Thanks for the option

I just couldn’t help myself. What a motto! “Freeze your eggs, Free your career!”

You’ve probably heard that (by January, 2015) Facebook and Apple are offering to cover egg-freezing costs as part of their employee benefits. I have mixed feelings about this. (You’re like, “Welcome to the club, captain obvious.” I get it.)

Women, theoretically, have many options: Be a mom, don’t be a mom, be a mom early, be a mom late, be a stay-at-home mom, a part-time-work mom, a full-time-work mom. It’s an emotional minefield, driven by conscious and subconscious perceptions of what’s “expected” of you (from society, your own experience, your religion, what have you). It can be a double-edged blend of selfishness (what do “I” want) and selflessness (what’s “best” for the family/children).

I’m not going to deconstruct all that, because in my personal opinion, there’s no right answer. You’ve got to weigh all those factors, do what’s best for you, and do the best you can.

I do sincerely applaud Facebook and Apple for supporting some of the many choices a woman can make. But here’s the thing that sticks in my craw – why aren’t those options equally financially supported? Purposefully or accidentally, this decision deems that some of those options are ok but not all.

The overall point is to support and maintain an effective female workforce, right? So why doesn’t it work like this: $20k for your choice. Better yet – don’t force women to specify/justify that decision to their employer. Have this lump sum go into a flex account that can be used as they see fit:

  • Get $20k to freeze your eggs.
  • Get $20k for childcare**
  • Get $20k to spend money to save time (laundry services, housecleaning, chef, errands, etc)
  • Get $20k towards surrogacy, infertility treatments, or adoption expenses
  • Get $20k towards maternity leave (that is nearly always unpaid, by the way)
  • And – last but absolutely not least – get $20k even if you choose not to have children.

I know this is a sticky topic. I’m not saying there’s a right answer. I’m just saying that let’s not stop here. Apple/Facebook/Google/Microsoft, like it or not, are models that the rest of tech looks up to. In a time where flexibility attracts the best young talent, let’s support women making their own choices. Imagine the potential: What if you made yourself a company where the most talented women in the world were beating down the doors to join you?

** My sources tell me that this might cover a year – year and a half of childcare. If this allows a woman to keep her job after having a child, her earning potential would likely continue/increase over that time. That way, by the time the lump sum is used up, wouldn’t she in a better place to afford the childcare after that?

Don’t wait until 2057

A few months after I started graduate school, my mom saw this cartoon and mailed it to me. I’ve kept it on my desk ever since. It reminds me that I come from a long history of hard-working women and to keep showing people what I’m made of.

There’s a lot of news on Equal Pay Day in D.C. right now. Actually, there’s a lot of news about it everywhere – I can’t read the New York Times or turn on NPR without hearing about it. And that’s awesome.

It’s exciting that this is getting so much publicity, but progress is slow going. At the current rate, the pay gap won’t close until 2057 [1]. That means my/our future daughters will be in their 30’s and 40’s before they are paid equivalently to men.

While I fervently support federal initiatives to close the pay gap, it’s too… damn… slow. There are localized [2] and private sector efforts, but challenges exist there too. Think about it – getting a large corporation to make an effort for pay equality means it has to admit the problem exists in the first place (and possibly open itself up to discrimination suits).

I can’t passively wait for this problem to be fixed for me, and neither can you. I want to share three points that might change the way you think about the gender-based pay gap and (hopefully) encourage you to take a more active role in your financial future.

More women get graduate degrees than men [3]

Generally, the salary gap INCREASES as education increases [4]

(The salary gap for women with a master’s degree is larger than the gap for women with a bachelor’s degree. It regionally varies for women with a Ph.D. – in Boston, for example, the gap narrows at the Ph.D. level)

The salary gap INCREASES as age increases [1]

These points tell us a story. Although women are over 50% of the highly educated young workforce, their starting salary is lower and grows slower (compared to men) as time goes on. You cannot escape this trend with more education or more experience. Essentially, if you don’t start negotiating right away, you’ll never make up for that loss.

I know that graduate school induces “delayed adulthood” in many ways. We treat the first few years of grad school like college on repeat. We get married later in life, we have kids later in life, and enter the workforce later in life.

Outside of naiveté, I think we also don’t take our first salary as a serious negotiation because we haven’t experienced salary discrimination before. That’s a good thing – the typical graduate student’s salary is defined by the school and the department. No negotiation.

But on entering the “real world”, I felt (and still feel, truth be told) that not negotiating is ok at this stage – I tell myself I have plenty of time to work and I’ll make up for it as my skills increase. That feels good and gets me out of awkward professional conversations, but it’s blatantly untrue. You do NOT outgrow that gap.

So I have a few action items I’m going to put into practice. No “top ten” lists of how to negotiate, no pages and pages of research on pay inequality. Just a few simple to-do’s that I think can make a difference right now.

Action 1: Do your homework

In D.C., it’s common to not provide a salary range for a position, but instead ask the candidate what their “salary expectations” are. That’s empowering and incredibly uncomfortable.

So when I put down a salary range on an application, I try to do my homework. I use websites like GlassDoor.com to get an estimated salary for that position in my area (sometimes they even have an exact range for the company I’m applying to). I look up national averages in my field, correlate it to experience or education levels, and keep cost of living in mind.

Action 2: Negotiate your salary. Always. It’s expected.

Here’s the rub though – women can’t just negotiate like men. You’d think if you highlight your skills confidently then it should be obvious why you’re asking for more money. Wrong. Apparently that just makes you look like a jerk.

Sheryl Sandberg and Margaret A. Neale have some tips that are helpful (and somewhat depressing), like highlighting common interests and emphasizing larger goals, rather than focusing the conversation on you. You may have to evoke a communal female stereotype instead of just laying out facts.

Bonus points though – I think a woman knows how to read emotional expressions and adjust body language like a boss. So though there’s no simple instruction manual for negotiating, you can sense how the conversation is going and adjust your strategies accordingly. Just don’t lose ground.

Action 3: Document your work

Some companies do a good job with regular performance feedback. Most don’t. Be your own HR rep and document successful projects, important contributions, and when you go above and beyond to get something done. In a best-case scenario, you can use these examples when asking for a bonus. And if you find yourself in a worst-case scenario (where you have to provide evidence for a discrimination suit), you’ve got some paperwork to support you.

Action 4: Don’t forget about bonuses (or other non-salary perks)

On NPR yesterday morning, Sallie Krawcheck gave this illustrative example of bonus negotiation:

Sallie: So, we’ve got two employees. Let’s call them Joe and Joanne. And Joe and Joanne are both set to make $5 in bonus let’s say.

Now, Joe comes into my office and Joe says, hey Sallie, you know, I really I’ve had a great year, I’d like to make 10 this year. After Joe leaves, I call my head of HR, and we sort of say can you believe this? Joe wants to make 10, he’s in for five, ha, ha, ha.

Well, time goes by. It’s time to put those numbers on the piece of paper. And we start to look and we say, look, we don’t want to lose him. Let’s put him in for seven. Right? OK. So, we’ve done that. Now, what does Joanne make?

David Greene (NPR Host): She gets the five.

Sallie: Wrong. She gets three. Because the bonus pool doesn’t go up. Bonus pool is 10 – five and five. She didn’t ask for anything. So, they’re both in for five, he asks for 10; we give him seven.

I don’t know about you, but on hearing that I was stunned. Logically, of course the bonus pool doesn’t go up, but I didn’t consider that my bonus could actually be reduced if I don’t ask for a deserved increase.

Action 5: Don’t be complacent after your first negotiation

If you’ve negotiated a higher salary when you started your new job – bravo! If not, all is not lost. You should continue to negotiate in the future. Cost-of-living rarely goes down and you don’t get dumber with more experience. It’s as simple as that. So if you’ve worked hard and done a good job, ask for a reasonable increase. You know Joe is going to.

 

References:

[1] Jacqueline Berrien, Chair, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission*

[2] Boston Closing the Wage Gap: Becoming the Best City in America for Working Women

[3] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2013):

In 2011-2012:

    • 452,038 women graduated with master’s degrees, compared to only 302,191 men
    • 87,451 women graduated with doctoral degrees, compared to only 82,611 men.

[4] Victoria Budson, Founding Executive Director, Women and Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School of Government*

 

* Quoted from the event “More Than a Number: Combatting Pay Discrimination in the Workplace” on April 7, 2014 at The Center for American Progress in Washington D.C.

How to buy new scientific equipment

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An acquaintance of mine started working in a new lab, and they have a beautiful, expensive, nearly brand-new liquid handler*. It’s currently unused and gathering dust. The technique they bought it to perform (which has to be laborious to do by hand, or they wouldn’t have purchased it in the first place) is currently being done. By hand.

*A liquid handler is a robot that is programmable to, literally, handle liquid. You can load it up with plates, tubes, reservoirs, petri dishes… whatever you’d like, and it will transfer liquid for you from one place to another. If you’d like your mind blown, check out my current favorite at HamiltonRobotics.com. Check out their youtube videos. (I’m not being compensated or anything to say this – it really is my favorite.)

The saddest part is that I’ve heard this song and dance before. A lab finally convinces their PI/Director/Money-Giver to purchase an automated system, and it sits there unused because… why? Most of the time only one person in the lab knows how to use it. Perhaps it worked for a while and then broke and you can’t get the supplier to fix it. It’s usually never used to its full potential, and in the meantime, people are still getting carpal tunnel from repetitive pipetting.

This post is very nuts and bolts, but I can’t help myself. I’ve decided to write a tutorial on how to buy a new piece of scientific equipment. Do I have credentials to speak on this topic? Yes. Have I been employed to sell scientific equipment for the last 10 years? No my friends. My education came from the streets. When you are put in charge of buying HPLCs, liquid handlers, peptide synthesizers, plate readers, mass spectrometers, and other things I can’t even remember, you learn a thing or two.

So here we go – these are my super-duper, number one, must-follow commandments to buying a piece of equipment. Share widely!!

1. Demo. Demo, demo, demo, demo, demo. Seriously. Do not purchase without a demo. Most manufacturers will offer to bring it on-site, but they’ll want to babysit you through one experiment and then leave. Ask them to leave it with you for a few days so you can find the bugs on your own (they are very good at avoiding them with a hand-held demo).

If they won’t bring it on-site, go to them if you can (but first, be wary – why do they want you to buy something without testing it?)

If they won’t bring it to you, and you can’t go visit them, but you absolutely have to have it, then write a conditional statement into your purchase agreement that allows for a trial period. Most manufacturers work on at least a net-30 basis if your lab has any credit (meaning you don’t have to pay until 30 days after it arrives). See if you can negotiate a 50% down net-30, and then 50% later (or even better terms). That way if it breaks or isn’t working properly, you still have leverage so they’ll pay attention to you and fix it.

2. Pretend you are dumb. I can’t tell you how many pieces of equipment could not actually perform the function they were built to perform. When they show you how it works, ask what every button means, and ask why they are using the software in a particular way. This is how you find the bugs. Let’s not live in a fairy tale here – there will be bugs. The sooner you find them, the sooner you can tell if you can live with them. Try to think about any variable you’d want to change during an experiment and see if the equipment can handle it. Be annoying, but in a charming way. Buy them a cup of coffee and express excitement for the product (while asking them every question you can think of).

3. Purchase equipment that exports raw data. For those of you who already analyze your own data – bravo, this is clearly a must for you. For those of you who don’t – why not? Are you sure you won’t ever need the raw data… ever? Even if you only use their analysis software, can you guarantee that the next software upgrade won’t change something that you can’t control? Most equipment will export raw data into a simple file, like a .txt, .csv, or .xml. You can probably find a way to work with whatever form it’s exported in (as long as it doesn’t come out in binary).

4. Modify your purchase agreement. If you were buying a new car, would you take the initial offer? Oh heck no. You’d negotiate. Why? Because you are a smart person, and you know the only time you have leverage is before the purchase is made. In this industry, most of the profits are made from the service contracts, not the equipment itself. That means they get more money from servicing their equipment than selling it. Don’t just sign what’s offered. Make a list of exactly what the equipment needs to do for you:

  • How often does it need to function?
  • What accuracy is required? (Be specific! Also, make sure you can test and confirm any of these numbers, and offer to share the data with them)
  • What does the software need to do?
  • What happens if the software upgrades? (Doesn’t it still need to do the things above? Why yes, yes it does.)

Include conditionals so that it has to do those things or you get to return it. You can ask your lawyer friends for some good legal terminology to use here.

Be prepared because they are going to push back a little on this. They will say they can’t guarantee their instrument will function perfectly all of the time. “Of course” – you say in a conciliatory tone, because you are buddies – “we’re in this together”. Ask them what they can guarantee. Make it clear that time lost is money lost. If it’s broken, how quickly can they fix it so it meets the previous expectations?

If you are going to hold them to a high standard, put yourself there as well. Get as much data as possible from your controls and experiments so you can show them when it works and when it doesn’t. Be meticulous and offer to share that data with them if you can.

5. Make them invested in you. Try to make them care about their instrument’s success in your lab. Perhaps you have friends who will all want to buy their product if it works well. Maybe you can use their equipment for a new application – this means more $$$ for them, and you can offer to work with a product manager to write a new application note. Or maybe you can just get them to care about you and your work, and the negative impact that’s made when their equipment doesn’t function properly. This is why you have to be friendly and charming through this whole process – this is a dual investment, and they should want to work with you.

Hungry for more? If you’ve read all this and want to keep going, then we should be friends. Really. See my super pro tips below:

Super pro tip #1: Buy your own computer. If the equipment needs to use a computer, purchase it yourself (or better yet – build it). Ask what types of connections are required to hook up to the instrument (Serial port? Ethernet? PCI card?). This way you are in control if the computer breaks down, you can get a decent model to your specifications, and you’ll save some moolah. Otherwise they’ll charge you $3000 for a crappy Dell laptop. (No offense to Dell, but seriously).

Super pro tip #2: Ask about software compatibilities. If it only runs on Windows XP, be afraid. Be very afraid. If getting stuck with a $3k Dell laptop is bad, getting stuck with one only running XP for the next 5 years is worse. This will help you gauge how much they care about their software. In my experience, most instrumentation companies are made of hardware people, not software people. The hardware can function beautifully but bad software will screw it all up.

That’s it! If you have any additional tips or comments, let’s hear ’em. We should be fighting to make research better, not putting up with the same problems over and over again.

Defining Your Scientific Personality

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Scientists and engineers dive into unknown territory fraught with trial and error. This discovery-based process leads to diverse work environments (self-directed vs. directed vs. team-based), differing management strategies, and variable metrics to determine progress. With so many permutations, it can be difficult for a scientist or engineer to actively seek (not just passively find) the right fit in their career. This post is about taking more control over your professional path by defining your work-relevant values– something I’m calling your scientific personality.

This exercise can be particularly useful near the beginning of your career. Perhaps you are in a graduate program and you are struggling to define your priorities and what constitutes success. Maybe you are currently job searching and want more predictive power when deciding what environment would be best. Or you may already be employed, but sense there is a mismatch between what you value and what is rewarded in your workplace.

I spent 4 years in a graduate program that was surely troubled, but not atypical. It wasn’t until I moved to a start-up company that I realized that I had a specific scientific personality, and that my graduate program’s values were nearly opposite of my own. I wasted time judging myself on misconceived flaws – things I thought were “bad”, but in reality were simply less valued in that environment. I could have spent that energy improving real weaknesses and better leveraging my strengths.

An “advice” blog post can never replace your own learning experiences, but defining your scientific personality can help you better utilize your skills in your current position and give you more control when choosing the right environment for your career.

Scientific Archetype Spectra

Category 1: Knowledge Values

Individual_Institutional

Lovers of individual knowledge are endlessly inquisitive. They tend to be well informed on just about everything. They may not be naturally inclined to document that knowledge, but are willing to share it, typically verbally or demonstratively, if and when someone asks.

Scientists or engineers who value institutional knowledge love to document. You’ll find these people naturally writing thorough protocols and reports. They love to share what they know. In research, institutional knowledge scientists might be the few and brave with methods sections you can actually replicate.

Career perspective: This distinction could self-select for industry (institutional knowledge) vs. academia (individual knowledge), but each type is necessary in both environments. Make sure that your values benefit you in your workplace, and you can turn on or off your sharing ability in the right situation. Someone who naturally shares information (valuing institutional knowledge) could be taken advantage of in a competitive environment, and someone valuing individual knowledge could be viewed as an isolationist in teamwork situations.

Applied_Foundational

Applied knowledge builders prefer to create a solution with a specific problem in mind. They are able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant knowledge towards this end, and can even ignore things they deem irrelevant to make progress forward.

Those that value foundational knowledge enjoy building an expertise because the process of discovery is important, regardless of whether the knowledge can result in a specific product, technology, or technique. If provided with a problem to solve, they begin by learning all the basic facts rather than focusing on what might be the most obvious flaw.

Career perspective: This is typically used as a distinction between academia (foundational knowledge) and industry (applied knowledge), but this isn’t necessarily so strict. Instead, consider your preference and the pressures of the work environment. If you are a foundational knowledge builder, make sure you are given the time and flexibility to build your information base. You might get frustrated and feel pressured to ignore certain areas of knowledge if you are rushed with a hard deadline. An applied knowledge builder could be highly valued because of their ability to quickly create prototypes, but they could be seen as sloppy in a foundational knowledge environment if they don’t take everything into account.

Category 2: Task Values

Builder_Explorer

Builders like detail. They like to tear a thing apart and look at the nuts and bolts. They have patience for iteration. A builder’s biggest satisfaction comes from a system or product that is built soundly and functioning robustly. They aren’t necessarily risk-averse, but the risks they take are in a controlled environment and vital to the task at hand.

Explorers like the unknown. They like to reach and jump to try new things, and as a result, may be less emotionally affected by a negative result. They are risk-takers and opportunists. After the discovery is made, they are ready to move on – iteration can be left to others.

Career perspective: Builders may be drawn to developing devices or production pipelines, or working within a core facility. Explorers may enjoy interdisciplinary research, managing groups of diverse disciplines towards a common goal, or doing hands-on research in a new field.

Doer_Thinker

Doers favor a pilot experiment over a planning session. They might re-discover a thing or two they could have read in the literature, but they trust the physical proof of their own work more – they probably would have repeated those experiments anyway. The crazy or circuitous route they take to solving the problem widens the possibility of discovery. Doers may never solve the original problem at hand – they may find more interesting things to do or circumvent the issue entirely.

Rather than jump into an experiment, thinkers plan out the problem. Sleep on the problem. Read on the problem. They build a roadmap. They might take a while to get started experimentally, but once they do, their trajectory to solving the problem may follow a nearly straight line.

Career perspective: Thinkers may prefer project management, analyst, or consultancy positions. They may not need to do the physical experimentation themselves, but can effectively direct it if given enough time to determine a course of action. They would likely be frustrated if working under very strict timelines. Doers may prefer hands-on work where they are in charge of the first iteration of a project or task. They may prefer a discovery-oriented environment where less is known and the experimental burden is high.

Short Term_Long Term

Short-term goal people need to see concrete accomplishments in weeks or months to maintain motivation. If they can’t see something they can define as progress they begin to feel aimless and burnt out. If presented with a long-term goal, they will naturally subdivide it into smaller steps to create a roadmap to a solution.

Long-term goal people need to have a grand vision. This vision doesn’t have to stay fixed – it can morph and adapt, but if it is drastically changed or suddenly taken away, they feel disoriented. Someone motivated by long-term goals can even develop tangential skills (in other words, moving laterally rather than vertically) as long as the top is still in view. If a long-term goal person is put into an environment with only short-term goals, they will naturally create a larger construct so all the small tasks can be accommodated into one objective.

Career perspective: Short-term goal people may prefer a career resulting in lots of tangible results (a device, a product, a software program). Long-term people can shoot for a large goal (curing cancer, revolutionizing a large industry) even if accomplishing this goal may take their entire career lifetimes.

Category 3: Work Environment Values

Internally_Externally

The internally motivated utilize a vision. If they aren’t immediately drawn to the goal, they create a construct they can be passionate about. It is no longer about the requirements on the page; it’s about completing their vision for the task. They’d rather do 80% of the job and do it right than rush to make a deadline.

Externally motivated people are closers. The deadline is sacred, and people depend on them because of that reputation. To quote a Facebook mantra, they believe that “done is better than perfect”. They value pushing a job across the finish line. If they can’t accomplish everything they set out to do, that’s ok – iteration after release is part of the process.

Career perspective: An internally motivated person will be highly valued in an environment where product quality is essential. An extrinsically motivated person could be an incredible salesperson. Beware of a career mismatch here – if you aren’t a good fit in this regard you could quickly find yourself labeled as “not meeting expectations”. Consider how you will be evaluated and what metrics will be used.

Teamwork_Independence

People who prefer teamwork aren’t absent of self-direction. Once there is a clear objective and concrete tasks to accomplish, they are more than capable (and perhaps prefer) working independently. But when an idea is developing, they find that a brainstorming session is the most productive way for them to organize their thoughts. The round-table input from others gives them confidence that all potential avenues have been discussed, and they have collectively arrived at the best path forward. Teamwork-oriented people may be more inclined to discuss their work at a variety of stages rather than waiting until all ts are crossed before making a report.

People who prefer independent work aren’t necessarily isolationists. They may find a brainstorming session with a team very distracting, and instead prefer the solace of their own thought until they can plan a trajectory to solving the problem. They prefer to be active in every step of a process and dislike large lapses of personal involvement or understanding along the way. They are less inclined to share results mid-way through a process, and instead may keep things to themselves until they can provide a finished product or final report.

Career perspective: Team-oriented people may like working in an interdisciplinary field where input from multiple people is usually required. They may enjoy a consultancy in which they have to work with a small team and clients to solve a problem. People who prefer independence and self-direction may like freelance work in which they are entirely responsible for producing a quality product. They would likely enjoy building and maintaining a reputation within a certain area of expertise. While most people have a preference with this spectrum, you rarely find a career that’s exclusively independent or team-based. To make sure your preference is positively utilized in your work, ask yourself: In what situation does it really matter that I call the shots? When is working with a team most valuable to me?

Conclusion: Find Matching Values

I see the world in grayscale rather than black and white, which is why I’ve insisted on creating an archetype spectrum rather than just an identity. You likely don’t fall to one polar opposite or the other. Your preference could shift based on context or under certain stressors, or evolve with experience and time. You may want to re-determine your scientific personality before every career move to see how your exposure and experience has affected your values.

I hope this post has prompted some self-evaluation and you can mark where you lie on each spectrum listed above. It’s even better if you can associate situations or anecdotes to each spectrum as examples of your preferences. I believe if you know your own value construct, you have a better sense of how to find a work environment with similar priorities. If you aren’t feeling validated with what your current job defines as “success”, perhaps it is time to navigate to something with more congruent values.

Coming soon:

  • Working effectively with a coworker or a manager who has a different scientific personality
  • Hiring the right team by balancing scientific personalities
  • Managing effectively by determining your team members’ scientific personalities

** Note: In case you are curious, the setting visualized on each spectrum is totally random. It does not, for example, reflect my personal preference, but perhaps I’ll define my own personality as an example in a later post!