTMENT CHAIRMEN – PEERS – AND FRIENDS. IF THIS DISCOURAGES YOU, YOU SHOULD RETIRE EARLY. HOWEVER, MOST CRITICISM CAN BE CONSTRUCTIVE IF YOU LISTEN WITH AN OPEN MIND.      

There is a fine line between being persistent and being bullheaded. Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Don’t give it. If your ideas are easily accepted, they are probably wrong. Most of the real great discoveries were first rejected and turned down for publication. There is a direct relationship between the unusual nature of a new discovery and the resistance to acceptance.

11.      A  GOOD  PAPER  IS  SIMPLE, CLEAR AND TO THE POINT.

If the average reviewer can’t understand your point, the average reader probably won’t either; the reviewer usually spends more time with your paper. You know what you did, but you won’t be there to explain it to the reader. You don’t have to tell them every experiment you did and bore them to tears, just be sure they understand the most critical ones. A paper can be correct but not informative to the average reader. An example – read your insurance policy. Someone is going to try to confirm your observation; make it easy for them to repeat your work.

 12.     IF TWO GOOD INVESTIGATORS DISAGREE AND A PARADOX SEEMS TO EXIST, BOTH OF THEIR DATA ARE PROBABLY CORRECT, AND WE JUST NEED A NEW EXPLANATION TO ENCOMPASS BOTH OBSERVATIONS.

Never assume that those who oppose your ideas are stupid. The more you disagree with the data of others, the less chance you have of finding the truth. Try to devise a model that also integrates as many observations of others as possible. All good experiments must be accounted for in the end. You are not the only one who can do a good experiment.

 13.     GIVE EVERYONE CREDIT.                                                         

You are not the first one to study this problem, nor will you be the last. Remember, the ones reviewing and judging your paper have already worked in the same field and they also know who did what. Give the true credit where it is due. Your reputation will be made by all of your studies and by how professional you are.

14.     DO NOT BE FOOLED BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE PRINTED PAGE. 

The observation of the “proof” might be correct, but how was the experiment conducted? Most of what you and I think today will appear silly in 20years. At least, we can do our best. Keep in mind the limitations and state them.

 15.    MANY BRIGHT PEOPLE ARE PARALYZED BY NEGATIVE THINKING.

They are often busy trying to prove someone wrong instead of trying to find out what is right or new. Every experiment, yours and others, is limited and is only an approximation. Look for clues because few things are ever proven. Test all theories.

16.  THE MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENTS ARE HONESTY, DESIRE, CLEAR THINKING, CONFIDENCE AND HARD WORK.

If you aren’t willing to work long, hard hours and sacrifice in pursuit of this goal, then you are not willing to pay the price and maybe you should move over and give someone else a chance.

IN CONCLUSION: If you are lucky, the world will be paying you a modest salary for what you consider your hobby, and you, in turn, will be contributing to some important answers for our present and future society. As you teach and lead, you will amplify your efforts and those of others, and if appropriate, the influence will continue after you cease. What you learn from courses, lectures and books that are reflected in your course grades will be a very small fraction of your FINAL EXAM. Good luck in your careers.

 

 

                                          The Prostate 39:323–325 (1999)             


Russian Roulette…(aka Choosing a thesis lab)

DISCLAIMER: These opinions are strictly mine and not backed up by any scientific evidence.

 

As a 4th year graduate student, I don’t think I’m seasoned enough to be jaded/disillusioned. I also think I still remember my trepidation on choosing the lab I was going to spend the rest of my 20’s in.

So here we go…my top 5 things to consider when choosing a thesis lab

1. Do I like my prospective labmates?

I dig science too so I can talk about scientists. We can be awkward..socially awkward creatures focused only on our research and things that interest us. Perfectly content sitting at the microscope with headphones on and shutting out the world. However, if you are not this type of scientist and you are the more social type…do not convince yourself that you are in grad school strictly for the science and would do well in a lab full of the aforementioned scientists or people you do not get along with. Sure it might work..but it probably won’t.

You more than likely chose rotations based on science you were interested meaning that you could probably do “good science” in any of those labs. However, you are going to be spending a lot of time with these people, no point being unhappy.

 

2. Do I like my prospective P.I?

OK…like might be the wrong word here. Does anyone ever really LIKE their P.I (principal investigator)…(I actually do..great guy he is!). Depending on the school you attend, there will more than likely be a lot of big name, big time scientists (Nature/Science publishing types, Nobel Laureates, Demigods in theirfields even though no one in the real world knows them)….some with egos to boot. You want to have a healthy like/respect for your P.I. and not because of what they have published or what you think you will get out of being a member of the lab. P.I.s are people too..and if you wouldn’t like/respect your P.I in “real life”…what makes you think you’d be able to work for them for 5+ years…it’s a lose-lose situation.


3. Do I like the science?

I think rotations take care of this question. Unless you chose to attend grad school because your parents made you, you know you like science. You know you want to make some sort of contribution to the scientific community et al. You need to join a lab that even when you go through periods when your experiments don’t work (aka 3rd year), you are still excited enough about the field in general to stick around.

 

4. What type of worker am I?

I feel that the only people who successfully make it through grad school with their love for science intact are the ones that treat it like a regular job.

a. Set regular work hours and stick to it for the most part

b. Set goals (monthly, quarterly, annually) just like you would in your career and work to meet them

c. Do not be afraid to talk to your boss/challenge their ideas

d. Don’t let other people determine how far you go in your grad school career..take responsibility for every single aspect and take advantages inside and outside the lab to grow.

 

5. What do I want to accomplish during my time here? 

Set goals and timelines…talk about your goals with your P.I before you join to make sure they are on board. Be flexible…life happens. Be willing to reevaluate your project and determine if you are going in the right direction often! Don’t be afraid to ask questions…Don’t be that person who thought they knew everything until they woke up in year 9 realizing they just pissed away 9 years of their life and have nothing to show for it…ooooop! yep I said it!

 

The problem with big Pharma

The recent economic crises hit hard across the board taking no prisoners. Funding for academic research has dropped significantly and in industry there have been massive layoffs.

“According to recruitment specialists Challenger, Gray & Christmas (Chicago, IL, USA), the number of pharmaceutical industry jobs eliminated in the first ten months of 2010 was 45,263 (in 2009, it was 58,696 jobs). “

So what does this mean for fresh faced young PhDs and postdocs ready to begin their careers? Honestly, I don’t know…I’m not going to pretend to know how to fix the problem but I think I know what some of the problems are.

This article in Nature Biotechnology does a pretty good job of outlining the issues and presenting proposed solutions.

OK..that’s the good stuff backed by lots of background and research…here’s my opinion backed by 3 wonderful years working as a scientist in a pharmaceutical company. There are 3 main issues that I feel need to be addressed:

1. Too many chiefs not enough Indians:

There are too many layers of management and not enough people doing the work. Brilliant scientists are rewarded by being promoted as it should be, but each promotion takes them further away from the bench. While scientists left at the bench are good at what they do and have years of experience under their belt, they often lack the motivation to step outside their comfort zone.

Definitely not the best breeding ground for ground breaking science = not enough compounds in the pipeline = not enough new drugs on the market = not profit for pharma = layoffs and hiring freeze

2. Not enough educated risk taking:

“It’s a business”…the most overused phrase regarding drug companies. Often times, promising projects get killed way too early because it would take a more time and money to get the project off the ground. Rather than investing in a risky but promising project, a safer target is chosen which may or may not end up making it all the way to the market.

3. Failure to promote career development:

This kind of goes hand in hand with the number one problem. Getting a good, secure job is like a marriage. People get into a comfortable routine…come in at 9am…leave at 5pm…lunch at 11:30am, 2- hour long meeting and whatever work you can get done in between the meetings and all the compliance training modules/ faux team building exercises…sheesh..no wonder no new discoveries are being made.

I digress…

If career development is made a priority, employees can be pushed (gently at first..and the progressively less gently) to expand their horizons and explore other areas that they might find interesting…even if it means stepping away from the bench and exploring other avenues. This way, employees that want to be at the bench and develop their career in that direction and the employees that want to grow in another direction can do so with renewed zest thereby increasing company productivity. It’s a win-win situation for both employee and company.

Happy wife..happy life!

I guess my bottom line is this…to make it in industry, we have to stay flexible and be willing to expand our knowledge base to include learning new skills and techniques while retaining the ability to get down and dirty at the bench when the need arises..corner office, company car and personal assistant be damned!

Beyond The Bench

According to an article published in The Economist, Doctoral degrees: The disposable academic,we the current graduate students in universities around the world are pretty much screwed!

“Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.”

After years and years….and years of “seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay..”, our job prospects out in the real world are bleak.

“100,000 doctoral degrees produced between 2005 and 2009 and only 16,000 new professorships.”

We have a higher chance of being diagnosed with cancer than we do of landing that gig as an assistant professor we’ve been dreaming about since we were 5 years old. Not motivated enough to pour your blood, sweat and tears into that western blot? Well, how about this….

“Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.”

or this…

“As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are  entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else.”

After reading this article, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry…so I did both (making sure I included a control).

Upon further evaluation, I decided that the message of this article is not all bad. For current graduate students, we know that the system is not necessarily designed to work in our favor regardless of whether we want to remain in academia or go into industry. We also know the areas which need to be improved upon..

“…many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job market.”

“Some universities are now offering their PhD students training in soft skills such as communication and teamwork that may be useful in the labour market.”

The purpose of this blog is quite simple

      • Provide a central location for all the tools that might make us  more attractive to prospective employers (academic and non-academic)
      • Serve as an outlet for current graduate students to express their ideas, frustrations and solutions to problems we face
      • Promote networking among graduate students around the world
      • Reassure prospective graduate students that life as an indentured servant a grad student is not all bad

On the contrary, beyond the bench, graduate school is an adventure of a lifetime. Where else would we get paid to learn, do cool experiments that may or may not work, attend seminars by renowned experts for free, work with some of the greatest minds of our time while establishing long lasting connections? Nowhere I tell ya…absolutely nowhere.