Archive for the 'early career scientist' category

The Six Month Postdoc Evaluation

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.

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Unpaid Work

It’s summer! I can hardly believe it – for the first time in 20 years I have an actual summer vacation with no job to do, until I teach again this fall! Only… that’s not really true at all. I am practically working full-time, doing work I’m not technically paid to do. There are two sides of this that I have different degrees of tolerance for.

 

workoutside httpwww.mediamoxye.comhow-to-take-your-work-on-the-road-this-summer

Totally not how I work in the summer… source: httpwww.mediamoxye.comhow-to-take-your-work-on-the-road-this-summer

 

First, I am in the place that virtually every scientist finds themselves after a recent (and often not-so-recent) job change. I have unfinished business from my last job, i.e. manuscripts to write. I will not get paid for that job again, but I am obligated to do these tasks. The common reasons we find ourselves in this position are:

  • I put a lot of work into this project that didn’t get quite completed/written before I started my new job, and I want to maintain my ownership/get top authorship – it will benefit me and my career to do this, and/or I want to do it.

OR

  • I promised my old boss I would do this.

In this case, I am fully in the last category – I didn’t even conduct the original research experiments, just did some analysis and started writing the papers, I have very little feeling of ownership or desire to participate, and there is no real way that these papers could make a difference in my career. But I promised. As you can imagine, that makes the unpaid aspect all the more irksome. But this is the culture of research that is unlikely to change because of the way we jump from job to job quickly, relative to the pace of research, early in our careers.

I’m trying to devote about 8 hours per week this summer to finishing up those projects from my last job. And If I can finish them up, then I think I will be truly done with research at that point.

Second, I am doing work that is technically unpaid for my current job, which is a 9-month contract position. I have a complicated situation involving planned but unofficial family leave this fall (since I haven’t worked there long enough to have ‘earned’ it), during my regular working year. My current work is an attempt to prepare for this leave ahead of time, working with Teaching Assistants, testing out labs, and revising course syllabi, assignments, and schedules to work with my absences. But I am certain that other instructors who are unpaid for the summers do plenty of prep work for their courses as well – I know I would: how could one, especially with new course preps, really only start 1 week before the start of the term as specified in our contract? And that leads to my reasons for doing work for this job off the clock:

  • I want to put in the time to develop quality teaching plans, and to make it easier for myself in the fall.

AND

  • I like doing it!

So in a sense, whether I’m getting paid doesn’t really factor in at this point. In addition, not getting paid for this doesn’t sting as much since I’m kind of making up time I’ll be out on leave. But it is still on my mind, especially since this is following my first year, where I had so much initial work to put into teaching courses for the first time that I was working every minute I wasn’t with my kid or sleeping (okay, I did have one date night in that year, but…!). This isn’t unique to science, or even academia, but aspects of the culture here are relatively unique.

One of the perks of academic work is that most of us don’t have to account for our hours or whereabouts or sometimes even vacations. The flexibility to make daytime appointments or go pick up a sick kid or not have to schedule time off is fantastic. But it’s all dependent on being able to get the work done – whether that’s specific projects in the lab, article publications, grants funded, lectures given, or classes taught, the ‘product’, not the time, is what matters to keep the lights turned on. And that’s what I signed up for – I agreed to teach 4 classes per term, for a certain salary and that’s what I have to do, regardless of any assumptions of a 40 hour work week. But I am confident my hours will be much closer to that 40 hour mark after this first year, and I will not get myself into so much unpaid summer work again. But I also agreed to write these manuscripts for my previous lab, so that’s what I’m going to do. Unless the new person in lab wants to write them, since they could actually help her, while she gets paid to do it!

Wish me luck, and you’ll hear from me this fall about how smoothly things go for my leave time based on this preparation!

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What scientists inspire you?

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?

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Getting to know you

What I really wanted to know.

Image from: http://www.fallingfifth.com/comics/20070105

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.

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The hardest semester of my life

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.


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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.


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A day in the life of – a senior postdoc

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.

 

 Twitter: @BananarootsBlog

Website: https://bananaroots.wordpress.com

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMS0L7Y56K4

 

 

 

 

 

 


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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.


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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!


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