Archive for: August, 2016

The Postpartum Interview

Today’s guest contributor is currently a postdoctoral fellow in New York City. She holds a PhD in Neuroscience, and her research interests include neuroanatomy and psychiatric disease. She has posted with us previously and is back in a two-part series to share her experiences with different job interviews around the time she became a new mother.

This past spring, I landed two phone interviews– one in academia, and one at a medical communications firm. The complication: I was 9 months pregnant at the time.

The phone interviews went well. When I was asked to come in person, I told both interviewers I was pregnant, due in a matter of weeks. The folks at the academic job said they were eager to fill the position, that there was some urgency, and asked me to get in touch as soon as I had given birth so we could schedule an interview then.

My beautiful baby came screaming into the world three days after his due date. We had some complications, but, while still in the hospital, I emailed the academic job to tell them my baby had arrived. They responded with a few potential dates I could come in to interview. The first date was only days away; the latest date was exactly 3 weeks after I had given birth. I agreed to come at that date. I didn’t get the impression that it would be acceptable to ask for a later date.

A few days passed before my baby was discharged from the hospital, and, thankfully (so thankfully), was pronounced healthy. Over the next few weeks, my husband and I passed through the typical but brutal hazing ritual that is early parenthood. Sleepless days and nights blurred together and were equal parts both immense gratitude for our precious child and immense fear we were going to accidentally do something to harm his impossibly tiny body.

Our sleep deprivation was unprecedented. Our newborn son wasn’t able to sleep on his own and cried continuously unless he was being rocked in our arms, walked around outside, or being driven in the car, so it wasn’t possible to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’. I had no idea I could actually survive on so little rest– instead of my normal 7 hours a night, I was getting around 7 hours of sleep in a week as my son alternated between crying and breastfeeding.

The interview date crept closer. Four days before its scheduled date, the director contacted me with a request that I prepare a talk on work I’d done years prior. So, in 20 minute intervals while my son napped or my husband rocked him, I pieced together Powerpoint slides from old talks I’d given, annoyed that this request hadn’t come in sooner.

The night before the interview, I discovered I still couldn’t fit into any of my pre-pregnancy professional clothes but my maternity clothes hung off me like overstretched Lycra bags. In a brain-fogged panic, I managed to get to a Banana Republic before it closed and handed a saleswoman my credit card in exchange for a grey sweater-dress.

The morning of the interview, my husband took my son out of the house for a walk at 6AM. I practiced my talk for an hour and slept for two, until my husband had to bring him back to be fed at 9AM. Those two hours were the longest uninterrupted stretch of sleep I had gotten since he was born.

My husband drove me to my interview with our newborn in the back seat and a bottle containing a few ounces of breastmilk I’d managed to pump. I hadn’t been given an itinerary so I wasn’t sure how long the day would be. My husband planned to drive the baby around while I was interviewing and I promised to text him with updates as often as I could.

The day started with my presentation. I didn’t have the energy to be nervous, and I surprised myself at how sensible I sounded. Feedback was very positive, and the questions were intelligent. I was then given the itinerary and discovered the rest of the day would proceed in a series of 5 one-hour interviews with various members of the department, followed by a meeting with an HR rep.

A department administrator toured me around the sprawling building. I trailed slowly behind her, finding it difficult to keep up. Between interviews, I went into the bathroom, where I texted my husband for updates on our son, changed the hospital-grade pads I was wearing as I was still bleeding profusely from the birth, attempted to relieve my painfully engorged breasts, and checked that none of my bodily fluids had soaked through my clothes.

Outside the building, my husband drove in circles around the parking lot for hours in the rain while our son cried and slept in his carseat.

The interviews were fairly standard and I think, if I weren’t so exhausted, I would have enjoyed talking science with the group. The only thing that caught me slightly unprepared was an interviewer who grilled me about brands and comparative prices of equipment and reagents I’d used in the past, but I diffused his line of questioning by telling him about cost-saving modifications to a protocol, which I later sent in a follow-up email.

Before I left, I met with the director, who thanked me for coming in so soon after giving birth, reiterated the urgency to fill the position, and told me they would let me know their hiring decision in the upcoming weeks.

Weeks, however, turned into months and spring warmed into summer. My son learned, blessedly, to sleep independently, outgrew his newborn clothes, and gave me his first unforgettable smile. I healed.

I sent emails with gentle enquiries as to the status of the hiring process. Various reasons for the delay were given: the director was on vacation, there was a grant deadline… as of this writing, no one has yet been hired although the job advertisement has been taken down. Clearly, the urgency to fill the position that mandated a candidate interview 3 weeks postpartum has evaporated.

A number of unanswerable questions lurk in my thoughts: Did I not do as well as I could have? Would it have gone better if I had asked to come in at a later date, when I was physically and mentally closer to my normal self? Did my status as a new mother influence the hiring decision (or lack thereof)? Was the hiring committee (all males) unaware of the endurance test they were putting me through, or was it a purposeful test of my dedication to my career?

And: Is academia, where it’s acceptable to expect a candidate to go through a grueling interview process 3 weeks postpartum, really a viable choice for my/our future?

Still, I’m glad I interviewed– even though the process tested my physical, intellectual, and emotional limits, I learned just how far my limits extend, and I know I would have regretted it if I hadn’t given it all I had for the professional opportunity this job presented. However, the experience left me with doubts about committing to a career in a field where such an ordeal would be asked for and expected of an applicant. Certainly, given the oversupply of PhDs and demand for academic jobs, this is par for the course. In this economic climate, department heads could probably line up flaming hoops for aspirational candidates to jump through on the lawns of their institutions, and we’d do it (and it would likely be the easiest part of the interview).

But is this a healthy field to continue to work in?

Next in the series: The interview question I was completely unprepared for


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Now what?

Aug 23 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Todays guest post is by Ragamuffin, who is enjoying the new title of Dr. Ragamuffin. As she writes this she is on a several month break between defending her dissertation and starting her new shiny postdoc fellowship, leaving some time for reflection, dinner with friends, and relocating.

Screenshot 2016-08-22 20.57.04

I did it. I buffed my writing and pipetting calluses. I landed a postdoctoral fellowship from a surprisingly prestigious lab. I defended my dissertation. I moved to New-Job City. Now what?

There once was a girl who lived for scientific observation and inquiry, and devoured the history of science and the scholars who built the foundations of modern biology and medicine. She crafted from piles of biographies the ideal career path to be able to do what these almost mythical icons had done. Ramon y Cajal. Curie. Levi-Montalchini. Franklin. My shy and introverted soul wanted to spend her days at a lab bench and a microscope. Discovering new things about the physiological landscape through observation and methodical inquiry. Asking the big questions, and making the keenest observations that would contribute to understanding of our world. I thought this meant that I wanted to be a primary investigator (PI).

Nostalgically and fantastically motivated, a slightly older dreamer traversed her predoctoral training hardly straying from the pursuit of an academic research position. The path and its benchmarks were clear. Even in the most tumultuous year of candidacy, enough mentors had told me that I COULD do this that it enforced the belief that I MUST. For myself, for women in STEM, to impress my future children. I must become a PI. Even as the rest of my cohort prepared for careers in teaching and biotechnology, I stood my ground feeling strongly that I neither could nor should do anything else.

There were several periods during my PhD that things did not sit right with my original personal or professional goals, but I usually acknowledged them only as expressions of stress and anxiety. I learned that in order to fully embody the spirit of my scientist icons in a modern landscape meant an entirely different kind of regulation, financial restriction, productivity and politics. As an avid sponge of historical science, I knew that these types of challenges were similar at face value. Scientists have always needed to publish their work and receive funding to see it continue. But Science is a vastly evolved creature from 15 years ago, let alone a century. These two basic requirements in modern scientific research are much more competitive, complex and convoluted than they once were. To be adept at either one requires a different set of skills.

A solid neurobiological experiment, for instance, can hardly be conducted in one’s kitchen anymore. Today in order for a publication to reach a substantial audience [in my field], publications almost always include multiple extensive experiments repeated several times with overwhelmingly high statistical power and at least one highly advanced technology. The kitchen is almost guaranteed to be useless.

At first, I wanted to be a PI because I thought that is what it would take for me to access the resources necessary to produce valuable scientific contributions. A flawed premise, and at odds with my appreciation for what it means to be a scientist. I knew — and spoke openly about — the evolution of scientific inquiry, the rising influence of research institute teams, and the profound talents of the numerous staff scientists who otherwise receive little to no credit for their contributions. In spite of the regard with which I held others in my field, I maintained that my PERSONAL value could only come from a senior academic title. That because I “COULD” do this, I MUST. That despite some hard times and poor luck during my predoctorate, I was born for it. That I would continue to enjoy writing research manuscripts. That I wouldn’t mind perpetual grant writing. That I would develop the time-honored thick skin necessary to respond positively to rejection. These were my mantras through graduate school.  But upon receiving my PhD, I feel a rush of freedom to question all my motivations.

  • My pipetting and mental calluses could use a break.
  • Although I enjoy writing manuscripts, I loathe editing and reformatting them.
  • I do not mind grant writing, but patience for it waned substantially toward the end of my degree.

Experience has not left me thick-skinned, but for now annoyed and easily exhausted.

On the other side of my degree, I have achieved a level of self-appreciation and confidence that allows a more honest reflection on my career dreams. One does not need to be a PI to support and represent women in STEM. My future children will have plenty to be impressed with. I very well COULD tire of this phase and once again work passionately toward professorship, but I no longer feel that I MUST.

Now what? The dreamer begins her postdoctoral fellowship a month from now. She intends to use this new beginning to examine all of the personal and career possibilities that she ignored or did not bother to explore as a predoctorate. For the first time, she does not clearly see what the next step should be. And that is both terrifying and exulting.


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On grant funding

Aug 18 2016 Published by under academia, female scientist, funding, race

One of determining points in my leaving academia was grant funding.  I was not confident enough, or motivated enough to sustain continuous funding for however long I was willing to be a PI .

In a way, my years as a postdoc and project scientist traumatized me for applying for grants.  In my former lab, my PI’s grant (NIH RO1) application preparation was a group effort.  Our PI assigned advanced graduate students and postdocs two or three sections of his grant application, and we had multiple meetings prior to deadline to flush out ideas, revise sections, and integrate them into his master draft. It was a great practice for me, until the deadline came.  Whether it was paralysis, procrastination, or waiting until we were under extreme duress to come up with brilliant ideas, finalizing an application as a lab came always at the last minute or never.  For one submission, graduate student and I took turns pulling all-nighters for one week prior to a deadline, to come up with preliminary data for experiments proposed in a grant.  In another or the same submission cycle, on the date it was due with 6-7 hours left, all members of the lab sat around a conference table as if in the Situation Room.  Each person stared at his/her laptop screen, worked on different sections of different versions of a draft, sweated grease, pulled hairs, and waited to be called by our PI so that our sections can be integrated.  The time of submission brutally approached, and we were nowhere near being done.  My PI was on the phone with a departmental grant officer pleading for more time and understanding.  The time of submission came and passed, and we kept on working.  About 20 minutes later my PI finally called it, “ we are not submitting the grant.”  We did this at least TWICE, for two consecutive application deadlines.  As you can tell by italics and capital letters, it still raises strong emotions for me, even years later.

In my tenure at the lab, getting an NIH RO1 grant for my PI remained elusive. He did however receive other grants to keep the lab thriving and afforded me.  But we needed a RO1. What imprinted in me from the experience was how difficult it is to obtain a RO1 funding.  Without RO1, one is less likely to get tenured and maintain a lab.  If my PI, whom I deemed a brilliant scientist, had this much trouble getting a RO1, what an audacity to assume that I would get one?  I felt I had no chance.  Or more honestly I did not want to work that hard.  I did not want to make my graduate students and postdocs work that hard only to fire them when the funding did not come.

So I was scared and chickened out.  The shrinking funding rate did not help either.

It turns out I would have faced obstacles if I stayed in academia, not just my own demons (I am as bad, if not worse, procrastinator as my former PI)  but external ones.  Not to be consistently pessimistic but if I had stayed in academia more than likely I would have become a part of statistics in this recent article.  The study analyzed gender and race differences in the likelihood of receiving NIH RO1 in years 2000-2006.  The authors found that race, and not gender, was a key determinant in RO1 award. While white women did not differ from white men, Asian and black women received significantly less funding than white women.  Although this study did not find disadvantages of being a female applicant, many other studies do (like this one).  As a woman of color (Asian), I would have faced an uphill battle, a double bind. If only I was more ambitious, this type of studies would have made me energized and strive to reverse the current status.  At this point, I can only ask for those who are still in it to try…


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Postdoc pay disparities

Aug 06 2016 Published by under academia, early career scientist, postdoc, postdoc pay, postdocs

The scientist I work for pays some of his postdocs below the NIH pay scale. This is despite our institute’s website saying that it “sets the salary scale following the current NIH Kirschstein-NRSA stipend levels,” and despite that he has bragged about how much grant money he has.

After all of the recent stories about abusive misbehaving scientists, my complaint feels small. However, the outrageous among us should not drag down the baseline of normalcy and acceptable behavior.

I have been lucky in that I have always been paid on the NIH pay scale without having to ask for it. This probably has to do with me being on and off training grants rather than his respect for me or my hard work. This means, however, when I found out recently that a postdoc who has been here longer than I have is making significantly less than me left me surprised and horrified.

I am left with some questions. If these postdocs asked for more, how would my PI respond? If these postdocs were men would he pay them more?

I know there are many discussions on the blogosphere and Twitter about whether or not postdocs in general should complain about their pay. I think that it is at least reasonable to agree on a pay scale and then stick to it.

Do you know PIs who don’t pay their postdocs on the scale? Does your university do anything to enforce the scale?


One response so far