Tuesday, June 4, 2013

User's Group

At the laboratory where I work, we host an annual meeting for the folks who conduct their research at our facility. These outside folks include professors, students, and scientists from universities and other laboratories from around the world. I find it slightly amusing that these visitors are referred to as "users." To me this term has an inherently negative connotation. Be that as it may, my facility has been established by the U.S. government as a national user facility. These outside folks are the reason why we exist. So, the annual "user's meeting" is a time to get together to hear about the latest research developments from across the lab and to hear from the representatives of the government who oversee the funding programs that support the work of the lab and its users.

One of the important demographics attending this meeting are the graduate students. These young folks are currently involved in research to earn their doctorates. They are easy to spot because they tend to be bouncing off the walls with energy levels bubbling off the scale. They are the future of my field and will ultimately take the torch that folks like me have been carrying. During the meeting, I was asked to take part in a lunch for these students and to lead a Q&A session focussed on how to best position themselves for getting a job when they complete their degrees.

In science, the number of applicants far outweighs the number of available positions. Getting a job is 50% talent, 50% tenacity, and 50% luck (we require folks to give 150% effort). Judging by the looks on the student's faces as I spoke with them, I could see that they were palpably worried about their prospects for employment. I acknowledged that the chances of them getting hired in academia or securing a position at a national lab were quite small. Yet I encouraged them to not lose sight of their passion for their work, to aggressively seek to take full ownership of the things that are under their control, to not shy away from challenges, and to realize that there are other avenues for exciting careers in science beyond the narrow views of the ideal job that they currently hold. It was an interesting hour and fun to engage with these young folks.