Today I’m very proud to feature Ivonne Pena at SciAm today, telling us some important things about context. Many people just assume that others know what a syllabus is, how to get around, etc. But when you are here in academia from a foreign country, it is not so simple. Head over and check it out!
I’m at SciAm Blogs today, where I’m introducing a whole week of Guest posts. I’m sure many of you have heard what happened to Danielle Lee this past weekend. I would like to take her goals, and use them to expand the conversation. From the Buzzfeed article:
Though she’s grateful for the support, Lee said she wishes the attention was geared toward one of her already existing missions in the science community, like increasing diversity.
“If that many people were going to come out in support of me, I’d rather it be in support of one of the missions that’s going to make me redundant. I am trying to make myself redundant, truth be told. It is a lonely place to constantly be the only one like you in science,” she said.
Let’s use the opportunity to get voices heard. At SciAm, you’ll see a whole week of guest posts. People who you should pay attention to, with voices very, very worth hearing. Check it out.
The other day, I received a tweet that made me immensely happy.
@scicurious Wanted to let you know, I'm using your post on obesity & OCD as an example in the tutorial I'm teaching on science blogging!
— Andrea Wishart (@pickleswarlz) September 30, 2013
Someone used my blog in a classroom! This gave me all sorts of warm fuzzies. I love to write for the public, and I hope that people can find me, but it’s also wonderful to be used in the classroom! It’s a sign that I’m writing at the right level, and that what I’m doing is helpful to educators as well as people who just love science.
So then I thought, you know, it’d be GREAT if I could actually keep TRACK of this.
Have you ever used my blog in the classroom? Have you used it because you liked it? Have you used it because you hate it? I figure there are arguments either way. Why did you use it? What did you use it for? Was it effective?
I would really like to know. So if you have, please drop me a line, at scicurious [at] gmail [dot] com. I’d love to hear from you!
This is part 3 of my posts on STEM careers. I’m not sure how long it will go on. Probably until I’m out of thoughts on the matter. But I think, as I’ve left academia, I’ve learned some things that can benefit the people who are still there. Parts 1 and 2 are available here and here.
Last week, I talked about how much advisors could benefit their students by just keeping in touch with some of the people they used to work with who went into careers outside of academia. And I thought, you know, people might want some tips on HOW, exactly, to keep in touch.
First, for the advisors: It’s not as hard as you think to keep in touch. I know when many people first think about “keeping in touch,” you think of careful emailing once or twice a year, which, once you add colleagues and former colleagues and people you used to know…well that’s a lot of time spent networking.
But networking doesn’t have to be that way. I know many academics think LinkedIn is useless. I also used to joke about it, and not understand it.
Then I left academia.
LinkedIn is a GOLD MINE. And I’m encouraging academics to get on LinkedIn ASAP and use it. Not for themselves, but for their trainees.
Because this is how you keep in touch with all the people who you don’t want to friend on Facebook, but who you just want to keep a tiny thread of connection to. A small rolodex, of people that you’ve known professionally…that updates itself.
Say you know someone you went to grad school with. You’re pretty sure they went into industry. But you’re not totally sure. Your student wants to look at industry.
- Go to LinkedIn
- Search for the name
- Find the person
- Connect with them
Most professionals on LinkedIn keep it pretty well updated. They know that employers go there, and it’s also a nice place to look professional while networking. So many will have recent information on the site. Then, when you need them, you can look at their profile, see where they went, what they do, and message them “Hi Don, great to see that you’ve done so well in industry! It sure has been a long time since grad school! I’m now a prof at Big U, and my student is interested in industry in your field. I see you’ve been working at J&J for a while, I’m sure they’d like to hear your story. Do you think you might have time to chat with hir about it? Hope things are going well. – You”
You can even find contacts without remembering their names. Search your contacts on LinkedIn for “industry”. Seriously. A set of connections who have that in their profile will come up. It’s that easy.
This doesn’t involve emailing or actively keeping up with people. That’s the great thing about LinkedIn. And other people outside of academia KNOW this. They won’t be upset that you haven’t contacted them in years, instead, they’ll probably be happy you want them to mentor.
Now, for the people who have left/are considering leaving academia: Please. Reach back. I’m trying to do this, to friend and connect with people who I’ve left behind. I connect with everyone who I know, and willingly accept most connections.
It can be hard. Sometimes, we leave academia and we’re bitter. It’s hard to leave that culture, to feel like you are unprepared for everything outside it, and to feel like, sometimes, it kicked you out. Often you feel like your choice to leave was not…respected like it could have been, or like things went badly on the way out.
And yes, sometimes they do. I’ve heard grad student stories of the kind of callous lack of support that make me want to cry. And I’ve seen a lot of people who have decided they want to leave…and have no idea where to look.
But that is WHY you need to reach back. Because all of us who have left academia have BEEN in that position, unsure, worried, stressed, and having a lot of difficulty figuring out what to do. By reaching back, you place yourself where people can find you, remember you, and get your help. By reaching back, you help ensure that fewer people will struggle. You can show them what success outside the pipeline looks like. And you get to continue mentoring and helping other people succeed. Wins all around.
So reach out. Reach back. And get on LinkedIn. Staying in touch doesn’t having to be hard. And the little things can make a big difference.
This is part 2 of my posts on STEM careers. I’m not sure how long it will go on. Probably until I’m out of thoughts on the matter. But I think, as I’ve left academia, I’ve learned some things that can benefit the people who are still there.
I’ve often heard it said (and heck, I have said it myself) that scientists need to re-define “alternative careers.” Right now, they usually mean it as a career that isn’t tenure track. When only 1 out of 6 STEM PhDs are getting tenure track jobs, though…that “alternative” rings a little untrue. But to those inside academia, well, any other path DOES look “alternative.” It’s alternative because it’s the one they did not take, the one they have no experience with. I am sympathetic to that. Until a few months ago, it was all I had experience with, too.
But it becomes harder and harder to be sympathetic when I realize how ill-prepared many STEM PhDs are for the world outside academia. I was lucky. I had built a network outside of academia while I was still in it, built my own bucket to catch me as I dripped out of the pipeline. But many people are not me. Many young scientists may be thinking that academia is not for them…but don’t know where to go.
And the wide world outside the ivory tower is a very different place. A foreign place. This isn’t just because we love our ivory cocoon. Often, it’s because, after 6 years of grad school and 3 years of postdoc and maybe some years of another postdoc, you look around…and realize you don’t KNOW anyone outside of academia. All your friends are grad students or postdocs, maybe you married one, maybe you look at the people on your Facebook who aren’t in science and see that they are all from high school or earlier. You don’t know anyone outside of academia.
Or at least, you don’t think you do.
And this is what I’ve heard in my previous posts. The PIs say they want to help, but they have “few contacts.” They say they don’t know anyone outside of academia. This isn’t true. It’s not that you don’t know them. It’s that to you, they don’t exist anymore.
Since I took my first, faltering steps out of academia, I’ve walked into a different world. The little differences you expect, like working fewer hours, people having lives outside of work and talking about them. My personal favorite difference is in attitude. In academia, I constantly felt that getting something right…was only what you should be doing. Oh, you got published? Well, you should be getting published and really everyone else is far ahead of you on that. Only academia can turn your successes into mere “not-failures”. Getting something wrong was an irrevocable stain on your career. HOW DARE you not know X before you started. And not getting a grant? Well sometimes that meant bye-bye. But outside? You get PRAISED when you get things right! And when you get things wrong (as long as it’s not TOO major), they say “you got this wrong, but you can do better, let’s work on it for next time.” But that’s not the difference I’m talking about here. It’s this one…
…when it comes to academia, I might as well not exist. I still contact my old PIs to get some papers out the door, but I don’t hear from my old lab mates very often. I NEVER hear from people in other labs, the labs I collaborated with, the people I knew and saw daily, hung out with. I left academia, and I might as well not exist to them at all.
Out of sight, out of mind.
And who can blame them? They’ve got experiments to carry out, students to herd, work to do, papers to write. They are BUSY. Heck, so am I! I miss them though, whether or not they miss me. But once I’m out…well what do they say? Can they even relate to me anymore? I mean, we can’t just go to a bar and bitch, right? What do they even say?
I would like to think we’ve still got plenty to say, but I also think that it might be a good idea for people to keep in touch with me, even after the papers are out (and they’ll get out, really they will, I am determined). Even after they never see me anymore. Maybe not on a daily basis, but to keep me in mind.
I think they might need me someday.
I don’t mean that egotistically. They’ll hopefully never need me to save them from a burning building or a runaway horse. And they won’t need me for their careers, still headed onto the tenure track as they are. I hope they succeed and get there. I have worked with some brilliant minds, some wonderful people, and I want them to succeed where I have ‘failed’ with every bit of my being. I want them to become the hot scientists of tomorrow (some of them are the hot scientists of today!).
But I still think they may need me. After all, someday they may have students. Students who aren’t just like them. Students who are looking at the tenure track, and like me, think that a lifetime spent writing grants where only 1/10 will get funded sounds like a nightmare. And they want guidance, the want to know where the alternative careers are and what skills you need to have to get one.
Will my former colleagues and bosses remember me then? I hope they do. But I suspect they won’t.
I suspect they’ll be in the comments section of someone just like me, saying “I have very few contacts…” and basically saying “I can’t help them, it’s too hard.” Many of my mentors were the same. Often, when I finally built up the courage to ask about alternative careers (which, by the way, was probably too late, and maybe more on that later), my mentors looked at me, and they looked lost. They wanted to help me. They really did. But they could not think of anyone outside of academia. If I was very lucky, they dredged up one name, or two. Out of the many many people that, between them, my mentors and colleagues had worked with, they could remember almost none who had left the pipeline. Even though, statistically, more than half of them must have. Even if your entire career has been in ivy-covered, well-funded hot stuff walls (and I’ve spent time in some of those), not everyone went on the tenure track.
After all, unless you are a very young PI, you have graduated some students. You have served on the committees of others. Some of those may well have left the tenure track. Do you know where they went? Often, I’ve found, people don’t. They keep tabs on the former grad students and postdocs they see at conferences, or that they are collaborating with, not the ones that have left the tenure track. The ones who stay, those are the useful ones. Students who stay in academia help a PI get tenure, they look good on grants. The ones who left? Useless.
Or not. If you’re going to help your students, they are not useless at all. What about the people you postdoced with? The ones you were to grad school with? If you’re friends with them on Facebook or LinkedIn…you might know where they went. If you don’t, why not? Why doesn’t anyone keep tabs of these students, these former colleagues?
Out of sight, out of mind. PIs lead busy lives and have plenty of email to pursue without keeping tabs on students outside the tenure track. But what if they DID start keeping tabs? I think it would make a heck of a difference. Then, when a student comes up and says they really wanted to go into industry, you might actually know someone to refer them to. If they want to go into writing, you may know someone, or at least know someone outside the tenure track who you could ASK. If someone approaches the department and wants to do a seminar on alternative careers, you might know someone to bring in, with the added personal connection to make them want to come back and show their alma mater how well they’ve done. Many of the people who I eventually found who left the tenure track LOVED mentoring. They want people to come to them! They want to tell other students, who may have been just like them, how to succeed!
And those little openings in the culture could mean so much. Just knowing that your PI knows people outside of academia opens up a student’s mind, lets them know that there are other options, and it’s ok to take them. And it’s not hard! With LinkedIn and Facebook and many other sites, it’s no longer so difficult to find out “where are they now.” That PIs have kept tabs on those people shows their support for the “alternative” career trajectory. It shows that these people are still useful to the academic world, that they still mean something. That people within academia still respect them. And to a trainee looking for a different path, that little bit, that single name remembered, could mean a lot.
And if you’re reading this, and you read my stuff, and you’re thinking you don’t “know” anyone, and couldn’t help…think again. My email is in the contact section.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent post by Biochembelle called “the pipeline isn’t leaky”.
I definitely agree with her, the way we define “the pipeline” is that you’re only in it if you’re headed toward tenure track, and that’s a problem. Because, while I’m still using my science degrees, and I feel like I’m still doing a lot of cool work on behalf of science (and I hope to do a lot, lot more), I feel like a drip. I feel like I’ve “failed” because I don’t have a tenure track job.
Some of that is on me, of course. I originally went into science because I DID want a tenure track job. Along the way, my desires changed, as I saw the reality of what a TT job is like (writing grants day and night is NOT my cup of tea). Getting out of the pipeline, however, was much harder than just realizing that wasn’t what I wanted. There is a HUGE amount of pressure to stay in the pipeline. Pressure because that’s what you “should” be doing in the eyes of the people around you, pressure because if you leave the pipeline, you are letting people down. Pressure because, if you leave the pipeline, you are automatically assumed to have failed out of it, even if the reality was that you wanted to leave (yes, yes, everyone says that they personally do not feel this way. The pervading culture says otherwise). Pressure because so few women do make it, and if you leave, you are failing to be an example to your gender. And there’s other kinds of pressure, the interior feeling that maybe you ARE failing out, maybe you CAN’T hack it and that’s why you’re leaving. Pressure to stay in because it’s the devil you know. Pressure to stay in because, often, you don’t know how to do anything else.
All that pressure makes for a fast flow of water, and if you’re not careful it’ll carry you along. This can’t be good, either for the people in it, or for the people who “drip out”.
There needs to be a change. I think it could start by renaming the “pipeline”, maybe a web? A network? Something else, so that we have to change how we think of the endpoints of scientific training. If there is a network, or a pipeline, there’s no one endpoint, instead there are several. Tenure track AND policy AND writing AND industry AND admin. Just acknowledging in our every day language that these options exist helps to legitimize them.
But I think it also needs to be acknowledged culturally. Trainees shouldn’t have to feel REALLY nervous about talking about “alternative careers” with their PIs. Many of them do feel nervous. Many of them will be so nervous that the PI will get angry, be reproachful, or start ignoring their work that they never talk about it. That’s a problem.
This means PIs need to acknowledge that not all trainees will go to the tenure track, and that those trainees who don’t…are not failures. PIs, or departments, might need to keep in touch with previous lab people who left the tenure track, so they have resources for students who are looking at other careers. Just having those names of people outside the tenure track can mean so much. The assumption, when you see that no one in academia knows people in other careers, and that you have to bring them in for seminars with outside groups like postdoc support groups and PhD groups, etc, is that…these people are not successful. If they were, your advisors would know and respect them.But if they don’t, if they speak disparagingly about other trainees career choices, or just forget those trainees exist at all…it’s not encouraging to people trying to get out of academia. Not only do you not know who to turn to for advice, you begin to “drink the koolaid”, to see people outside of academia as not successful by your metric, and even if you KNOW, intellectually, that’s not true, it colors how you see them.
PIs need to explicitly make it ok to seek out other careers. There are groups and seminars at some schools to help with this, but I think it’s particularly important that PIs become involved. Otherwise, students and trainees often feel like they have to pursue career goals behind their PI’s back, furtively. I remember numerous times “sneaking” out of the lab at 5pm to get to a seminar, or saying I had a “lunch” so I could go to a seminar. Lab work is important, but somehow it’s always ok to go to the departmental seminars, and watch the same people present their work over and over again at the departmental group meetings. But going to an alternative careers seminar? Well, shouldn’t you be, you know, IN THE LAB?! That kind of selective pressure is the kind of pressure that keeps grad student’s lips sealed about their career ambitions. And it means that, in many cases, they remain in the dark, unaware of potential mentors or contacts that could help them get where they want to go.
This is not going to change overnight. But I wonder how much of it might change, if we just stopped calling it the “pipeline”. If we just acknowledge, everywhere that 5/6 of PhDs go somewhere other than the tenure track, and if we point out, and highlight, where it is that they go. It’s a small step, but small words can mean big things sometimes, in the long run.
I have been known, in my day, to give talks on social media for scientists. Normally, I’m a big fan of social media for scientists. I think it can do a lot for your scientific career, do a lot for your networking skills, and get you an amazing support group. It can also help you get a broader education, finding out about science outside your subfield, and give you a crash course in how to communicate with people outside your field. It’s definitely helped me.
But even as I try to tell people that social media can do a LOT for scientists, some scientists give me the side eye. Some have told me they deleted their Facebook accounts because they were so worried about privacy. Some have told me that it’s a time sink, or that social media is full of trolls, or what have you.
Usually I tell people what social media can do for them, how it can help their science communication and their careers. But it is important to throw in a note of caution. There are things, on social media, that it’s not a good idea to do.
Social media comes with pitfalls. Like any discipline, in academia or out of it, there are things you need to watch out for. Scientific things, of course, but also social things. Be polite, don’t insult the department head to their face. Be nice to people, you never know when you might need them to have your back, or when you might find out they are a really nice person. You may have snarky thoughts, but you keep them behind your teeth until you get home and tell them to your dog.
Why do you do this? Because actions have consequences. At work, if you snark off, someone might hear you. Emails can be spread around and read. Things said in confidence can get repeated. We make mistakes in the beginning, but as you mature, you learn to keep stuff behind your teeth, unless you’re with people you really trust.
And the internet? It’s like a really, REALLY big workplace. And that means that we can hear you. It doesn’t matter if it’s on Facebook, and supposedly restricted to your friends. If you make someone mad, they can take that post, and share it around. And we will be able to hear you. Even if you’ve only got 200 followers on twitter, if you say something, and it gets tweeted around (either because people like it, or because it reveals you to be a total jerk), we can hear you.
This scares a lot of people away. People are worried about stuff they might say, or stuff their friends might say. Some scientists figure that it’s better to have no social media presence at all than to take the chance of saying something embarrassing.
And that’s ok. But the fact that we can hear you shouldn’t necessarily turn you off, especially if you think social media could have great things to teach you. All you have to do is take your social media seriously.
This isn’t as hard as it seems. From day one, even back when I was in grad school and had no idea what I was doing, I treated my writing on the internet KNOWING that someone I knew would find it. Knowing that someday I would someday have to stand behind it. To that end, I work hard to make my presence on the internet a professional one (and yes, Friday Weird Science is still professional! It may be gross, but it’s still professional). I say nothing on my blog that I would not say in a public seminar, at a meeting, or to someone’s face, someone that I work with. I treat my Facebook and Twitter the same way. Sure, I say silly things. I say weird things. But I say nothing that’s going to harm my reputation, either as a writer or as a scientist (except, possibly, for people thinking my taste in scientific literature is very strange). And I’m not the only one who does this. The vast majority of the people on my twitter feed are interesting, amusing, and thought-provoking. All without saying things that are likely to get them fired.
Why be so careful? Because the internet is forever. Sunday, a professor tweeted something really awful (I could go in to all the reasons why I feel this tweet is both immensely harmful and scientifically wrong, but that’s not the point of this post). As a firestorm began to gather around him in response to his nasty tweet, he deleted the tweet and others defending it. He locked down his account. But it was too late. There were screencaps and pictures. That tweet is NOT going away. Now he’s trying to claim it as a social psychology experiment, wherein he was using provocative tweets to measure people’s reaction. If so, I look forward to seeing the data, as I think would be very interesting.
But if it’s NOT a social psychology experiment….that’s the kind of thing you need to think about when you go on the internet. Do you really want to say that? Would you shout it in a crowded room? State it at a seminar in front of an audience? No? Then why would you say it on twitter? Twitter, as I sometimes try to describe it to people, is like a constantly running cocktail party. You go in, and there are loads of people standing around, having any number of conversations, any of which you might be able to join (I also like to envision us dressed very swanky and there being one of those chocolate fountains). It’s possible to have a great time at a cocktail party, to learn new things, make new connections. I have a good time on twitter almost every day. But it’s also possible to be THAT person at the cocktail party. You know, the one with the sexist jokes. You wouldn’t be that person at a cocktail party, why would you be that person on Twitter? We all know that we sometimes need to think before we speak. Similarly, think before you hit post or send.
So don’t let social media scare you away. Join the conversations! Enjoy the flow. Laugh at the LOLcats. But remember, we can hear you. That’s often a very good thing! The fact that tweets can go viral can spread the reality of science, the amazing things we find! It can make us awesome new communicators! But when you go on Twitter, be prepared to deal with the consequences. Twitter, Facebook, social media in general, are a lot like a big party, or a large workplace. And we can hear you.
I want to talk to the scientists out there who are doing world-shaking work. Hello? Does anybody know your names?
So begins yet another “call to arms” for scientists. We aren’t communicating, we aren’t getting out there and making Star Trek-like movies about the inner biology of the cell (which I would TOTALLY watch and help with, btw), and this is, entirely, our fault.
I like a lot of these calls to arms. I think they are important, as many scientists still hide away, convinced that in times of difficult funding, they just need to, you know, submit two grants per cycle instead of one, and well aware that they do not get anything professionally out of giving a TED talk. Scientists get no direct benefits from sci comm, making the long-term benefits much less salient. But while I think they are important, the details of some of these calls bug me. The current example is no exception.
So to this latest piece on Medium, here is my response to your question:
“I want to talk to the people who think they can fix the Science PR problem by getting all scientists to do [X]*. Hello? Have you been on the internet lately?”
*Where [X] is one thing, say, that all scientists should blog or should all communicate in some manner. I personally believe that we could fix it all with all Nobel Prize Winners sitting for LOLcat photo shoots, but then, I know I’m too idealistic.