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!

BPS Summer Program Alumni Spotlight: Joshua Mannheimer

Josh_Mannheimer_PhotoWe recently had a chance to interview Joshua Mannheimer, an alumnus of the 2013 Biophysical Society Summer Program in Biophysics, and learn about what he has been up to since his time in the Summer Program. Currently, Joshua is at Colorado State University wrapping up his Master of Engineering Degree in mechanical engineering after which he will be directly matriculating into the Biomedical Engineering PhD program.

What is your research focus?

I consider myself an applied computational biophysicist. My goal is to use computational tools to guide experimental scientists by providing insight into biological processes through modeling. Additionally, I am interested in developing computational tools to assist in clinical medicine. My current project uses advanced statistical techniques, called machine learning, to predict the efficacy of chemotherapeutic agents on certain cancer types based on genetic analysis.

When and how did you first become interested in this type of research?

I really got interested in biology in high school, but after taking physics my senior year I decided to get my BS in physics. After a couple years of pursuing physics I had decided to take a few chemical and biological engineering courses; it was through these courses I was connected with a faculty member in the Biomedical Engineering department who happened to have a background in physics. It was through him that I realized the potential to use physics-based models to probe questions in biology.

In terms of what I do right now, it was actually quite serendipitous. After my first year in the ME program I was looking for an internship in industry to build experience professionally. After this did not work out, I needed to do something for the summer. I contacted a faculty member in the Biomedical Engineering department who happened to need someone experienced with programming. This is how I learned about big data and machine learning and was immediately aware of how big of an impact this could have on clinical medicine.

Have mentors played a role in your success?

I have been fortunate enough to have many mentors play a role in my life from school teachers who fostered my curiosity, many adults whom I looked up to as a kid who always encouraged me, and of course some of the faculty I have worked for over the years who invested time in my development as a scientist. Most importantly I have always had a supportive family.

What have been some of your toughest challenges so far in advancing your career?

I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) early in my childhood and that has by far been the biggest obstacle I have faced growing up. It impacts the way I learn and work when it comes directly to academic pursuits; however, managing my mental health while in a demanding program has been the biggest challenge, one I still struggle with but which makes me even more determined to succeed.

What was the most important thing you learned or took away from the summer program that helped you get to where you are at now?

I participated in the summer program right after I had graduated with my BS. At that point I had felt a little dismayed because I had just finished this really demanding degree and I still felt like I knew nothing. During the summer course I realized that what I really learned was how to solve problems and was impressed with how I could implement these skills to work on novel problems. It really put things into perspective.

What was your favorite thing about the summer program?

I really enjoyed the people. It was really beneficial to work with people who came from different academic backgrounds but more importantly to meet new people from different backgrounds and places.

What advice would you give for current undergraduates interested in pursuing a higher degree?

I would encourage any student to research the opportunities a graduate degree affords them and how that degree, and more importantly that research area, will lead to employment opportunities in industry and academia. After all, a degree is not useful unless you can use it.

BPS Summer Program Alumni Spotlight: Manuel Castro

Mac_Castro_PhotoWe recently had a chance to catch up with Manuel “Mac” Castro from BPS’s Summer Program in Biophysics Class of 2015. Mac is currently finishing up his BS in Biochemistry, with a focus in Medicinal Chemistry, at Arizona State University (ASU) where he works as a Research Assistant in the Van Horn Lab. Starting in the fall of 2016, Mac has accepted an offer to attend Vanderbilt University through the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP), a PhD program intended to help students transition from undergraduate to graduate style biomedical research. Additionally, Mac has also recently been awarded a prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.

What is your research focus?

My current research focus in Dr. Van Horn’s lab can be generalized as structural and functional studies of Transient Receptor of Potential (TRP) ion channels, transmembrane proteins that are involved in a plethora of signaling pathways in larger organisms (metazoans). Namely, I work on TRPM8, 1 of 27 TRP channels expressed in humans, which has great implications in pain and cancer therapy and offers an overall better understanding of neurology and physiology. To study these ion channels, I produce the proteins in bacteria, purify them, and probe them using solution –state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and circular dichroism (CD) spectroscopy techniques.

When and how did you first become interested in this type of research?

To be honest, I was thrown into this research as a college sophomore and had no idea what the bigger picture was. However, throughout my time in this lab, I have come to fall in love with both the problems that our research is trying to address and the various techniques we use to address them.  Now that my time in this lab is nearing its end, I can say that I enjoy this research because neurology has always been one of my favorite topics in science. The Van Horn lab twists the traditional approaches that neuroscience generally employs by taking a more biochemical and biophysical approach towards understanding how these proteins work both inside  and outside of cells.

What was the most important thing you learned or took away from the summer program that helped you get where you are at now?

The summer program was a fantastic review of my physical chemistry, biology, and biochemistry classes. It really solidified what topics from my classes were going to be central to my future as a biomedical scientist. However, I think the most immediately beneficial part of the summer program was working with Dr. Matt Redinbo in his crystallography lab. I learned a series of new techniques while I was there and also solidified my last necessary letter of recommendation for graduate school.  Without the experience and connections I attained that summer, I may not have made it where I wanted to be.

What was your favorite thing about the summer program?

My favorite thing about the summer program was how much the people who sponsored the program tried to make the interns feel like they were being taken care of. The hospitality that was offered was unlike anything I had experienced and the excursions that they planned for us made for some of the best memories of my life. I also made some good friends who will likely be so for the rest of my life, and that type of experience is hard to replace.

Have mentors played a role in your success? If so, how?

I have had two impactful mentors during my undergraduate years, and each of them offered different insights in my life. Wade Van Horn helped me turn my education around and would consistently challenge me to do better than I was already doing. He would never accept mediocrity from me and his guidance kept my eyes on the prize (being a successful scientist). David Capco encouraged me to channel my desire to help other students into becoming a legitimate mentor for freshman undergraduates and middle/high-school students alike.  My mentoring experience helped me understand the importance of being a mentor to others in a similar way that Drs. Van Horn and Capco were to me. It is safe to say that the person I was before my interactions with them was a very different person than I am today.

What have been some of your toughest challenges so far in advancing your career?

The toughest challenge in my career had to be my grades. In my early college career, I was a terrible student and had no motivation to excel in my classes. This left me at a huge disadvantage after my sophomore year because my GPA hit a trough of cumulative 2.8. Since then, I have had to get basically all As in every class in every semester in order to prove to graduate admissions committees that the person I was in the beginning of college was not who I became during the middle and at the end. I ended up applying to graduate schools with a cumulative GPA of 3.25, which was the best I could get to. However, I plan to make up for my poor decisions by hitting the ground running in graduate school and not letting my prior habits from early undergraduate translate into the future of my career.

What advice would you give for current undergraduates interested in pursuing a higher degree?

Do it. That is my advice. Don’t think too hard about it and just do it. Although, since I have not started graduate school yet, I would argue that my opinion isn’t the most important. Another piece of advice I could give would be that if you are serious about pursuing a higher degree, look into PhD programs and not masters programs. They offer you more training, a more qualified degree, and they will give you great financial support. Don’t sell yourself short and shoot for the stars!

Advice for job seekers: How to get noticed and why the Annual Meeting is a great place to start!

Biophysical Society member Donald Chang defended his PhD thesis last year and found himself in the job market. After consideration about what career path to take, and some searching, he now works as an Associate Consultant at C1 Consulting, a healthcare consulting company. In this blog post, he offers some advice on how to get noticed as a job seeker, and why to take advantage of resources available at the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting. 

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Donald Chang

There is a quote I often like to use when describing the process of job hunting:  “Experience is a hard teacher, she gives the test first and then the lesson.” I certainly had my share of failed tests and learned lessons when job searching.  No doubt many of you are looking for a job and are hoping to network at this year’s Biophysical Society Annual Meeting.  Others may not have started job searching yet, but realize that you will soon face this challenge. Regardless of where you are in the process, by sharing some of my job seeking experiences as a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Biophysical community, I hope other prospective job-seekers may find my advice useful and utilize the career resources at the Biophysics Conference this year to its full potential.

I have been attending the Biophysical Society Meeting every year since 2010.  However, last year’s 2015 meeting in Baltimore was unique for me: it was my last as a graduate student. Before I knew it, the conference flew by, my thesis defense took place, and, with the deposit of my thesis and a few firm handshakes, I was cut loose into the job search.

Unlike some of my peers, I didn’t quite know what path to take after grad school. I considered academia, then industry, and finally, settled on the career path I’m on today as a healthcare consultant. In between, I interviewed and worked at a variety of jobs including a small bio-tech start-up and a research diagnostics lab. In these varied experiences, I learned some valuable lessons along the way that I’d like to share with you.

Manage your expectations.  Just because you have an advanced degree or heavy science background does not mean you are guaranteed to find a high-paying job or even be granted an interview. It is important to set the right mentality early on, otherwise you may feel quite disappointed. Many Ph.D. graduates find themselves disappointed when they are repeatedly turned away from jobs despite being a “doctor.”  I experienced this firsthand as I applied to multiple jobs with none of them giving a call-back.   Recognize that despite your educational background, many companies would still consider you “entry level” albeit with higher performance expectations. What your degree does do is underscore your potential to succeed and back up your intellectual merit should you impress – but first you must grab their attention, which leads me to my second point.

Make your presence felt.  People always say “Go network, utilize connections”, but what does that actually mean?  Let’s try to ground those statements with some real-life actionable items.

An easy entry into networking, is to create a LinkedIn profile, if you haven’t already, and keep it updated.  We live in a digital world where your online resume commands as much attention as your paper resume—if not more.  If you already have one, be sure that it is current and well-designed. If you are unsure how to spruce it up, the Career Center at the Annual Meeting can offer some great advice.  Be sure to visit them and set up an appointment for one-on-one resume review.  I recall spending quite a bit of time on my LinkedIn and resume, asking multiple people to review it.

Another “networking” to-do is connect with colleagues, both former and current, as well as establish new relationships. The Annual Meeting is a great place to start. I didn’t start taking advantage of the meets-and-greets and networking events until recent years, and regret not doing so earlier. The Annual Meeting is a great opportunity to expand your network with minimal effort on your end – just introduce yourself, make friends, and learn to carry a conversation! Trust me, it’s a lot harder to network behind a computer screen at home than to do it in person.

Lastly, stay persistent.  Tying into my first point about managing expectations, realize that this is a long process. As a scientist, you’re seeking a job that will challenge you, tap your potential, and open a path for your career to grow.  These opportunities do not happen overnight.  It is likely you will go through multiple rounds of interviews, lasting anywhere from 1 month to half a year.  One job I applied for had an interview process of over 3 months and over 3 rounds of interviews.  In hindsight it was an appropriate amount of time, but in the moment, each day seemed to drag on forever.  With that in mind, do not be discouraged if you make it to final interview rounds and don’t get an offer. Declined offers, just like failed science experiments, never feel good, but are by no means a sign to give up.  Stay persistent and keep at it.

Please note that there is a lot of advice out there on job searching and this is not meant to be a comprehensive guide.  Rather, the suggestions I shared are just selected ones which resonated the most with me when I was job hunting.  There is not a “one size fits all” formula for getting a job and I would encourage you to spend some time researching other tips or making an appointment at the Career Center at this year’s Annual Meeting to ensure you find the approach which best suits you. I utilized the Career Center last year when I was applying for jobs and the counselors were able to help guide me, improving my resume and advising me on my applicant profile.  Whether you need help getting past that final interview or getting an interview to begin with, the counselors at the Career Center have seen and heard it all and are more than willing to help.

Good luck!  ­

 

How Do I Prepare My Poster? How Do I Give a Talk?

Sections of this article are adapted from the article “Do’s and Don’ts of Poster Presentation,” by Steven M. Block, published in Biophysical Journal, Volume 71, December 1996.

Congratulations! Your abstract has been accepted for the 60th Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Society and your poster has been scheduled in with thousands of others during the meeting. What do you do next? How do you prepare for the presentation? What can you do to stand out from the others? Even if this is not your first presentation, it is important to keep certain things in mind while preparing your poster and presentation.

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First, consider how your poster will look—the size, colors, font, and flow of it. Think of your audience—people walking through the poster hall, glancing around for interesting topics. Most important on your poster is the title. The title of your poster does not need to match the title of your abstract. In fact, it’s best that it doesn’t. Your abstract title is probably long, incredibly descriptive, and possibly laden with jargon. But you are trying to attract people to come over and read your poster, so keep the title short, snappy, and to the point. Make sure someone can get a general idea of your topic just from reading the title – and make sure they can read the font from a reasonable distance.

Once you’ve lured readers to your poster, you want to make sure they can actually read the text you’ve so painstakingly put together. Fonts smaller than 12-point are just too small for a poster—14-point should be used as a benchmark for the absolute minimum font size (think fine print), and the main text should be 18-20 point or larger (the title should be even bigger). If your text doesn’t fit at that size, consider editing your text, not decreasing the font size. While we’re talking about fonts, keep in mind that poster presentations are not the right place to experiment with fun, fancy fonts (save those for e-cards to your Nobel Prize celebration!). Use fonts that are easy to read. If you want to move from the traditional Times New Roman, stick with something equally basic, such as Baskerville Old Face, Century Schoolbook, or Palatino Linotype. Make sure whatever font you choose works well with any equations or symbols you use. Once you’ve selected a font, keep your choice (and size) consistent throughout the poster.

You may want to draw readers to you by making your poster a bright color, or adding patterns or some other loud visual cue. There’s nothing wrong with a little color in your poster, but keep it professional (avoid neon hues, unless they’re relevant to your research), and keep it readable by making sure the colors contrast well—if you want a navy blue background, your font color should not be deep magenta.

Now that you’ve settled on the basic font, size, and color choices, it’s time to lay out your poster. Break your presentation into logical sections that easily flow from one to another, to help your reader follow your research. Start in the top left, moving vertically first, then left to right. Make sure to include any additional authors towards the beginning of your poster and any relevant references towards the end—it is very important to give credit to everyone involved!

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With your poster finished, it’s time to prepare your actual presentation. You’ll want to stick around near your poster for as much time as you can to engage with readers, answer questions, and of course meet and network with other scientists interested in your research. Definitely plan to camp out by your poster for at least the hour that you are scheduled to present. Keeping in mind that most people will only stop for a moment, and even those who linger will only do so for three to five minutes, put together an “elevator speech” with the top points you want to make and practice it! To help develop your presentation, test it out on a colleague or labmate to get feedback on your clarity and delivery.

Engage curious parties in conversation, but be careful to not badger anyone, or to be too engrossed in any one conversation (thus ignoring everyone else). You can always schedule a follow-up with very interested individuals if needed. If you have them, bring business cards (or paper and pen) to share your contact information with anyone interested in follow-up.

If you come prepared with a well-designed poster, a few key talking points, and copies of any necessary ancillary materials, you can hang your poster and then let your science speak for itself!

Does crying at work mean you’re incompetent?

Susy Kohout, Montana State University and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women, explores the perceptions surrounding crying in the workplace.

There always seems to be some news story making the rounds about women in STEM and whether they have what it takes to succeed. One of the common arguments supporting the idea that women are not as competent as men is the idea that women cry more often. Crying is often presented as an automatic disqualifier for success in science. If you cry, the thinking goes, you couldn’t possibly design a cutting edge experiment or successfully manage a lab. Instead, you are perceived as weak or overly emotional.

Our society looks down on perceived weakness and crying is definitely considered weak. Women have been called “the weaker sex” for centuries. Really though, crying is a normal physiological response to emotions. Some people cry only when sad or upset; others cry when happy. Crying in a professional setting is often thought of as a career killer. If you cry at work, the perception is that you are unstable or incompetent. In reality, a wide array of emotions may come up during working hours – especially in times of stress. For many people, crying is a normal release valve for these feelings.

If you are crying at your lab bench every day, it may be a good idea to think about why that is, and consider seeking help from a mental health professional. We are all human beings first and scientists second. As human beings, we sometimes need help. There is no reason to be ashamed of asking for it from an expert, just as we go to our colleagues who are experts in other fields when our research takes us in new directions. More commonly, crying at work is a result of normal stress or frustration. Getting upset at failing experiments or interpersonal conflicts is completely normal.  We have all been there. Remember, those tears are not a sign of incompetence.

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So, what should you do if there are tears at work? I have been the one crying and I have been on the other side, watching as someone is crying in front of me. Neither side is comfortable. In my own experience, acknowledging the situation is a helpful way of moving forward for both parties involved.

While in many cases, someone crying in the workplace would like nothing more than for their colleagues to ignore the tears, ignoring the situation is not always the best course of action. I prefer acknowledging the tears, particularly if I’m in a conversation when the tears start. I ask whether the conversation should be rescheduled. If the person crying says yes, then I postpone the conversation. If they say no, then I proceed with the conversation without the added concern of the elephant in the room. That acknowledgement and offer of a reprieve often goes a long way to helping the person in distress calm down. Acknowledging—without judgment—a person’s need to express his/her feelings can lead to a more positive outcome than leaving them to cry in silence, assuming their colleagues are judging them as weak or overly emotional.

The next time you encounter someone crying, acknowledge the crying as a natural emotional outlet rather than a sign of weakness. You’ll be surprised how your own reaction can improve an uncomfortable situation. The next time you find yourself becoming emotional and crying at work, recognize that it is a normal response and don’t berate yourself for it. Instead, figure out the cause, address it and ask for help if necessary. Empower yourself.

Charting the Course: How the BPS Summer Program Prepares Students for Success

Stephani Page, currently a doctoral student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Biochemistry & Biophysics Department, was one of the first students to complete the Biophysical Society Summer Research Program, in 2008. After this year’s reunion weekend, she reflected on her experiences in the program and how it helped lay the foundation for success in her PhD program.

ThougStephani-Page-headshoth it feels like yesterday, the swath of gray hairs growing from my temple tells me otherwise: the first day of the Biophysics Summer Course was over seven years ago.  Barry Lentz, the director at the time, laid out his expectations for the next two and half months.  In what I know now to be typical Barry fashion, he announced to my fellow classmates that I was accepted into the PhD program at UNC and that I would gain a lot from the summer program.  He was correct.

The summer program was an opportunity to transition into my PhD program, and I needed to make the most of it.  Looking back on the experience, I can think of many key benefits – but I narrowed it down to just two.  I built a network that would prove to be very important for my tenure as a graduate student; and as I gained knowledge in biophysical applications, I developed skills that would prove beneficial for my classes and research.

Graduate school is stressful, to say the least.  My favorite analogy calls a PhD program an endurance race.  I considered it paramount to build a network of people invested in my success.  The summer course gave me the opportunity to encounter different faculty so that I could begin to assess who would be a part of my system of advocates and advisors.  I met my graduate PI, my committee chair, and two of my committee members during the summer course.  One of those committee members was my summer course PI.  In a broad sense, through the summer course, I learned more about how to identify those individuals who are invested in my success and who care about my wellbeing as I strive to reach my goals.  I began to learn the difference between a mentor and an advisor, why each is important, and the ways that they can overlap.  I learned to identify my own needs as a budding scientist – a skill that I build on to this day.  Though not everyone who participates in the summer course chooses to attend UNC or get a PhD, the ability to identify what you need in order to thrive in any environment is invaluable.

I had a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and graduated from my master’s program in Biology during the summer course.  To that point, I hadn’t been in an environment where I could blend those two backgrounds, much less make sense of a broad, interdisciplinary field such as biophysics.  The summer course exposed me to biophysical techniques such as x-ray crystallography, NMR, mass spectrometry, and fluorescence spectroscopy.  We were exposed to molecular dynamics simulations and bioinformatics.  Statistical mechanics, partition functions, and Boltzmann – the physics of life took on meaning.  And I was able to apply what I was learning through my own research project.  By the time I was sitting in classes as a graduate student, I had experienced (and endured) these primers on topics that were complex and difficult.  I was able to approach my classes without being intimidated.  In moments of difficulty, I had relationships with faculty and more senior graduate students (who I had encountered during the summer course) and I was able to get help.  As a teaching assistant, I had examples to use in order to help other graduate students grasp concepts.  Overall, it was a crash course in critical analysis, collaboration, and interdisciplinary approaches applicable to any environment

As I mentioned earlier, the majority of my faculty support system during my PhD program were individuals I had encountered during the summer course.  I am thankful to say that I have built a support system of people who had completed the summer course with me, and in years after my class.  There is a common bond that we share as the select few who were able to encounter this experience.  As a graduate student on the cusp of completing my PhD, I look back on the experience with fondness.  The summer course is geared toward students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in biophysics and related areas or science.  Whether those individuals from underrepresented groups adopt the banner or not, as we navigate the various fields of science, we are trailblazers.  We will bring others along.  We will clear paths.  We will mentor, advise, and advocate.  The Biophysics Summer Course, to me, continues to represent an opportunity to learn more about oneself, to gain knowledge and skills applicable to any environment, and to build networks aimed at ensuring one’s own success.

Find out more about the Biophysical Society Summer Research Program in Biophysics.