I am often asked about “hot” alternate career paths. Sadly, even alternate career opportunities for PhD-trained scientists have waned in recent years. However, there is and will continue to be a rising demand for clinical research professionals. This is because life sciences companies are more keenly focused on drug development (which includes human clinical trials) than they are on drug discovery.
The transition from a basic to clinical research career is not an easy one; mainly because clinical research encompasses a wide and diverse range of skills that are often not offered to most graduate students or postdocs during their training. That said, those of you who are willing to take the plunge should read a great article entitled Training New Clinical Research Professionals To Work On The Front Line by Eduardo F. Motti, MD in the July/August 2013 issue of Pharmaceutical Outsourcing Magazine.
Dr. Motti offers an incisive view of the burgeoning clinical research field and the skills sets and training that are required for persons interested in gaining employment in this field.
I apologize in advance for this rant but I have been participating in an almost six month long thread on LinkedIn discussing whether or not PhD-trained scientists lack the social discipline and knowledge necessary to favorably interact with the lay public. Not surprisingly, a majority of participants contend that most PhD-bearing life scientists lack social graces to the point where they come off as being aloof, condescending and enamored with their own intelligence and projects that they choose to work on.
While I tend to generally agree with this characterization, I contend that the lack of social discipline exhibited by many graduate students and postdocs is not a result of personality defects but can likely be attributed to the attitudes and behaviors learned from their mentors and PIs. Put simply, graduate students and postdocs would likely learn to behave differently in social situations if they were trained differently by their PIs and mentors.
Now: the reason for the rant. In yesterday’s Science Times, there was an article about a Princeton-based writer, Jeffrey Eugenides, who decided to write a novel using a life sciences researcher as its main character. Mr. Eugenides, who previously wrote a well received novel entitled “Middlesex,” does not possess a scientific background nor has he spent any time in a research laboratory. In fact, despite living in Princeton a bastion of life sciences research, he had no friends or even acquaintances who were scientists. His closest connect to science is his wife, an artist who spent a winter in Cold Spring Harbor (but not at the research center). Nevertheless, creating a main character who is a scientist required that he do a lot of internet research to learn about scientific research and what makes “scientists tick.” To that end, he read peer-reviewed yeast genetics papers to better understand the focus of the main character’s research—yeast mating genetics. It took him many years to collect the information necessary to write the novel. And a scientist—whose research laid the foundation for work described in the novel—was astounded that Eugenides got it exactly right!
Because Princeton University is home to one of the world’s leading yeast genetics programs, Eugenides decided to chat with yeast geneticists actively engaged in basic research to get an idea of what actually goes on in a research laboratory. To accomplish this he turned to one of the world’s leading experts on yeast geneticist at Princeton to ask for help. Although the geneticist thought that Eugenides needed an explanation of the research described in the novel, Eugenides simply wanted to spend a day in his laboratory and interact with “real” scientists. After hearing this, the geneticist handed Eugenides off to his laboratory manager and left the lab.
When interviewed for the story in the NY Times, the geneticist quipped “I never heard of the book, and I don’t remember talking to the guy.” Taken at face value his comments are not intentionally pejorative or demeaning. But, they do suggest an air of arrogance, indifference and most importantly disinterest. I suspect that this is because the visit had little to do with the geneticist’s work and, in the end, there was not much in it for him—so why waste his time?
Sadly this is exactly the attitudes and behaviors exhibited by many scientists. Is it any wonder why many lay people think that most scientists are arrogant, self absorbed and indifferent when it comes to social graces? Although the scientist mentioned in the post is world renown in scientific circles, he did not come off well (to me anyway) in the article. That said, he created a PR problem for himself.
While in the past it was convenient for academicians to “live in the ivory tower” the recession, an increasingly lousy job market for PhD-trained scientists and the advent of social media suggests that we have entered into a new age. Like it or not, social skills are absolutely required for gainful employment in today’s world. I think it is time for academics to realize this and change the way in which they train their graduate students and postdocs.
For many corporate employees, the annual performance review process is a bane to their existence. For those of you who may not be familiar with annual reviews, most corporate employees are required to undergo a review process that includes a synopsis of their accomplishments over the past year and new goals for the upcoming one. And, as all corporate employees understand, the quality of an annual review determines the size of the bonus that they can expect to receive and whether or not a salary increase is in order for the upcoming fiscal year. In other words, you never want to get a “less than stellar” annual review because your fiscal well-being depends on it!
Not surprisingly, preparing for the annual review can be nerve-racking and dealing with the results of the review can be equally challenge (especially if the review is a negative one). Although, most of the annual reviews for 2011 have been completed, Eilene Zimmerman who writes the Career Couch for the New Times posted a helpful article that deals with preparing for the dreaded annual review and how best to respond to either a positive or negative one.
I can tell you from personal experience, the annual review is probably one of the silliest and most inane things that was ever invented for corporate employees. That said, it is part and parcel of the corporate workplace game and to excel you need to get good at!
One of the new “hot career” opportunities in the life science industry is something called a medical science liaison or MSL. Increasingly, graduate students and postdocs are beginning to mention MSL as a possible career option. Of course, the first thing that I ask these persons is “Do you know what an MSL is or does on a daily basis?” In most cases, most of these would-be MSLs sheepishly admit that they don’t!
With this in mind, I invited Dr. Samuel Dyer an experienced MSL and CEO and Founder of the Medical Science Liaison Corporation and MSL WORLD to better inform those who may be interested in pursuing a career as an MSL.
The MSL is a therapeutic specialist (e.g. Oncology, Cardiology, Infectious Diseases, Central Nervous System) within pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical devices, and clinical research organizations (CRO) who has advanced scientific training and generally a "terminal D" degrees in the life sciences (PhD, PharmD, MD). It’s important to note that MSL’s are not sales reps and their function is very different. The primary purpose of the MSL role is to be scientific or disease state experts for internal colleagues (sales and marketing), but more importantly for doctors in the Therapeutic Area of the Medical community in which they work (i.e. Oncology, Cardiology, CNS etc.). The focus of the role has changed over the years, but the primary responsibility of the MSL role remains to establish and maintain peer-peer relationships with leading doctors, referred to as Key Opinion Leaders (KOL’s).
Medical Science Liaison’s (MSLs) were first established by Upjohn pharmaceuticals in 1967 as a response to the need for professionally-trained field staff that would be able to build rapport with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) in various therapeutic areas of research. Although originally called Medical Science Liaisons by Upjohn, over the years and today, pharmaceutical companies have used various names for the role including: Medical Liaisons, Medical Managers, Regional Scientific Mangers, Clinical Liaisons, and Scientific Affairs Managers among others.
Originally, the first MSLs were selected from experienced sales representatives that had strong scientific backgrounds to bring a higher degree of clinical and educational expertise to the medical professionals they were working with to influence sales. Over the years, MSL teams have been made up of individuals with various scientific backgrounds including: “super” sales reps, those with nursing backgrounds, those with various doctoral level degrees or other clinical backgrounds. However, the required educational and scientific background and purpose of MSL’s has progressively changed over the years since they were first established. In the late 1980’s, a number of companies began to require those applying to MSL roles to hold a terminal “D” degree such as an MD, PharmD, or PhD degrees.
Although, historically, the educational standard in the industry did not require MSL’s to have a terminal “D” degree, however, today the terminal “D” degree has become standard in the industry. Today according to one benchmark study more than 90% of current MSLs hold terminal “D” degrees.
While the MSL role has received some attention, including a CNN Money article entitled "#1 Job in Pharmaceuticals-10 Jobs for Big Demand-Good Pay”, it remains one of the best kept secrets and one of the most difficult roles to break into. Few people know about it, and little is written about the role. In fact, the MSL community is quite small when compared to other professions in the pharmaceutical industry however there has been an explosion in the growth of the position. According to a recent benchmark study, there has been an average growth of 76% of the MSL role since 2005 across the industry in the U.S.
There is no question that interviewing is an art and that experienced job candidates may have a leg up on more junior candidates seekers when it comes to face-to-face (F2F) job interviews. That said, there is a commonly held belief among job seekers that hiring managers frequently ask silly, “bonehead” and irrelevant questions during F2F interviews. Examples of these frequently asked questions include “What are your strengths and weaknesses” and “Tell me how you overcame adversity or a difficult situation at work.”
During a talk that I give on interviewing tips and insights, I usually make light of these and related questions and warn would be job seekers to be prepared for them during F2F job interviews. However, while I poke fun at these seemingly silly questions, responses to them are growing in importance in decision to determine whether or not to extend offers to job candidates. This is because during recessionary times employers have to be more judicious about the qualifications, skills and personalities of the persons that they hire. After all, jobs are few and far between at most companies and hiring managers want to insure that they derive the maximum benefit from all new hires.
A good example of what goes into hiring decisions these days can be found in an article entitled “Hearing the Right Notes From a Job Candidate" written by Carl Diehl a co-owner of a franchised exercise company. In the article, he describes the interviewing and hiring criteria that he used to hire a person into an entry level position at his company. Much to my surprise the final hiring decision almost exclusively hinged on the response to the question “What do you consider to be the dark side or major weakness of your personality?” As Mr. Diehl aptly stated:
This type [of question] focuses on performance and accomplishing tasks, but can be oblivious to the emotional needs of themselves and others. Obviously, an awareness of this kind of flaw is very significant in business as well as in personal relationships.
Most of the applicants did not have a clue about what I was looking for when I asked about that “dark side.” The two finalists, however, told me that while people with this personality type might be very hard-working and results-oriented, they could also be unaware of the effects of their actions and words on other people. That demonstrated the kind of emotional maturity I was seeking.
Also high on his list were, energy, creativity and problem solving skills. I highly recommend those of you who are actively seeking employment to read the article. It will definitely help in your job search and prepare for your next F2F job interview.
Now that the economy is improving and the job market is loosening up a bit, the likelihood of a face-to-face job interview is increasing. The folks over at Best Online Colleges recently sent me a post about common mistakes made during job interviews and how to avoid them. While some of the proffered suggestions and tips overlap with some of my own, there are several that are new and novel and worth considering.
Like most other things in life, practicing your interviewing skills will improve your performance and increase the probability of receiving a job offer. That said, take a look the list and see whether or not you can avoid these oft time embarrassing mistakes during your next face-to-face.
Forgetting the name of your interviewer
Often times, a company will give you the name of your interviewer when it contacts you to set up an interview. In these cases, not knowing their name as you set foot in their office is inexcusable. If first impressions are everything, then you’ve scored a zero before the process has even started. Be sure to memorize their name as soon as you get it, and if you forget, look for clues in their office – like a nameplate.
Succumbing to your nerves
Remember that you aren’t facing a firing squad – your life isn’t at stake, so don’t act like it. What’s the worst that could happen? You won’t get the job you already didn’t have? Don’t work yourself into a panic. Vomiting on your interviewer’s desk, sweating like an NBA basketball player or shaking like you’re sitting in a 727 that’s hitting turbulence are way worse than a couple of stutters. Clear your mind beforehand and keep things in perspective.
Relaxing too much
If you have too much perspective – or just nerves of steel – don’t make it apparent by propping your feet up on your interviewer’s desk, for example. Don’t make inappropriate jokes or inane comments. Unless instructed otherwise, you should act formally and business-like. Your behavior should be 100 percent professional. More likely than not, they’ll judge you based on how you act during that short period of time.
Divulging too much
In the haste to appear as open as possible, many interviewees tend to give too much information. But honesty isn’t always the best policy. Your prospective employer doesn’t need to know about the three-month-long coke binder you went on after freshman year. They don’t want to hear about how your previous boss did his best to imitate Bill Lumbergh. Only disclose what they need to hear related to your performance as an employee.
Coming empty-handed and empty-minded
Don’t give your interviewer the impression that you didn’t take any time to prepare before meeting with them. They’ve done their homework and they expect you to do yours. It’s essential that you study the company. How’s it performing? What’s its mission? How does the position for which you’re applying fit into the grand scheme of things? Be sure to bring additional copies of your resume, a list of your professional references, the job posting (if possible), and a pen and notepad.
Transforming into a phony salesman
No interviewer likes a phony – unless of course your prospective job title is “phony salesman.” But in most cases, acting overly-enthusiastic can be off-putting. They know you really want the job. You don’t have to pretend it’s the best job in the history of jobs. And don’t exaggerate your abilities. If you try too hard to say what your interviewer wants to hear, they’ll know.
There’s nothing ruder than a noisy cell phone chiming in during an exchange with your interviewer. Silence your phone before entering the building. Mom’s “Good Luck <3" text message will still be there after the interview and the sentiment will remain the same.
Succumbing to your ADD
The worst is when an interviewer gives a long-winded information-filled speech and you’ve only managed to absorb the first sentence. Take a deep breath, slow your racing mind and give them your full attention. You don’t want to respond with a blank stare when they ask if you have any questions.
Healthcare informatics (HCI) is one of the fastest growing professions in the US. This is because the Obama administration has allocated billions of stimulus dollars to create electronic healthcare records (EHR) in an attempt to reduce healthcare costs.
To qualify for EHR stimulus monies organizations must develop a plan and then take steps to implement it! Not surprisingly, because of the short ramp up phase for EHR, the number of available jobs far outstrips the numbers of qualified and skilled employees to fill them. The acute shortage of qualified HCI employees resulted in a cover story in the December 2009 issue of Health Informatics entitled “Got People?” It is a great read and provides insights into the types of employees that HCI companies are looking to hire. The EHR Initiative will likely create over 500,000 new jobs in the next few years. For those of you, who may be interested in pursuing a career in HCI, check out this list of the top 100 HCI companies to work for.
Finally, a group of bioinformatics and genomics PhD students and postdoctoral fellows approached me to help them find sponsors for a Health Informatics Career Development symposium that they are trying to develop for the 2010 Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology (ISMB) conference that will be held in Boston, MA from July 9-13, 2010.
If you are interested in sponsoring the HCI symposium please contact me.
As somebody who has been unemployed more than once, unemployment can be depressing, very frustrating and extremely worrisome.In addition to sending out resumes and networking, I highly recommend using the free time that you have at your disposal to learn new skills to either make your life more manageable or to increase your employability.Obviously, unemployed persons usually don’t have the money to enroll in formal training programs but thanks to the Internet and social media there are a variety of free tools and options out there for people looking to pick up new skill sets.
Amber Johnson at OnlineDegreePrograms.org has put together a list of 100 skills you should learn (for free) while unemployed. While many of her suggestions are intuitive, there are a few on the list that may surprise you and quite possibly improve your chances of finding a new job!
100 Skills You Should Learn (for Free) While You’re Unemployed
People Skills and Networking
Become a better networker, small talker and listener to improve your job prospects.
Listen: Become a better listener by tuning out background noise and making eye contact.
Build a portfolio: Have an organized hard copy and file on your computer that succinctly and accurately represents your best work.
Share the conversation: Don’t dominate the conversation: learn to take a step back when you’ve said your part, and know when to jump in if the conversation becomes all about them.
It should come as no surprise to most BioJobBlog readers that scientists are not known for their writing or literary skills. And, for the most part, graduate students in the life sciences receive little or no instruction or training in scientific writing. This wasn’t always the case. When I entered graduate school at the University Of Wisconsin way back in 1974, Joe Wilson, Chairman of the Department of Bacteriology at the time, insisted that all incoming graduate students take a semester-long course in scientific writing. Most of my peers thought it was a colossal waste of time but by the end of the semester we all knew how, in theory, to write a scientific paper, understood the peer review process and if nothing else could write something that resembled a scientific manuscript when asked to do so. I personally learned a lot during the course and thought it was extremely useful.
I currently work as a freelance science/medical writer and I think the course has served me well throughout my career. In fact, while a tenure-track Assistant Professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine, many of my colleagues would give me their RO1 applications to review for content, grammar and editing before submitting them to NIH. As the former Chairman of my department said to me after I asked him what he thought after reading my first grant application, “It is extremely well written from a literary standpoint”. Not exactly what I wanted to hear but maybe that explains why I am a science writer and no longer an academic. So it goes….!
The reason that I am rambling on about scientists and their poor writing skills is that things haven’t gotten much better over the 35 year since I took that mandatory writing course as first semester graduate student at UW. Based on my observations, graduate students are only asked to do original writing when preparing their theses and in some instances when writing manuscripts (which are usually re-written by their mentors). What is even more troubling is that science undergraduate students do virtually no writing at all! How then do we expect graduate students and postdocs to successfully write grant application and manuscripts if they receive no formal training in science writing?
To that end, I came across an interesting, albeit humorous, post from Dr. Isis, who according to her bio is “a physiologist at a major research university working on some terribly impressive stuff. She blogs about balancing her research career with the demands of raising small children, how to succeed as a woman in academia, and anything else she finds interesting.” Like me, Dr. Isis, doesn’t think that scientists spend enough time teaching other scientists how to write. In the post she offers some ideas, tips and solution to this increasingly vexing problem!
Basic Writing Resources for Basic Scientists
Dr. Isis does hot science. Hot, hot, caliente science. I feel like we have already established that, though.
Learning to do hot science has not been a trivial thing, but learning to write in the scientific arena was orders of magnitude harder. It’s still something that does not come easy for me and that I have had to practice to improve. I learned the first time I received my first crapvalanche of papers from a group of students that I am not the only one who has had trouble translating the suckquake of writing I learned in high school and as an undergraduate into successful scientific writing.
I wonder if scientific writing is something that we don’t spend enough time teaching pre-graduate school level students. I know that in science courses I’ve taught that have required papers, the most formal instruction time I have been able to devote to writing is showing them this:
Video 1: Strong Bad teaches us how to write a successful paper. Strong Bad is full of wisdom and has taught me about 90% of the awesome stuff I know. I’d encourage you to check him out here.
But, I digress. This long, overly drawn-out, unnecessary introduction had tweo purposes — 1) to give me an excuse to use Strong Bad in a blog. I <3 Strong Bad. 2) to point the following resource out to you.
This weekend someone showed me "Ask Betty: Grammar in College Writing." Ask Betty is run by the Department of English at the University of Washington and has all sorts of great information. It has a list of common editing symbols for those of us who edits papers and a lesson on common grammatical mistakes for those of us who are writing papers. I think this site could potentially be a fantastic resource for those of use who speak English as a second language. There’s a Q&A page with examples of phrases and discussion of whether they are well-written. There is also a resource page with links to external writing resources.
Addendum: While Dr. Isis offers a good self-help solution to the problem, perhaps it might be more useful if graduate students and postdocs are required to take formal science writing courses as part of their graduate training. Technology has advanced considerably since 1974 and students no longer have to take time out from their busy schedules to attend a bricks and mortar class like I did. The course could be offered online and students could complete it at their own speed. The growing number of foreign graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, whose primary language isn’t English, suggests that a course like this may be in the best interests of American science.
I have heard from many jobseekers, who—despite many years of work experience— are having difficulty finding full time employment. During economic down turns many companies cannot or are reluctant to hire full time employees. However, this doesn’t mean that there is work to be done. Consequently, many firms look for part-time, temporary or contract workers to handle the work that must get done to maintain operations.
Melanie Wanzek of CTW Features wrote an excellent article on why taking a temporary job might be a great opportunity for those who can’t find full time employment. Temporary jobs provide an opportunity to learn new skills, apply old skills to solve new problems or to gain experience in your profession.
For those of you who think that this may be right for you. Here are several questions you should ask a prospective employer when considering whether or not to accept a temporary or contract job opportunity.
Who will my supervisor be?
What hours will I be expected to work?
Is there a dress code?
What is the work environment like?
Do temporary workers have their own workspace or is it shared?
How are my benefits different or similar to full time employees?
Is there more scheduling flexibility for temporary workers?
Is there a possibility that this temporary opportunity might turn into full time employment?
Scientist who may be interested in contract work please check out a previous post that I wrote on this topic.