Advice for Graduate Students of all Scientific Stripes and Stages

For this week’s Worldwide Wednesday post, here are some links with helpful advice for graduate students of all scientific stripes and stages.

Rookie class:

For most of you bright-eyed incoming grad students, choosing a thesis advisor will ultimately come down to research interest. Some of will you will go through lab rotations, which serve as 1) an audition, and 2) to determine if your interests align. But don’t forget to consider the intangibles: Are your working philosophies compatible? Will you integrate seamlessly in the lab/research group? What are the completion rates and times in said lab? And where do graduates end up after completing their thesis?

Mentor selection, of course, does not end there. At some point, you will also have to choose your thesis committee and a “good committee is worth it’s weight in gold.” I happen to agree. Unfortunately, in my observations, thesis committees are often underused and undervalued. Choosing a good committee will be important for your graduate career as they serve not only as advisors, but also as advocates and the beginning of your professional network. (You can read more of the Twitter conversation about selecting a thesis committee here)

The “in your prime” years:

It’s never too early to start thinking about your career after grad school. It’s true, believe me. That’s right, I’m talking to you, “good-data-generatin’, conference-travelin’,” excited third years. Not to be a killjoy, but it’s a poorly kept secret that jobs of the academic, tenure-track variety are getting harder to come by. Nature’s Soapbox Science series on revamping the PhD (PhDelta) is a good place to start reading about what you can do to make yourself more “marketable” and “flexible” to a changing job market. These pieces in Development and ASBMB list non-research and private sector jobs available to science PhD’s, of which you might not have been aware. Lastly, there’s the Individual Development Plan, which is a “new Web-based career-planning tool created to help graduate students and postdocs in the sciences define and pursue their career goals.“ I haven’t had a chance to really explore this web tool yet, but it’s worth a look see.

Grizzled (and maybe disgruntled) veterans:

And all of you with one foot out the door…how many times have you talked your way out of doing an experiment? Well, don’t talk yourself out of applying for jobs , because, well you know, “No one ever got a job by not applying.” And while on the topic of applying for jobs, if you haven’t started a CV yet, what’s the hold up? Here’s a crash course primer to what should be included in your CV (hint: Everything)–bearing in mind that CV’s will need to be tailored for each job application.

How to turn your CV into a Resume.


Good luck!

Related Reading:

CVs/Covering Letters

So you want to be a…

Nonacademic Careers for BioScientists

There is life after the bench

“What are you going to do after you get your PhD?”

It’s a question familiar to every PhD student, ranking up there with “When will you finish?”, and if you’re lucky enough to be in biology: “Are you working on a cure for cancer?” As a PhD student entering the twilight of my graduate school career, I have been thinking more and more about what I want to do next. Whether it be a post-doc in academia, industry, or a complete change of pace such as work in science communication or policy, the prospects of a new project in a new setting can be exciting. Other times, the uncertainty turns my stomach over with anxiety.

After reading U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there, Sunday felt more like the latter. The article fingers a confluence of factors contributing to the lack of STEM jobs, in particular for biology and chemistry PhDs. These include: a scarcity of traditional academic jobs, an overproduction of PhDs from 2003-2007, stagnant federal spending on research spending, and significant job contraction in the pharmaceutical industry. Put simply, the PhD bubble burst and now there aren’t enough jobs to go around. And as if the article isn’t disheartening enough, it ends with a woman discouraging her daughter from pursuing science–so much for efforts in encouraging women in STEM.

What, then, is a newly minted PhD to do? Some find themselves working jobs for which they did not specifically train, such as an academic administrator. One emerging profession, called a knowledge broker, is also something to consider. Others might take different routes into science writing and communication. But as David Kroll points out, “Even a typical non-lab career of science writing is becoming extremely competitive, both for salaried positions and freelancers.” Not particularly encouraging news, considering how I started blogging to try my hand at writing.

Or perhaps we should be taking a cue from our more math-inclined brethren. Physics and astronomy PhD’s seem to be the exemption to this trend and are finding jobs in a variety of fields and industries. This is probably because, as Julianne Dalcanton explains, “a typical astronomy postdoc has experience with software development, image processing, filtering, large data volumes, experimental design, data visualization, project management, proposal preparation, and technical writing — all of which are generic skills that can be applied to a wide variety of technical positions outside of astronomy.” Take home message: obtain a skill set that is marketable and applicable to many different jobs. 

Or maybe we should keep things in perspective. As the article points out, the unemployment rate for chemistry PhD’s is around 4.6, while physics and astronomy is even lower at 1-2. No numbers were provided for biology PhD’s, but I suspect its lower than the national average. Razib Khan writes, “Consider that the woman who seems to have “wasted” a neuroscience Ph.D. in yesterday’s Washington Post article now has a job in academic administration. This is the sort of failure that manual laborers and factory workers alike would probably kill for.”

Truthfully, my ideal job would be some combination of what I currently do. I enjoy doing research, but I’d also like to devote some of my time towards education outreach programs like the one I’ve been involved with during grad school called ARISE. And I would also like to continue writing and blogging about science. The trick now is to find said job. And make sure it pays beaucoup bucks.

Related Reading:

More thoughts on the Washington Post article from Chemjobber

The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps (The article refers to the woman with a PhD as Ms. Apparently, once you go food stamps you lose your honorific.)