Life as a writer outside the boundaries of academia

Alex Goldberg is a scientific writer and social media manager for GA International.

He has a PhD in biology and previously worked as a postdoc in toxicology and medicine, having studied chronological lifespan in yeast, anti-neoplastic small molecules, and the biology of lymphangioleiomyomatosis

You can find Alex on LinkedIn.

 


Photo by Filip Kominik | unsplash.com

Photo by Filip Kominik | unsplash.com

No one who aspires to a fancy job as a tenured research professor in the life sciences should read this article.

For those who wish to follow this career path, I can give only one piece of advice: make sure it’s EXACTLY what you want out of life.

Life as an Academic

I started out relatively modestly as a graduate student in the fall of 2004. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a career in film production or biology, and because going into film meant repeating classes and working at Starbucks simultaneously, I opted into a Master’s degree, which paid a bit of money and allowed me some flexibility to learn about something I loved and to figure out the rest of my career later on.

My project was fresh and interesting, and I was given every opportunity to make my own way, reaching out to collaborators and carving out a small niche for myself in neuroscience and cancer. I was supported immensely by my Principal Investigator, who encouraged me to do my own thing and publish what I was interested in.

After seven years of grad studies, I was sure that I wanted to become a professor like my Principal Investigator. There were things I wanted to do differently, topics I didn’t have funding for that I wanted to get into. I even had my choice of postdoctoral positions lined up for me when I graduated, and I took the job where I’d get the most flexibility to create new projects for myself. I built up a smorgasbord of results, characterized around fifteen different compounds, published in some respectable journals, then figured I’d go and apply for professor positions by the end of my second year.

Up until then, I was enthusiastic about staying in academia. I was sure someone would notice my work and get back to me, if only for an interview. Read more of this post

Lessons from the Hill

Dr Taylor Winkleman recently completed a stint as a Legislative Assistant in the office of United States Senator Edward Markey after serving a year in the same office as an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)/American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellow. Her portfolio included space policy, military and veterans issues, human rights, and foreign policy, with a particular emphasis on global health and trafficking of both humans and wildlife. Upon leaving the Senate, Taylor founded Winkleman Consulting, LLC, and is now consulting on the same issues, with an emphasis on the intersection of commercial space, global health, and humanitarian crises.

Born in Santa Cruz, California, Taylor completed the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine’s dual degree program in 2016, earning both her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Masters of Public Health with an emphasis in public health policy. Prior to beginning her veterinary training, she served 6 years in the United States Army as an Arabic linguist and intelligence professional. During her academic career, she worked as a freelance journalist and photographer.

Her professional interests include international development, zoonotic disease prevention, economics, One Health, Planetary Health, and commercial space policy. Taylor tweets from @T_Winkleman.


The Research Whisperer was approached by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to feature a couple of their great fellowship stories. We were happy to showcase the fantastic opportunities available to scientists through their programs. If you’re interested in applying for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowshipapplications are due November 1! Please note: you must hold US citizenship, or dual citizenship from US and another country.

If you know of non-US programs that do similar things, please comment with links so that your colleagues can be aware of them and follow them up!


Taylor Winkleman (LEFT) and #fellowfellow (fellow AAAS fellow) Dr. Emma Locatelli, attending science talks given by two OTHER #fellowfellows, Dr. Rebecca Reeseman and Dr. Kirstin Neff at a monthly event called NerdNiteDC. [Photo courtesy of Taylor Winkleman]

Taylor Winkleman (LEFT) and #fellowfellow (fellow AAAS fellow) Dr. Emma Locatelli, attending science talks given by two OTHER #fellowfellows, Dr. Rebecca Reeseman and Dr. Kirstin Neff at a monthly event called NerdNiteDC. [Photo courtesy of Taylor Winkleman]

The absolute worst moment that I experienced during my time in the United States Senate (the Hill) was during a softball game. While playing catcher, a collision at home plate sent me flying through the air and I landed in the dirt. On my head.

So, there I was, lying in the dirt, my ear bleeding, my arm bruised, with my head ringing from what I was almost certain was a concussion, and I knew one thing with utter certainty: I was going to have to keep playing. We were behind by ten runs in the third inning. We were certainly going to lose the game but if I couldn’t keep going we would be forced to forfeit. I got up, shook it off, and kept playing.

We definitely lost that game.

Thinking back on it, I can understand how many on the Hill would see that as a metaphor for politics, where you often find yourself fighting a battle you seem guaranteed to lose, getting knocked down, and having to get back up. My time as a policy fellow began in an optimistic September of 2016.

Now, in 2017, the situation for science on the Hill and in the federal government could be better.

In some ways, this seems to be the worst of times. Read more of this post

Postdoc pathfinding (Part 2)

Dr Beth Linas is the Manger of Research and Science at Vibrent Health, a health technology company whose goal is to use data-driven and evidence-based solutions for preventing, monitoring, diagnosing and treating diseases.

Prior to this role, she served as a fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) with the Smart and Connected Health Program, and the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research effort at the National Science Foundation.

Beth completed her postdoc fellowship in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where she also completed her PhD (2014) and Masters of Health Science (MHS, 2010). Her research and policy interests include the application of computer science to advance health as well as understanding how to develop and scale evidence-based digital and mobile health platforms to improve health outcomes.

Beth is passionate about and works to promote scientists who communicate science. She tweets from @bethlinas.


The Research Whisperer was approached by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to feature a couple of their great fellowship stories. We were happy to showcase the fantastic opportunities available to scientists through their programs. If you’re interested in applying for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowshipapplications are due November 1! Please note: you must hold US citizenship, or dual citizenship from US and another country.

If you know of non-US programs that do similar things, please comment with links so that your colleagues can be aware of them and follow them up!


[Part 1 of Beth’s story appeared last week]

Photo by Mike Enerio | unsplash.com

Photo by Mike Enerio | unsplash.com

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (STPF) application process is in-depth, challenging and long.

I submitted my initial application 1 November, 2014, and it wasn’t until July 1, 2015 that I knew where I was going to be placed. The placement process is much like a medical residency match. The office must choose you, and you must indicate that you are interested in serving in that office (after an extensive week of interviews in Washington, DC).

I was most interested in working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It was the agency I was most familiar with, given my training. I was taught very specifically the process and methods for crafting a grant to match NIH guidelines and regulations, I had been on the campus, I knew people working at the NIH, and I knew those who worked there were trained in public health.

But, to my surprise, I interviewed in the Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering at the National Science Foundation with a program entitled Smart and Connected Health. Read more of this post

Postdoc pathfinding (Part 1)

Dr Beth Linas is the Manger of Research and Science at Vibrent Health, a health technology company whose goal is to use data-driven and evidence-based solutions for preventing, monitoring, diagnosing and treating diseases.

Prior to this role, she served as a Science & Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) with the Smart and Connected Health Program, and the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research effort at the National Science Foundation.

Beth completed her postdoc fellowship in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health where she also completed her PhD (2014) and Masters of Health Science (MHS, 2010). Her research and policy interests include the application of computer science to advance health as well as understanding how to develop and scale evidence-based digital and mobile health platforms to improve health outcomes.

Beth is passionate about and works to promote scientists who communicate science. She tweets from @bethlinas.


The Research Whisperer was approached by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to feature a couple of their great fellowship stories. We were happy to showcase the fantastic opportunities available to scientists through their programs. If you’re interested in applying for the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowshipapplications are due November 1! Please note: you must hold US citizenship, or dual citizenship from US and another country.

If you know of non-US schemes that do similar things, please comment with links so that your colleagues can be aware of them and follow them up! 


Photo by Mike Enerio | unsplash.com

Photo by Mike Enerio | unsplash.com

I am a trained infectious disease epidemiologist. I attended graduate school to gain a specialised understanding of the theory and scientific method of this cornerstone of public health, whose goal is to analyse patterns, causes and effects of human health and disease conditions in population; to understand epidemics.

PhDs are trained to be professional thinkers. We are expected to think big, study difficult, extensive and puzzling scientific questions that require tenacity, patience and extreme focus. Traditionally, to do this, many trained epidemiologists remain in the halls of academic institutions funded customarily by federal grant dollars.

As a graduate student, I trained under individuals who did just that. In fact, my mentor was an MD, PhD; he had completed both medical and graduate school, and the subsequent training required to be a licensed physician researcher. Today, he remains faculty at the institution that granted him his PhD, first as junior faculty and now as a full professor. Academia is what he lives and breathes (although, he does see patients in a clinic). This is not a knock on my mentor. I received excellent training in epidemiologic methods, social and behavioral determinants of infectious diseases, as well as critical thinking, manuscript writing, grant development and more. I was fortunate to have such a focused and present mentor.

However, I was never interested in remaining in academia. Read more of this post

Developing my portfolio career

Ian StreetIan Street is a postdoc at Dartmouth College working on how plant hormones affect plant development.

He is the writer of The Quiet Branches plant science blog and is looking towards a career in science writing or editing.

In his time away from the lab bench and writing, he’s a runner and cat owner.

Ian tweets from @IHStreet.


Photo by Ian Street

Photo by Ian Street

First, let me state my situation and some of the things I am assuming as I develop my career:

  1. Most postdocs do not go on to jobs as Primary Investigators (PIs).
  2. The longer you’re a postdoc, the less likely #1 becomes.
  3. Major depression ground me down mid-postdoc. Having a lot of support and writing has helped me recover some momentum.
  4. Deciding to leave academia is not easy. Introspection and experimentation are required.
  5. To find a job/ career outside academia, network, yes, but it is also important to gain experience in fields of interest if possible.
  6. The Internet is the key to my efforts from the small-town college where I’m a postdoc.

The career I’ve settled upon to pursue beyond academia is perhaps obvious: it is the world of science writing and editing.

Addressing Doubts

It seems obvious. Too obvious, for a few reasons.

This is the “Who are you to break out into a new field?” anxiety narrative I have in my brain:

It’s writing and editing. Who can’t do that, and do both well, in academia? Besides, the written word is apparently dying because pictures and video are more important/ compelling in the digital age. Writing is more than putting words on a page, of course. Getting things out of a brain in a coherent form (it’s always perfect in my mind, why can’t that just pop out on the page?!), letting an editor’s brains see it, review it, suggest changes, or say “no” (it’s almost always a “no”) is daunting. Then there’s the exposing of your ideas to a wider audience – this might be exciting, but it is also fraught with fear of rejection.

The path of a career transition is far from certain. Read more of this post

One research whisperer’s career so far

Last year, the indefatigable Angela Dobele interviewed me for her Women and Research newsletter (Issue 2, 2015, pp. 7-8). The interview, with some minor updates, appears below. You can find the original version, and previous newsletter issues, at Angela’s website under “Networking Business Education”. Many thanks to Angela for allowing me to share my interview here! 

I wanted to share it on Research Whisperer because, of late, I’ve listened to several academics on panels talking about their research trajectories. These participants – whether they’re established professors, Mid, or Early Career Researchers – are almost always apologetic about the fact that they haven’t had a straightforward progression through an academic career. Very few scholars I know HAVE had what they think of as a straightforward trajectory.

For me, when looking at how others have travelled and the experience they bring, I find it more meaningful to consider what people have managed to create or invest their time in, rather than a clinical view of what jobs they’ve held. But before I wander too far off on that topic, here’s my 2015 interview with Angela: 

Asian Australian public history project: Hou Wang Temple (Atherton, Qld) | Photo by Tseen Khoo

From my Asian Australian public history project files: The Hou Wang Temple (Atherton, Qld) | Photo by Tseen Khoo

1) What is the best piece of advice you have received so far and why?

The best piece of research advice I’ve ever received (and try really hard to follow) is ‘Done is better than perfect’.

Perfectionism is a procrastinating behaviour and, in many cases, an excuse not to follow through on the risk of submitting that journal paper, or grant application, or conference abstract.

If you never feel it’s just perfect, then you can’t hand it over, so never completing anything is a sign of what a quality scholar you are, right? So wrong! Read more of this post

Academic writing ‘outside’ academia

JayThompson-smDr Jay Daniel Thompson is a freelance writer, researcher, and editor who teaches at the University of Melbourne. His website can be found here.

Jay is also Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, and continues to publish in the fields of Literary Studies and Cultural Studies.

He can be contacted via email at jaydthompson80@gmail.com.


Readers of The Research Whisperer will be familiar with that old chestnut ‘publish or perish’. This is supposed to be the key to getting (and keeping) an academic job.

Stairs Carnegie Building, Dunedin (Photo by Kim Tairi | www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

Stairs Carnegie Building, Dunedin (Photo by Kim Tairi | http://www.flickr.com/photos/angels_have_the_phone_box)

So, what about those non-academics who publish academic writing— the latter broadly defined as writing which is scholarly in nature and appears in traditional academic mediums (e.g. peer-reviewed journals, edited collections, and so forth)? Why do these people put themselves through the blood, sweat, and peer-review?

Who are these people exactly?

Let’s start with the latter question.

Non-academic academic writers (to coin a terribly inelegant term) come in many guises. Some are working in ‘industry’, and bring coalface knowledge to academic publications. Publications in the ‘hard sciences’, for example, frequently feature ‘industry’ input. There are those writers who require publication notches under their belt in order to win that coveted fellowship or lecturing gig. Creative arts journals frequently feature submissions by artists (painters, creative writers, and so forth) who have a scholarly tone. Then there are those folk who are drawn to academic writing by a love of words and a desire to contribute to a particular field or discipline.

I traverse several of the groups listed above.
Read more of this post