Yesterday I met with a graduate student to talk to them about my experiences leaving academia. They asked:"What is the biggest difference between working in academia and industry?". Of course there are many differences (and quite some similarities too), some of which I have probably discussed on this blog before. But one of the main differences that I had not expected when making the transition, is the amount of people you (have to) interact with in order to get your job done.
In academia, of course there are many people to interact with: you usually work with your PI (if you're a grad student or post-doc) or with the people in your lab (if you're a PI), and then with collaborators, university staff, colleagues, etc. But the amount of people who are crucial in decision making (for example on which project to pick) is usually limited (please comment if you think I'm wrong!).
In the type of matrix organization that I work in, there are a ton of people to make decisions to move a project forward. I am in R&D, and already within R&D there are different teams that all need to align, and different directors that need to have a say, and then there are the people in other functions that either need to make decisions themselves about the project, or at least need to be managed in order not to protest against a decision.
And another thing that really surprised me at first is the fact that most meetings are not actually meant for decision making. Instead, they are meant to have all the important stakeholders in the room to say yes, while the actual decision-making process has already happened in pre-meetings, or pre-pre-meetings or over coffee or at the water cooler. And so I find myself spending a considerate amount of time talking to people: understanding whether they would support a project and if not, if I can convince them otherwise or what would need to happen for them to change their minds. One of the directors remarked the other day:"the main thing that stands in the way of success in this project are people's emotions. We need to manage those".
Decisions are never straightforward and often there are reasons behind a decision that may seem very irrational, yet are important reasons anyway. For example, I held off breaking up with a boyfriend for longer than I probably should have because I really really loved my in-law family, and realized that breaking up with him also meant never getting to see them again.
Ever since I left academia, there have been subsequent decisions that made me move even further away from neuroscience. And when I received this tweet it made me realize that going to SfN is a bit like my adorable ex-in-law family: it is the part that makes me not want to let go of neuroscience. I’m not going to SfN this year, and if I continue on the path that I have started on, I may not go to SfN for the foreseeable future.
It makes me realize that it is impossible to have everything and that moving towards one thing, means saying goodbye to another. What I love most about going to SfN is the profound feeling that I’m part of a large group of people all working to better understand the brain and find ways to cure psychiatric and neurologic diseases, yet at the same time meeting friends from all over the world. It’s like a warm bath of people and science. And then there’s sfnbanter! But I will be doing other things.
It's been quiet here for longer than I had intended. We moved to a new house 2 months ago, which was right after a really busy period at work. This doing my own job plus the new work thing was kicking my ass quite a bit. Mostly because I started by trying to do most of my own job but then squeezed in two days a week, because the other days were spent in the work thing. One major thing I've learned is to be much clearer about what I can and can't do in the time that I have.
The new house is great, and the new work thing (which by now is not super new anymore) is also great. Which now poses the dilemma of which work thing I like most - in case an actual job opens up in the new work department, which might happen but is still unclear when. My thoughts about this are not yet coherent enough to write down here. So expect more posts about all these questions and doubts: how to figure out what you want, how to determine which aspects of a job give you energy and which are energy drains, etc. And then there's the difficulty of moving within a company while still keeping everyone (or at least most people) around you happy.
A couple months ago I went to a networking thing with women I had never met before. I would encourage everyone to do this, because for some reason explaining who you are and what you do to people you've never met is really interesting and allows you to re-examine what you tell people about yourself and thereby how you see yourself.
I talked a little about how I had some doubts about whether I was enjoying my job and when I should worry about when to make a next step in my career. One of the older women said:
"You should realize that you have another 30 years of work ahead of you, so change doesn't need to come right this minute. In the meantime, you should try to enjoy what you are doing now."
I knew in a rational way that she was right, but it took me a couple weeks to really realize what she had said. And then when I was at SfN and I heard myself talk about what my job entails, I realized that I actually have a job with so many aspects that I really like. And it seems like just when I became aware of that, a really interesting opportunity presented itself: next year I get to take over from somebody on parental leave for six months who has a job that I have been wondering about whether I would like it for a while. I get to do that for 50% of my time and my current job for the other 50%. It will allow me to work at a different location with different people and see a different side of the company there that is a bit further away from what I have experience with so far. I'm super excited about it and also realize that this seems exactly the shiny new opportunity that I needed to get out of the disrguntled slumpy feeling!
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.
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?
Today, I came across a paper in eLife titled "Avoiding a lost generation of scientists":
Funding for academic research in the United States has declined to a 40-year low in real terms, and other countries are experiencing similar declines. This persistent shortage of support threatens to create a "lost generation" of researchers – talented scientists who either leave the profession entirely, or who stay but acquire the cynicism and short-term thinking that hinders progress. While all researchers are being affected by the decline in funding, early-career researchers such as postdoctoral fellows and new investigators are being hit hardest.
The authors share stories of early career researchers that are struggling to stay in academic science and have created a facebook page* to do the same there. Also, they argue that advocacy and outreach should be done in order to make policymakers aware of this problem, for example by the infographic below.
From the eLife paper: https://elife-publishing-cdn.s3.amazonaws.com/17393/elife-17393-fig1-v1-480w.jpg
The authors end by saying:
The three scientists who shared their stories above are examples of a much deeper problem, but they are also reason for hope. If more of these narratives can be placed in front of policymakers and the true cost of under-funding science made clear, the prospects for consistent funding for the next generation of scientists can improve.
As someone who left academia because I couldn't get funding and was sick of all the short contracts and uncertainty, I applaud this effort and hope it will lead to a change. But I'm going to be advocate of the devil here and ask: Will the stories of disgruntled post-docs lead policymakers to change their mind? And is just going to increase funding going to solve this, or will it lead to more post-docs staying on for longer? Please discuss.
*Why Facebook? Is Twitter really dead...? - oh wait, they are on Twitter too. Oh, and they have a website.
The building that I work in is designed as an open office with flexible workstations. There are desks where you can hook up your laptop and at the end of the day you need to completely clear your desk. There are lockers and cupboard spaces to keep things. You can adjust the desks and chairs in height and they even raise high enough to become a standing desk. From a recent article in the Washington Post, it seems that not everyone is a fan of open offices, but here it works really well.
From The Washington Post article:
“As the new space intended, I’ve formed interesting, unexpected bonds with my cohorts. But my personal performance at work has hit an all-time low. Each day, my associates and I are seated at a table staring at each other, having an ongoing 12-person conversation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s like being in middle school with a bunch of adults.”
I think that what makes it work here, is that it’s pretty clear when and where it is okay to talk. There are a couple desks in little fishbowls where you can work quietly. There are bigger fishbowls where you can have meetings. People step outside into the hallway or into a fishbowl to make a phone call. And so the large open office space is usually pretty quiet. And then when it’s not, I actually kind of like to hear people talk to each other about work. It has happened more than once that people overhear a conversation and then actually have something to contribute even though nobody would have thought to ask them in the first place.
The only disadvantage: there is glass everywhere. People can look on your screen at all times. And worst of all, there are virtually no places in the building where you can cry at work without being seen, except the bathroom. But after having cried, you still need to cross an entire building full of fishbowls on your way out.
Do you work in an open office? And do you like it?
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?