Archive for the '[Education&Careers]' category

Surviving pre-tenure: The People

Jul 14 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

In many ways, it's almost pointless to talk about all the other aspects of pre-tenure if you can't get good people in your lab. The best laid plans are simply a terrible lab dynamic away from being burnt to the ground.

This is a bit of a catch 22, because it is hard to recruit until you get established and hard to get established until you have some good people in the lab. Some will have the name of their institution or the prominence of their particular program to help them out here, but if you're direct-recruiting you have a lot of work to do here. You need to be proactive.

Reach out to colleagues. Seriously. Every year for the first couple of years here I emailed a dozen or so colleagues asking them if they knew of any undergrads or finishing MS students that they think would be a good fit for my lab. It didn't always work out that the student was interested, but it got the ball rolling and put some applications on my radar when it came time to look over the pool.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have had mostly excellent trainees in the lab. I had some terrific students sent my way who laid the groundwork for the lab's identity and put us in a position to make a mark. It's not a stretch to say that they played a significant role in me getting tenure, but I always kept in mind that they were taking more of a chance on me than I was on them. Could I get the funding for their project to be successful? Could I keep them paid every semester and summer? Could I get them to conference to talk about their work? Would I have connections to be able to introduce them to the people they should be talking to?

All of these things matter. Not every trainee will have thought that through before accepting a position in your pre-tenure lab, but it's worth keeping in mind yourself as you recruit. There's no question you'll be spending more time looking for that "diamond in the rough" than your more established colleagues, but the time spent pays off in enormous ways when it works out.

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Pre-tenure survival: Research diversity

Jul 10 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This is a topic I think I'm going to get some strong counter arguments on, but it's also something that has been essential for my labs ability to navigate tight funding lines. For my own success, one of the best things I did pre-tenure was diversify my research around two central themes. At any given point we've had two to three minimally overlapping projects around each theme. Some have worked out great and some have resulted in only a single publication. But they have all produced something.

More importantly, this strategy has kept up publications in two different scientific fields. Because of that, we've gotten federal and state funding in each of these areas and continue to seek funding for the different projects in each. Diverse topics means diverse research funding sources and programs.

Of course, diverse research topics also means spreading resources thinner, including time and money. It means having to stay on top of more than one body of literature. You'll find that there are certain things that students can't train other students in. It's time consuming and you risk being the jack of all trades and master of none.

But I'm watching the consequence of a single focus play out with a friend of mine right now. He's been successful as a solid contributor to a field that has ballooned recently. But in the last few years there has been a massive $$ dump into the field, with a focus on a few labs. The result is that those labs have more people and more money and churning out papers rapidly. The field has been suddenly and massively tilted. Not only does this have significant consequences for my friend's research program, but his trainees are on the outside looking in as well.

BTW, neuro peeps, how is that whole BRAIN initiative going to distribute funds?

In any case, I'm not suggesting you diversify your research program in case some funding agency drops a lot of money on your direct competition, but there are numerous benefits to keeping a wide base. It made my pre-tenure experience better and more successful.

7 responses so far

Pre-tenure survival: The competition

Jul 09 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The Monkey has a post up about the internal awkwardness of the feelings related to congratulating a peer on their success. The conversation stems from this tweet from Karen James. There was much agreement on the twits that people find it difficult to see others succeed. In particular, this rang true with pre-tenure folks who have milestones they see is career-critical and have watched others make it to these points faster than themselves.

Been there. Done that.

Here's the thing: it never really gets better. I left the following comment on DrugMonkey's post and it is the unfortunate truth.

It doesn't matter how successful you have been or are being, there will always be someone running just a bit faster. And you will always compare yourself to front-runners and forget that people are comparing themselves to you and feeling less successful. It's the nature of the business, it's human nature and even if you're sailing along at a solid clip, it won't get easier. Be happy for them and move on.

Nearly every single position has different constraints and requirements. For the first couple of years I had this job I was constantly looking at one of my foreign collaborators and stressing over the fact that their publication rate was way better than mine. It turns out that this collaborator has zero teaching responsibility and an automatic budget to count on in addition to any grant funds. That is not my situation.

While that's a bit of an extreme example, even colleagues who work in comparable positions as mine have very different responsibilities and commitments. Some are doing better than I am and some are falling a bit behind and I completely expect that there will be peaks and valleys for all of us in the coming years. Nevertheless, one will always focus on the labs setting the pace.

It's okay to be competitive. It's okay to strive to be the leader. But don't define your success that way or you will undoubtedly spend more time chasing windmills than developing your career.

17 responses so far

On navigation and trust on the TT

Jul 07 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Today we're running a guest post from former blogger, Cackle of Rad, as part of the pre-tenure survival carnival. Enjoy!

Gifts from people often come by surprise and in strange packages. These gifts may be as simple as a kind word or as complex as the knowledge that someone is not to be trusted. If you are on the tenure track and lucky, gifts may come from your Dean in the form of unexpected funding--an extra semester for a student, a post-doc, possibly even funding for a conference or meeting that could expand your scientific range and pool of contacts. They may be more insidious--the moment you realize a contact is fishing for information about your lab’s progress on something rather than simple interest in your science. Pay attention to these moments, because they are the sort that help you determine who is on your team versus those that see you as a stumbling block or stepping stone.

There is a lot of noise in the process of sorting out a new lab. Will I be able to attract trainees? Will I develop something novel and interesting? Can I get funded? Why is no one listening to a damn thing I say? How do I fire someone--do I fire people or put up with crappy performance? When do I celebrate the good things?

These questions are all important, but they are the easy ones because they are somewhat straightforward and in general such questions apply to all of us. The more difficult aspect of navigation is sorting the seed from the chaff--those that want to see your research program succeed versus those that don’t care very much versus those that see you as direct competition. Let’s not forget those whose work you influence. This is a murky category--potential collaborator, someone on your heels, someone in direct competition, or someone that helpfully cites your work and expands it in a direction you would not have.

From personal experience I believe that women have a more difficult path to navigate. I won’t belabor the statistics or personal anecdotes, but find it interesting that I have received far more professional support from other women academics compared to men. I have wondered why, but have decided that noodling on the subject is a waste of time. This is time that could be better spent performing analyses, writing up papers, brainstorming my next grant application. And really? Fuck them for adding to that noise.

My very confident and super-awesome post-doc advisor once told me to re-negotiate every personal relationship at least twice a year. For example, Does my association with this person provide me a benefit or a cost--and, do the benefits outweigh the costs? At the time I thought this mental pruning seemed excessive, but now I realize where he was coming from. To this advice I would add: Be confident in yourself. Listen to the voices that provide clarity on navigating your course, treat your friends well, and be kind to people. But don’t blindly trust--and, importantly, recognize gifts when they are handed to you, whether helpful or insightful.

CoR is on twitter (@CackleofRad) or can be reached via email

4 responses so far

Blog carnival: Surviving the pre-tenure years

Jul 02 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There's been some discussion on twitter and by email recently about how to successfully navigate the pre-tenure years as a faculty member. Now that I've had tenure for a full 38 hours, I'm obviously qualified to blather on incessantly about how one clears the bar. However, rather than take my word for it, I thought it would be good to solicit posts from around the web and aggregate them for people to browse, in a similar fashion to Dr. Becca's TT search advice page. In that way it could be a resource for people to check back on as they wind their way through the process.

So, the deal is this: If you have a post up or want to write one about navigating pre-tenure life, link it in the comments section or send me the link directly by July 15. I will post them all with appropriate subheadings and add additional links as they dribble in. Let the posting begin!

18 responses so far

Prolonged illness in the workplace

Jun 30 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There are so many things one has to deal with when running a lab that never even crossed the radar previously. A list would be sufficiently boring as to drive people away in droves, but simply employing people directly brings up hundreds of possibilities. One I've never seen solved all that well is when someone in the lab is unable to work for a prolonged time due to factors outside their control.

It could be anything, really. Sickness, accident, the health of a dependent, etc. In certain cases (e.g. pregnancy) where there is some predictability it is possible to plan and even bring in additional help if necessary. Of course, our parental leave policies in the US are too restrictive for there to be an easy mechanism in place, but I've seen a short-term staff member do a great job of keeping the science rolling.

The tougher situations are the unpredictable ones that lack a clear timeline for return. Do you hire someone or wait it out? How does hiring short-term help affect the status and insurance of the person they are replacing? If recovery time is faster, are you on the hook for two people for the length of the replacement contract? Do you just let a project hang until the person returns? There's no formula and few good options. This is doubly true if there is a substantial union process for hiring and the injured/sick person is a staff member. How do people handle these situations?

Perhaps sometimes science just takes a backseat to the health of those doing it.

17 responses so far

Girls just don't wanna have fun at conferences

Jun 19 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It's conference season and a time when scientists scurry around the globe to talk to other scientists and present what they've been up to. I look forward to having a chance to chat with people face-to-face that I email all the time, or get updates from those I only talked to the previous year. I find that the older I get, the more time I spend discussing science and the less time I spend in the presented talks. These are productive times for me, hashing out ideas and planting seeds of collaboration. I make a concerted effort to spend social time with people in small groups when I have some specific I want to discuss, and larger groups when I want to meet new people and pick their brains a bit.

But this year I've been thinking about things a little differently. That's because last year I was at a conference with a couple of good friends who I like to hang out with socially. We had done so that week, but a larger group was gathering and I thought it would be fun to join them. I asked one of my female colleagues if she wanted to come and she declined. Curious whether there was someone going who she didn't like, I asked why she wasn't interested. Her response was honest and something I completely take for granted.

"I'm tired of wondering when the switch will get flipped and I'll go from being 'the colleague with interesting ideas' to 'the potential bed partner'. I'm tired of not being able to unknow things about some of my male colleagues. I'm tired of needing an exit strategy and being worried about missing my window to escape. So I stick with small groups of people I know well and lose out on some opportunities to get to know others. But it's worth it."

Then she told me a few stories. Some were about people I knew through the literature and others were about people I knew personally. Some where shocking. But as we've discussed before, when a victim has nothing to gain by making up these stories there's a damn good chance they aren't.

At a recent conference I kept my eyes out for this in a big way, and it will surprise no woman that as some evenings wore on it wasn't hard to pick out a couple of instances. Some things were overt and some less so, but there sprang an undercurrent that I had not fully appreciated. I have no problem with conference goers finding situations mutual interest, should they be in the personal circumstances to act on them, but that's a small minority of the interactions that occur.

So dudes, pull this apart a little bit. First off, the frequency with which inappropriate advances occur is causing some women to avoid after hours social events. Not only does that have consequences, but that very fact in itself should bother you. Also consider that even consensual sexyfuntimes have very different career implications for men versus women. These communities are small and things get around. Finally, are you going to be That Guy who women are warned against being around alone? Do you want the dumb things you say when you're out late to be the reason a woman leaves the field or is uncomfortable attending social events? Consider that maybe your work colleagues are not the best target audience for your affections.

If nothing else this conference season, just ask yourself what type of culture you are supporting for the women in your field.

118 responses so far

Handling AEs

Jun 16 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

In the journals I typically read, there's no real rhyme or reason behind whether or not the handling Associate Editors are identified to readers. Sometimes the information is in the online documentation and not in the print version, but it's usually all or nothing. The journal I am an AE for does not give out this information, but there's only a hand-full of AEs in each subfield.

I'm curious whether people ever pay attention to that information. Do you think it makes AEs more careful about what the approve for print? Are there other ramifications of doing this?

3 responses so far

No Cost Extensions and your Current and Pending

Jun 04 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I am in agreement with a post at DrugMonkey's regarding the No Cost Extension on grants. A one year extension to the time allotted to spend the grant money from your original budget is a welcomed window of time to tie things up. The benefits of the added time are obvious, especially with NSF grants that typically run only three years, the fourth year stretches that dollar a bit further. And if you've been smart about how you spent along the way, it all works out fairly well.

But the idea of an active project has different consequences and connotations at NSF than NIH. Whereas NIH does not limit the number of awards a PI can have at one time, that's a little more of a touchy subject at NSF. I've heard from multiple POs that there's a blurred line around the two core grant line where the funding of a third becomes questionable. Obviously there are a variety of factors to weigh here and one's status on the grant and time remaining are certainly big.

So where does the NCE fit in? Say one is early into one grant and has a second about to go into an NCE. Is that extra year considered a "current" grant, potentially excluding the PI from additional funding, or does it not matter because NSF has already spent all the money they are going to on that grant? Have people found that having NSF grants in NCE has hurt their chances with funding recently, or is the bar so high this hasn't been much of an issue?

6 responses so far

10 weeks

May 28 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Once again we find ourselves at the dawn of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) season. I have taken on at least two more students than I had hoped to, as one does. It's a surprisingly challenging task to take multiple students of varying degrees of ability in the lab and put them all in a position to do enough science to not be embarrassed by their poster at the end of the summer. Some work out well. Some.... less well.

But the influx of new people and wide-eyed n00bism every summer is always a net win. First, it gives the grad students practice at both mentoring and clearly explaining their rationale for what they are doing. Also, it puts them in a position to supervise the construction of a poster. Second, it's an opportunity to have students work on a small project that we haven't had time to get to, but is potentially interesting. And finally, it is excellent training and recruiting to retain some of these students either during the academic year or after they graduate from other universities. Some of my most successful undergraduate researchers have started as summer students and just kept the ball rolling.

Almost every STEM academic I have ever spoken to points to undergraduate research as the catalyst for their career. Hell, a lot of people in scientific fields also point to undergraduate research as the time they knew being in the lab was not for them and they chose something else. That's great too. The earlier you figure that out, the better. But if you're an undergraduate and think you might be interested in research, get in the lab! Summer, academic year, whatever. Do it for pay or for credit (I don't support volunteer lab work), but see what it's all about.

2 responses so far

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