Archive for the 'academia' category

Writing your own letter of recommendation

In response to a recent post, a reader asked for advice on writing a letter of recommendation – specifically for oneself! Yes, for better or worse, “minor fraud” and ethics aside for this post, this is very common and important so let’s discuss the logistics. For general recommendation letter writing guides and advice, see other sources such as this addendum to Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, a valuable resource for this transitional time in your career. This post will focus on writing a letter for/about yourself. I know many people feel it is simply wrong for a mentor to ask a trainee to write their own letter, but for the trainees who find themselves in this uncomfortable situation without other options, I hope this advice is useful.

First, it is a good idea to at least offer some version of this option to outline or draft your own letter to anyone you ask to submit a recommendation for you. It’s obviously helpful for them because they probably have many letters to write for you and others, and the submission process alone can be time consuming, so you’ll make their lives easier and make them happier to do this for you – and potentially keep doing it for (hopefully not too many) other applications in the future. However, it’s an opportunity for you as well, to make sure your letter addresses all the important aspects of your capabilities, and wonderful accomplishments you want to highlight. Even when recommenders don’t take you up on your offer to draft the letter, you would be wise to outline the specific points you wish them to address in the letter.

Basics: content

1) Accomplishments

First and foremost, the goal of the letter is to bring to life your many brilliant accomplishments and how wonderful it is to work with you. You should describe, in a coherent and succinct narrative, how the author came to know you, what impressed them about you, what you achieved while working with them, and where they see this work taking you in the future. Be sure to use concrete examples and the “show, don’t tell” principle.

2) Drive and ability

Throughout this narrative, and perhaps in a separate paragraph at the end, the letter should address how the writer has come to know your capabilities that make you well suited for the particular job you are applying for. Also include notes on your ambition/passion and how pleasant you are to work with.

3) Justifications

In your application package, there is no great way for you to explain difficulties you’ve encountered that might show up as gaps or deficits in your CV. Your recommender, however, is in the perfect position to explain such issues, so take advantage of this. Just remember to turn the negative into a positive. It could be as succinct as a sentence, “Despite Trainee’s year-long battle with a serious illness, Trainee managed to finish the research project, and published 2 first-author papers over the following two years, while also teaching an undergraduate course, showing Trainee’s commitment and determination.” Or it could go into detail on why a project didn’t work out and what outstanding qualities you applied to push it forward or move on to a winning project.

Fine points: writing

1) If you know your recommender’s voice/writing style, use it. This can be especially important and difficult if you have to write your own letter for multiple recommenders. Get a friend to help you rephrase things in one letter.

2) Be positive! Everything in this letter should be about how wonderful you are. Resist the urge to be modest or talk yourself out of boasting. If your recommender chooses to scale back anything you’ve said, or insert some more reserved comments, that is their right to do after you’ve given them the draft.

3) Tailor each letter to the institution/position you are applying to. This could just be a fillable spot in the salutation/introduction/ending sentences, i.e. (“…and so I am confident that Trainee will be a good fit for the X position at Y institution.”), but ideally you will have a specific reason you fit in or want this position, i.e. (“Trainee’s passion and experience uniting clinical and basic science research programs will be a unique addition to your department’s strengths in translational medicine.”)

Details:

Your recommenders should address the details such as putting the letter on letterhead paper and formatting when they do their own final edits. However, just in case they do copy, paste and send, you will want to make sure the draft is all set in terms of perfect grammar, etc., and point out if there’s anything in particular that needs to be changed, such as the fillable phrases mentioned above.

 

Finally, when asking for letters of recommendation, remember to make it as easy as possible on your recommenders: ask them far in advance (3-6 weeks) if they’d be willing to write you a good letter; at least 2 weeks in advance, give them a list of each place you’re applying, anything notable about your fit or excitement for that position, the name of the person or committee to address the letter to if known, the deadline for the letter, and the way in which it should be submitted.

All this is based on my experience writing letters for myself for/with mentors, and writing letters of recommendation for my own students, and advice I’ve read and received over the years. But I must say I’m a post-doc, not a professor, and so any advice from PIs and professors or other who have more experience writing letters, especially for scientific positions in academia, would be appreciated in the comments.

Good luck!

 

 


8 responses so far

When Your Pregnancy is a Job Hunt, or The Amazing Community of Women in Science Part II

Several months ago, I wrote about the experience of being 5 months pregnant and told that my postdoctoral mentor was leaving our institution.

This was my chance to leave my oppressive pit of a working environment without burning any bridges. This meant trying to find a new position before giving birth so that I might avoid unemployment. This was exciting. This was terrifying.

Four months later, I have a fellowship and a job lined up for after my “maternity leave” [read: unemployment]. I gave seminars and had interviews at 7 months, 8 months and 9.5 million months pregnant and each time have been pleasantly surprised that I portrayed myself first as a capable scientist and then as a pregnant woman (inevitable shortness of breath notwithstanding…). This experience has shown me what women are capable of, and given me a newfound respect for myself.

The Process:

Despite now feeling that this journey has ultimately been a success, I have never had a more confused, frustrated or nihilistic perception of my career and future. It was at once a frantic crisis and insignificant. During this experience, I not only interviewed for academic postdocs within my current institution and at nearby institutes, I applied for industry scientist positions – something I thought I would not do for several years to come, if at all (and thanks to very active support and a recommendation from our very own Curiouser&Curiouser, I was even invited to give a job talk!).

But all of these interviews were hard. Because throughout the whole process, I was so disenchanted with my previous aspirations, and overwhelmed with the possibility of entirely changing my career track when all the while all I actually cared about was keeping my little imminent offspring healthy and becoming a new parent. How could I possibly communicate my interests and goals in an honest way when my thoughts were in such an unmotivated place? Somehow, I channeled Ragamuffin circa 2016 for every interview and she did me a great service by masking my current intellectual turmoil.

I narrowed my opportunities down to two academic labs and an industry position (I had way more options with diverse potential than I expected, which made the whole process even more confusing). The industry opportunity continues to play out, but I expect this was more a chance for me to introduce myself and be remembered favorably when I apply for a more fitting position in the future. Of the academic labs, one lab was small and very low-key and would probably have prepared me well for a future industry position. The other lab was mid-sized with high expectations and would probably prepare me equally well for either a career in industry or academia. The small lab required finding my own funding, and only when I had secured that was I able to really consider which lab I preferred. It took me a month to decide.

What if I make the wrong choice because of pregnancy brain and end up hating my next position?

What if I misinterpret what lies ahead like I did with my current postdoc lab and wind up losing another year of productivity?

What if it turns out that my career goals change drastically after I become a parent and I chose the wrong work environment to accommodate whatever those are?

I calmed down a bit when my self-employed husband’s income (which crashed the day my PI announced his departure) started to recover, and I felt less guilty about the fiscal implications of staying in academia.

And after several communications with each of the PI’s (both women), I chose the mid-sized lab with high expectations because I felt a strong connection with the PI that made me believe I wanted to and could continue (for now) down the path I would have chosen a year ago. Because there were no wrong choices, only the next chapter of life.

Closing Up Shop:

I left my current lab last week to begin maternity leave. I put all the materials I’ve developed over the last year in cryostasis and labeled them to be shipped to my adjunct faculty oppressor so that he can continue my work (ostensibly) and take credit for my contributions (inevitably). I photocopied my lab notebook, backed up all my meticulous protocols, and archived my server emails so as to have a record of my contributions if I need to defend my right to authorship in 5 years (undoubtedly). I said heavy goodbyes to the colleagues who have been such wonderful influences over the last year, and begrudgingly said an adulatory and pleasant farewell to my PI. And left behind a year of professional struggle and wasted scientific effort.

 

And now, I am ecstatic to spend the remaining two weeks of my pregnancy job hunt-free. Bring it on.


One response so far

Job Interview Questions

When I was first interviewing for jobs I got the question “what are your career goals?”  The question was something I had given a lot of thought to but I’d never actually transferred these ideas into an interview appropriate answer before.  I muddled through that interview, but I realized I could do much better if I forced myself to put my thoughts into actual words, so I started preparing for interviews by writing down potential interview questions and answers.  I think this has helped to make me more clear and succinct (when I’m nervous I tend to ramble) and I like that I get the chance to review what I said for previous interviews.

Recently, a lot of my friends and family have been applying to new jobs/promotions and I’ve been running practice interviews with them.  It feels good to have another use for all the research I put into finding/coming up with/remembering potential interview questions, so I’ve decided to also compile them here for our readers.  Please feel free to comment with any other questions you’ve come across.

Two general thoughts on interviewing…

  • Make your answers short and specific.
  • Keep things positive, if you want to highlight aspects that you didn’t like, try to put a positive spin on things, eg show how would improve things.

Best of luck to all the job applicants out there, I hope this helps!

Questions

– Tell me about yourself/how would you describe yourself?  This should be geared toward the job you are applying for not a general introduction.

– Tell me about your experience at ____ prior company/lab___.

– What did you like about ______ prior company/lab___?

– What do you wish was different about ___ prior company/lab___?

– Why do you want to leave your current position?

– What do you know about this position/company?

– What techniques/methods are you accustomed to using?

– What is your work style/how do you like to approach your work?

– What are your top 3 strengths/weaknesses?  Make sure to tailor this to the position.  If it was a R&D job I might feel ok mentioning that I get nervous talking in front of crowds (true) but if I was going for a science liaison position I would probably choose something else.

– Why are you interested in this job/company/institution?

– What are your expectations for this job/company?

– What is your management style/how do you like to be managed?

– Tell me about how you like to interact with your lab mates.

– How do you deal with conflict?

– What do you bring to this job/company?  This is an awesome opportunity to brag and really highlight why you should get the job

– Describe a setback and how you overcame it.

– Describe a conflict and how you overcame it.

– Describe a time you were working under pressure to get a project completed.

– Describe a mistake and what you did to correct it.

– Give an example of when you used scientific problem solving/a creative scientific approach to solve a problem.

– What motivates you scientifically?

– What are your career goals?

– Why are you leaving academia?

– What are your hobbies?

– Do you have any questions for me/us? You will probably use some up during the course of the conversation, so have a bunch.

– Do you have any concerns for us?

– How much do you want to make? I hate this one… I always try to say something like; I’m excited about this position and I would just like to be appropriately compensated. Ugh.

 

 

 


2 responses so far

Feedback on job applications

My partner and I applied separately for a number of Assistant Professor positions last year. We both had varying degrees of success at different institutions that really showed us where we stood in terms of what kinds of institutions were interested in us and also relative to other applicants. One thing that really solidified our understanding of our competitiveness was valuable feedback we each got from one person on a search committee.

Let me start by saying that, at least in this field, it is exceedingly rare to get feedback on your job applications. The couple of times before this I have gotten to any stage in the application process where I can communicate with people on the search committee, i.e. phone or video interview, I asked for feedback when I heard I didn’t get the position/interview, but never heard back on that request. So for each of us to have actually received feedback is amazing.

For me, the feedback came from a thoughtful search/department chair who knew how rare it was to receive feedback in the harrowing and opaque job search process, and made a point to reach out to tell me what happened with the search. In short, I was in the top four candidates after the phone interview, but they later ruled me out because my research methods overlapped more with existing faculty in the department than did other top candidates. This was such a relief for me to hear because it told me that it was essentially beyond my control* and that another similar position/department at another time could very likely lead to a good match, as I was one of the top candidates here.

That information, combined with my phone/video interviews and other non-offers told me that 1) My paper application is good overall – good enough to get phone interviews; 2) My interview skills are probably fine – good enough to potentially get me an offer; 3) It will need to be the right place at the right time, and since I’m picky about geography, it might not happen in a given year; and 4) This is all true for small liberal arts colleges – I didn’t get anywhere with the state schools or a couple more research-focused positions I applied to**.

The feedback my partner got was potentially even more valuable, in that it was thorough constructive criticism. This came from someone on the search committee at a place Partner did not get an interview offer, but the person was a friend and colleague of mine who has always been an amazing resource, going above and beyond to help. Unsolicited, she related some of the concerns that were raised about Partner’s research program and what was missing from a critical recommendation letter. She made the point that these issues may not be concerns at all at other institutions*, but it is still really valuable to know and consider that for future applications. She also noted the huge number of qualified candidates that applied for the job, which is always bittersweet to hear.

So we are both extremely grateful for the candid feedback and advice we received and can take into consideration for the future… and in the meantime, I have already paid it forward, giving feedback to applicants for a position in my lab. I am hopeful that more people will help each other out like this in the future – I know I will whenever I am in the position to do so!


*Although it is important to consider how your research fits in with existing research in the department, it is usually impossible to know exactly what the department is seeking. Typically small departments want a diverse array of research programs, especially if undergraduate research opportunities are an emphasis, while larger departments with a graduate program might be more interested in strengthening existing areas of research with more similar but complementary topics/techniques. It is possible to tailor research plans to fit one of these ideas, but you can’t know for sure which is more appealing for any given department/reviewer, so I usually try to keep my research plan with what I really want to do that fits that institution.

**This is because my experience makes me a good match for a small liberal arts college, not because, as some believe, it is a lower tier than a research-focused university, etc. Each type of position/institution is different, looks for different qualities in candidates, and one shouldn’t be thought of as a ‘backup’ if you can’t land your first choice.


8 responses so far

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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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