Archive for: January, 2015

On transitioning into a job outside academia

We often talk about academia as being an ivory tower, but when thinking about transitioning into a job outside academia, academia may feel more like the cave that Plato talks about. Plato described a group of people living in a dark cave, and the only thing they see is shadows from puppets that other people move for them. For the people in the cave, the puppets are the reality because they are unaware of any other reality out there. In academia, we are often led to think that there is one career path, and that there are certain values that are important, for example publishing papers, getting grants and acquiring experimental skills and expert-knowledge. How are you supposed to get a job outside of academia and convince other people that your are good at this new job, when you don't even know what this job would look like? And more importantly: what the values are that are appreciated outside academia?

In Plato's story, he has Socrates say: "suppose...that someone should drag him...by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into the light of the sun." The person from the cave would be blinded by the light, he would need time to adjust, and only then he would be able to appreciate the new truth and knowledge.

I only recently dragged myself into the light and am still learning what the values are that are appreciated where I am now. It's not papers in high-impact factor journals (well, maybe it is, but not as much as before), it is not (only) expert-knowledge. It is mostly how to interact with other people, and how to share my expert-knowledge. And now that I am in the light, I see all these other opportunities that are out there and I know much better how I would be able to contribute in other places as well. I understand much better what things I would need to learn to get other jobs, and when I read people's job titles on LinkedIn I can envision better what type of job they have.

And just like in Plato's story, it's almost as if you need somebody else to drag you from the cave into the light. That person can be you, or someone else, or the lack of funding to be able to stay in academia.

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Doing a post-doc abroad just for paid parental leave?

In yesterday's Science, there's an article about how nice it is to do a post-doc in Europe when you're a US citizen. The reason: because in Europe the rules for parental leave around birth are better than in the US. As you know, I did it the other way around: I'm from Europe but I did a post-doc in the US, where I had 2 kids. The conclusion of the Science article:
In the United States, the pool of qualified postdocs has grown and postdocs have gotten longer. There's now a greater likelihood than ever that training will overlap with starting a family. The decision when and where to have children is personal and depends on many factors; there's something to be said, for example, for having your mother nearby. But in deciding where to train, postdocs should consider the whole experience of working and living, not just time spent in the lab. Add to the mix Europe's ample opportunities for professional enrichment, and the parental-leave advantages that Europe can offer postdocs are worth considering.
However, what this article doesn't mention at all: how do you go back to the US after your post-doc and how do you get a faculty position or other job back in the US? Can European PIs mentor you well enough on how to get a TT position in the US? Do they know what is important in that respect? Can you apply for the funding you will need in order to get a job? Do you have to pay your flights when going to interviews if it's a trans-Atlantic flight? Or does doing a post-doc in Europe mean you will have to do an additional post-doc in the US upon return in order to find a job? Or is it nice to have babies in Europe but does it put you at a disadvantage to your colleagues who stayed in the US? And is it better to find a PI who will give you paid maternity leave in the US (like my PI did!) than to go abroad for this reason? In the current competitive environment, these seem very important questions to consider, and this Science article fails to ask a single one.

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The most disgruntled postdoc

Today, I came across a blog post entitled "A career in science will cost you your firstborn". It talks about a post-doc called Margaret, who doesn't only hate being a post-doc, but also calculates that it has "cost" her half a billion dollars to become trained enough to qualify for a TT position (because if she hadn't done a post-doc she would be making more money) .

The pathway in modern academic science involves up to twenty years spent as a “trainee,” with little respect from your peers and even littler compensation.

Wait, there's more to be disgruntled about:

Worse yet, a postdoc isn’t a real job.  You’re considered a “trainee” for the purposes of everything from social security to benefits.  You’re often locked out of retirement accounts, not that you’ll have enough money to save any to begin with.   And you often can’t collect unemployment if you’re fired.

Quitting sometimes means owing a grant organization years of “payback,” which can take the form of unpaid work or huge debts.  And since your boss gets most of the credit for what you do, even the successful can have their careers soured simply because their boss forgets to mention their name when she presents the data at international conferences.

As a postdoc, you’re still not really a “scientist,” but you’re almost all the way.

On top of getting no respect, it is impossible to find a partner, according to this post:

Turns out that when you’re working the 10-16 hour days expected from a postdoc, it’s pretty hard to get out on the social scene to meet the breadwinner you’re going to need on that paltry salary.  If you want to be a scientist, you’d better meet your sugar daddy/momma in college.

And if you are lucky enough to meet this person, you should obviously wait to have a baby in order to work hard enough:

This whole problem is a LOT harder on scientists who can carry children.  Earning almost nothing is okay enough for me—even if I start a family at 40, my anatomy is going to work just fine at the job.  But if you’re the one getting pregnant, your fertility peaks during the 20 years of your adult life that a scientist typically spends proving they deserve a career.

 

Uhm yeah. I think it is true that there are many aspects of academia that are not perfect to say the least. But as black and white as things are portrayed here for "Margaret", who already hated being a post-doc after 4 months into it, is not the way I experienced it. And the fact that there are so many kick-ass scientist with and without children out there show that it does not have to be this way. Yes, things need to change in terms of funding, job stability, the length of a post-doc, but I would never go as far as to say that a career in science will cost you your firstborn. Unless you look at it differently and imagine how many children you could have had if you hadn't even attended college. In that case, going to college and getting a career in science could have cost me my 10th, 11th and 12th born*.

* assuming I would have started having babies at 18 - my peak fertile years - and had a baby every 2 years. Which of course I had if it wasn't for science.

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How your mentor affects your succes in academia

This is a post that has been in my head for ages, but I want to write it in an objective way, not in a whiny way. And I think I'm ready for that now. I can basically summarize this post in one sentence: the time, energy and investment your academic mentor has for you is a large determinant for your career-success, but is extremely hard to predict when starting a project.

Let me explain myself more, starting with the first part of that sentence. Sure, there are different mentoring styles, but in the end it is important that your mentor has your best interest in mind. And I have found that this is not always the case, because a mentor is usually a busy person, and somebody with their own interests when it comes to project ownership, collaborations, etc. However, I have also seen mentor who - despite being extremely busy with things that matter to them - invest lots of time to get their trainees to write the best papers, come up with the best ideas, find their own niches and write the best possible grant applications. And from what I see around me, having a mentor like that can be just that extra important thing that you need to succeed in a highly competitive environment.

The next part of the sentence is the thing that you can influence yourself, which is to find exactly that mentor as a post-doc. But how do you do that? How do you know if a PI will be that mentor, and more importantly, whether they will be that mentor TO YOU? Because as much as people might not want to admit this, there has to be some sort of click/chemistry/connection/whatever you want to call it to make your mentor do all those things for you. Some ways to figure this out are: 1) Talk to people in the lab and see where lab-alumni have ended up. Are they allowed to take projects from the lab for themselves? 2) See where in their career your potential mentor is: will they have to work their ass off to get things for themselves in the coming years? Although this may be different for different PIs, because this may also mean that they will invest time in their trainees in order to get those papers they need for themselves. As I said before, this can be a delicate balance. 3) Try to figure out if this is somebody you will be able to work with well. This might be the hardest part, especially because a PI may be different on your interview day than on the average day in the lab. And you might be different when you've just got your PhD versus when you're a 4th year post-doc looking for a job. Just like in a relationship with a loved one, the hardest part is to grow together and still be able to benefit from this mentor/mentee relationship.

And to end with: in this post I've used mentor and PI sort of interchangeably, but in real life a mentor can be a different person from your PI. It's nice if your PI is your mentor but if push comes to shove, you're responsible to look for people that can give input and challenge you to move forward in your career. This can - and perhaps should be - more than one person.

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Happy 2015!

Happy 2015 everyone! I hope this will be a great year full of whatever you want it to be full of! For me, there are a couple things I want to work on this year, and even though I normally don't really spell out my resolutions, I decided that this year I will.

Personal

Let me start with this one. After a week of vacation where I did NO WORK AT ALL, I found out that the doing no work part was both hard and easy. I noticed that all those years as a grad student and a post-doc had left me feeling that every free minute had to be spend working, or at least thinking of working, or feeling guilty that I wasn't working. This week, I could have worked on a project that needed to be finished before the end of last year (but can really be finished early January too), or on a manuscript that needs to be rewritten, or on a left-over manuscript from grad school. But I decided to do nothing AND enjoy doing nothing. Actually, I still did some useful things, like unpack boxes and organize things from when we moved (way back in April) and learn to crochet. But other than that, it was nice to not work and most importantly, not feel guilty in any way about not working. I need to do more of all that this year. This is not to say that I should work less overall, but more that I need to divide it better: time spent not working also means not ruminating about work-stuff that needs to be done, and time spent working should just be that. Let's see how that goes.

Edit: it seems like I am not the only one who has these kind of work-life balance resolutions for 2015.

Work

During my end year review at work, my most important feedback was that I should improve on stakeholder management, so this is definitely something I should work on this year. When I started my first job I thought stakeholders were only people on the outside that need to believe your work or need to buy your product. But I soon learned that really anybody you interact with is a stakeholder: colleagues, managers, reviewers, etc. These people can be asked for help or at least need to be informed about what you're doing in order to follow your thinking and be enthusiastic - or in the know - about what you do. And I also soon realized that this is something that I've always been bad at: I always wonder if I should ask someone for help or just do it myself without bothering anyone. This has backfired before when I didn't ask my PI to look over proofs of a manuscript and there ended up being a very ugly error in one of the figures that happened when the PDF was made by the publisher. So this year I need to get better at interacting with the people around me at work.

Blogging

Kind of the same thing holds true for my blog as well: I often don't interact with you - my commenters - as much as I would like. Often I write a post and then do a really crappy job answering to comments or keeping the discussion going, because I'm busy with other things I guess. In addition, I still kind of feel like I need to re-find my voice on my blog now that I'm no longer a disgruntled post-doc and after I moved to Scientopia where I kind of feel my blog needs to be more sciency and less babywearing. So I have this New year's resolution to blog once a day for a month. But not this month; I'll just procrastinate a little bit longer and do it in February. Or March 😉

So, dear readers of my blog: what would you like to read about this year? What are things you would like to read more or less of? 

 

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