Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Problem with Research in this Country

'Professional Postdoc' in the Chemical Sciences

After getting a B.S. degree with a major in chemistry with honors, followed by a Ph.D., postdoctoral training at a top chemical institute, and over 10 scientific publications, I was ready to fulfill my childhood dream of solving scientific problems by spending hours alone in a lab. And I did…by doing some more postdoctoral training! And now I’m unemployed! Yikes! Where did it all go wrong?!

Well, you could argue that I didn’t get good quality mentorship, or I didn’t network effectively or maybe I just wasn’t that good as a scientist. I have an alternative hypothesis for my predicament: There is a lack of good quality, scientific jobs for exceedingly well-trained scientists in this country. Now, let’s just be good scientists and assume that the hypothesis is valid. Why would this be so? Consider the structure of the scientific research enterprise in the US, in its simplest form:

1. Scientific administrators hand out billions of dollars to research groups

2. Mini-empire-like research groups headed by a leader apply for these funds to meet their own research agendas

3. Many, many underpaid, overworked and well trained postdoctoral support staff keep the projects moving forward – and in many cases, initiate, develop and complete the scientific studies!

Look, a typical postdoc should get 2 to 3 years of training under the supervision of an experienced scientist. But in my experience, I have come across so many PhDs that are looking to postdoctoral positions, adjunct faculty and teaching only positions at R1 universities as a survival mechanism until something better comes along. Well, the reality is that something better usually does not come along.

Potential solution:

Wouldn’t it be more efficient and more scientifically productive to break large groups of scientists being forced into one research direction, into smaller groups of independent researchers, each using a unique approach to solving the world’s scientific mysteries? And then have these research groups supported by science technicians that are trained and paid to work as technicians? From my perspective, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm campus in Ashburn, Virginia, may serve as the prime example of the way things should be. At this campus, the philosophy is to attract both senior (group leaders) and aspiring (fellows) scientists to conduct independent scientific research in an environment that fosters cross-interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues on and off site (…yes, I did get that from their home page By design, the groups that are lead by “group leaders” and the “fellows” are relatively small, and according to Janeila’s philosophy this is to offer, “…creative scientists freedom from constraints that limit their ability to do ground breaking research.” What a great idea! Maybe this model could produce a flood of good quality jobs for the rest of us!

The anonymous contributor is a former postdoctoral scholar in the chemical sciences.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Jorge Cham's talk brings laughs and a meaningful message

Beatriz E. Rios - Grad Student, Southern Methodist University

What brought together so many different people from so many different parts of the world on a Monday night at an ACS national meeting? No, not SciMix. Rather, it was the same miserable experience that unites graduate students from all walks of life, bridging cultural gaps and language barriers. It’s not that we hate what we do, but Jorge Cham (creator of PhD Comics) has a brilliant perspective on the seemingly never-ending struggle that is the Ph.D. process.

Jorge’s comics have united graduate students from around the globe and across fields, giving us all a break from our daily monotony, a brief moment (or maybe a few hours) to read Piled Higher and Deeper. The lecture hall filled with hundreds of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members eager to hear him speak.

His talk was mostly lighthearted and funny, but it had a deeply important message. Take some time to procrastinate; take some time for yourself. Putting work aside for a moment to keep your sanity and happiness does not make you lazy or a bad person. This message really hit home when he highlighted the statistics about graduate students who are depressed and have attempted suicide. After the lecture, I was lucky enough to spend some time with Jorge and help with his book-signing.

There were so many people in line anxious to buy his books and get his autograph that we ran out. But no matter how long the line, Jorge happily took time to chat with everyone, hear their brief stories, and pose for pictures. We can all learn a valuable lesson from Jorge. Only you know how to make yourself happy. And perhaps we should all take the time to make sure that we are, indeed, happy.

Beatriz E. Rios is a 4th-year graduate student at Southern Methodist University where her research focuses on phosphorus-based calix[5]arene ligands and their transition metal complexes.

The Graduate Student and Postdoc Reception a great opportunity to network

Joe Z. Sostaric - Program Manager, ACS Office of Graduate Education

Having enjoyed an hour of laughs and reality with Jorge Cham, an estimated 700 graduate students and postdocs turned out for the ACS Graduate Student and Postdoc Reception held just prior to SciMix.

Now, if you were fortunate enough to attend the Jorge Cham lecture, you might be of the impression that any event that involves food and drink would be expected to draw a crowd of graduate students. However, from the surveys that we took of reception attendees at the spring national meeting in San Francisco earlier this year, 70% of attendees came to network with their peers and with representatives from the 20 cosponsoring ACS technical divisions.

Think about this for a moment. Why are you going to graduate school or doing a postdoc? Presumably it’s so you can have a career in chemistry that will be rewarding in all aspects of your life. So how do you get that career started? HINT: Don’t spend too much of your time searching through the classifieds! Networking people, it’s what you have to do. What better way to spend your time then to introduce yourself to the very people in your research field that could one day be on the search committee for the position for which you apply?

The ACS graduate student and postdoc reception is held every Monday evening, just prior to SciMix, at every ACS national meeting. If you attend the national meetings, take advantage of this time to meet with division representatives and with your peers, because you never know. And what the hay! Enjoy some good food and drink too!

Joe Z. Sostaric is program manager in the Office of Graduate Education at ACS. He obtained his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Reflections from the Division of Agriculture & Food Chemistry Sessions, SciMix and the Expo

Eleni Yiantsidis- Grad Student, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

This year's ACS Fall National Meeting was my first real, formal, put-yourself-out-to-the-chemistry-community meeting. I have never had this much scientific exposure before, and the thought of this large an audience was nerve-wracking! My labmates and I prepared for everything (with the help of our fabulous adviser), and we drove up to Boston, coffees in hands, ready to battle the crowds and the Boston traffic.

We were part of the Division of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (AGFD), so we listened to talks about cranberries, raspberries, sugar maple, walnuts, colon cancer cells, brain aging, phenolic acids, anthocyanins, and more. The speakers were all energetic, knowledgeable, and passionate about their research. I was surprised by how many presenters were from outside of the USA; I never realized how much research takes place around the world, and on so many different topics. The SciMix, where we presented our posters, had so many researchers with expertise in other fields, and their questions and thoughts on my project definitely gave me new things to look for and think about. I definitely enjoyed making friends and exchanging ideas with people who do similar research.

The Expo included several hundred companies, all giving information about their products and services. The vendors were all very friendly and eager to talk; we even entered into several drawings for prizes! My group had a lot of fun talking to everyone, and we enjoyed each company’s games and displays.

After four days of listening to talks, meeting new people, and exploring the scientific community, my group and I were worn out, but very satisfied with our experiences. There's talk about going to the next ACS meeting, and we hope that we will be able to go. This experience at the ACS national meeting was worth every minute!

Eleni Yiantsidis is a first-year graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, North Dartmouth, MA.

Highlights from the Division of Colloid & Surface Chemistry Sessions

Asma Eskhan- Grad Student, Washington State University

Well, I didn’t go on a vacation this summer, and fortunately this meeting came to give me a nice opportunity to visit Boston and have a great time there. I attended the Colloid and Surface Chemistry session, section E: Nanoscale characterization of microbes and cells. On August 25, I gave an oral presentation there: Nanoscale adhesion of silicon nitride to epidemic and environmental strains of L. monocytogenes. In this session, I got to meet many people working in my research area and take a look at their studies. I also became acquainted with my adviser’s adviser and her students. In addition, I spoke with some faculty who might help me in the future when I’m searching for a postdoctoral position; who knows? The talks in the session were impressive and the students were from different schools; chemical engineering, bioengineering, medicine, chemistry, biomolecular engineering, etc.

This meeting gave me a lot of motivation to continue my studies; it also increased my self-confidence. In brief, it uplifted me. The ACS national exposition was also a nice one. I took a look at the different companies and had a lot of fun there.

I recommend that every grad student attend such meetings because they are really helpful and enjoyable.

Asma Eskhan is a second-year grad student at Washington State University.

ACS Career Fair helps job seekers

Malahat Layazali - ACS Member Associate

The ACS career fair in Boston welcomed a thousand-plus job seekers. Representatives from 68 companies (such as Gilead Sciences, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Celanese, and many others) scheduled more than 700 interviews for 484 available positions. A corporate exhibitor on Recruiters’ Row recently told us, “We had much success finding the talent we need for our Shanghai office.”

Something in excess of 500 people took advantage of opportunities for one-on-one resume reviews and mock interviews with career consultants that were offered at the career fair. In addition, ACS presented 36 career workshops to members attending the Boston meeting.

A job seeker commented, “There were so many wonderful talks, workshops, and networking opportunities! I utilized both the resume review and mock interview opportunities and found both of the people I worked with to be of the utmost professionalism and helpfulness. The ability to actually participate in a mock interview workshop was a wonderful experience that gave me valuable feedback.”

Please join us to take advantage of more opportunities at the ACS Virtual Career Fair on November 2–3, 2010 and at the onsite Career Fair at the National Meeting in Anaheim, March 27–30, 2011. If you would like to find out more, please visit our website at

Malahat Layazali is an ACS member associate in the Department of Career Services and Development.

Where academic candidates met faculty recruiters

Stephanie Prosack - Education Assistant, ACS Office of Graduate Education

The Office of Graduate Education hosted a variety of events at the ACS national meeting in Boston last month. Having recently joined the office, I was happy to learn a lot of interesting and fun facts about these occasions. One of my favorites was the Academic Employment Initiative (AEI) poster session. Held on Monday evening as part of SciMix, the AEI once again successfully fulfilled its objective of allowing senior graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to showcase teaching and research goals for university recruiters. At the same time, it provided presenters with an opportunity to network with faculty and fellow candidates.

Throughout the poster session, I could see many of the 77 academic candidates enthusiastically conversing with faculty recruiters. Some candidates spoke passionately about their research goals, while others described their teaching philosophies and experiences. In between speaking with faculty recruiters, many of the candidates were mingling with each other to talk about their posters and goals, and even to make social plans for later in the evening.

Speaking with the faculty recruiters and many of the academic candidates confirmed that the event was very successful. I spoke to one very enthusiastic professor who has been attending the gathering for years and who said, “The AEI poster session is a great idea! Out of the four newest additions to my department, I hired three as a direct result of first meeting, and then speaking with them at the AEI poster session!”

The next AEI event will be held at the 242nd ACS National Meeting, to be held in the fall of 2011 in Boulder, CO. I am positive it will be just as successful, as this one—maybe even more so!

Stephanie Prosack is the education assistant in the Office of Graduate Education at ACS. In 2009, she obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Hollins University.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

June Summary

This month we asked several senior grad students and postdocs: What are the top tips for success in grad school?

Amanda Lee

James O'Dea

Beatriz Rios

Naresh Sunkara

Shelli Waetzig

Shannon Watt

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Building a Circle of Support

Amanda Lee - Postdoc, City of Hope Beckman Research Institute

Just the other day, a friend was introducing me to a few new acquaintances and jokingly said, “Yes, she has a Ph.D.: permanent head damage!” We all laughed, but let’s face the fact—graduate school is tough. After 4–5 years (or even longer) of arduous labor in the lab and relying on more failures than successes to carve out an independent thesis it is hard not to lose some form of sanity along the way.

I have, based on my own experiences, concluded that like all other challenges in life, the hardships of graduate school can be conquered by following a few simple guidelines.

First, being in graduate school does not mean you have to put your social life on hold. In fact, it is really important to establish a strong circle of friends that you can turn to for support and encouragement when things get tough. Besides, it is never too soon to start networking! You may need it when you start looking for a job.

Secondly, take the time to do something meaningful or enjoyable outside of work. Volunteer at the local food pantry or pick up ballroom dancing. It will make you a more interesting person.

Lastly, update your resume once in a while. Taking stock of what you have done helps you to stay on top of your goals.

Planning is crucial when you are trying to minimize stress. So don’t lose your mind. Follow these simple steps and surviving graduate school will not be as difficult as you think!

Amanda Lee completed her Ph.D. at Purdue University and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at City of Hope Beckman Research Institute.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Finding Guidance from Older Peers

James O'Dea - Grad Student, University of California, Santa Barbara

Well, here I am, three months out from my thesis defense, and finally, in the last nine months or so, I’ve felt like I have things under control. In some regards, that took way too long, in others, that’s probably why it takes more than a few years to get a Ph.D. It’s funny to look back on how your approach to research (and life in general) changes over the course of graduate school

Personally, I was way too uptight at first. Data had to be perfect, I tried to keep current on way too many journals, and I even thought I was so busy that that I had to turn down the older guys down the hall when they asked if I wanted to go out to lunch. I thought I couldn’t spare an hour for a leisurely meal and would instead just plow through lunch, dinner leftovers in hand, while I tried to get some work done on the computer.

After a couple years, I finally got sick of my cooking and started going out with the guys, who at that point were getting close to finishing. I quickly realized that in between small talk and jokes, I had been missing their conversations about thesis writing, postdoc searches, and research ideas. As I approach the end of my graduate studies, I can only imagine how much harder it all would have been without the unstaged guidance I’ve received from some older friends.

James O’Dea is a senior graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara and is wrapping up his dissertation on scanned probe techniques to study proton exchange membranes.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Keeping an Open Mind

Beatriz E. Rios - Grad Student, Southern Methodist University

When I came to graduate school, I knew what I wanted to do. I was sure of where my career would lead me, and I loved the field in which I was going to work. I began my research right away in my first semester and was excited about all the possibilities I had in front of me.

By the end of my first year, things had changed dramatically. My adviser was leaving. I was faced with a big decision: find a new adviser, or find a new Ph.D. program. I never thought I would be faced with this decision; I had everything planned perfectly and I had worked hard to succeed in my field.

At first I was devastated and unmotivated, but I finally decided to stay in the program I was in and to pick a new adviser in a new field. I went from bioorganic chemistry to inorganic chemistry, and today I could not be happier with the choice I made. I was forced to look at options I would have never considered in the past; in retrospect, these options were opportunities.

The best advice I can offer anyone for graduate school is to keep an open mind and to jump on opportunities as they present themselves to you. You never know where change might lead, and you never know what great things change can bring along the way.

Beatriz E. Rios is a 4th-year graduate student at Southern Methodist University where her research focuses on phosphorus-based calix[5]arene ligands and their transition metal complexes.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Focusing on Interdisciplinary Research and Networking

Naresh Sunkara - Postdoc, University of California, Berkeley

As a postdoctoral fellow interacting with and mentoring graduate students at UC, Berkeley, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on two subjects that could help you enhance your grad school experience: Interdisciplinary research and networking!

The significance of research at the boundary of different scientific fields to research at graduate school has increased dramatically in recent years. Interdisciplinary research entails exploring, learning, and mastering more skills in more than one scientific field in the typical time frame of graduate school (5–6 years). Although this can be a greater challenge, it may provide more career options after grad school. I want to emphasize this point because of the changing face of the pharmaceutical industry, along with the emergence of new careers in biotech, other related industries and government, which are looking for scientists with a broader expertise in science.

Once you choose your adviser, decide on the research topic, and get through qualifiers, you should start NETWORKING! Most of us hope that our mentor will be able to place us somewhere after graduation. Your research adviser should not be your only connection to the scientific world! You need to have mentors other than your graduate adviser and your committee to guide you in pursuit of your career goals. Try to network with researchers who are willing to guide you professionally. One important place to network is at the national meetings, where you can efficiently develop professional relations.

To be successful during and after graduate school, in addition to their scientific skills students should make a conscious effort to develop their social and networking skills.

Naresh Sunkara completed his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Combining Hard Work, Communication, and Recreation

Shelli Waetzig - Visiting Assistant Professor at College of the Holy Cross

While it’s true that different environments (school, area of study, degree) contribute to vastly different experiences in graduate school, I believe there are a few things that can help make every student successful.

First, I learned during my own experience that both scientific and nonscientific communication is vital for success. The ability to communicate with your adviser, other professors, your peers, and (Gasp!) even strangers at a conference will be a practical skill long after graduate school has ended.

Next, I believe that a successful approach includes a strong work ethic. Obtaining those much-needed results is a grueling task and requires a large degree of perseverance and diligence. A strong work ethic is an invaluable tool that helps shape a budding career and, as an added bonus, can be highly contagious.

Lastly, I found that some time away from the lab provided relief from the intense focus that graduate school demanded. For me, this included sports—such as softball, volleyball, and running—as well as cooking and baking. For others, this can include volunteering, music, community activities, or happy hour at the pub. Finding a release is an important way to help refocus in the laboratory or classroom.

These are just a few suggestions that worked for me. In the end, there is no magical solution to succeeding in graduate school. But, if you begin with hard work, throw in some communication, and add a dash of recreation, I think you will find a recipe for success!

Shelli Waetzig completed her Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. This fall, she will be a visiting assistant professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Learning from Networking

Shannon Watt - Postdoc, University of Michigan

I have always been an outgoing person...except when it came to networking. I wasn’t sure why it was important, who to network with, or what to talk about.

That changed when I attended a career-related symposium at my first ACS Regional Meeting. During the break, I happened to talk with two industrial chemists and mentioned that I was considering starting a student committee related to our topic of conversation. They kindly asked all about it, encouraged me to go for it, and e-mailed me afterward with useful resources. A few days later, I realized I’d been networking! Several years later, I also realized that this interaction indirectly led me to my ideal career path.

In addition to finding my career direction, that experience taught me three things about networking:

• Even students need business cards—they’re the admission ticket to the networking club.

• It’s important to establish professional contacts both within and beyond your research area, so make time to attend talks and receptions on campus and at conferences in addition to the usual research presentations. The chemistry community is relatively small; you never know when a contact will lead to a valuable opportunity. Every job offer I’ve received came directly from networking.

• Networking doesn’t have to be intimidating. Most people are interested in talking with and helping junior colleagues. Be yourself, be professional, and practice—it does get easier!

And those two industrial chemists from my first conference? They’re still in my network.

Shannon Watt completed her Ph.D. at the Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently an NSF Discovery Corps Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Loading TOC. Please wait....