Archive for the 'postdoc' category

Back when I had a baby and a fellowship rejection in one week

Over four years ago, I came home from the hospital in the evening after a day that started with me thinking I was in labor (and so did the midwives, by the way) but ended with me not being in labor anymore while the baby was still in my uterus. I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed, but just before that I checked my email. Back then, my private email and most of my work email came to the same email address. And there it was: a long awaited email from the EU with the results of whether I was going to get a Marie Curie fellowship to do my own research back in the homecountry. As the EU did back then, the email just said something along the lines of "fellowship results", and then you had to click a link, log into their participant portal, find out that your password has expired, make a new password, log in again to then find a very cryptic message that still did not really say whether you got the money or not. I was exhausted from being in the hospital all day, but my heart was racing at the same time because I wanted to know if I got the fellowship or not.

Fast forward: I did not get the fellowship but I did have the baby 5 days later. And now that I look back at these emails I'm surprised to see that within 2 weeks of giving birth I was emailing with the professor who gave me feedback on this grant on how to rework it into a new grant. I so much wanted to succeed in academia that I kept thinking and working around birthing a baby. But before you get all judgy, I also remember very clearly how this was a way for me to stay connected to my normal world: my world that I was used to and to try and avoid the world I had experienced with my first-born: a world where I felt so alone with a crying baby. I was not - and am still not - someone who can sit still for a long time. I wanted to continue to think about science even though I had just had a baby. I want to take care of a baby and think at the same time.

I was reminded of this when the other day, a journalist tweeted the following:

And of course Twitter had lots of opinions, that Racael Pells summarized for Times Higher Education. But as you can imagine from the story I shared, this could have been me (that is - before you come to the part where she describes that the academic in question was male).

In hindsight, perhaps I wish my work email wouldn't come to my private email address. In hindsight, I wish I wouldn't have checked my email after a long day in the hospital. And in hindsight, I wish I could have been more in the moment with my little baby. I wish I had seen more examples of how people actually do this, as opposed to stories of women who submit manuscripts while in early labor. I wish academia wasn't so much of a linear career path, where I was afraid to take some time to be in the moment with a little baby. But there are many moments in a day. Some moments were spent mindfully bonding with my new baby, and other moments were spent sending emails. That is how it was.

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On finishing papers after leaving the lab

Yesterday Michael Eisen tweeted this. I replied that I had actually finished 2 papers from grad school during my post-doc and 2 post-doc papers in my next job. In all honesty, I also still have an unfinished paper from grad school. So how did I do this and what factors are important in determining whether you'll be able to finish that paper after leaving the lab?

I think what helped me most is to make it non-negotiable with yourself whether those papers are going to be finished. They just have to get finished. Think of it as brushing your teeth: you don't ask yourself each day whether or not to do it, you just to it and that makes it take much less effort than to continuously negotiate with yourself whether to do it or not. And especially during the transition between grad school and post-doc, I just HAD to finish those papers because I knew that getting them published would make me more competitive to obtain a fellowship (my long-time readers may know that I never actually got a fellowship or grant, but still). After transitioning into industry it was a bit different, but in my current job I can still use published papers as a sign that I was productive, collaborative, etc during my post-doc.

What worked best in my experience to finish papers while in another job, was to allocate an hour in the morning to work on the paper and then switch back to my actual job. I would probably do this 1 or 2 days a week so progress was generally slow. Every now and then I took a whole day of, for example to write the discussion, which is really not something I can do in an hour here and there but requires a longer stretch of attention. With the generous amount of vacation days where I am now, this was something I could afford every now and then to get the paper finished. Also, sometimes I would work evenings or weekends on an unfinished paper, but I'd like to keep that to a minimum.

A big determinant in whether or not you are able to finish papers after leaving the lab is whether your co-authors are cooperative and also want this paper published. If they need to play a big part in getting it finished and for some reason don't do their part, this is clearly outside your circle of influence and will make it hard to get it done. So before you start taking days off to finish a paper, it is wise to make sure that everyone is on board and agrees on who does what.

And I want to finish by saying that while I believe it is do-able to finish a paper after leaving the lab, if you are the grad-student or post-doc that leaves, I think it is also okay if you decide not to finish a paper. If getting the paper published is not going to bring you much, and the costs of putting in the effort outweigh the benefits, then just don't. But in that case, I would be clear about that because there are few things I dislike as much as revisiting decisions and keeping half-finished things in the back of my mind and/or harddrive.

What about you? How do you deal with unfinished papers after leaving the lab?

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The spark in science

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.

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On skills you never use anymore

Sep 24 2017 Published by under Academia, Decisions, moving, new job, postdoc

For a while one of the hardest things about leaving academia to me was the fact that I spent years getting really good at things that I never get to do anymore. I was good at patching cells in slices from adult rats. I was rather proficient at inserting jugular vein catheters, even in small rodents. I enjoyed doing those things, but in my current job I never get to do them, or even teach other people how to do these things. Every now and then, this makes me wonder whether doing a post-doc was worth it, had I known where I would have ended up. But that is the opposite of my more prevailing thought: that actually learning these skills has given me insight into what kind of work I enjoy doing (and which parts I don't like) in order to get a better picture of where I want to go next in my career. What I loved about doing surgery on small rodents was the flow that it brought me in having to pay attention to every little detail in order to make sure the procedure went well. And I enjoyed looking at a well-sutured animal while they were recovering, knowing I had done it well. It may sound crazy, but working on slides for a presentation that turn out looking really nice in the end gives me a bit of the same feeling.

For a while, I thought this big difference in the skills you acquire versus those you use in a new job was unique to recovering academics, but listening to a recent episode of the Women Killing It podcast, I realized this is not the case. In this episode the guest, Gretchen Rubin talks about leaving law to become a writer at a point when she was very successful in that area and had invested years in getting there. They talk about how many people who are successful in their career have perhaps not taken a linear path but were successful in a different area first before transitioning into something else. And how you will learn many things on the way to another destination, mostly about yourself and about what you enjoy doing.

What skills (academic or otherwise) do you have that you never get to use anymore and how do you feel about that?

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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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Things nobody has ever said to me

Feb 18 2017 Published by under new job, postdoc, science, women in science

"Thank you for not taking a vacation but coming in to do extra work".

"Wow such impressive work that you submitted a fellowship application 3 weeks after giving birth" (even though I did not get this grant in the end).

"Thanks for checking your email continuously on the day in the week that you're not working (and hence are not being paid)".

"What dedication that even though you have quit your post-doc job and have 3 weeks of vacation days left, you're still coming in to finish these experiments that you're doing".

Just a selection of things that nobody has ever said to me, ever. And this is (finally) making me realize that whenever you go this extra mile for work, you should do it for you and not to get external validation or praise. Because people tend to not see this effort that you put in in these invisible moments, while at the same time this effort may seem very large to yourself.

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"Keep up with the post-doc. Don't stop till you get a job."

Feb 10 2017 Published by under Academia, blogging, postdoc

Well, my good intentions to do a weekly link love and blog more often kind of went down the drain last week. I got sick and am slightly overwhelmed by the combination of working, the new work thing and our new house which is almost ready (aaaahh we need to make the final decisions on the kitchen, we need to get quotes from movers, [insert rest of a lengthy to do list], aaaahh!).

So in the meantime, I just want to amuse you with this Michael Jackson song that I misheard the lyrics of yesterday when we were making decisions about with kitchen countertop we wanted. I'm clearly not the first one who misheard this.

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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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