NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Communications Manager

August 12, 2013

Name: Benjamin Porter, PhD

Job Title & Company: Communications Manager, Office of Communications; The University of Texas at Dallas

Location: Dallas, Texas

How long you’ve been in your current job: 3 months

Postdoc Advisor, IC and subject: Alan Koretsky, NINDS, Behavioral fMRI

What do you do as a Communications Manager?
Basically, my job is public relations — I handle both internal and external public relations matters for the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at UT Dallas. When researchers do interesting work or if they just received a grant or published a paper, I will write up a story for the University website. If we think it could be a bigger news story, then we try pitching it to a newspaper or TV station. Similarly, if there is a current events topic going on at a time when it makes sense for an expert to comment, then we will also pitch our faculty as experts. A recent example is the explosion at the chemical plant in West, Texas. We were able to pitch a chemist who could explain the basic science behind that event.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?
A lot of it is listening and being able to interpret what is being said. One of the reasons I was hired is because I have a PhD, and I am able to understand the science behind what the faculty are doing. I can then take that and translate it into layman’s terms. I can also understand the faculty’s concerns in talking to the media and the fear that they might be misrepresented.  On the other side, I understand what the media needs and what they need the faculty to say, and I can interact between the two parties well.

I write press releases and internal newsletters, so being able to write and edit goes a long way.  I am currently learning AP style and how to write for the news, but these are things you can pick up as long as you have the basic skill. Writing for the NIH Catalyst or the Record are great ways to practice writing for the public.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?
For me, I like to be absolutely certain about what I’m doing and know that I am doing it well, so not necessarily knowing every aspect of the job and having to keep asking people if this is correct has been an adjustment. But I think that comes with transitioning careers.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I love getting to hear about everybody’s research and getting to meet with the faculty. There are about 80 faculty members that I work with and getting to meet all of them and hearing what they are doing is great. Then I get to brag about them, which is also fun.

What was your job search like?
My job search was weird. I started off looking for a job in DC because I was planning on going into science policy. I spent the last year of my postdoc getting prepared to find a job in science policy – making all of the connections and laying the groundwork. Then, the sequestration came around and my wife’s job at the Department of Defense became less stable. It was no longer feasible to live in DC and provide the life for our kids that we wanted, so we decided to move to Dallas because of our family connections here. I shifted my career path somewhat, but the part of science policy that I really liked the most was promoting science, which I still get to do.

My job search was remote at the time, so I used my network as much as possible. I also did a lot of cold calls and cold emails to find job leads in the area.   It turned out that a friend worked at UT Dallas and promoted the school as a great place to work. Then I just applied to an online job posting and worked my way in from there.

What was the response to your cold calls and emails?
A lot of the time, I would be told that the company wasn’t hiring, but they almost always gave me somebody else to call or another direction to go. One contact always led to two or three others.  I did probably 15 cold calls and only three or four didn’t get back to me. Just be sure to be upfront that you are looking for job leads in a cold call and not necessarily inquiring for a specific position. Limiting yourself to an inquiry into if the company is hiring will result in a simple yes or no answer. Leave it more open-ended than that.

How did you find people to call?
I did a lot of informational interviews when I was in DC. I did something like 50 informational interviews. From those interviews, I was able to ask people for connections. Also, my mentor at NIH encouraged me to get involved in extracurricular activities. I joined AAAS (The American Association for the Advancement of Science) and I started the Washington, DC, Metro Area Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, which is still running strong. These involvements helped me to meet people and develop soft skills; plus, I was very lucky to have my mentor — my success seemed like his priority. Dr. Koretsky was one of my biggest assets.

What are the most important soft skills needed for your position?
The ability to get along well with people, especially with multiple bosses and multiple demands. You have to be able to work with others and compromise with them. I did a wonderful detail with the Office of Extramural Research, which allowed me to report to both my mentor and my detail manager. Balancing the needs of two very different jobs was a great preparation.

Open and straightforward communication is hugely important in my position, as is being able to jump right in. If you are switching careers, you don’t necessarily have to be comfortable, but try to be comfortable with your discomfort.

In hindsight, is there anything that you would have done differently with your job search?
I might have started earlier and looked a little more aggressively. And by that I mean meeting people. The connections that I made in DC were fairly limited to NIH. Towards the end, I was starting to branch out to some of the nonprofits in the DC area, and I wish I had started doing that earlier. I would recommend establishing your network fairly early and making it a broad net.

Any last bits of advice?
Don’t do it alone! NIH is a fantastic resource. OITE is a fantastic resource.  The people there are really great about helping out. Get to know the folks there well and early.  Plus, with all of the informational interviews that I did at NIH, I can say that almost everybody is willing to help you.

From the over 50 informational interviews, I only had about five that never got back to me.  Of those 50, I probably only cold called five to ten people.  All of the other connections were sparked from those first few calls, so always be sure to ask the person for another connection recommendation. The informational interviews also helped make me more comfortable when the time came for an actual job interview.  NIH is a great place for career development, so use it as much as you can.


Preparing to Negotiate an Academic Job Offer

October 9, 2012

If you have been following our Calendar for Career Success, October is the month to prepare yourself to negotiate a job offer.  Because the preparation for negotiating an academic position versus a non-academic position is so divergent, we are going to cover them in separate blog posts.  This week, we will give a brief overview of how to prepare for negotiating academic job offerings.  For more in-depth information, watch the videocast or view the slides from the latest OITE workshop on negotiating an academic job offer.

As you prepare to interview for academic jobs, it is important that you are preparing to negotiate an offer for those positions as well.  Often times the initial negotiation occurs verbally during or shortly after your interview(s).  You may be asked to provide information regarding your needs before the institution is willing to make you an offer.  Thus, it is important that you do your homework and be prepared to know what is reasonable.

Research what a typical offer looks like.   On-line databases can be a good place to start, but you need “real-world” data as well.  Many state universities publish salaries of current faculty.  Also, the Association of American Medical Colleges salary surveys are great resources for knowing your worth.   For those at the NIH, the OITE has the AAMC book that we welcome you to come in and use.  If you are outside the NIH, check to see if your institution has an online subscription to the AAMC web site.  Then you will need to determine your three salary numbers:  Ideal, acceptable and unacceptable.

Understand all the components of an offers. Is your salary is for a 9-month of 12-month appointment? Most 9-month salaries are paid over 12 months, but the duties associated with that salary (e.g. teaching), might only be for 9 months of the year.  You will want to ask if there are realistic ways to find support for the summer months to supplement that salary?  Is it a base salary with the possibility of bonuses?  Will the salary be fully supported by the university?  If not, how much will you be expected to provide from grants and when?  What about insurance (health, life, disability, etc.), retirement plans, sick days, vacations, holidays?  Almost all Universities have a standard benefits package, but you will want to know the details of that package to know if you will need supplement it on your own if it does not meet your needs. Read the rest of this entry »

NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 2-Science writing

September 23, 2011

This is the second in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Jennifer Crawford

Current position: Technical writer, Office of Communications and Education, NCI

Location: Macon, GA

Time in current position: 1 month

Postdoc: Tumorigenesis and prolactin signaling in breast cancer, with Barbara Vonderhaar at NCI

My story: I didn’t think I wanted to do research, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I thought I’d see what panned out. I joined AWIS [the Association of Women in Science] and went to OITE career events. I did a personality assessment with an interest inventory, and a lot of things came up in communications—talking about science rather than doing science. 

I didn’t realize this right away, but I like to finish things. I want to point to something in my hands at the end of each day and say, “I did this.” Being in the lab, nothing ends. Even when you publish, there are always more questions to answer and more you could do. That’s great if that’s what you like to do, but if you’re like me, it can be frustrating. My favorite thing in grad school was sitting down for one month and writing my dissertation—saying why I did what I did and what it means. It made me think, well, maybe writing is something I want to do. 

Network, network, network: I sent out a lot of emails trying to figure out what to do. I went on informational interviews. Everybody was really open to talking about what they work on. I talked to people who did policy, communications, journal editing… It didn’t require hours and hours—just meeting people for lunch or grabbing coffee and asking what their day-to-day is like, what they like and don’t like about their job. You’ve got time in your day to do that.

Change takes effort: People recommended that I get some experience. I got involved with the NCI Knowledge Management mentoring program and did some writing for OITE. That was the first year they had the career symposium, and I helped write and edit articles about it. I wrote an article about Community College Day for the NIH Catalyst. I did lots of small articles like that. I was surprised how many people were happy to let me write something for them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Writers Write, Part II: More on the Science Writing Field from an Editor-in-Chief

December 20, 2010

penHappy holidays, everyone!

Last month, OITE hosted an online chat on careers in science writing with Mariette DiChristina, the Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American. The chat was attended by over 400 people, and some questions remained unanswered by chat’s end, so Ms. DiChristina graciously offered to answer those remaining. Here are her responses to your questions:

Q: I would love to hear about what steps one should take while in grad school – i.e. prepare for a postdoc? seek out writing opps?

A: Definitely seek out writing opps if you want to be a writer. As I probably said during our e-chat, find ideas and propose them to publications. Proposals should be just a page long and should include everything the editor needs to know about the story idea: why it is important, why it is new, how long you want to write it, what art would there might be, etc. Or look for an internship. One that you can consider is the AAAS Media Fellowship, which is explicitly created for scientists who are working on a Ph.D. but are now at a point where they want to explore journalism.

Q: How competitive is the field of science writing, and how realistic is it to expect job opportunities, etc?

A: If you’re thinking ONLY of the world of consumer publishing, it’s hugely competitive, and it just got turned inside out by electronic publishing. If you’’re very entrepreneurial, and you’’re interested in running your own business as a freelance writer, you can make a go of it. You need to arm yourself with info about how to do that— and one way would be to at least use the free listserv at the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) exit icon1 to ask steady questions. There’s also a listserv just for freelancers, but you have to be a member. If you’’re looking for a staff job, there aren’’t that many opportunities unless your plan is to be an editor.

If you’re thinking outside the world of consumer publishing, your opportunities are much greater. But my expertise is only in consumer publishing.

Q: Articles published in the New York Times science section, for example, vs. Popular Science are quite different. As a researcher, I find that in the NYT things are often exaggerated vs in good science magazines, it’s “sold” to the reader but more realistically. Is there a difference in backgrounds of these various writers? Would a research background be applicable more to one, or not necessarily?

A: The difference is the readership and what the readers expect. Your background makes less of a difference than your ability to connect with those readers. If you have a research background, great. But that background only gives you expertise for a particular area. The art of being a science writer is to cover the entire spectrum, and to make a connection with your readers: what they need, what they know. Science magazines, unlike daily newspapers, can count on the fact that their readers are at least interested in science. In a daily general publication, however, that’’s not a given. That’’s part of the difference behind the tones that you’’ve noticed. The publications are serving their readers; —they are not serving scientists per se or serving people of particular backgrounds per se.

Q: We all hear about journalists’ jobs disappearing. What do you do to keep your work unique in the digital age?

A: I make sure I keep up with things. I am now tweeting. I blog from conferences. I carry a BlackBerry, an iPhone and an iPad— usually, all at the same time—, so I can use them and think about what Scientific American should look like on different devices. (Yes, I need to play with an Android phone and other stuff but even I am only human!) I make sure my mind and eyes are open, —but I needed those skills to be a journalist anyway. Imagine doing something for a living where you will NEVER be the expert. You are always the novice, always the student when you are a journalist.

Q: If I’m a current PhD student, what actual steps can I take (aside from blogging) to wet my feet? Any internships, programs, or jobs that could break me into this world?

A: Yes, lots of them. NASW exit icon1 has a list. Another thing you can do is forget the list and simply write directly to places that you’’d like to work for. If they can’’t use you as an intern for whatever reason, you might at least be able to visit for an informational interview. If you get one of those, you can ask all the questions you want. But you’’d better bring lots of questions; —don’’t expect the editor to give you a lecture like an academic.

Q: What kind of “job track” is typical of someone working their way up to a science-writing job at Scientific American or Nature or Science?

A: I don’’t think a typical job track exists. Some people have research backgrounds. Some people have journalism backgrounds. Science writing includes both. More frequently these days, science journalists have at least a Bachelor’s in a science discipline and probably a Master’s in science writing. By the way, there are no science WRITING jobs at Scientific American. Most consumer monthlies have only editing jobs. If you want to be a writer, you’ would most likely be a freelancer.

Q: What is the best way to encourage kids in middle school (ages 12-15) to write about science?

A: I wish I knew that! I have daughters who are 10 and 14. They think science is cool, because it’’s always been in my house. I think one thing that encourages kids is to keep having fun with science. When my girls ask me a question that has some scientific answer, a lot of the time we make a game out of it. What are the questions we need to ask to find out? How would we do that? Or I walk them through the logical chain of events, instead of simply saying the answer.

Q: How should you choose a topic to write about? How do you know what the latest in the field is – by reading peer-reviewed journals?

A: That’’s one way, and a great way. But another is taking advantage of your location to visit scientists who are working on different things. Whenever I take a trip, I try to visit a local institution or two. I ask the public information officers to see if they can get me time with some scientists who are doing interesting things. Another idea is to go to conferences. But the best is to keep your “story idea” cap on at all times. I know a writer who got a great feature idea while sitting at the vet’’s office and listening to an exchange between doctor and pet owner. You can find stories everywhere, if you are open to them.

Q: Is it common for those enthusiastic about science to write about health policy issues?

A: Not all that common as a narrow category, I suppose, but there’’s a lot of call for health writing in general.

Q: Given you take the normal scientific career path, what is the optimal time to apply, i.e. after PhD, after postdoc?

A: Not sure what you’’re applying for here. If you mean for a position as an intern, then I would do that while you’’re still in school. If you’’re applying for a consumer magazine, anytime is fine. If it’’s a journal, they’’ll want you to have a Ph.D., but I don’t think they will expect a postdoc.

Q: Who are some of the big science writers that you admire?

A: Gosh, lots. If you look at Scientific American, you’’ll see them in our pages. I love people who’se curiosity and enthusiasm lights up the pages. I recommend picking up the two Best American Science Writing books each year; —the top writers are in there. One of them is best science writing and one is best science and nature writing.

Q: Back to the day-to-day description, if you’re working for deadlines, how many deadlines per week, etc., are typical?

A: Depends on the job. When I was a daily newspaper reporter in the Stone Age, it wasn’’t unusual for me to write three or even four stories in a day. As a monthly magazine editor, I have different kinds of deadlines—; each element in an article has to move along. So every little piece of art, all the blocks of text, the pieces that then are going online as the online components, etc. Basically, every day there are three or four things that need to happen, sometimes more.

Q: What do science writers typically get health insurance? Is it offered through an organization like the National Association of Science Writers, or do people generally get it individually?

A: If you are a freelance writer, you buy your own. The NASW exit icon1 offers group discounts, just because of the number of members who are freelancers, but they’’re really still individual purchases. If you work for a corporation as I do, the company has to supply it if you work over a certain number of hours – —and you’’ll typically pay at least one-quarter to one-half of the total expenses, which are considered part of your compensation. If you’’re a freelancer, you should charge rates that take all of your costs into account: —for office space, healthcare, supplies, travel, etc. NASW exit icon1 members have access to a database called Words’ Worth that documents what people have been paid for different types of jobs.

Q: What about writing from an office, not from home? Are you still paid “by deadline” and by word count?

A: If you’’re a freelancer, you’’re paid by word or by job. If you’’re in an office as a full-time employee, you’’re paid by week or hourly. I am an “exempt” employee, which means it doesn’’t matter if I work 80 or 100 hours a week, I still get paid the same. And sometimes I do pull really, really long hours.

Q: Would I need to do a postdoc to become a Nature editor?

A: I don’’t think so. But a Ph.D. is the minimum requirement.

Best of luck with your writing!

A Writer Writes, Always

November 23, 2010

Last week, OITE hosted an online chat with Mariette DiChristina, Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American. If you’re considering a career in science writing, be sure to check out the transcript of the chat here: Day in the Life of a Science Writer.

During the chat, Mariette suggested that aspiring science writers begin blogging immediately. Setting up a blog is free, and forcing yourself to write in a more accessible way about science will improve your writing skills, your ability to juggle multiple projects at once, and will help you to build a portfolio of writing samples.

Also, think about submitting a short piece to the NIH Catalyst, or a newsletter associated with your undergraduate or graduate school, or with your professional association. Again, think in terms of building up a collection of writing samples for when you feel ready to submit a proposal to a leading journal like Scientific American or similar.

Whatever you do, start writing. As Larry reminds us in Throw Momma from the Train, a writer writes: always.

A Day in the Life of…A Science Writer

November 9, 2010

This fall, OITE is hosting “A Day in the Life of…,” a series of interactive, online chats exploring a variety of careers in science. In September, we heard from David Kosub, a Public Health Analyst, about careers in science/public health policy, and chatted with Philip Mayer, an Assistant Vice President of Pfizer, in October to explore careers in big pharma.

Mariette_DiChristinaThis month, we are featuring careers in science writing and will chat with Mariette DiChristina (left), Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American. Below are the details of the chat, as well as a bio of Ms. DiChristina.

Click here to set up an email reminder for our talk next Thursday. Cheers!

EVENT: “A Day in the Life of…A Science Writer”

DATE: Thursday, November 18, 2010

TIME: 12 pm – 1:00 pm EST

GUEST: Mariette DiChristina, Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American / Past President, National Association of Science Writers (2009-2010)

Mariette DiChristina oversees Scientific American,, Scientific American MIND and all newsstand special editions. A science journalist for more than 20 years, she first came to Scientific American in 2001 as its executive editor. She is also the former president (2009-2010) of the 2,500-member National Association of Science Writers. She has been an adjunct professor in the graduate Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program at New York University for the past few years. DiChristina is a frequent lecturer and has appeared at the 92nd Street Y in New York, Yale University and New York University among many others.

Previously, she spent nearly 14 years at Popular Science in positions culminating as executive editor. Her work in writing and overseeing articles about space topics helped garner that magazine the Space Foundation’s 2001 Douglas S. Morrow Public Outreach Award. In spring 2005 she was Science Writer in Residence at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her chapter on science editing appears in the second edition of A Field Guide for Science Writers. She is former chair of Science Writers in New York (2001 to 2004) and a member of the American Society of Magazine Editors and the Society of Environmental Journalists. Recently, DiChristina was honored by New York’s Italian Heritage and Culture Committee in their October 2009 celebration of Galileo’s contributions to science.

“A Day in the Life of…” Upcoming Series on Career Options for Scientists

September 7, 2010

CapitolSo, just what does a science policy analyst do every day? A science museum exhibits coordinator? A VP of drug development? OITE aims to answer these questions via an interactive, online chat series this fall.

The series will be held from 12:00 – 1:00 pm every third Thursday from September through December, which includes: Sept. 16, Oct. 21, Nov. 18, and Dec. 16.

Topics covered will include careers in science policy, science writing, drug development in industry, and science education.

Trainees at every stage are welcome to participate and are encouraged to bring questions to our “speakers” during the live chats. After each discussion, the transcript of the entire chat will be posted on this site.

To kick off the series, we will explore the work of a science policy analyst.

EVENT: “A Day in the Life of…A Public Health Analyst”

GUEST: David Kosub, Ph.D., Public Health Analyst, NIAID, NIH

DATE: Thursday, September 16, 2010

TIME: 12 pm – 1:00 pm EST

Bring your questions and comments, as this live event is your chance to learn more about different careers!  To set up an email reminder for the event, or to participate in the discussion the day of the event, click here.

Chat with you next Thursday!