Archive for the 'early career scientist' 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.


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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

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

Mission Statement

There is so much that I love about my career as a Research Scientist in BioTech. I love the creativity and intellectual stimulation, the teamwork and independence, the opportunity to apply expertise but always keep improving and learning, and I love the puzzle of it all. But sometimes I feel drained, and recently I’ve been in a bit of a funk. I think part of it is from our continued fertility struggles; but I start thinking that maybe I’m not in the right job or even the right line of work…. Maybe I want to run away and be an illustrator or a farmer. I should go live on a commune and teach kindergarten in a tree house. But when I really sit down and outline what I want out of a career/my life I realize (again) that I’m doing it, I have my perfect job. So why do I feel so blah?

? I recently came across a blog post entitled “why a personal mission statement is key to career bliss.”  Based on this maybe the question I need to be asking myself isn’t what I want to be, but rather who do I want to be. I like this idea! I don’t need go external and look for a new passion project or do anything drastic to find my happy place, I just need to be more mindful of my “core motivators” and make sure that I honor that thought in my daily life. Here is my first attempt at a personal mission statement, it’s pretty broad, but I like that it applies to my work-life and my life-life.….

To be a compassionate and creative person who contributes to, and supports teams trying to make the world a better place.

I would love to hear from you, do you have a mission statement?  Has it helped you?


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Could aiming for a glam pub make me a better scientist?

May 26 2016 Published by under academia, early career scientist, publishing, research

I’m usually not very judgmental but I’ll admit that I have disdain for scientists or labs who almost exclusively aim for glamor publications in journals like Nature, Science, or Cell, and sometimes even say they don’t value research from low-impact factor journals. Debates about glam pubs usually focus on the fact that such journals don’t correspond with quality of science, or the apparent need to publish in high-impact factor journals to advance one’s career (get a tenure-track position or get tenure) and  and the idea of boycotting or subverting such journals and going open-access.

This is a little different at smaller institutions like I’ve been at in the past, but even at major research institutions I’ve never been in a lab that really aimed for glam pubs. Between my four past and present mentors, they may have had two such publications, and the fact that I don’t even know the number shows you how little I notice/care about that. I never thought it was important to me to publish in a glam journal, and was perfectly happy to publish in what I considered the most appropriate journals for my work and subfield*. I like to do whatever are the best experiments for my line of research and then publish when I have a complete story**, and figure out where that story fits best.

Lately I’ve been exposed more to labs that primarily publish in high impact journals and I found myself thinking about it a little more. I wondered what it would be like if I was aiming for a manuscript I could submit to a high-impact journal. What would I need to add to my story? What would it take to get there? If I couldn’t do the experiments myself due to resources or expertise, who could?

This made me think about a lot of advantages. Of course the obvious advantage is that by getting that publication I may get a better chance at that tenure track position, etc. But perhaps more importantly, it really would push my work somewhere I wouldn’t otherwise take it. Maybe it would be good for me to think beyond my comfort zone, to actually consider those experiments that I would have written off in the past as ‘beyond the scope of this study’. In addition, it would push me to develop collaborations with others and/or expand my own expertise. This would be good for my current work, for my later independent work (i.e. fundability), and probably for increasing my job opportunities as well.

I find that I can be the most productive and even creative if I’m given a little framework for a goal. Maybe aiming for a glam pub is just the kind of structure I need to motivate me, and push me outside of my comfort zone to become a better scientist.

*Which is not to say I haven’t submitted manuscripts to the glam journals, because I have.

**My use of this term is quite different from what might be considered a complete story for a glam pub.


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Why I stopped faking it

When I was in grad school I felt like I wasn’t good enough and at the same time that I deserved to have it all – perfect grades, grants, awards, fantastic publications, a great social life and a happy family. My way of trying to achieve this was by acting tough, and it actually kind of worked.

Early on my PI told me that if I needed something from him I should keep “nagging” him (his words) if I wanted it done. He was right, he was a very busy man and I learned to do what I needed to do to get things done and I had a successful and happy grad career. At the intro to my defense he proudly told a story about the lengths to which I went to make sure that he signed paperwork in time for submission (I followed him to the restroom and waited outside until he came out). But acting all the time took its toll. By the time I was looking for a postdoc position I was burnt out (I know, almost everyone is burnt out by the time they defend), and I was so tried of trying to “fake it ’til I make it.”

The way this feeling manifested for me was in my choice not to pursue invitations to interview at top tier labs, and instead to join a good, but not a stretch, lab at a good, but comfortable University. I just wanted to go somewhere where I could do good work, be a good lab-mate and collaborator and be supported in turn, and I thought I had found just the place. It nearly broke my heart when I learned that my new PI had hired another postdoc at the same time as me and had given her the same project as me. I still don’t know if this was the result of a brain fart or if it was a may-the-best-researcher-win type thing, but it sucked! She was a very nice person and once we realized what was going on we were totally open with each other about what we wanted to do with the funding and the project and we made the best of the situation… but it broke me down. I stopped pretending I was strong and acting tough. I let the fact that I was sad about the situation show and completely shifted my research topic (for multiple reasons) – we were already competing with the rest of the research community, I didn’t want to have to compete with my lab-mates.

When my husband and I got the opportunities to move to California I was thrilled. It was a chance to move on! I’d decided that I wanted to leave academia and see if biotech was a better fit, but I’ve still not put back on that mantel of toughness. I’m a lot truer to myself and my feelings now, I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not. It means that my insecurities are more pronounced; I’m suddenly a lot more visibly nervous giving talks. I also push myself less, I’m less focused and for better or worse I’m not trying as hard to have everything right now. I feel like I lost my edge when I gave up pretending that I was perfect and stopped grabbing for “all the things.” On the other hand I’m happier and less tired all the time. I get to prioritize my personal life along with my career. And now that I’m less concerned about credit and what I deserve, I think I’m a better collaborator and team-mate. Things that used to drive me crazy, like when people would co-opt my ideas without credit, don’t affect me the same way. When I realized this change I initially felt terrible, giving up my (righteous?) entitlement seemed so sad, but most of the time now, I don’t see it that way. I think there is a healthy line that I’m still learning to walk between wanting everything and accepting anything. I hope as I become more honestly confident that I’ll find my middle ground.


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Resolution Fail!

We’re not even at the end of January and I’ve already failed at one of my goals for the year. Okay, not failed, but postponed.

I’ve been working on applying for a career transition award through NIH. This means proposing research I will perform as a trainee in my postdoc, as well as in my independent laboratory after I get a faculty position (don’t laugh). This all must fit together in a way that works with my past experience, transitions nicely between postdoc and independence, and distinguishes me from my mentors, all while being a compelling (fundable) research plan. It’s pretty challenging and I’ve been working for months on my aims and getting advice from many different people. It was a pleasant surprise to find how many people, some of whom didn’t even know me at all, were willing to put time and significant effort into carefully reading my aims and giving advice.

The biggest challenge for me was getting the preliminary data I needed to show that my proposed approach was feasible and that there was some basis for my specific hypotheses. There were some logistical issues in getting things up and running that kept me from really getting started on the most important pilot experiments until December. I worked every single day over the holidays to get these things done and didn’t really mind – the planning had been the hard part and now I was going to get the payoff, in the form of beautiful pilot data, just in time to polish my application!

But then my first experiment didn’t give me the results I expected – not only did the drug I was testing not lead to the hypothesized effect, but I didn’t have the expected baseline differences between groups I needed to even show an effect if there was one, so basically the experiment was worthless for preliminary data purposes. And then my second experiment failed due to an unforeseeable procedural issue. So frustrating!

After each of these failures I still held hope for my third, and most important experiment. This was the one I needed to show that my methodological approach was sound, that I could actually do it, and that it supported my main hypothesis. But to my surprise, my results showed that this was not true at all – this approach was not going to work for my goals, and there was no support for my hypothesis. This was the final nail in the coffin, which I had already seen coming after the first two experiments – there was no way I could submit this grant as planned.

Now I need to do a few more exploratory experiments before I can even settle on an approach. Then I need to rewrite my aims – at least altering the approach, but maybe my actual hypothesis and entire research plan! So I hope I can do this before the next submission deadline, just postponing my application by one cycle, but it’s now clear to me that I have a lot of work to do be confident that my proposal is sound, not just a nice plan.

One of the disappointments for me on the personal side is that this inevitably delays my career progress. If I do get the award, whether it’s on the first or re-submission, it’s at least one cycle later than I’d hoped, and longer for me to remain in this training phase of my career, which I’ve mentioned I’m really ready to move on from! If I don’t get the award, I’ve spent a LOT of time doing things for this application that arguably take away time from other progress I could be making in my research and/or career plans.

And honestly, one of the biggest reasons I feel like not meeting this deadline is a failure is because of all of the people who worked to support me in reaching this goal. I have mentors, people writing me recommendation letters, collaborators, advisers, and administrative staff who’ve all been helping me try to make this deadline, and I feel embarrassed to tell them I’m postponing my submission. I know these people all have been a part of the game and know very well what it’s like, and it’s not like I was lazy or inattentive to deadlines – the science side just didn’t work, and that happens. But I still feel like a failure going to each of these people to tell them I have to postpone my plans.

I can only hope that I have continued support from both colleagues and data by the time I reach my next deadline. Here’s to flexible goals and a happy and productive mid-2016 – wish me luck!


8 responses so far

Life Lessons from Teenagers

“So, what do you guy think of this?” I asked my students, using all my effort to bite my tongue and let my students express their own opinions. I was discussing the 2014 decision by Facebook and Apple to subsidize egg freezing for female employees as part of their benefits plans. My own initial thoughts on the matter were visceral; the subtext of this “opportunity” is to encourage women to work while we are young and worry about family later.

I was discussing this issue with a group of students interested in future medical careers. They are high achievers and envision themselves as career-motivated, even as teenagers, so I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised by their positive responses to the egg freezing deal. My students thought it was wonderful. They praised the companies for allowing young women to have careers without having to “worry” about their biological limitations. I struggled to keep my own mouth shut as they excitedly envisioned their futures career women then mothers. I wanted to say, “How about supporting women with paid maternity leave?” or “Why don’t we consider more affordable childcare and flexible work schedules?” But I didn’t. I stood by and soaked in their opinions with admitted alarm.

As I reflected on their responses in the coming days, I realized that their responses could easily have been my own, 15 years ago. I was a high achieving student. I wanted to do something that “mattered” with my career—revealing a cure to cancer or discovering a new drug, something that would impact the future of the world. I vividly remember thinking that I didn’t want to get married until I was at least 29, an age much later than that of my own parents who were married at 23. As my own life went on, however, I fell in love and got married (at 23, as luck would have it). By 27, I yearned to have a child with a longing that was overwhelming and fierce.

During my pregnancy, I was finishing graduate school and looking to make a career transition. As I researched opportunities and networked with fervor, I would frequently chat with my own mother about my excitements and anxieties. One afternoon, she said to me, “Your priorities will change when you have your baby.” And I was mad. I was angry at the suggestion that all of my education, preparation and career exploration might be somehow useless or wasted.

In the end, my mother was right. My priorities did change, thought not in the negative way I had perceived. I have found a career I love; It is certainly not of the prestige I had envisioned as an impassioned teenager, but it allows me to make a difference in my small part of the world. And now, as I look forward to by 30th birthday, I hope for a second child. My hope is surrounded by tremendous anxiety regarding the cost of childcare for 2 children and how to prepare for months of lost wages during maternity leave (I’m relatively new to my job and have little accrued vacation time).

So when I mediate this discussion with my students regarding companies paying tens of thousands of dollars for egg freezing, I can’t help but wish I could have that amount of money for childcare and maternity leave. I want to tell my students how they will feel when they have their own children. I want to express to them how it feels to watch your own parents grow old and worry that they will never meet their grandchildren. I want to tell them how hared it is to leave an 8 week old in childcare. I wanted to tell them why my little girl doesn’t yet have a sibling. But instead, I listen to their excitement and say, “that’s so interesting!” because there are some things that only life can teach us, and I too am still learning.

(I certainly know that there are many wonderful outcomes from egg freezing procedures, especially for young women who undergo chemotherapy, etc. The opinions expressed here are only mine.)

More Reading on Egg Freezing:

http://time.com/3835233/sheryl-sandberg-explains-why-facebook-covers-egg-freezing/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-truth-about-egg-freezing_55db6163e4b08cd3359cc4e6


5 responses so far