New Job, to start May 16, 2011

OK, I have landed a new job, to start May 16. This is a job as a biostatistician at a Rockville-based contracting/consulting company named GLOTECH. I gather that the bulk of GLOTECH’s business is providing IT support to the federal government. But one of their contracts is to provide statistical consulting for the Division of Epidemiology, Statistics, and Prevention Research Branch (DESPR) in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), NIH, and it is under this contract that I’ll be working.

So, I will be a statistical consultant! One of the last courses that I took in my Master’s was on statistical consulting. It occurred to me during that course that I might find statistical consulting very enjoyable. This is my chance to test that hypothesis.

Here’s a short account of my job search. I don’t claim to be particularly good at searching for jobs, but this is how it unfolded.

For about one to one-and-a-half years before I was laid off, I already had an inkling that things weren’t going well in my division of the company. Sales were down, we were missing deadlines, and our major client was grumbling. I was expecting something Big and Bad to happen — perhaps layoffs, a wholesale shutting down of my division, or the loss of our big contract. During this time I was constantly worrying: suppose I was laid off tomorrow? Would I have enough cash socked away in my savings account to tide me over for 3-6 months while I conducted a job search? Would I then have enough money left over to move to another part of the country, if my new employer didn’t provide support for moving? How badly would the current recession affect my job search? I started saving up money in my bank account preparing for the Big Bad Event.

On November 17, 2010, a research scientist that I know from my NIH days, B.G., emailed me out of the blue. B.G. is now working at a research hospital in D.C., and was asking me whether I’d be interested in working at the hospital as an MRI Scientist. I was still employed at the time, so I declined pursuing the job opening, but I kept it in mind.

Then the Big Bad Event occurred on February 3. It manifested as layoffs of about 25% of the people in my division, and I was one of the people who were cut. I immediately started my job search. I decided to first restrict my search to the D.C. area, and if that failed then I would expand my search to the rest of the country.

The first thing I did was to contact B.G. regarding the MRI Scientist position at the D.C. hospital. It was still open! After some time, I landed an interview there. As part of this interview, I gave a scientific talk via slide presentation, which is the usual custom with academic/research type positions. Unfortunately, this job interview didn’t result in a job offer.

I also contacted my thesis advisor, G.L., and asked him whether he knew of any job opportunities. Almost immediately, he put me in contact with a Bethesda-based consulting company that specializes in health economics, and after some time I landed an interview there. Unfortunately, this job interview didn’t result in a job offer, either.

I also aggressively searched several job boards and job board aggregators, including Indeed.com, LinkUp.com, SimplyHired.com, and Monster.com. I also tried three job boards specific to quantitative analysis, AnalyticRecruiting.com, JobsInData.com, and icrunchdata.com. Using these various sources, I forwarded my résumé (actually, it’s more like an academic/research C.V.) to about twenty places, mostly in the D.C. area.

Now unemployed, I had no income, a stash of cash in the bank, and lots of free time — sort of like being retired. I took advantage of the free time to travel. I visited my parents in Florida for three weeks, from February 21 through March 14, and during the second week (February 27 – March 5) we were in Orlando, visiting Disney World. On March 4, I had a telephone screening interview with GLOTECH, one of the companies which I had applied to via online job listings (Monster.com, via the aggregator Indeed.com). After I returned home from Florida, I proceeded to two in-person interviews, on March 16 and March 24; the first was with GLOTECH staff, and the second was with our NICHD clients. I received the formal job offer via email on April 8.

Then I was in Hawaii from April 9 through April 24, attending a lucid dreaming workshop hosted by The Lucidity Institute, held at a wonderful retreat named Kalani Oceanside Retreat Village . (I will have to devote a whole other post to this important experience). I faxed my acceptance of the job offer to GLOTECH while in Kalani, on Tax Day, April 15. I start the new job on May 16; I am looking forward to it very much.

Since I had saved up a lot of money in my bank account in preparation for the Big Bad Event, I didn’t feel particularly rushed or pressured in this job search. Certainly there was a sense of urgency, but not panic. Actually, I mostly had a feeling of exhilaration, potentialities, optimism, and expansiveness, reminiscent of the feeling of driving that Chevy Impala.

As part of my severance package, my former employer included three-months use of a career counselling service, Lee Hecht Harrison. Because of my trip to Florida, I decided to delay the start of this career counselling service, and didn’t actually start it until I was well into my job search. But I was pleased with the services that Lee Hecht Harrison provided, however briefly. If I ever find myself in job search mode once more, I would certainly consider using Lee Hecht Harrison’s services again.

Here are some things that I learned from this job search:

  1. There’s a difference between résumés and C.V.s.
  2. In academia/research, a multi-page C.V. is expected. In most of the rest of the world, a one- to two-page résumé is standard, but this may be changing.
  3. In your résumé, it might be advisable to avoid dating yourself, because some industries (I think infotech, especially) practice age discrimination, sometimes not so subtly. For example, maybe you shouldn’t list the dates of your education. And instead of saying something like “nineteen years experience” like I did, say instead “fifteen years plus of experience”. Apparently, fifteen years is the maximum you should own up to; it’s sizable enough to be impressive without being so large that you look like a dinosaur.
  4. In academia/research, a job talk is expected, but in most of the rest of the world it’s not. I learned from one of my colleagues at Lee Hecht Harrison that sometimes they give job talks in advertising and marketing.
  5. Currently, about 75% of all job interviews are landed via personal contacts. The remaining 25% were through job listings. (Lee Hecht Harrison statistic.) I myself landed two job interviews through personal contacts and one through job listings.
  6. Despite the statistic in #5 above, it is still very worthwhile to pursue job listings, as my own experience attests — my job offer actually came via the job interview I landed via job listings. So, it’s probably best to expend a large chunk of one’s time in pursuing jobs through personal contacts, but also spend some effort pursuing jobs through listings. My analogy is with diversifying a stock portfolio — typically it’s advised to place some funds in stocks and some in bonds.
  7. One of the most valuable components of the Lee Hecht Harrison program is the weekly Job Search Work Team meeting.
  8. LinkedIn (not to be confused with LinkUp.com) has become an important tool for conducting a job search. Here are some things about LinkedIn that I learned.
    • It’s a good idea to post your photo in your profile, although some disadvantaged groups (women, minorities, older people) are sometimes reluctant to do so for fear of discrimination. I felt comfortable posting my own photo.
    • It’s also a good idea to bring your profile to 100% complete. This includes getting at least three recommendations.
    • One should expend some effort building one’s professional network on LinkedIn.
    • One should join relevant professional groups on LinkedIn.
  9. On March 28, I attended a 2.5-hour class on how to be an independent consultant, via First Class, Inc. The class was taught by an independent consultant and small business owner named Steve Veltkamp. In this class, I learned of three websites for freelance work: Elance.com, Freelancer.com, and Guru.com.
  10. I actually didn’t fare too badly in this job search. From layoff on February 3 to job offer on April 8 was two months and five days, and I had constrained my job search mostly to the rather restricted region of the D.C. metropolitan area. I thought I was doing only a mediocre job with my job search, but one of my Lee Hecht Harrison colleagues said that converting twenty job applications to three job interviews and one job offer was actually pretty good. I must consider myself very fortunate; some of my Lee Hecht Harrison colleagues have been conducting their job search for a much longer period of time.
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Laid Off

This morning, the company went through a big round of lay offs, and I was one of the people who didn’t survive the cut. I heard that my boss is also no longer with the company; somebody else is now managing the group. My former boss is a C++ expert and was integral to the computer code that we have been developing, and without him it’s not clear that the remaining group can survive.

It was abrupt, but not entirely unexpected. We all knew from the inside that there were problems. (Actually, I had expected the Big Chop to come from a different direction, not from headquarters. I thought our main customer would drop the big contract.) Also, a few weeks ago my former boss had a staff meeting in which he warned us that lay offs were probably in the works. In a way, it’s a relief that it has finally happened; now I can make concrete plans.

I have a lot of stuff at the office, mostly books. I brought back a few boxes of books and stuff, but I’ll need to make a few more trips back to the office to completely empty it out. Right now I’ll eat lunch, but later in the afternoon I’ll return to the office to pick up more stuff. Then I’ll start my job search.

Adventure beckons.

Published in: on 3 February 2011 at 2:53 pm  Comments (4)  

NIH Challenge Grant (RC1) Application

To stimulate the U.S. economy, about $200 million dollars had been set aside for Challenge Grants. NIH is offering this money to eligible institutions, to address certain scientific or technological problems. But the process is competitive; one must submit an application, and only the “best” applications will be awarded money. There are fifteen broad “Challenge Areas”, and within each Challenge Area there are multiple Specific Challenge Topics. All told, there are about 100 Specific Challenge Topics; to apply, you have to choose a Challenge Area, and then within that a Specific Challenge Topic, that you want to address.

This means that, on average, about $2 million dollars are set aside for each Specific Challenge Topic. And each grant is limited to a total of $500,000 per year, amounting to a maximum of $1 million dollars to be dispensed over the course of two years. So, this means that, on average, for each Specific Challenge Topic, only about two applications will be awarded funds.

For one of the Specific Challenge Topics, we heard through an unofficial channel that NIH had already received about a hundred inquiries. If we assume that only half of the people making these inquiries will actually go through the trouble of putting together a grant application, we then estimate that this Specific Challenge Topic will receive 50 applications. Since only about two (on average) applications will be awarded per Specific Challenge Topic, that means only about 1 in 25 applications will be awarded.

On March 25 of this year, at the weekly meeting of the Methods Group at work, my supervisor announced that he and another director thought it would be a good idea to apply for some of this federal grant money. And they wanted me to write the application, probably because I have a reputation in the company to have a knack for writing both well (at least, for a numerical/engineering type) and quickly. Since the due date was April 27, this gave me little more than a month to get the application together. I was a little reluctant to undertake this, since (from prior experience) I know that writing a grant application is a major undertaking. And one month is not very much time. Another problem is that I would depend on many people to do crucial things (for example, to provide their C.V. in a special format called an NIH Biosketch), and I know from experience that people tend to procrastinate until the very last minute.

The deadline for submission, April 27, 2009, is a Monday, but since this was going to be the first time that I submitted a federal grant application through my current employer, I wanted to attempt to submit the grant application the Friday before, April 24. That way, if unexpected glitches arose, we would have three days to address them.

So, I spent the past month obsessing over the grant application. The “meat” of the application was the Research Methods and Design component (the “Research Plan”), and I spent most of my time on this. I had to cajole Key Personnel to send me their NIH Biosketches and Letters of Support. I also had to obtain a budget from this subcontractor. I had to draw up my own budget, and then justify the expenses in this budget; the latter required me to cajole Key Personnel to send me a short blurb describing their background and expertise (this in addition to the Biosketches). I had to adjust this budget so that it was under the $500K per year limit. I had to do a little online research to determine how the Protection of Human Subjects component pertains to my proposed project ; it turns out that my proposed project is exempt because it just reuses publicly available data that is anonymized.

I finally finished putting the grant application together yesterday, April 24. I immediately handed it off to my company’s Authorized Organization Representative (AOR), who is the one who is empowered to electronically submit the application, not the Principal Investigator (PI, the one who wrote the application; me). For this particular grant, only AORs of recognized institutions are allowed to submit grants; individuals cannot. I guess they don’t want people off the streets submitting grants, for whatever reason. Maybe it is to minimize the number of “crackpot” applications they have to sift through. You can read a little more about AORs and PIs here.

And the glitches immediately arose. When my AOR attempted to electronically submit my application, a window popped up demanding his login name and password. But when he typed in his login name and password, it told him that his login was unsuccessful. We hypothesized that perhaps I should log in, even though our understanding was that the PI (yours truly) could not submit the application. This failed, of course.

Then the AOR remembered that he had updated his account earlier that day, and this included changing his password. So, he hypothesized that perhaps he needed to use his old password. He tried this, and he logged on successfully! Another window popped up, and information seemed to be exchanged between our computer and the NIH server. Then a PDF file popped up that looked horribly formatted; it looked like raw PostScript code. This didn’t look promising. The AOR logged on to his Grants.gov account and looked for signs that the application had been successfully submitted, but there were none. As far as the computer system was concerned, the submission was unsuccessful.

The AOR conjectured that perhaps his password is checked in various parts of the computer system, and one part might be using his new password whereas another might be using the old password, and that this might be causing the problem. He further conjectured (conjecture upon conjecture!) that approximately one day might be required for the password change to propagate throughout the computer system. NIH may have a batch script that runs at 2 AM to propagate account changes. So, my AOR said he’d try the submission again sometime today. It is now 11:40 PM. I wonder whether he was successful. (Even if he were successful, most likely my application won’t be funded, since the competition is likely to be very fierce.)

It is for precisely these sort of glitches that I knew I had to try to submit on April 24 rather than April 27! It is out of my hands now; it now all depends on the AOR. I have done my part.


Addendum (04/26/09): It appears that the AOR was able to submit my grant successfully! He forwarded me a confirmation email that he had received.

Now I worry that my application might be rejected for some silly technical reason. E.g., I forgot to check some box in item 9b on page 16 of Form SF424. Even if the application isn’t rejected for technical reasons, it still faces fierce competition, since I am sure that many people will be applying for this grant money.


Addendum (05/02/09): I mentioned an analogy from evolutionary biology to my friend E.N. She suggested that I mention it in this post since she thought it was interesting. So, here it is.

Prof. Anonymous recently described Challenge Whores, who are scientists who submit multiple Challenge Grant applications as P.I., in the hopes that at least one will be successful. This is within the rules, as long as the applications are “scientifically distinct.” But “scientifically distinct” is a rather vague criterion. It is implied that some scientists are copying and pasting boiler plate text and changing a few words here and there to put on the appearance of being “scientifically distinct”. And for someone like me, who invested a huge amount of effort in just one application, the thought of such bending of the rules is maddening.

Evolutionary biologists distinguish between two kinds of reproductive strategies, K- versus r-strategies. Organisms that follow the K-strategy have only a few offspring, but they invest heavily in their offspring. An example of this might be humans. On the other hand, organisms that follow the r-strategy lay thousands of eggs (or spores, or seeds) and invest little or no effort in protecting and/or raising offspring. Of those thousands of eggs, only a few might survive, but this might be just enough to sustain the species. This is a sort of “shotgun” approach.

So my analogy was that I had adopted a K-strategy in my grant application, whereas the “Challenge Whores” had adopted an r-strategy. Unfortunately, the r-strategy may have a survival advantage in the Challenge Grant environment.


Addendum (05/02/09): An institutional technical glitch came up that may invalidate my grant application! Early next week I will try to address the issue, but I fear that my grant application will not make it to Peer Review.


Addendum (05/08/09): OK, the institutional glitch that came up last week was apparently due to an inconsistent DUNS number. But this was ultimately because my organization didn’t have an account on eRA Commons like it should have! The following day (May 3), we applied for the eRA Commons account. Yesterday we got confirmation that this account was set up. My AOR then immediately associated me with the company’s eRA Commons account (with some assistance from me), and we attached an updated Cover Letter to my application, and then resubmitted it. It went through again, with only two warnings (not errors). Both my AOR and I think that these two warnings are negligible, and that therefore the next step is to hope for a score from the Peer Review in June/July. Keeping my fingers crossed that there won’t be any further “glitches”.