Archive for: February, 2010

Sometimes I forget

Feb 28 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

There are times when writing a blog of this size seems like an open conversation between myself and the couple of dozen people who comment. I have no problem with that, but sometimes I forget that it's possible to toss out a post that you think is relatively innocuous and prompt a response you weren't expecting. Certainly that was the case when I touched off a lively debate about the merits of postdocing not too long ago, by suggesting ways I had seen people have very productive and fun postdocs. Clearly part of the response was my fault because, as Dr. Becca correctly pointed out, one could read the post as "if you don't do what I say and you're in a shitty postdoc, it's your fault". That is really the last thing I meant to put out there, but when you write a post in 5 minutes between other obligations, sometimes it's not well thought out and comes across to others in a way you never meant. Sometimes I forget that mentioning the words "postdoc" and "fun" in the same sentence in the science blog community can be like wearig meat pants at the pound.

PLS prepares to post on the subject of a happy postdoc experience

There are many postdocs out there who are in exploitive situations, where they are being milked like data cows by supervisors who care little for what happens to their carcass after they are done as a "trainee". To me, that type of "supervising" is unconscionable, but it doesn't mean it's not rampant. But, the point of my original post was to provide points to consider when choosing a postdoc that might aid in ending up in, at the very least, a tolerable position during what I view as an important career stage. Sometimes I forget "drive-by commenters" are almost always the ones who post the most emotional response about a topic because they pluck a single post out of the whole, cherry pick a few phrases they disagree with and launch into tirade.

Artist's rendition of a drive-by commenter.

Hey, that's fine. It reminds me to read through what I'm writing a little more critically rather than just hitting the post button after I finish typing. The flip side of course, is that simply calling someone else's points "propaganda for the system" based on your own reality is not exactly productive. To claim that another person is trying to falsely generalize based on their experience and then project your own experience to a group of people is a pretty basic flaw in logic.

Whatever you do, don't look it in the eye!

What I think is important here, however, is to bear in mind the fact that many of us want the same thing - to find ways to improve the postdoc experience. PiT already beat me to the punch with a good post on ways in which individuals can help make changes for themselves or other postdocs, so I won't belabor those points. Suffice to say that complaining without doing anything will be dismissed by others as empty blathering. If you're passionate about making a change to the life of postdocs, then do more than writing myopic internet content. To look at the real stats behind postdoc salaries, for instance, and claim that this is not your problem is to blame shift in a very convenient way. I'm not saying that postdocs have control over their salary (unless they chose a position based only on that), but in many cases PIs also have very little control. Not every lab is a biomedical factory running on multiple NIH grants.

If that doesn't appeal to you then at the very least, as a PI, break the cycle. Those who vociferously complain about how horrible being a postdoc is, only to turn around and treat their trainees the same way, either have learned nothing or have consciously embraced the exact thing which they fought against. Many of the PIs who blog are very aware of the training responsibility we have to the next generation of postodcs, whether you decide to call that "nauseating altruism" or not. Every trainee has their own goals and one of the PI's responsibilities is to do what they can to place that trainee in the best position to succeed. In the real world even a good PI will not be able to do this 100% of the time and even successful trainees will no reach their goals 100% of the time. Does that mean that all PI's are just out for themselves and to find more trainee wood to throw on the fire of science? If you think that is the case, why are you aiming to be a PI? If you are an unhappy postdoc, will you treat the people in your lab better or will you see it as a rite of passage that they suffer? The fact of the matter is that improving the postdoc experience takes commitment IRL, not just virtual opinions.

[Update Biochem Belle just added a post about types of postdocs that readers may find useful.]

30 responses so far

Data paralysis

Feb 26 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

I just got data. Not just any data, but a motherload of data. The amount of data that makes you look at it and think "Did I really order this or did they send the wrong thing" like if 400 pairs of socks showed up at your door after a night of drunken online binge shopping.

I'm fucking giddy about it all, but on the other hand, I have no idea where to start. Like a contestant in the biggest burger eating contest, I can't even pick this up, let alone find a place to sink my teeth in. This is not something someone should get at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. It just isn't.

7 responses so far

A breath of fresh air

Feb 25 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

I'll be honest, I haven't posted a lot this week because this has been a tough week. For a lot of reasons, blogging has just fallen off the map in ways it normally doesn't. Today in particular, I hit a wall where by about 2:00 I wasn't useful to anything. I tried to edit a paper and ended up staring at it, with nothing to add. Part of the problem is just working too many hours and the other is not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

By 4:00 I was fried and called it a day. My wife was able to get off at 4:00 and we went to pick up th Wee One. Emotionally and physically burnt, we stopped at day care and it changed my day. Today was one of those rare times when everything fell in to line and the Wee One was in a great mood when I wasn't and it changed everything for me. Parenthood is a difficult journey, but there are times when you forget all of the tough times and there's a shining moment where you think to yourself, "this is why we do this".

Today was one of those days. The Wee One was happy on the car ride home and we had all sort of fun playing when we got home. Not much would have changed my mood tonight, but she did it in a way that is hard to explain. Now, sitting at home, the week doesn't feel as bad and I'm less concerned with the next two months. At least for an evening, I can forget work and focus on my daughter. Her smile melts me.

6 responses so far

Alert your relatives, exams coming!

Feb 25 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

With my class exam drawing neigh, suddenly attendance issues and all other matters are cropping up. My class is pretty small and I already have 20% of the students as possible no-shows for the exam. Sports, deaths, illnesses... everyone has some reason that they may not on Tuesday, be able to get to the same classroom they have been getting to every Tuesday prior.

I will readily admit that creating all of the lectures and class exercises is tapping my will to live at the moment, but this kind of stuff is really testing me. I'm barely keeping everything together dealing with what and how to teach these kids and now there's rescheduling, possible make-up exams, medical notes, etc., etc. I'm not in any way saying that people can't have legit excuses for missing class, just that the amount of extra work for students that do can be huge. And, the oft stated tenet that there is a close association between major illness and exams is certainly ringing true.

At this point I can only hope that I don't end up getting really sick, because I don't know how much further I can fall behind on some critical things in my research and home life right now.

3 responses so far

So how DO we mentor people for "alternative" careers?

Feb 23 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

There are several uncomfortable realities one must face as a grad student or postdoc in academia, and one of the biggest are that there are not enough TT jobs for everyone that wants one. In fact, there are far less. This reality means that many people who start off in the direction of a TT faculty position will end up in another career to use their skills. These are often referred to as "alternative" careers, based on the bias that every trainee wants to end up just like their mentors. In reality, much like the number of "pre-med" students at a university, a lot of people either decide they want to do something else or have that decision made for them along the way.

As is often pointed out, however, the mentors in academic science are almost exclusively people have taken the TT direction. If you want advice on navigating the road to this type of job, most of us will have no shortage of pointers. On the other hand, if you asked me the best way to go into science editing for a major journal after a PhD, I'm afraid I don't know the answer. So, as mentors, how do we adequately prepare our students and postdocs for appealing careers outside of the ones we inhabit?

I'll confess now that I don't have all the answers here. In fact, if you read often you'll know that I almost never have all the answers, merely opinions based on my observations. But I did pose this question to some early-career colleagues, who re-affirmed what I was thinking and added a number of good points. I would be interested to hear what readers in both the mentoring and trainee positions have found helpful.

The first point that was brought up is the overlap between what people need to accomplish to be considered excellent candidates for either a TT job or many other science careers. The ability to communicate orally and in writing, a record of good science (publications and/or grants) and critical thinking.

Another point that was made was the importance of communication with the public. While we probably don't stress this enough in science, generally speaking, the ability to explain science to the general public in writing or in a succinct oral synopsis is exceedingly important in jobs like industry, journalism, public policy, etc.

Networking. As a trainee who is considering or committed to a career outside the tenure track, it is essential to make the contacts that will help you get there. If your PI can help make those connections, great. If not, it's important to find a way to develop them yourself.

As a PI, I think it is important for us to not only be open to trainees pursuing non-TT options, but also to be able to steer them in the right direction to get the advice they will need to succeed. As long as (and here can be the sticking point) their career trajectory does not directly conflict with the production of good science in the lab and the completion of their degree.

As for how that works, I can only tell you what I have tried and happily hear what others have found works.
- Having trainees thinking of non-TT careers invite a person of interest for a departmental seminar.
- Putting funds towards conference or workshop attendance of interest to the trainee that will help with both their current project and future goals.
- Opening a dialog between a trainee and someone already established in their field of interest.

14 responses so far

Monday through Friday

Feb 21 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

I came in early today (Sunday) to get some work done in order to spend the afternoon with my family. There's a stack of stuff on my desk and Tuesday's lecture is only in my head. I work in a new building, which has had some issues with the times it is locked - seemingly random and often not on weekends. This weekend it was locked, so I swiped my card to get access. Nothing. I tried all 5 card readers around the building. Nada.

Pissed off that I couldn't get into my office, I called security and was told that my building was not on "the list" to be open this weekend. I explained my situation and after a few "yeah, buts", the officer begrudgingly sent a security officer to let me in. I picked a spot of the building that was least windlashed and waited.

While waiting, I saw a grad student from another department approach the building from another side. I thought about telling the grad student about the card reader issues, but they were far enough away that I would have had to yell and this was not a student I knew at all. I figured they would get to the door, realize the issue and approach the door I was at. In a classic "Midvale School for the Gifted" moment, the student walked up to the one set of doors that has no card swipe, opened one and walked in. Feeling like a dumbass for making the leap of logic that all of the doors would be locked, especially the ones without the card readers, I stood in the cold wondering whether to go inside or wait for the security officer outside.

I decided on going in and calling the security office to keep the officer from coming down but he had already arrived and met me not a minute later. I explained how I got in and he let me know that the building is locked to everyone on the weekends because they don't expect that we work overtime. "You work Monday through Friday" he explained.

Oh, officer, wouldn't that be nice? There wasn't much point in explaining the hours I actually work, but I'm going to have to make sure that it's clear there needs to be a way for those with card access to the building to get in "after hours".

11 responses so far

What to expect in the first year

Feb 18 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Obviously, there has been some discussion around these parts about becoming new TT faculty and how prepared people actually are. With that in mind, I thought I would provide a Top Ten list of things that I wasn't as prepared for as I thought I was when I arrived in my job.

10. Walking into an empty room and knowing you have to turn it into a functioning lab in relatively short order is a bit overwhelming. In a lot of ways, it is a fun challenge, but remembering EVERYTHING takes some serious work. It helps if you walk around your postdoc lab and list everything you see, right down to the tube racks and brushed in t he sink. Ordering things will consume you for the first couple of months.

9. Balancing finishing up postdoc projects with launching a new research program can be difficult. It's easy to drop your past and concentrate on the new stuff, but getting those last few pubs out the door helps mask the productivity gap of setting up a new lab. Also, doing this sooner than later means you will have to spend less time searching through old files trying to remember things that were fresh 6 months earlier.

8. Meetings take more of your time than you can imagine. Even from the very early stages it is worth picking a day or two during the week and removing them from your schedule so that nothing breaks up that day or days. It doesn't seem like it right away, but after a few months you'll be asking yourself "why I can't I get anything done during the week?" and the answer will be because you don't have any blocks of time longer than two hours. I know the idea of it seems ridiculous, but it happens.

7. Trainees are enormous time-sinks in the first 6 months. You may or may not have grad students or a technician starting in your first year, but whenever they do show up it is surprising how much of your time becomes dedicated to making sure they do things you want them done and keeping them on the right track. This gets better as more people join the lab, but one needs to be careful of the game of "lab technique telephone" which can occur if you have trainees teaching trainees.

6. Politics. Some places will be worse than others, but figuring out where people stand and being sucked into numerous discussions on how your university runs is also a massive time suck in the beginning. Steer clear of as much of this as possible, but you can't dodge everything unless you start wearing a Teflon suit to work. Then people might give you a wide berth.

5. Everyone wants a piece of you. While you still have that new faculty smell, everyone wants their pound of flesh. You'll be asked to give seminars in the relevant departments or nearby universities and maybe even some guest lectures in classes. You'll be asked to attend different events by administrators so they can show off their new hire and the university will try and "orientation" the shit out of you with events and training sessions. Other faculty will want to blab on for days about "how things are here", etc, etc.

4. Nothing in research works in a new lab. At least, this has been my experience. Everything will be slightly different than the environments where you learned the techniques. The machines will be different (even if they are the same models), the water will be different, the tilt of the Earth, whatever. It takes time to trouble shoot everything in the new digs and the routine protocols you once performed will have to be tweaked.

3. Where once you had one or two grants to apply to per year, now you're chasing the world. As a postdoc there are a couple of grants that one can directly apply for. Maybe your PI asked you to help with other grants as well. As a new PI with your own ideas to fund and in need of money, you'll start applying for far more than you thought. I sent in 7 grant applications in my first year. That's a lot of writing, a lot of adjustments and a lot of rejections only to start over again. You don't carry that kind of load as a postdoc.

2. Making a name for yourself takes a lot of exposure. As a new PI, it's important to get the word out quickly that you've started your own show and you're moving forward with new ideas. In addition to letting people at your university know who you are, you need to do the same at the international level. Publications from you new lab are not going to come out for at least a year or two, so you have to get out to meetings and work the conferences. You have to network for yourself now, so start booking flights.

1. You're the boss. You now control your fate in a way you previously have not. Your ideas are under the bright light, your writing has to fund the lab, your personnel decisions will make or break you and your blood, sweat and tears will determine everything in the next 5-7 years. You'll have some support, but ultimately it all comes down to you. Your trainees depend on your success as much as you on theirs and their jobs and careers are in your hands. Somehow this reality didn't really sink in for a bit, despite postdocing with a pre-tenure prof who was very open about the ups and downs of things and I'm not sure it can be fully realized until you're in the position. One can be aware of it, but living it is different.

I'm sure others will weigh in with things I've left off the list, and this is in no way comprehensive, but all of it combines to make for a pretty crazy transition from being a trainee in a lab to calling the shots. It's easy to look over this list and think, yup, I know all that. The problem is that it's the cumulative effect (not necessarily additive, btw) that makes being pushed into the deep end so jarring.

13 responses so far

From the commentariat

Feb 17 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

27 responses so far

The Poor Guinea Pigs

Feb 16 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

I am not a great teacher. That's true on the same level that it was when I first got my driver's license and was not a great driver. In fact, I had far more driving practice than I have teaching practice, so there shouldn't be much surprise that I'm still more worried about crashing my class into a ditch than am I able to fly down the teaching highway while simultaneously drinking coffee and soothing a toddler in the backseat. I have no doubt that teaching experience will allow me to be at least a good teacher, but I'm struggling right now.

I've taken courses on teaching and TAed more than I care to remember, but teaching an entire class by oneself is not the same thing. I'm struggling to find ways to engage the students and wearing myself down trying to identify all of the content I want them to learn while not overwhelming the topic - simultaneously over and under thinking every lecture, only to turn around and start the process again right after class. It's exhausting and it makes it even more painful when I feel like I'm staring out at the most bored people in the universe at that given time or get through a lecture super early. As much as I dislike crossing campus in the throng between classes, making the quiet walk back across campus alone because I ran out of material 20 minutes early is far worse.

I guess the good news is that I care about the experience of the students, but I can't help feeling sorry for this first class they have given me to experiment with. There's no such thing as a class simulator, so learning with breathing and paying bodies is the only way to get better. There have been a few lectures where I really felt like I nailed it, but so far I've walked out of more trying to make a mental list of all the things I need to do better for that topic next year. For better or for worse, it's a long semester and I hope I'll be a better teacher at the other end.

13 responses so far

In defence of the postdoc

Feb 12 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Over the past month or so there has been a lot of talk about postdocs, whether it's why people do them, the purpose of them or why some think they suck. In my field there is pretty much no getting around doing a postdoc if you want to do the whole TT thing, and frankly, I think that's a good thing. No matter how much you think you know about research and being a PI by the end of your PhD, the time as a postdoc is valuable in learning how much you really don't know. On top of that, being a postdoc should be one of the most exciting research times of your career.

The biggest complaints I hear about postdocing are 1) Money, 2) moving around and 3) lack of independence.

Money. This may be unpopular, but if you are in this business to get rich you might as well leave now. Yeah, PDFs typically make $35K - $50K, depending on the field and that isn't a ton of money given the training they have had to that point, but get over it. You're being paid to do research, and in most cases, have no other distractions. Assuming you have picked a research topic you enjoy, this is a pretty good deal. Personally, I would seriously consider the pay cut to be doing just research at this stage.

Moving around. Yup, the academic lifestyle can be somewhat nomadic and that can put a strain of relationships and make for difficult logistics. Because of that, a lot of people try and limit their geographic search, sometimes unreasonably. Personally, I would (and did) take the opposite approach and look for a postdoc in a completely unfamiliar place where you might never chose to settle. Why? Because a postdoc can be a lot more than just a job experience. I have numerous friends who are doing postdocs all over the world and the happiest of them are the ones that chose a place totally different from what they were used to. Maybe this wouldn't work in all fields, but there are plenty of excellent labs in other countries and you would be amazed how helpful international experience can be for collaborations. Not to mention that being in an unfamiliar place encourages one to go out and explore. Getting out of the lab for fun can be a good thing.

Lack of independence. Now I know that lots of people get into situations where they feel taken advantage of or where they are stuck doing projects they don't care about. That is why it is critical to do your homework ahead of time and know enough about the supervisor whose lab you are joining to determine if you can work with them and get the mentoring you need. Don't just take a position in any lab doing something remotely close to what you like. Talk to other trainees in the lab! Talk to former trainees. Is the lab a good place to develop as a scientist? That information can be FAR more important than the project. Put yourself in a place to succeed.

Obviously, this isn't a fool proof way to a happy postdoc, but give yourself the best shot you can. Expand you research horizons with something different from your PhD and do it in a fun place, both socially and scientifically. A postdoc can be one of the best times of your career.

32 responses so far

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