Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Getting a start in research

I had an e-mail from one of our cohort of 2014 graduates who has been working in a pharmaceutical lab for the last couple of years but wants to move into a more research-led way of life. I read What Color is Your Parachute:  A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard N. Bolles back in the 1980s and have never needed to read anything else. That's partly because contracts have fallen my way over the last 25+ years and I've never felt restless enough or dissatisfied enough or ambitious enough to change direction. You can't be bothered to read WCIYP now, unless you are a) in the process of shifting careers and b) at your wit's end. You may be at your wit's end because your protocol for finding a new job is not fit for purpose.

One of Rchd Bolles evidence-based bits of advice is: don't bother to apply for a job that has been advertised . . . it has already been filled and the ad is only HR equal-opportunity optics. You need to get out in the jungle and hunt down your own opportunity.  Here is my executive summary of WCIYP vintage 1980 [the book was so successful that it has had a new edition for each of the last 40 years - get the 2015 edition it's much cheaper!] lightly editted from the reply I sent to our ex-student:

My SOP for getting a research post is [SOP = standard operating procedure]:
1a. Look into your own head/heart to discover what really excites you in science, you'll be committing 1-3 years [MSc] or 3-6 years [PhD], so you don't want to start with something you actively don't like.
1b. BUT, don't over-analyse this. You have no idea how research is going to turn out; the best, newest and most boat-floating ideas come in surprising places.  You could almost pick a lab at random and you'd be as likely to make a key break-through.
1c. The thing that will impact hardest on your success and happiness is the cohort of graduate students with who you wash up. The bosses impact comes a close second but is actually in second place.

2. Go into your own history to see what your real assets are. Are you a Good Pair of Hands? = technically capable, dextrous, and able to intuit what's happening in the eppendorf? Or are you, like me, a little bit clumsy at the bench, and happier at a desk thinking things through?

3. Is there, on your CV, something that really stands out in your toolkit - where you are better than most and with which you would be useful and reliable. Reproducibility is a key aspect of the scientific process.

4. Beef up your statistical expertise. All biological data is noisy, and most biologists are crap at stats. You don't need a formal qual in this but if you can talk the talk (power analysis, sample size, parametric vs non-parametric stats etc.) at interview you'll be memorable. If this is too much of an ask then don't sweat it: 90% of biologists are statistical illiterates.

5a. Decide if you want to, or have to, stay in a particular geographic location [aged parents, partner with job, crap at foreign languages, loyalty to soccer team, proximity to good surfing breaks]. The decision tree is way easier if you have to live in Ennis.
5b. 'Foreign' is waaay bigger than Ireland, so more choice. Did you ever want to live in Prague or visit Australia? English is the language of science and you're ahead of all those lads who only speak Czech or Oz.

6. Start your research career by researching suitable labs. Get your network out and ask your boss and more senior colleagues if they knows a good lab in the field you identified in 1. above. Join researchgate and/or linkedin and make pals there, or just use it as a dataset of people and places to suss out.

7a. Any effective lab PI is going to get at least one unsolicited CV a week. That same PI lands a grant with salary/studentship once every 2-3 years. It is unlikely that your CV will land on the desk in the 2 months surrounding the arrival of the money to support you.
7b. I think a thumbnail pic is a good thing to include: it shows that you aren't black or a woman.
7c. Always send a covering letter with your CV, addressed by name to the boss, citing any mutual acquaintances and expressing enthusiasm for working in that lab. Indicate that you know what they do there: read 3 recent papers and critique/applaud them. Suggest how your toolkit (key points in CV) would be an asset to that lab. Keep this letter to a single side of A4 and three paragraphs.
7d) Send the CV in the post, with a stamp: it shows that you value yourself and the process at least to the extent of €0.72c. Nobody writes or receives letters anymore, so you'll be a stand-out.
7e) Copy-edit anything you send. Spelinge errurs or misplaced apostophe's destroy your credibility as a careful scientist and are disrespectful. Have someone else [your cousin from the Arts Block??] read your CV and the cover letter.

8. Go Visit! Say that you're going to be in town in such a week (invent a wedding) and could you drop by to talk about the field and get advice about where the hot points of development are? Promise you'll only take 10 minutes of the PI's time. It's called an informational interview and it establishes your name and face in the PI's mind far better that one of 50 CVs arriving by e-mail that year. Go visit works well in foreign too. Take a Ryanair weekend break to Prague or Madrid and arrange your chat for the Friday or Monday. If the PI gets money in the following few months, they'll remember you. Don't over-dress for this meeting. No over-needy suit&tie, just clean casual - you're on vacation and just dropping in. Going to Madrid or Prague will be good for you anyway: travel broadens the mind.

9. The commercial sector does research as well as universities.

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