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.


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!


Well, that sucked.

Did you hear that whooshing noise earlier today?  That was the sound of my ego, deflating faster than the Heene balloon.

My K99 application came back unscored.  I don't want to whine about it too much because I know this is something that happens to many people, even people who go on to be (or are) successful scientists, but frankly, I feel like I've been slapped in the face.

I'm embarrassed, indignant, and sad.   I don't feel sorry for myself, but I'm frustrated that I so severely misjudged how strong my application was.  As I wrote about previously, I thought I was pretty hot stuff, and it's scary to think I may be far from it.

I've never been one for wallowing, though--it's ugly and unproductive.  I contacted my Program Officer and there's nothing I can do but wait for my summary statement, which will hopefully give me some insight into the reviewers' major issues.   Until then, I've just got to keep doing what I was doing before this grant was something that mattered--getting my work done and applying for jobs.  Tonight I'll be bummed, but J's making tacos and the Yankees are winning, so I suppose life isn't all bad.


Just in time for Halloween...

A discussion on dressing up as The Scientist They Want.

I recently went back to my grad school to attend the public thesis defense of one of my good friends.  During the pre-talk mingling I chatted with a PI I'd known while I was a student, and when I mentioned that I was job hunting, he said, "Oh, do you know about the job opening at the Fancy Liberal Arts College up the road?  That could be great for you."  I had not heard about the FLAC job, and was very interested, as it really is one of the top FLACs in the country.  But then he said, "be sure when you apply that you make yourself look like a cell biologist, because that's what they want." 

Out of respect I simply smiled and said, "Oh, OK!" but what I really wanted to say was, "Dude.  I know you know that I am no cell biologist.  Sure, I'm peripherally interested in receptor signaling, but mitochondria and I do not hang.  I have no real plans to conduct research that would qualify as cell biology.  So why would I want to give people the impression that I do?"

A recent commenter said,

 The most important thing to do with your cover letter is to show that you're a good "fit". A cover letter that doesn't show you're a good fit says one of three things about you:
(1) you aren't a good fit
(2) you aren't interested enough in the department to figure out what they want or you don't really know what they're about
(3) you aren't skilled enough to even fake 1 & 2

My big question to this commenter (and to all of my readers) is, why would I want to fake it?   Is it too idealistic to imagine that they'd want me for me, and not for my ability to craft a cover letter that feeds them what they want to hear?  I mean, I understand the idea that if they seem to emphasize teaching, then I should emphasize teaching in my cover letter, and likewise if they emphasize research.  I've been doing that.  But I can't lie about the kind of research I'm capable of or intend to do...can I? 

At the SfN meeting I ran into a friend who's been in a tenure-track faculty position for maybe 7 or 8 years.  He had lots of great advice, but one thing he said was particularly interesting--the best possible situation, he said, is not when you can convince them that you're The Scientist They Want, but when you can convince them you're The Scientist They Didn't Know They Wanted.  We didn't get a chance to hash out how you actually make this happen, but I'm thinking this may involve perhaps a in your cover letter to get your foot in the door for an interview/job talk, where things will presumably play out like this:

Dr Becca:  And that's the end of my job talk on non-cell biology topics.
Search Committee:  Um, but we thought you said you did cell biology?
Dr Becca:  Oh, hmm...I suppose I did.  I don't, actually, but isn't this much, much better???
Search Committee:  Now that we think about it, it is!!  It totally is.  Would you like to join our department?
Dr Becca:  Yes, thanks very much.


On the Market: SfN Wrap-Up

Totally awesome science aside, there were kind of a lot of FAILs at the meeting this week:  wi-fi FAIL...shuttle bus court FAIL...and I'm afraid I've got to add another one...NeuroJobs FAIL.  The SfN NeuroJobs Career Center was literally an enclosed area with 10-12 computer stations whose Internet Explorer default page was the NeuroJobs website (from which most users had navigated away in favor of gmail and facebook).

Thank you, SfN, but I do have a computer. 

Looking back, it was probably naive of me to imagine that SfN would be doing any kind of concrete matchmaking, or that search committee members would be taking time out of their busy conference schedules to meet with potential candidates.  NeuroJobs "live" is likely more suited to people looking for post-doc positions than faculty positions, especially those in town from abroad who can't all be flown in for a job talk.  I hope it works out for them.  *sniff*

Some other items of note:
  • I took PhysioProf's advice and did not seek out faculty from departments I've applied to, at risk of looking like a brown-nosing, shameless self-promoter.  I did, however, tell just about everyone I ran into that I was OtM, which led to some very interesting conversations, some of which will be turned into full blog posts.  One PI in my field whom I've known for several years responded that she wished her department had an opening for me, but that they weren't currently hiring.  This of course was probably could have been an empty nicety, but it certainly beat a sarcastic "heh--good luck with that," so it made me feel good.
  • I also took DrugMonkey's advice and stopped by the NIMH booth to talk with the Program Officer for my K99 application that is under review right now.  I unfortunately caught her as she was leaving to meet with someone important-looking and didn't get to do much but introduce myself, but I hope that even that will provide the tiniest glimmer of happy recognition when funding decisions are made.  According to a grad school friend who now works as a Review Officer, the best thing I can do is wait until my score comes, and if it seems potentially borderline start communicating with my PO to see if there's anything I can do to bump it into funding range.  This is especially important for me because K99 applicants can't have been a post-doc for more than 5 years, and if I don't get funded this time around, that's it for me.  I'm too old.  Past my prime.  Over the hill.  Waaah. (As an aside, it's not exactly clear when "being a post-doc" officially starts.  Is it the day you defend your thesis?  The day you begin work in your post-doc lab?  The day you receive your PhD from your institution?  The order of these events is not always the same.  Anyone know?)
I've got just over a week until I get my score, and until then (and beyond), I'll keep checking the job ads and applying to anything that has potential.  I'm also starting a new experiment that I'm really excited about, so I'll have lots to keep me busy until the interviews invites come pouring in.  Pouring!!*

*this is me remaining upbeat and optimistic, despite certain conversations had at the meeting...stay tuned.

PS--one thing that I thought was a big SfN WIN was the #sfn09 Twitter-fest.  I loved seeing everyone's sciency thoughts throughout the day; it was endless 140-character fun.


Show me the money! (a chat with Francis Collins)

First off, I have to give a giant hat-tip to Scicurious, Kristen, Mike Pascoe, and the rest of the official Neurobloggers.  You guys are doing an amazing job covering some of the best parts of the conference, and I was wondering if I could maybe score some of whatever it is you're taking?  Seriously,  I'm so freaking exhausted every day I can hardly manage to order my dinner, let alone write a coherent and insightful synopsis of all the cool science I saw, so, well done!

Anyway, so you've been enjoying the first half of SfN, checking out posters, having Deep Intellectual Conversations, and listening to awe-inspiring talks by world-class scientists.  But all the while, something in the back of your mind has been nagging you--what is Dr Becca's Big Secret???  It's time to tell you.  You're ready.

A few days ago I was invited to be part of a small post-doc panel that would meet for an hour with Francis Collins, new Obama-appointed director of the NIH.  Apparently Dr Collins wanted to hear from the Scientists of the Future regarding our deepest desires general thoughts and concerns, and so 10 of us sat down with him and several NIH division heads this morning to discuss.  Naturally, I was very excited to be included in this meeting, given that I've had much on my mind lately re: becoming a Scientist of the Future.

Dr Francis was super friendly and warm and nice, and seemed to genuinely care about what we had to say.  The conversation started out benignly enough with some chit-chat about the state of connectomes and other databases and how useful they will be to Scientists of the Future, but during the discussion I couldn't suppress the thoughts in my brain that were saying, "can't anyone talk about databases?  Aren't we here because we're post-docs, in one of the trickiest and most precarious positions any scientist will be in?  Let's talk about me and my problems!"

Other panel members seemed to have the same internal monologue as I did, because it wasn't long before we were all demanding money left and right--better benefits with training grants, cost of living considerations in stipend minimums (as a New Yorker, I said a real "Amen!" when this was brought up), improved funding opportunities for senior post-docs and junior faculty, and financial incentives for engaging in scientific outreach.   

I was waiting for the moment when one of the division heads would burst and call us out on the greedy, whiny, entitled bitches we were making ourselves out to be, but that moment never came.  They actually seemed to be listening to us--our problems aren't new ones, and they're already taking real positive steps to try to fix some of them.  R01 submissions from first-time applicants are now being evaluated separately (and slightly more leniently) from those of more established PIs, in hopes of bringing down the statistic that the average age for new PIs to get their first R01 is currently a staggering 42 (I asked Dr Collins straight up, "what am I supposed to do for nine years??).  They've also created the P30 grants, which are given to universities to create junior faculty positions.  This, I think, is a great idea, and one of the openings I've applied for is funded in this way.

Some of the other points are a little further away from being solved, but not once did anyone tell us that our concerns and suggestions were unrealistic.  Of course, an hour is not nearly enough time for a Scientist of the Future to unload all of her hopes, dreams, and fears on the most powerful man in American health research, but I think the fact that he even took the time to get this together is a sign of good things to come.

It goes without saying that it would have been a lot more awesome if things went down like this:

Collins:  What can I do to make post-docs' lives and careers better?
Us:  Give us money and jobs, please.
Collins:  OH!!!  Is that it??  I had no idea it would be so easy!  Done and Done.
Us:  Sweet.

< high-five >


See you in Chi-town!

I'm taking a break from digging my winter wear out from under-the-bed storage (seriously, what month is it again??) to assure you that although I'm not an official Neuroblogger, I'll be blogging about SfN from the Windy City.  In case the blog is too long-"winded" for you (Oh! Oh ho ho! I am too clever sometimes), you can follow me on Twitter (@doc_becca) and hear about the meeting in delicious 140-character bite-size morsels.

And just to be an impossible tease, I'm going to tell you that I've got something very exciting in the works regarding Yours Truly getting to hold counsel with someone very fancy to discuss some very topical issues.  I swear, I'll give you the details as soon as I'm allowed!

Until then, I'll be singing along with this....


A Shmoozy Interlude

Not actually an interlude, I just like how it rhymes with my last post.  Back to our regularly scheduled programming!  Job hunting, and more specifically, the Art of Shmoozing. 

As many of you are undoubtedly aware, the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting is just a few days away, and with 25,000 attendees, it's a great opportunity for networking. Scientists have a reputation for being awkward, socially-inept misanthropes who prefer the company of a microscope or cell culture to that of another person, but the reality is that most of us are very friendly and cool and fun to be around.  Are we a little nerdier than most?  Sure.  Are Lord of the Rings references thrown around at a higher frequency than in other groups?  Probably.  But the progress of our careers, science, and thus society as a whole can only be improved by us making friends, so get ready to CHAT IT UP!

A couple of things (literally, a couple) I've learned in my 10 years of attending meetings:

1.  Graduate students (and post-docs), don't be afraid to talk to fancy PIs--you never know when you're going to find a real advocate.  One year at SfN a pretty prominent dude came to my poster and fell in love with my research.  We got along famously, and it led to me being invited to write a review, and later to speak at a conference where I was the only non-faculty-level person on the schedule.  He also introduced me to one of my future (now past) post-doc collaborators, a very famous dude who's recommended me as a source to people writing layperson science books.  Connections!

2.  Speaking of PIs, never assume somebody isn't one.  I remember at my very first poster presentation speaking with a young woman who had very similar interests.  I asked her, "whose lab are you in?" after which there was an AWFUL pause, followed by an indignant "MINE."  Of course, I did my best to be all, "Oh, it's just that you look so young!!!!" but I'm not sure how much good that did.  This woman is pretty much my arch rival now.  In science, not in Life, but still.

For further reference, DrDrA over at Blue Lab Coats has a good list of meeting etiquette tips that I highly recommend you check out. 

I'm wondering how/whether I should track down people from the schools I've applied to.  I obviously have no idea who's on the search committees, and I'd be surprised if many of them will have looked at my application before the meeting.  I feel like it can't hurt to introduce myself to anyone I can find from the department, though, and help them put a face to the name when they do get around to it (especially when the face is as cute as mine!).   I realize that on paper, no one gives a flying fuck about what a charming and fun person I am, but I can't help but think that in person, people do.  Meaning that if I meet people at SfN and they like me, and that gives them even the tiniest of warm happy feelings when they sit down with my CV...well, it's got to be a good thing.


A Boozy Interlude

It's been a productive weekend.  In addition to watching a ton of baseball, I sent out five job applications, several of which I'm actually really excited about and think would be a good match for me, and have one more ready to go into the mail.  Yes, the MAIL mail, and they want copies of all my re-prints; clearly they didn't get the environment memo?  I also finished my poster for the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago next weekend, and while the poster may be a leeeeeeettle light on data, it has got to be one of the nicest looking posters the conference will ever see.  There are pie charts, okay?

I strongly feel that when you've worked very hard on sciency things it's good to reward yourself by engaging in one of your non-sciency hobbies.  Hobbies have been on my mind recently, because I noticed that I have friends who knit, or belong to soccer leagues, or have book clubs or some such thing, and I wondered to myself what my hobby was.  Then I remembered:

Oh, hai home bar (and hai Yankeez)!  My hobby is cocktails.  The Prohibition-era speakeasy is a real fad here in NYC, but if a fad results in a multitude of classy places for me to have a delicious drink that was invented 50-100 years ago, it's a fad I can get behind.  Seriously, 100%. 

There's a substantial cocktail blogosphere here as well, and I've met several of the scene's bigwigs at various spirits tasting events that I've managed to sweet-talk my way into.  What's interesting is that they are almost as nerdy as we scientists are, only about booze instead of neurons.  The history, the revival of lost or forgotten spirits, the rare whiskey batches, the debates over the proper recipe for the Martinez Cocktail...there's a lot to geek out about.  They are awesome people, and their lives pretty much rule.  Can you imagine if your job were simply to drink fancy drinks and write about it?  That would be nice.

One of the number one reasons I'm looking forward to the SfN meeting (I can have more than one number one reason, can't I?) is that Chicago's got one of the country's top destinations for serious cocktail enthusiasts:  The Violet Hour in Wicker Park.  So if you are stalking me, there's a good chance I'll be there pretty much every night.  After the ALCS games, of course.


Nice package!

Since this blog began just a few tiny weeks ago, I've been getting some really excellent advice from some really excellent scientists (and non-scientists, too!).  They've given me a lot to think about as I prepare my applications, and what it all seems to come down to package.  What will search committees see when they look at me on paper? More importantly, what do they want to see?

In response to a recent post, Comrade PhysioProf wrote:

It is more important to explain how awesome your post-doctoral work has been, and how you are uniquely positioned to leverage off of your post-doctoral training to make an impact on your field as independent investigator. This is subtly--but importantly--different than explaining how awesome you are personally, about which no one gives a flying fuck.

Now, as much as I'd like my charming, self-deprecating wit and cocktail-making skills to factor into the hiring process, CPP is completely right.  I recently submitted an application for a K99-R00 award (a special grant to help post-docs transition to junior faculty), and had to write about 6 different statements explaining how my previous and current work had prepared me for the work I was going to do in the future.  What seems to be most highly valued is having a real focus throughout your career, as opposed to flitting about learning a million methods in different fields. 

As I was writing all of these many, many statements and realizing that this is what is desirable in a New Investigator candidate, a sneaky grin crept onto my face because I was also realizing that I have GOT IT.  My thesis work and my post-doc work are related in theme but completely different in technique, and no one else in my labs has seemed all that keen on continuing my projects after I leave, so I can probably take it all with me.  And I want to!  I'm genuinely excited about and proud of the work I've done so far, and am looking forward to building on what I've learned and taking it in new directions.

So that's all sunshine and rainbows, but like my commenters point out, most search committees will probably check out my CV first (and possibly only).  In that case, should they not find my Classy Institutions, my several Awards and Honors, and my humble-but-not-laughable publishing record up to snuff, they'll sadly miss out on the captivating and compelling story of how I've been preparing my whole life (er...ten years) for This Job.  That would be disappointing, but I'm optimistic that it won't come to that.  Why, you ask?  Well...I think I have a nice package.


Allow me to describe my awesomeness in great detail

Ah, the art of the Letter of Application.

Most of us could probably recount without too much trouble our research and teaching experience, and even lay down with some coherence a five-to-ten year plan for all the clever and elegant studies we intend to undertake.  And our CV, well, really it speaks for itself.  But we don't live in a simple meritocracy, do we?  The facts alone are not enough--we need to Sell Ourselves, and for some reason this is really, really hard.

You already know how things went last year when I applied for a job at a Fancy Midwestern College, but what I didn't tell you is that the year before that, I applied for a job at a Fancy New England College.   FNEC asked for a letter outlining my research experience and interests, and my letter looked like this:

Letter of Application for Dr Becca, Phd

Research Experience:  My graduate thesis focused on blahblahblah.  My current post-doctoral work examines blahblahblah (3 paragraphs)

Research Interests:  I aim to manage my own laboratory where I will continue to address the issues of blahblahblah (2 paragraphs)

Of course, I heard nothing from FNEC, so when I was preparing the following year to apply to FMC I first sent the letter to my thesis advisor for a quick critique.  She said, "I like the letter very much EXCEPT [her caps lock] you should say right in the beginning that you are an excellent and experienced teacher able to teach a range of courses in neuro and phys psych, and that your research would fit well at FMC, both in topic and in technique." Wait, I'm supposed to just come right out and say that I'm an excellent teacher and scientist?  Shouldn't they just be able to tell how great I am from my CV and stuff?  Won't they think I'm...well, an arrogant asshole??  

But why are we so afraid of looking like assholes, when it should be obvious that anyone applying for any job anywhere would do best to show their prospective employer just how awesome they are?   It makes me wonder if the nature of our profession fosters an unhealthy modesty in us.  After all, most of our days are peppered with humbling experiences, be they terrible priority scores on grant applications or repeated rejections from journals (I have heard this happens to scientists sometimes).  We're basically always being told how much we suck, not to mention that we're all probably harboring deep-seated insecurities from our childhoods when we had no friends and our moms forced us to go to the school dance.  Just, you know, hypothetically speaking.

My thesis advisor is very wise.  I took her advice and jumped right into that letter to FMC with a big old "I rock" (paraphrasing), and it totally worked because I got a phone interview, which I promptly bombed.  But baby steps, you know?


As an aside,  I'd like a bit of advice from those of you who are TT faculty:  How much detail do I need to go into in my letter with respect to my research plans?  Do they want to hear actual experiments, or just general issues I'm interested in, and techniques I plan on employing?


I admit it, I have been drunk before

I like to think of myself as a classy lady.  I say "please" and "thank you", I never show up to a party empty handed, and despite a penchant for shopping at Forever 21 (shut up.  Everything people like about my outfits is from there), I usually dress age-appropriately.  But what of the internet me? 

My mom (I know you are reading this, hi Mom!) recently reminded me that prospective employers would likely seek out absolutely everything they could about me via the magic of the internet.  Is this something that I should be worried about?  I'm not really sure.  There is, of course, my facebook page, which is set to the highest privacy settings, but like my mom so wisely pointed out, you never know when one of your facebook friends will betray you and your privacy settings.  If that happens, what would they see?  First, there's a video of me excelling at Wii Fit Hula Hoop.  I reached the Calorie Torcher level (have since graduated to Calorie Incinerator, FYI), and I'm fully dressed, so it's all fine, right?

Then there is the matter of the many pictures of me with a drink in my hand, probably the main concern for my mom.  Is it bad for your future employers to know you have a social life, or that you enjoy a cocktail now and then?  The reality is that there are two things that are highly likely to occur at parties, and those two things are drinking and picture taking.  It could even be argued that the more the former occurs, the more the latter does, too, and thus we've all got a million facebook pictures of us drinking.  We do, right?  Or is it just me?  Say it's not just me. 

If you google me, everything but maybe 2 links is science-related, which I feel is a very good rate.  I was once quoted (using my real name) by the New York Times in a piece about a non-sciency website with which I've been fairly active, and while the article doesn't directly link to my posts on that site, most people could probably figure it out.  My mom's primary worry with that one is my occasional use of profanity (and apparent fondness for fancy cocktails), but as far as I can tell, there are plenty of successful scientists with potty mouths out there. 

So the big question is, how much housecleaning do I need to do, here?  Do I need to make my internet presence spic-and-span?  Should my social life even be considered in evaluations of my professional potential?  I'd like to think that it shouldn't be--and if it is, I'd like to remind certain tenured professors about certain stories you've told me regarding you and certain other tenured professors on a certain night in Prague....


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.