Archive for the 'science' category

On becoming an expert outside your direct area of expertise

This week I received feedback that I need to act more confident in my role as expert. I recognize myself in this feedback, because often when I'm in a discussion about something neuroscience with someone who is not a neuroscientist, I come with all these nuances and considerations and find it hard to make very concrete statements. However, that is something that is needed when decisions need to be made about how to measure something or how to interpret literature.

This lead me to think about the difference of what you consider an expert on a topic in academia vs in industry (at least in my line of work).

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My interpretation of the difference between being an expert in academia vs in industry. Not drawn to scale. Also, the yellow is a drawing from Little Brother that I thought would not be visible but clearly is.

In academia, after having completed a PhD thesis and some time as a post-doc, you can consider yourself an expert in those topics (even if it feels like there are others who are even more expert). I definitely feel confident making statements about subjects in those incredibly tiny circles. However, now that I am in industry I am supposed to be an expert in much larger areas in a group of people who know even less about this topic (along the lines of: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king"). I have always been more of a generalist, so I like reading and thinking about these bigger areas (with dotted lines in the drawing because the areas change every now and then).

But I guess what comes next in this transition from the left circle to the right is to stand up in a meeting and either say:"I know that this is such and such and that's why I recommend this" or "I need to analyze this further and will come back to it". I need to figure out how much knowledge and analysis is needed to fulfill this role, because it is impossible to take the time to reach the expertise level from the left circle in my current job. And in academia, I feel I've been trained to withhold from any firm conclusions until you've looked at a topic from different viewpoints.

And I guess for a part it comes back to the question of how you become visible and get your opinion heard if you don't look like the prototype expert...?

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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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I need to reduce my amount of crying at work

I think that in the past couple of weeks I have cried more at work than in the years before that combined. We have a complicated thing going on with people who have feelings and opinions about the complicated thing which made me cry in frustration when discussing it with my manager. I have a colleague whose dad passed away which made me cry in sympathy. I had a bad migraine last week that made me cry when another colleague asked me if I was doing okay. And then today my manager kindly asked me if I was doing well in the middle of all of this and their kindness made me cry. My manager asked:"you're crying, are you sure you're okay?" and I told them that I guess I cry easily and I'm really, really okay and their concern about me made me cry more.

To feel better after this meeting, I re-read Meghan's post on crying in science because it says so nicely why it can be okay to cry at work:

... instead view [crying] as a natural form of emotion that simply indicates that the person is passionate or stressed or concerned or tired or anxious or frustrated – or, more simply, that they are human.

Someone who gave a training in our company a while ago said: "it's not so bad to cry at work as it used to be, because we are starting to appreciate vulnerability more." I'm not sure this is true, but I like the idea.

I feel that I need to reduce my crying at work though. I've started meditating again at the end of my day, because I feel that I was dragging all these emotions and opinions from people at work home, without really realizing I was doing that. I need to order my thoughts more so that I won't be caught off guard during a meeting by something someone says. But I guess I don't want to stop caring about what I do, so there may be some crying at work left sometimes.

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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.

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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.

3 responses so far

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?

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"Academia is sticky"

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!

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Did you spend too much time as a post-doc?

Four years ago, I wondered "if I would ever make the decision to look for a job outside science, and if so, if I would regret all the time and effort put into trying to get data, write papers and get grants?". Before I left science, now almost two years ago, I spent more than four years as a post-doc doing slice electrophysiology mostly. Since I left academia, I've never patched a cell anymore.

Most scientists at the company I work at have done a post-doc, but many of them shorter than the 4,5 years I've spent as a post-doc. And then of course there are people around my age in more commercial jobs that have no PhD or post-doc experience at all (and probably get paid quite a bit more than me because of having more experience) So looking back, one might wonder if I've spent too much time as a post-doc?

I've given this quite some thought recently, mostly because it sometimes feels unfair that people who have an equal amount of experience-years end up in different positions. And I realize that if I had known that I would have ended up where I am now, I may have been able to get there with a shorter route. However, I also realize how much I have learned during my post-doc that is still very useful now, like writing, leading people and also just the experience of living somewhere else for a while. And of course the notion that work is also enjoyable, not just a race to get to some end-goal. So even thought I was afraid I would regret my time as a post-doc if I wouldn't be able to stay in academia four years ago, looking back I wouldn't have done it much different.

What about you? If you have left academia, do you wish you had spent less time as a post-doc?

9 responses so far

A song about alternatives to animal testing

Jun 22 2016 Published by under science, training

Everyone who is involved in animal research has heard about the 3Rs: Replacement, Reduction and Refinement. They are the key items scientists need to address in order to argue that what they want to test is not possible in any other model system than an intact animal, but that all care will be taken to reduce the number of animals and refine the way the animals are treated.

The 3Rs were first described by Russell and Burch in 1959 but what I did not know is that Bill Russell much later wrote a brilliant song describing the 3Rs:

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Academia, my lost love

Dear academia,

it's been nearly two years since we parted. When we just met, I was so in love. I wanted to be with you, gather data and write papers for you. I wanted to science with you and spent many of my waking (and supposed-to-be-sleeping) hours thinking about you. I wanted to stay with you and worked so hard to try and make that happen.

But then, when I was all disgruntled and unsure whether us being together was really what was best for me, I decided to leave you. I decided to join industry. In industry, the building is shiny, the people have had training on how to communicate and I was even offered a permanent contract.

But when I look out of the window of that shiny building, I can still see you. I hear about you at home from my husband and from friends. And now that the honeymoon phase with industry is over, and I see the cracks in the shiny building and the fact that even with communication training, people are sometimes still jerks - but in a politer way - I miss you. I miss doing research without the boundaries of what is commercially useful and what is important to convince the people who need to prescribe or buy things. I miss being able to think of a project entirely by myself and write it down in the hopes of being able to execute it some day. And mostly, I miss the dream of being important someday; having my own lab that does breakthrough science and wins prizes for it.

And I don't know if this means I should try to get back together with you, academia. Or that I just forgot the disgruntled bits and only remember the good times we had together. Or that - perhaps - I can figure out some way to have a threesome.

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