Archive for: April, 2016

Listen to yourself

For the last six months I’ve been co-facilitating a peer mentoring group for postdocs, a group initiated by our postdoctoral affairs office. We’re seven people, all in some kind of biomedical research, but not necessarily with the same career goals. The aim of the group is to support each other and give feedback as we move forward on our career development paths, focusing on a specific task each month such as conducting an informational interview about a prospective career option.

One thing that has really struck me about this group is that at over half the people have changed their top-choice career goal just in the six months we’ve been meeting! And it’s not like we’re fresh off the PhD and just bouncing around all the options – most of us have been postdocs for more than a few years, and several of us have done two postdocs.

There are two main ways people have been led to change their goals. The first is through some introspection. We used an Individual Development Plan (My IDP) to facilitate this – I highly recommend this to anyone as a way to clarify (and quantify) your interests, skills and values in a way that can show you more about yourself and good potential career matches. It certainly has some limitations, but it can be eye-opening. For example, the first time I used this tool it told me that, based primarily on my interests, my top career choices (i.e. Principal Investigator) were actually at the very bottom of my list of all the potential science career matches. So that was hard to swallow, and apparently I still haven’t dealt with it completely since that’s the main career I’m still pursuing… but this post isn’t about my problems right now, it’s about helping other people!

The other way that people have been led to awareness of a need for a shift in career choices is by being alerted by someone else that they’re not on the right path. This usually comes in the form of someone saying “When I hear you talk about -X- you sound really excited, and you’re clearly putting a lot of effort into it, but I never hear you sound that excited when you talk about things related to your current career path -Y-.”

My hope with this post is that those of you who are not feeling great about your current career trajectory can really listen to yourself as you talk about different parts of your job – what do you find yourself talking excitedly about, wanting to share with others, or putting ahead of other tasks you should be doing first? If you can listen to yourself and identify those things you’re truly excited about, then you don’t need another person to notice and tell you when you’re on the wrong path, and hopefully you don’t need to waste any more time waiting for someone else to steer you right. And if you’re better with numbers than hearing your own excitement level, the IDP can help you consider and quantify what your top interests are.

I try to check in with myself periodically and hear myself talk. The easiest thing to notice is that I am virtually never excited to talk about research. The next thing I notice is that I am more enthusiastic about things involving students. I first thought this meant that teaching was the right path for me, but when I really thought about what aspects of my teaching and interactions with students I liked the best, I realized that it was the mentorship and guidance that I valued more than teaching content. I’ve been mulling this over for the last couple of years, thinking about and exploring different jobs and careers that can best translate these interests and skills. I’ll keep you posted on where I’m headed!

Has anyone else made a startling discovery/decision based on the way they communicate about their jobs, or been in a position to convince someone else they have a better fitting path to pursue?


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How to pick a postdoc

Apr 17 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I thought a lot about what lab to choose for my postdoc. I considered the labs of people I knew in my field and I read papers from other related fields to find interesting science. I took a list of potential labs to my PI and discussed the pros and cons of each.

Despite what I thought was significant effort on my part, thinking back, I don’t believe that I had any idea what I was doing. I had such a great grad school experience that I didn’t know the pitfalls to look for. I am sure that there is good advice out there and I probably should have read some of it. Now, with some perspective, I will add to it.

While it is important to choose science that you’re excited about, it is also important to pick a supportive mentor and good environment. I knew going in that my postdoc mentor was going to be tough on my science. I looked at this as a good thing. Criticism is a big part of science and I thought that by facing it regularly I would get better at dealing with it. Maybe that is true and maybe it isn’t.  Regardless, I have learned that having someone at my back is really important for me. You will always get criticism in science. Having the person who is training you help you work through it rather than be the source of it I think would build much better coping skills.

Beyond that, there are PIs that can be very critical of science while at the same time supportive of people. I believe that science is benefitted most by these PIs. It can be hard to differentiate from the outside, though. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that some PIs treat different people in their labs differently. You need to talk to everyone, not just the person that happens to take you out to dinner.

Another tip is to look closely at the publication and employment record for the lab. Sure, I looked to make sure papers were coming out, but I didn’t really consider the frequency in relation to the number of people in lab or the distribution amongst the people in lab.

In a related note, how many authors per paper per lab can be informative. If each person is publishing by themselves, perhaps people do not spend much time working together in lab. However, you can also get a situation where postdocs become support staff for other postdocs instead of getting their own publications. A way to differentiate might be to talk to the second or third author.

One can also look at publications per project to determine continuity of projects. Is a project pursued across multiple publications or is it abandoned after the lab moves on to bigger and better things? Maybe you like variety and one publication per project sounds great to you. You might instead find that you would like to dig your claws in and continue to follow a project where it leads you. Perhaps this might allow you to develop your own line of research to carry into your own independent lab.

Another thing to consider is, what aspects of science do you love? What gets you excited to go to lab? You (like my grad student self) may not have thought about this because your interests mesh well with the culture in your current lab. However, it turns out there is variety in this and if what is driving you is not the same thing driving your PI or your colleagues you may find yourself less enthused.

My final suggestion for today is consider how the PI interacts with other PIs in the field you’re interested in ending up in. This person may not be in the same exact field that you want to conduct your lab. They may have more or less interaction with the scientists in that field. Science is simultaneously an individual endeavor and a social endeavor. A supportive scientific community that spans universities can be a boon to your enthusiasm, your creativity, and all of the other things that go along with networking. Is your potential PI part of a community like this? Do they go to conferences? Will they include you in this community only have interest in talking to other PIs?

How about you? Any tips for postdoc seekers? Any success or horror stories?


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How to Encourage a Supportive Environment

Apr 07 2016 Published by under conflict, empathy, empathy gap, LGBT

I read an article recently about casual racism and how the victim didn’t know how to respond. It’s complicated. But what if you are not the victim. I think that someone who is not a victim of the comments has a responsibility to respond. But how?

I was recently talking to a senior professor, let’s call him Prof A. He was commenting on a senior professor at another institution, Prof B. Prof B happens to be a transgender man. The comments had nothing to do with the fact that he’s transgender.

The problem is how Prof A was referring to Prof B. He repeatedly, and not even just once or twice, referred to him as her. He would always eventually correct himself. But then every time he would go back to saying “she.”

Prof B has been transgender for longer than I have been in science. He makes no secret of his status. Why would it be difficult to remember the correct pronoun? Was it purposeful disrespect? Even if it wasn’t, it was disrespectful by lack of trying.

Given the obstacles and issues transgender people face, perhaps this is only a microaggression. However, given all the obstacles and issues transgender people face why would anyone with any empathy want to add to that with microaggressions?

What is my role? Does my silence support this kind of behavior? Would saying something raise awareness and promote respect or just irritate people? Does the power differential between me and the speaker affect how I should react? Workplaces can be respectful of gender transitions. I would like to support that kind of environment but I am not sure of the best way to help others work toward that goal as well.


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