Oh, the places you'll go
after grad school!
Translating skills for the job market: Can I put goldfish brain surgery on my resume?

Translating skills for the job market: Can I put goldfish brain surgery on my resume?

When you're looking to transition from science research to something else, you'll have to consider how the skills developed in years of research will translate outside that environment. And here you might protest, as I did initially, that these skills just do not translate. Where exactly on my...

myIDP: Career matching for scientists

myIDP: Career matching for scientists

My Individual Development Plan, or myIDP, is like a Harry Potter Sorting Hat for PhD scientists and career paths. Take three short assessments on skills, interests, and values, and myIDP will triumphantly announce to all of Hogwarts (ok…just to you, on your computer) your career...

Latest entries

On Becoming a Science Teacher

May 9, 2013

Many of us can likely point to a teacher, or perhaps several teachers, whose influence shaped our trajectory toward graduate school. This is especially true in science, where in the wrong hands, high school chemistry can be a mind-numbing collection of symbols and charts, but through a good teacher is transformed into a kind of lens through which we can understand our physical world. Physics can be a horrifying set of equations to memorize, or it can be a framework used to address fascinating questions. Particularly at the middle and high school level, science teaching that engages students can make all the difference.

Unlike technology transfer or grantmaking, teaching is a profession we’ve all been exposed to. Yet much about teaching as a career remains a mystery: How do people decide to become teachers? How can a graduate student transition from research to teaching? What are the greatest challenges faced by new teachers, and what are the joys that keep them returning to the classroom year after year?

I have recruited the participation of a few of my former middle and high school science teachers to answer these questions and more. From personal experience I can attest that these are great teachers, and I’m excited to share their stories here.

First up is Hans de Grys. Hans has a BS and MS in Chemistry, and a Master’s in Teaching.  He’s been teaching chemistry and physics for 15 years in both public and independent high schools in the Seattle area.

*Liza’s note: Hans is taking a year off to travel the country in search of both cool birds and great teachers. Read his blog about the experience, Really Big Year

When did you realize you wanted to teach? Was there a particular experience that led you to pursue this path?

I did a combined BS/MS in Chemistry at Yale, and in my final year I was supposed to be working on a research project (using EPR to study membrane-bound proteins).  I also helped to TA for the freshman organic chemistry class, and led a review session once a week.  I found that I was spending a lot of time prepping for my review session and tutoring students on the side.  I loved the interaction with the students and the thrill of trying to teach something challenging.  I spent less and less time in the lab, which I found intellectually interesting but not very meaningful or rewarding.  My initial plan was to continue on in a PhD program in chemistry, and I was starting to dread the prospect of devoting the next several years of my life to laboratory research.  One morning I woke up with this epiphany that I wasn’t locked into grad school, and that I would be much happier as a high school teacher.  I haven’t looked back since.

How did you prepare for the transition from science research to science teaching?

I started out by talking to some of the faculty at the Yale Teacher Preparation Program, especially Edith MacMullen, who became a great mentor and inspiration to me.  I even got to take a teaching course with her before I graduated.  I also read as many books on teaching as I could get my hands on.  The one I started with was Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Postman and Weingartner – which is still a favorite.  I tried to get a teaching job right out of Yale, but I didn’t have much luck.  So I enrolled in the University of Washington’s Teacher Education Program, and spent five quarters getting a Master’s degree in teaching and also getting my state certification.  It was easy to get a job after that.

What was the greatest challenge you faced as a new teacher?

For me it was realizing that there was a huge gulf that lay between being the teacher I wanted to be, and the teacher I physically and mentally could be in my first years of teaching.  At my first school, I was the only chemistry teacher, and I had between 150 and 170 students at a time.  I also had a budget of about 1.5 cents per student per day.  I wanted to really engage the students with labs and activities, assign them full lab reports, and give them essay style tests.  These were the kinds of “best practices” that I was taught in teacher college.  Of course prepping lab for 150 kids a week, and grading 300 essay tests and lab reports was a crushing workload.  I started with nothing – no curriculum, no activities, no labs, no assessments – nothing.  I had to make everything myself from scratch.  I was actually proud of some of the things I managed to accomplish in those early years, but the sheer magnitude of the workload meant that I was also pretty disappointed in some of my plans and lessons.  Over time, that gulf closed a great deal.  I’m still not perfect (obviously), but experience has taught me a lot, and I feel that I’m a better teacher every year.

What do you find most fulfilling about teaching science?


PhD to Online Travel Guru

May 3, 2013

In this edition of One Branch Ahead, we hear from Scott Mackenzie, a recent neuroscience PhD and founder of the travel tricks-and-tools website, Hack My Trip. Oddly enough, I discovered his website long before I knew who Scott was, or that we were in the same graduate program – I was researching travel credit cards and my search brought me to his site.

Wondering what a neuro PhD is doing writing a travel blog? Read on to learn how his graduate school experience prepared him for this venture, what he misses most about science, and where he sees himself going next. Oh, and does he get better travel service now that he books his reservations under Dr. Mackenzie?

What did you study in your PhD program?

I originally examined ERK/MAPK signaling in the context of learning and memory, very similar to my undergraduate research. However, I switched labs in my third year to study developmental neuroscience instead, looking at regeneration of the zebrafish lateral line. My original advisor and I just didn’t click, but fortunately it was a pretty smooth transition despite the radical change in focus and starting from scratch.

When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?

I don’t think I’ve ever quite known what I want to do, but I did know that I didn’t want to become a professor. At that time I was thinking about a job in science policy. Planning for the future is important, but I have tried to remain open to new opportunities as they appear.

How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your PhD?

I started a small travel blog in my last year of school as a hobby, eventually building it into a small business, and also learned a lot from some of the speakers we invited for the Bioscience Careers Seminar Series at the University of Washington. I decided I like doing entrepreneurial things, and a business setting might be more interesting.

Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?

Yes, I was a senator for the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, treasurer of the Neurobiology & Community Outreach Organization, and chair of the Bioscience Careers Seminar Series. These different groups taught me, respectively, how to work as part of a group to reach consensus, how to create and fund new activities, and how to organize others to host events for a public audience.

A lot of what I currently do as a blogger is very similar. I have to reach out to industry contacts, organize events to interact with my readers, and find opportunities to collaborate with fellow bloggers. I am generally an introvert, so I’m glad to have had practice putting on a brave public face.

What do you do now?

Do What You Are

Do What You Are

Apr 25, 2013

The secret to career satisfaction, argue authors Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron, lies in doing what you enjoy most. Some people are lucky enough to discover what this is very early in life. I know a woman who at age 12 decided she would be an archaeologist, and proceeded to dig up the family yard. But this was no fleeting childhood aspiration. She went on to obtain a PhD in archeology, learned dead languages, worked on digs all around the world, and has now upgraded from suburban backyards to historic sites across the Middle East.

Not all of us benefit from such early career certainty. Instead we might wind our way through a broad liberal arts education, or an assortment of summer internships, or many taxing years in graduate school, all while asking:  What can we do? What should we do? What do we want to do? But the authors of Do What You Are advocate a different approach, nicely summarized in the book’s title, which is to find out who you are, and then do that.

And just how does this book tackle the “who are you” question, one that has perplexed philosophers and hookah-smoking caterpillars alike, in just 400 pages?

Do What You Are bases itself in the work of a mother-daughter team, Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, who nearly 100 years ago neatly divided all of humanity along 4 dimensions and into 16 distinct personality types. Certainly this is an oversimplification, as there are clearly more than 16 types of people. But by focusing on just four basic aspects of human personality, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) hones in on the “who are you” question, and since the 1940s has helped millions of people discover what best motivates and energizes them.

Many of you have likely encountered the MBTI before, and some of you may even know your Type. For those who don’t, the MBTI process is basically a questionnaire that seeks to place you along four different dimensions, as summarized here:

Keep a tiger in your boat

Keep a tiger in your boat

Apr 10, 2013

Mind-blowing cinematography aside, one narrative moment stuck out for me in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi film adaptation. With only the dwindling lead of a single pencil to keep his mind occupied, Pi explains how his forced cohabitation on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger has actually helped him in his daunting drift across the Pacific Ocean: “My fear of him keeps me alert,” Pi says, “Tending to his needs gives me purpose.”

Let’s take a closer look at his situation. Pi is surviving on very limited resources. His family and friends are oblivious to the challenges of the journey he is on. His rickety boat is subject to the whims of a force he can neither predict nor understand: at times he is hurled into the eye of an unforgiving storm, but often is left alone in an endless expanse, with little wind to propel his sails and no land in sight. He delights in the smallest victories and steadies himself against the unknown perils lurking below. His love of free food knows no bounds. Do you see what I’m getting at? I think we have a great metaphor for grad school here.

Why is the tiger so essential to his endurance?


Dependable Strengths

Mar 27, 2013

The Dependable Strengths process was born out of an ethos that may at first seem plucked from a kindergarten classroom:  within each person is a unique form of excellence.  Each of us has a special combination of skills, abilities and qualities. Some may be widely celebrated on YouTube, some are employed quietly, and many, unfortunately, go unrecognized.

I recently took a two-day Dependable Strengths workshop at the University of Washington. I learned that these strengths emerge early – in kindergarten, even – and are consistent throughout life.  They motivate us, they emerge naturally without prodding or directives, and if suppressed in one context, they will find an outlet for expression. I once worked in a lab with a woman who kept two dozen different colors of lab tape on hand to color-code everything she worked on. Clearly, she has an internal drive towards organizing systems that her daily bench work didn’t satisfy.

What would happen if we took our pattern of strengths seriously? What if, instead of letting them languish beneath value judgments of the work we “should” be doing, we let our dependable strengths guide our career choices?

The process of identifying dependable strengths begins with a simple assignment: list Good Experiences you’ve had in your life. In the Dependable Strengths context, Good Experiences are special events that meet specific criteria (hence the capitalization).

A Good Experience is something that you:

1. Feel you did well.

2. Are proud of

3. Enjoyed doing

Here you might encounter a judgment bias, as I did when compiling my list.


On finding a path

Mar 12, 2013

For a neuron, branching out is no simple thing.

First, the neuron has to seek out viable targets. Neurons employ a variety of searching strategies. Some are designed to find the closest target as quickly as possible, while others roam around, unfettered by time or space or parental pressure. However the search proceeds, a neuron has to find its targets before it can make connections. Think of this as the exploratory pathfinding phase.

When I began exploring nonacademic careers a year ago, I started by searching for targets. I had no clear idea of what I might find, only that there lay a vast, hazy world of jobs out there that did not involve pipettes. When I came across a path that looked intriguing (technology transfer? tell me more), I explored it through informational interviews, web resources, and more. In some cases, I learned quickly that a particular path was not for me, and I stepped back. Often, exploring one path led me to a whole new set of ideas. The whole process looks a little like this:


PhD to statistical epidemiology

Feb 27, 2013

The goal of the one branch ahead series is to demystify that leap we all must take from grad school to the great unknown that lies beyond. While the careers profiled here may inspire goals and illuminate future possibilities, there remains a gap between here (grad student) and there (successful professional) and with it, a question: How do you make the transition from grad school to a nascent career?

This installment of the series features answers graciously provided over email by a friend who recently finished his PhD in physics/computational neuroscience. Read on to learn how he became a statistical epidemiologist, why he turned down post-doc in Paris (!), what he wished he had learned during grad school, and where his work has an impact now. Be sure to read the last question, where he gives advice for current students that is both widely applicable to grad students and particularly useful for those with technical/statistical aspirations.

What did you study in your PhD program?

My PhD is in Physics, but my thesis area was computational neuroscience: math and biophysics of single neuron computation.  Lots of time with pencil, paper, and computer.

When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?

I really never thought that far ahead back then.  In undergrad, the major I ended up sticking with was Physics Education – I trained to be a high school physics teacher.  I taught for a year after graduating, but realized quickly that I wasn’t done with my formal education.  I went to grad school to learn more, without really thinking about career implications beyond that a PhD in Physics wouldn’t hurt.

How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your PhD?