Is LinkedIn useful for biologists?

A lot of people asking about LinkedIn are actually motivated by this question:  “where online should I look for a job, or best position myself to find a job?”  If what you want is for people to find you and offer you a job out of the blue … Um, that’s not gonna happen.

The vast majority of jobs are filled informally. People hire who they know, and who their connections know.  What you need to do is build up your network.


This is usually the part where eyeballs start rolling around; there is nothing worse than “networking” as it’s understood by a lot of scientists.  The image we have is a bunch of fake salespeople glad-handing each other and frantically exchanging business cards. EW.

Guess what? You know how to network already. It’s called attending professional conferences.  Or giving advice on lab protocols. Or talking over seminar snacks. Or having a bunch of Twitter/Facebook friends.  Networking doesn’t have to be something you do in a suit.  In fact, let’s call it schmoozing instead of networking, to lower the creepy factor.

Schmoozing is the art of conversation, but with a purpose. Schmoozing is connecting with people, keeping in touch with them — and maybe, someday, benefiting from relationships with them.  Schmoozing is  investing  time and effort into establishing and maintaining career-related contacts.

These things are NOT schmoozing:

  • Talking only about yourself
  • Thinking only about yourself and what you want
  • Asking directly for a job
  • Beginning a conversation by handing out your resume

The idea is that the relationship is give and take. You share information with your friends that you know will be useful to them; they do the same for you.

A friend that only calls you once a year to find out if you have any job leads for them? Not much of a friend. Don’t be that guy.

Right, so this post was about LinkedIn, remember?

Yep, almost there. LinkedIn is a sort of portfolio/resume organizer. It makes you easier to find online, and creates a professional online identity.   If you are actively job seeking, it’s probably worth the hour or so it will take to set up a nice profile on LinkedIn.  Fill out the form to make an online resume. Link to any websites that are important or show your work. Connect to a few of your friends.

What happens next is up to you.

If you are an academic, and your goal is a home in Academia–you might find that other networking sites like Mendeley or are more helpful in making connections.

If you are thinking about working in industry or in non-profits, LinkedIn is very useful.  There are quite a few industry and professional groups that you can join, which immediately connects you to a whole bunch of people. Here’s some of the groups I’m in, for example: linkedingrps

See the little lock next to some of these? You don’t have to show all of your groups publicly.

Being part of a group mostly lets you see what people with a specific interest are talking about.  But it also lets you know the NAMES and EMPLOYERS of the people that share your interest.

Want to work for the Nature Conservancy? Go to their website, and you have no idea who to address your cover letter to.  On LinkedIn, you can look to see who works there. And in what division.  And you can do a little investigation and maybe even figure out their phone number and email, and call and introduce yourself.

THAT is what LinkedIn is for. That is how I used a connection with a former graduate student  to connect me to a Google recruiter, and scored an informal interview.  Alas, it didn’t work out (I think I would have made an AWESOME collegiate recruiter; Google was less convinced). But I got way farther, and learned more, than I ever would have applying via the giant automated funnel that is the Google Online Application system.

I’ve also used LinkedIn to find past bosses to help verify employment, as well as just watch the careers of former students grow and develop.

If you try to use LinkedIn as a place to selfishly pump people for employment information, and ONLY that, then won’t work for you. LinkedIn is a handy database of people that you like, and that you occasionally may ask for a favor.  If you become a person that shares useful information freely, posting things that help others, you’ll find that people will gravitate towards you.

LinkedIn is based in Karma. To paraphrase a cliche, “don’t pay love back; pay it forward.”

That’s how you use LinkedIn.

[Important Warning: do NOT let LinkedIn access your contacts or address book. It will send irritating emails in your name for months to all your friends. LinkedIn Corporate is apparently not concerned with bad karma. ]

If you are amused by this article or find it useful, please endorse me for “Insect Punditry” on LinkedIn.


Advice for Successful Career Decisions

I give students a lot of unsolicited advice.  I talk to both graduate students and undergraduates, and they are mostly worried about the same things:

  • Did I make the right choice when I decided to study ____?
  • Will I get a good job?  Is *this* job (graduate program/major/whatever) the one for me?

I actually have a mathematical formula that I use to help people figure out when they are in the right major or the right job, or if a career change is a good idea.  And I’m going to give it to you, for free, because you read my blog, and are, Post hoc ergo prompter hoc ipso facto, cool.


puppy!Here it is.

Job = Puppy

Yep. A job is like a puppy.  When you first get a job (or start a degree program), it’s wonderful and cool. Here, look –>

Doesn’t that make you smile?

Puppies are awesome. And if you have an actual puppy, you realize that puppies also have some downsides. Like…..poop.

There is no such thing as a poopless puppy.
There is also no such thing as a job with no shitty tasks.

The trick is to find a job that maximizes what I call the cute to poop ratio.

In other words, the quantity

recipe for happinessmust be greater than one.

If  the cute of your job is overwhelmed by the poop–it’s time to start looking for a new job.

I’ve made some really radical career changes–including walking away from a tenure-track faculty position.  Each time it was because the amount of poop in the job became overwhelming, and drowned out all the fun and cute elements.

Obviously, right now is not the easiest time to be starting a career, or make a career change.  Other things can modify this equation; health care benefits, for example, can turn a negative cute : poop ratio into a positive for me, at least in the short term.  If you are someone just starting out on your career path, taking a job that is not exactly what you want may also balance out, so you can get your foot in the door and start building a resume.

Just don’t stay in a job where the crap piles up around you and you are miserable longer than you have to be.
Life is short.  There has to be a balance.

How Undergraduate and Graduate School are different

Several jobs ago, I wrote up a chart that laid out how undergraduate study and graduate school are different.  It’s surprising to me how many undergraduates I talk to think that grad school is just a bunch more classes at a higher level.

Here’s my original comparison chart:

Many courses outside the field are required as general education requirements. Classes are the sole means of evaluation for graduation. Students complete an in-depth study of one field and enter into an extended research apprenticeship with a faculty member.  The primary means of evaluation for graduation is a research project or thesis, judged by a faculty committee.
Students may remain enrolled and continue progress on their degree even if GPA falls below a 3.0. Minimum GPA for continuing enrollment is a 3.0.
Most courses are very large. Four years of coursework are completed.  Involvement with faculty is largely at the initiation of the student. All courses are small, and involvement with faculty is direct and extensive.  Usually only one year of coursework is completed.
Students finance their own education.


Students receive tuition support and stipends that pay most of the cost of their education.
Students are expected to work independently and produce high quality results, as measured by a GPA. Students are expected to work independently and produce high quality results, as measured by research, publication, and presentations judged by senior peers.
You learn what is already known. You learn to create new knowledge.

Graduate school admission is actually admission into a community of scholars.  If research is what you do, scholarship is how you think about it.  Sure, graduate school is focused on independent research.  But the work of a scholar also means stepping back from your data, building connections between theory and practice, and communicating your new knowledge effectively.

Part of why graduate school is so stressful relates to the differences listed above between undergraduate and graduate study.  As an undergraduate, the emphasis is on knowing the answers, and getting stuff right on tests.   As a graduate student, you don’t know the answers. No one knows the answers.  That’s why it’s a research problem!  But to a student that’s been trained for 4 years as an undergraduate to regurgitate the “right answer” on exams, this transition to not knowing can be really difficult.

To make it even harder, the story of research is a story of failure.  You will fail a LOT in grad school.  You’ll discover that your apparatus should have been built a different way, that a lightning storm knocked out power and your DNA samples thawed, that you should have laid out your plots differently, and that you just plain screwed up on something. Again and again and again.

Because undergrads that go to graduate school are typically high-achieving successful types, this constant failure can be shocking.  You are doing something for the first time. No one really knows how it should be done, so it’s OK if you fail, as long as you learn from it.   And, frankly, the story of LIFE is the story of failure.  Being able to persist when things don’t go your way, and figure out a Plan B (C, D, E…..) is an important life skill.

The last difference I’ll point out is about stress. As an undergraduate, there are short periods of high stress when there are exams, and stress mostly comes from sources external to you. In graduate school, the test is every day, 24/7.  The main source of your stress is…you.

Your thesis can begin to feel like a bastard love child that you can’t stand to have anyone else criticize and that takes over your life.  You can go from doing a happy data dance around the lab to feeling like you’ve made a colossal mistake by going to graduate school.  You’ll suspect the Academia Police are going to come and toss you out for your stupidity at any minute. This cycle from high to low can happen within a period of a couple hours on any given day.

Feeling like an imposter is a classic graduate school malady.  It wasn’t a mistake they let you in. You’ll be fine, especially if you know what to expect.

Expect graduate school to be radically different than your undergraduate experience.  You’ll love it.

Did the PhD Kill the Masters Degree?

Should you do a MS or a PhD? Does it matter?
And why is the Master’s becoming more rare as an option?

Over the years I’ve been in Academia, I have seen the number of students completing Master’s degrees dwindle steadily. I think this is a bad thing from the viewpoint of student development–but it is understandable as something driven by market forces and the structure of tenure.

A Master’s degree is intended to do two things: to prepare you to be a professional in a disciplinary field, and to learn how the tools of that field are used to solve problems.   Master’s come in lots of different sizes and flavors; they may or may not complete a research thesis, and sometimes complete a practicum.   A Master’s does not always have to lead to a PhD; in the past it was viewed as a terminal degree in its own right.

A PhD is a long research apprenticeship in which a student is expected to create new knowledge, including creating new tools and techniques and broadening the knowledge base of a field.  PhD students are expected to perform original research with minimal supervision.  It is not meant to be vocational or career-related training, as I have addressed elsewhere.

The problem is…over time a lot of things have changed from that basic system.
Somehow, a PhD and an academic professorial job became the only acceptable choice.   For both MS or PhD graduates, taking a job in “the real world” is seen as “selling out” or “settling.”  Even though the vast majority of people with graduate degrees work outside of Academia, there is an odd bit of denial on the part of faculty about that fact.

Master’s degrees are described in a lot of really revealing ways by academics:  as a “consolation prize” for students who can’t finish their PhD program. Students who just want a Master’s are told “You are smart enough for a PhD”, or that “you can’t get a job with just a Master’s.”  You see the implication here?

Less than.

Our current model of PhD student training produces Doctorates that are trained for jobs that….don’t really exist anymore.  Very few PhDs are going to be a professor at a Tier I research institution (and, fewer and fewer PhDs *want* to do that as a career!).   So, if what is needed by employers are people that understand research, but are primarily problem-solvers, that’s a pretty good description of a Master’s.

The Professional Masters of Science is a new program that is career-oriented, and breaks away from the traditional PhD/Thesis model of academia.  It combines business classes and leadership training with advanced coursework in a particular science or math discipline and project-based research.  For someone that wants to work in industry or government, it’s a great choice. A Master’s should not be looked down upon, but valued as a different path with value of its own.

Why is there such a push to skip the Master’s and go direct to a PhD? 

Simple return on investment.  Faculty get more return for their time and money on a PhD Student.  Master’s students do not produce as many papers as PhD students (or PostDocs). Their work on practicums won’t count as evidence of productivity for tenure and promotion.  Because Master’s projects typically run 2 years, they aren’t as fundable by national agencies (NSF, NIH) as a PhD.

You can pay a Master’s student’s tuition and living costs with a Teaching Assistantship, but that still leaves the issue of funding their research.  That can be a considerable expense, especially for the hard sciences.   Masters just don’t fit into the Grant/Publishing cycle that we now use to evaluate and run academia.

Right now, most students entering science graduate schools are routed directly into PhD programs.  Think about that for a moment.  At the age of 21—often with no employment experience outside academia—students will chose the research topic that will set the primary focus of their future research career.

Your PhD dissertation is your first major branding statement as a new professional:  “Bug Girl works on female-female competition in pheromone systems.”   That’s been true for me for over 20 years, and directly relates to what I did my dissertation on.  You had better make a good topic choice, because that dissertation is the base upon which you launch your career.

From a student-centered perspective, the Masters First –> PhD Second Path makes WAY more sense than direct to PhD from a Bachelors.  A Master’s lets a student complete a smaller thesis project, and learn HOW research is done, from planning to communication.  They know more about the field, the top players, and the hot topics than they did as an undergraduate.  When it’s time to make that choice of dissertation advisor and topic, it will be a more informed choice.

A Master’s can be a really important first step towards stretching a student’s research legs, if you will.  We are asking them in a PhD program to run a science marathon. Why would we not want them to go into training ahead of that event?

So–how do we balance what is good for the student, and what is good for the faculty mentor?  I don’t have an answer, unfortunately, and as long as funding for universities is in flux, I expect faculty will continue to route students toward PhDs.

For some undergraduates who were involved in undergraduate research, this isn’t a big deal.  I work with students that are smarter than me all the time.  Those kids will go straight to a PhD and be fine.

But not all students–for many different reasons–have the experience or confidence to jump straight into a PhD program.  There are many worthy students that need a little extra time and patience to grow as scientists.

My own Master’s degree was one giant string of research disasters, and yet somehow I still produced a useful bit of science that helped reduce the number of pesticide sprays on a fruit crop. I also had quite a few existential research crises that led me to try to drop out of graduate school at least 4 times, and each time my thesis advisor patiently talked me down.  I would never have made it as a straight-to-PhD student.

When I did get to the PhD program, I had grown enough confidence to take the project I was initially offered in a whole new direction after my first year’s preliminary data.  I had the courage to push back against my advisor and committee–and I’m really glad I did, because I found some cool stuff that was MINE in a way that would never have happened if I hadn’t gained confidence in myself by doing a Master’s first.

Academia is a world where your research is your identity (and your value).  It’s important to make a good choice, and an informed choice. You can do a better job of that if you’ve completed a Masters, IMHO, but that varies from person to person.

And let’s stop talking about a Master’s degree as a sign of failure, and value it as a career-building step.  Not everyone has to follow the same path for the path to be a good one.

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