PNAS: Julie Myers-Irvin, Scientist Administrator

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Julie Myers-Irvin, who helps scientists put together grants.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I work at the University of Pittsburgh as a “Scientist Administrator” (a terribly nondescript title that I will expand upon). My office offers services to PIs to enhance and assist researchers with their research programs. My main task is to read and critique grant applications before they are submitted to funding agencies (mostly NIH but also some foundations). Basically, I act like a reviewer. I review grants for scientific content as well as do general copy editing of applications for PIs (especially those for whom English is not their native language). I also provide tips on general grantsmanship advice and try to help PIs craft the most competitive grant application possible. I help PIs find funding opportunities and resources they need to do their research.

2) What is your science background?

I have a BS in biology with a minor in chemistry from York College of Pennsylvania and a PhD in pharmacology from the University of Pittsburgh. I did a two year post-doc in tissue engineering following my PhD.

3) What led you to this job?

I decided soon after I started graduate school that the academic tenure-track career was not for me. I attended as many workshops and seminars as possible about alternative careers in science. Luckily the University has an awesome department that recognizes the importance of career development for graduate students and post docs and really strives to educate individuals about career options. That said, I knew what some of my options were, but got this job when I saw it advertised on the website and called a friend who had the same position in this office. She advocated for me and I must have passed muster because I’ve been here two years now. Networking works!

4) What’s your work environment like?

I sit in an office all day and do almost all of my work electronically. I sometimes go out to meet with investigators, but most of the day is spent in my office at the computer. Science writing is a great job for telecommuting. I don’t get to do it here but I have a number of friends who do.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

On a typical day I come in and start reading a grant application. As I work my way through the application I pepper it with comments regarding the science and the design as they arise. For example, sometimes the sample population is not clear, irrelevant background information is provided, specific aims are not specific, hypotheses are not testable, etc… As I read, I fix grammar and rewrite sentences and sections for clarity. I’ll sometimes suggest rewrites of an entire specific aims section as necessary. I try to spend a good bit of time helping the PI write a clear and concise one page specific aims section since that is the most critical part of an application. If the PI has a summary statement I help write the introduction and make sure that their revised application addresses the reviewer’s concerns. I also look at new funding announcements and pass them along to appropriate investigators, meet with new hires to introduce them to the research community, organize workshops, keep on top of NIH policies and changes, among other things. One of the best aspects of this job is the range of topics I get to work on – bioinformatics, neuroscience, urology, obsetrics, dentistry, and the list goes on.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

I need the science background to be able to critically review the grant applications. Even though I may not be an expert in the field of the application I am working on, my background allows me to identify potential flaws and weaknesses in the design. The critical review of grants and manuscripts that you do as a student of science is very important.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

I would send them to graduate school to get a PhD in some sort of life, or physical science. Many administrative positions in science look for individuals with PhDs. While in graduate school apply for fellowships and offer to help your mentor write grant applications and review papers. Do the same during your post-doc. If you can demonstrate success in obtaining funding it is a big boost. However, it is not an absolute necessity. I got this job without ever writing my own grant application. I would encourage the individual to write for the local paper, school paper, publish a blog about science, etc… Any kind of writing about science that you can provide will be beneficial. Also, diversify. In this type of position, you are no longer an expert about any one field of science. However, you get to know a little about many different fields (one of the very cool parts of this job).

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

The most important thing I learned from science is the critical thinking. Knowing the ins and outs of one field of science is not as important as being able to look critically at multiple areas of research.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

My advice is to take advantage of any career counciling or a career development office that might be available at your institution. Go to seminars and workshops. Know that there is more than one path for scientists (as evidenced by this post). Read blogs like this one and contact people in fields that you think sound interesting. It is great to see that people are acknowledging the “non-traditional” career path for people in the sciences and encouraging students to pursue multiple options.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

The pay can be very good if you work in industry. Industry positions can pay six figures. Free-lancing can also be very lucrative, but doesn’t offer benefits. As with many positions, you’re going to earn less if you work in an academic institution.