From Full-Time Mom to Research Technician?

I received the following letter recently:

DrDrA:
I have a career-related question that requires a bit of background information, if you’ll bear with me:
As an idealistic 18-year-old, I went to VERY prestigious university (VPU) with the intention of becoming a biological scientist.  I worked in a couple of labs there during my time as an undergrad, and I was one of the teachers for the undergraduate laboratory course.  I spent my summers working for researchers as well.
I decided not to go straight to grad school, but take a little career detour by teaching middle and high school science.  While teaching, I researched grad programs and did some networking.  Soon enough I was married and expecting my first child.  I chose being a stay-at-home parent over starting the grad school application process.  Two more children arrived.  I have been a stay-at-home parent for nine years now, and would not go back and change that decision.  My youngest will start Kindergarten soon, and I am starting to think about myself again… what are my goals?
I would love to be involved in scientific research, but no longer think being the primary researcher is for me.  I’m wondering about lab techs.
I’ve finally arrived at my question!
What can you tell me about the career of lab tech?  Is it realistic for me at this point in my life?  (37 years old, big gap since last lab experience)

Thanks so much…

Reader of the Blog

Here is my reply:

Dear Reader of the Blog-

Thanks so much for sending me this question. I think that there are probably many like you that have an interest in biology, studied it at some level- but left formal study of questions of interest to you, in order to raise a family.  But now that your kids are becoming more independent and you’ve got some time on your hands… you are asking yourself : Now what?  I have some time to pursue my own interests again- is it possible to have a science related career (of which a laboratory technician is only one option). I think the answer to this, is yes. It is not an unqualified yes, but I will explain.

First, though, allow me to tell you a short story about someone I met a few years ago. It has been some time since I heard the story so I might not be 100% on details, but the big stuff is correct. Several years ago my department hosted a seminar speaker, a well-known female scientist with expertise related to mine. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with her one on one during her visit, and it was during this meeting that she told me her story. I remember that at the time that I met her I had two small children, and I was pretty darn sleepless all the time, so my science morale wasn’t the highest. I was a late thirties postdoc considering my next steps, and her story inspired me to realize that it doesn’t matter how old you are or how many kids you have, what matters is your goal, how much you are willing to work to get it, and how great and flexible mentors might help you along the way.

Anyway, she told me the story of her life. Which involved several children (3+ if I remember correctly), a stint in distant lands in the Peace Corps with multiple children in tow, and finishing undergraduate course work here and there along the way. But the remarkable part of the story was that all these parts of her life occurred BEFORE she attended graduate school. Yes, you heard me correctly, she was a late 30’s single mother of 3 or 4 kids (some of which were school age if I recall correctly), when she matriculated into graduate school at a highly prestigious institution, and entered the laboratory of a person who is unquestionably the most dominant person in my broad field. She got her Ph.D. in the early 80’s and then she went on to a tenure track faculty position and has been very successful.  Why do I tell this story? Well, I think it perfectly demonstrates that it is possible to do what you want and be what you want, at whatever age and family status you are at- even if it means you want to continue a career in science that you might have put on hold for some time.

So, above you really had several questions. The first was … what are my goals? You know that is for you to decide. But I tell the story above, not to say TT is the WAY, but to encourage you to think carefully about what you want, make a plan to get there, figure out the logistics, and then get yourself there. I know you are taking those steps!

As for your second question, –

What can you tell me about the career of lab tech?  Is it realistic for me at this point in my life?  (37 years old, big gap since last lab experience)-

Sure. A good lab tech or lab manager is worth their weight in platinum. Technician jobs can be of all different flavors- from the running-the-logistics-of-the-lab variety (ordering, training people, managing the lab, taking care of compliance issues), to the doing-experiments-at-the-bench-full-time variety, and just about every shade in between. All of this depends on the needs of the lab, your background knowledge, and your skills. I have several technicians, and they all have a slightly different combination of duties, based on the needs of the lab at the moment, how long they plan to be with me, their level of interest and skill in working at the bench. There are lab techs that just stay in the job for a couple of years to get some hands on research experience, sometimes on the road to professional school, and some that are career techs- it just depends on a persons abilities, interests, and goals.

As for the second part- as to whether this is a realistic option for you, I think that we are only limited by our imagination in what we can do. If a tech job is what you decide that you want to do, figure out what you need to do to get it done. That is not to say that this transition and finding a tech job will be easy. Here are a few things I suggest doing- in no particular order. First, biology has changed A LOT since you last worked in a lab, and you may not have thought a lot about cloning (insert your favorite technique here) while you were raising kids. You may want to take a few courses here and there in molecular biology and basic techniques, with labs if possible (and other basics and subjects that interest you), before you go out cold looking for a tech job. Read whatever you can get your hands on that is science related and interests you. Second, read the job postings for techs at your local university and see what qualifications are for these jobs. I know people who hire techs right out of undergrad- and they haven’t had much hands-on lab experience at that point. Once you brush up on your new basics, I don’t see how you are that much different from these kids- except in the sense that you may be better because you have added maturity, multi-tasking, and organizational skills, and are potentially a long term hire if the chemistry is right.

Third, figure out what areas interest you and look at the faculty profiles in the related departments at institutions near you, read about what the faculty do- what projects they have going, look at their lab web pages and see who works for them, how big their groups are etc, and do they have external funding. This way when you look at the job postings, you might more easily pick out those in the departments you are interested in. Finally, I wonder if you had good relationships with, and might be able to get back in touch with those researchers you worked or taught for before you put science on hold. They might be a valuable source of support for you as references at least, actively giving you advice on what areas to brush up on, or  even perhaps helping you in your search for a position… sometimes you can get lucky like that!

So- I hope I’ve answered at least part of your question- I think it is possible and realistic, but you are going to have to do some leg-work to get up to speed, and it may not happen instantly. I’m sure there are lots of things I have left uncovered and that commenters will correct me on. That’s the great thing about the blog- you’ll get lots of advice in the comments.

Salaries and Personnel to Start Your Lab…

I’m supposed to be finishing slides for lecture, but I’d like to comment on this. PiT is putting up a vseries on negotiating start-up monies for your first faculty position- in a very detailed series of posts that can be found here, and here (I think we are on the second installment thus far, I’ve also posted on this from time to time and put the links here and here for those wanting all perspectives in one place). A large part of these posts concerns salary both for the TT faculty hire as well as for people you would hire to work in your lab, and there is lots of good information here.

I’d like to add something though, to what PiT wrote- how do you know what salary you as the TT hire should be asking for? PiT rightly mentioned that you should educate yourself on what the going rate is- but there are a couple of sources that she didn’t mention for this. First, if you are getting an offer from a state institution – the salaries of all of the employees of that institution are public information and can usually be found as part of the operating budget of the institution. You may have to poke around a little to find this, but for my institution it is as easy as walking into the campus library and asking for the operating budget. Once you have this in hand you can look for what other hires at your rank/dept/training etc- are being paid. You’ll be shocked by the wide disparities between TT faculty, even those in the same department and hired in the same year. I know I was. Second, if you are considering an offer in a medical school, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC, I believe that is what it is called) publishes a book that contains the average salaries for different regions of the country, for different subject areas, and also by what your terminal degree was (Ph.D. or M.D.), this will at least help you get in the ballpark. Now, it is pretty expensive- but perhaps someone you know might have it (even your library?), and might let you have a look. Anyway, I urge you to go over and read PiTs stuff and the comments on her posts, because they are packed with good information and food for thought.

One other thing I want to address in relation to this, is a post I read this morning from Dr. Zen, written in response to PiT’s posts, entitled:  No postdoc? No problem! Well, I’ll just quote directly:

You can survive and conduct research without postdocs, but you have to think about it. It’s very helpful to have ideas for $5 projects in your pocket as well as $50,000 projects. There’s a lot of research that can be done with time and elbow grease instead of big bucks.

Undergraduates can be awesome in the lab. The trick is to recruit them early, in their first year. That way, you have the potential to work with someone for three or four years. Still, you can get a lot of good work with people who are around for a year.

Hmmmm. While I TOTALLY agree that undergraduates can be excellent, I think, perhaps that it is not optimal to start up your new laboratory on undergraduates alone. Why? Because you will have a limited time to secure significant external federal funding. This is a huge job, and one that will keep you writing A LOT of the time. Undergraduates will generally come to you with little or no experience, and most of the time they are not full time employees by virtue of the fact that they are in class most of the day. These kids (awesome as they can be) will need training and a considerable amount of your time. I suggest that as a junior faculty member you are going to have to figure out where the balance of your time should be spent to achieve the level of external funding that you need to run your lab- and spending lots of time training undergraduates at that stage in your career is not a good idea!!

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again- as junior faculty you need a senior tech or postdoc (and we’ve argued here and elsewhere (Drugmonkey- but I can’t find the link at this moment) about that) to be running things and pounding out data (like the preliminary data for your grants)- while you feverishly write grants.

Grants and papers MUST be your first priority as junior faculty.

ASM Journals adds RSS feeds…

Hallelujah!!!

I received the American Society for Microbiology’s President’s Bimonthly Newsletter. … and I was delighted to see this:

In early December, in response to the findings in a survey of ASM authors and readers, two new features were installed for all journals: RSS feeds and “Email a Friend.” The Email a Friend Feature was used 835 times in the first 3 weeks. (emphasis is mine).

I ran right over to my Google reader- and added Infection and Immunity to my feeds… and I’ll go back later and add the Journal of Bacteriology…. and … Microbiology…. and …Applied and Environmental Microbiology….and many others…

And there is more, also from ASM:

The Communications Committee partnered with two food-related scientific membership organizations to develop a survey on members’ use of social media. There were 349 respondents from ASM. Some findings from ASM respondents include the following:

  • The majority go online more than once a day for professional information (other than e-mail)
  • About one third participate in Linked In for personal and/or professional reasons
  • About half participate in Facebook for personal and/or professional reasons
  • Less than 10% use Twitter
  • About 25% post and comment to social media sites
  • About 20% upload audio/visual material to social media sites
  • Over half visit and maintain a profile on a social networking site
  • About half report reading, watching, and listening to social media

In general, respondents reported using group-specific “informational” Web sites, such as those maintained by CDC and NIH, at a much higher rate than the social networking sites presented in the questionnaire. We plan to modify the survey and ask a larger number of ASM members to participate to obtain information to guide ASM’s social media strategy.

Hmmmm. I didn’t get the survey… I wonder if these #s will hold when a larger number of respondents is surveyed- they do have something like 43,000 members…

Two Thumbs Up on Science Online 2010!

I’m on the plane home from Science Online 2010. Can I just say- that meeting was TOTALLY EXCELLENT. I usually attend meetings in my field that are all seriously hardcore science, seriously 24/7.  I mean seriously. So this was a totally different population and a set of subject matter than my usual meeting fare.

What did I love about and learn from #Scio10? Best just to make a list, in no particular order:

1. First, I met such an interesting mix of people. There were science journalists, editors, scientists, bloggers, scientist bloggers (like myself), librarians, programmers and computer geeks (I say that with the utmost affection from one geek to another) and folks that run large blog and publishing networks. I would never encounter such a diverse group with divergent but widely overlapping interests in these areas anywhere else. (and my apologies to anyone who I failed to mention).

2.   Second, electronic media is changing scholarly publishing, peer review will not go away (nor should it) but the speed of things will change where necessary (see Plos Currents beta Influenza), and so will the discussion that comes after an article – incorporating blogs, twitter, friendfeed etc, as will the metrics by which scientific articles and the prestige of scientific journals is evaluated to include the many many new communication methods now available. PloS One  seems to be leading the charge on this one with article level metrics ….and at the risk of being a groupie, I heart Peter Binfield and Jonathan Eisen.  (and the rest of PLoS too, cool visualizations of PLoS ALM data by Mike Chelen to be found here)

3.  Third, electronic media is hitting basic science like a tidal wave.  I’d bet you $100 that I’m the only one that blogs, uses twitter, that sees the utility in Google groups and other fun Google stuff like Google reader, and that uses Facebook in my department (well, that’s actually a lie – one of my close colleagues uses FB as well). BUT my eyes were opened at this meeting to the fact that I am barely scratching the surface of what is already available, and what is possible.  I nearly leapt from my chair during John Hogenesh’s talk about cloud computing and its application to genomic work.  My community of scientists is going to have to deal with their discomfort of new technology and start learning how to swim here-… or they will get left behind on the beach.

4.  Fourth, can I just say- I’ve got a little hero worship thing going on with those PLoS guys.

5.  Fifth- Like I said up there, I’m the only one I know in my current scientific environment that uses twitter- but using hashtags to tweet a meeting… is quite a remarkable thing. Especially when you are doing this with a meeting full of 250 odd people who are totally and completely comfortable with twitter, the sheer volume of tweets was quite incredible. I loved seeing what was going on in sessions that I wasn’t in this way. Go to twitter and search hashtag: #scio10, and you will see just exactly what I mean.  That Janet Stemwedel is a tweeting machine. Out.Of.Control.

6.  Sixth- You know I blog- but most people at my institution don’t and many times we don’t even speak the same language when it comes to electronic communication methods, and sometimes this can be a little isolating. A person can get a lot of shit for blogging while on the tenure track… ’cause, you know, it takes time away from the pursuit of real science, the production of papers and grants (as so hilariously detailed in Dr. Stemwedel’s ignite talk).  But this going to this conference, and meeting many, many of the bloggers whose fine work I read daily (Isis, Pal, Sci, Janet, Zuska, Abel, Sheril and others I’m not sure I can name on blog, but you know who you are), and talking to struggling graduate students, made me realize that not only do people actually read what I write – but maybe from time to time what I write puts something useful out into the blogosphere that others coming behind me might learn from. I think that maybe for the first time I appreciated my own role in the diverse chorus of voices that are out there blogging about similar issues.

7. Seventh- see all those bloggers I list up there- they are awesome as real people as they are in the blogosphere, as are those I did not name. I’m humbled to be part of this community.

8.  Finally, the meeting itself was exquisitely organized, orchestrated, and executed.  Hats off to Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker, and the army of others and volunteers that was undoubtedly helping them out, for accomplishing this Herculean task and labor of love.

I’m sure there is more, but that is all for the moment…

Oh, and,… I did NOT partake of the motherfucking Jameson, although it was being served. Perhaps I’ll have the opportunity in 2011?!

(sorry for the double post, I forgot to add a couple of IMPORTANT links in the first round!)

Do not pass go- go directly to Ed Yong’s blog…

I have no time to blog right now, for which I sincerely apologize. Things are totally crazy, but fun. Instead, today, I direct you to an excellent blog post over at Ed Yong’s blog (Not Exactly Rocket Science, Science for Everyone). The topic of the post is a recent paper that shows that (quoting Ed):

Leading a team of Israeli and US psychologists, she has shown that women become more silent if they think that men are focusing on their bodies. They showed that women who were asked to introduce themselves to an anonymous male partner spent far less time talking about themselves if they believed that their bodies were being checked out. Men had no such problem. Nor, for that matter, did women if they thought they were being inspected by another woman.

A very interesting post, go read.

Cell launches article-of-the-future….

Hey did you guys see this- Cell Press unveiled a new format for their online material. I found this on Twitter and had 5 enjoyable minutes free of administrative battles to check it out. You can read all about it here.

New features include a graphical summary and highlights on the landing page (example here).  Tab navigation for each section of the paper, you can see tabs for the text and the references for each section when you click on a particular section. The materials and methods also has multiple tabs- one where you get a short summary of each technique, and another where you get the whole 9 yards of each experiment. The results tab shows all the figures together, then you can look at them with the figure on the left and the legend on the right.  The references appear with context, and links to Scopus, and Pubmed (among others).

There are additional tabs that let you see the time line- so when the paper was submitted, accepted, etc etc, and one for other functions like the comment function. Unfortunately, anonymous comments are not allowed… so that feature will probably fall as flat as it has everywhere else where commenters have to identify themselves.

I’m going to have to spend more than 5 minutes with it to figure out what I don’t like about it.

Conversation Killer

Does this ever happen to you?  I was at a meeting recently and I was walking around one of those infernal mixer type deals, that they always have at these things, chatting with people.  And for the most part, that was all fine, and I’m usually quite comfortable with the random chit chat and walking up to complete strangers and starting a conversation about projects, or some other mutually interesting topic.

But then I had one of those weird socially awkward moments. I walked up to a good friend (a man), who was standing with a big group of men, senior in my field, that I had not previously been introduced to. My friend was lovely, and he introduced me to all the other men in the group one by one.  Then, all the group conversation totally stopped DEAD. I felt incredibly awkward- it was as if I didn’t know the secret handshake or the men had to use some other language to deal with me. I suppose this incident sticks out in my head because I was the only woman in the group, and junior in the field.

When I think about this incident though, I realize that it isn’t all that rare in my existence. I have a few male colleagues who, when we are together in a ratio of men:women >1, converse amongst themselves. I somehow just can’t seem to get my foot through the door and open up the conversation. The thing that always kind of shocks me when this stuff happens, is that I am one of the more outgoing and socially comfortable people that I know  (not to mention just plain loud– a couple of you regular readers out there who know me have SEEN me in action). I’m left trying to figure out why this happens: Is it specific to the personalities involved? Is it a gender thing- do men in a large group related differently to each other than the do to a woman in the group? Is it a junior career stage thing- that the senior guys talk around your head as though you are not really to be reckoned with? Is it a little of all of that?

This kind of thing might seem like a little, unimportant thing  to you, but I spend, probably 95% of my professional existence in groups where I am the only woman (or one of a very small handful), and it is awful that science conversation comes to a dead halt for me in these situations.