For the first time in over 3 years I opened the folder on my computer that contains the grant and fellowship applications that I submitted during my postdoc, including one that was still work in progress. By the time I left academia, I had submitted 10 applications, none of which got funded. The reason I opened this folder was to share one of them with someone, not necessarily because I wanted to read them again. But as these things go, I found myself going down the rabbit hole of reading my old applications. And something struck me: they lacked the spark of really wanting to discover something in science. They all read a little like: “look I have an okay CV, I can do a whole bunch of things and collaborate with a whole bunch of people. Oh and then I’m going to do this project”.
And I remember a conversation I had with 2 more senior scientists in the process of writing that unfinished application that revived that spark. They asked me what the question was that I really wanted to answer and what it was that got me excited about neuroscience in the first place. But by then I had already made up my mind about wanting to leave academia, so we will never know if rediscovering the spark would have got me funded.
But it did make me realize once again that I got so caught up in chasing funding that I nearly forgot what it is all about: studying something and trying to find answers to questions that fascinate you. And it also made me realize that except for those 2 people, none of my advisors or mentors ever asked me that question: what it is that I really want to study and that really gets me excited to understand further. And more importantly that I forgot to ask myself that question as well.
As most of you know, I like my current job but am also looking to climb the career ladder within the company that I work for. Recently, a really exciting position opened up and I have expressed my interest in that position to a couple of people. The person who would be my manager in that new position even revealed that I was on her list of people that she thought about to fill this position and she gave me advice on how to tailor my resume to apply for this position (it will be advertised internally and externally). However, the person above her has indicated that they are looking for a profile that I don't entirely fit.
I have also talked to my manager about it and he basically told me that yes, I should apply to show my interest, but also that he thought I was too junior for this position. He told me that he was afraid that if I would get the position, I would fail. On the one hand I agree with him that it is a big step up, because it is a complex job with many interactions with different people inside and outside of the company plus managing a small team and a budget. I don't do many of these things currently, so perhaps my manager is right. Or is he just trying to make me not feel too disappointed when I apply and don't get this position? But mostly, I feel a bit demotivated by his comments and I continuously wonder if they are actually helpful or harmful? And would my manager say the same things to a man...?
This morning I tweeted this when I saw that there was a Nobel prize press briefing with a table full of men in front of paintings of men (or wait, maybe that one person painted in a light green jacket is a woman?).
Briefly after that, the ERC tweeted this very ironic tweet:
Yes, role models are key, but where are they??
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.
Yesterday was #drugmonkeyday: a day to celebrate and be thankful for everything DrugMonkey has done for the online science community and beyond. However, yesterday I wrote a navel gazing post about running my first half marathon and then spent the day at the side of the playground because Friday is always my day off (I work 4 days a week like so many people (M/F) in this country). So I tweeted about it, but didn't take the time to sit down and write this post until now.
I started reading DrugMonkey's and Dr. Isis' blogs when I was a wee grad student in my homecountry. A lot of what they were writing was literally very foreign to me, even though I had spent 6 months as a research assistant in a lab in the US during undergrad. I don't really remember how I ended up reading science blogs: whether I googled something and found them or whether I found them through the early days of twitter. I only started to appreciate the usefulness of all this information when I went to interview for post-doc positions in the US and when people said things like:"I have 2 R01s from NIDA and NI triple A" that this sounded like more than a couple random letters in a row but that I actually understood the meaning.
Fast forward a couple years and I was a disgruntled postdoc (a DrugMonkey term) who just had a baby that did not sleep well. I felt alone in the lab full of people who could spend whatever time they wanted on both science and drinking, while my time was spent running experiments and trying to get my baby to sleep. I started my pseud twitter account and a blog shortly after and found other sleep deprived post-docs, among tons of other interesting people. From a long-time lurker, I started to become part of this community and DrugMonkey played a big part in helping me become part of this.
I remember riding back home from the lab and checking my blog stats (my husband was driving by the way) to see that they had suddenly exploded from 2 people a week (or month) to over a hundred in an hour. DrugMonkey had tweeted about something I had written, which caused this sudden uptick in traffic.
And aside from everything that can be learned at DrugMonkey's blog, lets not forget about all the encouragement on twitter!
...while thinking about a good way to end this post, the time for #naptimescience and blog writing seems to be over in this house. Thanks DrugMonkey and happy belated drugmonkeyday!
Links to many other #drugmonkeyday praise in this post.
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!
Very often when I talk to people about how to advance my career, their advice is: "Be visible!". This is also the advice that people around me are getting.
There are many ways to be visible: you can highlight your own achievements whenever you have the opportunity, you can work hard and hope that others will notice (and highlight your achievements for you), you can get involved with projects that you know will gain visibility, or become an expert in a topic so people know they need to find you if they need certain information. But when I read Chall's most recent post about how it is important for women to be likable, it made me wonder if for men there are more acceptable ways to be visible then there are for women. For men it seems easier to be bragging about achievements without being considered an overachiever, and it seems easier to be critical about a project without being labeled bitchy.
So how to deal with this? I guess for me it helps to think that in a company with so many female role models, there are at least many examples of how to be visible as a woman.
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.
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?