Archive for the 'uncertainty' category

What could be happening behind the scenes on the hiring committee?

I recently heard an interesting story from a colleague about the hiring process for my position – and how I almost didn’t get an interview! Have you ever heard the behind the scenes story of how you got hired? It can be enlightening, both from a personal perspective and regarding the general hiring process as well.

Here at A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman we’ve posted a number of stories about the struggles of job searches and the difficulty of not understanding why we sometimes don’t get an offer, or even an interview at a job it seems like we’re perfect for. And we’ve posted on some of the things that go on behind the scenes from a hiring committee‘s perspective. One major theme here is that as an applicant there are so many things big and small that go on in a search that you can never know that may influence your placement regardless of how well matched you are.

My colleague and I were chatting about how when I was offered my position they hoped the wouldn’t lose me because of my two-body problem. And that reminded her of the funny-not-funny story of how I almost didn’t even get an interview. She told me that she came to the search committee meeting with her ranked list of candidates with me at the top. She compared her list to the other members of the committee, who had the same top candidates – except that I was completely missing from their lists! She said, “Did you miss this application? I think you need to go back and look at this one.” They had no idea that my application even existed! Through some electronic system formatting issue or later application date, my files ended up separated from the main pack of applicants, and so the others on the search committee had not even viewed my application! Thank goodness one person on the committee was thorough enough to find me, and a strong enough advocate to notice and insist that the others consider me.

While I’ve always tried to share the message with others that you just don’t know what kinds of things are influencing your search that aren’t evident in the job description or communication, I never thought something this logistically simple could have meant a totally different life for me!

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What’s in a name?

I defended 7 years ago this month…. and I’m still a Research Scientist 1.  I had hoped to be up for a promotion last year because I felt like I kicked butt all year. When I had my year end review, my supervisor said I did great and was up for the top merit bonus… but no mention of a promotion.  I mustered up the guts to ask how I was doing “in terms of career development” and he said “Great! You’ve only been with us for 2 years and it usually takes ~5 to get a promotion so you are right on track.”  I was bummed but I was also 5 months pregnant (and sick as a dog) so I had other things on my mind and I let it go.
It took me a little time to get back into the swing of things once I came back from leave in September.  But now I feel like I’m back and ready to take on really juicy interesting projects. I’m also looking around and seeing that other people in other departments are getting promoted and I feel like I am getting left behind. I’m starting to worry about my ability to transfer to a new company… will it be held against me that I’m still a Research Scientist 1?
Some days these thoughts/worries motivate me, make me work harder and try more.  I skip pumping sessions and pick up the baby late so I can squeeze more data out or be at a meeting hoping my presence and input might be the little bit extra to push me over the edge into an “early” promotion.  Other days not getting a promotion makes me question my ability and value as a scientist. Should I just quit and stay home with my new baby? Open an Etsy shop?  Paint?

I recently started talking with a new mentor in the Contracts and Alliances group who suggested I might be able to try out her group or Project Management. I thought about it long and hard (and after some twists and turns) I talked to my supervisor about it. He was supportive but also encouraged me to stay the course if I wanted to stay a scientist. I decided not to pursue it at this time but I still feel torn. It’s hard to move forward when I can see so many interesting options and feel under appreciated (sometimes). I think the idea of not being a scientist anymore is also really sad/scary to me… who would I be?  Would I be happier in a different profession?  For now I’m just trying my best at work and sorting through the options hoping for the patience to take the time to see how things go in the new year.


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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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Writing your own letter of recommendation

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

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

Basics: content

1) Accomplishments

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

2) Drive and ability

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

3) Justifications

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

Fine points: writing

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

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

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

Details:

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

 

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

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

Good luck!

 

 


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Moving on: or not.

I am a high school science teacher and I love my job. I love most of it anyway, which is probably better than most people feel about their jobs. Teaching is challenging, relational, and I get work both collaboratively and independently. I talk about science all day, but I also get to engage in engaging discussions about gender identity and the use of technology in education. I spend the summer off with my small, quickly growing children. And most importantly, I feel like I am really, truly making a difference in the world and its future citizens. Most days, anyway.

And despite all that, I’ve recently felt a need to make a change: I’ve been feeling stagnant and ready for forward momentum in my career. I’ve been trying to identify why I’m feeling this way, and I think it boils down to wanting advancement. As a teacher, there is limited room for growth and virtually no merit-based income increase. I make comically little money, given my education background. Sure, I could go into administration at some point, but I really love science.

When I stumbled upon a position for a local company that produces products for the science classroom, I decided to apply. The job description seemed to be written with my experience and career goals in mind. I found myself energized as I filled out the application and updated my resume. My husband was supportive and edited my documents for me. A week after I submitted the application, I was notified that I had a phone interview. As I prepare for that interview, I can’t help feel conflicted. I love my job—but I am ready for the next phase. So maybe it is time to move on, work more and try something else.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

I wrote the first half of this post before my phone interview. I had what I considered a moderately successful phone interview with the HR person at the company, mostly asking whether I’d be open to travel (I said yes, even though I was/am unsure about how this would work with two little kids and my husband’s job) and how I’d used the company’s product in the classroom. When asked for a salary requirement, I gave a range that was overlapping with the salary range they planned to offer for the position (which nearly TWICE as much as I currently make–it is possible that I sounded a little too excited at that possibility). We hung up, she told me she would notify me about the next phase by the end of the week, and I wrote a thank you email to follow up.

In the days the followed, I continued to feel conflicted. I love my job, and would be sad to leave and miss the opportunity to perfect my curriculum. I had been looking forward to trying some of the new Next Generation Science Standards in my own classroom. On the other hand, the job that I had applied for, despite the travel, seemed to align perfectly with my vision for my next career stage.

So when I didn’t get an in person interview, I was surprised and disappointed. I reached out to the HR person with whom I’d interviewed, and here is a summary of her response: she said that as policy they didn’t provide specific feedback to applicants, but they had received an overwhelming response. All the candidates selected to advance to the next round met all of the posting qualifications (I thought I did too) and had “substantial” teaching experience.

To me, this says that my handful of years of high school teaching was not what they were seeking. Despite this clear explanation for not advancing to the next round, I cannot help feel like I am having trouble making the leap to the next career phase. In the last few years, I have been a finalist for two fellowships (AAAS Science Policy Fellowship and ASHG Genetics and Education Fellowship) that I hoped would allow me to pursue science education policy and/or curriculum development in new and different ways. I have what I consider “substantial” teaching experience, public speaking experience and technical writing/editing skills. So, while I recognize that the field that I am aiming to break into is narrow, I’m not sure what I can do to better prepare myself. Feel free to comment with suggestions!!

In the meantime, I feel lucky to have the opportunity to spend the summer with my kids and take another run at my classes next year. I am telling myself the same thing I tell my students: failure is brave, inevitable and a chance to grow. Though somehow my internal voice is less convincing that my teacher voice.


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Your boss can’t always be your mentor

“You shouldn’t be afraid to tell your boss exactly what you want to do for your next step – it’s their job to mentor you,” is the advice I have given many people, particularly grad students and postdocs who decide they want to pursue careers other than strictly academic research but are afraid to tell their bosses. And now under similar circumstances myself, I have become very hesitant about what information to give my boss about my career plans. I see all the reasons that people would not want to be upfront with their bosses.

  1. I don’t want to get fired. If my boss thinks that I’m no longer right for this job, or the kind of person they want to train, they could just let me go.
  2. As far as I can tell, my boss is not interested in mentoring me for a career outside of academic research.
  3. I don’t want to appear flaky or uncertain. Mostly for reason #1, but also because I still want to be able to count on good letters of recommendation if needed.

At the same time though, there are reasons I should talk to my boss about this.

  1. I could use some advice, mentoring, and maybe even connections or referrals, and I still believe it is part of a boss’ job to provide those things.
  2. I don’t want to waste any more of our time or energy applying for research and training grants, if that is not a direction that will help my career.
  3. Doing so may actually push me to move out into the career I want – even if it was because I got fired.

Plus, I just prefer to be open and honest and I’m sure my boss would prefer that as well. So I will try to first get some mentoring outside of my boss, come up with a game plan for my next career steps, ideally a plan that includes a clear reason why my current position is valuable for my future, and then open up to my boss about it.

With this new perspective, I completely understand why people would not want to be completely open with their bosses, and I apologize for acting like it was so clear cut. That said, as many before me have noted, I do think that most PIs need to be more aware that the majority of trainees are not going to end up as PIs like them, and be open to the many career possibilities that appeal to PhDs. And let’s be honest, your PI probably can’t be a great mentor to you when you’re pursuing a career outside of academia, the only path they’ve traveled, an you’ll want to find another more helpful mentor anyway.


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“I do it for all the little girls”

So we didn’t shatter that highest glass ceiling yet. Like many people, since last week I’ve been trying to stay positive and think of things I/we can do to promote a better, supportive society. A recent article in the New York Times shares stories from women who were told they couldn’t do something because of their gender, but they did it anyway.

I wanted to be inspired by this, but was totally depressed by all the times women have been suppressed or just not recognized as the capable people we are. One particular story that got me was of a young woman majoring in computer information systems who said, “It has been hard to stay motivated, but I do it for all the little girls who are told what they can and cannot do.” If I read that the week before the election I may have found it inspiring. But today, I just think of this poor woman trapped in something she doesn’t love (or worse, maybe she used to love it but has been worn down by all the negative reactions people have given her), ultimately doing it for someone else.

I want to be a good example. I love that Hillary Clinton was (is!) an amazing role model for girls everywhere. I want more women in STEM so that girls who are interested can see themselves in those fields. But is it a good decision for someone to devote their career to something because of a sense of duty? I really don’t know.


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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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Are you prepared to deal with chronic illness?

I could probably count on one hand the number of sick days I’ve used in my adult life before this year. I figured that would change when I had a baby, either to stay home with a sick kid or because I may get sick more often myself, and I was right. But I was unprepared for dealing with issues of chronic pain and illness.

I’ve had some physical issues this year that have noticeably affected my work. I haven’t had to take any sick time directly because of my illness, but I have had to take so many half days to see doctors trying to diagnose and then treat my issues, and then recently took a few days off following a treatment. And all throughout these months, so much of my time and energy outside of work has gone to dealing with the pain and doctors.

This has given me a great appreciation of what it must be like to work with a chronic illness, something I’d read about but didn’t know very much about. As much as I may have tried to hide it, I have definitely been less productive than I (or my boss) would have liked. I have missed promised deadlines, something that I never do, and finally had to tell my boss what was going on. As always, he’s been very kind and understanding, and I know how lucky I am. I even have a slight advantage (depending on the circumstances) in that my pain and the ways I’ve dealt with it are often visible with an obvious root; it can be extremely difficult for people with invisible illness (think fibromyalgia, depression) to deal with others not understanding or believing that they do in fact have an illness.

Even with a flexible schedule and sympathetic boss, I had to consider how my productivity was going to affect my job moving forward. As a postdoc, I’m expected to be in the most productive phase of my training – no classes to worry about, no teaching duties, just all research all the time! So what does it mean when I’m really not being very productive? For that matter, what is productive enough? Where would I need to draw the line, either because of my productivity or to preserve my own health, and consider taking a medical leave, going on disability, or cutting back my hours?

Then I realized that I had no idea how medical leave or disability insurance worked or what other possibilities were. And a number of reasons make it difficult to look into those things while in the midst of health issues – let alone after a traumatic accident of some sort. Sarcozona over at Tenure She Wrote recently wrote a wonderful post about some of these issues and more, and how to value and support [student] researchers with chronic illness. I think we should all take some time when we’re healthy to learn and think about how to deal when we’re not, for our own health and for times when we’re called upon to help or work with someone else like a student dealing with these issues. Talk to your HR representative, read that part of your employee/student handbook you may have glossed over, look into disability insurance – you never know when you might need the benefits suddenly!

In the meantime, take care of yourself and stay well!

 


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Why I stopped faking it

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

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

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

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


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