The Plight of the Post-Doc


This is actually kind of serious.

When I came into lab last Wednesday, my excellent bay-mate E (for the non-sciency among my readers, this is the equivalent of a cubicle friend) said, "Hey Becca, I got an article for you.  It's called 'Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research'."  It made me feel warm and fuzzy inside that something with such an ominous title made him think of me.  The article is a perspective piece in PLoS Biology, a highly-respected journal published by the Public Library of Science, and it could very well be titled 'Why, Dr Becca, Your Life is Going to Suck'.

The article outlines some of the major problems with the current grants system and how the careers of young scientists can be negatively affected.  Most junior faculty are responsible for obtaining funding to pay for the bulk (if not all) of their research (not to mention their salaries), in addition to teaching classes, training graduate students and postdocs, and actually doing the research.  But the way the system is currently structured, grants only cover ~3 years of funding and can take several years to secure, which means that we're constantly applying for grants, while teaching, training, and lab work are forced to be secondary priorities.  This puts us in a catch-22, because we're more likely to be awarded a grant if we've published our work.  Moreover, because grant applications are so long and complicated and grants reviewers spend relatively little time actually reviewing each proposal, we're rewarded for composing tidy, tight little package proposals rather than those based on more organic, risk-taking, and free-flowing ideas (which, it could be argued, is how some of the best science happens). 

None of this is news, of course.  We've all been kvetching about these problems for ages (if there's one thing that scientists as a whole excel at, it's commiserating...and schadenfreude), but at the same time, seeing it all in print is sobering.  That's me they're talking about in the article, my not-so-distant future if I succeed (!!) in my quest for a tenure-track job.  What's also sobering was noticing on the PLoS website that despite 19,000 views of the article, there were only nine comments.  Nine!!  There's clearly a lot to be said here, but why aren't we engaging in real, public discussion? 

I would seriously love to hear from everyone here, especially if you or someone you know is a new faculty member.  How is it going?  How do you balance securing funding with all of your other responsibilities?  Do you think we need major reform in the grants system, and if so, how do we go about making it happen?  This, I feel, is the biggest hurdle, and it will never be cleared if we don't talk about it.



If you've never used an internet dating service, you were probably not single in NYC in the last 5 years.  It's positively de rigueur here, but for those of you unfamiliar, here's how it works:  You create a profile for yourself, with pictures and text--it's like facebook, but instead of Mafia Wars and Lil' Green Patch updates you're throwing out your best comedy to answer prompts like "5 things I can't live without" and "If I could be anywhere, I'd be..."  Potential suitors who like what you have to say send you a message, or a "wink" if they're shy.  If you like what they have to say, you write them back.  Usually, though, you don't.  Since I now have a fancy live-in boyfriend, I thought my days of internet dating were over, but it turns out I was wrong.

NeuroJobs, as mentioned earlier, is the online career service offered by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN).  It's very, very good.  In addition to hosting a user-friendly, streamlined search engine, it sends you email alerts when a new post with your special keywords comes along, and allows you to upload your CV so that potential employers can check you out.  If they feel that your Classy Institutions and number of first-author publications are up to snuff, they put in a request to NeuroJobs to contact you.  NeuroJobs then plays matchmaker, asking you if you'd like this potential employer to get in touch.  If you think you might want this job, you say "yes," and you exchange witty emails for a day or two, and then one of you suggests a bar in the East Village or Lower East Side that's trendy but not too trendy, and...oh wait.  That's the other one, isn't it?

I'm only sort of kidding.  I posted my CV, and a few days later I got an email from NeuroJobs that said, "University of ______ expressed an interest in considering you for the following opportunity," and just like when I got that first contact from an eligible NYC bachelor, I did a little dance, singing "somebody LIKES me!!"  But just like when I noticed that the eligible NYC bachelor was 20 years my senior and listed The Da Vinci Code as his favorite book, I had to decline this university's advances due to its location in a part of the country I haven't yet accepted as being inhabitable.  I'm working on that, though.

I'm still optimistic that NeuroJobs is going to come through for me, and find the perfect match.  The big SfN meeting is coming up in a few weeks, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the NeuroJobs Career Center there will have to offer.  Hopefully, it will work out so that I'll get to have a live date interview, we'll totally hit it off, and soon we'll be featured in the NeuroJobs commercial...

Becca and Classy Institution:  matched October 20, 2009.  Tenure-track position started July 15, 2010.


Location, location, location!

OK, the I Love Academia cheese-fest is over.  Let's talk real estate, shall we? 

I'm going to cut right to the chase here; I don't want to leave New York.  More specifically, I don't want to leave my apartment.  Not in a Brian Wilson kind of way, but in a...well, let me show you:

This is the view from my private roofdeck.  I took this picture.  

I mean really, how could anyone be expected to give this up?  I live here with my very handsome boyfriend J and our [number redacted] kitties, and we're very happy with life in general.  We love New York and how it indulges night owls like us with endless late-night dining options, how we don't have to own a car, and how we really can have absolutely anything delivered whenever we want.  We recently had a little party where mint juleps were the drink of choice, and when we ran out of ice and mint I called the grocery store and asked them to deliver 4 bags of ice and 5 bunches of mint, and they totally did it in, like, 10 minutes.

But I'm neither naive nor delusional enough to think that I can restrict my job search to just the metro area.  I'm entering what's probably one of the toughest job markets in recent years, and I need to cast a broad net.  How broad, though, is the question.  Common sense would dictate that I apply to absolutely every position that even remotely fits my interests, but am I allowed even a smidgen of location bias?  For example, can I rule out the deep south?  The rural west?  How much of a geography snob do I get to be?  (I am seriously interested in your answer to this question.)

And there's also the matter of J; It's not fair for me to demand he move and find a job just anywhere, and I don't want us to live in different places.  I have friends who've taken faculty jobs that required them to live a plane ride away from their significant others for 2-3 years, which kind of blows my mind.  Those positions were only temporary, and eventually they all ended up together 4-ever, but I still don't think I could do it.  In the end, I suppose these are things we'll worry about when they are actual, tangible issues (as in, after I'm invited for interviews, not before I've even sent out my CV), and decisions we'll make together.  And there ARE faculty openings in NYC, so it's not completely out of the question that I'll get to stare at that ridiculous view a while longer.


But how did I get here?

Sometimes I try to imagine what I'd be doing if I hadn't decided to become a neuroscientist, and I come up completely blank.  It feels like I've only ever wanted to do this, although I do distinctly recall my 13-year old self telling my mom I wanted to be either a professional tennis player or an actress when I grew up, and her telling me flat out I wasn't good enough at either tennis or acting to do so.  Thanks, mom!

I also remember the day it occurred to me that an academic career was it.  I was walking through the psychology department at the Classy Institution where I got my undergrad degree when I passed an open office door; inside, I could see and hear two faculty members talking animatedly.   Though I couldn't pick up the context, it was clear that they were Figuring Something Out, and they were really excited.  Almost immediately, that little snippet of conversation moved something in me, and much like the day I saw my amazing red peep-toe pumps in the window of a Brooklyn boutique, my brain spoke to me with the utmost conviction:  I want that.

I want thinking, and problem solving, and exciting chats with my colleagues (I think we can all agree this is the best part of being a scientist, no?  Or would you say it's the expense account?  Box seats at Yankee Stadium?  Oh wait).  I was told that in order to have that, I needed to go to grad school, so I did, and after that I took a post-doc position, which is the next thing you need to do.  All along the way, I've gotten to be those professors I saw back in college--I've thought, I've solved problems, I've had exciting chats--and I have to say, it never gets old.


Searching Highs and Lows

Are you a chemical engineer? Nor am I, but browsing through the job ads on the Science and Nature websites kind of makes me wish I were. Business is booming! But why do I know this?

I have not quite mastered the art of the Advanced Search. My three sources for job ads (not including my thesis advisor) are Science, Nature, and NeuroJobs on the Society for Neuroscience website, and I haven't found any to be completely user-friendly (if you know of any other good resources, by all means share!). Of course, the paranoid part of me is wondering whether this is some sort of test; if I'm not savvy enough find the right job to apply to, I can't possibly be qualified to fill the position, now can I?

I went through a similar period of self-doubt when I applied for a K99-R00 Pathway to Independence award from NIMH earlier this year. The NIH grants website is nearly impenetrable, and you need to cross-reference the guidelines there with a 250-page pdf manual, out of which you must extract the scattered instructions specific to your particular grant. It's a real exercise in Not Repeatedly Smashing Your Laptop Into the Wall, and I quickly became certain that it was all part of an elaborate filtration process by which most people would, in frustration, give up on science altogether. Wheat from the chaff, you know?

So here I am again questioning my worth, only now it's according to the ease with which I come across listings for The Perfect Job. How useful I'm finding these search engines varies by website, with Nature coming in dead last. It's terrible. As far as I can tell, there's no easy way to sort out tenure track faculty jobs from, say, post-doc jobs, and there are a LOT of post-doc jobs. Thousands. When you put "professor" into the search, it comes up with post-doc jobs that ask you to send your application to Dr Joe Scientist, Professor of Chemical Engineering. To try to eliminate post-doc jobs in your results, you can use the "-" symbol to leave out anything that says "post-doc" in it, putting the expression "-post-doc" in the search bar along with "+neuroscience". However, this poses at least two problems, the most important being, do you know how many different ways people choose to write the word "post-doc"?

Well, there's "post-doc", "postdoc", "post doc", but then you need to also include "postdoctoral", "post doctoral" etc.,'s a pain! The second problem is that you end up ruling out ads that say something like, "minimum 2 years post-doctoral experience required for this very excellent tenure-track faculty job." And then you still need to narrow things down so as to rule out all the Chemical Engineering positions.

Science is much better, with a nice big button that says "Faculty Jobs". Thank you! That was easy, wasn't it? Once you click through you get a nice list of the job posting, plus the school and location. You can narrow this search with "neuroscience" or "neurobiology" or "psychology" (my big three), to get a pretty streamlined list of jobs you may want. Neurojobs is basically the reverse, since all posts are at the very least neuro-related (no chemical engineering positions here!), but then you need to narrow with "professor" or "faculty" (apparently there are far fewer post-doc positions listed here). You can also easily filter the jobs by "academic", "not-for-profit", "industry" etc, in case your experience with the K-99 made you never want to write another grant again. It should be noted that Neurojobs is free for SfN members, but $25 A DAY if you're not.

One thing that seems so obvious to me is that there should be some kind of uniformity in the way these jobs are listed. For example, when the department chair goes to list the position, he or she should have to click a box that says "assistant professor" "post-doc" "technician", etc., rather than making up the name of the job. That way job searchers can easily search by category, and not have to guess whether "Position in Neuroscience" is something we'd like to apply for.

Hmmm...perhaps I should be looking in these sites for openings in web design?


What happened last year

A lot of the job openings I hear about are forwarded to me by my graduate thesis advisor, who gets the ads from her colleagues at other schools. I realize that it's in her best interest for me, her progeny, to succeed as a scientist, but still it makes me feel good that she's thinking of me and my career five years after I've left her.

It was around this time last year that she forwarded me a job ad for an assistant professor position at a midwestern liberal arts college. Now, I am a real east coast kind of girl, and would not normally give much serious thought to moving to the midwest. I'm not even sure I could identify all of the midwestern states on a map. But this particular school is one of the absolute best in the country, and I had this romantic vision of myself, probably in a corduroy blazer, sprawled in an idyllic quad with 8-10 of the college's top neuroscience students. We're deep in conversation, and I'm challenging them and expanding their minds as autumn leaves fall quietly around us.

So I applied. Applying for faculty jobs is actually not that difficult--most simply require your CV, a statement of some sort that outlines your experience and goals, and reference letters. Once your statement is written, you need only do minor alterations for each school, being careful to remove all mention of what a great addition you'd be to the Dept of Psychology at University of Central Springfield in your application to the Neuroscience Dept at Camden State College. It should be noted that at the time, I did not yet have any publications from my post-doc work, so my CV was...concise. I was not optimistic.

One day, I was on the subway when my phone rang. This is very rare, as there is no cell phone service in the NYC subways. Once in a while, though, the tracks are so shallow that you can pick up a signal, but the chances of this coinciding with you receiving a call are, I'd imagine, on the order of nano. I didn't answer it because I knew I'd lose the call within a few seconds, plus it was an unfamiliar area code so I figured it was my student loan provider or someone similar demanding money from me. When I got out of the train there was no message, confirming my suspicions. I missed another call from the same number later that day, again no message.

A bit later, though, an email popped up in my inbox that said this: "Dear Dr Becca, This is Dr ___ from Fancy Midwestern College (FMC). We've been calling you at (718) xxx-xxxx to ask you a few questions, but haven't been able to reach you. Please get in touch and let us know if there's a better number at which to contact you."


FMC has questions for me! This means that they (at the very least) were not snorting with laughter as they dragged my CV file into the Trash. But what does "a few questions" mean? It all seems very casual, no?

As it turns out, no, "a few questions" is not very casual. When I called FMC back, they asked:

-What kind of research would you plan on doing here?
-How can you incorporate undergraduates into your research?
-What courses would you like to teach?
-Other Serious Interview questions

I was caught completely off guard, and that combined with the fact that I was FREAKING OUT with happiness that they'd actually found my application competitive enough to warrant a call made for a terrible, terrible phone interview. Like, really embarrassingly terrible.

I got a letter a few months later informing me that they'd filled the position, which I expected, and was fine with, really. It was a great lesson, which is that you should, at all times, know who you are and what you want to do with your life. You should also be prepared to describe those things to people--without warning--in complete seriousness and sincerity. This year, if (and hopefully when) I'm asked for an interview, I'll allow myself to feel flattered for about half a second, and then I'm going to move on and tell my interviewer in concrete detail about what a great scientist I'm going to be.


On the off chance that someone who doesn't know me is reading....

A little background.

My doctorate in neurobiology took me five years to complete, and I'm now about to complete my fifth year as a post-doc. Apparently it used to be that you could get a tenure-track faculty job after just 2 or 3 years of post-doctoral work, but now the average seems to be closer to 6. How nice for us!

I've done a lot of cool things during my post-doc, which serendipitously landed me in the middle of a dream collaboration between three of the absolute tippity-top scientists in my field. They make neuroscience look easy, and they made my life incredibly easy by letting me do pretty much whatever experiments I wanted for the last five years [N.B., grad students: do your post-doc with rich PIs, I am so serious].

I plan on doing some more cool things in lab this year, but I also plan on applying for tenure-track faculty jobs at colleges and universities. I have no idea if I'll succeed; it's my understanding that even if you are a superstar post-doc your chances of being hired with a reasonable start-up package are slim to none. I'm probably not a superstar, but I'm diving in anyway, and I'm going to blog about it. The applications, the interviews (hopefully!!!!), the prospect of moving, taking my boyfriend's job into consideration, getting over my ivy-league ego...there's going to be a lot to say. I'm really, really excited about all of it, even if I fail miserably. OK, I'm not excited about failing miserably. But I'm excited about really GOING for something, you know? I'm ready.