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Scott Nichols: Learning beyond the lab


If you’re looking to make a change, Scott Nichols may be able to help.

Nichols, the product manager for professional development and career services at AAAS, manages an online continuing education program aimed at helping scientists, engineers, and other members find that next career step. The 60- to 90-minute courses were developed with input from scientists, engineers and other specialists and  launched in 2016 as part of the association’s transition toward being a member-focused, digitally oriented organization.

Nichols got interested in designing courses during a stint in the Peace Corps in Latvia. He talked with MemberCentral recently about some of the most popular courses and what kind of feedback he’s getting from participants.

Q: How do you pick the topics?

When we first started, there had already been extensive research done as far as the professional life of the scientist and what we call their “pain points.” When they’re coming to a critical decision in their career, the kind of things they’re looking for are either, (a) other career paths they haven’t explored yet; or (b) if they’re transitioning into for example, industry, they might not feel they have the skills developed yet to make that transfer out of academia. We’re here to help with both of those things.

Q: What’s been the most popular?

I would say one of our programs, “Learning Beyond Grad School,” is probably the most popular. It’s a bundle of courses covering various topics. It starts off with Dr. Shirley Malcom’s course, “What Your Grad Adviser Didn’t Tell You.” She explores both if you’re planning on staying in academia, how to succeed in that environment—but she also asks questions these STEM researchers should be asking themselves, like have you looked at other career paths, or do you know how to go about looking at other career paths?  

Then there are other things such as creating a strategy for the job you want, writing a resume, networking, engaging with public audiences, communicating science, getting involved in science and understanding the federal budget process, [and] how to prepare a proposal that ranks well with a review panel. It’s a nice bundle for STEM researchers and early-career scientists just to give them kind of a toolkit for all the things they are asking themselves and doing at this stage of their career.

The other program we currently have is “Writing Successful Grant Proposals.” There are courses for anybody who’s putting together a grant proposal, but also there’s a lot of drill-down. There’s best practices for writing an NIH grant proposal, there’s one for writing a National Science Foundation proposal. Further than that, we were talking to the subject-matter experts, and they said “You really need to do a course specific to the broader impacts for the National Science Foundation proposal.”

Broader impacts, a research proposal’s potential to benefit society, are a very important part of the NSF proposal, but a lot of people writing the proposals—even if the proposal has very strong scientific merit, and even if the proposal has the criteria for broader impact—they don’t know how to express that in the proposal. We worked with NABI, the National Alliance for Broader Impacts. They actually came together because they recognized this as an issue with NSF grant proposals, so we worked with them to build a course specific to that need.

Q: Are you seeing any relationship between enrollment and budget ups and downs?

Since we’re only a little over a year old, it’s kind of difficult to compare that. But I think we are experiencing an uptick of grant proposal writing because they realize these grant proposals are going to be more and more competitive. And one of our free-to-members programs is “Understanding the Federal R&D Budget,” done by Matt Hourihan. That has become very popular. A lot of people are watching that one because they want to understand what is going on in the budget process.

Q: What kind of feedback are you getting, and how do you use it?

One of the courses, “Engaging in Science Policy,” is done by our assistant director for the Office of Government Relations, Erin Heath. She was the subject-matter expert—the instructor—for that course, and we got a lot of positive feedback on that. Some people have written in and said, “This is great, I want to get more involved in science policy,” or “I’m an early-career scientist, can you tell me more about the careers available in science policy.” So we did a follow-up course specific to the various types of positions. She interviews many people who are in science policy, but in various aspects. She asks them various questions, such as how they got to where they are. I think it would be very enlightening for anyone who wants to explore science policy as a career.

We also have courses for those early career scientists staying in research and academia. For example, we have a course “Designing an Undergraduate STEM Course,” for early-career faculty, which covers not only how to design your course but best practices in incorporating activities and other assessments. This is actually the first course of many we are creating for teaching science to adults.

Q: Based on what you’ve seen, are there any topics on which AAAS members should bone up?

I would put it into two broad categories. The early-career scientists who are either pre-graduate or post-docs, if they haven’t really explored all the other options available to them in science policy and government, or science journalism, or in industry—industry is a big one—they really should explore those. What we’re hearing is they are interested, but they don’t know how to go about exploring those.

That’s where these courses—in particular, “Learning Beyond Grad School”—come in handy, because it gives them ideas and possible strategies for further exploration.

On a more nuts-and-bolts level, it’s everything from building an effective resume to different strategies in networking, to preparing for a job interview outside of academia.

And we recently had our first live-training webcast. This is going to be a series as well. Dr. Josh Henkin did a live training webcast on June 20 on “Transitioning into a Non-Academic Career.” We got a tremendous response to that, and we’re going to be doing more of those as well. We’re trying to figure out which one will be next, but it might be something on diversity or women in science. It might be on one of many other topics. But we want to continue to do the live-training webcasts, because it’s very popular and obviously fulfilling a need in our audience. And those are free.

Q: Who’s signing up? Are these junior researchers looking for advancement, or mid-level folks seeking a change of horizon?

It’s all of the above. A lot of it depends on which course it is, but I would say a lot of these individuals would be early-career scientists and postdocs. For institutions, it’s usually the career office of the university. They’re offering this to their students. What we want to do is to be an added resource to complement what they’re already doing. A lot of them are purchasing these courses to essentially fill in the gaps of things they haven’t gone over in depth.


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Matt Smith