When Carol Plautz (formerly Carol Zygar) was nearing the end of her doctoral studies in biology at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, she wrote an article for Science's Next Wave that detailed the ways that graduate students can pay for their education. Because she was a Next Wave reader herself, Zygar knew that many young scientists would use that information to further their careers. What she didn't know was that once grad school was over and paid for, she would meander through a range of scientific and nonscientific occupations, from bench research, to Web site design and consulting, and on to teaching and academic administration.
Now, as a faculty member and dean of health sciences at The Community and Technical College of Shepherd ( CTC Shepherd) in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Plautz (pictured left) looks back at the hats she has worn and the events that have defined her professionally. Sometimes she wonders what life would have been like if she had chosen a more research-focused path, but she has no regrets. "Things are at best circuitous and ... at worst bumpy," Plautz explains. "But I am very happy with teaching. I'd never want to give up teaching because that's what I have a true love for."
Necessity Is the Mother of Invention: SciJobs.org
As a graduate student, Plautz used cellular and molecular biology techniques to examine the interactions that lead to lens and eye formation in vertebrates such as frogs. When she completed her doctorate in the spring of 1998, the Florida native continued eye research during a postdoc at Stanford University with Russell Fernald, this time studying the neurogenesis of the retina in an African fish species. Her husband, whom Plautz married while they were both graduate students at UVA, also earned a Ph.D. in biology and landed a job at the Stanford University-based HighWire Press.
During their first year in California, Plautz and her husband seemed to meet many young scientists who were unsure about their career paths and were looking for jobs away from academe. Because her husband knew his way around computers, they chose to offer a service. "In 1999, we decided that there was a need for a Web site for job-seeking scientists, particularly focusing on alternative careers in science," she says. "If one wanted to think about science writing, a museum position, management consulting, or a whole host of other things, our site would be the place to go."
With that idea, SciJobs.org was born. The site was updated weekly and contained URLs for jobs sites from universities, colleges, hospitals, museums, companies (large and small, including biotech firms), government agencies, and all kinds of publications that advertise scientific jobs. Both kept their day jobs and worked on the site at night. "My husband would do the technical work, and I would look for sites that had job postings," Plautz recalls. Putting in all those URLs meant that SciJobs was hard work, but they didn't mind, she says, because they knew they were helping many young scientists find rewarding and satisfying careers. The site was a community service, and access was free.
Another Chapter Begins
"When we'd talk to [business owners], they'd ask, 'What's your business model?' 'Business model?' I'd reply. 'You mean making money?' " Plautz says. SciJobs wasn't particularly lucrative, mainly because it hadn't been designed that way. Plautz and her husband began to search for ways to make the site profitable.
While the couple was experimenting with their new financial strategy for the site, Plautz was coming to grips with her own professional future. Although she "had a good time with research" during her two-and-a-half years as a postdoc, she found herself thinking about other career opportunities. She decided to see if she could make a go of SciJobs as a career for herself. "We didn't have any children," she says, "but we were thinking [that] if we did, SciJobs would be perfect for me because I could still keep good contact with the sciences and it could be something I could work on at home."
In the fall of 2000, the Plautzes felt an eastward pull and moved to Charles Town, West Virginia, in what Plautz likes to describe, jokingly, as "the far-west Washington, D.C., area." "We are really only 65 miles [100 km] west of D.C.," she remarks.
Before they moved, however, one of the founders of ScienceWise.com (now ResearchResearch.com), a science portal based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, saw the SciJobs site and was impressed. Plautz joined ScienceWise as a consultant, commuting to their Maryland offices twice a week while continuing to work on SciJobs. Her husband kept his job at HighWire and started telecommuting from home. After a year or so, it became increasingly clear that she wouldn't be able to make a career out of SciJobs, so she started to consider something else she knew she was good at: teaching.
Plautz contacted the chair of the biology department at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), which is 19 km from her home in Charles Town. They had a position open for an adjunct faculty member, and Plautz began teaching general biology in the fall of 2001, moving on to human anatomy and physiology when a faculty member retired.
Around the same time, CTC Shepherd, a community college in nearby Martinsburg, needed an anatomy and physiology instructor. Because Shepherd College and the neighboring community college shared a close working relationship, Plautz starting teaching there, too. Still an adjunct, Plautz held out hope for something full-time and permanent, and in December 2002, her patience paid off. The allied health department at CTC Shepherd offered her a full-time position teaching human anatomy and physiology and developing courses in laboratory technology, microbiology, and human growth and development.
Victory to the Versatile
When her boss, the director of emergency services and allied health sciences, left his post, the president of CTC Shepherd appointed Plautz as interim division director. Although it was a tremendously steep learning curve, she excelled as usual, playing an important role in the college's accreditation process. Then, when CTC Shepherd won its accreditation, its new board of governors made all division directors deans. "So now I'm dean of health sciences at the Community and Technical College of Shepherd," she says.
Plautz advises students who are considering working at a small college to take a wide array of courses. Biologists, for example, should give ecology, microbiology, molecular biology, and genetics a whirl because someday they may find themselves teaching those subjects. Education courses, too, can be helpful, she says. "The more you learn, the more effective you will become in helping the institution you have become a part of," she explains. "You'll have to wear many hats and think of ways you can contribute to the educational experience of students."
Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at email@example.com.