If you are a scientist, you know at least a little bit about the current crisis academia is suffering. The large number of PhD students inside a system that does not have enough academic jobs for all of them after they finish their postdoctoral training is alarming. It is also common to hear that competition for faculty positions at universities (and we are not talking only about Harvard, MIT, and Stanford) includes hundreds of qualified individuals for one job. Yes, only ONE.
An academic year is over, and a new one has begun. For us in the lab, it may seem like nothing has changed as our daily load of experiments continues. But the way I see it, a new academic year ushers in new conferences (and yes, this includes ASCB's 2014 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, which if you haven't registered for yet, you should!)! Conferences represent the best about science: A gathering of minds, sharing of information, discussions of data both published and unpublished, and chances to meet the people working in the field—Nobel prize winners, established or young PIs, and other grad students and postdocs. With that said, here are my approaches toward a successful conference season ahead:
Intense competition in the biomedical sciences has been a hot topic recently, pinned as everything from the impetus to commit fraud to a symptom of the overall unsustainability of the research ecosystem. It drives us to hide our findings until publication, chase down scientific fads, and leave negative data to languish.
Although there may be quite a lot of science in the news lately (the Ebola scare, climate change, 2013 Merriam-Webster's "word of the year"), the sad truth is that the future for science research in the United States is bleak. For those of us in our PhDs or postdocs, this probably doesn't come as a surprise. You may have read the viral article, Why You Don't Actually 'f*@king love science' or have seen this depressing infographic. The research enterprise in the USA has been on the downward trajectory, losing critical funding (the NIH has lost about 25% of its "purchasing power" in the past 10 years). And what that means is that there is little future for a career in science, ESPECIALLY for our generation of scientists, the 20-30 somethings.
San Diego radio station KPBS reported last year that a local lab was looking for a PhD to work for free. The "Unpaid Volunteer in a Basic Science Research Laboratory" ad (chemjobber) on Craigslist requested a PhD and 2-3 years of postdoc experience to work on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) research. The ad quickly disappeared, but now a lab in Hackensack, NJ is offering a similar arrangement.
There are many reasons for wanting to go to graduate school: You want to become a professor, you love pipetting colorless liquids, you really liked your biology classes in college, or you are burning with an insatiable desire to understand biological mechanisms. Whatever your reason, you should know what you're getting into: Not only does your future happiness depend on it, but this knowledge may also determine your success. Let me explain.
Playing a musical instrument. Ballroom dancing. Musical theater. Knitting. Painting. Woodworking. What do all of these activities have in common? Most obviously, they all have an extremely creative component. But what if I asked about motorcycle racing, rock climbing, skiing, and distance running in addition to the activities above? Now the common thread is a little less obvious, but very intriguing—these are hobbies of graduate students, postdocs, and professors in the University of Massachusetts (UMass) college system.
A collaborator and I are about to submit a manuscript, a process that is deeply satisfying. However, it also leads me to reflect on the inefficiencies of the current publishing system. For example:
● Traditional academic publishing is extremely expensive, and much of its cost goes to filling corporate coffers rather than paying for services necessary for publishing. For example, Elsevier alone pulled in $1.1 billion in profit in 2010, an astounding 36% of its total revenue. In an age of tightening budgets, this is probably not the best use of public funds.
In my last post, I covered the initial steps of applying for academic faculty jobs, basically preparing and submitting the application material to the universities. Most universities will shortlist the applications to between 5 - 20% for further evaluation, which usually includes two types of interviews: first, a remote interview (via phone or Skype), and finally the last round—a visit to the university. To get to this final step is already a significant achievement, since competition for faculty positions in certain universities in the United States can be intense—around 300 applications for 1 position.
Scientists can be reclusive. Not just in the "lab work all day, time course all night, cell culture all weekend" way, but also because we can be a very isolated community. We are busy trying to keep afloat in a competitive field, and other scientists and like-minded academics often surround us. Our friends, colleagues, classmates, and sometimes even partners, are part of the science community that encompasses most of our time.