Former NICHD fellows joined current fellows at the Tenth Annual Meeting of Postdoctoral, Clinical, and Visiting Fellows and Graduate Students to host a series of lively round table career discussions. If you missed this year’s retreat, or simply wanted to visit more tables, read below for the three most common questions and answers for each represented career. Check back next month for a full retreat recap!
Sean Barron, PhD
Patent examiner at the United States Patent and Trademark Office
What does your work entail? What is a typical day like?
Patent examiners evaluate if a patent application should be allowed as a patent or not. The bulk of the time is spent matching specific limitations in the claims to teachings in the prior art*, to determine if the claimed invention has been taught verbatim in the art or, if the claimed invention would’ve been obvious over a combination of multiple references and a reasoning/rationale articulated by the examiner. In addition to rejections made over the prior art, typically referred to as anticipation and obviousness, patent applications are evaluated for enablement (could it be done from the teachings of the application and what is known in the art?), written description, clarity of claim language, statutory class of invention, and judicial exceptions to patentable subject matter directed to laws or products of nature. We conduct interviews with the attorneys and occasionally the inventors to answer questions, or see if patentable subject matter can be identified from the application. When the patent attorney responds to our rejections, we reply to their arguments as to why they are not persuasive of error on our part. If no more rejections can be made, we allow the case. Sometimes we propose claim amendments to the attorney to bring the case to allowance.
There is no real “typical” day, as the job involves constant juggling of cases per pay period and per quarter, docket management (time to reply to Applicant depending on the stage of prosecution), interview requests, and so on. Time management and changing gears on the fly is critical. Every case presents different challenges.
What skills from your grad/postdoc training have come in handy in your professional life?
Keyword searching prior art databases, such as Pubmed or Google/Google Scholar. The USPTO has in-house databases for US patent and pre-patent publications, and other databases to search chemical structures and the non-patent literature. Searching is major component of the job, and keyword searches are a major part of searching as a biotech examiner. Knowing (or learning) relevant synonyms, combinations of keywords, searching broadly and narrowly, and which databases are most relevant for particular subject matter is crucial to becoming efficient in this job. A major transferrable skill with the Ph.D. is the ability to learn new subject matter on the fly and biotech examiners are rarely hired for their specific grad/postdoc expertise.
Were any experiences you had at NICHD/NIH particularly helpful?
Consider taking courses offered through FAES and the Office of Technology Transfer in intellectual property. Consider a fellowship offered through OTT or working a detail over there. Get help from the Office of Intramural Training and Education to convert your research CV into a federal government resume. Get help from OITE to prepare for any interview, and look up Situation Task Action Response (STAR) interview formats. Be prepared to address how you respond to constructive criticism of your work and time management in an interview (expect it to be asked). Consider working as a patent agent at a private law firm as an alternative, depending on your timeline.
While it was not asked, U.S. citizenship is a requirement for any patent examiner position at the USPTO. My email address is available for anyone who wants to follow up: email@example.com
Fun fact: I played trumpet or euphonium/baritone continuously up since I was 11 through grad school and off and on since then.
*Editor’s Note: Prior art is publically available information that precedes a specific date and affects the originality of a patent.
Megan Janssen-Schroeder, PhD
Pharmacologist at FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products
Do you have independence at the FDA?
Yes! I even feel like I have more independence now than I did as a post-doc. I feel more like a collaborator than a trainee and I think people respect and trust you more and give you more independence because of it.
What skills should we highlight on a resume or in an interview?
For a non-lab job, focus less on your scientific expertise and more on what your experience has taught you. Have you managed/trained others? Have you managed several projects at once? How are your written/oral communication skills? Can you communicate effectively across disciplines? Have you reviewed papers? In the interview be prepared to come with examples of these skills.
What’s a typical day like?
Each day is different, but I usually spend about half of my time in meetings on various topics and projects. The remainder of my time is spent preparing for meetings, completing assignments, doing literature reviews, etc. One day I might be meeting with industry to discuss a clinical protocol they are developing, and the next I may be meeting within the office about product reviews or talking to a contractor about the status of an ongoing clinical study.
Fun Fact: I am an avid paper-crafter.
Sydella Blatch, PhD
Assistant Professor of Biology at Stevenson University
How can one balance teaching a course while being a postdoc?
It is hard work to do both of these at the same time, and certainly it is not possible for everyone to do, due to other time considerations. However if someone is really interested in a teaching-based academic professorship, it is well worth the effort. Some jobs require teaching experience. In general, while teaching a course, you will not be able to get as much research done. Many research projects can be slowed down by the researcher (unlike teaching), so I advise slowing the pace of your research a bit while teaching. The temporary drop in research productivity is in exchange for a great boost in competitiveness for a teaching-based professorship.
How can one learn how to be a better teacher? What resources are there to learn how to teach?
Like most professors (except those who teach education), we don't have formal training in teaching. But it can be very helpful to read resources, especially about techniques you can (or should) use in the college setting. I recommend searching "active learning" online. This means that you are not just lecturing—the students are involved and working with material during class. There are many ways to do this, for example, minute papers, case studies, flipped classrooms, and it is something that many to most teaching-based professorship search committees are looking for. You can also do primary literature searches because there are many peer-reviewed articles that are discipline- or topic-specific, and can provide actual "lessons" or activities you can use.
What should the research statement (for the job application) look like? Or what should be included in it?
This document for the teaching-based professorship should look very different than one for a research-based professorship. The main reason is that the way research is done and the reason it is done at primarily undergraduate colleges or universities is very different. The research statement should focus on describing what your research program will look like at their school. This means outlining a research project or program that can be done with or by part-time, inexperienced, undergraduate researchers. Ideally, they can answer some research question in one semester’s time (again, part-time). It would also be good to include information about how you will mentor the students, because that is another reason you will do this research, so the students get experience and mentorship. The equipment, funds, resources, and additional help you have to do the project are far less than these resources you had in your PhD and postdoc. So, in my opinion, the bulk of your research statement should not be about your past research accomplishments, because you probably cannot accomplish the same at this primarily undergrad school. They want to know what you will do at their school.
Fun fact: I think stinkbugs are cute.
Silviya Zustiak, PhD
Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Saint Louis University
How do you prepare a good faculty application package? What are the criteria?
I would suggest spending enough time perfecting your CV as it will be the first point of reference for the search committee. Good organization and formatting are very helpful. Position your research-related and scholarly accomplishments first, followed by teaching and mentoring experience. Highlight your accomplishments. For example, if your paper was featured in some way, add the information in bold. If you have fewer papers but they have been published in high-impact journals and cited a lot, add impact factor and citation numbers next to each publication.
Also, be thoughtful about your cover letter. Use at least the first paragraph to highlight your potential contribution to the department you are applying to. Research the faculty profiles and suggest potential areas of collaboration. Be equally vigilant with the teaching statement. See what classes are offered by the department and mention which of those classes you can teach and what additional classes you may develop.
Research statement: identify at least three potential projects and describe those. Use figures to support your narrative. How has your prior experience prepared you for your future success? What are your short-term and long-term research goals? Where would you apply for funding?
Overall, prepare each application as if it is the only one you are sending. Be sure to follow the application guidelines precisely. Contact the search committee chair if you need any clarification.
How do you transition from being a postdoc at NIH to being a faculty in a research institution?
The transition period might last about a semester, during which you shouldn’t expect lab results, but rather should focus on setting a foundation for success.
First and foremost, find mentors at your new institution to help you navigate the new environment. Even if a formal mentor is assigned, try to connect with other faculty. Build your network, identify people that have similar or complementary research interests and try to meet with them as soon as you can. It takes time to build a good collaboration, so start early. Don’t close your door all the time, but do close it if you need to work uninterrupted.
In building your lab: take your time to carefully consider equipment. What do you have to have, what can you share, is there better equipment available than what you have used in your training? Talk to vendors and take advantage of demos. Make a list of common consumables and check those regularly if they need replenishing. Write your lab manual, decide on a lab “motto” and lab rules, write your first lab protocols, and train your first students carefully. Overall, decide on what kind of a PI you want to be. If it will help you, read a book on managing a lab. I would highly recommend “At the Helm: A Laboratory Navigator” by Kathy Barker.
In general, assume that it will only get busier, so you should do as much of the lab organization as possible in the first semester. Some other things you should try to do in the beginning – make your website if you plan to have one. In general I recommend it, since it will increase your visibility, especially to prospective students and postdocs. Also, finish up papers from your postdoctoral appointment, write your first grants, and write a review paper on the topic that you plan to pursue.
How much do you work? Do you find time for other things besides work?
I typically work about 55 hours a week and sometimes more. I have ten-hour days in the office and more in the mornings, evenings, or weekends. During the day, I try to always stay on task and I have developed little tricks to save time. For example, I never open an email unless I plan to act on it, I eat lunch at my desk, I limit chatting in the corridor, and I always have a running list of trivial things that need attention, which I can tackle when I only have a few minutes at my disposal. I also always reserve one day a week only for my research. But overall, the work is very flexible. If I need to, I can go out in the middle of the day or I can come in late. I also try to go for a coffee or lunch with a collaborator, a mentor, or a faculty friend at least every one to two weeks. I also try to reserve the weekends for my family as much as possible. I would say that the work is so diverse and dynamic, that it doesn’t feel like a burden, it is very exciting. And when I need to work on weekends, it is typically on something that requires writing so I can do this from anywhere, I don’t need to be on campus. I would say that with some discipline and knowing when to say no, a balance between work and family life is not difficult.
Fun fact: I love rock climbing and that is how I spent most of my weekends during graduate school. I met my husband in graduate school as well, and the only reason we are together today is because we became each other’s best climbing partners.
Dan Sackett, PhD
Staff Scientist in the Program in Physical Biology at NICHD
How do I apply for a government science position?
Government-based science positions that NIH postdocs could consider are not limited to NIH. Other national labs, such as FDA, NIST, Argonne, Agricultural Research Service, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, all have research programs that require skills that are widespread at NIH. Other governmental research institutions to consider include military labs like Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Naval Research Labs, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and nonmilitary facilities such as the FBI, the Smithsonian, and the CIA (really). The only thing likely to be common to all of these positions is that they are government positions and will require some similar Federal personnel forms to be filed. Beyond that, each one is likely to have rather different application procedures. My major point was that fellows should look beyond the fence around NIH for opportunities in biomedical research in the Federal sphere. States also have services that might be productive to look at, but I cannot comment on that.
What are the duties of these positions?
The duties of these positions will likely span a wide spectrum, from responsibilities for specialized assays or types of analysis, to running core facilities, to being an instrument scientist for large research installations with equipment that is widely shared but operated by the host laboratory, to directing a (or multiple) research program(s). I do not think that it is possible to say anything coherent that will be true of all of these positions.
What are the hours expected?
It is possible that the working hours expected in these positions may by more predictable than in an academic position, though often this will not be true. Nominally these positions have a defined expectation of hours per week (as do many/most industry positions), but this is often extended, as in many science positions.
Fun fact: I am fascinated by extremophile biology.
Shana Spindler, PhD
Freelance science writer
How did you get into science writing?
My favorite part of grad school was writing my dissertation—that should have been my first clue. Shortly into my postdoc, I realized that I liked reading and writing about science a lot more than the actual bench work. But other than scientific publications, I didn’t have any writing experience. I approached Brenda Hanning in the NICHD Office of Education with my desire to write for the NICHD newsletter. Upon learning that the NICHD didn’t have a newsletter for fellows, I and other members of the NICHD fellows committee organized and published the first issue of The NICHD Connection in June 2010. I was in love. As I worked on articles for each issue, I found myself wishing I could write and edit full-time. When I became pregnant in the middle of my first year of postdoc, I knew it was the right time for me to make the career transition, and the rest is history.
What’s your typical day like?
I work part-time, so my son is home with me on Mondays and Fridays, and he goes to preschool Tuesday through Thursday. During my “work days,” I spend A LOT of time writing and replying to emails. In general, I wake up around seven in the morning, get my child off to school, send out emails, and then edit articles, write articles, or conduct phone interviews before lunch. After lunch, I reply to more emails and finish any editing or writing. I try to get a workout in sometime in the afternoon. On days my son is home, I usually complete a couple hours of emails or writing during his naptime. Being a freelance writer has allowed me to have a wonderful work-life balance!
How do you find writing work?
As a freelance science writer, there are many avenues you can take to find work. You can establish a stable contract with an organization that needs a regular writer (this is what I do with the NICHD). Some freelance science writers may also write for magazines (think Smithsonian, Discover, Popular Science, etc.) or online blogs run by major science organizations such as AAAS. Whatever way you want to approach writing, you will need clips—published writing examples that you can show as a representation of your work. A great way to get started is by making a blog about research in an area that interests you. You can also volunteer to write articles (like for The NICHD Connection!) to establish a set of clips. You should also consider joining professional writing societies and attending their annual meetings to meet other writers and editors. I highly recommend joining the DC Science Writers Association (DCSWA) and the National Association of Science Writers. DCSWA, in particular, has a jobs board with writing opportunities posted on a regular basis.
Fun Fact: I’ve lived in six states (Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, California, Virginia, and now Nevada!)
Smita B. Abraham, MD
Medical Officer at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
How did you apply and/or find a position at the FDA?
I e-mailed friends at the FDA who put me in touch with the Division Director of the endocrine division. Another source is looking at USAjobs.com.
Was the transition out of clinical work into a “desk” job difficult?
At times it is challenging; however, I find the work at FDA quite interesting and intellectually stimulating so the change of pace is manageable. Also, I am able to return to NIH for clinical work one half-day per week as part of the professional development option that is offered by FDA.
What is a typical day like?
I spend most of the day reviewing drug applications in their various stages.
Fun fact: A fun fact about myself... hmmmm... I still love DisneyWorld!
Updated July 10, 2014. Image replaced.