How to Rock the Hustle: 8 Pro Tips for Making the Most of Your Job Search

By Elizabeth Mahood

We’re all about the hustle here at Blogging Beyond Academia. I’ve read, written, and edited posts about everything from honing your communication skills to what it’s like at a startup. However, for all our posts about career exploration and skill-building resources, we’ve left out one key element of getting a job: the job search itself. COVID-19 has put job searching on the forefront of the minds of many,
especially those of us finishing at our current positions. In response to this, I’ve gathered advice from researchers recently awarded positions in industry as well as in academia. Although this advice is coming from researchers in my field (plant biology), their advice is applicable across broad sciences and humanities. Additionally, the tips below are important to consider even if your current appointment isn’t ending soon – being a strong candidate takes lots of prep, and searching for the perfect job can take longer than you might think!

General Tips:

  • Start “Early”: This first tip is probably the piece of advice I heard most often. People in industry commented that it took them 9-12 months to land their current position, and it sometimes took longer than that for people in academia. Part of “starting” is letting your network know that you are looking for positions, and doing this early means you are less likely to miss out on
    opportunities advertised only through your network.
  • Prep Yourself: To get your dream job, you have to be a great fit. While a big part of this is aligning your materials to the job position (more on this later), an equally big part is making sure your skills and experiences turn you into the ideal candidate (read: do your prep work). One pro tip is to copy / paste job applications into a text editor, and determine which words are coming up the most –these are likely to be the skills recruiters or committees want you to have. Another newly-minted-pro’s tip is to follow people on Twitter or LinkedIn whose careers you want to mirror, as their posts could be highly relevant to your job search and they may even drop openings of interest to you. Bottom line: having a Career Development Plan and sticking to it through your current position is key to landing your next one.
  • Keep Communicating with your PI: Seriously applying to jobs can (and probably will) mean de-accelerating your research. It’s super important to keep your PI informed through this process so they can support you through it.
  • Use Twitter to Your Advantage: tweet about your papers or accomplishments to publicize them and tweet about other people’s research to show that you are involved and knowledgeable about your field.

Tips for Industry Positions:

  • Don’t be Intimidated by Postings: Industry job postings will describe the qualifications of their dream-come-true candidate. Oftentimes, their applicants won’t have every box ticked – so it’s ok if you don’t either. In these scenarios, it is really important to highlight your ability and interest to learn the skills you don’t have. As a side note, this can depend on what type of industry position you apply to – startups are less likely to hire someone who pitches themselves as “eager to learn” then they are to hire “an expert”.
  • But Definitely Take Postings Seriously: As we highlighted above, job postings will state key qualities that employers need or want their candidates to have. These qualities should be first and foremost in your application materials – and they can change from one company to the next. A pro tip is to have a “backbone” resume handy that you can tailor to fit each company you apply to. Read the company’s website to see what terminology and values they put front and center, and incorporate those into your application materials.

Tips for Academic Positions:

  • Distinguish Yourself in the Interview: This came up often when talking to people recently awarded faculty positions. The key area you have to do this in is your talk – you must present research that is exciting, aligned well with the position, and appears easily fundable. Additionally, to make a lasting impression on the search committee, you should familiarize yourself with their research. This will show them that you are curious, involved and collaborative – traits they want in their future coworker.
  • Distinguish your Application Materials: With many positions getting a slew of applications, it’s critical to make yours stand out. The search committee will spend a lot of time looking at your papers, but if your papers don’t encompass all of your work – i.e. let’s say you’re also good at programming – make sure you have Googleable evidence of this, as it can set you apart from other candidates. Additionally, if the position description has a clear picture of their ideal candidate, make sure to include their key criteria in your application materials. If the position is less clear or more broad, however, feel free to shape your application materials in whatever way that puts your best foot forward.

I’ll end this post with a few resources for anyone thinking about getting their next position. The first is particularly related to COVID-19: a live list of companies actively hiring, freezing, or firing employees in response to the pandemic. For others that are still shaping their current position, Cornell has a multitude of resources to check out. Cornell Career Services has templates for cover letters and resumes. The Graduate School has several institutional memberships that are free for students and postdocs. The Office of Postdoctoral Studies, CIRTL at Cornell, and Careers Beyond Academia are always available for individual consultations and questions. Additionally, for those interested in academic positions, check out HigherEdJobs for listings. For anyone wondering how to start concretizing their research interests into a written document – a good place to start is with your “personal brand”. Finally, for researchers in the life sciences, a couple resources: ecoevojobs is a google spreadsheet listing job positions (and it comes with a “venting” sheet—a good place for perspectives from applicants that ultimately weren’t awarded positions), and PlantPostdocSlack is a great resource (for job postings and resource sharing) for any postdoc whose research is broadly associated with plants. I hope this post has been helpful for you – and always remember to reach out to Careers Beyond Academia if you have any job search questions, or want more resources and advice!

The why and how of outreach: why you should do it, and how you can turn it into a career

By Liz Mahood

Featuring Free Science Workshop co-founder Claire Fox

In all probability, most Cornell graduate students don’t spend any of their Friday evenings cleaning up chocolate sauce that had been exploded out of a concrete volcano. Over my years here at Cornell, however, I’ve found that this happens to me on a fairly regular basis.

Fortunately, this exploding-chocolate-sauce phenomenon isn’t something associated with my thesis research, or any class I’m taking. Instead, it’s the highlight of the evening at Ithaca’s Free Science Workshop – a non-profit organization that brings exciting, exploratory science and maker activities to the afternoons of Ithaca’s children, for free. Although weekly volunteers like me are essential to keep these activities running (and to keep all the children’s fingers attached), one of the powerhouses who co-founded the program is Claire Fox: STEM outreach extraordinaire, mother, snake whisperer, drill whisperer, and Ph.D. candidate in the College of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology (check out some of her research here).

An adult and child creating a maker project
Claire, right, with a Free Science Workshop participant. Image courtesy of the Ithaca Free Science Workshop

Claire’s path to graduate school can be summarized as, unsurprisingly, “nontraditional”. As a self-described “latchkey kid”, Claire grew up spending countless hours exploring the natural world. She was unimpressed with the traditional science courses she took in school, however, and she didn’t pursue STEM education any further than she needed – until she found that she wanted to become a STEM educator. Claire has extensive experience in a field of non-academic STEM careers that is often overlooked: outreach. It’s because of this experience, and because of her inspiring path to Ph.D. candidacy, that I decided to sit down with her, and tell her story.

Claire’s inspiring story, and insight into STEM outreach careers, is below. However, I also wanted to highlight several reasons why anyone, no matter what their career paths are, should engage in STEM outreach (and although I’ve refrained from using the clappy-hands emoji here, you should be forewarned that I’m currently stepping onto a soapbox). These reasons were partially conceived through talking with Claire, but also come from my own experiences volunteering, and giving and receiving STEM education. The first reason: you will impact the lives of other people. Taking education as an example – much research has been conducted about how public-school students underperform in STEM fields, especially if they are from a low-income or under-represented minority background1,2. As I received my primary education from the St. Louis City Public School District, my experience is that this underperformance might stem from a general disinterest. My schools did not have the funds for science materials, and no scientists ever visited our classrooms. For my classmates and me, science was just something to read from a textbook. Thus, in my view, there’s an urgent need to connect with underserved children so that they may “appreciate, enjoy, and identify with science,” said Claire. Second, engaging in STEM outreach activities can introduce you to people with similar interests but different career trajectories. This can be especially helpful for anyone who is unsure about what career paths to take, as outreach environments can attract STEM professionals from many fields. Additionally, you might find yourself filling leadership, communication, or other non-traditional roles for STEM graduate students, which can give you an opportunity to test-drive anything you are interested in for a career. Third, for anyone firmly-rooted in academia, pursuing STEM outreach gives you avenues to create and implement the Broader Impacts statements required in grant proposals. Finally, in almost any STEM outreach setting, you will be required to communicate your science, or the science of others’, to a lay audience. This will force you to hone-in on why your science matters, so that others may understand the value of your work.

Below are Claire’s answers – read on if you are interested in a career in outreach, and/or you want some STEM outreach organizations to participate in.

Liz: How did your career in outreach begin?

Children making a maker project
Participants at the Free Science Workshop. Image courtesy of the Ithaca Free Science Workshop

Claire: Before I was doing science outreach, I was actually doing art and cultural outreach with regional schools for the education department of the Johnson Museum of Art. My undergraduate degree from Cornell is an independent major in Visual Studies. It’s funny in retrospect because I was always working science into my discussions with students, even in the art museum – geeking out about chemical compounds discovered in ancient China, or wondering about the morphology of a bird’s beak used in an African mask… In 2012, I got involved in the maker movement which was a wonderful confluence of art, science and engineering in an atmosphere that was very welcoming to beginners. It was great to be in an environment where my different interests could come out and play together. It reinforced my conviction that people learn best hands-on, in ways that engage their curiosity and personal interests. Learning is not confined to school. It can be life-long and community-based. I ran a STEM-focused Teen program in Ovid, NY and taught STEM classes at the local makerspace for underserved youth. Eventually I met like-minded folks, including Erik Herman, who at the time was a science outreach specialist at CLASSE. We collaborated on the Physics Bus outreach program, and a few years later, were co-founders of the Free Science Workshop program in Ithaca.

Liz: What motivated you to pursue a PhD?

Claire: I think a lot about what gets scientists interested in being scientists in the first place. For me, it was direct early childhood experiences with nature. I was a latchkey kid in a rural town without a TV or a computer, just running around in the woods and streams catching all kinds of creatures, collecting specimens, and reading any book I could get my hands on. Science in school failed to capture that feeling of discovery and I lost interest in pursuing it academically. It was a decade later when I started teaching science in afterschool and enrichment programs that my enthusiasm was rekindled. There is nothing I love more than sharing the joys and fascination of science with kids. In order to advance professionally as an informal science educator, I needed a degree in a science field. I started taking classes at Cornell in EEB, found a lab I liked, and just got sucked in! Honestly, I don’t need a PhD or even a Masters to have a rewarding career in community science engagement. I ended up in grad school because I love learning and don’t do things by halves. The opportunity to contribute to a science field that I find fascinating, and be challenged intellectually, was too great to pass up.

Liz: If someone wants to do a career in outreach, are there any skills/experiences they should work on getting?

Claire: It depends on what types of jobs you are interested in. “Science outreach” is part of the broader fields of Informal Science Education, Public Science Engagement, and Science Communication. From what I have seen, science outreach jobs through universities and research institutions are relatively few and far between. They are often specific to a particular science field and are sometimes dependent on grant funding. Informal Science Education more broadly encompasses any science engagement opportunities that occur outside of a formal classroom. In addition to outreach programs at universities and research institutions, this includes science museums, nature centers, aquariums and zoos, afterschool and enrichment programs, summer programs, and any type of science media produced for lay audiences. People hiring for museum educator jobs and school or afterschool enrichment programs will be looking at how many years of experience you have working with children/families/the general public, with what age groups, and in what context. If you haven’t already done so, seek out opportunities for science engagement with early childhood, pre-teen and teen, and adult audiences – preferably from diverse backgrounds – to broaden your experience and discover what age group is the best fit for you. Many employers will expect you to have experience designing and implementing activities that are aligned with current K-12 science standards. A bachelor’s degree in a science field and experience working with youth is often all that is needed to meet minimum requirements for an entry-level informal STEM education or outreach job. For more advanced positions you will likely be competing with people who have multiple years of relevant full-time work experience or graduate degrees specifically in STEM Education, Museum Education, Science Communication, and related fields. In my opinion experience is more important than degrees or certificates. Get in at whatever level you can and work your way up.

If this post has at all inspired you to check out STEM outreach opportunities, then you are in the good place! Cornell, and the Greater Ithaca area, have many organizations to join, or you could make your own outreach program or event. For starters in STEM education, check out the Cornell-led programs EYH and GRASSHOPR. If you’re instead looking for opportunities in communication, Cornell departments host a variety of podcasts (a couple: Science Blender, Speaking of Language). To conclude, there are many opportunities available for careers in STEM outreach, and – whether you’re considering a career in this field or not – outreach can be a wonderful way to get new skills, and de-stress from the trials of graduate or postdoc research.

1. Bohrnstedt, G., Kitmitto, S., Ogut, B., Sherman, D. & Chan, D. School Composition and the Black-White Achievement Gap. NCES 2015-018. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015).

2. Knopf, J. A. et al. Out-of-School-Time Academic Programs to Improve School Achievement: A Community Guide Health Equity Systematic Review. J Public Health Manag Pract 21, 594–608 (2015).

 

Setting your sights on startups: advice from Ivan Liachko, cofounder of Phase Genomics

By Elizabeth Mahood

For a biosciences grad student like me, the idea of working at a startup can seem downright exotic. Many aspects of the startup world are in stark contrast to academia. The biggest difference is probably this: where academia can hire professors for the entirety of their career, many startups only “live” for less than a year. While the uncertainty inherent in the startup world is definitely a downside, the upside to it is salaries and other benefits that are usually not found in academia.  Many other characteristics distinguish startups from academia, and even from larger businesses, such as the intimate work environment, overall job market, and general business models. Due to all these differences, if your training thus far has come from academic environments, working at a startup can seem like a completely different lifestyle.

This post is designed to give students and postdocs that are, like me, well-rooted in academia, a glimpse into what applying to a startup may be like. This glimpse was provided by Ivan Liachko, a graduate of Cornell’s GGD program, who is now the co-owner and chief scientist of a successful, 5-year old biotech startup called Phase Genomics. Dr. Liachko, through BTI’s Post-Graduate Association and Careers Beyond Academia, recently visited the Cornell campus to speak about his company’s research and his experiences starting and running his Seattle-based startup. He shared personal experiences, and offered insight on how employment works at a startup. For the grad students and postdocs who are exploring careers outside of academia, or are just beginning to look at what is beyond the university, here are some major takeaways on applying to a startup.

1) The application process is unique. When Phase Genomics has a position to fill, they have a clear picture of the skills that an applicant needs in order to fit well. If they do not already know of someone who fits the position, they will make the application public, and review the skills of the applicants. This reveals two important considerations for those thinking about working at a startup: have a big network, and make your experiences and skills easy to find. The first one is a no-brainer, and is important for any type of job search. The second one, however, can set apart a startup’s application processes from those in academia. For instance, when applying to an academic position, having demonstrable eagerness to learn new information or skills may be as important as prior experience. This is often not the case when applying to a startup, as they want to quickly know your expertise—skills and prior experience should go front and center on your resume. Having an informative business card, a LinkedIn or ResearchGate profile, and just “making yourself Googleable” is essential.

The next phase of the application process—the interview—really differs between startups and academia. According to Dr. Liachko, for startups, “it’s like dating”. The majority of startups have a small staff, so appraising how your personality will fit with everyone else’s in the company is important. The interviewers also want to know how you will fit in with the business. Unfortunately, it is often the case that startups go under, or get close to it, and the interviewers may want to assess how you will act in those scenarios. The intimacy of this process differs from academia, where positions are generally more stable and work forces are typically larger.

People standing and conversing with Dr. Liachko.
Cornell grad students and postdocs network with Dr. Liachko, left. Photo courtesy of Susi Varvayanis.

2) Hustling can get you places—if you are willing to move quickly. Dr. Liachko shared the story of how he hired his head of marketing. It started at a conference, where both Dr. Liachko and the Future Head of Marketing (FHM) were presenting posters. FHM had heard Dr. Liachko explain his poster so many times that when he stepped away, she explained his poster to interested passers-by. When he returned, they spoke and he mentioned the open marketing position at his company. FHM gave Dr. Liachko her business card, emailed him after the conference, and stressed her interest in the position. Impressed with FHM’s credentials and personality, Dr. Liachko offered FHM the position, on the condition that she move across the country to Seattle. FHM took the position, filled her car with her belongings, and moved to Seattle. This story is an example of how important skills and personality are for startups, and reinforces how the hiring process for startups differs from academia. Many academic jobs require recommendations from established members of the field, but those may be less required for startup positions.

3) Tidbits. Other tips were shared at the meeting. Here are several about startup funding and Cornell resources.

  • Business cards: Cornell print services offers 100 business cards for $25 for students, faculty, and staff. On your business card, it is more informative to put your field of expertise down as your profession, rather than “Graduate Student” or “Postdoctoral Researcher”. Extra points for putting your picture on the card.
  • Startup funding: For those interested in creating a startup, the first round of funding often comes from the “Three F’s”, friends, family, and fools. After that, there are several grants available for startups, some from large, academia-associated foundations like the NIH (check out their SBIR and STTR programs).
  • Internship opportunities: Cornell’s Careers Beyond Academia program offers internships at many small to mid-sized companies, which give program participants a chance to see firsthand what working at a startup is like. Head here for more info on internships.

Ever wondered what a science communication bootcamp would be like?

By Bhaavya Srivastava, 2nd year PhD student, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior

In a world where fake news and misinformation is rampant, accurate yet understandable communication is key. This is true not only for policy makers, political stakeholders, the media, and the general public, but for scientists as well. However, for many researchers, getting into the field of science communication can be a daunting task: there are countless avenues to broadcast your research, so where do you even start?

The Science Communication Workshop (COMM 5660), an intensive weekend workshop offered every semester here at Cornell, is an inspirational first step. Led by Bruce Lewenstein, Professor of Science Communication, this course is an introduction to the different ways people can get into the field, both in a communication and journalism context.

People standing and conversing
Participants practicing delivering the key points of their research. Photo credits: Susi Varvayanis and Denise DiRienzo.

Over three chilly days in early fall, I got my first chance to delve into science communication through this workshop. The students in the course included doctoral and master’s students from a variety of different fields, ranging from Human Ecology to Physics and Computational Biology, all at different points in their careers. However, I believe I can speak for all of us when I say that the course was extremely useful, not just in learning the advantages and disadvantages of Twitter versus Facebook versus innumerable blogging sites, but also in actually learning how to convey your research in a manner that anyone could understand, while still retaining its core message.

 

The workshop began on a Friday with a panel of speakers, all involved in Cornell and science communication. Their communication mediums included podcasts, science editing and writing, and public outreach. A few of the panelists were Cynthia Leifer, co-host of the Immune podcast, David Pizarro, co-host of the Very Bad Wizards podcast, Linda Rayor, Director of the Naturalist Outreach program, and Lyza Maron, a science writer and storyteller at Plant Editors. All the panelists provided different perspectives on getting involved with and finding your niche in science communication, noting that sometimes opportunities came out of the blue. A particularly common theme that stood out to me was that for many of the panelists, their forays into science communication started as something personal and small, a project they began for their own enjoyment. However, in part fueled by their own passion for the subject, they became bigger and more well-known to a larger audience, beyond just their friends and colleagues.

As someone whose primary focus with regards to communication had always been writing, particularly in a journalism context, it was eye-opening to see how people branched out into mediums that I had never considered, such as science education and outreach, and of course, podcasts. Furthermore, the panelists all emphasized the importance of communication in today’s world, from hot topics like vaccination to more mundane aspects like explaining to a relative what exactly it is you do.

The next two days of the workshop focused primarily on hands-on activities, and truly gave us a taste of what a career in science communication entails. All participants practiced approaching our research from different perspectives, including: a journalist, who is seeking to inform the public; a researcher, trying to appeal to other scientists and prospective students; and communicators, publicizing institutional research in understandable terms. After learning basic writing and journalism terms and tips, we ventured into actually writing and distilling our own research, using different tactics to appeal to different audiences. The course covered a broad range of media: short-form tweets, blog posts, news articles in magazines aimed at a variety of consumers, science outreach, publicity, and press releases, and so on. Not only did we get practice writing and communicating, we also got feedback, both from the other workshop attendees as well as Dr. Lewenstein himself. We even got to practice being interviewed for an informative talk show!

At the end of the workshop, we had all learned how difficult – yet how imperative – it can be to create a message about your research that can be translated for other people, with varied backgrounds and interests. Ultimately, as people are bombarded with vast amounts of information every day, the skill of understanding how to present your research to an audience beyond the scientists in your field is critical. Furthermore, science journalism is a viable career path in and of itself, and coming into the field with both a communicator’s and a scientist’s perspective is invaluable. This course serves as a first step towards being a better science communicator, whatever that may look like for you.

Find out more about the course, and additional reading and resources for scientific communication here.

Career Building 101: How Do I Host a Careers Beyond Academia Event?

By Janani Hariharan

How often do you get to meet professionals in your field (who are not at Cornell) and hear about their experiences and career paths? Would you like to be the person who brings this person (or persons) to Cornell? If you answered yes to both of these questions, then consider organizing an event with the Careers Beyond Academia program.

Susi Varvayanis, Executive Director of Cornell’s Careers Beyond Academia program, believes that getting involved in organizing professional development opportunities can help cultivate many essential skills that are needed in the workforce today: collaboration, teamwork, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural communication skills, time management, public speaking, networking, budgeting and so on.

“In the past year alone, over 15 seminars, symposia and workshops were proposed and organized by Careers Beyond Academia participants who were guided through the process and gained skills in networking, event planning and management (in patent review, governance, consulting, entrepreneurship, communication, and industry),” Susi said. “Many more were conceptualized and run by graduate student organizations with minimal Careers Beyond Academia support. Additionally, five experiential activities were proposed by Careers Beyond Academia participants and sponsored for individuals to network with professionals off campus and gain specific skills in biofabrication, medical writing and communication, plant health, entrepreneurship, and medical technologies. Twenty individuals were facilitated to participate in four off-campus workshops to build skills in policy development, project management, or via case competitions.”

While the Careers Beyond Academia program staff are willing and available to train, plan, and assist the group in organizing events, their level of involvement ultimately boils down to the the group’s needs. Rest assured, anyone who works with Careers Beyond Academia to plan an event will be thoroughly prepped, including on-demand group coaching and event planning sessions. Based on the numbers mentioned above, it certainly seems like Cornellians have started to take advantage of these experiential opportunities.

People sitting at a table.
Graduate students and postdocs at an alumni-led Careers Beyond Academia event. Photo credit: Susi Varvayanis

From a graduate student’s perspective, the biggest roadblock can be the time commitment needed to plan events with visiting speakers or large groups. Susi reveals an alternative that may seem more manageable for some: students who would like to get trained in organizing events can participate at multiple levels of time and effort, depending on their schedule and interests. While developing a new idea from scratch may be tempting and exciting, it is also very time-consuming, and beginners may wish to join an existing team of students working on an event that interests them instead. This will help them achieve valuable skills while preserving time to pursue research and teaching commitments.

Monique Theriault, a PhD candidate in Microbiology, has organized two events on careers and internships in microbiology for her fellow graduate students. While her motivation for designing these events came from a desire to learn more about career opportunities after graduation, the discussions and invited presenters ultimately proved to be important resources for a much larger community as well. Here is a checklist of what she says student organizers should keep in mind when planning an event:

  1. What need does the event fill? How does it serve the graduate student community or other communities?
  2. Start planning well in advance, especially if you are bringing in speakers from external sources. Time spent organizing will vary, with a sharp increase close to the date of the event.
  3. When approaching the Careers Beyond Academia staff, a strong idea is critical but it is okay to not have details fleshed out yet! The program can usually offer resources, a network and help with planning logistics.
  4. When asking for financial sponsorship, ask groups (example, a department or a program) to contribute to specific instances that are of interest to their members. For example, a request like ‘Could you pay for lunch for 30 people at this career event attended by your graduate students?’ is more specific and effective than ‘Would you be willing to pay for the cost of food?’
  5. Doing a pre-event survey can provide great feedback for your presenters about participants’ goals and expectations for the event. This helps presenters make customized, tailored talks and prepare for audience questions.
  6. Technology issues can often crop up, especially if you are hosting an event in an unfamiliar building. Be sure to do a few test runs, especially with guests who may be attending via video conferencing.

Monique also mentions networking and communication skills, organization, delegation, leadership, budget design and money management as essential skills learned from this experience, along with designing and analyzing survey data.

Many of these skills are valuable across disciplines and career paths, and yet very few graduate students get to acquire experience in these areas during the course of their programs. Working with Careers Beyond Academia could offer a great opportunity to pick up these skills, build your professional network and create an event that is of value to a larger community. It may even be an opportunity to meet a future employer!

If this post has inspired you to put an event idea into action, reach out to the Careers Beyond Academia program by emailing Susi Varvayanis or Denise DiRienzo to get guidance on how to Create Your Own Activity!

 

Write better grants: Three ways to give your research proposal an edge over the competition

Author: Cassi Wattenburger

If you’re a graduate student or post-doctoral researcher in the sciences, you almost certainly understand the difficult funding climate that scientists face. In fiscal year 2016, the average funding rate for National Science Foundation (NSF) grants was only 16% (Figure 1), and fellowship applications typically have a 15% success rate. On top of this, US government research budgets remain stagnant year after year. Whether in academia, government, or private research, securing funding is a perennial problem. But, what if I told you that you could greatly increase your personal chances of winning a grant? We took advice from successful grant-winner, Dan Buckley, a professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences Department at Cornell, whose funding rates range between 66% and 75%. So, what is his secret to success?

Dr. Dan Buckley. Photo Credit: Susi Varvayanis

“Aim to write a top 25% grant, then your chances of funding drastically increase.”

Due to the limited number of proposals that a granting organization can fund, only the very best grants will have any chance. If you write a grant within that third quartile of quality, you are effectively competing with a much smaller pool of fundable proposals and the odds are in your favor. On the flipside, any grants ranked below that top percentage drop precipitously in their chances. So, how do you consistently get your big ideas into that top 25% bracket? Easier said than written, right? Good research ideas can take you most of the way, but your writing can set you apart. Here are a few simple points Dr. Buckley described that many failed grants don’t get right.

1. Know your audience.

The problem with grants is that you have a lot to say with very few words. Knowing your audience (in this case, the reviewers) in terms of their depth of knowledge in your field and the terminology that they like/dislike, will go a long way towards helping you write an optimal grant proposal. Giving your reviewers too much information will annoy them but missing the important points will give them cause to doubt your proposal. Keywords can be deadly, too. Dr. Buckley described to us, with dismay, how a brilliant grant proposal he once reviewed involving microbial evolution tanked because the evolutionary biologists on the panel got caught up on the applicant’s use of the word “species”.

The best way to know your audience is to become part of it; ask to be part of a grant review panel sometime.

2. Write well!

Graph
Figure 1: NSF funding rate per year and field. Trendline depicts average yearly funding rate. CISE: Computer and Information Science and Engineering, EHR: Education and Human Resources, GEO: Geosciences, MPS: Mathematical and Physical Sciences, OPP: Office of Polar Programs, SBE: Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. Data source: https://catalog.data.gov/dataset/nsf-funding-rate-history. Graph Credit: Liz Mahood and Susi Varvayanis.

This boils down to brevity. Giving your reviewers the right information is the first step, reducing your word count is the next. Long sentences with many prepositions and confused subjects are difficult for readers to grasp. Poor writing makes the reviewer put in extra effort parsing the sentences that you should have already done. The harder your ideas are to understand, no matter how good those ideas are, the lower your chances of funding become. Writing well takes time and many drafts. Dr. Buckley recommends you spend at least one to two months on each grant application. He also stresses the importance of practicing and reflecting on your writing regularly, even when you aren’t applying for grants.

3. Good salesmanship.

“It’s like turning in your book report with an apple for the teacher.”
-Dan Buckley

Make your grant application look great. Use appropriate font sizes, bolding, italics, and white space so that your text is effortless to read. Use figures to express ideas whenever you can, and make them simple, attractive, and understood at a glance. When all else is equal and the funding tight, the exciting, easy read is probably going to be favored. Of course, the success you’re met with when applying these tips is predicated entirely on your idea being great in the first place. However, ignoring these points can kill even the best ideas in review. Knowing your audience, writing well, and good salesmanship can help your awesome ideas stand apart from the rest, and lead to a happy, prosperous scientific career, whether that be in academia, government, non-profit or beyond.

Additional resources:

If you’re interested in more specific details about how to organize and craft a grant, see the comprehensive advice available here. Cornell also offers resources for grad students and post-doctoral researchers writing grants, such as Writing Bootcamps and Grad Write Ins at the Big Red Barn on Fridays from 8-11 am. Check out your department’s internal grants and SPIN for funding opportunities.

Have Skills, Will Travel: Why Attending Off-Campus Symposia is Good for Any BESTie’s Career

***This post was originally published in the BEST newsletter***

The New York State Biotechnology Symposium fosters the exchange of ideas between industry representatives and scientists, students, academics and other professionals interested in biotechnology.  Organizers of this annual conference work to develop synergies and relationships that further advance the field. It has a history of convening promising and innovative biotechnology companies and experts, both as speakers and participants.

Dr. Daniela Bocioaga. Image Provided by Susi Varvayanis

Several current and past BESTies have attended this May symposium over the years at the Gateway Center on the campus of SUNY-ESF in Syracuse and at Brookhaven National Labs on Long Island. Experiences of BESTies have varied from speaking in a biotechnology session alongside a faculty member and an industry representative, to presenting a prize winning poster. Another one of those was BEST alumna, Dr. Daniela Bocioaga, who now holds the title of Scientist at Rheonix, Inc in Ithaca, where she is involved in developing molecular diagnostic assay tools.  “Although I could only attend for one day, it was certainly a rich and memorable experience for me,” she reported.

Elvis Cao next to winning poster. Image accessed from the BEST News page.

Attendees at any conference like this hope to engage in networking with the other professionals. Sometimes there is little time built into the schedule for networking to happen. Daniela reported that was not the case with the Biotechnology Symposium.  “What struck me most at this symposium was a very good balance between the amount of time allotted to talks/presentations and that allotted for communication between the participants. At other conferences I attended, there would be days packed with talks and little time left to talk to anyone.  At this symposium, I actually had time to connect  with six (!!) different groups and there was still enough time allotted for scientific presentations.”

Daniela also reported that several of the professionals with whom she networked were Cornell alumni.  Among the stimulating conversations Daniela had were discussions with researchers representing environmental management and consulting, patent law in bioengineering, microbial biofuel production, and DNA diagnostic tools.  The breadth of professionals with whom Daniela networked indicates the broad utility of the symposium for any BESTies interested in biotechnology.  Click here for a summary of the keynote address.

Attending symposia outside of Cornell can help enlarge your range of connections, bring fresh perspectives to your research, increase your professional confidence and broaden your understanding of a sector. This knowledge, in turn, can help you leverage your PhD skills for positions in a career you desire. The network of new colleagues can then facilitate your job search, as Daniela found when she ultimately received a job offer following an informational interview conducted at the symposium she attended.

by Jody Enck

Research to Regulation: the Career Journey of Alumna Rajni Singh

By Janani Hariharan

Do you care about animal safety and well-being in research and veterinary medicine settings?  Did you know that you, a PhD student or postdoctoral researcher, could choose among various career paths focused on animal safety?  These kinds of careers are just some of those that fall under the broad term “regulatory affairs.”

As part of the BEST program’s efforts to help PhDs and postdocs become more aware of our future career possibilities, Dr. Rajni Singh, Consumer Safety Officer at the FDA and a Cornell alumna, walked us through her path.  She was invited to Cornell by Jin Liang, postdoc at the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology and BEST Advisory Board member. A group of BESTies, old and new, met with her on campus and heard her emphasize the importance of her PhD research, an excellent postdoctoral fellowship, and great mentorship in her current workplace.

While at Cornell, Rajni’s research involved pharmacology and neurotoxicology, making it necessary to work with lab animals. This laid the foundation for her strong technical know-how about current government regulations regarding animals used in experiments, and their effective practice in the laboratory setting. Being a regulatory affairs officer was not always her goal though – as an undergrad, she wanted to become a professor.

Dr. Ranji Singh at Cornell. Photo credit: Susi Varvayanis

However, during her time as a PhD student and a postdoc at NIH, she realized how stressful benchwork could be, and how rare faculty positions are. She talked about the importance of access to career development resources as a graduate student and postdoctoral trainee, and believes that NIH’s research and career resources were a huge aid in identifying her ideal career. Additionally, her experience with the Center for Teaching Innovation at Cornell aided in developing public speaking skills which are extremely useful in her current job, and indeed, in many other jobs.

Although she was making progress at her postdoctoral stint at the NIH, she decided to take a risk and apply for an ORISE fellowship. This was a risky decision because it meant a switch from a successful academic career to a non-traditional one, but Rajni’s motivation behind this decision was to experience a new career track, and her new supervisor was ready to support and promote her growth as a mentee. This decision proved to be a good one as it became a stepping stone to her current position. The ORISE fellowship created an opportunity for a short-term regulatory affairs stint at the FDA, which eventually led to the title of Consumer Safety Officer that Rajni holds today.

One of the major advantages of a government career off the bench is the work-life balance, as there are no experimental timepoints and team members recognize that people have lives outside of work. This could be especially useful for people who enjoy a regular routine and steadiness of pace. On the negative side, the FDA (indeed, government) employees are prohibited from investing in companies regulated by the FDA, which could be a setback for some people. There might not be as much room for advancement to senior positions, which also impacts the payscale, and the pace of work tends to be slower than that seen in industry.

Rajni’s story generated a lot of interest and curiosity about the career track itself, as well as her journey and decision-making process. In response to questions from graduate students interested in regulatory affairs, she said that it is not necessary to have previous experience in regulatory affairs, since a lot of teams are strengthened by individuals from interdisciplinary backgrounds. Additionally, the FDA (like other regulatory bodies) provides mandatory training to employees which includes information on the U.S. legal code, legal writing, and research ethics training.

So, what does a regulatory affairs officer do on a daily basis? Rajni stresses that this career is an ideal fit for someone who is detail-oriented and likes to be meticulous and thorough in their work, as opposed to people who might be big-picture thinkers. She is currently located in the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) at the FDA, along with 500 other employees. Her responsibilities involve working with drug sponsors to regulate the sale of animal drugs after they have received FDA approval (otherwise called surveillance). This involves collecting data about drug trials and promotional materials from sponsors (drug manufacturers), reviewing them for potential problems, working with the sponsors, and writing reports. As part of a larger team, she conducts literature reviews and data analyses, compiles information for supervisors and policy officials or even members of Congress, liaises with lawyers and veterinarians, and deals with emerging themes in the animal health industry such as antimicrobial resistance. Additionally, she is sometimes asked to be a part of working committees that amend existing guidelines and gather input from stakeholders. In rare cases, non-compliance with FDA regulations may result in drugs being pulled from the market, and a regulatory affairs professional has to make those decisions and contact the drug manufacturers. Naturally, this involves dealing with confidential data and meetings. Ideal qualities for this career track include: attention to detail, being a team player, and the ability to communicate science to multiple audiences (scientists, regulatory professionals, policy makers, and the general public).

For students and postdocs interested in a career in Regulatory Affairs, the BEST program provides ample resources.

 

Networking at Joint Pathways to Success and BEST Symposium

By Luisa Torres, PhD

Professional development is an important part of student life.  In the tough job market for people with PhDs, there is a need for aspiring professionals to market themselves well to beat the competition.  The Pathways to Success (P2S) and 5th annual BEST symposium, that took place on June 6th, 2018 on Cornell’s main campus, was aimed at helping with this effort.  Attendees learned about careers in government and industry, identifying transferrable skills, using social media, conducting informational interviews, and building professional networks to learn about different career paths.  “Our hope was to engage grad students and postdocs from all fields to help them realize their skills are needed in a broad variety of careers, whether in government or non-governmental organizations, in consulting or industry, whether they are internationals or want to become academics,” says the Executive Director of the BEST program, Susi Varvayanis.

This was the first time the BEST Program’s annual symposium was fully integrated with the graduate school pathways to success framework. “Pathways to Success is the Graduate School’s comprehensive professional development platform,” explains Sara Xayarath Hernandez, Associate Dean for Inclusion and Student Engagement. It includes four focus areas: Navigate Academia, Build Your Skills, Create Your Plan, and Prepare for Your Career. “Many of these programs also support the development of one or more of the transferable skills that are part of the Pathways to Success framework, such as developing an entrepreneurial mindset, and skills in leadership, resilience, communications, and more,” Associate Dean Hernandez says.

Associate Dean Hernandez explaining the P2S framework. Photo: Susi Varvayanis

The symposium featured a variety of speakers, many of which were Cornell graduates interested in giving back to the Cornell community.  The organization of the event was a collaborative effort between the sponsors, which included regular meetings to decide on the structure, format and content. The organizers considered participant feedback from previous symposiums and requests from graduate students and postdocs to decide what topics to cover during the event and which speakers to invite.

I witnessed many positive interactions between the attendees and the speakers, and several of the invited panelists asked for an additional information session for recruiting PhDs to their company. I saw many of them having conversations with students and postdocs both after the lunch hour and the networking session. Sabrina Solouki, 4th year graduate student in the department of Immunology and Infectious disease interested in patent law, met Dr. Elysa Goldberg, a patent attorney at Regeneron and one of the symposium panelists. “We talked for about an hour after lunch. She put me in contact with another girl who is partner at a patent firm. I like the fact that I got to meet people that were willing to help me. I’m going to make it my goal to take advantage of the fact that most people want to help when they can,” says Sabrina.

Dr. Ana Maria Porras, a postdoctoral researcher from the department of Biomedical Engineering, says that “the symposium gave me the skills and information I needed to expand my current efforts as a postdoctoral researcher beyond the laboratory into outreach settings both through social media and in person.”  She had the opportunity to connect with Gemima Philippe, communications associate at AAAS and one of the speakers, with whom she still interacts on social media.

Although the symposium included networking time with the speakers, “there have been several requests to increase the opportunity for discussion with them, and to have a networking lunch without a talk, “says Susi. “We ended up having so many fabulous speakers that we might have shortchanged the interactive component, even though we factored in 15 minutes after each session and three half-hour networking breaks. It was a packed day!”

It’s About More than Research: Job-Landing Advice from a BEST Alumna

By Jody Enck, BEST Communication Specialist

You never know when you’ll find a key that will unlock an unexpected future.  BEST alumna, Dr. Daniela Bocioaga recently told us about finding such a key while attending a BEST event at Cornell.

Daniela attended several BEST-sponsored events while pursuing her PhD at Cornell in Microbiology under the tutelage of Dr. Anthony Hay.  One event was a panel discussion by several Cornell microbiology alums working in a variety of occupations.  One of those alums was Dr. Gregory Galvin, President and CEO of Rheonix, Inc. His presentation piqued Daniela’s interest to learn more about what Rheonix does, but Dr. Galvin had to leave right after his presentation.

Dr. Daniela Bocioaga, center. Photo: Susi Varvayanis

Daniela recognized a good opportunity when she saw one.  So, she made an appointment at Rheonix to conduct an informational interview.  She had learned about informational interviews through her experiences in the BEST program, and here was a chance for her to put her skills into practice.  She met with Dr. Galvin and learned much about what Rheonix does and how someone with a PhD in microbiology could fit into their workforce.  When she conducted the interview, she did not ask about possible employment.  “I wasn’t trying to get a job at that time.  I didn’t even bring a CV with me,” she said.  “I really just genuinely wanted to find out more about the company.”

Her genuine interest, microbiology skills, and willingness to step out of her comfort zone in terms of setting up the informational interview paid off.  A few months after her visit, she got a call from Rheonix asking her to come in to interview for a job opening.

What did Daniela learn from this experience?  “First,” she said, “know your personal goals in terms of a future career, but also be flexible and keep an open mind about what the possibilities are.  These might sound like contradictory things, but they really go hand-in-hand.  If you just have an open mind without having a goal, you can flounder.”

Her second piece of advice is, “you need to get out there, and that’s hard.  It’s really hard if you are a bit uncomfortable reaching out to people you don’t know.  You have to overcome whatever personal barriers you have about asking questions.  Remember, you have nothing to lose from talking to people.”  She says the key is to follow your interests and to talk with people about those interests.  “If you have a genuine interest, it will come through in your conversation.  People will remember that.”

Daniela overcame her own trepidation.  She put her interviewing skills to good use.  Her genuine interest in learning more about the company shined through. None of those “soft skills” relate directly to her PhD research, but they all were key in helping her land a job in which she gets to apply her PhD research skills every day.