Archive for the 'life in the lab' category

I shouldn't ever stop caring about harassment cases

This morning I came to a realization that shocked me and that made me quite painfully aware of my own biases. Already a couple of times I had come across this headline on twitter: She Was a Rising Star at a Major University. Then a Lecherous Professor Made Her Life Hell. Every time I saw it I couldn't help but think: Oh man, another person who was oppressed/harrassed/assaulted in whatever way by some man who has the power to do so and still goes unpunished for way too long. But it didn't touch me enough to read the piece. Or to retweet it or say what I think about it. It just made me a little numb that this just keep happening over and over and over it seems.
And then someone tweeted the name of the victim in this case. And I recognized the name and realized that I had seen her present her work and I was so impressed with her. She was energetic and funny and a really good presenter who did very interesting work. All of a sudden I cared so much more about this case. And that is the part that shocked me.
Because someone shouldn't have to be energetic and funny and a good presenter for me to care. I should always care when someone is oppressed or assaulted or harrased, whether they are boring or funny to me and whether I like them or not. It made me think of whenever men say things like:"We should care about women because they are our daughters and wives and sisters" and I think to myself: no, we should care because they are people. Yet I do the exact same thing in my head: I care more about people that I know and/or like.

 

How can I change this attitude and make sure I don't stop caring about cases like this one? By reading the statistics about how often women are sexually harrassed in science that make me angry every time I look at them. By linking to all the pieces online that show how hard it is to file these complaints against established men when you are the victim, but also how there are kind people that stand by the victims. Although at the end of the day the question remains whether you can ever really win in a case like this.

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"Let me tell you about protein X"

Apr 24 2017 Published by under Academia, ideas, life in the lab, postdoc, science

Years ago I went to our annual PhD retreat and one of PhD students from a different lab presented data from a screen they did. They talked about the model and the screen and just when we thought things were getting excited and they would talk about their findings, they showed data about "protein X". They described some of the features of said protein, but did not want to disclose the name, in fair of getting scooped.

I thought this was overly cautious and unfair to the audience, but the other day I heard an even more striking story of someone who was this vague about their data in a labmeeting of their own lab. For months they presented data without wanting to tell to their lab members the identity of a protein that was at the center of their project. It makes me wonder: is the lack of input you can expect from your lab mates when you hide critical information worth the reduced risk of getting scooped by someone close to you?

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Why do you work hard?

Most academics work hard, whether it is the amount of hours you spend in the lab or the efficiency and focus with which you dedicate yourself to your work. And having spend the last 2,5 years outside academia, I don't think this is much different for people outside academia. If I look around the company I work for, many people put in more hours than stated on their contract and work hard. 

But lately I've been wondering why we all work so hard? When I was in academia, I worked hard because I wanted to have my own lab one day, and I knew that for that I needed papers and funding. I worked hard for a long-term goal. And even though I liked doing the work, on many days I did not like the work and purely did it because of that long term goal.

Now, being outside academia, I don't have such a clear long-term goal, and I especially didn't have one when I had just transitioned outside academia. I have been working less hard than in academia, or perhaps I should say: I've been less obsessed with the feeling that I have to work hard. But I'm still working more and harder than I technically should. And I'm trying to get a clear view for myself why I do it. Is it because I hope it will get me higher up in the company (yes, I think), is it for external recognition (yes I guess), is it because I like doing the work (yes, on most days), is it because this is the example my parents have given me (yes, both my parents worked hard and outside of their official working hours)?

What about you? Why do you work hard? Or do you like your work so much that it never feels like hard work, but rather like being allowed to play around all day?

More recent discussions on this here, here and here.

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The price and value of doing a postdoc

A pessimist would say: "nothing like comparing yourself to your peers who went into marketing straight after an MSc to doubt the value of spending nearly a decade in academia." Similarly, Science Magazine has a recent article on the price of doing a postdoc where they calculate that:

"On average, they give up about one-fifth of their earning potential in the first 15 years after finishing their doctorates—which, for those who end up in industry, amounts to $239,970."

Having spend 4 years in the US (3 years as postdoc and 1 year as non-TT faculty), I have definitely made economic sacrifices compared to peers who stayed in the homecountry, and especially to those who left academia after an Msc or Phd. Not just the difference in income between academia and outside (which by the way is a much larger difference in the US than in EU). But also think of moving costs that weren't compensated: moving back to the homecountry we were both postdocs again and the university compensated us for 500 euros total. The costs of moving an entire family across the Atlantic was at least 10 times and maybe 20 times that much.  We spent a good portion of our savings on moving costs and I'm sure we're not the only academic family to do that. Also, not paying for retirement savings for 3 years, and having a tiny foreign retirement account that will cost about the sum of what is in there to move it here. I realize it is a privilege to be able to spend money on choosing a career that is not financially optimal and at the same time that means that academia might miss out on people who are not able to do that. But then again, shouldn't we all go to school for whatever job it is where you sell shady mortgages and get filthy rich? That's not what life is all about, is it?

I tend to be an optimist and I wonder if we're not missing the value of doing a post-doc here. Looking back, it was a great period of being able to focus solely on the scientific projects I was working on, without course work and the pressure to graduate that happens during a PhD and all the other stuff that comes with a more advanced scientific career either inside or outside academia. Also - to me at least -, it was a uniquely flexible time for having babies, being sleep deprived and pumping milk. Also, it was great to be able to live in a different country for a while. But I guess I could have done that while working for a company who would have paid for my moving expenses.

I'm not quite sure what the answer is here. I've asked before if you felt you spent too much time as a postdoc, but I guess the bigger dilemma here is how to deal with all these people that are in academic postdoc positions without the prospect of all landing permanent positions...? And what is the value of doing a postdoc if afterwards you leave academia?

 

11 responses so far

A detailed observation of the disgruntled postdoc

The disgruntled postdoc – or disgruntledoc - is a specific species of the academic family, first discovered in the wild and described by DrugMonkey. Its body is often found in a particular non-ergonomic posture that is intended to entirely devote itself to academic science, for example bent over to stare into a microscope, crouching on the floor to put a laboratory animal into an operant box or crawling behind a rig to fix the wiring. Its brain however is mostly occupied with online conversations on twitter or blogs discussing fair pay, the difficulty to obtain grant money and general unfairness of the academic system. This behavior has been observed consistently since the early history of social media.

At the end of the day, the disgruntled postdoc either indulges in cheap beer and free cookies – when these are left over from other occasions – or scrambles to be in time to pick up its offspring from their daycare that the disgruntled postdoc’s salary can barely pay for. In unique situations, the disgruntled postdoc will try to combine these two activities often with mixed success.

Similar to other adolescent mammals, the disgruntled postdoc stage has a hypothesized purpose to “learn how to maximize utility of their environment and emigrate to new social groups in order to prevent inbreeding”. It is expected that the disgruntled postdoc will leave its environment at some point in time. This point will either be reached when the disgruntled postdoc is able to rise in the academic ladder, or when the disgruntled postdoc reaches a threshold where their level of dissatisfaction is higher than their level of willingness to work hard on science. Where this threshold lies is different for each individual disgruntled postdoc and depends very much on the conditions of the habitat, most notably the amount of grant money available in said habitat.

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What does my pseud mean and should it change?

Nov 22 2016 Published by under blogging, life in the lab, new job, personal posts

I came back from SfN last week and want to write about some of my observations there, but with little time to sit down and write this, somehow this post came out first.

I’ve been asked a couple of times (both at SfN and elsewhere) what my pseud means. I thought it was an obvious play on words, but I guess it was a very nerdy play on words, so here is some explanation. Before I left academia, I was a post-doc doing electrophysiology doing whole cell recordings in slices. When doing that, before you reach whole cell mode, you are first in cell-attached mode (ie when the pipet is attached to the cell membrane, before you actually break into the cell). A good image on how that works is here.

At the same time, BlueEyes was born, and he was somewhat the opposite of babies that you often see in pictures: relaxing and/or sleeping in a crib or something like that. He was mostly happy when he was being held and even then he was sometimes unhappy *. I quickly discovered babywearing and other types of attachment parenting thingies that seemed to help retain everyone’s sanity.

So when I started tweeting and blogging around that time, babyattachmode seemed a good name. I did not really think ahead to the time when I would no longer be a post-doc doing electrophysiology and no longer have little babies. So I contemplated whether to change my pseud, but since I already find it confusing when people change their avatar on twitter, I’m just going to stay who I am online.

Have you outgrown your pseud and have you changed it because of that?

 

* I know, this is normal baby behavior too – but we see it much less often in books or on TV…

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Figuring out your identity outside academia

This morning, I went for a run before work and listened to this week's Recovering Academic podcast. In this episode, they talk about how a large part of being an academic in recovery means having to figure out how much of your identity is being an academic scientist, and if that is gone, what is left? I very much recognize this feeling, even though I'm still a scientist, just not in academia. I did very much have to redefine myself, not just on the outside (new outfit, different haircut), but even more on the inside. What I am mostly still struggling with, is the difference in achievements and how visible those are. In academia, I was very much motivated by getting papers published and being able to search for my name on Pubmed and finding an increasing number of hits. The output is very tangible and is celebrated with press releases and such. Now that I work for a company, the end-product that we make is even more tangible (an actual thing that can sit on the table), but my part in it is much less visible, especially to the outside world. Think about it, you can read everywhere who invented CRISPR or optogenetics, but many inventions coming out of companies are celebrated in a much less personal way (to the outside world at least). Sort of connected to that is the fact that I took pride in the things I finished (experiments, papers), whereas now it is much less clear when something is actually finished and the work leading up to that thing that can sit on the table is much longer most of the times.

On the other hand, the fact that everything was so personal was also a reason for me to leave academia. Because the downside of celebrating personal accomplishments was the fact that also criticism on papers and grants proposals felt very personal. Anyways, just some rather incoherent thoughts after listening to that episode, which you should do too!

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The M:F ratio of asking questions at talks

Yesterday I attended a seminar and I noticed that at least 75% of the audience were women. The speaker was a man, and so was the person who introduced the speaker*. After the talk, there was time for a couple questions and the three people who asked something were men.

Overall score: a room full of women and all the people who opened their mouth to speak were men.

I know what it is like to be in an audience, and wonder if the question you might have is one worth asking. The time to make this decision is short and before you know it someone else asks their questions or the time is up for anyone to ask a question. But my advisor encouraged us in a somewhat strange way to ask questions: after the speaker was finished, she would point at one of her grad students and say:"now you have to ask something.". The first time this happened to me I was obviously caught off guard and was barely able to utter something resembling a question. Yikes. But the next time, I knew this could happen to me and ever since, I've trained myself to just have some questions ready in my head to ask. This may seem ridiculous, because if you don't have something to ask, why try and come up with something. But to me, it's been good training in coming up with good (and sometimes not so good) questions. So that when a talk ends, I don't have to hesitate, but I can put my hand up and ask something. Sometimes because I actually want to know the answer, and sometimes to be visible to the speaker or others in the audience.

Do you see the same? That women are less likely to ask questions? And if so, what do you do encourage them to ask something?

 

*I had never before seen someone so good at highlighting his own achievements while introducing someone else by the way. A remarkable skill in itself.

9 responses so far

How to create a culture of openness in a team?

I'm currently involved in 2 different projects, and without sharing any more detail about what they entail, I've noticed that the teams differ a lot in terms of openness of the team members. With that, I mean to what extend people dare to voice their concern and be critical towards each other and towards the project. To me, this is not very different from the situation in academic labs, where sometimes there is more room to be critical and share new ideas than in other cases. For example, how do you deal with results that don't fit the story that the lab is building?

But how do you create such a culture of openness? If I compare these two teams that I work in, I see this as the main difference: In the open team, a lot of the tasks are shared, even if it may seem unnecessary to share this much. Meetings are larger, because more people are included. Sometimes people join who don't seem experts on the topic, but this also means that they can think out-of-the-box compared to people who have been working on something for a while. In the not-so-open team, people tend to get their own little assignment from the team leader, that they then need to report back on once finished. Sometimes the different team members aren't aware of what the others are working on, or where they are in the process. In the open team, the way of working leads to the feeling that we are all working on something together, whereas in the not-so-open team it sometimes even leads to an us vs. them kind of feeling.

When I read the piece on Theranos in Vanity Fair recently, I realized that this was almost an exaggerated description of the not-so-open team that I work in:

Holmes [Theranos' CEO] had learned a lot from [Steve] Jobs. Like Apple, Theranos was secretive, even internally. Just as Jobs had famously insisted at 1 Infinite Loop, 10 minutes away, that departments were generally siloed, Holmes largely forbade her employees from communicating with one another about what they were working on—a culture that resulted in a rare form of executive omniscience. At Theranos, Holmes was founder, C.E.O., and chairwoman. There wasn’t a decision—from the number of American flags framed in the company’s hallway (they are ubiquitous) to the compensation of each new hire—that didn’t cross her desk.

And the end of the Theranos story warns what can happen when you create a culture like this. Just to add: the team that I work in is by far not as siloed as the situation at Theranos, but reading this and comparing the two teams that I work in makes me realize the value of being open and being able to share your opinion and ideas.

And then to end: what can you do as a team member? Personally, I try to continue to share my opinion in the not-so-open team, even if that is often not met with enthusiasm from the team leader. I try to catch up with other team members and share what we are working on - sometimes outside the scheduled team meetings. But working in these different teams also makes me realize how difficult it is to change the culture within a team - as a team member at least.

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How do you network for a job outside academia?

Recently, an anonymous postdoc emailed me with the following question [slightly redacted by me]:

I realize it is time for me to start taking my career switch to industry seriously. Problem is, I really haven't done anything in the networking department and I'm not even sure what type of work I'm open to. Do you have any networking tips? There are networking events for postdocs here but because the speakers have not been in the area of industry I'm interested in I haven't gone to many. But I should, right?

To which I answered: I've never really made the conscious step of thinking "now I'm going to network to get a job", but thinking back, I've definitely used my network first to figure out what types of jobs exist and also to eventually find my current job. That being said, I've never been to any official networking events. I rather try to make an appointment with someone to talk 1 to 1 than try to get to talk to someone at an event like that. Also, I get slightly intimidated thinking:"I have to network NOW!"....

When you're not yet sure exactly what type of job you're looking for, I would try to talk to as many people as you can that have jobs that you might be interested in, to ask them what the job entails and what they like about it. My experience is that people generally like talking about themselves and don't mind explaining what it is that they do. Start with people that you may already know. Don't only look at people more senior than you, also people from your grad school cohort may have positions you might be interested in or know people who do. Obviously, when you're actually looking for a job, more senior people may be able to do more for you than your peers, but peers will have more recent experience applying for jobs.

And, but this may be hard when you're in academia and don't want to share widely that you're looking for another job, tell people what you are looking for, so they may hook you up with people they know.

What is your advice regarding networking to get a job outside academia, dear readers?

One response so far

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