It’s not too few scientists, it’s too few opportunities

A friend pointed me to a great article entitled The Real Science Gap , which explores the history of how the current educational system came into being, and how the various pressures have caused the current glut of scientists.  The law of supply and demand is working exactly as expected, and potential scientists are reacting to the employment prospects by choosing other lines of work.

Makes a lot of sense to me!  What do you think?  Put your opinions in the comments below.

Why do we go into science?

Why did you choose a career in science? (Or why did you not?) A brief article recently posted talks about Science and Career Uncertainty . While it’s all well and good to try to convince more people to go into the sciences, we want to make sure they know what they are getting into. Unrealistic promises and expectations do not do anyone any good.

The author makes the same point I have been making for years – there are a plethora of careers out there that let you be involve in science, without having to work at a lab bench. What we need to do is make students and young professionals aware of these options, so they can make more informed decisions about their professional futures.

Ideas on how to do this are more than welcome!

Retire to Teaching in California

A friend passed along an announcement from AARP. They have a program wherein retiring or retired math, science and engineering professionals can become a California public school teacher. It’s called the EnCorps Teachers Program, and is actively recruiting professionals from participating companies as math or science teachers in fall 2008.

The Final Application Deadline is May 9, 2008, so you’ll need to get moving if this interests you.

Visit to see if your current or former corporation is participating.

Contract Work – Is it for you? just published a great article that summarizes many of the issues around temporary work, or what they call Short-Term Science. Contract work was once virtually unheard of in the sciences, but is becoming more and more common. Companies like the flexibility it gives them in staffing, and many scientists enjoy being able to test out a company or field before committing to a permanent position. Given the way the job market is going, sometimes a 2-year contract for a “temporary” position offers more stability than a “permanent” position.

The article includes a sidebar list of 7 agencies that specialize in placing scientists in contract postions. Most of these companies I know and have worked with, but there were a couple that were new to me.

If you’re interested in trying out a new company, or learning a new skill, think about contract work and check out some of these companies.

Education Is Only For the Young?

A recent incident got me thinking that maybe education is only for the young. As you get older, it’s your experiences that become more important in determining what opportunities are available to you.

Recently I was talking to a mid-career chemist who was being downsized from her position as a bench chemist. She was looking for another bench position, but also exploring non-traditional careers. She was interested in several avenues, including chemical information and patent searching, or regulatory affairs. As we talked about the various options, she kept asking me how much school she’d have to go back to get into each of these careers. I explained that in most cases she would not need to go back to school at all.

Instead, she should start talking to people who are currently in those types of jobs, especially those in her current company. By asking them about what they do on a daily basis, what they like and don’t like about it, and so on, she can get a better picture of what these types of jobs really involve. As she’s listening, she should think about what she has done in her own career that is similar to the job functions of these other careers. Maybe she’s had to search for prior patent art before starting her own project – that’s what a patent searcher would do. Maybe she’s assisted in the documentation for FDA approval of one of her own compounds – that’s regulatory affairs. By emphasizing what she’s already done, she can leverage her experience to move in a new direction without having to go back to school and start over. (Granted, continuing education and certificatiosns are often a good way to explore new fields, but actually doing something is always better than just learning about it.)

The older you are, the more things you have done, so the more likely it is you’ve done something similar to what you’d be doing in a new position. This is good news, because you can use that experience to convince a potential employer that you know what you are getting into, and you can handle it, because you’ve already done it. That’s what the company wants to know – what are you going to do for us? The best way to show you CAN DO it is to tell them how you HAVE DONE similar things already.

So think about it….what have you done? What do you like doing? And where might you be able to get paid for doing that?

Trends in Employment of Scientists

FASEB just published a wonderful report, correlating data from all sorts of national surveys on Education and Employment of Biological and medical Scientists. There is a detailed Powerpoint presentation, with notes which detail data sources and contact information, as well as a one page summary of trends.

The most interesting finding, at least to me, is that the number of tenure (or tenure track) academically employed scientists has remained relatively unchanged for the last 20 years. But he number of doctorate degrees awarded during this time has doubled. Not surprisingly, industry is the fastest growing employment sector for biological and medical scientists. Where else would they go?

What this means, of course, is that there are many more highly educated scientists competing for the same positions. Those who chose not to go that route move into industry, and many of them move into nontraditional careers.

The good news is this means there are more chemists out there blazing the way, who can provide guidance and advice for those coming behind. The bad news, of course, is that there’s more competition for those postions. This means it’s ever more important to figure out exactly what you want to do, and why you’re good at it. That way you can find the job that’s just right for you, and will be able to explain to the company why you are a perfect fit.

Use of New Technologies for Finding Jobs

I’m currently writing a talk on the use of new technologies, with a specific focus on how they can be used to find jobs. I’ve been looking at blogs, wikis, social networking tools (Myspace, Facebook, Linkedin), VoIP, IM, and so on. I’ve heard a few anecdotes about people who made connections using social networking tools which lead to jobs. Linkedin seems especially good for finding contacts at particular companies, to get the inside scoop. Linkedin will search the whole network for you, and tell you which of your contacts can get you to someone you really want to talk to. This really helps narrow your search – you don’t have to ask everyone if they know anyone at XYZ company, and it can find people 2 or more degrees removed from you. As more people join, the network becomes every more valuable, but only if people only make connections to people they really know, and are willing to recommend.

While this is certainly an interesting tool to add to your arsenal, in the end it still comes down to who you know, and how well you do your homework.

To MBA or not to MBA?

Many scientists who want a more business oriented career consider earning an MBA. Whether that will pay off, either in money or in job satisfaction, depends on each person’s personal circumstances.

Peter Fiske’s recent article entitled Opportunities: More School? talks about the factors involved in making this decision.

Intellectual Property Protection

One of the things I tell new graduates is that they need to understand intellectual property – patents, trade secrets, copyrights, and so on. Protection of assets is a very big part of many companies, and it not taught in most chemistry graduate programs.

A recent article by Michael S. Malone entitled “Silicon Insider: Patent Weary” that talks about the current problems with the patent system, and how things may be changing. Food for thought…..