Archive for the 'academia' category

When Your Postdoc Mentor Switches Institutions, or The Amazing Community of Women in Science

I am 9 months into my first postdoc. I am 6 months pregnant. I will be unemployed two days after my son is due to be born.

One month ago, my postdoc mentor announced that he has accepted an incredible promotion at a university on the other side of the United States. For several reasons — including having just relocated my family, the strain on my husband’s career and the expectation of a neonate at the time of the Great Move – I will not be translocating with the lab.

My “mentor” made clear to me last week that he will not be renewing my contract two days after I give birth even though he will remain at my institution for another 1-3 months. Even though he will renew current university contracts with at least one other postdoc for several months and lied to my face about doing so. My Postdoctoral Union, the Academic Resource Center and the university Business Office have nothing to say about this. I have no protections in this situation; it is my “mentor’s” choice.

I have spent three quarters of the last month in debilitating pain because my dentist managed to kill a perfectly healthy tooth and pregnancy hormones exacerbated the effects of necrosis, inflammation and infection (lack of effective painkillers did not help either). The other quarter of the month I spent frantically scouring my current institution for potential academic postdoc opportunities in a sea of unknown or inadvisable labs. Labs that are very unlikely to be willing to contract a woman who would just entered maternity leave at the time of ideal onboarding. By this time, I may or may not have transferable salary from any of the three fellowships I’ve just finished applying for. Likely the latter, which prevents me from sweetening the deal.

‘Just find a new postdoc position by next month,’ my “mentor” advises. ‘That way you can spend a month or two in the new lab before going on maternity leave. No one would refuse you a position because of the pregnancy, that would be outrageous.’ He proceeded at my overly laudatory request to recommend potential employers who were strikingly ill-suited to my career goals or experience.

“Mentorship”.

Given the timing of my imminent unemployment and my need for not only neonatal care but regular treatments for my autoimmune disorder, avoiding a lapse in health coverage is – for the first time in my life – a priority over my career aspirations. In a time when COBRA and biologic therapy are unaffordable, my husband and I must re-budget dramatically to pay our mortgage and loans and keep our neonate (and ideally, myself) alive. I have therefore stretched my feelers into a world I was not prepared to join for several years if (and only if) I could tell with more certainty that professorship was not in the cards: non-academic science.

Mid-pregnancy does not feel like the right time to be making a career-altering decision that could mean closing the door to academia for good. Then again, if my choice is between sacrificing my family’s well-being for a sliver of a chance at a reasonable academic postdoc or sacrificing my pipe dream for a potentially happier and more rewarding life, the latter is my clear choice. This is not what everyone should or would choose in these circumstances. This is likely not what I would have chosen 5 years ago. But I love what my life is becoming and am prepared to shift gears if it means being able to do rigorous, ethical and productive science in a healthy way.

Despite the extraordinarily strenuous timing, this transition is somewhat of a blessing as I have had a miserable 9 months with my current absence of any form of mentorship, the embarrassing dysfunction of this world-renowned lab and the excruciating oppression of both my “mentor” and a male adjunct faculty. This is my way out without being the one to set fire to any bridges.

While most days I feel lost and hopeless, I am grateful to no longer be in debilitating pain and I strive to protect my active little belly parasite from my own distress. I am fueled now more by adrenaline and awe of the circumstances than by fear and depression. And I have benefited from some wonderful advice.

You know who has advised me? Not my male “mentor” who has all but thrown me into the gutter. Women. Women who are senior post docs in my lab. Women who write for this blog. Women who have agreed to interview me for positions in their labs at my current institution. Women who have talked through the circumstances of my potential unemployment and financial crisis with me. Women who have helped me identify solutions. The woman who I interviewed with today.

The ball is rolling in a sluggish but mostly forward direction. Today I have hope because of the women I have met in science.


5 responses so far

A year of saying NO

I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. I realized a couple months ago when I took on a few new things, that I had pointedly avoided taking on anything new or extra for over a year – since before my baby was born. It’s advice that is often given, especially to women and people of underrepresented groups, who are likely to be asked to do a lot of extra jobs: learn how to say no; don’t wast your time on things that are not going to help advance your career; set limits at the beginning of the year for how many committees you will be on, how many papers you will review, how many conferences you will attend, etc. and then say no to any after that. And I am guilty of taking on too many of those extra things that you don’t get any career credit for – organizing a symposium, giving a lab tour, etc. When I was pregnant, I never consciously planned to not do any of those things after having a baby, but I wish I had because it worked out brilliantly. It was simply that my home life was my number one priority and I figured out what I had to get done at work each day, and did just that. Here’s what that first year back at work looked like. Day to day I worked pretty short hours. In the mornings my partner did daycare drop-off so this was my alone time and I usually ended up getting stuff done at home and going in to work later in the morning. Throughout the day I had to pump milk, cutting out ~30 minutes 3x, then 2x per day, and I am still maintaining one session a day. Then I wanted to leave work before rush hour and early enough to get a little bit of non-cranky baby time before baby bedtime. I always thought I could work a little in the evenings, but I was so tired and rarely had anything urgent enough to warrant it that I seldom did anything other than answer emails. I did spend a number of evenings applying for jobs. So that was maybe 5 solid hours of work a day for a big chunk of the year. Of course I was extremely efficient in those few hours, but while at work I just did the essentials. I ran my experiments, I helped others when needed to keep the lab/experiments running, and I wrote papers. I attended meetings and only the most relevant research or professional development seminars. The only real ‘extras’ I did were serving on a panel and picking back up facilitation of a career development group I had begun before taking my leave, things I really cared about. I did not write any grants. I did not start any new lines of research. I did not join any new groups or committees. I went to two conferences when my baby was young (with my partner and/or mother there to help take care of the baby), which I had signed up for while pregnant. I did not register for any future conferences, and I did not regret that one bit. I don’t know exactly what changed after the first year, but things started to fall into place in a way that allowed me to pick up some new things. In part, things got more routine with the baby, but I didn’t consciously think that. At the same time, some appealing opportunities arose – some funding opportunities came up that I didn’t want to pass up; some professional development opportunities seemed important enough for me to commit some time to. So now I’m working just a little bit longer days (still not more than 8 hours including evening work, on average) with less time out for pumping, and doing a few extra things. I feel good! I basically trimmed the fat from my time, and I don’t think anyone else was really affected. There was one opportunity I felt a little bad about missing that would have allowed me the opportunity to interact a little more closely with several PIs, but I couldn’t work it out with my partner’s schedule. Even including that I felt virtually no work-related guilt the whole year. I attribute this to my actions matching my priorities, something that is easier said than done. An important aspect of this was that my mindset wasn’t hugely different pre-baby – work was always just work to me – so I didn’t have a major shift in priorities or learning how to re-balance them. What about you? Would a period of saying NO to any extras help you re-prioritize?

4 responses so far

A Tale of Three Labs: Reflections on Environment Dynamics

Jan 31 2017 Published by under academia, advice, Laboratory, postdoc

Sticking to the scenario in which I am a fish, I’d like to reflect on having been a variably sized fish in various sizes of pond… and learning to swim in corresponding tides. In this metaphor, ponds have tides.

Before graduate school, I was a research assistant for 3 years at a medical university in the Pacific Northwest. It was a very small ~4-6-person lab in which I grew partially out of the notion that I could never be a scientist. I wrote my first book chapter, led my first experiments, published my first manuscripts, acquired some semblance of expertise, and had tea with my PI almost every day. It was personal, and the team dynamic was always encouraging. Big fish, small pond.

In graduate school, I entered a medium-sized lab of ~15 people. It was a brand-spanking new lab in which I was fortunate and cursed to spearhead my own research out of nothing but experience. And I did. And it was painstaking and infuriating and rewarding. I became the expert of my field in my lab, but mine became an area of lesser interest to my PI. It was scientifically lonely despite strong personal friendships, and I was an expert whose contributions were of lesser interest to the team. Medium fish, medium pond.

After defending and with a heretofore unknown air of confidence, I launched myself into a postdoc in a huge ~50-person lab. For the first time in 8 years I entered an entirely new field of research. I have adjunct professor and postdoc supervisors-who-are-not-supervisors. I am bringing my own research to fruition under more fiscal and intellectual strain than I have ever experienced. While there is a communal reciprocity, there is no team dynamic. The encouraging aspect is that my PI seems to respect me. Small fish, ocean.

Unsurprisingly, I have found that as the body of water has grown, the tidal force has changed dramatically. In a large lab, one comes up against more subtle yet consequential social dynamics. Often I actually feel oppressed as a scientist*, and have to consider whether I have been spoiled by the luxuries of more personal research experiences or whether this is a real problem. Each lab I have worked in has had meaningful and unique perks and drawbacks. The pattern seems to be that both of these grow with the size of the lab. I am not sure that the perks of my postdoc lab will continue to stand up to the drawbacks, but for now I aim to rage against my restraints and pursue the science that I know to be important and worthwhile.

My experience of course does not speak for everyone’s. In fact, I have no idea how broadly these observations are shared. But these three labs have demonstrated to me that a large lab is much more challenging to navigate, and while protecting my newfound confidence is a battle every single day, I find each win precious and satisfying. Thus far.

 

*The dynamics of being a woman with all-male supervisors-who-are-not-supervisors is a separate subject for another post.


No responses yet

A Tale of Three Labs: Reflections on Environment Dynamics

Jan 31 2017 Published by under academia, advice, Laboratory, postdoc

Sticking to the scenario in which I am a fish, I’d like to reflect on having been a variably sized fish in various sizes of pond… and learning to swim in corresponding tides. In this metaphor, ponds have tides.

Before graduate school, I was a research assistant for 3 years at a medical university in the Pacific Northwest. It was a very small ~4-6-person lab in which I grew partially out of the notion that I could never be a scientist. I wrote my first book chapter, led my first experiments, published my first manuscripts, acquired some semblance of expertise, and had tea with my PI almost every day. It was personal, and the team dynamic was always encouraging. Big fish, small pond.

In graduate school, I entered a medium-sized lab of ~15 people. It was a brand-spanking new lab in which I was fortunate and cursed to spearhead my own research out of nothing but experience. And I did. And it was painstaking and infuriating and rewarding. I became the expert of my field in my lab, but mine became an area of lesser interest to my PI. It was scientifically lonely despite strong personal friendships, and I was an expert whose contributions were of lesser interest to the team. Medium fish, medium pond.

After defending and with a heretofore unknown air of confidence, I launched myself into a postdoc in a huge ~50-person lab. For the first time in 8 years I entered an entirely new field of research. I have adjunct professor and postdoc supervisors-who-are-not-supervisors. I am bringing my own research to fruition under more fiscal and intellectual strain than I have ever experienced. While there is a communal reciprocity, there is no team dynamic. The encouraging aspect is that my PI seems to respect me. Small fish, ocean.

Unsurprisingly, I have found that as the body of water has grown, the tidal force has changed dramatically. In a large lab, one comes up against more subtle yet consequential social dynamics. Often I actually feel oppressed as a scientist*, and have to consider whether I have been spoiled by the luxuries of more personal research experiences or whether this is a real problem. Each lab I have worked in has had meaningful and unique perks and drawbacks. The pattern seems to be that both of these grow with the size of the lab. I am not sure that the perks of my postdoc lab will continue to stand up to the drawbacks, but for now I aim to rage against my restraints and pursue the science that I know to be important and worthwhile.

My experience of course does not speak for everyone’s. In fact, I have no idea how broadly these observations are shared. But these three labs have demonstrated to me that a large lab is much more challenging to navigate, and while protecting my newfound confidence is a battle every single day, I find each win precious and satisfying. Thus far.

 

*The dynamics of being a woman with all-male supervisors-who-are-not-supervisors is a separate subject for another post.


No responses yet

I have to pay back what?!

As if it isn’t difficult enough to be in your mid-thirties starting a family while living on a postdoc salary and waiting to move yet again before finally getting a “real” job, some of us also have to worry about making career changes that don’t result in having to pay back up to a year’s income. Yes, you read that right – I could be made to pay back a year’s stipend if I don’t follow through on a commitment to stay in research or select other related positions for a set amount of time.

If you’re unfamiliar with this payback agreement, here’s an article that covers most of the issue and risks, but in short: certain NIH training grants (i.e. institutional T32 or postdoctoral individual F32) require a signed contract that you must “pay back” the time you are sponsored by the grant, up to one year, either by working at least 20 hours per week in research or a related position (including teaching, working in industry and many others at the NIH’s discretion), or by literally paying back the money that was granted to you.

To some degree, I get it. The NIH is trying to fulfill a mission, and in spending money on training researchers as part of that mission, they want to ensure  that they benefit from those investments as much as possible. And, as they will tell you, most people accomplish paying back the first year of training by fulfilling a second year or more on the training grant. Others find related jobs or receive alternate funding for research, which fulfills the obligation.

For the sake of this post, I am not going to go into all the possible scenarios that put someone in a difficult position to pay this back – you can imagine a laundry list of nightmares (needing to quit working for medical reasons and having to owe a year’s income?!?) – but I will focus on the situations for starting and wanting to get out that are most relevant for my situation.

First, it is often the case that a postdoc can only join the lab they want (or find any position at all) if they are sponsored by funding other than the PI’s grants – this is typically going to be a T32 or F32. So right away, one could be faced with the decision to either take a job with this sketchy payback agreement, unsure of what their feelings will be in 1-2 years, or not have a job (in the academic research career path) at all. I actually was given the option and, thankfully, had a boss who was thoughtful enough to bring up the payback issue and discuss it with me. Some people get blindsided with this once they’ve already settled on a position. I accepted it, thinking that I would be staying in my current position at least as long as I needed to fulfill the payback obligation.

So now I find myself in the early phase of my payback year, searching for jobs and leaning more and more toward a new career path that will certainly not fulfill the payback obligation. And a great opportunity has come up, in a place that would be perfect for my family to relocate to… but what do I do? Apply and (if offered a position) ask to delay starting for another 9 months? Accept a position and incur a huge loss in my net income as I payback my training stipend? Not apply now and just hope that another perfect opportunity will present itself when the time is ripe?

And there’s the rub. By being paid by this funding mechanism with the intention of supporting my training for my career, my ideal career path may actually be blocked. I try really hard not to make choices based solely on financial reasons, but this time it really matters, as the financial aspect would immediately and severely affect me and my family, and there is no apparent remedy or even band-aid.

The thing (well, one of the many things) is that there’s no way to demonstrate to the NIH how destructive this may be. There’s no way to measure the lost potential or even count the number of people who haven’t started the career they wanted because they felt stuck in research due to their financial obligation. There’s no way to know how many people signed on or stuck it out because it was the only option for making a living. Importantly, those trainees are really not serving the NIH’s goals in the long run either.

Now, not only am I losing out financially just by doing a postdoc, as this recent heartbreaking article describes, but I am also losing financially and/or in potential career happiness by having signed this payback agreement. I know, it’s never too late and I’ll give the new career direction a try when the timing is right, but I want to be able to make that decision on my own terms, not for fear of owing someone money. In a career path where I’m constantly reminded that the cards are stacked against me, I don’t think this is too much to ask.


15 responses so far

Your boss can’t always be your mentor

“You shouldn’t be afraid to tell your boss exactly what you want to do for your next step – it’s their job to mentor you,” is the advice I have given many people, particularly grad students and postdocs who decide they want to pursue careers other than strictly academic research but are afraid to tell their bosses. And now under similar circumstances myself, I have become very hesitant about what information to give my boss about my career plans. I see all the reasons that people would not want to be upfront with their bosses.

  1. I don’t want to get fired. If my boss thinks that I’m no longer right for this job, or the kind of person they want to train, they could just let me go.
  2. As far as I can tell, my boss is not interested in mentoring me for a career outside of academic research.
  3. I don’t want to appear flaky or uncertain. Mostly for reason #1, but also because I still want to be able to count on good letters of recommendation if needed.

At the same time though, there are reasons I should talk to my boss about this.

  1. I could use some advice, mentoring, and maybe even connections or referrals, and I still believe it is part of a boss’ job to provide those things.
  2. I don’t want to waste any more of our time or energy applying for research and training grants, if that is not a direction that will help my career.
  3. Doing so may actually push me to move out into the career I want – even if it was because I got fired.

Plus, I just prefer to be open and honest and I’m sure my boss would prefer that as well. So I will try to first get some mentoring outside of my boss, come up with a game plan for my next career steps, ideally a plan that includes a clear reason why my current position is valuable for my future, and then open up to my boss about it.

With this new perspective, I completely understand why people would not want to be completely open with their bosses, and I apologize for acting like it was so clear cut. That said, as many before me have noted, I do think that most PIs need to be more aware that the majority of trainees are not going to end up as PIs like them, and be open to the many career possibilities that appeal to PhDs. And let’s be honest, your PI probably can’t be a great mentor to you when you’re pursuing a career outside of academia, the only path they’ve traveled, an you’ll want to find another more helpful mentor anyway.


2 responses so far

Dual-body career planning

The ‘dual-body problem’ gets a bad rap in academia. It’s seen as a major difficulty even though virtually all couples with at least one career in academia, and many other fields, have the same basic issue to deal with. This career path requires multiple changes in position, usually at different institutions, and often different geographic locations. It’s hard for anyone to make these career transitions, and made even harder when there is a significant other’s job to take into consideration, no matter the field. Oh how we envy those wise enough to have settled down with a someone who can work from a computer anywhere, and rake in the money to boot!

Anyway, my spouse and I have one of many versions of the dual body problem. We graduated from the same PhD program at the same time, are going on the job market at the same time, and some aspects of our research are fairly similar, meaning we have a lot of overlap in the actual job postings/departments we’re looking at. We are also very picky about where we want to live long-term. There are many “solutions” to similar situations, from the individual to institutional level, but for now, here’s our dual-body approach to applying for jobs.

  1. Who is more needy/picky in their requirements? Will they be happy if they settle for less? Will the other partner? Is one person’s skill set more in demand? In other words, do you have a “trailing spouse” or does it depend on what position is offered to whom? For us, it is my husband who has more specific needs, and may be a more desirable hire since he has grant funding to go with him to his new position. To do the research he wants, he needs to be at a major university with specific facilities and collaborators. I am more flexible in that I’m applying for anything from primarily teaching positions at small liberal arts colleges to more research-focused jobs at R1s, and I would also be interested in other kinds of jobs if things didn’t align perfectly for a traditional academic job.
  2. Restrict/expand searches geographically to match. We’ve done the long-distance thing when we couldn’t get a perfect match for our postdocs. That’s not going to happen again, though you do hear those stories about couples who go the majority of their careers living long distance!
  3. Make exceptions. When I see a job that I’m a perfect fit for, I’ll apply anyway, even if my husband doesn’t have plans/options to apply in that region. At the very least it could be a competitive offer to give me negotiating power; at the most it might sway us both to move for my dream job, or my spouse might discover another match there at a later date. Don’t give up before you’ve exhausted your options!
  4. Strongly consider jobs that advertise multiple positions. I don’t know if it’s the economic recovery or what, but I’m seeing a lot more institutions advertising large hiring sprees this year. Even if they are not ideal in one way or another, this could be the best all-around fit for getting both of us in decent positions.
  5. As with any job search, spread the word! We got wind of two positions opening in a department we both wanted to be in, from a friend who was keeping an ear to the ground for us. We were able to get our applications in despite the short window the post was open because of our friend’s influence, and never would have known about it otherwise.
  6. Prepare for when and how to bring up the dual-body issues with the department (most sources say for this early career stage it should be after an offer has been made) and what to ask the department to do about it. Can they create a position for the spouse? Hire both of us to share a lab/position? Exert influence on another department/institution to consider hiring the spouse? We are choosing not to mention our dual-body issue in our cover letters and will see for each position when it makes sense to broach the subject.
  7. Support each other! Pass along job ads, decide together which jobs to apply for, read each other’s application packages, and be enthusiastic about all promising opportunities that come up without over-analyzing what you would do if

Stay tuned for future posts on interviews, decision making, rejection… and wish us luck! If you have any other experience or advice for the planning/applying stage, please post in the comments!


6 responses so far

Take the good and leave the rest

Oct 18 2016 Published by under academia, confidence, criticism

I took a postdoc with a intense advisor because I wanted to be tougher.

I had a great grad school experience with a great mentor. I worried that, although I felt strong from this experience, perhaps I felt this way because my advisor had shielded me from criticism. I worried that I would not be tough enough for the “real world” of science. So I challenged myself by taking a postdoc with a mentor who holds nothing back when it comes to criticism (indeed, one whose interview style led me to cry in my hotel room).

I thought that just by experiencing the criticism I would grow a thick skin. I thought that by daily facing this challenge I would learn to take criticism better. Maybe in time I will see that I have gained strength from this (or understand that it saved me from something that does not suit my personality, as academic blogger The New PI says that you need to be made of steel to be a PI), but going through it has felt like an unnecessary tearing down of my confidence instead of a positive skin-thickening, strength-building exercise. Criticism still hurts. And, as Drug Monkey recognizes, this approach does not necessarily develop strong academics. While one needs to be tough in science, what one needs even more is confidence. So lesson number one learned so far: build confidence to face challenges, don’t put yourself in a negative space to face challenges.

I recently have come to lesson number two. I realized that what I need is not actually  to be tough in the face of criticism. It is to see criticism for what it is. It is the ideas of another person colliding with my ideas or my creations. Their ideas are not inherently better than mine. It is not my job to take all of their criticism and patiently see how wrong I am. It is to critically evaluate their ideas and my ideas and create better ideas out of the two. Instead of allowing criticism to bounce off I need to allow in the good feedback and let the ideas I don’t agree with, or those that are simply negative, slip on by.

I started off this year looking for confidence. I wasn’t expecting to find it in the same place that felt like it was taking away my confidence, but here we are. Everyone in academia deals with criticism regularly, and while I’m sure some are naturally less sensitive to it, I’m sure many have developed strategies or ways of thinking about the criticism that make it manageable. How about you?


5 responses so far

Are you prepared to deal with chronic illness?

I could probably count on one hand the number of sick days I’ve used in my adult life before this year. I figured that would change when I had a baby, either to stay home with a sick kid or because I may get sick more often myself, and I was right. But I was unprepared for dealing with issues of chronic pain and illness.

I’ve had some physical issues this year that have noticeably affected my work. I haven’t had to take any sick time directly because of my illness, but I have had to take so many half days to see doctors trying to diagnose and then treat my issues, and then recently took a few days off following a treatment. And all throughout these months, so much of my time and energy outside of work has gone to dealing with the pain and doctors.

This has given me a great appreciation of what it must be like to work with a chronic illness, something I’d read about but didn’t know very much about. As much as I may have tried to hide it, I have definitely been less productive than I (or my boss) would have liked. I have missed promised deadlines, something that I never do, and finally had to tell my boss what was going on. As always, he’s been very kind and understanding, and I know how lucky I am. I even have a slight advantage (depending on the circumstances) in that my pain and the ways I’ve dealt with it are often visible with an obvious root; it can be extremely difficult for people with invisible illness (think fibromyalgia, depression) to deal with others not understanding or believing that they do in fact have an illness.

Even with a flexible schedule and sympathetic boss, I had to consider how my productivity was going to affect my job moving forward. As a postdoc, I’m expected to be in the most productive phase of my training – no classes to worry about, no teaching duties, just all research all the time! So what does it mean when I’m really not being very productive? For that matter, what is productive enough? Where would I need to draw the line, either because of my productivity or to preserve my own health, and consider taking a medical leave, going on disability, or cutting back my hours?

Then I realized that I had no idea how medical leave or disability insurance worked or what other possibilities were. And a number of reasons make it difficult to look into those things while in the midst of health issues – let alone after a traumatic accident of some sort. Sarcozona over at Tenure She Wrote recently wrote a wonderful post about some of these issues and more, and how to value and support [student] researchers with chronic illness. I think we should all take some time when we’re healthy to learn and think about how to deal when we’re not, for our own health and for times when we’re called upon to help or work with someone else like a student dealing with these issues. Talk to your HR representative, read that part of your employee/student handbook you may have glossed over, look into disability insurance – you never know when you might need the benefits suddenly!

In the meantime, take care of yourself and stay well!

 


3 responses so far

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


11 responses so far

Older posts »