The Plight of the Post-Doc


2010 is already looking good!

While the rest of you were nursing your hangovers last New Year's Day, I was submitting a manuscript.  And now, literally one day shy of an entire year later, that manuscript has finally been ACCEPTED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Huzzahhhhhhh!! 

The massive, venomous, 10-gauge thorn in my side has at long last been ripped out, and it is just the best!! I want to run through the snowy Brooklyn streets shouting "PA-PER!  PA-PER!" pumping my fists in the air like someone who just won a marathon.  I want to dance like this guy.

Tonight we are having a little birthday party for J (steak tartare, shrimp cocktail, endive w/ blue cheese, mixed olives, fromage plate, and tiramisu!), and now we get to celebrate this as well!  I have a feeling that New Year's Day 2010 will be enormously different from New Year's Day 2009, meaning that I will be nursing a hangover, not submitting a manuscript.

Happy New Year, everyone!  


I am officially on vacation: Holiday Fun and New Year's Resolutions

To those of you with blogs, aren't traffic tracking programs the most amazing and fun thing?  Today Google Analytics informed me that I had a visitor from Wasilla, Alaska, and I SO hope it was SP!!!  Does she still live there?  I don't even know.  But it wouldn't surprise me in the least if, in addition to the many publications she reads both in print and online, Inside Higher Ed (which recently linked to my last entry and generated much of today's traffic) were part of her daily routine.

So much negativity in the last few posts!  I don't like it, no I do not.  I am mostly of the philosophy that there's very little use in being depressed about stuff--either there's nothing you can do about it, so what's the point in wasting energy feeling sad, or there is something you can do about it, so go do that thing and stop feeling sorry for yourself!  Plus, nobody likes a downer, especially around the holidays.

Speaking of the holidays, we had a really fun party in my department.  My PI is a bit of a wine guy, so whoever goes shopping for the booze always tries to impress him and we end up with some pretty nice wine.  No Yellowtail in this department, no sir.  Also, we have a new chair who's pretty cool.  He became a whole lot cooler when, during his reading of the raffle winners, demanded a cheer for the New York Yankees.  I cheered the loudest, I'm pretty sure.  Never hurts to have the chair on your side, you know?  Especially when you need things signed.

Also speaking of the holidays, I am leaving early Thursday morning to spend Christmas with J's family in the heart of the midwest.  I've never been there, and am looking forward to meeting everyone, and to seeing what that which I usually describe as "fly-over country" is like.  I hear there's a Red Lobster, and having never actually been to a Red Lobster (I know!!!  I am apparently missing out on cheddar biscuits?), I'm pretty excited.  Also, I'm maybe going to make latkes for the grandparents, so that they can better appreciate my faith.  I mean, can you think of a better introduction to any religion than deep-fried potatoes and onions?  No, you can not.  Being Jewish is awesome!!!!!  Did I mention that on Passover we are required to have 4 glasses of wine?  And by "required" I mean, "required by God"!!

Back to the subject of going and doing that thing (or things) that can change the stuff you are sad about--my resolutions for 2010:

1.  Ask more questions.  One of the effects of my multi-institution post-doc has been that I've maybe been too independent.  I go in, I do my thing, I get out, without talking at length with people in each lab about theories behind everything, possible variations, etc.  As a result, I'd say I know less about the things I've done than I should. I now resolve to have more conversations.  This is what scientists do, no?

2.  Stop delegating, and do it myself.  I've been very lucky in the last several years to have some amazing people in the lab who are basically there to do whatever I ask of them.  I am very good at asking them to do things, but of course, this means that I don't know how to do those things.  I just say, "thank you for ordering that antibody" or "thank you for doing all of that incredibly painful microscope work.  You will be second author."  In 2010, I am doing all of the fucking microscope work.

3.  Read more papers.  Seriously, what is wrong with me?  I only just got my Google Reader to update when my PubMed searches have a new listing.  But now that I have that, there is no excuse for not knowing everything that is coming out of my field.

In sum, I want to be a better scientist in 2010.  It's almost embarrassing that these are my resolutions 10 years out from matriculating at my grad school, but I have to think that it's better late than never.  Right?


On having one's career dreams quashed by a PoS journal editor

Arg.  I've been going back and forth in my brain as to whether or not to actually post this, because I'd like to think that I'm self-aware enough to know to keep the whining to a minimum.  Everyone has their publishing struggles.


This blog is about my career.  And while I wish every aspect of my career could be described using only self-deprecating humor and charming stories re: The Follies of Youth, that's just not the way it works.  In the immortal words of PhysioProf, Academic Science is not a Care Bears Fucking Tea Party, and never is that more patently clear than when you're approaching the one-year anniversary of the submission of a manuscript to a journal that is still reviewing it.

So be warned, and get your dialing fingers ready: someone needs a waaahmbulance.  Read at your own discretion.  

There's this paper, you see.  A paper that contains nearly three years of work--novel, rigorous, and award-winning-at-conferences work--that I submitted for publication to a medium-high impact journal nearly one year ago.  I'd just had a related paper accepted relatively easily in this journal, and thought they'd be happy to have the follow-up, which was much more interesting.  The reviewers' comments were brief and favorable, with one saying they'd like a histological figure demonstrating that our surgeries were accurate, and the other saying--literally--that they were "unable to find any methodological problems with the study," but that they'd like a list of abbreviations. The paper was rejected. 

Now, I know that a journal isn't obligated to take the advice of the reviewers, but I feel like if they're going to do that, you should at least get some kind of explanation for the glaring discrepancy between reviewer comments and editor's decision, instead of the form rejection letter stating that the reviewers had substantial concerns when that was obviously not the case.  My PI and I were floored that such positive reviews could result in an outright rejection, and we naturally wrote a very polite "WTF???" (if I may paraphrase) letter to the editor, asking that he reconsider and allow us to resubmit.  He said sure, but we'd have to change the title and he'd be sending it out to a new set of reviewers.  We agreed, but we shouldn't have.

 The next review took 3.5 months.  Three and a half months!! An entire season came and went, and I could do nothing but sit and wait like a chump.  When the decision finally came back, it had comments from FIVE reviewers.  FIVE!!  Much more critical and lengthy than before, but not rejected this time. We could only conclude, then, that this journal makes its decisions not according to the reviewers' comments, but through randomized-trial questioning of the Magic 8-ball. 

Reply hazy, try again.
Cannot predict now.
Outlook not so good.

 After a thorough revision we resubmitted, and waited another 2 months.  This time, the non-rejection decision letter came with a loooong message from the managing editor claiming that despite all of our revisions the paper was still not satisfactory, and for him to accept it as it was, he would have to lower the standards of the journal.  Really, was that necessary?  He could have just said, "one of our reviewers still has several concerns that need to be addressed," but he just had to be a dick about it.  He also demonstrated that, after what was now almost 10 months of dealing with a paper titled "Factor Q affects factor R in brain region A," he was under the impression that we were studying brain region Z. 

Now, I do not toss around the term douchebag lightly, but seriously.  This guy and his inflated ego can't even manage to read the title of my paper, and then feels it appropriate to condescend like that?  I'd have loved to be able to just say "fuck 'em" and try a different journal, but after so much time had gone by, I didn't think I could risk going through it all again somewhere else.  So back in it went after another revison...and we're still waiting. 

The problem is that in a lot of ways, my career is hinging on this paper.  It contains half of the work I've done as a post-doc, and until it's published, I'm not going to look like a super-productive scientist.  The fact that it was reviewed so favorably the first time around but not given an opportunity for a "revise and re-review" is killing me, because things might be so different for me now. 

I know that journals don't owe any single author anything, but the lack of accountability in the publishing process is really frustrating.  That a journal can allow its reviewers to take nearly 4 months to submit their comments is ludicrous, and that a managing editor feels it appropriate to write a misinformed, insulting, and all-around unprofessional decision letter is, frankly, outrageous.  What's worse is that in taking so long with each review, they've put me in a position where there's nothing I can do but sit there and take it.  I'm their bitch.   Boo.

Erm...thanks for listening to me rant.  It felt good to get it all off my chest and down in writing, because when I try to talk about it, I'm often unable to speak.


Time for a Backup Plan?

You know, when I applied to grad school, I wasn't certain I'd get in.  I had virtually no support system, having moved across the country after graduating college with no job, no apartment, no plan, really--just a goldfish, a laptop and a dream.  I volunteered a couple of mornings a week in a psychology lab, helping a grad student with a project I loathed.  The PI was never there, and when he was around he was so cold I was almost too intimidated to ask him for a recommendation letter.  The silver lining of the experience was that it helped me decide not to apply to psych programs, but to neuroscience ones.  After the last application went out, I thought to myself, "Self, what if we don't get in?  What then?" After careful thought, I decided that if no one wanted me I would move to Italy and pull espresso.  Seriously.  This was my backup plan.

It recently occurred to me that I need to wrap my head around the possibility likelihood (???????) that I won't get an offer this year.  I might not even get an interview.  And unlike eleven years ago, I'm not quite prepared to chuck the whole science thing and flee the country.  So...what's the backup plan now?

I sat down with my PI Thursday morning to discuss My Future, a conversation I now fully acknowledge I should have been having regularly for the last 3 years.* I told him that I wanted to do what I could to ensure that, should I not make anybody's short list this time around, I looked super hot next cycle.  We decided, to my delight, that I should teach.  I'm going to deliver several lectures for one of the graduate student core neuro classes next semester, and I'm so excited.  I love teaching, I'm a good public speaker...this is going to be really good for me.  I'm also going to take part in a side project of sorts, which should get my name on another paper--also good.

There's another option, too--and I would really like your advice here--which is that I could be promoted to the "Instructor" position.  The term itself is pretty meaningless, but I think most institutions have something comparable to this limbo-like title (funny, I used to refer to the post-doc as the limbo-like position) for people who have been post-docs for a while.  I'd get a raise, and I'd be eligible to apply for more grants, both of which would be cool.  But my question is this:  does it make me look past my prime to have a title like this?  Are search committees biased toward people who are genuine post-docs, or is the name irrelevant? 

I'm of course not giving up on the prospect of getting a job this cycle--I'll continue to check the job boards and apply to anything that seems even remotely up my alley.  I'm just being realistic, and honestly, it feels really good. You know, now that I think about it, all of these plans aren't really backup plans at all...they're more like forward-thinking plans.  Much better.

*I'm now realizing that having an NRSA made me a little...complacent.  My project was part of a large, 3-institution grant that made nearly limitless resources available to me, and I flitted happily from lab to lab like a honey bee in a flower bed, doing whatever experiments my heart desired.  It was awesome.  But while three years of funding may seem like a long time when you're first starting out, it is, as it turns out, not.  And with my NRSA having run its course and the main grant expiring next fall,  suddenly My Future is a lot less secure.