Lab Rats

The scientific schmooze

Opportunity-spotting for PhDs in the market for change

Ian Brooks 11 November 2007

Meeting up: it's not just about the research

It takes your average postdoc in the life sciences around 6-9 months to land a new job, given our sheer numbers

Around about this time last year I wrote an article entitled “Taming Your Inner Geek” about the perils of meeting super-geeks on the conference circuit. It’s something most scientists fear, even though we won’t admit we are often that very person. Last week I was in San Diego, California for the 37th Annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. Although I did my utmost to be the cool, suave and debonair young scientist I know I usually I am, I fear I may have once or twice crossed into “That Guy” territory. You can usually spot it in the person you’re talking to: eyes start to glaze as they begin to lose track of your convoluted logic, and they begin glancing furtively around the room seeking a means of escape. Thankfully, being such a cool, suave and debonair young scientist I was able to spot the warning signs and carefully divert conversation back onto safe ground: sex, booze and wishing postdoctoral life wasn’t so exhausting (and not just because of all the sex and booze).

Conferences are usually a mixed bag. While it’s nice to get away from lab and stay somewhere expensive on the company tab, it can often be stressful and very tiring. I know I’ll need a few days of quiet to recover fully from the emotional and mental strain of being “on your game” constantly. This year set a record at the SfN meeting for number of delegates, with over 38,000 people were expected to attend. The conference centre itself was almost a mile long, so one certainly gets one’s exercise trying to attend all the events scheduled for each day. The majority of the attendees are scientists of various ranks, from graduate students (and a very few, very lucky undergrads), through to postdocs and faculty. Most present a poster, summarizing the latest achievements from their lab; a few get to give short seminars. Obviously, with so many posters and seminars going on it’s virtually impossible to attend everything of relevance and this can be a little frustrating. However, I had a somewhat different agenda this year.

As much as I wanted to know about the cutting-edge research and exciting new discoveries being made at the forefront of science (sarcastic, moi?) I was also talking to prospective employers and the like. I am, as we say, “on the market”. I have around about a year or so left on my contract, and although an extension of a few months should be possible, I’d like to get a head start on looking for work. It takes your average postdoc in the life sciences around 6-9 months to land a new job, given our sheer numbers. All the major, and most of the minor, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies were present in the exhibitor section. All the major, as well as most of the minor, scientific journals and publishing houses have booths too. I read some good advice in an article in the in-flight magazine of my airline on the way to California, serendipitously entitled “If you don’t network, get started”. The author is a well-published career advisor and offered a few hints and tips. the best of these stuck with me and has hopefully served me well: “Remember, everyone is hiring all the time”. I had the foresight to get business cards printed this year, and had been working on my thirty second “elevator pitch”. The advice in the magazine consolidated my plan for the week. Meet and Greet.

With the end of my contract now in sight, I am seriously considering leaving the bench and changing fields. Currently, there is a lot of competition and not a lot of money going around, making academic science a risky career move for all but the most dedicated and talented. And with the best will in the world, I won’t put myself in that category (I’m writing this instead of doing an experiment!). So, I have been looking at various options in the publishing world. Now, schmoozing isn’t always easy for us scientists. Spending most of our days closeted in darkened labs slaving over challenging experiments isn’t conducive to the practice of making easy small-talk. But with the opportune advice ringing in my ears, I polished my speech, girded my loins, grasped my new and shiny business cards and schmoozed my heart out.

In all seriousness, I was extraordinarily lucky to meet a few very decent people from various companies who offered me some great advice and some potentially valuable opportunities. It’s up to me to make the most of these experiences. Time to leave the safety of the lab; poke my head into the big wide world. As nervous as I am, I remember the words of a V.I.P. from an internationally renowned microscope manufacturer: “I didn’t think I’d be doing this when I was your age. I was unhappy where I was and decided I needed to make some changes. I wanted to make the decisions in my life. If you love what you do, you will succeed. I did.”

I love being a scientist, but I want to make some changes. Time to start making some decisions.