The Plight of the Post-Doc


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....