Archive for the 'early career scientist' category
I started an academic postdoc position 6 months ago, as a new mom reeling partly from maternity leave and partly from the conditions of leaving my previous postdoc. When I started this position, I wrote about how terrified and isolated it felt. I even elaborated on why conditions seemed like they may never improve and that I may need to find a way out sooner than I thought. But in lieu of jumping ship immediately, I planned to evaluate at 6 months and 1 year*.
Here I am at 6 months. In brief, I am still here. To expound somewhat, I am sitting at my desk having just finished lining up ducks for the next several weeks of experiments, counting cells while listening to the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, and not fearing that my boss will inevitably burst in at some point to interrogate me. Today is a particularly good day, but I am okay with letting today be empowering.
What has changed, you ask? A few major, major things. And the minor thing that my science may actually begin to move forward.
- Meetings with my PI have shown me not to fear her, but to let her passive aggressive undertone pass over me and continue to push for direct communication outcomes. In recent lab meetings, I have gleaned things about her expectations with which I thoroughly disagree. Instead of being cowed and terrified into working harder and longer, as I would have done a few months ago, I decided that it was okay for me to disagree and conduct my business and science in the way that I think is ethical and most productive.
- I have accepted that I do not want to be a PI at an R1 institution. I may not even want to be one at an R2. The pathway toward academic primary investigator, for me, has never been driven by the science per se. I have always loved science, and love bench work, designing projects, writing grants… all that jazz that comes with being a PI. I am also pretty good at these things. But I have never burned with the desire to address a specific scientific question; neither do I burn with the desire for the lifestyle that often comes with the title. I find that I become enthusiastic about many different lines of investigation, and that the projects I favor tend to not be of career-launching caliber. But I digress. The pathway toward academic PI has always been about reaching a position of power from which to engage and promote the next generation of scientific minds. To make science and scientific research accessible to anyone. To foster scientific thinking, and to manage an equitable laboratory space that fosters healthy and ethically responsible scientists. I know this sounds like a pipe-dream, but I also started my career in the laboratory of a PI who inspired me by creating that exact environment, which is why I have so blindly forged ahead. So in response to the road blocks, bad luck, and bad mentorship I have experienced in the last several years, I have decided to shift my career dream over to teaching in the community college or public university setting. These venues are far more fitted to my dreams of engaging young minds and making science and scientific thinking accessible. When I finally realized — in not just my brain but my soul — that this was the platform from which I (with my personality and interests) could best realize the actual impetus of my career goals, it was a major breakthrough. And I have held onto it for several weeks now…
- I have a teaching project. Through my pedagogical fellowship, I have found an opportunity to help redesign an introductory course in molecular biology for a local state university. I am terrified and excited for this project, especially since I have advocated for adding a writing component to the course (instead of just expecting that freshman will know how to write a full lab report…), for which I am solely responsible.
- Finally, I have proven to myself that I can still be a productive and creative scientist working 40-45 hours per week. A growing number of successful scientists have written about this topic, but I have discovered that this could also be me. At least during my postdoc. For now.
So after 6 months, I have brought purpose and direction to my postdoc both at and beyond the bench. I have ceased to be cowed by my PI, I have accepted that my changing career direction is a desire and not a failure, and I have fiercely protected my time with my family. For the time being, this is working. Onward, to the 1 year evaluation!
*This is a personal self-evaluation, not to be confused with a formal evaluation with my mentor that might include an IDP.
I’m trying to make the difficult transition out of postdoc-dom into a more permanent position. It’s been hard, full of rejection and difficult personal and professional negotiations, and my future is still very uncertain. During this time, I’ve been thinking a lot about the hard road that even some of the most famous scientists walked on the way to their world-changing discoveries. One scientist I’ve been thinking about frequently is Albert Einstein, because he went through an extended phase of failure and rejection. He spent nearly two years looking for work!
Over those two years, Albert Einstein was applying for jobs as a physics teacher. He was getting rejection after rejection after rejection. Does this sound familiar to any of you? (If not, you are probably not applying for jobs in the biological sciences—or you are either incredibly brilliant or incredibly lucky). He became so depressed and desperate because of these unrelenting rejections that his father even wrote a pleading letter to a professor who was a distant acquaintance, begging for a job on Albert’s behalf—can you imagine the humiliation?
Unemployed and without any clear prospects, Einstein was unable to support his girlfriend or their daughter, Lieserl. It’s unclear to history what happened to this child, but she likely died as a baby of scarlet fever or was surrendered for adoption. Her parents did not speak publicly of her. Lieserl’s existence was only discovered from her parents’ letters after their deaths, letters in which her young parents did what most young parents do—decided on possible names, joked about their preferences for a girl or a boy, cherished her existence.
So, this is a portrait of Einstein when he finally was offered a job as a patent officer in Bern: he had just suffered countless professional and intellectual rejections, his parents were unable to continue to support him financially, he was in a tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend, and there was a baby and then, at some point, there wasn’t. No matter what happened to that baby, I find it impossible to believe that her parents suffered her loss easily.
In 1902, Einstein excitedly accepted the patent clerk job, which was decently paid but certainly not his passion. This job provided a degree of economic security that allowed Einstein to live decently, to marry, to have another child, to have time to think, and to make friends.
And then, 1905: the ‘Annus Mirabilis’, the miraculous year where he published the papers that irrevocably changed scientific thinking on Brownian motion, special relativity, mass-energy equivalence, and the photoelectric effect. The rest, of course, is history.
(Einstein, circa 1920, unknown photographer)
How did those ground-breaking papers happen? Is it simply the case that a scientist *will* do science, no matter their circumstances or professional opportunities, the same way that a writer will write, or an artist will create? I find this last thought really comforting: I can see the doors of academic scientific research closing to me, but I find it really difficult to imagine a life not doing science.
I don’t compare intellectually to the scientific luminary I’m writing about. Yet, I find it inspiring to think of amazing scientists as individuals, as humans who did not make easy decisions or live in easy times. Who found their own routes to discovery even when excluded from academic establishments. Whose flashes of inspiration and works of genius came through a sea of human emotions and human lives.
What scientists inspire you? Is it someone you’ve met or worked with? Someone whose current work is motivating to yours? Or is it someone you know only through history and textbooks?
In my courses this semester I have over 100 neuroscience students, ranging from just-declared sophomores to early grad students, and I am trying to get to know each one! It’s a challenge but I know it’s important, especially for the early level students, to feel connected and comfortable talking with a professor in their field, and even if all I know is their name and face, that could improve the chances of their being comfortable with me. Throughout the first weeks of the semester I ask each student to tell me (verbally or in writing depending on the size of the class) what brought them to study neuroscience, what excites them, and what their goals are.
It is remarkable (but not surprising if you know or remember college students) the range, from “I have no clue what I’m doing but this seems cool,” to “I was drawn to neuroscience by a specific event and am on a path to medicine/research with a specialty in this ultra-specific sub-field.” One thing that has struck me is how many students are drawn to the field because of a first-hand experience with a brain-related trauma or disease, especially given the young age of the majority of my students.
More than anything though, it is refreshing. I love to see things through their wide (but not naïve!) eyes, hear their personal stories, and especially to learn about things I’ve never heard of that sparked their interests!
And I have one piece of advice for them, and everyone at this stage – try everything! Anything you think you might be interested in, any opportunities you’re presented with you think might be even a little interesting or beneficial – do it! Even if what you learn is that you don’t like that experience, that is extremely valuable as you home in on your goals and personal path. In some ways, this is most valuable advice for people who are so set on their path they don’t try it, or anything else, so if they at some point come to the realization that their top and only choice won’t work, it is devastating and difficult to find a new path. And while it’s never too late to try a variety of experiences, it’s never so easy and so cost-free as this early stage in your career.
Don’t worry, this post isn’t a complaint. I had the hardest semester of my life but I got something great out of it.
I started a new job this fall – one of my top-choice careers, at one of my top-choice institutions! I am teaching undergraduate neuroscience students at a large university in a place I love, near family. But of course it couldn’t be that simple. Because of family-related issues, I couldn’t move there and get started full-time right away. So all fall I’ve been commuting between two different states to work part of the week at my new job and part of the week at my old postdoc research position. As you can imagine, it’s been a terrible to commute, and especially difficult to be away from my family, even part-time. Add to that health issues, deaths of family and friends, and more, and it’s been a nightmare overall, and a struggle to get through each day and week.
Despite all that, I found that I loved my new job and was excited about it throughout the semester, regardless of what else was going on. I looked forward to planning how to teach each lesson/topic, talking with students, and evaluating their performance. I love virtually every aspect of it! This was a stark contrast with my old job. Even though I couldn’t wait to return home to my family, I dreaded going back to my job in the lab. I did not want to do lab work, did not want to write or research, and, to my surprise, did not even look forward to helping my students with their research projects.
Realizing these thoughts and feelings about my work made me so happy that I could be confident about my choice in career paths. Up until I accepted this teaching position, I had been thinking that I would be equally happy doing that or teaching and running a small lab with undergraduate students at a small liberal arts college, where I could focus on the students more than cutting edge research. Now I realize that that would have been a mistake and I just can’t be excited (or do a good job) for research-related activities, outside of teaching students about research on an intellectual level.
So here I am on the home stretch of the hardest semester of my life (so far…), fully excited about my move to full-time lecturer, and for a fresh start for the new calendar year! It feels so good to be confident about my career choice and path forward.
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.
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.
Bananaroots is in her second postdoctoral position at a research institute in the UK, after completing her first postdoc at a major university in the Netherlands. She has a long-standing interest in plant diseases and a soft spot for bananas. She is curious about everything related to communication and is active in student mentoring, science outreach, science policy and science communication. In her free time, she enjoys Tai Chi, water sports cooking and traveling. Check out her short video about her project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMS0L7Y56K4
I am not yet a group leader, but almost. All the signs point in the right direction. I have secured my own funding – a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Union. I have independently established my research line: Engineering resistance against Fusarium wilt in banana. I work in one of the world’s leading institutes on plant microbe interactions – The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) in the UK. I write grant proposal and papers and I supervise a fantastic, small team of MSc students. My group leader is very supportive. He gives me all the freedom I need to conduct research, establish collaborations and lead my projects. Sometimes people want to do a PhD or postdoc with me. Unfortunately, I cannot accept any postdocs or PhDs until I have secured more funding and a more permanent position. So, that’s where I am at the moment. On the verge of my own research group.
So, what does a typical day in the life of a senior postdoc?
6 am I wake up, get into my running outfit and do a quick run in the park followed by a bit of stretching and Tai Chi. It’s quiet in the park at this time and the morning sun blinks lazily through the big, white clouds.
7.30 am Scrolling through Twitter at breakfast. I am active in science outreach and Twitter is my preferred medium. Get dressed and cycle to work.
9 am Checking my emails. Oh no! My banana shipment did not pass clearance at the airport. Working with bananas in the UK is not easy. At the beginning of my postdoc at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL), I established a collaboration with a nursery in Israel. They provide tissue culture banana plantlets free of charge. It’s a great collaboration, but today something went wrong. A document is missing. The shipment cannot be cleared at the airport’s agricultural inspection. I spend the next two hours emailing and phoning with our biosecurity officer, the courier, clearance at the airport and the nursery in Israel to get the banana plantlets released from the airport.
11 am One of my graduate students has been lurking around my office for a while and finally grasps her chance to get my attention. She is doing a MSc in plant breeding and genetics and wants to discuss her thesis draft with me. Working with students is one of my favourites. It’s like planting a flower and then watching it grow and blossom. Highly rewarding!
12 Time for lunch. I enjoy chatting with the colleagues of my group. They work on a different project together and also sit in another office.
12.30 pm Quick Twitter check. GM activists (both Pro and Con) debate the field trials for a Vitamin A-enriched banana (Golden Banana) in Uganda.
12.45 pm Time for lab work, I am preparing a big banana greenhouse bioassay for tomorrow. I harvest the fungal spores and bacteria and transport the banana plants from the clean chamber into the infection chamber.
2.45 pm On the way from the lab to the office, I run into a postdoc from another research group. We are organising a workshop in communication together for the institute’s postdoc and quickly discuss catering and location.
3 pm Telephone conference with the steering committee members of the World Banana Forum (WBF). The WBF is a permanent platform for stakeholders of the global banana supply chain, housed by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation. Policy work is very different from the fact-based research environment. The goal of today’s call with representatives of labour unions, NGOs, governments, producer organisations and retailers is to organize the third global banana conference in Switzerland this year. The call is scheduled for one hour, but, as usual, overruns and lasts almost two hours.
5 pm Catching up with emails. I answer questions of my grad students, order materials for experiments, update collaborators and ask for biological material to be send.
6 pm Finally, make it to the new emails. Good and bad news: My pre-proposal for a huge grant did not make it to the next round. I am not invited to submit a full proposal. Sad. It took a lot of time to prepare the pre-proposal. The good news: my abstract was selected for a talk at a scientific conference in September.
6.15 pm Admin stuff: I hand in my expenses, book flight tickets for the conference and write up my lab journal. We have recently switched to electronic lab journals. Electronic lab journals are awesome. I can quickly check and sign off my student’s lab journals, add PubMed references and large Excel files, share pages and projects with colleagues and when I leave, I will make a pdf of the journal and take it with me.
7.15 pm I get onto my bike and cycle home.
7.30 pm. Since I moved to England, I got into gardening. Tonight, I pick courgettes from my garden to cook a light dinner.
8 pm Last email check to make sure that the banana plantlets have left the airport and are on their way to TSL.
8.10 pm The rest of the evening is devoted to my project management assignment. The assignment is for a “Leadership and Management” course that runs over two years. Although it is a lot of work next to my postdoc, I enjoy the course a lot, because it provides new perspectives on communication, on managing research projects, motivating people, handling budget and leading a team/research group. The video is the result of my project management module.
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.
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.
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.