Archive for the 'postdoc' category

I wrote a piece for the POSTDOCket

Jul 23 2018 Published by under Academia, advice, postdoc, science, travel, two body problem

I wrote something for the POSTDOCket about , the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) newsletter:

Spending time abroad as a postdoctoral scholar is widely considered to be a beneficial to an academic career– at least it is seen that way in Europe. At the same time, it can provide useful experience when transitioning to a career outside academia. Labs in the United States are generally seen as the most desired destinations for a foreign postdoc position. However, when you want a job in your home country afterwards, being abroad may seem like a disadvantage because it is harder to maintain your network and you may feel overlooked for an available position compared to somebody who stayed nearby. You may feel like you’re stuck abroad.

You can read the rest here!

One response so far

Reader question: conference, baby and looking for jobs

Last month, I received the following question from someone who found my blog and has the following question:

My wife and I will both be attending SfN 2018 in San Diego with a ~3 month old.

I found your blog post and was intrigued by your insights.

I was wondering if I could ask you for some further advice given your
experience.

To give you a brief idea, neither my wife and I nor I have any idea
how to be parents yet. Furthermore, we will both ideally make contacts
at SfN that lead to ideally both of us having employment. (My wife is
looking for tenure track positions, whereas I would take a postdoc or
industry position, depending on a variety of complicated factors.)

Personally, I grossly underestimated how much work a baby is before I had a baby. Taking a baby to a conference means that whenever you're not working and would otherwise be relaxing and/or networking (I know, for some people networking is not at all like relaxing), you're now taking care of a baby. However, there are so many people who make this work, so why couldn't you?

In a subsequent email he's even more specific in his questions:

Related to your original post wherein folks assume that mom with baby
wants non-serious baby-gush fun time instead of serious science, have
you ever heard/seen a new father going to posters/talks with baby in
arms? If so, does the same effect hold?

I'm still not sure if this was my own insecurity at the time or that more people share the feeling that once you're holding a baby, everyone assumes you want to talk about the baby and not science (please comment if you have experienced either one!). I think that many conferences, including SfN get more and more welcoming to babies and children and that it will hopefully be more and more normal to be a parent AND a scientist at the same time.

I happen to be a tall-ish white American man, whereas my wife is a
non-white female from not the USA. I am totally willing to carry
around new baby in an attempt to help her avoid having people assume
it's just a baby-gush social fun time event because she is interested
in learning everything she can about a new direction for her research.
On the other hand, I wouldn't want folks to think my wife was somehow
a "bad mom" for leaving infant baby with dad for a while. (I do not
trust that even well-educated, most probably liberal, most probably
wealthier academics to perceive a woman fairly. As an example, at SfN
one year, I witnessed a prominent PI explicitly ask one of his
postdocs why she wasn't drinking alcohol at a social event as 'there
could be some problematic reasons for that'. I can only assume this PI
meant that it would be a problem if this postdoc was pregnant, which
is completely inappropriate.)

Great that you're willing to step in to take more than your fair share of parenting to give your wife the chance to network. I would certainly hope that people don't assume that she is a bad mom for doing that, and at the same time I wonder if a place that has an attitude like that is somewhere you would want to work...

We are also curious to know how you approached social events after
hours, such as the Presidential Gala and other dinner/drinks events,
as these have yielded leads to jobs and other important social
connections before. Most of these events appear even less
infant-friendly than the main floor.

I have brought a baby to a social at SfN and that did not go very well. My baby was kind of overwhelmed and fussy, so less than ideal. If I would want to be sure I would be able to go there and have the opportunity to network, I would go without baby. If you can't manage to get childcare (bring a third adult?), I would decide to split the nights and each go to separate events while the other watches the baby, but perhaps other people (and other babies) feel very differently about this.

Do you know if SfN have anyone designated to serve as a point of
contact for parents who bring their kids? (Maybe they should?)

What are the statistics on doing SfN with kids? Maybe there should be
a social event just for parents who brought their kids?

I'm personally not going to SfN this year and as far as I'm aware there are no SfN-sponsored events for parents with kids, but I'm sure many more parents are bringing their kids and will walk around the posterhall with them. And then there's the lactation/baby care room where you will likely find many fellow parents. So perhaps all the sciparents out there who read my blog can practice a secret handshake to get in touch with each other?

Also, please add your wisdom and experience in the comments!

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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?

2 responses so far

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?

6 responses so far

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.

7 responses so far

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.

2 responses so far

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