The Plight of the Post-Doc


When life becomes an After-School Special

You know the scene.

It's The Big Game.  Our protagonist sits on the sidelines in street clothes, a deflated look on her face.  Though she trained all season with the team--countless times up and down the bleacher stairs, suicide drills until her thighs cried out in agony, and damn but all those practice penalty kicks/free throws/etc--she didn't make the cut for the championship this year.  Late in the final quarter or half or whatever, the game's tied.  Suddenly, the home team's star player is down!  Her ankle is twisted; there's no way she can keep playing. The coach turns to our protagonist.  "Hey!" he says, tossing her a spare jersey.  "You're in.  Go get changed."  A smile, followed by a look of intense determination appears on her face, and she dashes for the locker room.

Yesterday I got an email from my thesis advisor that read, "I'm meant to give a talk on Your Area of Research, Broadly Defined at upcoming Giant Meeting, but I've hurt my leg and can't travel.  Would you like to give it for me?" (I am not even kidding, she really hurt her leg.  It is too much!!!)  Naturally I replied, "YES! YES! YES!  Oh, and sorry about your leg!"  She promised to send me her PowerPoint, to which I could add some of my recent relevant data.

I am really excited about this, folks.  I feel like it's my Big Moment.  I checked out the meeting program, and I'll be following one of the country's absolute top people re: My Area of Research, Broadly Defined.  It's scary, but also an amazing chance for me to really strut my stuff and get my name out there.

And so, we all know what happens next, right?  Seconds are left on the clock. Without warning, our protagonist finds the ball in her hands/at her feet/against her field hockey stick, with no one between her and the basket/goal.  She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and just as the buzzer/whistle goes.....



"Use more hyphens" and other career panel advice

On Friday my institution hosted a "career panel" for post-docs.  Though it was mostly meant to be a chance for us to hear from people who'd decided not to stay in academia after getting their PhDs, I decided to go, figuring it would be mildly interesting at the very least, and monumentally life-changing at the very most.

The panel consisted of three biotech/pharma people, one publishing person, and one academia person (administration, not faculty).  They were asked to describe their journeys off the tenure-track track, discuss the current state of hiring at their company/institution, and describe desirable qualities in new hires.  In a surprising twist, all except the publishing person noted that having several first-author publications in top-tier journals was supremely important.  

And just as I was about to be all, tell me something I don't know, I did learn something I didn't know!  The publishing lady, after talking about how she entered publishing when she realized she hated bench work and how people who succeed in publishing have a keen eye for dangling prepositions and whatnot, said this:  "Something I've noticed is that people in this country often don't hyphenate when they should.  So...use more hyphens!"  As a long-standing proponent of the hyphen, I felt that this was advice I could really get behind.

Two out of the three biotech/pharma people were pretty depressing.  Neither one seemed to be all that enthusiastic about industry, and they each noted that hiring where they were had all but ground to a halt.  One did admit, though, that when her company does accept applications the initial CV screening is done by computer, meaning that if your CV doesn't contain exact word matches from the job ad, you're not getting through.  Crikey! 

The third industry person, however, was different.  Unlike the other two, he genuinely seemed to love his job and believe in his company.  He was cool, and spoke with the casual wisdom of someone who probably takes his kids fishing on the weekends, and also knows a lot about wine.  He qualified his earlier statement re: potential hires' publication records and said that while fancy papers were great, they were also looking for creative people, people who write well, people who have skills they didn't know they had.  His company has on staff a group of what they call "deep divers"--people whose job it is to immerse themselves in literature, attend meetings, and report back with all the cool stuff they learned and help everyone think about how to apply it to the company's work.  Sounds kind of fun, no?  

I looked at this guy's company's website, and they've won several "Best Places to Work" and "Most Innovative Companies" awards.  And, according to him, they're currently looking to fill 50 new spots for Ph.D-holders!  I'm not sure if I should just blab this company's name out loud, but if you're seriously considering an industry job, shoot me an email and I'll point you in the right direction.  

While it's nice to know that I was not completely turned off by the prospect, I'm not ready to start applying for "alternative careers" just yet.  Plus, I had a pretty great week in the academic world: got some new exciting data, started planning the class I'm going to help teach, met a faculty member who wants to collaborate, and convinced my boss to send me to two conferences this summer.  So for now, then, I'll be staying on the tenure-track track.


It's Brain Awareness Week, Everybody!

To celebrate the best week of the year, I made you, my lovely readers, this card:

For more official information on BAW, check out the Dana Foundation.  Yay brains!


Ph.Dishes - Slow-cooked short ribs with cheesy grits!

That mother nature, she's a tricky one, isn't she?  Why, just last weekend it was downright spring-like, and I was jogging over the Brooklyn Bridge without a care in the world.  Not a week later and it's cold and rainy again, and my calves are freaking KILLING me!!!  Sure it's a drag, but look on the bright side--it's still appropriate to eat rich, heavy food!  There will be plenty of time for grilled fish and whatnot in a month or two, promise.

A couple of weeks ago I made short ribs in the crock pot.  Short ribs, though neither particularly short nor rib-like (DISCUSS), are super cheap and totally delicious, but you really do have to slow-cook them, because they have lots of interwoven fatty bits that need to be rendered off.  If you don't have a crock pot you should go buy one immediately; it is an essential item.  They're like $30 at Target or wherever and they make the best food!  You know those annoying people who, when you compliment their food, are like "Oh, I just threw a bunch of stuff together"?  Crock pots let you be those people!  You are literally about to throw a bunch of stuff together, and it's going to be amazing.

Remember, this has to cook for 8-10 hours, so get it started in the morning, or at least by noon or 1pm.  It's a nice Sunday thing to do.

1.  Chop up some hardy vegetables.  I like to start with a classic mirepoix, which is my favorite way of saying onions, carrots, and celery.  You could also add a parsnip or some mushrooms, but stay away from things like zucchini and broccoli; they'll just disintegrate.  Throw them in the crock pot, toss with kosher salt, black pepper, and olive oil.  Lay a rosemary sprig on top if you have one.

Pretty, but not for long.

2.  Put some oil in a skillet, and turn the heat to high.  Salt and pepper the short ribs, and brown them on two sides.  You're not cooking the short ribs, just sealing in all the flavor!  Just a couple of minutes per side, so they look like this:

See?  Brown!

3.  Put the short ribs on top of the veggies in the crock pot.  Now here's the fun part!  Open up every cabinet in your kitchen, and add whatever flavorings strike your fancy.  At least one should be sort of juicy.  For example, I put in maybe half a large can of whole tomatoes (but I chopped the tomatoes a bit), and probably around a third of a cup of barbeque sauce (sweet style, like Jack Daniels, is best).  You should also add some sort of alcohol.  Red wine is very common, but we were out, so I used bourbon instead.  I found it to be a fine substitute.

4.  Cover the crock pot and turn it to low.  That's it!  You're done, you can go enjoy your day.  It's best if you leave the house because in a few hours it's going to start to smell amazing, and you're going to want to open the lid to get closer to the smells, and you're also going to want to poke and prod and stir, but you mustn't!!  Every time you open a cooking crock pot you need to add 20 min onto your cook time, so just leave it! 

5.  When at least 8 hours have gone by, cook up your grits according to the package directions, but cook them in milk instead of water.  When they're just about done, stir in some butter, and shred as much extra-sharp cheddar cheese (white) as you would like (you would like a lot) into the pot.  Salt and pepper, bien sur!

6.  Spoon the grits onto your plate, and top with the short ribs and veggies.  The veggies will be less identifiable as such, but they're in there, I swear!  The short ribs will have cooked way down, and should now be super tender and falling apart-like.

Yes, this.

7.  You've been waiting all day!  Dig in already!


Glamour Mag(ic)!

I hope you all enjoyed your soup!  I know I did.  There will be more Ph.Dishes (with pictures!) very soon--I've got to get in all my wintry meals before it's too warm for things like slow-cooked short ribs with cheesy grits!

For now, though, let's get back to some career issues, and by "issues" I mean "journal issues."  Glamour journals, to be specific--Science, Nature, Cell, etc.  You know!  They're kind of a big deal.  Having a Glamour Mag publication on your CV is often considered to be an indication of extreme hotness; your work is cutting edge, important, and interesting to pretty much everybody (HA)!  For a young investigator, it may play an important part in whether potential employers want to interview you, or in whether your Pathway to Independence grant gets funded (or, in my case, even scored).  

Biochem Belle has an open thread going right now that asks whether it's better, in general, to have one S/N/C paper or a couple of solid PNASes or JBCs.  Her commenters so far seem to be leaning toward the latter option, including one who's been reviewing many job applications.  If this is actually reflective of the attitudes of the science community as a whole, then I'd be very happy, because as Zen points out, some of us might never have a Glamour Mag paper.

Does this mean that I'm not doing hot science that's relevant and important to the world?  Of course not. Are all my publications in Neuroreport?  Not a one.  I'm just a little...niche-y, that's all.  I'm totally happy with my niche, and having projects that aren't part of my lab's primary grants has afforded me a level of independence that other trainees don't necessarily have.  The downside, though, is that I may have missed out on being on a higher-profile paper or two.  And until recently, I was comfortable with the trade-off.

Look, I know you won't believe me when I say this, but I never cared all that much about having a Glamour Mag paper.  As long as I've had the means to ask the questions I wanted to ask and got the work into solidly respected journals, I've been happy.  I've been asked to speak at conferences, won "Best Poster" and travel awards, got Ye Olde NRSA...the cap's got some feathers, you understand? 

But to continue the metaphor, my cap is missing that big shiny jewel (or really rare and exquisite feather) that is or isn't a must, depending on who you ask.  So I'm asking you:  in the current job market, is it even worth sending in applications without a Glamour pub? And if it's unlikely that S/N/C will be publishing a Dr Becca first author any time soon, what's a niche-y gal to do?