Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why I loved my job today

Since starting in my current position, I have worked closely with one particular postdoc, helping her to prepare an RO1 based on her work. While I was gone on vacation these past several days, she finally completed a crucial experiment. You know, the obvious experiment that all the reviewers will demand. The one that you demand, to know whether or not this project is really viable. The big-time experiment that will make or break your entire hypothesis.

It worked.

She got awesome, beautiful data. She didn’t tell me until I wandered by her desk this afternoon… but it is gorgeous. Has the boss seen this? I demanded. Boss has indeed seen it, and was so excited that he took it to our new institute director (and that is an entirely separate and probably unbloggable topic—the major reorganization at our institute). Big Pharma Collaborator/Representative apparently also stopped by the lab while I was on vacation, saw the data, and got super excited. I’m excited and I’m just a bystander in this all. The postdoc has the wary demeanor I recognize, the I’m-not-going-to-jinx-this-so-I’ll-just-play-it-real-cool demeanor. In her place, I would think that I’d be jumping out of my frigging skin (maybe she did, when she first saw her results in private).

It’s not the same as being the first person in the world to see the data, the first person to understand something new about our universe. But peering over someone else’s shoulders will do for me. And I don’t envy having to do mouse work at all.


Today I had an interesting chat with the staff science editor at our institute. S.E. is the editor for our entire institute, working with any lab who requests his services. I work for only one laboratory. S.E. edits other people’s words, but I actually do a lot of de novo writing and very substantive editing (to the point where the line between editing and writing becomes very blurred).

S.E. was involved in my hiring, and today I asked him something I’ve been long curious about. What were the backgrounds of the other candidates who interviewed for my job?

I should note that I applied for this position with naïve confidence. Our institute is not a well-known one, and it is located in flyover country. I know that our location makes recruitment of American Ph.Ds. difficult. The faculty are all great (heck, people will accept faculty jobs wherever they can get them, right?). But there are very very few American postdocs here. The few that are here all have family ties of some kind to the area.

So I figured the job posting I applied to probably wouldn’t get many qualified American Ph.D.s The job description did not formally require a Ph.D., although the degree was described as useful. I applied with inward swagger, thinking: I have a Ph.D. from a prestigious program and a postdoc from Big Research U! Who could possible be my competition?

Well, today S.E. told me who my competitors were. Folks, it is a brutal world out there (like you didn’t already know that).

The job wasn’t nationally advertised, but yeah, there were other Ph.D.s applying for this position. Ph.Ds with postdoctoral experience. The other leading candidate was a faculty member from a teaching-oriented school several hours away. I was floored that a faculty member would apply for such an editing job. Apparently, the hiring committee was also surprised, and concerned about how committed this faculty member really was to the position (hence my hiring).

Then S.E. told me about other positions he’d hired for. S.E. is a long-time editor; he’s worked at a number of places, including Big Pharma, and in different fields. He told me that once he was hiring for an assistant editor and got flooded with 50 applications from people with advanced degrees. It was incredible, S.E. recalled. Most people had Ph.Ds., and it was a position that did not require a Ph.D. One person had a J.D. (I didn’t get that at all, S.E. told me. He was a lawyer—why wasn’t he out making good money as a lawyer? Maybe he hated being a lawyer? I offered).

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Even before this latest economic downturn, there was a desperate postdoc glut and plenty of trained scientists looking for a way out. I am luckier than I thought. And the job market—even in “alternative” fields—is more brutal than I had believed.


Mad Hatter said...

I don't think I ever got the chance to congratulate you on your new (well, not so new now) position. Yeah, it is brutal out there, but that makes your getting this position even more of an accomplishment, so congrats! Sounds like it's going great so far. Any challenge grants for you?

ScienceGirl said...

Very cool about the new discovery!

And yes, the job market seems really tight. With all the competition, I am glad they picked the right person for the job :)

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Isn't it cool being that close to the data, but not having to do the actual work?!!

I heard that my job description attracted a lot of people with PhDs (required), but with no evidence that they'd had any long-standing interest in writing. I've actually personally met 2 people who told me they'd applied for my job. Both PhD/postdoc, and one with extensive prior grant writing experience. Luckily for me, he was offered something else... but the other one had really wanted my job. She did find something that suits her eventually, and I see her around at conferences and such (she's really nice). It's always an awkward moment when someone tells you something like that!

EcoGeoFemme said...

Cool story about the data.

I agree with MH that it's extra great that you got the job given the competition. But, um, could you not remind me how bad things are right now?

ScienceMama said...

It is pretty terrifying as both a postdoc and the wife of a postdoc to think about the job prospects out there. It's scary, indeed!

The bean-mom said...

Just wanted to add here:

by my reference to American postdocs, I didn't mean to imply that American postdocs are necessarily better than non-Americans. It's simply that I assumed my institution's inability to attract American postdocs probably meant there wren't many native or fluent English speaking scientists in the candidate pool for my job...

And yeah, if you see the numbers it's scary. But as Cath mentioned, the majority of applications for S.E.'s science editing jobs were from people who had advanced degrees, but no evidence of any serious interest in writing. And a number of applications actually had serious grammatical errors in the cover letter and resume! So I guess if you look at absolute numbers of applicants it seems terrifying... but if you look at numbers of serious applicants, the picture changes.

Postdocs these days are a dime a dozen. For any job application (including the "alternative" careers) you need to stand out in some way and tailor yourself to the specific position. And if you can't write grammatical English, you probably shouldn't apply for an editing job!(actually, you shouldn't apply to any job without proofreading your materials!)

SciMom said...

There are so many factors today working against PhDs having successful academic careers. I walked away from a 17 year academic career when I was at the Associate Professor level and into a biotech job I was way overqualified for. I wanted to try to build a new career path with more financial stability for myself and my family. Given I was laid off after Christmas, my plan isn't currently working all that well.

The bean-mom said...


It's interesting to hear your perspective. I myself went into science writing with the idea that this would be a more sustainable path than a research career at the bench. We'll see if it holds true...