An Interview With Brooke Grindlinger of the New York Academy of Sciences
Do you like thinking about the bigger picture and bringing people together over science? If so, a role as a Program Manager might be right for you. I spoke with Brooke Grindlinger, Chief Scientific Officer of Scientific Programs & Awards at the New York Academy of Sciences about what she looks for when evaluating candidates for a Program Manager position.
Can you describe the Program Manager position at NYAS and why it requires a PhD-level scientist?
The New York Academy of Sciences has a very large portfolio of scientific conferences, symposia, and workshops that span the life sciences, physical sciences, computer science, sustainability, and engineering. To design these scientific conferences, we need scientists who are familiar with many frontiers of science. They have a sense of who the key opinion leaders are, what labs are doing groundbreaking and innovative work, and where there are gaps in knowledge that we can try to address by bringing people in the scientific community together.
Our Program Managers are always on the look out for the next hot topic to build a scientific symposium around. They zero in on scientific topics where the scientific community isn’t already coming together. It really does take someone with good scientific training, background, and understanding in certain fields of research—certainly multiple fields of research—to design a scientific program that makes sense, is scientifically robust, scholarly, and is going to bring information to the community that they need and want.
How does a potential candidate demonstrate that they have these skills, particularly given that someone in the lab may be very focused on their specific field or research question?
We’re particularly interested in people who have done research that’s very cross disciplinary. People have to be well equipped to dive into the literature and get up to speed on other scientific areas quite quickly, but I find it helps if during the person’s research experiences, they’ve dipped their toes in the water of different scientific areas of research. Maybe they’ve studied different animal systems, different organ systems, different signaling pathways, or worked on a particular area of research that is applicable to many different diseases. That lets me know that they can bounce around scientific topics fairly well compared to someone who’s spent 5 to 7 years pursuing one very specific, narrow line of research.
Do you look at traditional markers of success in science, such as publication record and conference presentations?
I certainly look at people’s publications. It’s one of the first experiences in scientific writing. Being first author is important, so that I know that the person has experience leading a project. A publication in Science or Nature is very impressive, but that’s not one of the critical markers of success that I’m looking for at this stage. It’s more that they have some publications under their belt. It also gives me a sense of the multidisciplinary aspect of their research.
The same thing for conferences. I love to see that people have presented posters or podium presentations. That tells me that they probably have experience networking and interfacing with the larger scientific community. That’s important because as a Program Manager, you’re serving as an outward-facing ambassador for the organization. You do a lot of public speaking at our conferences. You might chair a scientific session and ask questions to speakers, and you have to interact with donors, funders, and representatives from many partner institutions.
Do you look at activities outside of the lab, such as volunteer or outreach activities?
Absolutely. That’s one of the key things I’m looking for in someone’s CV. Because people coming into the Program Manager role are probably making their first transition away from the bench, I really want to hire people who are absolutely sure that they don’t want to be doing primary research any more. I want to be sure that they’re not going to miss it and that yearn for experimental work.
One of the indicators of that is people who have a list of other activities. That gives me a sense that they’ve already tried their hand at doing non-research things to expand their horizons and get a little more experience while they’re still in the lab.
A lot of candidates are involved in their post-doc association. That gives them experience organizing groups, hosting meetings, and having to get a group of individuals to reach consensus around something. Some have designed a post-doc symposium or a speaker series. As part of that, they’ve probably had some experience with professional communications with external scientists. They’ve probably had to think about how to communicate to their target audience that this event is happening. So, they’ve started to dabble in communication and marketing activities. And often, they may have to raise money to cover the costs of those activities. That gives me a sense that they’ve had some grant writing experience to make a compelling case about why this science is important. It prepares them quite well with skills that are very transferable to the Program Manager role.
The other thing I often see is people pursuing scientific writing. Maybe they have a blog, have done some volunteer writing for a campus newsletter, or they’ve written a news piece for a scientific society newsletter. Those types of activities give me a sense that they don’t want to pursue a career as a PI and that they want to shift away from the bench.
If I see evidence of that type of activity, I feel more confident that this person wants to leave the bench and they have some drive to make the jump and develop some of the soft skills that are needed in addition to the scientific expertise.
Are there any skills important for this position that people leaving the bench often lack?
One of the areas of experience that graduate candidates can be lacking is feeling confident in settings where they have to talk as a representative of our organization and present a very professional face to outward stakeholders. That’s an area where they probably haven’t had that much experience coming out of academia. They’re probably used to talking to the people who work in exactly the same area of research. It’s a different skill to talk to audiences who aren’t your peers in your research.
Do you have any general questions that you always ask in an interview?
I usually ask why they want to leave primary research. The answers to that question usually go one of two directions. Sometimes there’s a personal story or a real rationale. Unfortunately, one of the answers we often get is that they can’t get a grant funded or can’t get a tenure position. I never want to hear that this is their last resort. I really want a good answer to that question.
I always ask people, “Off the top of your head, give me a couple of ideas for scientific conferences.” I allow for a conference concept within their own field of research, but then I ask them for a conference concept outside of their field of research. That really pushes people to think on their feet, which can be difficult, and to think of areas of scientific research well outside of their own research backyard that are undergoing a rapid change in landscape or facing critical challenges. I want to see that they have a genuine interest in science, a passion and curiosity at the very broad level, in addition to what’s happening in their own field of research. People often come up a bit blank on that question. That’s a good way to see stronger candidates reveal themselves.
Any last advice?
Take the time to write a really good cover letter. A lot of CVs can seem very similar, and a cover letter is the one place where the person can really communicate who they are as an individual and what interests them about the position in a way that a listing of degrees and career experience cannot always effectively convey. It’s interesting to see how many people will just put a two-sentence cover letter, missing an opportunity to make a really terrific first impression.
In terms of interviews, be very well prepared. One of the areas that’s probably the most challenging for people coming straight out of academia is that they haven’t worked in a business environment before. Make sure that you dress appropriately for the interview. What you may wear in the lab is not necessarily aligned with the professional image that our organization projects.
I encourage people to practice. Do a mock interview with some friends or your PI. The more practice you have in preparing some answers to anticipated questions (and actually saying them out loud) will reduce your chances of being tongue tied during the interview. It’s worth taking the time to do that extra prep.