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!
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BPS Summer Research Program Alumni Reunion: A Current Student’s Perspective

From June 17-19 the Biophysical Society’s Summer Program in Biophysics hosted its annual Alumni Reunion Weekend in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Previous program participants joined the current class for a fun and informative weekend that included a BBQ reception, scientific presentations from program alumni, career talks and panels featuring a diverse group of visiting scientists, as well as poster presentations by students from the current class. Students, alumni, and professors had a chance to catch up, network, and even make a few new friends over the course of the weekend. Current students received feedback on their posters and guidance on navigating their careers, along with the opportunity to ask questions on a variety of topics. In this blog, we will hear from current BPS Summer Program participant, Monica Cortez, on her thoughts about the reunion weekend.

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The Biophysical Society’s 2016 Summer Program Alumni Reunion Weekend was my first experience participating in an event where I had the opportunity to present my research. The weekend’s poster session went well and I was able to discuss my research with alumni, current students, program staff, and visiting scientists. During the session, one scientist approached me with a mini experiment she was conducting on students during the poster session: I was dealt the task of explaining my project to her as if she were a time traveler from the 1800s. At first I was nervous about the approach to explaining my project in an elementary way, but much to my surprise, I quickly uncovered my talent for science communication. As a scientist, it is important to be able to communicate your research to anyone ranging from the general public to the most knowledgeable scientists. There was a lot of fun to be had explaining my project in breaking it down to the bare bones of it, the most fundamental concepts going into the big picture of the research. I realized then that my ability to simplify the explanation of my project meant my mentor had done an excellent job in helping me understand my project.

As the poster session proceeded, groups would rotate, and some people would linger a little longer if something caught their interest or if they needed further clarification about the project. This brought me to my next challenge, the challenge of defending previous work done on the project; work done by other researchers collaborating on the project. This means that I was asked questions about the research that I had not asked myself previously. One particular question involved a technique I had not done previously. My first time doing the technique was less than 24 hours before the question was asked. This was a frustrating moment during the poster session. The conversation about a tiny but very important detail to the project felt like it went on for hours. As my first poster session and first experience presenting my “explanation of research” experience, I felt targeted by the question, but I walked away from it with a new understanding. This understanding is that you will be asked questions you did not think about, and you will have to answer truthfully that you do not know the answer to their question. It is not a matter of being targeted, rather it is a matter of realizing research is about answering questions no one knows the answer to.

On the concluding day of the weekend, Summer Program alumni presented their own research and took part in a career panel. This day, program alum, Dr. Yadilette Rivera-Colón provided feedback about the “time traveler” experiment she conducted and went on to explain her background and her path to get where she is today. Congratulations to her because she announced her next career move: an associate professor position! It was amazing to sit amongst a crowd seeing one of our very own alumni finally serving in academia as a professor. Another alum spoke on getting NSF grants and provided tips on how to apply. There were also alumni who spoke on taking steps towards other career opportunities outside of academia. I felt that this was a good choice of topic and beneficial to expose the current Biophysical Society’s Summer Program students to alternative career choices. The career panel was also beneficial in that it led to interesting discussions. One particular point I feel is important to mention is the commonality among the scientists on the panel: even though their paths were very different, they all overcame potential roadblocks encountered by building an excellent support system. One very emotional topic involved the journey to getting a PhD; many panelists felt a lack of excitement and emotional support from their advisors when passing their candidacy, being given a small “congratulations” and a “so what’s next for experiments?”. I was taken aback by this because I’ve always surrounded myself in a good network of people who get excited over my accomplishments no matter how big or small they are. This emotional experience was important for the summer students to witness, highlighting how a strong support system and communication skills play a huge part in success. Communication of your work as a scientist is important, but more importantly the communication between you and your advisor/boss is even more important. Once the emotional needs of the mentee are efficiently communicated to the mentor, their relationship can strengthen. Your mentor/mentee relationship is an important part to succeeding in graduate school and beyond. Several alumni candidly discussed how not meeting these emotional needs can lead to crippling depression during graduate school, and encouraged current students to utilize the Program’s alumni network as a source of ongoing support throughout their careers.

The weekend concluded differently than I had expected but overall I wouldn’t have changed anything about this experience. The summer students met people from different career paths and learned how to communicate. Being a part of this summer program feels like a privilege. Not only was I blessed with an advisor who helped me accomplish this part of my career journey, but I am blessed to be working on a project with an excellent mentor here at UNC who is extremely supportive as well. This weekend showed me that I also have a network of alumni from the Biophysical Society’s Summer Research program; an important connection between previous students and the current students has been established, and we are so lucky to have met them all.

 – Monica K Cortez, Biophysical Society Summer Research Program Fellow

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!  ­

 

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.

Biophysicists Share Their Science in the Czech Republic

Czech Republic Networking Event, which took place on June 12, was the first event BPS-supported event to take place in the area. Hosted at the Institute of Photonics and Electronics, The Czech Academy of Sciences, the conference had over 30 participants, including professionals, graduate students and undergrads from the local area. One of the organizers, Michal Cifra, wrapped it up for our blog readers below!

Czech Republic 1The one day event was primarily aimed to facilitate networking in the region of Czech Republic where several high quality molecular biophysics groups in different research institutions are based. These groups did not have much opportunity to interact locally to fully cross-fertilize ideas and further develop their potential beyond pure biophysics towards hot topics such as bioelectronic and biophotonic medicine and other bio-inspired technological applications in photonics and electronics. “Electrostatic, Electrodynamic and Electronic Properties of Biomolecular Systems” was the scientific subtitle of the event. Main specific topics covered were electrostatic, electrodynamic, vibrational and electronic properties of biomolecules and biomolecular nanostructures with the focus on proteins and DNA.

In the first part of the event, 9 speakers, experts in molecular biophysics, bioelectrochemistry and coherent processes in biology, presented the basic concepts of their individual fields as well as their current results. In the second part, the speakers were able to networking with the attendees and have in-depth discussions during the posters session. Finally, a brief tour to the laboratories of Bioelectrodynamics research team was provided.

Czech Republic 2The speakers we had were not only great researchers, but also great lecturers who can really attract and keep attention; so their talks were very enjoyable. We learned that this kind of event provides a great format for the exchange of scientific information as well as networking. The event was really a great way to meet new people. As an organizer, I personally met not only PIs and professors but also postdocs and PhD students.

We hope to organize similar event in the near future!

Were you at the Czech Republic Networking Event? Share your favorite part of the event in the comments below!

Expanding the Biophysics Network in Kentucky

Organized by Trevor Creamer, University of Kentucky, the 4th Bluegrass Molecular Biophysics Symposium, held on Monday, May 18, at the University of Kentucky, brought together nearly one hundred people. Registrants came from KentucKYky, Ohio, Tennessee, Indiana, and North Carolina.

The symposium covered the broad field of molecular biophysics with talks and posters on subjects ranging from lipids to proteins and describing work done with a wide variety of techniques. The breadth of subjects covered demonstrates that molecular biophysics is alive and well in this region of the country. Creamer notes that the quality of molecular biophysics-based research being done in the region is outstanding. This was apparent from both the talks and the more than 40 posters presented.

Creamer was surprised at the number of people who have attended this symposium more than once. He found it extremely gratifying because of the distance people are willing to travel for a one day event like this. Each year, symposium attracts new people from the surrounding areas; a pair of biophysicists traveled from Western Carolina University, over 280 miles away!
Creamer hopes to host another event next year.

Were you at the Kentucky Networking Event? Share some of you experiences in the comments below!

Bringing Together Biophysicists in the Hoosier State

The Biophysical Society recently sponsored a networking event for biophysicists in Indiana. The event, titled “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Protein Galaxy: A Mini-symposium on Integrating Structure, Function, and Interactions of the Protein Universe,” was held at Purdue University on May 13-14, 2015, and was organized by Satchal K. Erramilli, Duy P. Hua, Adriano Mendes, Phillip Rushton, Brendan Sullivan, Sakshi Tomar, all of Purdue University. Satchal Erramilli reports on the event – and explains its interesting title.

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Attendees mingle during the poster session.

You many wonder why we chose the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” as the theme for a symposium on protein science and biophysical research. The classic novel by Douglas Adams, which we often wax nostalgic about, is an excellent work of fiction, but is also filled with concepts that can readily be applied to scientific inquiry. The book contains a long tangent on the validity of mice models, includes an excellent digression on “Somebody Else’s Problems”, and is peppered with discussions on evolution. Most significantly, the book’s most famous story – the meaning of life – is an allegory for asking the right questions, as important an exercise as any for a scientist.

And so we drew on themes from the book for our symposium, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Protein Galaxy”. We were charmed to find many attendees and sponsors shared our enthusiasm for the novel, and some of the credit for the event’s success has to be ascribed to the theme. Indeed, we found many attendees were as excited to discuss the book as they were to discuss science.

The symposium was held at Purdue University on May 13th and 14th, 2015, with the goal of bringing together protein scientists and biophysical researchers from all across campus. Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors, we were able to expand the scope of the event to include attendees and presenters from nearby institutions and, in some cases, beyond. We had over 130 attendees, with nearly two dozen coming from nearby institutions in Indiana and Illinois, and some even as far off as Cornell, the N.I.H., and Texas Tech. This can only be described as apropos for a Hitchhiker-themed symposium.

We felt the event should reflect the depth and breadth of structural biology research here at Purdue, and thus it included aspects of protein science ranging from basic to applied, from individual proteins to whole cell studies. The presenters had backgrounds as diverse as their topics, and included several young faculty members, postdoctoral scholars, and senior graduate students. Topics ranged from protein structure and function to biophysical methods and high-resolution electron microscopy, and much more. Attendees clearly enjoyed being able to hitchhike around the Protein Galaxy during the two days of the symposium.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Protein Galaxy organizers pose for a photo.

The presence and participation of our external attendees enriched the experience for all at this event, and their interactions with local researchers offered the potential for fruitful collaborations. In particular, we recognize our keynote speaker, Dr. Tony Kossiakoff, who was an excellent guest of honor for the event and drew an audience exceeding the venue’s capacity. As an unexpected addition, and entirely a product of the enthusiasm of several of our visitors, we were able to organize an impromptu career workshop, which our graduate students found tremendously useful. We hope to have even more external presenters next time.

We definitely plan to have this event again next year. We can only hope to again receive such tremendous support from our sponsors, who far exceeded our expectations with their willingness to sponsor the symposium, the awards, and contribute in many other ways. We were thrilled to get this networking grant from the Biophysical Society, which, besides providing us with money, also provided visibility for the event beyond what we could have hoped for. A big shout out goes to April Murphy, who made time not just to assist us and help market the symposium but also to visit us and take part in our event. It was a pleasure to work with her and everyone else who helped make this a success, and we hope to see her and many others at the next iteration of this symposium. See you again next year, fellow hitchhikers!