The Plight of the Post-Doc


Did I inherit my sciency-ness?

After a fun-filled Thanksgiving jaunt this week to fabulous New England, J and I are back in NYC and in for the night, wrought with guilt over leaving our kitties alone for 3 days.  They were less than pleased at having been abandoned, and greeted us with their patented Evil Kitty Death Stare:

I know this has nothing to do with my job search or even science, but hey, it's a holiday weekend; things are a little slow.

Anyway, when I was home I got to talk shop with my mom, and by "shop" I don't mean "turkey basting techniques" or "Nordstrom's Christmas Sale," I mean science!  My mom is a scientist too, and I think that's so cool.  For totally boring reasons she didn't finish her PhD, so she doesn't have her own lab.  However, she does hold a senior position in a lab at a very Classy Institution where she does all kinds of exciting research--awesome, futuristic stuff that honestly does not seem all that far off from seriously saving lives.

What's interesting is that when I think about it, I don't think I became a scientist because of her.  Sure, I went to visit her lab all the time when I was growing up, but I can't think of a point where it ever occurred to me that lab work was something I'd like to pursue, too; that all came much later, and at least in my recollection, it was totally organic.  Plus, I kind of hated science when I was in high school.

And yet, here I am!  Is it a coincidence?  Or is an aptitude and love for science something we inherit, even if we don't consciously realize it, and even if it isn't actively cultivated in us?  I'm curious as to how many of you scientists also have parents who are scientists.  If they are, how big a role do you think they played in your choice to pursue a similar path? 

One area in which my mom did play a huge role was where I ultimately went to grad school.   Because I am a location snob, I hadn't planned on applying there.  But she sent me a Science article she'd come across that was published by one of this Classy Institution's faculty, with a note that said "Isn't this what you're interested in?  This is a great school--you should apply!"  She was right, of course, so I did apply, and I of course had an amazing experience whilst getting a top-notch education.  So then, to the extent that my graduate school made me the scientist I am (which I can confidently say is a non-trivial extent), I have my mom to thank for leading me there.  Thanks, mom!

Hmm... writing this post has put me in the mood to dance around singing this:


Interview with a new-hire

I opened my inbox recently to find a mass email from someone I'd known in grad school.  He was in a different program and I wouldn't say we were good friends, but if life is a Venn diagram--and oh, it is--our circles most definitely overlapped.  I hadn't spoken to him since I left, but it seems he's done very well for himself in that time, because the purpose of the email was to notify apparently everyone on the planet that he'd just taken a faculty position at a very Classy Institution here in the city.  I had two thoughts:

1.  Three words, dude.  Blind. Carbon. Copy.  Perhaps you're familiar?
2.  I have got to pick this guy's brain.

So I sent him a quick email congratulating him on his new job and asking if we could grab coffee so I could grill him on his techniques and strategies for successfully navigating the current market.  He happily agreed, and we met up yesterday at the local Pain Quotidien for a little tartine and tenure-track talk. 

The first piece of advice he offered was, "Be sure to have multiple offers, so you have some negotiating leverage."  First, not last.  I cleared my throat and asked if we might back up a few steps?  As it turns out, his story is quite awesome, and his path somewhat unconventional.  Apparently he hadn't been planning on looking for jobs until this current cycle, but last spring he was invited to give a job talk at one of NYCs Classy Institutions.  When that went well, he thought it might be a good idea to shop himself around a bit, so he asked friends and friends of friends if they knew of any departments that were also looking, sent out a few CVs, gave a few more talks, and here he is, just a few months later, an Assistant Professor with what I understand to be a ridiculously kick ass start-up package.

Now, this guy is a real superstar.  His research is achingly (and I mean achingly) sexy, and he has genuine expertise in very specific and powerful techniques.  He was surprisingly modest, attributing his success partly to being in the right place at the right time with respect to his post-doc work.  This may be true, but I think that he also recognized that he was in the right place at the right time, and knew how to take advantage of that. 

But additionally, he must have had some good interviewing skills, so I asked him about that.  He said that everyone is going to ask you where you see yourself in five years, so to be very, very prepared to answer that in as concrete terms as possible--meaning, knowing exactly what sciencey questions you want to have answered, what techniques you'll use, how that will set you up for work further down the line...etc.  You have to have your life all planned out, essentially.  No biggie.  This is fine for me, actually; since the research proposal part of my K99 application was well-received, I in fact do have a 5-year research plan that I know well and am excited to talk about.

When I got home, I checked the job boards and there was a new one:  THE job.  The ad said something like, "we have two open faculty positions in the area of Dr Becca's Big Ideas." I mean really, it's like they read my K99 proposal and created the job (two of them!) just for me.  I am so excited to apply for this job I almost can't sit still.  The ad states that I have up to 4 pages to describe my research, which is a lot, and means I can really hash out my plans.  I am going to wow the pants off that search committee! 

PS--are you dying from how clever the title of this post is?  I'm really patting myself on the back, here.


Summary Statement Summary

I had been told that it would take at least 6 weeks for my K99 Summary Statement (a composite of the reviewers' comments) to come, but instead it took 6 days.  I suppose that if there's one thing that can be said for the NIH, it's that they're certainly efficient when it comes to bringing the bad news. 


It wasn't really all bad news.  At all.  I mean, yes, of course, the grant was still unscored, but I feel much better about why.  As it turns out, Comrade PhysioProf was mostly right--the major problem was my publication record, which is decent but not awesome, and lacking with respect to a glamour journal paper. This is an unfortunate result of a certain journal taking three months and then four months and then two months to get back to me with reviews for what will be my second peer-reviewed post-doc paper, a labor of love that contains over three years of work.  But I don't need to explain this to you; I should have explained it to my study section. 

Briefly, the scoring works like this:  I'm graded by three different reviewers on a scale of 1-9 with 1 being the best in five different areas:

Candidate (that's me!)
Training Plan (the myriad essays I wrote about my career goals and my plans for achieving them)
Research Plan (the actual experiments I proposed)
Mentors (how prepared my mentor is to help guide me to independence)
Environment (how Classy is my Institution? Does it have the resources to help me get my work done?)

I received pretty much equal parts 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s, with the biggest issues aside from my publishing being a not completely well-thought out Training Plan, and a concern that my proposed research for the independent phase of the award would not be significantly different from that of my mentors (I disagree with this).  My Mentors and Environment are completely kick-ass, so high scores in those sections were expected, but the reviewers also seemed to like my Research Plan quite a bit, which made me so, so happy.  I am a good science thinker!!!  I'm going to share with you the best quote:

"The strength of these experiments lies in the hypothesis, the ability of the candidate to conduct the studies, and the elegant and appropriate approach to answer the question at hand."

Fuck. Yeah.  There is probably no word scientists want to hear other people use to describe their work more than the word "elegant" (except, perhaps, "fundable"). This is a great compliment, and was a nice little ego boost yesterday because I really do love the proposal, and am very proud of the ideas in it.

My biggest mistake in how I handled the application was not giving myself enough time to write it.  By, like, several years.  It's funny, when I received the email three years ago from NIH congratulating me on being awarded an NRSA grant, it included a note suggesting I start applying for the K99.  I was like, are they crazy??  I just got a grant, why would I apply for another one????  I'mma go do me some experiments!!  So I did some experiments and time went by, and then all of a sudden my NRSA was almost up!  With just under a month until the deadline, I began to work on the K99.  Totally fine, I thought, I can crank this out in 25 days.  But then I learned that the grants and contracts office at my Classy Institution needed everything in 2 weeks in advance, completely polished and finished.  Oh.

First I had a heart attack, and then I LOCKED IN and wrote the damn thing in ten days.  I would have just put it off to the next cycle, but at that point I would have been right on the cusp of not being eligible, and I didn't want to risk it.  It's really no surprise, then, that there were parts of my application that weren't as perfectly put together as they needed to be, though I thought that for ten days' writing, it was pretty impressive.  However, NOBODY CARES.  It had to be a perfect application and it wasn't even close, and that is nobody's fault but mine.

So, some lessons learned, and advice to those of you who anticipate applying for a K99:

1.  START EARLY.  Like now.  And talk to people--your PI, other PIs in your group, PIs outside of your Classy Institution.  Get many many perspectives on your proposal, and go through multiple rounds of proofreading--different people will catch different mistakes (no one caught that I apparently neglected to state the age of my animals, which is just stupid).

2. Devote a substantial amount of time to your Career Development/Training Plan statements; these are a big deal, and were one of my weaknesses.  It's not enough to say "I want my own lab where I can study all of these totally fascinating things." You have to explain how you're going to get there, plus how you're going to develop all other kinds of PI-type skills, like grant and manuscript writing, teaching, lab management, etc.  Your mentor's statement should include points about how he or she will help you do these things. What's frustrating is that I know I could have done a much better job with these had I been more responsible about when I started working on the application.

3.  Know your weaknesses, and actively defend or explain them.  Obviously, I was aware that my publication record was not impressive, but instead of acknowledging that, I naively hoped that my fancy pedigree and cool science would override the blemish.  In retrospect, I should have included a statement somewhere explaining the nature of the work I've been doing (giant, comprehensive, long-term studies), and why I don't have as many big publications as you might expect of someone who's been a post-doc in my lab for as long as I have.  Something like that may not have made all the difference, but I think it would have helped.


Week in Review

It's been quite a week.

After a rough Saturday night processing the fact that my K-99 was in the bottom half of the applicant pool, I was feeling better Sunday.  I screamed myself hoarse at the NYC marathon (and really, there is little that does a better job of making your problems seem insignificant than when there are thousands of people--especially those who are older than your parents and/or missing limbs--streaming by you who are Running. Twenty-six. Miles.), and then came home to cook all afternoon for a mini dinner party J and I were having that night.  I love entertaining, and there's something about all the prep work for a party that I love almost as much as the party itself, so I was a happy camper chopping veggies and whatnot for a couple of hours.

Monday, though, the wounds were opened fresh again when I went to lab and had to tell everyone what had happened with the grant.  It was hard because of course people wanted to talk about it, when really talking about it is the last thing I wanted to do, because there's nothing talking can do but make me angry and sad.  Had I been more forward thinking I'd have had a t-shirt made that read "The grant's been triaged; can we talk about baseball?"  Instead, I fielded sympathetic looks all day, and while I adore my lab-mates, I despise the feeling of people feeling sorry for me.

Things brightened on Wednesday, when THE YANKEES WON THE WORLD SERIES!!!!!!!!  I feel like I've been waiting forever for this, because I only started going to games regularly in 2002.  I actually had tickets to game 7 had it happened, but I was genuinely happy that it didn't have to.  And if there's anything that can make you forget your troubles for a while, it's throwing your arms around strangers and singing "New York, New York" at the top of your lungs while champagne is passed around.  Yesterday J and I played hooky and went down to the ticker tape parade, and while there were way too many people for us to get anywhere near the parade, we did see a lot of ticker tape paper floating through the buildings downtown, which was very beautiful.

 With respect to my career (this is what this blog's supposed to be about, no?), Thursday was the best day and here's why:  I went to hear a visiting speaker, and the speaker turned out to be someone from my graduate program!  She had been in her 4th or 5th year when I started so I didn't know her too well, but now she is a bona fide Assistant Professor at a super Classy Institution!  Her work is so sexy it hurts (in a good way) and it was just so incredibly inspiring to see someone from my generation be so successful.  What's more, she is still the very down-to-earth and nice person I remember her being, so it's encouraging to know that one doesn't have to become an aggressive bitch in order to make it as a woman in science.

So I'm back on the horse, as they say!  I have more applications to send out this week, and thanks to Candid Engineer's excellent synopsis of what she learned at the  Negotiating the Ideal Faculty Position (NIFP) workshop and DrdrA's comprehensive guide to applying for faculty jobs, I think I've tweaked my cover letter and research statement for the better.  Onward and upward!