Why I’d rather pretend April didn’t happen

This has been a very rough month for me. As most of you know, I’m an analytical chemist and work with small molecules related to metabolism. I’ve been having problems with my mass spec this month and it’s required the company come in to replace some parts, meaning I lost quite a bit of time on an already tight schedule.

This combined with a massive turnover in management and our complete portfolio so far as potential targets means I’m starting a ton of projects from scratch with little or no time to actually do so.

In summary : STRESS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Basically everything in my life has taken a hit because of the crazy hours I’m putting in at the moment. Reading crawled to an almost standstill, no new blog posts, laundry has been done at 4:30AM because it’s the only time I’ve had free and I’ve pretty much stopped running.

The only thing that has remained unaffected is pretty much my Border Collie’s schedule… She’s still getting her walks and kibble is served on time, so she’s having a pretty good month.

On the plus side, I’ve been given a few days off because of all the overtime the last several weeks, and Dr Hops and I are planning a little trip tomorrow.

Here’s to May, which has to be better than April!

A Review of “Headstrong: 52 women who changed science-and the world”

A book which covers the importance of the women who pioneered the way for others, such as myself and other female scientists working in predominately male fields, which made the disappointment in accuracy and immature writing style even more poignant. Inclusion into the book was predicated on the fact you’re no longer living, which I get, since scientists who are still living might still achieve other accolades.

headstrong52womenPages: 288  Genre: Nonfiction / History /  Biography   
My Rating: 2 of 5  Broken Beakers
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.01 of 5 stars
Form Read: kindle ebook   Purchased or Borrowed: Library Copy

Synopsis from Amazon: In 2013, the New York Times published an obituary for Yvonne Brill. It began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job, and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” It wasn’t until the second paragraph that readers discovered why the Times had devoted several hundred words to her life: Brill was a brilliant rocket scientist who invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites in orbit, and had recently been awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Among the questions the obituary—and consequent outcry—prompted were, Who are the role models for today’s female scientists, and where can we find the stories that cast them in their true light?      

Headstrong
 delivers a powerful, global, and engaging response. Covering Nobel Prize winners and major innovators, as well as lesser-known but hugely significant scientists who influence our every day, Rachel Swaby’s vibrant profiles span centuries of courageous thinkers and illustrate how each one’s ideas developed, from their first moment of scientific engagement through the research and discovery for which they’re best known. This fascinating tour reveals these 52 women at their best—while encouraging and inspiring a new generation of girls to put on their lab coats.

THE WOMEN

As a women in science, it’s still hard working in a predominately male dominated field but at least no one contested my enrollment in college, or denied me a higher degree because of my sex. Most, but not all, of the 52 women discussed in this book had supportive husbands who often also worked in science and realized their brilliance.

“As a research worker, the unforgotten moments of my life are those rare ones, which come after years of plodding work, when the veil over nature’s secret seems suddenly to lift and when what was dark and chaotic appears in a clear and beautiful light and pattern”          –Gerty Cori from “This I Believe”

READING LEVEL & WRITING STYLE

This is a strange mix of middle grade reading level with the occasional big word thrown in for drama’s sake. It makes each of the 4-8 page biographies sound glossed over with a random but sometimes irrelevant fact thrown in for good measure. The author’s writing style itself was somewhere between a text message and middle school book report, with unneeded colloquial references and general slang that just gave the feel of being unprofessional and didn’t add anything to the actual story or the point that was attempting to be made.

FACT CHECK

The format of this book leaves very little room for embellishment for any of the 52 women’s stories, but after reading one particular story I’m familiar with, I realized a lot of the facts could have been glossed over in a “I AM WOMAN” kind of a way obscuring their actual role in the events reported. The entire section concerning Helen Taussing and her role in “blue baby syndrome” was glossed over and made to be much more important than it actually was. Much of this has to do with the fact that Vivien Thomas, the African American “janitor” who pioneered the actual surgery, was omitted from having any major role in the discovery (other than the fact she talked to him, which he claims didn’t happen).

Omitting the importance of others in a scientific discovery because of race or gender is the whole premise of this book, so the author doing the EXACT SAME THING, both makes me angry and leaves me questioning the accuracy of the biographies.

MY THOUGHTS AS A WOMAN SCIENTIST 

I like that this book exposes readers to women scientists from a variety of backgrounds and gives insight into their lives outside of the lab and relationships with others as well. I’m disappointed in the accuracy, but it would be a good general introduction to several different forms of science for young readers. If interested in a particular woman’s life, I’d recommend not taking anything in this book as fact, and reading a few other sources.

It’s sad, but I’ve worked in three primarily male dominated scientific fields in three different states, and this is still a problem. All of my bosses are men. All of my bosses bosses are men.

Having a family and working in a demanding field makes this even harder. Women ridicule because you if you decide not to have children, and men don’t take you seriously because one day you might, and that makes you somehow a less reliable investment. If you do decide to have a family AND a career, it’s a constant struggle for balance.

One of my coworkers is a female scientist and attempts to accomplish as much as a male coworker with a child the same age. The male coworker’s wife took a less demanding job with flexible hours to give him the ability to focus on his career and advancement, but my female coworker doesn’t have this. She is the primary caregiver for her child, she works long hours, and still is responsible for daily life at home. When heads of other departments or sites visit and we have dinners, she can’t go because she has to be home to care for her daughter, but the male coworker doesn’t have this issue. He can meet higher up bosses and be involved in more projects. He doesn’t have to turn down travel because his partner prefers he’s home to cook meals and do laundry. Mentioned in the Harvard Business Review, these extra hours mean advancements, bonuses, and further burden on your spouse.

The women highlighted in this book laid the foundation, but we still have a lot to do both in the workplace and in the home to truly have a balanced life.

 

Back to school… again, and the female chemist

I’ve started a new analytical chemistry/ mass spec graduate course and was really surprised to find that two of the five professors for this course are female chemists and almost HALF of my class consists of female graduate students in chemistry!! This is pretty amazing considering only about 18% of tenure track faculty positions in chemistry are held by women. Part of the reason I’m so surprised is, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, women make up approximately 49% of BS, 47% of MS, and 39% of PhD graduates.

I’m not so sure I’m excited about being in school again. I forgot how much work even a single class is, much less a graduate course, but I’m also very excited to move my career forward and expand my skill set.

 

Our Experience in Government, Academic, and Industry Based Research Labs (pt 4 of 4)

If you are thinking about making the transition to industry, or are interested in more information, PLEASE leave a comment or email me! I WISH someone had done the same for me and I would have made the move much sooner!! 

I personally separate government and industry based lab for two reasons, the first is the overall structure of this type of lab is different, and the second is that I consider industry to include for-profit science, such as biotech, pharma, some hospitals, private for profit companies, etc. This seems to be the type of lab people know the least about and it was hard for me to make the transition, but after having a horrible experience in an academic lab, and knowing that I’ll never be promoted any further than I already have been, it just wasn’t worth it to me anymore, so I made the jump. If there is interest, I’ll do a follow up post on the interview process, offer packages, etc.

INDUSTRY BASED RESEARCH LABS

Site Description

I currently work in an industry based lab, and have several friends who work for different companies that do similar work. Dr Hops has never worked in industry, so this will mainly be me describing my experience, and that of my friends who work for different companies. I work in a disease state and do metabolic research.

Institution Size 

This is a more complex question than for other types of research. Because we are all one company, we work as a unit with different functions. I personally work in a smaller unit of a larger whole. Because the structure and interaction of different groups is so different in industry than in the more common academic lab, see the attached figures for a pictorial representation of the general structure I’m going to discuss. There are about 15 people in my unit, and around 200 across different sites. When you include our support groups, this number is even higher.

Time Spent There

I have been with this company for about a year now. The average number of years in industry for my group is about 10, with a maximum of 20 years and the minimum being me at one year in industrial research.

Position & Short Job Description 

I am a scientist and the lab manager for a metabolic disease state group. Unlike academic science where you typically have all more senior people doing little actual lab work, everyone works in the lab in my group in varied degrees. The only exception is our director, which is the rough equivalent of the department chair. My position is a mixture of cell culture, in vivo and in vitro, and I am the primary user for our LC/MS system (UPLC-Mass Spec).

Gender Breakdown

As previously stated, please keep in mind that this varies HIGHLY by field of research.

For my particular group, it’s a slightly male heavy mix of general scientists, and all the team leaders are male. My director is also male, as are all of his bosses. Two of our support teams have female heads, and the same general breakdown by staff (with only slight skewing to male or female by group). One of these support groups has a female VP. Entry level positions are more likely to be female and higher level positions are much more likely to be male, but this is more of a retention issue than a lack of opportunity for advancement. I believe I’m the only female mass spec user at my site, or our two disease state affiliate sites (so around 20 people).

Interpersonal Interactions by Level  

How you’re treated based on educational background or position.

I am NEVER treated like my opinion doesn’t matter and the management genuinely cares when we purpose improvements for methods or general practices in the lab. I have face time with the VP of disease state cluster, which in academic equivalent is a tech getting to meet personally with the head of a collage.

Possibility for Advancement 

This is the one place I’ve worked that you can actually advance with only a BS or an MS. I’ll never be a department head, but they recognize intellectual and team contributions, so my formal title (and salary) can advance despite that. The higher you start, the easier it is to do this, but several people I work with have BS degrees and started in industry straight out of college. These people have been promoted 3 levels beyond a starting PhD, and have been at this level in two different companies, so it is not specific to where they work now.

Average Rate of Turnover   

The most common reason I’ve seen so far is that you are recruited to another company. Industry is notorious for layoffs, and I’ve seen 3 thus far, but it’s not as surprising as everyone outside of industry makes it seem. From what I’ve observed, the majority of people who make the transition to industry never go back to any other form of scientific lab, but very few stay until retirement at one facility. One of my coworkers stayed at the same site for another company for 15 years, but then the offer to leave was too good to pass up.

Another common reason for leaving is “restructuring” which is a major dirty word in this little corner of science. The company tends to try to shuffle current employees into newly created positions, over firing them or letting a whole group go, but this means you have to be MUCH more flexible so far as your range of scientific interest in order to not leave when they discontinue your favorite pet project (which they will do and it will be often). Some people don’t like this and decide to leave, others don’t feel the need to learn new skills associated with the new targets or areas of interest and also decide to leave.

If you like rapid change, and learning new skills often, industry is amazing! If you aren’t able to meet tight deadlines though, or are wasting resources and time, you will be fired. They also monitor all internet and computer activity while at work, and between that and all the cameras, you’ll get caught if you screw around all day. This doesn’t mean we don’t have fun at work, we definitely do.

Common Industry Lab Rumors Answered 

You make a lot more money than other forms of research labs 

Completely true. I more than doubled my salary by switching to industry based research.

Work-life balance? 

Since they pay us more, our time is very valuable. Because of this you have required vacations every year, which at my company, if you include our allotted vacation time with year end closures, adds up to ~5 weeks a year of vacation.

My company offers paternal leave when their spouse has a baby or when you adopt, and flexible work hours for new moms who decide to come back. A coworker took flexible work time after her maternity time, and didn’t come back full time again until 6-months post birth. Which in the US is an INSANE amount of time off.

They encourage us to use holidays and weekends to unwind and NOT check our work email. If I follow up on something during my technical time off, I get a thank you from my manager and then a comment that I should be enjoying my weekend. After nearly working myself to death at my last job, I can’t describe how refreshing this is… which makes me WANT to work harder for them.

All this being said, when you’re at work you’re expected to work and typically have a lot more projects running at once compared to academic labs. You’re also responsible for deadlines, and as I’ve mentioned, this is something we DO NOT miss.

Working for a for-profit research lab is extremely stressful and people burnout quickly 

Just like working in any scientific lab, sometimes it is stressful, particularly when we have approaching deadlines. Unlike most of the academic labs I’ve worked in, you NEVER miss a deadline in industry. For anything. Period. Negative results are expected at times, and are valued almost as much as positive results. Since you are in a for-profit environment, saving resources and working with a few very critical experiments to determine if a project is worth continuing and then deciding it isn’t, is just as valuable because then we can move on to other topics (they call these, go/ no go decisions).

You have to know someone in industry to get an industry job 

This isn’t always the case but I would say it is the norm. I didn’t know ANYONE in this area or in this company prior to starting. I was a cold online applicant AND interview, but was hired the same day as my 8 hour in person interview. None of the other people in my group were cold hires. They all were in industry before and knew someone who knew the hiring team or someone already hired. Industry science is a surprisingly small world, and because people tend to switch companies fairly often, it’s easy to know people at lots of different companies doing the same work as you. I don’t think this is any different than referrals in academia from someone you know over someone you don’t.

I do think the actual work and structure is different and I think that’s why they prefer people who have worked in industry or other high throughput facilities. It was an adjustment for me, for sure.

You don’t have a budget in industry  

Not true. Everyone has a budget. I think our budget is higher than any of my previous labs, but we also are expected to produce A LOT more work. Because we are one company but have multiple sites, part of our budget includes travel to and collaboration with these other groups.

One day you’ll get to work and be greeted by security, who has a box with all your things and you’ll be fired.  

I have no idea where this came from. No one at my level or above major management has ever had or seen this happen. The ONLY case where this is true is if you’re VP level or other positions where you have access to a lot of sensitive company information. My current director had this happen at a previous company because he had 2000 employees under him, and that was how the company dealt with EVERYONE at that level. It wasn’t malicious and everyone went to lunch with him afterward.

Yes, layoffs are pretty common, but you generally know about them in advance and because other companies love to hire each others staff, finding another job isn’t as hard as it sounds (per my friends who have worked in industry for a long time). You are also not tossed out on your ass, you’re typically offered a severance package from anywhere of a month to six months of pay (sometimes a percentage sometimes your full salary).

Our Experience in Government, Academic, and Industry Based Research Labs (pt 3 of 4)

As stated before, I’m going to separate each of these into institution type, with a definition, and explain both of our positions while we were there, and whether the myths and rumors you hear are true.

We have both worked in a large number of academic labs, my husband is currently in his fourth lab, and I just completed my third and final academic lab. This post will focus on our experience post-graduating.

ACADEMIC SCIENCE AS STAFF

Site Description

Because we’ve worked for 7 different institutions all around the US, I’m going to generalize the range of positions. We’ve both worked in human and animal work and had staff positions in large research 1 schools, private colleges, and the ivy league.

Institution Size 

The smallest lab I worked in was in the Ivy League, where there was 8 people but grew to 15 at one point, and the largest was at a large R1 school, where there was around 30 people if you included the never ending stream of volunteers. My husband’s smallest lab is his current postdoc position, where there are three graduate students, a tech, and two undergrads.

Time Spent There

The maximum for both of us is 3.5 years, the minimum is 2 years in any given lab… which shows our age a little and how long we’ve been doing this (student related work isn’t included).

Position & Short Job Description 

Dr Hops:  He has been a post doc in two different labs. This isn’t really “staff” but it’s also not student, so I’m going to lump it in here. As a postdoc, he designs and carries out experiments. He writes papers and grants and interacts, when possible, at the administrative level, since he’s technically learning how to start his own lab.

Collheesi (me): since graduating I’ve been a tech, Sr tech, lab manager, clinical coordinator, and phelbotomist. This means I set up all studies, participated in every project in the lab, analyzed results and wrote papers, trained all new employees and students, handled budgets, ordering, all regulation paperwork and inspections, etc.

One professor also required me to do the following non-work related things: file all paperwork to finance their house, file all their divorce paperwork, sort and read all faculty applications, writing summaries so they didn’t need to read them, complete all of their evaluation paperwork, write offer letters, complete visa and other personal paperwork, move their house, set up their internet at home, serve food at what was supposed to be a lab party, babysit their child (in lab, without any notice… more than once)

Gender Breakdown

As previously stated, please keep in mind that this varies HIGHLY by field of research.

This has been highly dependent on the individual lab we worked in. One of my labs was equally split between men and women and my professor was female (her boss and her bosses boss were both men). My husband was the only male in another lab, he had a female boss, but all the higher ups were men and his boss was one of two women in the entire department. The majority of my level (tech) positions in labs we’ve been associated with have been women, the higher you go the more likely the position is filled by a man.

Interpersonal Interactions by Level  

How you’re treated based on educational background or position.

This is where my husband and I have a very different experience because he has a PhD and I don’t. I’ve had very good positions where I had thoughtful bosses who listened and appreciated all the overtime I worked, but my last position was quite possibly the worse job I’ve EVER had.* The professor I worked for treated everyone in the lab as disposable. We were only there to advance her career and she could care less what happened to us after leaving or if we gained any needed skills by working with her (the last point is more for students and postdocs). It was in this position I learned exactly how bad you can be treated as a tech and that I never wanted to work in academic science again.

Dr Hops has been a postdoc at two different institutions. The first offered no support or guidance and an attempt by a few faculty members and the postdocs in the department to put together a monthly advice meeting was thwarted by one particular faculty member who would over book the room, or crash their meeting and call their staff out so they could never attend (only to sit in this professor’s office while they edited a paper for two hours).

His current postdoc position is much better. His adviser speaks openly with him and the faculty have been very welcoming.

*this includes working in fast food and breaking three ribs while on the job, then being required to finish my 12 hour shift before going to the hospital.

Possibility for Advancement 

This is a little obvious for my husband, being a postdoc, he can eventually move on to junior faculty and full professor, though this can take a while. Since I don’t have a PhD, the most advancement I can get is as a lab manager. I do have graduate degrees, so I can lecture freshman, but this would typically be on top of my current workload. In short, both my salary and position was maxed out after about 5 years.

Average Rate of Turnover 

Most postdocs leave because they have moved on to a second postdoc, or have received funding and/or been offered a faculty position and are moving on. Most techs tend to leave as well. For every lab we’ve both worked in there are a few “lifers” that end up staying with a lab for their entire career (both PhDs and techs). In my previous lab, the average was 1.5 years for a research assistant (partially because our boss sucked so bad). Most of the labs we’ve both worked in techs typically work for 2-3 years while gaining research experience before moving on to some other form of graduate school (medical or research).

Common Academic Lab Staff Rumors Answered 

You’re in a university so you keep the same hours as students (i.e. get summers off)

Everyone seems to think that because the university has summer classes that you don’t work during the summer (people who have never worked in science anyway). This isn’t the case, you put in a lot of hours ALL the time, but the summer is just an excuse to get even more done.  This has been the case for all positions we have both had as well as for our bosses. Though it has been less extreme so far as major holidays are concerned now that neither of us are students.

Because you work for a school you get a lot of holidays 

Some professors did allow major holidays for their lab employees and took the days off themselves, but you can still expect for your work to bleed in to both the night, early morning, and/or weekends. As staff this was much better for me, and I did get more weekends off than I did as a student. The last year I was staff in this same lab I also got two weeks of vacation for the year.

When we did human research, the hours were a little better for holidays, because participants typically don’t show for holiday appointments. Because a lot of the research related to when people were available, we did work a lot of highly variable hours and it included LOTS of weekends with no compensation time (getting to take a day off or leave early if you came in early). We did get 3 weeks vacation every year after the first year.

Your salary is guaranteed by the university

This depends highly on the institution in question. As a professor you can be in a research based institution, a teaching heavy university, or some blend of the two. This determines the “base salary” you get from the institution. Pretty much all of the state schools, regardless of size, offered to cover 70%-100% of your (school year,or 9 month) salary regardless of personal funding status (that’s more complex than it sounds too, but for another post). Because the institution covered their salary, they had teaching, advising, and committee responsibilities.

The private and Ivy schools we worked in covered none of the base salary for the professor. This means their income was solely tied to the number of grants they were able to bring in. The Ivy school we worked in self limited this because if it was government funding you had to specify a “percent effort” which could not exceed a total of 100%. This is also limiting because certain grants would have a minimum amount effort to cover salary, so the professor couldn’t cheat the system and just put 1% on every grant and then pay themselves much more (that percentage determines the amount of money they can take for salary, so they also don’t want to make it a low percentage).

For the R1 school, a professor was having funding issues so they did cover the gap for funding while they waited to hear back about a few grants, but to compensate they had to take additional student advising duties and serve on an additional committee. These things did NOT go away once she secured funding.

Our Experience in Government, Academic, and Industry Based Research Labs (pt 2 of 4)

This is the second post in this series, you can see the first post on government labs HERE. As stated before, I’m going to separate each of these into institution type, with a definition, and explain both of our positions while we were there, and whether the myths and rumors you hear are true.

We have both worked in a large number of academic labs, my husband is currently in his fourth lab, and I just completed my second and final academic lab. Because this can be so variable, I’m separating this into Academic-student and Academic-staff

ACADEMIC SCIENCE AS A STUDENT

Site Description

Because we’ve worked for 6 different institutions all around the US, I’m going to generalize the range of positions. We’ve both worked in human and animal work at small state schools, large research 1 schools, private colleges, and the ivy league.

Institution Size 

The smallest lab was one my husband worked in, as a graduate student, where he was the only graduate student in the lab, and there was only two permanent staff members. The smallest lab I worked in was in the Ivy League, where there was 8 people, and the largest was at a large R1 school, where there was around 30 people if you included the never ending stream of volunteers.

The smallest school was in the Ivy League with only a few thousand undergraduates and the largest was a state school with 40,000 undergraduates.

Time Spent There

The maximum for both of us is 5 years, the minimum is 2 years in any given lab… which shows our age a little and how long we’ve been doing this.

Position & Short Job Description 

Dr Hops:  he has been an MS graduate student in biology, after returning to school with a BA in education. His was a PhD student in physiology with emphasis in neuroscience, and has postdoced in a human neuroscience and psychology lab and is now in a neuroscience and genetics lab (keep your fingers crossed this is the last postdoc!).

Collheesi (me): I’ve been an MS graduate student in human clinical based research, and then did a second MS in nutritional biochemistry, with a research focus pertaining to molecular biology and analytical chemistry (I also took biomechanical engineering courses as part of my second MS). I also just enrolled in the first of several analytical chemistry and mass spec courses I will be taking over the next few years for my current job (yay, a student again).

Gender Breakdown

As previously stated, please keep in mind that this varies HIGHLY by field of research.

This changed slightly with institution, but the majority of the places we worked had a similar female to male student ratio of about half, with slight fluctuations normally with more females to males (about 60:40).

As stated previously, this depends HIGHLY on the field of study. As part of my MS research I took engineering classes and did the majority of the biomechanics portion of my project in an engineering lab. I was the only woman. All of the students, faculty, and staff were men. There was a female faculty member who technically physiology but since her research overlapped with my topic, I worked with her to help train her female undergraduate.

Right before the completion of my project (which took about a year), the main engineering lab I worked in accepted a female undergrad as a potential student. We used the same equipment and I finally asked her why no undergraduates end up here, and she explained that there is another lab in nanotechnology that tends to get more female students (she was a biotechonology major minoring in engineering… if my memory serves me right). She also told me that a higher percentage of female students declare engineering but end up switching it to their minor at best, but most opt out of that type of field all together.

I was one of two females in the biomechanics courses I took.

Interpersonal Interactions by Level  

How you’re treated based on educational background or position. See the first post in this series for a more complete description. This really wasn’t an issue at all as a student. The only thing I found that caused some discontent was that some people were allowed to fast-track because they were an RD and had an MS already (just like me), but some weren’t … I was on the latter end of that and had to basically start from scratch.

This was really the only thing that caused a bit of stress between students. One person who worked in another lab, finished her PhD project in 3 years because she had an MS… my lab took 3 years to finish an MS project regardless of previous experience. This wide range of expectations caused some friction with PhD students who were looking at an average of 6 or sometimes 7 years before completion.

Possibility for Advancement to Graduation

This isn’t a relevant topic under an academic position as I’ve outlined it in the previous post, but I wanted to address it simply because it is used in all other types of labs discussed. What does matter for advancement is how you pick your committee, if you get that option. I theoretically got to chose the three people who would judge me for candidacy and then for my comprehensives and final defense.

If you are in a rotational program, remember to ask the people you are interested in working with if they are looking for more students, and have open positions in the lab, or if they are just looking for a rotational student. Two people we were friends with in other programs chose to go to our university because of a single professor’s work, and when they were offered a rotation position decided they would pick that university over another university where they had several people they were interested in working with but they weren’t his first choice. After the completion of the rotation our friend asked the professor about positions only to be told they aren’t looking for new students for a few years due to funding. This person ended up in a lab they didn’t want to be in to finish an MS and reapply to programs they should have picked in the first place. The second friend went through the same thing 3 years later.

 

Average Rate of Turnover: Most common reasons for quitting   

If you’re in a very competitive program, just because you made it in doesn’t mean you’ll get to stay. About 20% of my group of 15 ended up dropping out, and my husband is the only one who made it through from his incoming class of 8. This is due to lots of reasons, including not fully considering what graduate school would be like, or if the job you actually want would require an advanced degree.

Other times culture shock was an issue, and people (even US citizens) had issues adapting to being out of a familiar environment. My husband and I definitely went through this our first year in the Northeast. Being from the south, we weren’t used to long, cold winters with actual winter weather, or the cultural differences of the New England area and the many southern states we lived in previously.

The final most common reason we’ve had students drop out is because of family life. One person who entered my program the year after me thought she could work another full-time job and still pull her full stipend while being a mom of 4. When she realized she would be either in class or lab most work hours so that would be her only form of income, she dropped out. Another friend was in her second year and found out she was pregnant and decided she didn’t want to go all the way through the PhD program with a newborn, so she changed to an MS and moved back to the state she was from to be closer to family who could help with the baby.

Common Academic Lab Rumors Answered 

You’re a student so you keep the same hours as students (i.e. get summers off)

SOOOOOO not correct for most labs. I didn’t get a vacation for the three years I was a student and my husband didn’t until I became staff (then he got a week a year). Both of our labs had a very high bar for work hours, see below for holidays.

All of the students in both of our departments didn’t do this. Most of my husband’s program kept similar hours as we did, or they didn’t end up graduating. I think most science based lab keep more hours. I know several of our neighbors weren’t in science and they were always home.. and not all of them received stipends and those that did didn’t make even half what a science major did.

Because you work for a school you get a lot of holidays 

NOPE. My husband and I both worked in different labs, but worked ALL major holidays for nearly 5 years. Yes, this includes Christmas AND Thanksgiving. We worked as much as 3 months straight without a single (complete) day where we were not in the lab. This means our bosses ALSO worked these days, but this isn’t always true for all labs.

Some professors did allow major holidays for their lab employees and students and took the days off themselves, but you can still expect as either staff or student for your work to bleed in to both the night, early morning, and/or weekends. As staff this was much better for me, and I did get more weekends off than I did as a student. The last year I was staff in this same lab I also got two weeks of vacation for the year.

When we did human research, the hours were a little better for holidays, because participants typically don’t show for holiday appointments. Because a lot of the research related to when people were available, we did work a lot of hours and it included LOTS of weekends with no compensation time (getting to take a day off or leave early if you came in early). We did get 3 weeks vacation every year after the first year.

All the graduate students working in one department make the same amount of money a year

This is a much more complex question than people realize, mostly because not all students working in one department might be actual students of THAT department. How is that possible? One professor can have related research interests that give them a main appointment in one department (where their lab is located) and crosslists them in other departments, so they can accept students from those departments. So even one specific lab can have students from multiple programs (both mine and my husbands did). They are also paid by the department for a different length of time depending on the program. My program was paid by our professor from the day we started, my husband wasn’t paid by his professor until after he completed his coursework (end of second year). When we were in the ivy league, the first three years were paid by the department, and then the professor had to show proof that they could support that student for three years beyond that or they wouldn’t approve the student taking a position in that lab.

The second issue is that even students who are working in labs and are part of the programs those labs are in can have a variable salary. The reason is simple, there is a minimum that the department requires, and then it’s up to the individual professors how they make up your “summer” pay. All the programs we’ve been affiliated with set a minimum of 20 hours of lab work through the school year (it would be highly frowned upon if you only work 20 hours, typically it was 40 for the school year). So your pay was prorated for this amount. During the summer, my boss paid us for 40-hours so our salary doubled (keep in mind this actually translated to 60+ actual work hours). A friend the same year as me in the same department as me but a different lab made half of what I did in the summer, because her professor didn’t adjust their salary though their hours increased.

The salary they offer you as a student your first year is the minimum you’ll make from then on in graduate school 

For me, this was true, but it wasn’t true for my husband or many of my friends in other programs. Their departments had a set amount of money to offer for positions each year, if they accepted fewer students than anticipated, some programs use this to subsidize the first year income for the students entering that year. The different programs my husband and friends were in called this “top off” money and went away after their first year, so they actually made LESS the second year than they did the first.

There is also a transition in pay if you’re paid by the department and then are transferred over to being paid by your professor (see all graduate students make the same amount). My husband also had a problem. His adviser couldn’t pay him as much as the department did, but the department offered him a subsidy to teach and have his salary remain about the same as it was when completely covered by the department.

Your salary is guaranteed by the university

This depends highly on the institution in question. As a professor you can be in a research based institution, a teaching heavy university or some blend of the two. This determines the “base salary” you get from the institution. Pretty much all of the state schools, regardless of size, offered to cover 80% of your salary regardless of personal funding status (that’s more complex than it sounds too, but for another post).

 

Our Experience in Academic, Government, and Industry Based Research Labs (pt 1 of 4)

I’m going to separate each post in this four part series into institution type, with a definition, and explain both of our positions while we were there, and whether the myths and rumors you hear are true. My husband does not have experience with the government, so this will be an explanation of my experience at two different institutions.

GOVERNMENT SCIENCE

Site Description

Institution A: a government position tied to a major regional hospital

Institution B: independent government research site

Institution Size 

Institution A: The whole research group was relatively large, at >120 people, but my direct group was about 30 people

Institution B: You can see this more as independent labs similar to departments at a university, and my group was about the same size as Institution A, so around 25-ish people if you count interns like myself.

Time Spent There

Institution A: 2.5 years

Institution B: three week long working interviews/ site visits throughout the year, then a summer internship

Position & Short Job Description 

Institution A: Sr Research Assistant, Registered Dietitian; Coordinate all major studies, schedule research assistants for human research site each week, create databases and run participants, counsel participants on regular growth and development and diet

Institution B: Research Intern; basic science/ molecular biology as it relates to bone metabolism, main methods involved HPLC and blood draws for analysis of standards and blood analysis for various metabolic analytes

Gender Breakdown by Level  

Please keep in mind that this varies HIGHLY by field of research. During my time in government research I did either clinical/human work, or molecular biology related work.

Institution A: All of my labmates with a BS or MS and actually conducted the research were women. The majority of the lab was female, except two of my three direct bosses were men. One level above our direct management was all men. No one in higher management was female.

Institution B: This had pretty much the same breakdown as the other government lab I worked in. There were more males working within the same band as myself, but the head of my department was a man, as were the heads of all other groups I met while there. My department head’s “second in command” was a woman and I only met the boss of my direct department head, but that was also a man.

Interpersonal Interactions by Level  

How you’re treated based on educational background. I didn’t realize how important this was until I had a few VERY bad experiences in other types of labs. I personally feel that intelligence is completely independent of education and have met very intelligent people who did not finish high school or go to college, and I’ve met people with PhDs that I’m shocked could find their way to work everyday. I realized very quickly that not everyone believes this and it can make for a VERY unpleasant work environment.

Institution A: The fact I had an elevated position without as much work experience based strictly on education made some tension between certain staff members who had been with the site for 8ish years (and I later found out had applied for my job and didn’t get it because they lacked an MS and it was designed to help someone get into a PhD program). I never really had a problem in my position, but it was also a position designed with the intent that I would eventually go on to graduate school again.

Institution B: My boss here never made me or anyone else there feel “less than” because of our educational background. He listened to our opinions regardless of “rank” and took advice on things people had experience in. This being said, others MADE it an issue. The group rotated travel, and a new hire that happened between my last interview and my internship made a huge deal about the fact that the next person queued was a tech who had been there slightly longer but “only had a BS.” Myself and others stuck up for this person, one of the PhDs in the lab told her that if that was the way she wanted to play it, she should now address her as DOCTOR and SHE would be next in line, and not to knock how generous our boss was. (That PhD was also awesome by the way)

The person who complained was just a toxic individual and started dividing people within the lab saying how unfair things were, and outright picking on the BS tech (whom I’m still friends with today). The director had to step in, in front of the who group and announce that this wouldn’t be tolerated and that they would fire people if something didn’t change. My friend ended up leaving a month or two after my internship was done, and according to what she heard, the girl who was picking on people ended up getting fired after all.

Possibility for Advancement  

Institution A: Though I had less experience in research at the time, I was made a supervisor simply because I had an MS degree and had the specialized RD degree and passed the requisite exams after completing the year long program. I understood the RD requirement, because it’s regulated by federal law so you either have one or you don’t. The hierarchy was stratified exclusively on education. RAs had BSs, supervisors had MS/RDs, group leaders had PhDs and work experience. You didn’t pass into the next promotional level without that degree. No exceptions.

Institution B: This was pretty much the same as Institution A, except having the MS didn’t make you a group/team leader for any particular aim of research. These were all PhDs who had experience in that area. You would get small raises, but there was no real advancement opportunity without a PhD, and even with one, it was extremely limited, because the number of positions at this particular site was also very limited and essentially someone had to leave in order for you to make it into the very coveted upper position and there was still a high probability it went to an outside hire.

Average Rate of Turnover   

Institution A: Other than the major layoff that happened a few months after I left, there was almost no turnover. Period. The only position that seemed to change with time was mine, because it was typically someone who wanted to go back to graduate school after a few years of full time research.

Institution B: This was pretty similar to Institution A, in that a lot of the staff would be “lifers” in that they wouldn’t leave unless they were laied off. There was an expansion of staff between my first visit and the summer I worked there, which rapidly changed the dynamic of the lab, but most of the people planned to stay there once they had the job.

Common Government Lab Rumors Answered 

You get federal benefits because you work for the government

In some cases this is true, but the vast majority of people are actually hired in one of two ways 1) through the non-government related hospital associated with the federal site, or 2) through contract services so you aren’t actually considered a federal employee. In one of the institutions only one of my direct coworkers was an actual government employee, in the other (institution B), only the head of the division and the senior scientist working as is associate director were actual government employees.

As long as you get hired, it doesn’t matter which contact group you get the job through.

Because Institution A gave people positions in the hospital or associated university, this wasn’t an issue as there really was only one way to get the job. If you were faculty at the university you worked in both, if you weren’t, you worked for the hospital. My formal position was in the hospital, were I also worked as a fill-in clinical dietitian.

Institution B was much more complex. As an intern this didn’t directly affect me, but I heard all of my coworkers complain pretty much constantly. This facility used two contract groups pretty much exclusively. One was for all individuals without a PhD, the other was only if you had a doctorate (they called this the PhD mill). The first typically offered a lower salary but better fringe benefits, like reduced pricing/discounts to events, free tickets to local sporting events to promote team building, etc. The PhD mill offered a higher salary. One PhD in the lab ended up getting her position through the non-PhD contract group, she didn’t make as much as the exact sample position that went through the PhD mill, but still received all the benefits from the group she was in, even though she had a PhD. The PhD mill basically didn’t get any of the fringe benefits.

Because it’s the government, you have a lot of job security

This is somewhat true. The downsizing at Institution B was pretty common, and happened twice over the course of my year of visits. Institution A I would say was much more stable, but about 3 months after I left they fired 75% of the staff. I still know people who work there and there hasn’t been another layoff since then, but this institution was on government funding and had a huge budget slash around the time I left, so that is the likely reason that both groups had a layoff around the same time.

You make a lot more money than in academic labs 

Majorly, majorly not true. Because they typically use contract systems, this allows them to get around actually paying you per government standards. The few government employees do make quite a bit more than their academic (but not industry) counterparts of equal education and experience.

You get to do the research you wanted/ have research freedom like you do in academic labs 

Kind of a yes? For Institution A, if your research interest happened to fill a need they had, then yes, you would technically get to do the work you want to. Institution B was a lot more strict. In the same vein of Institution A, if your skills met the need, then yes you’ll get to do what you wanted, but it ultimately comes down to what that government site wants from your department.

Because you’re government you get funding automatically, so it’s never an issue 

Also a major nope. Because the institutions are tied to the government research budget they are at the whims of the government as well. Institution A relied on government funding in a slightly different way, and had to work with other sites on capabilities and distribution of work. Institution B has a specific budget designated by the government, and when they decide they are reducing funding in that area, the same is true as Institution A, they have to distribute that reduced budget throughout the sites that do similar research.

Because Institution B is an independent government research site, there was a worry at some point in the past about them being wasteful or doing research not related to the mission of the site, because of this, the government requires this site to BID for the work they get.  As an example, the site released a notice they were interested in a particular topic, my lab had to submit a grant (and budget) and several academic labs did as well. Because the government group is already on site, they don’t have to travel to work with the specific population of people they are interested in, and they already have specialized equipment, so my director told me they are NORMALLY the cheaper option and get the funding… but not always, and that fact combined with general budget cuts by the government has lead to layoffs in the past.

On the plus side, both government positions I’ve had experience with have a basal budget and the additional funding they request is from a much smaller, specialized pool of applicants, increasing their chances.

Work-Life balance is pretty good and you have normal hours 

This is pretty true for both groups I worked with. Institution A would occasionally require an early morning or a weekend day, but also required that you compensate your time by leaving early or taking a weekday off. No one but the directors seem to put in “excessive”* hours or take their work home with them, though the higher you are the more likely this is, and with all science you still need to keep up with the literature, which is almost always done on your own time

*this is still much fewer hours than other types of labs I’ve worked in.

NEXT UP: Academic Labs from a Student Perspective