Archive for: August, 2013

Repost: Graphic Fridays: Lab Productivity

Aug 30 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I'm reposting this from a little more than a year ago. If there's one thing I've learned in the last 5 years, it's that building a lab to where you want it to be takes WAAAAAAAY longer than you think when you start off. This leads to all sorts of panicy thoughts along the way about being behind and not getting things out fast enough, etc. Last year I kinda felt like we were making good progress. This year it has gotten better. Hopefully next year we'll be exceeding my expectations, I don't know. But it's important for junior people to realize that they're not the only people feeling like they aren't where they need to be fast enough.

If you are like me, you either walked into your new lab as a PI, or plan to do so, ready to roll. There is a lot that needs to get done, but how long could it take, right?

Chances are, if you got a PI job, that you did a postdoc in a lab that was running full steam. I did both previous stops in labs of assistant professors who made tenure while I was there. In both cases, the labs were established enough to be just gaining a reputation for themselves, but hadn't fully broken through yet. By the time I left each, the story was different and each one had expanded significantly.

At the time it never occurred to me to consider the early days of each lab, but thinking back, each took some time to get established. However, walking into my own lab I assumed that in a year or two I would be DOING ALL TEH SCIENCE!!!!

Hhahahaha, yeaaahhhh. About that....

I'm sure there are people who do magic in a year or two and crap nature papers like they have some sort of scientific dysentery. Good for them. But for the rest of us, a lab is built in small steps with the occasional home run and the more than occasional strike out. It is torturous at times and progress seems glacial because you always feel like you are behind. But at some point (different for everyone) you can look back and surprise yourself at the progress you have made.

8 responses so far

Open access is the only way to publish like a Mercedes* Prius is the only car to drive

Aug 29 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I know open access is a regular topic on twitter and in the blogosphere, (and I've already been beaten to this punch, here and here and here) but it's something that many of us grapple with. Before I start I want to state that I support open access, have published in OA journals and paid for OA in journals that provide that option. But I don't limit myself to only OA solutions. Why? Because I can't afford it.

We'll deal with the financial aspect of OA in a minute, but there's more to "affording" something than the dollars. Like practically anything, academia is a hierarchical system. There's the obvious hierarchy that can be seen in career stage, but there's the sometimes less obvious divisions that exist.

Institution of employment is next on the list, followed closely (and slightly more opaquely) by lineage. Who did you train with? Where did you train? Who has your back when it comes time for nominations, honorary positions, invitations, etc. It's pretty clear from a variety of studies that gender and ethnicity further complicate these factors and add sub-layers to the whole mix. What does this all have to do with OA? Plenty.

The OA movement is admirable and I wish I could be more a part of it. The truth is, I care more about getting a foothold in my field and establishing my career than I do about the OA movement. Is that selfish? In the short term, yes. In the longer term, I hope to be in a better position to use OA journals without being concerned about the evaluation of my publication record. I didn't start my career with an academic silver spoon, so my margin of error is slimmer. I network the shit out of contacts because I can't count on being introduced around to all my mentors' National Academy friends. There are certain doors I have to pry open, and I don't have to deal with the gender and ethnicity issues that others face on a daily basis. Even for the riff raff, I have it pretty good. Does that mean I can pick journals simply because they are OA? No.

For one, regardless of Impact Factor, there are certain journals that have broad name recognition in my particular corner of science. Whether it is tenure evaluation, grant panels or nomination boards, the journals on your CV matter. It's one thing to say "those panels need to change their thinking!" when your job and funding are highly secure, but another for those of us scrapping it out. Then there's the problem of where My Community will see my publications. Some OA journals are not on everyone's radar. Can I take that risk?

The second issue is the actual cost. Those who say "It's just $1000" maybe haven't published in a while because the fees for PLoS everything but One are a bit steeper than that. Three grand for PLoS Biology? Add in institutional overhead and now we're at $5K. I've spent that on preliminary data that got us a grant, which supports three people in my lab. Where's the intersection of OA morality and my lab's bank account?

I really respect both the work that comes out of Michael Eisen's lab, and his passion for causes he throws himself into. However, browbeating junior faculty and postdocs into making career choices that are likely to not be optimal for them because of his own moral convictions is not the way to greater OA acceptance. If one of us doesn't make tenure or never gets a TT job because of our journal choices (or because we burn up critical start-up on OA fees), that neither helps the OA movement, nor science. But casualties are just the price for a morals war, right? Infantry are always the easiest to replace.

Thanks, but I'm going to continue to make journal choices that maximize my ability to compete in my field. If that's morally reprehensible to you, enjoy your high horse. I'm going to keep my people paid and ensure they leave my lab in a position to compete for the jobs they want. Martyrism never looked good on me anyway.

*h/t Isis for the title correction.

18 responses so far

Repost: Publish papers. Your thesis means nothing

Aug 27 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I've posted this before, both in 2009 and 2010, but it's been a while and the point remains valid. I see way too many people worry about the actual document of their thesis as their grad career drags on another semester. Get the papers out. Don't create a tome for a shelf.

Whether it's tradition or a lack of well communicated expectations, grad students seem to be enormously focused on The Thesis. Students fixate on this document for months before writing it and then for weeks to months of actually writing it. I have to say, I've never quite understood that, because if you had to put odds on the people who will read your whole thesis it would look something like this:

2:1 Advisor
3:1 Committee/Examiners
10:1 Over-eager new student who takes on aspects of your project when you leave
1,000:1 You, after it's done.
100,000:1 Your parents
1238947692092y47nc783et687:1 Everyone else

When I got my thesis back from the binders, I opened it up and read the first sentence. In that sentence, I had a typo that made the word "three" into "tree". Seeing that, I promptly shut the thing and that was that. Never opened again.

The one caveat to this is if you never publish the papers. In that case, the community might find it and someone might crack it open, but probably not. But that's the point. Uncommunicated science might as well never have been done in the first place. Get the papers out. Don't focus on an arcane document that will gather dust for the next 50 years until the departmental office needs space and throws the old ones out. Write the papers, or at least write the chapters as papers so you can get them out quickly after the thesis. If you publish before you graduate, writing your thesis should be about as simple as slapping together a half-assed intro and conclusion (complete with typos that no one catches) and be done with it.

38 responses so far

Behind the curve: Lorde

Aug 27 2013 Published by under [Et Al]

I know I'm late on this one, but it's been the only song that has been able to get "Mr. Sun" outta my head recently. For that, it deserves special praise.

One response so far


Aug 26 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

My most productive collaborations have resulted from me seeing something I could contribute to in a meaningful way and proposing to another PI a way in which our involvement could add to a line of inquiry.

My less productive collaborations have resulted from someone requesting that we fill a perceived gap in an on-going project.

I have gotten something out of both types, but the mutual investment seems to be higher when we go about the former, rather than the latter, way.

No responses yet

Family codes

Aug 23 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Every family speaks in codes that outside people, even with years of practice, have a difficult time discerning.

2 responses so far

Great expectations

Aug 16 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Yesterday I asked on twitter whether or not people had a written "expectations" document in their lab. What I had in mind was much like this "lab philosophy" page that was pointed out by Dr. Becca. If you have a second to go read it, I think you'll find it's worth it.

The response was pretty variable, but more people than I expected answered yes. I don't mean to strictly formalize things in the lab with memos for everything, but I can see how such a document puts everyone on the same page. One could argue that a conversation will do the same, but the document is consistent across anyone who comes into the lab. Additionally, it lets people at different levels get a better feel for what is expected of others.

So, readers, do you have such a document in your lab (as PI or trainee)? If so, do you think it helps? If not, do you think it would help?

12 responses so far

Hypothetical choices

Aug 15 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There is a significant amount of variety across universities in how they deal with the tenure process. In some places everything is closed off to the candidate until the curtain is pulled back with a handshake or kick in the ass. In others, there is more communication along the way. In a small subset, this is taken to an extreme. The more I learn about the variation in the tenure process the more I wonder what I would choose, given certain choices.

My questions for y'all today are along those lines:

1) Would you chose to read your external tenure letters (those solicited from people outside the university)?

2) Would you want to know who the people writing those letters are?

3) If you did read the letters and were given the option to exclude letters you did not think supported your case, would you?

I'll post my thoughts in a bit.

11 responses so far

You both have to do 75% #pubscience #Scimom

If you watch only 10 minutes of the video on science parenting from last night's #pubscience, check out the ~30-40min mark. Two important points are made during that span:

1) Babyattachmode makes the under appreciated point about academic career pairs and priority. She talks about how she and her husband got their PhDs around the same time, but because she took time off to have a child, his CV is now stronger. The result of that is that she has essentially become the "trailing spouse" in their job search.

2) Michael Tomasson made one of the more insightful comments about effort. He relayed his experience in which he found that the idea that both parents can shoulder 50% of the load and meet in the middle, is false. Rather, it takes both parents feeling like they are doing 75% for things to come together in anything resembling equal effort. Why 75%? Because there's significant non-overlap between each person's priorities and doing 50% of what you see as 100% leaves significant gaps.

I think both these are worth considering when we talk about dual career pairs, fairness and how kids fit into the mix.

18 responses so far

Tenurish reflections

Aug 13 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

My tenure packet is being submitted shortly, causing larger gaps between posts these days. Odd to think that I've been here 5 years, and blogging the whole thing for most of that time. I haven't been anywhere for five whole years since grade school. But I'm happy and feel like I know what I'm doing these days. In looking back, I made some good calls and some poor decisions and thought this might be a good opportunity to sort them out.

The good:

- I've hired some fan-freaking-tastic people. I owe an enormous amount to their efforts, ideas, relentlessness and sass. There's some element of luck here and sometimes you just need to go with your gut when making these decisions, but so far this has been a point of strength in the lab.

- I hit the grant writing scene like a honey badger. Was it always effective? No. But getting on panels helped and being short-memoried when it came to failure was fairly critical. I'm sure my POs would argue I wrote too many grants early on, but the learning process was critical for me to figure out the system. This is especially true because I had no experience with the US system prior to establishing my own lab.

- I focused on two major themes, with sub-projects. IMHO, I think the lab has erred a bit on the side of two many projects, than too few, but as is my wont. So far it has worked and kept us open to a variety of funding mechanisms. Is it sustainable? We'll see. Maybe no one will ever figure out what I do.

- I've been able to make sure all my lab peeps are supported. This may seem like an odd statement to some, but in my field it is not uncommon to have grad students unpaid through the summer and have to find their own money for conferences or travel. This isn't how I wanted to run my lab and I have thus far managed to ensure that my students are supported year-round and have the ability to travel to conferences to present their work.

- My online community. Positively influential in so many ways.

- I landed in a good department. My colleagues and admin are very supportive, which I have been very lucky to have found. It's not always ease to figure out in an interview whether you're walking into a good situation or a sharknado.

The less good:

- Publications. All that grant writing meant that the lab's publication record has suffered somewhat. We've been productive, but we're not quite yet where I want to be. If there's one thing I could change, I might have been slightly more strategic about writing grants to free up a little time for some publication effort. Of course.....

- I started from scratch. The dumbest thing I did was finish everything from my postdoc and start my lab with projects that had to be built from the ground up. Ultimately you want original projects, but walking away from my postdoc without a starter project was a critically dumb thing to do. Again, my lack of prior US funding experience comes in to play here, but not having to generate every ounce of preliminary data in my brand new lab would have really been helpful. Hindsight 20/20 and all that.

- When there was a personnel issue in the lab, I waited too long to deal with it. This is probably an issue for most new bosses, but if I had pulled the trigger when my gut was telling me to, it would have helped.

- That first semester teaching (a.k.a. That time we will never speak of again).

On the whole, the last 5 years has been good. I was recently told by a friend who is a few years behind me, career-wise, that they decided to pursue non-academic career options based on reading my blog. I guess that's an indication that I've been honest when things weren't going so well - and there are certainly times when I've felt like this job was going to break me. At the same time, it's a pretty great job when you find your footing. I'm not sure it's more consuming than other high-pressure careers, it just pays less.

The bottom line is that things are settling in, it just took longer than I expected.

5 responses so far

Older posts »