What Do You Wish You Knew…

I was invited recently to participate in a panel discussion on career issues, specifically related to having a family and having recently moved to a new institution. I was one of several panelists, all from different careers, tasked to answer questions about different career options.

Toward the end of the discussion, one of the moderators asked us all a question I wasn’t quite prepared for – Looking back on your career, what do you know now that you wish you had known before.

I had people in the room that are affiliated with my research program, so although an answer immediately came to mind, it wasn’t an answer I felt I could give. I said something along the lines of wishing I had known how isolating it could be to start a new lab in a new place. Over the next day or so, other junior faculty came up to me and thanked me for my answer and said it was nice to hear that others had felt this way. That felt good, but it also made me wish I had been in an a place where I could have given my real answer…

I wish I knew how hard it would be to manage the different personalities in my group. I was talking about this later with one of my former/current mentors and he paraphrased it perfectly. You start at a new place and you’re excited that people want to come work with you and you start to scheme about how much you’ll get done and how productive you’ll be, and then you realize that science is done by people. And not just people, by trainees. These are people who not only need to be trained in the conduct of science, but come with their own array of personal bullshit that must be handled.

And, I admit, I have the sort of personality that makes me not-the-best mentor for folks that are very personally needy. It’s all made worse by the fact that our culture is highly social. We do our science, and then take our trainees to meetings where there is both science and drunken debauchery.  So, for example, I found it incredibly frustrating when a more junior person recently had too much to drink at a meeting,  drunk texted me in the middle of the night that I should take them out for fast food (which I ignored), and then spent the next several days avoiding me. I just want to do my job. Not babysit.

You can’t make people feel the same enthusiasm that you do for your work. Either they have it, or they don’t. I’ve come to really believe something that my personal life guru Dave Ramsey said regarding leadership- You can’t motivate people. You can only hire motivated people.This is a lesson learned the hard way.

No one prepares you for the social shenanigans, or mental illness, or alternative priorities that people bring to the table. No one prepares you for the kid who walks into your office and tells you they’re walking away from their ongoing experiment because their priorities have changed. You can think you’re going into this with a passion for science and a willingness to mentor and support people in their career…and then real life happens. Nothing prepares you for that.

A Poll for the People…

I’m working on a little something for the ole blog and am curious about some experiences beyond the sphere of people around me.

Did you contribute to your retirement as a postdoc and graduate student? Click here to respond!

On what makes a life in science…

I’ve been invited to give three talks at three different places in the next 30 days about my life in science and woman stuff and career stuff, etc. While this may shock readers of this humble little blog, it’s making my butthole clench to be quite so navel gaze-y. What does one say when asked to talk about themselves for an hour?

But then I opened Powerpoint and was greeted with the new presentation screen and I found a template called Vapor Trail and it is hilarious. If a student ever tried to give a talk using the Vapor Trail template, I would smite them. But, I am going to use Vapor Trail and comic sans and I am titling my talk “Untitled – A life in science”, because I can.

This will all be awesome.

Also, realizing that it’s been a while since I have written here, there have been several recent developments in La Vida de Isis. When last I wrote, I was in the process of buckling down to be debt free by paying off the student loans I have been carrying since before the towers fell. I had taken my own advice and deferred my loans for as long as humanly possible. In retrospect, I’m not sure how I feel about this advice. They didn’t accrue interest while they were deferred, I didn’t create any  more debt, and the deferment freed up some money to have a little nicer lifestyle, but the amount of time I carried them was kind of soul crushing and they certainly limited me when I moved to new MRU town.  Still, the past is in the past and in June….

Now that Dr. S. and I are debt free and have met our one true guru Dave Ramsey, I’m focused on using my spreadsheet skills to project building wealth and buying our next house in cash. Free and clear. I think that would be hilarious.

Maybe I’ll talk about that in my talk.

Get It Together June…

When you spend two and a half hours looking at data with a collaborator, trying to figure out why they’re so whacky and coming up with convoluted hypotheses to explain things and designing all the experiments…

…only to get back to your office to realize that those data they showed you were not the data from your experiment. This explains why they called you the wrong name…

britney crying


On Why The Long Postdoc is (probably) the Kiss of Death..

Earlier today I tweeted about this article about the fight to raise the starting postdoc salary in the Boston area to $63,000. Having not had a real raise myself in several years, I feel their pain. But, the person they put forth as the centerpiece of the article is a guy in his 7th year of his postdoc complaining that he works long hours. I feel this guy, but I want to make sure that I am being clear…

If you are in the 7th year of your postdoc, you have a bigger problem than your salary.

You should come in to your postdoc planning to conquer the universe in 3 years. 4 years is fine, but if you find yourself still postdocing after that, you need to seriously consider “What happened??”

Now, I have heard all the feedback on Twitter. Life happens. People get sick, have babies, change fields, etc, etc ,etc.  Great. Extend your time a smidge for that. Have a very compelling reason. But, as someone else mentioned, some institutions are limiting the amount of time people can postdoc specifically to discourage people from postdocing so long it damages their career and keeping PIs from exploiting cheap labor. BECAUSE THIS IS BECOMING ROUTINE!

Someone on Twitter accused me of having “postdoc contempt“. That is the farthest thing from the truth. Why am I standing on my soapbox, beating my chest that this is a problem?  It’s very simple…

If it took you 7 years (or longer) to complete a postdoc, how are you going to convince a search committee that you are going to be able to get a lab up and running in a year and secure independent funding by the time your start up runs out (usually 2-3 years). Grant productivity happens in 4 year blocks. Not meeting these benchmarks can be devastating to your career.

As the esteemed Drugmonkey put it, your primary goal as a postdoc should be to get a permanent job and get the fuck out! If your primary goal is academia, then you have to work on academic timelines..