How Scientists Can Build Better Websites

29. March 2012

Marc J. Kuchner

Have you ever wondered what your colleagues think of your website? I have. I know from experience that our colleagues judge us partly by our presence on the Web. Hiring committees often search online to learn more about job candidates, and review panels use our sites to help decide whether to fund us. 

An experiment
I did an experiment to learn more about what our colleagues look for in a website. I organize a Facebook group called “Marketing for Scientists,” where scientists, engineers, and other interested professionals discuss issues related to science communication, science advocacy and careers. I suggested that we take turns critiquing each other's websites. Altogether, 26 colleagues volunteered.

I asked each volunteer to review three URLs. I instructed them to play with each site for 30 seconds or a minute and then write a few sentences about what they liked and didn’t like. I asked them to address the following questions:

• What impression does the site give about the person who made it? 
• Does the site make you want to find a way to work with him/her?
• How could the site be improved?

The volunteers were a mix of faculty and postdocs, with a few science communication professionals thrown in. Soon my inbox was flooded with critiques that offered a wealth of advice and some real surprises. Here are the major lessons I learned. 

Include the basics. First, I heard a cry for more basic information. Andras Paszternak, a chemist at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the founder of The International NanoScience Community social network, said in a review, “place a direct contact address (email) on main page.”  In today's world of social networking, it's easy to forget about good old email.

Add video and graphics with captions. Next, there was a demand for images and video. “I would supplement your homepage with more graphical things,” said Robert Vanderbei, chair of the department of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University. “Please use some color and/or pictures,” said Stella Kafka from the Carnegie Institute of Washington, department of terrestrial magnetism.

Although many of us recognize the importance of images, we often forget to add captions.  These photos are important to us, but they are unidentifiable to the people who visit our sites. “Nice photo.  Is it decoration? Art? Should it have a caption? Are we supposed to guess what it is?” asked Nancy Morrison, professor emerita of Astronomy at the University of Toledo.  I heard that sentiment several times.

Be passionate. One element that multiple reviewers mentioned caught me by surprise. If I could summarize it in a word, it would be passion.

“Maybe the homepage could include your personal motivation,” suggested Phil Yock, professor in the department of physics at the University of Aukland.  “I really like to know what scientists are passionate about, so I’d love to see a short write-up of what fascinates you the most about the universe,” said Emilie Lorditch, the news director and manager at the American Institute of Physics.

Share materials. The reviewers also expressed a desire for generosity. “I was impressed that you offer PowerPoint slides, poster presentations and data from your papers—It's generous and collaborative and makes me want to follow your example,” commented Yale astronomy professor Debra Fischer about one site. Sharing was not a value that was emphasized when I was in graduate school, but science has evolved since then. In today’s collaborative environment, it is a sought-after trait.

Next time I’m up late tweaking my website, I’ll know just what to post: full contact information with email address up top; video and pictures with descriptive captions; a passionate description of my research; and generous freebies that my colleagues can download.

Marc J. Kuchner (marc@marketingforscientists.com) is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at http://www.marketingforscientists.com/

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National Labs 101: What They Are, What They Offer

23. March 2012

Tyler S. Ralston 

So you are finishing your degree, and you need to decide what to do with your life. Some science grads simplify this into a decision between academia or industry. However, there is a third option—a national laboratory.

 In the United States, many national labs are federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC) that are operated and staffed by private corporations or academic universities under contract to the government. In several ways, these labs straddle the gap between academia and industry.

Broadening your professional pursuits
When Ph.D.s finish their degrees, they often feel they are so specialized that they have few options. Fortunately, in a national lab, there is room to expand and diversify. National labs generally have several thousand people with several groups working on projects. They have seminars that allow you to see what other projects are being developed around the lab. This is a great way to survey many projects and find new opportunities to apply your specialty.

Publish or patent?
While a national lab doesn't necessarily subscribe to the “publish or perish” adage from academia, there is value ascribed to publishing research articles (albeit sometimes classified ones). Similarly, patent writing skills are a valuable skill to have in a national lab. The onus is on you to complete the paper or patent while pushing forward your project's objectives.

Research and development
National labs differ from industry in that there are generally few projects with manufactured deliverable systems. The deliverables tend to be technical analysis, system research and development, and proof-of-concept prototypes.

The types of funding agencies can vary, but it's safe to say that a majority of the financial support comes from defense- and energy-related grants. In academia, on the other hand, funding derives from a variety of sources, both government and private. Having grant ideas to push forward the lab’s mission areas are important. For ideas that need preliminary investigation, there are generally opportunities within the labs to apply for internal funding.

For each funding cycle, the labs have a budget for laboratory-directed R&D, which is used to promote highly innovative and exploratory research that supports the lab’s mission. Generally, an advanced concepts committee reviews proposals and funds research that supports the strategic initiatives of the lab. Beyond this, other opportunities for funding include funds set aside for collaboration with associated campus laboratories.

Reputation-building
Many FFRDCs operate by way of a technical meritocracy. That is, employees advance on the basis of their talent and achievements. For that reason, the first several months can be very critical in your career development; it's the time when you'll set the course for your career at the institution.

The more you can hit the ground running, the more opportunities you’ll have to demonstrate your skills and build achievements. It's important to find a mentor and a project so that you can see your contributions flower.

I was once given excellent advice that I will now pass on to you: Select the people and projects that best suit your vision of your career direction. National labs give you a unique opportunity to get a lay of the land entering a job. Don't be afraid to survey your appointment after a trial period and apply yourself within the groups that best suit your abilities.

Career roles
There are four main career roles at a national lab:

Technical Guru: a field expert who may be well renowned for publications, leadership, and participation in professional societies. He or she may bridge gaps between universities and the lab for collaborative research.

Capability Leader: This person is involved in lab review committees and programmatic strategic planning opportunities, which build the lab capabilities.

Program Developer: Someone who often responds to proposal calls. He or she has broad knowledge of the lab’s programs and the sponsors’ needs.

Project Manager: A specialist at organizing tasks and projects. This role involves managing finances, scheduling, and subject matter experts.

Any member of the lab staff may take on multiple roles throughout their career. A technical staff position is often thought of as secure and stable employment. In my opinion, a national lab is the best place to grow and learn skills rapidly.

Tyler Ralston (tralston@gmail.com) has worked at Battelle Memorial institute, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, MIT/LL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He is currently partnered with an advanced technology startup.

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Using LinkedIn to Land a Job

15. March 2012

By Lauren Celano

This post is based on content that has already appeared on the Propel Careers website and BioCareers.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

In today's competitive marketplace, being able to differentiate yourself is critical. LinkedIn is a useful tool for branding yourself, showcasing your background, building connections and job searching. It's hard to imagine how people functioned without it. Many people have asked for my advice on how to best use LinkedIn to search for jobs. Here are some tips for maximizing the value of this tool.

Build out your profile. When creating your profile, think about who will be reading this information. Your profile should explicitly state who you are, what experience you have, and what skills you master. Potential employers will almost certainly review your LinkedIn profile. The more professional you can make it, the more attractive you become as a candidate. This shows that you are serious about your career and your personal brand.

Your profile should include additional information, such as lab techniques you know, presentations you have given at large conferences, publications you’ve contributed to, etc. Many companies and recruiters use LinkedIn to search for individuals with specific skills. If you have these in your profile, you increase the chance of being "found" by an HR person when they search. If you do not have details listed, then your chance of being identified is almost zero.

If you are a student or postdoc, state when you think you will be done. Without this information, companies may be reluctant to contact you about jobs. Recruiting is extremely time-consuming, so the easier you can make it for companies to know what you want and when you will be available, the better.

To learn specifics about building and taking advantage of your LinkedIn account, use the LinkedIn learning center. Don't forget, your online presence is often the first thing that potential employers see, so don't lose the chance to make a positive first impression.

Have a professional photo. In general people are extremely visual, and they remember faces more than names. For example, if you meet someone at a networking event and send him or her a LinkedIn invitation afterwards, your profile picture will immediately help them to connect your name with your face.

Your image is part of your brand. Ideally you should have a professional take your photo. However, since most digital cameras work well enough for this purpose, that is also an acceptable way to go. Have a friend take your photo, stand against a blank wall, avoid objects of distraction, have a professional outfit on, and smile. This extra effort will go a long way.

Make sure that your name on LinkedIn is the same as the one on your resume. Potential employers will almost always look at an individual’s LinkedIn page as they are reviewing resumes. If they cannot find you, it creates a red flag. If the name on your resume is different than that on your LinkedIn account, make them the same so that you can be easily found.

Link to people you know. As you grow your network, only connect with trusted contacts. In this way, your network becomes personal and actually useful for you as you grow in your career. Aim for quality, not quantity. Adding a lot of people just to increase your numbers actually dilutes the value of your network.

Do not send a LinkedIn invitation to a hiring manager. Most people are very selective about their LinkedIn connections. If you ask to link to a hiring manager who does not know you, he or she may feel uncomfortable, and this could hurt your application chances.

Join groups. If you are looking to learn more about a certain area, join a LinkedIn group related to it. There are thousands of groups available. When you are new to the job search, using this feature is extremely valuable for getting a lay of the land. To find groups, search for them by keyword under group categories. Use the following link to learn more about groups in your LinkedIn profile. You may be surprised by how many groups are relevant to you. Also, you can become an active member or a group and share your expertise. This can build thought leadership.

When requesting a connection, mention where you met that person. People are busy and have a lot of things on their mind. The easier you can make it for people, the better. If you met someone at a international networking event and are following up with a LinkedIn request, you may want to write in the subject line: "International networking event follow up." In the body of the LinkedIn request, you might say something like: “Dear X, It was a pleasure meeting you at the international networking event on DATE. To follow up, I would like to link into you so that we can keep in touch.”

It is amazing how many times people don't do this. I wonder how many LinkedIn requests do not get answered because people cannot remember the context in which they met someone.

The connections you develop over time are a valuable part of your professional career, so respect your network, be responsive, and finally, keep it human.

Lauren Celano (lauren@propelcareers.com) is the co-founder and CEO of Propel Careers, a life science search and career development firm focused on connecting talented individuals with entrepreneurial life sciences companies. 

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Understanding and Overcoming Scientist Stereotypes in the Workplace

8. March 2012

By Marcius Extavour

Culture shock can be at once the thrill and the bane of international travel. We must adapt to local culture, learn the language, and deal with stereotypes and others’ perceptions—or misperceptions—of who we are. These same lessons apply to professional “travel” and “relocation,” by which I mean working outside of one’s “home” profession—perhaps as an advisor to policymakers, for example, or in a managerial capacity at a company.

Scientists face a series of stubborn and pervasive personal stereotypes in outside work and study environments. This post outlines some of the most common caricatures and some suggestions for educating people about who scientists really are.

The solo operator

An individual working alone at a desk or lab bench, late into the night. Do you recognize this image of the scientist from media and pop culture? I don’t mean to suggest that science is not done in this way, as much of it is. However, this is clearly not the only work style. Single author papers are rare. Research collaborations abound, and they are encouraged by funders. Research groups rely on teamwork and many moving parts.

Yet those working outside of mainstream science often believe that we have no experience with teamwork and management hierarchies. We may therefore be either passed over for work or confined to individual tasks.

To push back, we must emphasize the collaborative side of science and our ability to thrive in managed teams. Though research hierarchies may not be as developed as they are in government or large corporations, most science groups rely on seniority (summer students, research associates, postdocs, staff scientists, PIs), a range of experience (undergraduates, technicians, senior faculty), and institutional hierarchies (grant writers, administrators) to manage talent and work flow.

Narrow expertise

There is no question that science requires deep focus and attention to detail. Subject matter expertise is the foundation on  broader knowledge and skill in science are built. Yet our deep and narrow focus as scientists can work against us in the eyes of generalists. When working in a new area, for instance, the scientist is often asked how their work is relevant to the new field. This is a fair question, since clearly not all scientific knowledge is universally applicable. From my own work, for example, the Kramers-Kronig relations generally have nothing to do with solar PV markets.

But if we take a step back from the cutting edge of our individual fields, we may find that connections between our specialized research and outside topics may emerge. To continue the example, light absorption in solids is certainly connected to solar electricity economics through PV device performance.

The connections may be indirect, but the overlap need only be large enough to build upon. It is important that scientists look for these connections, emphasize them to colleagues, and use them to maximize contributions to new areas.

Rigid, deaf to nuance, uncreative

Pop culture and media reinforce the broad misconception that scientists lack creativity, and that they are too rigid to adapt to surroundings and circumstances. This would be a terrible personal reputation in any field of work! Scientists must remember, and gently remind our non-scientist colleagues, that science demands fluidity and adaptability. Old ideas are pushed aside by new ones in the face of evidence and experiment. Scientific knowledge and truth evolve, and we must all evolve with it.

Often the leaders of change are the most creative among us. They make the unimaginable seem obvious once the evidence is presented and the experiments completed. Of course there is dogmatism and rigidity in science (as in any field), but these are far from the prevailing themes. This applies equally well to individual scientists.

How to combat these stereotypes in the workplace?

Battling stereotypes is not quick or easy. Often, we are not even given the chance to fight back directly, since few people even recognize or feel comfortable talking about their personal biases. Still, being aware of the misconceptions puts us in a better position to recognize the stereotypes that may undermine our goals and address them in honest conversation.

Marcius Extavour (marcius.extavour@sciencepolicy.ca) holds a Ph.D. in atomic physics and quantum optics from the University of Toronto. He served as the 2010-2011 OSA/SPIE Guenther Congressional Science Policy Fellow, and he is an active consultant and organizer in clean energy and science policy in Toronto, Canada.

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Math, Shop Class, and Home Brewing: How Credentialism Is Killing Science

2. March 2012

by Danny Rogers

A few weeks ago, Mike Lazaridis, the founder of the Blackberry-maker Research in Motion and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, delivered a plenary speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science entitled “The Power of Ideas.” In it, he described his experiences as a 10th grader taking honors classes in math and science along with shop class—a curriculum you would rarely see nowadays.

He recalled reading a manual for a dual-channel oscilloscope in his school's electronics shop and connecting “...the abstract math and science concepts I was learning upstairs with the devices I could touch and do cool things with downstairs.” He pointed out that this was before any distinction was made between science courses and shop classes—a separation that he describes as an “...upstairs-downstairs mentality.” Mike's words are prescient, and they say a lot about the current state of science and education.

What’s a degree worth?
At its core, a modern university is a place where young people go to obtain a a certificate stating that they have obtained a certain proficiency in a given topic. Twenty years ago, when most young people didn't go to college, meeting the standards of an accredited university carried significant weight with employers.

However, in today’s environment of legacy admissions and for-profit colleges, the value of the degree has weakened. To paraphrase Glenn Reynolds from the Washington Examiner, overpriced degrees and cheap student loans have inflated the value of higher education in much the same way that cut-rate mortgages blew up the U.S. housing market, leading to a bubble.

As Joseph Cronin and Howard Horton argue in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a 440 percent increase in the average tuition over the past 25 years supports this idea. Peter Thiel, renowned Silicon Valley entrepreneur and PayPal founder, argues in a recent interview that the bubble is about to burst. He posits that credentialism—the pursuit of degrees in lieu of a determined, practical, hands-on career path—creates a false sense of accomplishment and ultimately stifles innovation. In fact, he blames the higher education bubble in part for what he observes to be a stall in technology development over the past 50 years:

“...There is something like $1 trillion in student debt. A cynical view is that that represents $1 trillion worth of lies told about the value of higher education... Bubbles end when people stop believing the false narrative and start thinking for themselves. So many students are not getting the jobs they need to repay their debts, are moving back in with their parents, and the contract both parties signed up for is being revealed as false.”

Of bubbles and brews
How did this bubble come about in the first place? Oddly enough, I think beer can shed some perspective (as it does on so many issues!). In a recent article for Slate Magazine, Dave Conz, a professor at Arizona State University, discussed his love for home brewing—a passion I happen to share. It is a hobby that has permeated science and engineering communities everywhere. (If you are an OSA member, chances are that you know someone who home brews.) He points out that home brewing not only illustrates the creativity and industriousness it takes to be truly innovative, but also demonstrates the shortcomings of credentialism.

He cites Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, who “...argues that the elimination of industrial arts and home economics classes from public school curricula has left us dependent on machines that we don’t understand and frustrated by the outsourcing and off-shoring of production.”

While many of today's science and engineering students can comprehend how machines work, most of that understanding is likely theoretical—simply because that is how it is taught. And why is it taught that way? Because it is generally cheaper and easier to present facts and work out problems on paper than it is to actually play around with things in the lab.

A matter of taste
However, there are holdouts. Dan Meyer, a visionary math teacher from California, teaches his students to compute volumes using drawings and formulae, but then he gives them a bucket, a tape measure and hose and tells them to check their work. He admits that this type of hands-on teaching is more difficult (and probably more expensive), but his students come away with a true appreciation for the math they learned in class and might even go on to become the next Mike Lazaridis.

Conz points out that DIY brewers make beer using anything from their kitchen stove to an “...arduino-controlled, fully automatic, trailer-mounted 'brew sculpture.'” However, to most homebrewers, one’s “rig,” as it is often called, does not matter. The key concern is how the beer tastes.

A post-credentialist future
This is the ultimate counterargument to credentialism. Budweiser—America's largest brewery—has state-of-the-art facilities across the country. They culture their own yeast, and their teams of enthusiastic scientists perform exhaustive quality control. And yet, despite these indisputable credentials, their beer just doesn’t taste very good. I'll take the smaller, lesser-known microbrews from Baltimore or the beautifully complex sour from a Belgian abbey any day.

The same should go for science. The solution to the education bubble is valuation based on technical merit, work product and quality, not credentials. I have often advocated for a double-blind review process for journal articles. Reviewing would be more difficult since referees would be forced to judge work only on its own merit, but a double-blind process would eliminate the inflated value of credentials over work quality.

In a post-credentialist world, hiring would be based on ability rather than transcripts, and students would be encouraged to take shop class and honors math. Good mechanics or plumbers would be widely venerated as the talented craftsmen they are.

Ultimately, the value and quality of what we create should be our key determinant of worth in the workplace. In the end, it really is the taste that matters.

Danny Rogers (danny@dannyrogers.net) is a member of the professional staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., U.S.A.

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of OPN or OSA.

 

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