PhD students in biomedical sciences are often trained only for a future career in research. Their supervisor only had experience in research, and might expect their students to follow the same path, but much has changed in the past generation of scientists. There is a dramatic shortage of academic research jobs beyond postdoc level, and yet there is still very little support for PhD students who might be interested in a different career path.
That’s why this book, Career Options for Biomedical Scientists, comes at exactly the right time. In the introduction, editors Richard Sever and Kaaren Janssen, write: “Fortunately, there is now increasing recognition within academia that career options once labeled as “alternative” are not in fact the alternative but the norm.” Not because students fail, but because these are jobs that they are interested in. This book helps them explore options beyond the lab.
The book contains thirteen chapters, each written by one or more scientists who have taken their skills outside of the academic research lab. They include medical writers, patent lawyers, science policy directors, startup founders and other professions that make good use of their scientific training, without being at the bench.
The bulk of each chapter is general background information and advice about working in that particular field. Some of the information is very much aimed at a North American audience, though. Careers in undergraduate teaching, university administration or science policy are possible in many countries, but the information and examples presented in these chapters are particularly focused on the USA and Canada, and may not fully extend to other countries. For some of the other jobs this isn’t as much of an issue, and the chapter on patent law in particular makes it clear how you can use your skills internationally.
Each chapter also includes a box with the personal back story of the author of the chapter. This section reminded me very much of what we’re doing at MySciCareer. The personal stories show the route the author has taken to land their current position. It’s rarely a straight path, and always a very unique story. It’s often very different from the well-defined PhD to postdoc to professor path, and that’s important for students to realise: Here are people who have done things their own way, and they have pretty good jobs right now.
This book should be required reading for all PhD students. Those that are already thinking about a career outside of research, but also those that are seeing themselves as future professor. With the current job prospects for researchers, they might need to consider a different career later on, but even if they do end up as professor, I want them to know about this book so that they can properly support their own future students with their career choice.
That got me thinking: What would I do with $4.1 million? It seemed an unimaginably large amount of money, until I converted it to British pounds and London houses. It’s about two or three townhouses in zone 3, or four decent-sized flats in zone 2. Make it two flats after taxes.
Assuming I selfishly bought one flat, and paid all taxes, I’d still easily have more than $1 million left, and that’s closer to an amount I can imagine.
I would use that money to start a non-profit science communication association. The association would represent the many people who work to spread scientific information: outreach staff, science editors, science illustrators, developers working on new tools to disseminate science, policy makers working on evaluation systems for scientists, science writers, bloggers, vloggers, students, teachers, and more. Basically, everyone who felt they were (are) part of the Science Online community.
The association would be member-driven, and run by a board of rotating elected volunteers. The annual members meeting and any board or committee meetings would be held online, to maximize the number of people who can attend.
So far, this doesn’t cost a lot of money (maybe just web-hosting) but there’s more.
The association would collaborate with other groups to provide training to scientists on how to communicate their work (to grant committees, to the public, etc.). This could involve local workshops at universities.
We’d also allocate some funds for members to organise meetings related to science communication, or travel funds for people to attend meetings in this area, but the main purpose would to connect this diverse community with each other, so meetings that bring members together have priority.
The association would be there for its members, especially when it comes to online issues. Some members might want to speak out about issues that are affecting their science communication work. The association’s members would be able contact the board about such issues, which could find ways to solve the problem, bring it to light, or contact other organisations to find collaborative solutions.
To maintain a source of income to support these activities in the long run, the association would have to charge membership fees, but would aim to keep these low, and waive fees in lieu of work for the association.
The non-profit status would also allow the association to apply for external funds to support more specific science communication projects, which would allow members to set up initiatives they wouldn’t be able to run effectively as individuals, or to collaborate with the association to be able to apply for funding. For a personal example, MySciCareer would be able to get funding to do more targeted outreach in universities in a collaboration like this, that it can’t get as just a website run by individuals, which it is now. Sometimes all you need is a business address and a non-personal bank account, and an umbrella association can offer that.
As a secondary role, the association would provide a platform for members to showcase their work. For non-members interested in science communication outputs, the association would produce a regular newsletter and blog with listings of member-run science communication events in different parts of the world, and links to members’ books, videos, websites, music, teaching tips, and more. This would in turn be an incentive for membership.
With all these plans the money would probably run out pretty quickly, but I’d start small, and get people involved before starting larger projects, so hopefully the membership dues would offset a lot of the future projects. Meeting funding would only be available if there was money for it, and we could collaborate with external sponsors for specific projects.
But unfortunately I don’t have $4.1 million or even $1 million. I know I could theoretically set up something like this for less, but I would still need time, and I have none of that now. I would need to quit working to set up an organisation that doesn’t bring in money. With $4.1 million, I could buy a flat, reduce my expenses (no more rent!) and devote all my time to something like this.
I came across these plushies recently: they’re DNA plushies, by Biochemies, and they’re the cutest DNA ever! The Biochemies site is run by Jun Axup, a biochemist in San Francisco. Ten percent of the profits of the sales go to educational programmes or crowdfunding projects. The plushies themselves were also funded via crowdfunding.
On Friday I woke up to an email from Science Online, announcing that the organisation would be dissolved and the next conference cancelled. Having seen Science Online grow from the start, this made me a bit nostalgic, but I wasn’t surprised.
As a community, the online science environment has changed a lot since the first Science Bloggers Meeting in January 2007. I attended that meeting – the very first of what would later be the Science Online conferences – and I attended the last Science Online conference, and they were worlds apart.
In January 2007, there were not a lot of science bloggers, and we all sort of knew each other. Meeting in person, in North Carolina, was fun. It was putting faces to names and pseudonyms, and it was finally getting to talk to flesh and blood humans about those crazy things called “blogs” that nobody at your university understood. The ScienceBlogs network was one year old, Nature Network had either just launched or was just about to launch. Twitter was a few months old, but nobody was on there yet.
All the science startups you now know were just sketches on paper napkins, if that. PLOS One had only just become popular, and it was still early days for the big increase in open access awareness. There was no Dropbox yet. No FigShare, no Altmetrics, no Mendeley. Google Docs was not yet live. None of those things were on the forefront of our minds – we just wanted to get together to talk about science communication, and I doubt we even used that phrase. We just talked about blogging, because that was what we did, and it was fun and new and we liked it.
As people, the attendees of the 2007 Science Blogging Conference had very little in common: just a love of blogs and science. Aside from a few local grad students from Chapel Hill, I was one of the youngest people there. I was a PhD student among professors. And they knew me! They knew my name, because they had seen my blog. It was awesome.
I finished my PhD less than two years after that. I was now a blogger on Nature Network. My blog had gotten me some freelance jobs. I organised some SciBarCamp events. The economy collapsed. I moved to the UK to work for a publisher. My job: setting up and running a blog.
In just three years, blogs had gone from a kooky quirky thing with so few scientists admitting to having a blog that they all knew each other and thought it’d be fun to hang out in North Carolina for a weekend, to a proper tool for science outreach, and something that every serious scientific organisation or publisher just had to have.
With this change in science communication online, Science Online also changed. It grew from just a blogging conference to a conference discussing all things related to science online, to an organisation with paid staff and a board of directors. The conference was no longer just for bloggers, but everyone started going. The meetings got to the point where they sold out within minutes, like a massive summer music festival.
When I went to Science Online the last time, in 2014, it was very different from that first time in 2007. There were communication specialists and YouTubers and startup founders and publishers. I was there on behalf of a publisher. My trip had been paid for. I couldn’t just have fun – I had to work. It was different now.
It wasn’t just me attending for work. Science Online was now an event that occurred on professional calendars, and several people attended as part of their job.
But not everyone. Some attendees are still bloggers who do science communication on the side, and who saved their money to go to Science Online to have fun and meet other bloggers. I still felt like that as well. It was confusing. I wanted to see my friends, but there was also work to do. I dressed up as a TARDIS for the Intergalactic-themed ball, and I participated in a discussion about post-publication peer review. I was taking notes in a session about online community management, for work, while in the hallway a small revolution took place. The people who represented what Science Online once was, a group of diverse yet like-minded individuals, with a passion for using the internet to talk about science, were discussing how that very community was falling apart as a result of the organisation and people that had once brought them together.
It was clear then that Science Online was on its last legs. Not because of the gathering in the hallway: that was the kind of thing that represented what it once was, a grassroots ragtag group of sciency chatterboxes. But because of the fact that half of the attendees were not in the hallway meeting. They were in the meeting rooms, holding the scheduled sessions, talking about publishing and online community management, because that’s what they came to do – for work.
The problem with Science Online, both the meeting and the conference, is that it had come to represent too many different things. People still want to meet each other. I still was excited about finally meeting people in person who I had previously only talked to online, and that familiar feeling of not being entirely sure whether this is really the first time you’re meeting them, because you know them. But the online science environment has grown so much since 2007. There aren’t just blogs, there are startups and tools and people who want to talk not just about science communication, but about academic publishing and metrics and incentives. And there are so many new media within communication. Some of the best science communicators are on YouTube these days, so there were several YouTubers at the meeting this year as well.
YouTube also has its own community meeting, VidCon, which has been facing similar issues as Science Online. VidCon, too, is attended by both people for whom YouTube is a career, and those who just want to meet their friends and people they have previously only seen online. It’s also a physical meeting representing a continuous virtual community. They have their own issues with too many sessions, with harassment, with people unable to afford to attend, and with not enough tickets being available for everyone who wants to go. But to solve one of the issues, they split the meeting: there is a business-like proper conference, with industry talks, and then there is a con, where it’s all about meeting people.
I’ve never attended VidCon, but as far as I can tell, they’re very aware that they represent both serious professionals as well as people who are there for fun, and that these people might be the same people. I think that Science Online was missing awareness of these two roles in its own meeting for too long (because it just gradually happened over the course of a few years) and not handling it properly when they did realise it.
At the last Science Online conference I felt compelled, yet conflicted, to skip a serious panel about something related to science publishing, to watch people I like do a science talent show. First I thought that the problem was me, that I shouldn’t be interested in such different things, but these two different worlds both came out of that initial community of science bloggers. That’s why they were both at Science Online and why I ended up in both. We naturally both branched out, but having everything in one place was confusing.
In seven years, we changed so much, Science Online and me, but we were also so alike. Both trying so hard to combine all the aspects of online science that we developed over the years: fun science community hangouts and serious science communication thoughts. I’ve learned that you can do both sequentially, but not at the same time. Like VidCon, I think Science Online should have more explicitly separated “industry” talks from the social part of the conference. It got too confusing, too awkward, too unfocused. Meanwhile, other geographically dispersed spin-off Science Online-branded meetings throughout the year were never consistently and structurally made a part of one whole organisation. By trying too hard to do everything, Science Online ended up not being very good at anything anymore. That’s fine for a human, like me, but less so for an organisation that tries to represent hundreds of humans. We need focus, and Science Online lost that over the past few years.
I’m sorry to see the organisation go, but I remember very well that the very first Science Online meeting predates the Science Online organisation. You don’t need a board and a logo to be a community, you just need other people with similar interests. Science Online is dead, long live science online.
For your entertainment, I have created a short YouTube playlist of some science-y songs. It includes some songs about science, and some science-themed parody covers. Perfect for playing in the lab! I included this video of Uri Alon singing about peer review, which I recorded at the Horizons conference career fair a few weeks ago. Alon is a group leader at the Weizman institute who regularly speaks – and sings – about the culture of science. I’ve been a fan of his songs and commentaries for years, so I obviously took a front row seat at his keynote talk.
As far as I can tell, this song is not available anywhere outside of some YouTube videos, but some of the songs on the science playlist are available to purchase online, and if you like them you should buy them (preferably directly from the artists – info at the bottom of the post), but if you want to just try them out the YouTube playlist is a start.
The problem with YouTube, though, is that you have to play it from YouTube, and that’s not always practical. Sometimes it’s really just the sound you need, and not all those videos.
There are ways to convert YouTube to mp3 music, which you can then play from your favourite audio player (or phone, let’s be realistic) on the go. To get this playlist working on my iPhone, I used the free mp3 converter Flvto to extract the music as mp3.
It’s quite simple to use: Grab the url of a video, paste it in the box on the site, and click “convert”. There is no registration required, so that’s really all there is to it. I tried it on the video posted above.
Step 2 (and that’s it. After this you just select where you want to save the audio: direct download, save to Dropbox, or email.)
I’ve tried it on a few of my videos using this method, and it works really fast. Flvto also has a desktop converter, where you can convert several tracks at once, but for my YouTube converter needs the website worked well enough. There are also add-ons for Firefox, IS, and Safari (Chrome is still to come), but again, I was happy with just the web interface. Although I only used it for YouTube, it should also work for videos that are on other sites.
Is it legal or ethical?
An obvious question, and I looked into some of the issues before making my playlist. Extracting the audio of a video is in itself legal in many jurisdictions, and so is listening to it by yourself. Flvto has some information about this on their website as well. There are many perfectly ethical reasons for grabbing the audio track from a video, Think of remixes, mashups, collabs, and short reviews.
However, if you just want music to listen to, the artists would prefer if you paid for the music where possible, even if they uploaded the YouTube video themselves. The music I have included in this playlist is not always available for purchase anywhere, but where there is, I have listed the relevant links below, and I’ve also bought a few of the tracks after first listening to free samples myself.
Twitter. We created a monster. On the one hand it’s an amazing medium to reach out to non-scientists and scientists alike, and a great way to meet people across the world with similar interests, and a tool I will continue to recommend for anyone going into science communication. On the other hand, it’s the noisiest, loudest, and most distracting thing ever.
Twitter is like the kids that talk all through self-study time and you can’t reasonably ask them to shut up because they are actually talking about relevant things, but you’re in the same room and want to quietly reflect once in a while without being swept up in discussions about politics, diversity, funding, and other issues related to science. Sometimes you just want science without context or discussion.
Maybe I just need to unfollow everyone and start anew.
“Us versus them attitude”. I am trying to build a career around understanding and improving the space in which science happens. I want to help young researchers build a positive career image, help researchers share their work, fight the very strange restrictions that are currently in place for some scientists, help researchers communicate their work fairly, help all people understand how scientific evaluation works, encourage artists inspired by science, and more such things.
That’s not a career with a fixed path or a nice non-profit chunk of funding that I can claim to calmly work on that. The best way to learn how things work behind the scenes is to get behind the scenes, and to work for funding agencies or for publishers or to try working with the media. But when I do these things, some people make me feel that because I no longer work in a lab, I am now vastly inferior to people who still actively do research. Or they assume that if I work “full-time” for a company, that a company literally owns me 100% of the time, 24/7, and that I have no own ideas and opinions. They still complain about the things I’m trying to fix, but in the end they’d rather stay in a miserable system than acknowledge that non-researchers (often former researchers) might be able to help.
This very same attitude is why a lot of graduate students are afraid to leave research. I can tell them about all the great jobs they can have, but in the end I can’t deny that there still is a stigma.
The idea that we have to be serious all of the time. This is something I’m really struggling with at the moment, and is related to the point above. I used to be able to be silly and sarcastic, and over time I started to feel as if science can only be communicated very directly and very seriously.
There is one style of writing for scientists, and another style of writing for a general audience, and another style of writing for kids, and everything should always look the same and be of standard length and should be illustrated with graphs or photos or pastel water colours. Nobody actually explicitly says this, but I see it. I see bloggers writing in either “review article style” or “newspaper style” on their blogs, thinking that this is the correct way to run a science blog.
There is no correct way!
Make a comic, make a video, write a parody, a poem, a play, a song. Unless someone (a journal style guide, a funding application form, a newspaper editor) is imposing boundaries on how you communicate science, there really are no boundaries*.
I can’t change THING 1 and THING 2 all by myself, but I can try to be a bit more relaxed with THING 3. Here are some erlenmeyer flasks I drew.
Communicating about and reflecting on communicating. Yes, I know that’s some people’s entire job, but just leave it to them and let everyone else get back to just communicating. And yes, that includes me. Done now (footnote aside).
(*Ethics and moral boundaries remain. Geez, see, this is what I mean. I really felt that I had to include that, because I KNOW people will complain if I don’t. Combination of Thing 1 and Thing 3. In general, Thing 3 is very much a result of Thing 1. Much of the pressure to be so serious and to present everything at face value comes from Twitter! In fact, while typing this I’m realising that I would blog much more frequently if I didn’t constantly worry what Twitter people would think. That’s kind of awful, but I’ve seen how people react when someone DOES make a mistake. I’m terrified it could be me one day, accidentally saying something that’s offensive or could be interpreted as such. Maybe this already is.)
What did I learn from this little commenting exercise?
I don’t read blogs the same way I used to. I used to have regular blogs I visited every day, and I would quickly see when someone replied to one of my comments. Now I read whatever someone links to on Twitter or Facebook. Several times it took me days to go back to that post and see a response. And I only went back because I was keeping track this month. Normally I would never look at a post more than once, but I know I used to, especially if there was an active comments section.
Commenting culture has changed. I knew this, and it was why I set out to do this, but it became even more obvious in the process that commenting on blog posts is not as much a natural thing as it used to be for me. Very often I had to push myself to leave a comment somewhere just to reach my quota. Some exceptions were YouTube videos, and existing discussions, both addressed below.
Some systems and blogs discourage comments and discussions. PopSci doesn’t have a comments section. BoingBoing has a separate forum to handle discussion, and it was tedious to sign up. Medium allows people to easily leave comments per paragraph, but you can only see comments when you mouse over the corresponding number, and when the author has made your comment public. One WordPress blog has had my comment in moderation ever since I left it two weeks ago. I haven’t even bothered with Tumblr, because you need to reblog to comment.
Disqus and YouTube are most inviting to commenters. Of all the systems I used to comment this month, YouTube was by far the most convenient and the most inviting. I’ve always had a YouTube account, but now everyone with a Google account can also comment on YouTube, so the registration bar is low. (Make sure to untick that “share on Google+” box, so your G+ contacts don’t have to look at your out of context comments in their feed. ) The videos I commented on were mostly ones with very engaging comments sections, and the commenting culture is alive and well there. For blogs, the Disqus system works really well, and allows you to sign in via social media. It also works across blogs: I saw a notification that I had received a reply to a comment while I was looking at another comment section. Now that blog networks (in science blogging, anyway) are less popular, Disqus is a way to keep track of some of the discussions (hey!) you’ve been having across the dispersed blogosphere.
I’m more likely to leave a comment when I can answer a question or join an existing discussion. Of all the comments I left this month, most were admittedly forced. I wanted to do this, I wanted to leave one comment per day, but I didn’t always have something to say. A few times I started replying on social media, only to realise I could leave my comment on the blog itself. The exceptions were YouTube videos that already had a lot of comments or that asked questions, the post about being an expat (with lots of comments already there) and one of Fiona’s posts where I was reminded of something cool that was relevant to the post and any other readers of that post. I can see the same on my own blog: my most commented-on post in the past few years is the one about a company that prints your (already OA) thesis, on which people share their own experiences with the emails they received.
Overall, I think the tendency to only comment in active discussions was always there, and that the other factors that make commenting harder (dispersal, technical barriers, social media) have discouraged the remaining few people who would otherwise happily comment.
Brightening up someone’s day with a blog comment turned out to be quite a hassle, and I probably will go back to my regular irregular schedule, but it was an interesting experiment!
[Updated July 10] How are you all doing with blog commenting this month? The pledge is still open, with a few spots left to fill to make it “official”! and has now reached its target number!
Here’s where I have left comments. List will be updated:
July 1 – New Mormopterus species honors a true bat lady. I left a comment expressing my lack of bat knowledge. Micaela, the blog’s author, responded to my comment, which I only just noticed because I went back to grab the link, and I left another comment. Commenting was easy: no signup needed, just name/email.
July 3 – Extinct humans passed high altitude gene to Tibetans. I wondered if this also applied to Sherpas, and left a comment. I saw this morning that two people responded to me (and the answer is “yes”) but there is no easy way to thank them for their response so I left it at that.
July 5 – Painted “bookbenches” spring up across London. I love this sort of public art, and books, and London, so I wanted to leave a comment. Commenting on BoingBoing is the worst, though. The comments are not on the post itself (they used to actually never have comments at all), but on a separate message board, which you need to join first. Even though I used my Twitter account to sign up, I still needed to enter my email address and click a confirmation email, and then find the post and the comment thread again, just to leave a mundane comment.
I had a few days off with minimal internet, then I got very busy at work, followed by another holiday, so the rest of the month’s updates are in chunks of multiple per day, with many comment-less days in between:
If you’ve heard me talk about science unconferences, you may have noticed me refer to this quote before:
“At a conference the most important things happen in the coffee break” – Hans-Ulrich Obrist
It comes from a 2008 Edge interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and refers to an event he organised in the nineties, where he brought together artists and scientists for a conference – but eliminated the entire conference programme. The idea was to have a conference that only consisted of the valuable meetings between like-minded people in coffee breaks and social events surrounding the conference. Obrist calls it a “nonconference”, but it’s similar to “unconferences” made popular by the tech community.
Recently, I saw Obrist latest book, Ways of Curating, in a bookstore, and after confirming that this “nonconference” was in there, I picked it up. The book is amazing! Obrist is an entertaining writer, and in a series of short chapters he discusses all kinds of exhibits he has curated, and artists he has met and worked with. He describes how he once created an exhibit in the kitchen of his house, where Fischli and Weiss, of The Way Things Go (Der Lauf Der Dinge) fame, created an installation of giant food items in the cupboard above the sink.
I learned that besides the nonconference Art and Brain, Obrist worked with scientists a few other times. In 1999, he curated Laboratorium, a project featuring artists and scientists, which took place in various locations in Antwerp. Participants here also included Fischli and Weiss, as well as another of my favourite artists, Bruce Mau. (“Don’t clean your desk”, from Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, is another of my favourite quotes. Fun fact: Both this quote and the Obrist quote above have been on my Facebook profile for years. )
Ways of Curating is a fun read, in which I learned some basic ideas of art curating, and got inspired to think about curating and organising other things.