Archive for the 'advice' category

"Academia is sticky"

Fellow tweeps @IHStreet, @Doctor_PMS and @LadyScientist have started a podcast "Recovering Academic" where they talk about what it is like to leave academia and find a job outside the academic world. I think it's awesome, go check it out!

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Did you spend too much time as a post-doc?

Four years ago, I wondered "if I would ever make the decision to look for a job outside science, and if so, if I would regret all the time and effort put into trying to get data, write papers and get grants?". Before I left science, now almost two years ago, I spent more than four years as a post-doc doing slice electrophysiology mostly. Since I left academia, I've never patched a cell anymore.

Most scientists at the company I work at have done a post-doc, but many of them shorter than the 4,5 years I've spent as a post-doc. And then of course there are people around my age in more commercial jobs that have no PhD or post-doc experience at all (and probably get paid quite a bit more than me because of having more experience) So looking back, one might wonder if I've spent too much time as a post-doc?

I've given this quite some thought recently, mostly because it sometimes feels unfair that people who have an equal amount of experience-years end up in different positions. And I realize that if I had known that I would have ended up where I am now, I may have been able to get there with a shorter route. However, I also realize how much I have learned during my post-doc that is still very useful now, like writing, leading people and also just the experience of living somewhere else for a while. And of course the notion that work is also enjoyable, not just a race to get to some end-goal. So even thought I was afraid I would regret my time as a post-doc if I wouldn't be able to stay in academia four years ago, looking back I wouldn't have done it much different.

What about you? If you have left academia, do you wish you had spent less time as a post-doc?

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Assumptions vs open questions

Instead of: "Hey, are you an intern/graduate student/post-doc here?"

You can ask: "So, what is your position here?"

Or, instead of: "Is this your first job after graduating college?"

You can ask: "How long have you worked here and what have you done before that?"

So that I don't have to say - again - that I am not an intern, this is not my first job and yes, I do look kind of young but that does not take away from my credibility, if you first clear you mind of all the assumptions that live there.

Image from here:

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The difference between a supportive and unsupportive manager/PI

I'm beginning to realize more and more that whether your manager or PI is helpful and goes the extra mile for you can make a HUGE difference for your everyday happiness and the advancement of your career. The other day I heard the following story of an industry scientist (paraphrased by me and changed some details to ensure anonymity):

"I recently received the feedback that I need to be more visible and impactful within the company in order to be able to keep my job and be eligible for any type of promotion. I want to be impactful, but I feel that I rarely get the opportunity: when I make slides for a presentation, my manager is the person who presents them. And when I ask them about this, they replied that they also need to work on being impactful to those higher up. On the other hand, my manager says that they want to help me, but I don't see how they do this. What can I do?"

I think that this is a clear example of having a manager who does not have much space to give you the things that you need to advance your career. I've been in that situation when I did a short post-doc with a PI who was only a few years more senior than me. While I saw PIs around me give their post-docs the option of co-supervision of PhD students or a co-PI position on grants*, or even 'just' the opportunity to meet collaborators and give talks, this person did not seem to have the ability or willingness to do that, or was still very busy getting those things for themselves. Perhaps it sounds entitled to want these things from a manager or PI, but I've seen around me how these seemingly little things can have a big effect on where you take your career.

It seems like this industry scientist is in the same situation: the manager and the scientist are not very far apart in seniority and the fact that the manager is busy getting the same things as the industry scientist within the same company makes it difficult for them to help the scientist advance.

So what can this industry scientist do? In the situation where they asked for advice, the following suggestions were given: find a mentor/coach other than your manager to help you with certain aspects, be more vocal about what you've accomplished and ask your manager to present your own work instead of having them present it for you.


*I can hear my US-readers think: you're supposed to show independence from your PI, which is true, but here it seems inevitable to have a period as senior post-doc when you're trying to become independent but here there is often no funding nor TT positions to be able to do that.

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"You need to persevere in the right direction"

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How interacting with people at work is a lot like interacting with toddlers

The other day I was in a training that talked about effectiveness and it made me realize that being effective is really tested the most when dealing with toddlers. The trainer talked about how being effective is not only about the quality of the outcome but also about the acceptance of everyone involved. This made me think about getting a toddler to put their shoes on. When it would be only about quality, I can put those shoes on in about 5 seconds. However, when effectiveness is about getting out of the door with a toddler with their shoes on, I've found that often the only way to get this done is by having the toddler put their own shoes on, however testing for my patience that might be. The alternative would be that the toddler has shoes on, but is laying on the ground yelling that they want to do it themselves for much longer than it would have taken them to put them on themselves...


I'm trying to remind myself of this example, because I've found that my initial reaction very often is to figuratively speaking put the shoes on the toddler myself and run out of the door, while this might not be the best way to interact with people (collaborators for example) in the long run.


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A postdoc's circle of influence

For a training at work, I am reading "The 7 habits of highly effective people". I assume everybody in the world has already read this book, because whoever I talk to about this book says something like:"oh yes, I liked this or that advice that was given".

The first of the seven habits made me realize how I became such a disgruntled postdoc. This chapter of the book talks about proactive and reactive people, and how proactive people focus on their so-called "circle of influence": the things in life that you can influence, like problems at work that you can solve. Reactive people however, focus mostly on things in their "circle of concern": things that you cannot influence, but that do affect you, like the weather. As a postdoc it felt like my circle of concern was huge: there were so many things I felt were very difficult to influence, like circumstances in the lab, reviewers, the competitive job market, my inability to get grants funded, etc. I felt like my circle of influence was this tiny dot in a huge circle of concern.


After reading this part of the book, I think it is important to clearly distinguish the two, and - even as a post-doc with a huge circle of concern - to work on the things that you can influence, like figuring out what you want to do next and taking steps to go there. Also: writing and submitting manuscripts, applying for grants and considering to appeal rejections (although this may be more the pro-active playing field of PIs rather than postdocs).

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"Just do what you like doing best"

Yesterday I talked to my manager about the fact that I don't really know where I want to take my career and where I imagine myself in 5-10 years. I ended with:"Or am I overthinking this?" And they laughed and admitted that to them, the idea that this amount of planning a career was not what they had ever done. They responded saying:"Personally, I try to have a job with as many aspects in it that I really like to do on a day-to-day basis". They continued:"So my advice would be that if you talk to people about what their job entails, don't talk about the tasks that they do, but about the things they like in their job. That might help you find what kind of job would make you happiest."

This advice sounds so simple and also so in contrast to what I've learned before, which is that you should work hard and in the end you are rewarded with something. That you need to climb a steep ladder to get to where you want to be. Maybe the end results is not the most rewarding thing in a job, but the fact that if you find a job that you like, going home everyday with a smile on your face is the best reward.

If you think about it, this is what we learn at school already: study hard and get rewarded with a high grade. You rarely get to wonder if you like what you are studying. Is this why so many of us seem to struggle with finding what we like doing later in life? Because we have learned to ignore whether we like what we are doing?

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On finding where I want to take my career

As I wrote earlier this month, one of my goals this year is "to figure out my career path". Writing it down I already realize it sounds like an overambitious and kind of ridiculous goal, but let me explain what I mean:

In academia, my career path felt a bit like this

narrow path

A narrow and steep path with very few places to choose to go into a different direction. In addition, notice that it is not even entirely possible to see the end, but I just kept climbing and climbing.

After switching to a company, my options feel like this:


It feels like I can go anywhere: I can stay a scientist and stay within my discipline, or I can try other things. It is encouraged to switch positions every 3-5 years, especially for those wanting to go in a more management-type of position. And ideally, one would choose tasks within your job and a next position with some type of long-term goal on the horizon that you work towards. This year, I need to define that for myself, also because I feel that that is something that motivates me.

But how do you define where you want to go? Am I ready to not be a neuroscientist anymore, because I feel that that has defined me for a large part for the last ten years. Am I ready to take on a job that requires more travel for example? I will discuss this with my manager and perhaps with HR, but any other tips into finding where you want to go with your career? Or should I not make such a big deal out of it and just see what comes on my path?

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On going to a conference alone

On twitter, @Dr24hours asked the following question:

When I think about going to a conference by myself, I think mostly about my fear not being able to find people to hang out with. I think about how a conference can feel a bit like starting in a new school or going to college first: I'm afraid of being the only person who has nobody to eat lunch with. It really depends on the conference you go to whether this becomes reality. And actually, most of the times other people are by themselves too and I end up meeting really nice and interesting people. However, it is much easier at conferences that are set up to stimulate interaction, for example by automatically sharing meals together. At other conferences it can be much more difficult, for example if all other people seem to already know each other and hang out in seemingly difficult to break into groups.

When going to a conference with your PI (but without other peers), it really depends how willing your PI is to introduce you to other people, either their peers or your peers. If you PI is doing that, it is really helpful to go with them, but if they run off to hang with their friends, it might be even more awkward than if you just go by yourself.

Even though I've become much more confident going to meetings by myself, now that I am in a new job going to different conferences than the ones where I started to know many other people, the feeling is still a bit the same. And actually, one of the conferences I went to last year, with many non-scientists attending, was almost worse in terms of not being able to find people to hang out with than when I was an undergrad. Other people attending this conference seemed to all come in groups that were seemingly not that interested in networking, so I ended up talking mostly to the other people from my company.

To come back to @Dr24hours' question: he also seemed concerned that his student would be more vulnerable going to a conference alone because she is a woman. I had not even considered this option, perhaps because I have been lucky enough not to experience harassment at a conference. Or should I say: not to experience harassment other than I experience in daily life? Which is why the same rules apply that my mom taught me, like: don't go somewhere if nobody knows where you are, don't hang out with people that don't feel right, don't make yourself extra vulnerable by drinking too much for example and leave when you feel uncomfortable.

What are your biggest concerns when going to a conference alone?

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