Archive for the 'finishing postdoctoral training' category

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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I have to pay back what?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Last Day of School.

I am in lab. Today is my last day here. My last day as a postdoc. I inhale deeply. With my eyes closed. I focus on the sounds around me.

Two days ago, I started my seventh year in this lab, and eighth year as a postdoc all together. Six years here. How has this time gone by so fast? Two weeks ago, I gave my advisor my notice. I haven’t slept much since then. Probably because I’m stressed out. Insomnia, how I loathe you.

Exhale. Forcefully. Take another breath in.

I’ve written this blog post, or a variation there of, four times now. Not today. Just over time. Every time, it all came out winy, laced with, what sounded nagging melancholy. I scrapped those. Today it seems to flow. But I still don’t know what it is that I want to write about… That I am happy my postdoc training is over? That I am relieved? Yes, maybe. I feel tired. Empty. Sad. Proud? Yes. I feel proud.

Inhale. Slowly. Methodically. A centrifuge in the hallway just beeped to a stop.

I need coffee. I found a job. At a small cool company in the area. I m elated. Really, I am. Getting a job in this coveted area of Pacific Northwest qualifies you to declare a triumph. A victory. I wanted this for such a long time. It felt like it was never going to happen. And even when I got the offer, it didn’t feel like the end would come. I had so many things to finish up. And then I did. And now I’m done. There are a few monumental achievements in my life – college graduation, grad school graduation, and now postdoc… graduation? Termination? That sounds bad. Retirement? Transition? Sounds better, still not descriptive enough. I cease to exist as a postdoc? Nah, too existential. I completed my postdoctoral studies? Perhaps. What does that mean? By definition, a postdoc position is temporary. A position that was originally designed to prepare someone like me for an academic faculty position. But I am not going to be faculty. Many of us are not. If the outcome is different than originally projected, what do I call this ending? I need coffee.

Exhale. Wait. The vent is making a rattling noise.

Oh yes, and I have twins. I am a mother. That should account for something. Especially when you are a postdoc and a mother. Postdoc training and parenting have something in common after all. They teach you to persevere and to be patient. I am not patient. It’s a work in progress. But I persevered. That makes me feel good. Proud even. And smug. Clearly.

Inhale. Perhaps I should try the 4-7-8 breathing my awesome therapist told me about (yes, I have a therapist. Doesn’t everyone?)

I told friends and family that I have a new job. Although it is my first job, rather than new job. I got a wide range of responses. From the obvious “congratulations,” to the “oh, how are you going to do that, work full time and be a parent?” Or “you are going to be soooo tired.” Gee, thanks. This one is my favorite yet (in a very well-meaning way): “There will be people that won’t like you at your new job, and that’s ok.” As if I need my anxiety over this next chapter in my life to be compounded by others telling me that things could possibly go wrong. Actually, that is what I think about the most—what will the environment be like at the new job. What are the people like? What will be the dynamics of my immediate team? Will we all get along and be able to function well together in totally awesome and productive ways?

New job. New office/lab politics. New things all around. I don’t like new things. There I said it. I’m not supposed to not like new things. I am a scientist.   I should like new things. But I don’t. New things make me uncomfortable. “Must not mess up,” is what runs through my head when I’m trying a new protocol. Perfectionism is not fun. [As a side note/correction, I love learning new things, just not doing new things for that fear of somehow screwing up.]

Exhale. I wish I were in my bed now. With my blanket over my head. I like my bed. I can pretend the world stands still when I’m in it. Except when I have insomnia. I don’t like my bed then. Oh my alarm just went off. Nice. Thank you for that reminder that I should’ve just been waking up. Damn you, Insomnia.

You know what is hard about being a postdoc? Uncertainty. Once you make that choice about not pursuing an academic track position, everything changes. It is a difficult decision. Kind of like deciding not to have any more children. You look at someone’s adorable little girl, and think just how much you want to have just one more child. And then you’re reminded of the birthing process, the recovery and the sleepless nights. So many sleepless nights. And so many days where people look at you like you’re “not all there,” because you are so exhausted, you really should be placed in a recovery coma and sleep for like 12 months (if there is such a thing). And when you attend a seminar given by a faculty member who is really excited about their job, and who has had success in funding throughout the stormy funding history, and who has raised children, who has been a devout mentor to grad students and postdocs, who in her words “has it all,” and has a smile on her face, you wonder if you’ve made the right choice about not going after that coveted faculty position. And the uncertainty over your unpredictable future sets in. And you ponder why exactly you have been in school for >28 years and then in post-graduate training… Training for a job in a field that you probably don’t even yet know about.

You know what else is difficult about being a postdoc? Money. Especially when you are married to another postdoc. The money situation is tough. I have repeatedly said to my husband: “I thought I married a rich American Doctor, what happened?” To which he would usually reply: “So did I. So did I.” Touche’. You know what’s good about not having a whole lot of money when you’re in your postdoc? You can’t afford childcare. Correction, you can’t afford conventional childcare in a daycare setting. To accommodate for our lack of funds to pay for our twins’ daycare, we never put them in daycare. We work(ed) in the same lab, and offset our schedules to minimize the cost we paid to the nanny that would cover the overlap hours when we both would be in lab. It has been difficult. Crazy even. But it feels good to know that it has been essentially just the two of us who have raised our own children. Now, where would I put that on a CV? Perhaps I will make a new category called “synergistic activities”: “Okay-ish scientist and mother gets A+ for perseverance.”

Inhale. What is the bioavailability of caffeine? It seems like there is not enough of that stuff in the world to get me to wake up today. If I am so tired, why can’t I sleep at night?

I did not enjoy the job application process. It was yet another layer of complexity added on to my life’s motto: “run as fast as you can just to stay in one place.” And then someone asks you to do a hurdle sprint in the middle of this marathon called a parent postdoc. Also, interestingly, looking for a job and dating are sort of similar. Mostly because there are SO MANY CREEPS OUT THERE! And because both processes are very time-consuming. And because a lot of the times there is just no chemistry, and the fit isn’t right. But then it takes just one to make you feel alive again, and allow you to stuff those feelings of desperation and anxiety into a dark corner, or perhaps ditch them all together. It feels glorious to be wanted and valued.

Exhale.

I also feel deeply grateful for the relationships I formed and maintained in my postdoc. Professional relationships and friendships. It has been so meaningful for me to connect with people. How is it possible for one place to hold so many awesome individuals? I will really miss them.

Inhale.

Good bye postdoc. I hope I can sleep tonight.

 

Exhale.


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