How to Prepare for a Non-Bench Career

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Professor Molly Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her on the BPS Blog.

There is an increasing interest for science PhD students to pursue an “alternate” career beyond the traditional bench research followed by a tenure-track faculty position. The options include marketing, sales, intellectual property, policy, and writing, among others. This article highlights four important steps you can take to prepare for any of these non-bench careers.

  • Do your research: Do not go into another non-bench career just for the sake of it. The career sections of most societies, as well as top journals like Science and Nature have a treasure trove of information on various alternative careers. Reach out to alumni from your school or your lab, as well as to friends and family members, or use social media (Twitter/LinkedIN) to directly speak with people who have made the transition.
  • Along the same lines, make a list of your transferrable skills. These skills could have been built up either as part of your graduate research (e.g., data mining and analysis), or at home or through community work (e.g., did you demonstrate leadership skills through some sort of volunteer work?).  Then note how they align with the careers you are considering.
  • Work on your communication skills: Most non-bench careers involve effective communication, whether it is written or verbal. Two particular skills that will be useful to master include (a) the ”elevator pitch” — a quick summary of who you are and/or what you do and why it’s valuable, and (b) communicating technical information to a lay audience.
  • Gain experience outside of your work: It can be difficult to break into a new industry without prior experience. However, it is possible to gain experience in other ways. If you are interested in science writing, think of maintaining an active blog, or contribute to your school or society newsletters; see if you can volunteer at your institute’s technology commercialization office if you are interested in patent law. Employers also tend to look favorably upon those who have demonstrated a willingness to broaden their horizons beyond bench research.
  • Network: It’s gotten to be a cliché now, but the value of the mantra ”Network, network, network” cannot be overstated. Apart from helping you land that next job, networking will help all of the above — researching alternate careers, communicating, and broadening your horizons!

Dear Molly Cule: How do I staff my lab?

Professor Molly Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her on the BPS Blog.molly_cule_blog1

I’m a new PI. How do I go about staffing my lab?

First, congratulations on becoming a principle investigator! Now how do you make your laboratory successful and productive?  Many resources exist to help get you started, one of which is a guide to scientific management called Making the Right Moves.  This guide was developed by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and can be downloaded as a PDF from the HHMI website that provides resources to early career scientists: http://www.hhmi.org/programs/resources-early-career-scientist-development/making-right-moves. A full chapter of the guide focuses on staffing the laboratory, as well as managing a laboratory and developing a vision for your laboratory. Take advantage of this helpful resource.

An important step towards staffing the laboratory is considering what type of laboratory you want to run, which may be highly dependent upon your institution and startup package. As an example, there are big differences between the type of laboratory and laboratory personnel at a liberal arts college, a mid-sized research university, and a large medical school. This is where your vison for your laboratory comes in to play.  A helpful exercise to establish this vision is to look around your department and institution and observe the types of laboratories that are successful, but also to recognize that it takes time to build a successful laboratory. In generating the vision for your laboratory, you must weigh the costs and benefits of hiring a technician vs. recruiting a postdoc or recruiting undergraduate vs. graduate students to your laboratory. These costs and benefits do include monetary costs and benefit packages, but they also include differences in scientific acumen, capacity to work independently, and expected productivity. It is also important to recognize that technicians and postdocs are employees, but students are not. There are some subtle details that you will have to learn about related to these differences, but your departmental business manager or chair is usually a good resource for understanding these differences at your institution.

When I started my own laboratory, I thought the best place to start hiring was with a postdoc or lab technician. I wanted to hire a person with some knowledge of research, who would need minimal training, and ultimately be able to help get my lab up and running as quickly as possible. Next, I chose to proceed by acquiring students, who require more training. Do not be afraid to be picky about who joins your laboratory, it is okay to tell a student that he/she cannot join the lab. Although saying “no” can be difficult, it is necessary. Focus on quality, not quantity, in your hiring, particularly when you are just starting out.

Now that you’ve established where you want the laboratory to go and what types of people you want to have in the laboratory, you need to go out and get them.  You will need to create a job description that you can distribute on the human resources site at your institution, on the website for your laboratory, on  email list serves, and on job boards hosted by scientific societies to which you belong. It is very important to write a job description that attracts the specific skill set that you need regarding techniques that will be required, areas of research that you study, any minimum requirements that will be required for the level of the position, etc.

Once you have a set of applications, you will need to select candidates to interview  The interview is an important part of the hiring process, because you will want to determine the quality and ‘fit’ of an individual with your particular laboratory. Spend time generating a list of questions to ask during the interview. Think about why you are asking these questions, and be able to articulate (in your head or out loud) how and why the candidates’ answers to these  questions are important to the future success of your laboratory. Be aware of any red flags that suggest a person may not be a good fit for the position. For me, personality and ease of engagement between a perspective member of my laboratory and me are critical components of the interview process. You may have the most qualified candidate on earth, but if you and that person cannot easily communicate or get along, the working relationship will suffer. Remember, it is your laboratory and you need to assemble the best, most productive team possible to achieve the scientific vision that you’ve set out for your laboratory.

Once you’ve determined who would be the best person to hire, you will have to make an offer.  Many of the details related to these offers are less flexible that you may think, particularly when starting up a new laboratory. The pay scale may be dictated by the institution or tied to an offer letter related to your startup package. Hopefully these details won’t get in the way of you hiring the best person for the job, but you may want to investigate these details at the start of your hiring process, when you are drafting the job description

Good luck in staffing your laboratory,

Molly Cule

Dear Molly Cule: Should I Bring Undergrads to the Annual Meeting?

Professor Molly Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her on the BPS Blog.

Q:  I teach undergraduate students who have not yet decided on their career track. Is it worth bringing them to the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting?

Undergraduate research is often the defining experience that leads students to consider going on to obtain graduate degrees.  Incorporating undergraduate students in research efforts can be a very effective means of retaining students in the sciences and working to increase the number of underrepresented students going on to achieve advanced degrees.  Getting students involved in research as early as their freshman year can provide continuity for faculty at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs), as well. These students ultimately provide the research expertise that increases both the number and quality of a lab’s publications, allowing faculty to maintain externally funded research.

Attending meetings and preparing posters and presentations are important experiences for undergraduates. Many faculty who incorporate undergraduates in research send them to regional, local, or undergraduate conferences as a means of allowing them to present their work in a friendly environment, gain confidence, and develop communication skills. Ultimately, the goal of attending these smaller meetings is to prepare the students so that they feel confident in presenting at a large national meeting and are better prepared to interact with experts in their field.

In previous years, I took students to the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting in their senior year, after they had presented at a smaller conference.  In recent years, I have realized that it may be more beneficial for a student to attend the Biophysical Society meeting during their junior year before they submit applications for graduate or medical school. Last year, I was grateful that my NSF funding allowed me to take three participants to the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting, a sophomore, a junior, and a postbaccalaureate researcher, the last of whom had attended the 2013 Meeting as well.  Each of these participants returned with a renewed vigor and excitement for research and biophysics.  The exposure to the broad range of topics and personal interactions really solidified their research interests and influenced their postgraduate plans.  Exposing third-year undergraduate students to a broad range of biophysics and introducing them to graduate faculty impacts their career choices.  This experience can be invaluable in their decisions on whether they should apply to graduate school and what schools might best suit their interests.

There are several events at the Annual Meeting that are especially useful for undergraduate students, including the Graduate & Postdoc Institution Fair, the Undergraduate Student Breakfast, which provides networking opportunities and career advice, and the Undergraduate Mixer and Poster Fest, a chance for undergraduates to practice their poster presentations and receive feedback before the main poster sessions.

Starting students in research very early in their undergraduate careers has multiple benefits that include retention in the sciences, advanced research experience, increased probability of publications, and preparation to attend the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting.  As a professor, I encourage you to bring your students to the Annual Meeting, especially during their junior year. As a Society, we should work on increasing the number of college juniors attending our conferences; it may help increase students’ interest in graduate school in biophysics and lead to a more diverse population in the next generation of scientists.

Dear Molly Cule: Negotiating the Start-up Package

Professor Molly Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her on the BPS Blog.

Q:  I’m in the job market for a tenure track faculty position and have been offered a job. How do I go about negotiating a good start-up package?

First off, congratulations!

Now the nitty-gritty details come into play. Knowing how much money you need to get a lab up and running will help you tremendously in negotiating your start-up package. First you need an estimated budget, and that requires some “homework.” Go around your current lab and look at all the things you use during the course of the day. Do this on a couple of different days because you might use different things depending on where you are in your experiments. The expensive stuff is usually easy to list, like microscopes, confocal, lasers—whatever equipment you’ll need to get your own experiments done. It is much easier to forget the small stuff: water bath, pipettors, centrifuge, even tape; or not-so-small stuff like -80 freezers, shared equipment, or biological reagents that you might take for granted because they are always available in your current laboratory. In your new position, you will have to supply everything yourself.

Armed with your list, do some online research to see how much everything will cost. For the bigger items, you’ll probably need price quotes. Companies want your business, so don’t feel shy about asking for a quote even if you have no money yet. Tell them it’s for a start-up budget and they will be happy to help out. Some of the big distributors have “lab start-up lists” that can be useful to look over to remind yourself of what general items you’ll need.

Don’t forget to factor in consumables, as well. It’s nice to have that new thermal cycler, but if you can’t afford to buy the tubes for it, then it isn’t very useful. A good way to estimate the cost of consumables is to find out how much your current lab spends in consumables per month, per person. Add the cost of about one–two years of consumables to your budget. Another thing to keep in mind is whether common facilities or cores are available to you at your new institution. If you plan on using a common facility, they often charge fees so take those into account in your budget. If you will be using something like a mass spec, confocal, laser, etc., that is part of a facility but you’ll need daily access and/or have special needs for it, ask for your own. Yes, these are expensive, but if you need it to succeed, then ask for it. Don’t forget to ask about vivarium costs if you need animals for your research, as vivarium rates can vary widely between institutions, and even departments. The department offering you the position wants you to succeed and they know that success requires equipment and operating money. However, they don’t know what you need unless you tell them.

Will you be stepping into a lab space that’s perfect for your needs or will there be some renovations? If renovations are needed, then determine whether they expect you to pay for the renovations out of your start-up package. If they are paying, great! If you will have to pay for the renovations, then you need to get some estimates. Talk to other people in the department or elsewhere on campus who have had renovations done. Many places will have standing contracts with renovation specialists and by talking to people on campus, you can get a sense for how much they will charge. Try to get it in writing that the renovations will be finished before you get to campus—you don’t want to start your tenure clock ticking before you can use your laboratory. Ask your department chair for help on this one—renovations can be tricky.

The primary expenditure of many well-functioning laboratories is the personnel budget. In addition to your equipment and operating budget, you need to investigate the details of your salary and tenure expectations, salary and tuition for your first few graduate students, and salary for postdocs or research technicians. Couched in these salary details are benefits and overhead for you and your employees. Sometimes this part of negotiations can be very straightforward, other times it can be complicated, but you have to get to the bottom of it. Everything can be negotiated, and it does not hurt to ask for what you need.

Now send off your estimated budget. Every institution will be a little different, but most will come back and either say they can meet your budget or they will ask about certain items and whether you really need them. If they cannot meet all of your needs, they will tell you what they can and cannot provide. Think carefully about how you will answer. Listen to all the items of concern and then ask for time to think about it. Do not sell yourself short. If you can be flexible, great. If youcan’t, say so.

Remember, your success is the department’s success. They want you to join their faculty and they expect that you can become a contributing member of the department– otherwise, they wouldn’t have offered you the job. Good luck and happy negotiating!

Dear Molly Cule: Advice from BPS Profilee

Our February 2013 BPS Newsletter Biophysicist in Profile, Dr. Jennifer Ross, gave lots of tips for young people starting their careers in biophysics. We couldn’t include it all in the newsletter article, so enjoy the rest of her advice here!

There are a number of pieces of advice I would give to young people in biophysics. Some I followed myself, and others I wish I had.

(1)    Immerse yourself in the literature. The people who are most impressive are those who are the most well-read. This takes time, but it is OK.

(2)    There is more to science than taking data. You are still working if you are reading science or analyzing data.

(3)    ImageJ is your friend.

(4)    Yes, biophysical data takes one day to take and three weeks to analyze with many, many steps.

(5)    Learn to program. MatLab is nice, but Java is better.

(6)    Learn electronics or shop, or better yet: both.

(7)    Write down everything in your notebook – especially your failures. Don’t repeat those failures.

Ross Image(8)    Productivity = -(Effort)2 + 150*(Effort) (see figure to the left). After a certain amount of effort, there are diminishing returns. It is best to stay on the linear upslope of this curve, and not at the peak, because that in an unstable equilibrium, and you are not able to get more out of added effort.

(9) Save gel samples.

(10) Always look for the help inside the critique. Science is full of criticisms. That is how it operates. Some people are better at being constructive than others. But even those that seem plain mean are trying to tell you something. If you figure it out, your science will be better for it. So, take the time to understand what is wanted.

Dear Molly Cule: My PI and I Don’t See Eye to Eye

Molly Cule is an Associate Professor in a medical school at a public university in the United States. Professor Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her here on the BPS Blog.

Dear Molly Cule,
I’m nearing the end of my PhD, but I am finding it more and more difficult to communicate amicably with my PI. He’s over-demanding and my work never meets his standards. We used to meet weekly but we now meet less frequently, and when we do meet we often end up arguing. I just want to finish and move on to a previously arranged postdoc position. What should I do?
Frustrated, from Florida

Dear Frustrated,
Probably like you, I have lots of friends who have PhDs. Without exception, their relationships with their PIs changed dramatically in the last few months of their programs. Some of them (and I consider myself lucky to fall in this category) became close with their PIs and have remained friends ever since. Others drifted apart. One friend couldn’t bear to be in the same US state as her boss near the end—which, as you can imagine, made finishing a little tricky.

Your case is not unusual. Many student-to-mentor relationships become strained near the end, for a number of reasons. Maybe your boss is worried about the difficulty of replacing you, or maybe you are trying to get out without finishing the appropriate control experiments? Perhaps you are disagreeing more often because you are starting to have your own ideas about how to interpret results? Maybe it’s something else entirely—likely something that you don’t even know about!

As is usually the case in this column, I don’t have an easy, universal answer. One thing that will probably help is good communication. Try to clarify each other’s expectations (number of experiments, standard of write-ups, etc.). Doing this in writing, or possibly by e-mail, would be a good idea. At least you will have something to refer to and you will also have an established paper trail in case things get worse. The other thing that you should definitely use to your advantage is your PhD Advisory Committee. They can be invaluable in situations like yours because they can act as a buffer between you and your PI. Make appointments to go and see the members and speak frankly (and as calmly and dispassionately as you can) to them about the situation. Ask them for advice and remember that it’s their job to give it to you; they are, after all, members of your Advisory Committee.

If things continue to go badly, you may need to speak to your Director of Graduate Affairs or Department Chair. He or she will listen to your case and follow established procedures to try to resolve the situation. Bear in mind, though, that the Chair in particular will be trying to protect the PI as much as he or she will try to protect you. It’s therefore in everybody’s interest if you and your PI can resolve your difficulties without letting things escalate too far. Consider asking him to meet for a coffee outside the lab so that you can get a chance to talk without distractions. Open communication is likely to be your best route to a quick finish.

Good luck and best wishes,
–Molly

Dear Molly Cule: Negotiating a Postdoc’s Salary

Molly Cule is an Associate Professor in a medical school at a public university in the United States. Professor Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her here on the BPS Blog.

Dear Molly Cule,
I’m about to finish my PhD and have been offered a postdoc position that I’m excited about. However, the PI won’t go above $38k for a salary. I recently got married and we’re expecting a child. Raising children is expensive and as somebody with a family I think I need more than what a single postdoc gets. What should I do?

–Poor, from Pennsylvania

Dear Poor,

Fixing a salary for a new postdoc can be a tricky process, both for the PI and the trainee. In the US, there is often some room for negotiation, although in other countries the system may be more rigid. Even in the US, the PI may be bound by institutional or department procedures. In my “administrative unit,” for example, PI’s are “encouraged” to pay at least 80% of the NIH scale, although some trainees make a lot more than this and some a little less.

One of the reasons fixing the initial salary can be difficult is that the PI and the potential postdoc often have different goals. The trainee is frequently trying to get the highest possible salary while the PI might be trying to pay the minimal amount required to recruit a new lab member. This is not necessarily because the faculty member is frugal (a polite word for mean). They could be trying to harbor their resources so that they can pay for a technician or a new piece of equipment to support the postdoc and help him or her to be successful.

There are many different strategies that you could adopt in your situation but my advice is to try and negotiate fairly and openly with your potential mentor. If the process goes well, there’s a good chance you’ll come to a reasonable compromise you’re both happy with. If, on the other hand, the negotiation is emotionally difficult and overly tense, you might want to think carefully about whether or not you really want to work closely with this person for the next few years. Remember also that they will be thinking the same thing. It takes two to tango!

When you negotiate, try not to fixate on a specific number. In the long run, your “relative” pay may be more important. For example, a $38k salary will go a lot further if your postdoc position is at the University of Nebraska than if you’re moving to Columbia University and have to live in or close to New York City. Some institutions will offer you low-cost health care while others may require that you pay more out of your own pocket. You may also be eligible for retirement packages at some institutions but not at others. Being new parents will almost certainly change your tax situation, too—consult an expert about this to make sure. Bear these things in mind because they can make a big difference in the long run. Recognize also that if you’re offered $38k and other postdocs in the department are averaging $36k, you are already ahead of the pack. (Salaries at public universities are often available online, so do some comparison shopping. Check http://www.collegiatetimes.com/databases/salaries or the websites for local newspapers etc. for the information.)

If you’re left behind the eight ball and really can’t agree on a number, try to be (politely) creative. Perhaps your PI can offer your spouse a part-time position, or you can negotiate a bonus if you get a grant or when you publish a second Nature paper! If nothing works, you may just have to walk away, recognizing that you’ve priced yourself out of your PI’s market.

Finally, let me comment on “postdocs with families deserve higher salaries.” I’ve heard this idea before and I have some sympathy with it. After all, you’ve been studying and training a long time and it’s a pity that you’re not being better rewarded (financially) for your advanced skills. Nevertheless, you knew that being a biophysicist was unlikely to win you a Wall Street salary when you got into this game. You therefore shouldn’t be surprised that you’re not yet a millionaire. Moreover, having a spouse and family was a personal choice and, in my opinion, it’s not appropriate to suggest that it should influence your salary. You would probably be upset if your potential mentor had discriminated against you and recruited a single postdoc who would “spend more time in the lab because he or she wouldn’t be distracted.” Paying you more than a single lab member is equally discriminating against them.

In summary, my advice is to negotiate reasonably and fairly with your potential mentor and try to come to a reasonable compromise. Walk away if you have to, but recognize that if you’ve walked away from three jobs in a row, you’ve probably overestimated your perceived value.

Good luck and best wishes.
–Molly