The Plight of the Post-Doc


Can't read my- can't read my- no, I can't read my PI's poker face

In case you've not yet made the switch over to Lab Spaces, here's what I wrote earlier today:

If this post's title has you all "Wha?", have a listen here. Yeah, I'm referencing Lady Gaga, you want to make something of it?

Famous Collaborator Dude/probable future PI (if you've been following along on blogspot) is awesome. He's totally brilliant, and has been incredibly generous with his lab resources and time. He's also really good at emailing me back immediately when I have a question, which is nice, although sometimes he gets back to me so fast (and so without punctuation and capital letters) I wonder if he actually read the thing that I sent to him for comments?

There is one thing, though--I can't read him! 

Normally, picking up on social cues is my forté-- in person and even in writing--and it's gotten me far. And by "far" I mean "free stuff," sometimes. I didn't realize how much I rely on it to guide my interpersonal behavior, though, until I met him. He's impenetrable! And it's making me feel like I'm freaking Rainman or something. Not a good feeling.

I think I'm finding all of this especially unnerving because I'm the new kid, you know? I want to join his lab for real, and so I want to make him happy and do good work to prove my worth. But I can't tell if I'm making him happy! I just finished a manuscript on which he's last author, and he had almost no comments. Is this good or bad? I don't know!!! Some of you are PIs, right? Would you allow one of your trainees to submit a paper with your name on it that you weren't thoroughly pleased with?

I can sense that my thoughts are devolving into those of a neurotic teenager who isn't sure if the guy who sits behind her in geometry is into her. I feel it's only appropriate, then, that I send Famous Collaborator Dude this note:


Contest time!

My parents are the ultimate science/art yin and yang--Mom's a crazy smart biomed researcher, while Dad could probably recite the entire Pantone catalogue. You'd think, then, that their offspring would have been these well-rounded überkind, Renaissance Children destined for world domination. Instead, they got one of each of themselves--my sister: arty, musically inclined, naturally perfect pitch, handy with a paintbrush--and me: nerdy, science-leaning, on the math team. I can't carry a tune, nor could I re-create the simplest of drawings. But why am I telling you all of this?

It's because I need your help.

While I'm totally loving my new digs over at LabSpaces, I'm looking around my blog page and, well, the walls are a little bare. When I was setting things up I noticed that I could upload a banner, and I'd be lying if I told you I immediately knew what that meant. But now that I 
do know what a banner is, I totally want one! I feel like it could really tie the room together.

And here's where you come in! If you design a banner for me, I will love you forever. Just follow these simple rules:

2. Must say "Fumbling towards tenure track" somewhere.
3. Must look good next to my Dumbo bum avatar.
4. Must be 620px x 100 px (or thereabouts)
5. Must be emailed to [at] gmail by noon (EST) Friday, July 30.

Presuming I get more than one entry, I will pick a winner! The winning banner will become my actual banner (I may even put it up here, too), and "Banner designed by [your name or pseudonym here]" will be displayed prominently on my main blog page. Fame 
and fortune will be yours!

Thank you thank you thank you in advance, talented arty readers!


My new home away from home

Hey, if an electron can be in two places at once, why can't I?  (don't answer that)

I'm happy to announce that I've just joined the gang at LabSpaces, an awesome website full of sciency news, helpful protocols, and sweet, sweet blogging. They've got a quickly growing and diverse community of writers, including biotech badass Jade Ed, hilarious cartoonist Angry Scientist, and two of my long-time favorite gals, Biochem Belle and Disgruntled Julie.

Now, fret not--I know with all the hulabaloo over at ScienceBlogs lately your Google Reader (or RSS feed manager of choice) has been taken for quite a spin, but I have no intention of abandoning my happy blogspot home.  It's just that now I've got a...pied-à-terre of sorts.


PS- for those of you who are relatively new to OtM: FTTT, you may want to check out my first post over at LabSpaces, which provides a handy Dr Becca refresher course.


What we can all learn from Inception

If you felt like going to the movies in my grad school town, you just, you know, went to the movies.  You met up with your friends maybe 15-20 min before showtime, bought tickets, got seats. Normal, right?  This is not the case in New York.  At least, this is not the case in New York if you want to see anything even remotely new, popular, critically acclaimed, artsy, or in IMAX--if Knight and Day is at the top of your queue, by all means, live in the moment.  

Not only are most movies worth seeing sold out hours before showtime here, but people line up crazy early to get the best seats.  Like, 90 minutes early.  For a city whose residents always seem to have somewhere to go and something to do, New Yorkers love waiting in line.  We wait in line for cupcakes, to get into Trader Joe's, and of course, for Apple products.  The immense planning and standing around (not to mention pre-order ticket surcharges) required to enjoy a night at the movies means that J and I only head to the cinema when it's something we really feel like we need to see on the big screen, which means that we pretty much only see things in IMAX.  Go big or go home, amirite?

This weekend we capped off a lovely day of water-based activities with the 1 am showing of Inception at the Lincoln Center IMAX.  

It.  Was.  AWESOME.  

I want to marry this movie.  It's beautifully shot, clever but not overly smug, impeccably edited, and has a well-thought out internal logic that's surprisingly followable and mostly consistent.  The themes, too, go well beyond the whole Matrix-y what-is-"real"-reality business, and I thought there were some pretty good messages that basically anyone could take home and apply to their own lives.

One of the big ideas in Inception is that of not letting your past decisions haunt you--actively choosing not to be crippled by regret.  It's what LDC's character has to do in order to Get the Job Done, and as a reminder, Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien" wafts in throughout the movie, penetrating each dreamer's consciousness, signaling an imminent return to wakefulness.    

I'm currently writing up a project I did over the last year or so, and I'm realizing I could have done it better.  Not that what I did isn't scientifically sound, but if I'd made some different decisions--say, collected blood from my animals, or used a different method of euthanasia, I could be asking a lot more interesting and revealing questions.  At this point in the game, every publication I put out is important, and I feel like I didn't really maximize this one's potential.  

And no, I can't do it again.  I've got neither the time nor the money (nor, to quote Nicholson, the inclination) to re-do everything.  What I can do is make the most of the data I do have, find the most appropriate journal for it, and allow all those "if I'd only"'s not to get me down, but to fuel my future work.  

Like Leo, I have a Job to Get Done.  You probably do too!  And like Leo, we have all probably made some decisions we wish we hadn't.  The key to success, just as Leo learned, is to face those decisions head on, acknowledge them, but refuse to let them own us.  OK?  It's settled, then.  Can we pinky swear on this?


PS- Candid Engineer also has a similarly-themed post up now.  Go read, if you haven't already (though you probably have)!


Is "post-doc" passé?

In Spanish and French (and probably some other languages too), you introduce yourself by saying "me llamo __" or "je m'appelle __," both of which literally translate to "I call myself __."  I like this, for unlike the passive English "my name that someone else chose for me is," it suggests that you have at least some active role in defining yourself.  Here in America, alas, I don't get much chance to exercise the old français, but I do find that it's often necessary to define myself.  And it's not easy!

The post-doc is without question the most amorphous and uncertain of stages in an academic's Life Journey (not to mention the most hair-graying, ulcer-forming, and soul-crushing). And with the past decade's advent of even more nebulous terms like "super post-doc," it's more than likely that we struggle with identity issues--especially when faced with the task of defining ourselves, particularly to non-academics.  

You grad students and professors have it easy--people have ideas, however misguided, about what it means to be one of those.  But how do post-docs tell people who they are?  You know, like at parties with people who aren't in science?  A fellow blogger recently argued that the term "post-doc" is dead--it's lost what little cachet it might once have had, and is meaningless to those outside of academia, anyway.  He opts instead for "short term contract researcher," an expression that sounds to me like the kind of thing you should say if you didn't want to talk to the person anymore.  Whoops!  Looks like I need another drink / have to find the restroom / remembered I left the stove on! The other thing I don't like about it is that it doesn't convey the fact that you have a schmancy degree!  I mean, come on--I once had to fix my Old Navy sandals with a stapler, at least let me impress you with how educated I am!

No but seriously, fair enough--all the term "post-doc" really does say about you is that you should be addressed as "Dr" (something on which you should insist whenever appropriate!). When someone asks me what I do, I tell them that I am a scientist, and smile to indicate that I know how goofy that sounds.  They like that, because "scientist" is one of those jobs that might have been in your when-I-grow-up list when you're five--you know:  1) astronaut; 2) firefighter; 3) artist; 4) vet; 5) scientist**.  Only the most hardened of souls isn't at least somewhat intrigued by someone who describes herself as a scientist, and then they get to ask you the right questions to help paint a clearer picture of what you mean, rather than you launching into a jargony mish-mash about your PI or whatever.  

In the end, I think what's important when we step outside the Ivory Tower isn't necessarily what we call ourselves, but that the words we choose foster, rather than quash, conversation.  Scientists have a notorious reputation for not being able to communicate well to the public.  If we want that reputation to change, we should at the very least find a way to define ourselves, even when that definition is in constant flux.
** My parents are in possession of paper proof that as a 4-year old I told my nursery school teacher that when I grew up I wanted to "play in institutions."  I have no idea how I'd even have known what an institution was at that age, but I mean, way to follow my dreams, right?


Standards Deviation

Growing up, there were a finite number of video tapes in our house. We didn't even have all that many, but it's like at a certain point we just stopped buying them, or bothering to record free HBO weekends. What this meant, then, is that my sister and I had seen everything we owned literally dozens of times, and could (and probably still can) quote most of them from start to finish. The brain's capacity for dialogue (and song lyrics!) is truly staggering, isn't it?

One of our favorites was the 1992 Cameron Crowe classic Singles, which while on the surface may seem to be your run-of-the-mill ensemble cast non-story about a bunch of 20-somethings looking for love in grunge-era Seattle, I'd argue that the film is notable not only for cameo appearances by some of the period's most influential figures--Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, and Tim Burton, to name but a few--but also for its genuine insight into the way people value themselves, and how that translates in their day-to-day interactions.

The movie is also eminently quotable, and one that has really resonated with me through the last 18 years (ZOMG) is a scene in which Campbell Scott asks Bridget Fonda what it is women really want from a guy. She replies:

Well, when I first moved out here, I wanted a guy with looks, security, caring...someone with their own place, someone who said "bless you" or "gesundheit" when I sneezed...someone who liked the same things as me, but not exactly...and someone who loves me.

He's all "Wow, that's a lot!" and she's all "Yeah, I've scaled back a little," and he's like, "So what's the list now?" and the answer:

Someone who says "gesundheit."

I feel like I've had pretty much the exact same conversation with myself over the last year or two, but regarding my job, not men (in that arena, as you might imagine, I have unwaveringly maintained the highest of standards). If you'd asked me a couple of years ago where I wanted to be in five years, I'd probably have said something like, "Well, I'd like a job in academia. Ideally, I'll be tenure track faculty somewhere, either at an R1 university or a prestigious liberal arts college. Either way, the students will be super smart. And it'll be in or near a really cool city, hopefully in the Northeast. And I'll be doing some teaching, but not too much teaching, and I'll have a perfectly small-to-medium-sized lab where we take an interdisciplinary and elegant approach to answering timely and clinically relevant questions. Etc!"

But had you asked me again, say, 6 months ago, my answer would have been more like, "Well, I'd like a job."  The unscored K99 made me seriously re-evaluate my place in the TT applicant pool, and like Bridget Fonda, I lowered my standards.  I applied EVERYWHERE, including many places that didn't at all fit my dream job description, and even started browsing job ads for non-academic positions.  Now, there are of course good reasons for doing this anyway, like experience and leverage and maybe-I'll-be-surprised-by-how-much-I-like-southwestern-Idaho, but if I'm being honest, it was at least in part out of feelings of desperation.

I HATE feelings of desperation!

Well, there's nothing like a couple of good meetings to show feelings of desperation the door, and I came back from two last month thinking to myself, Did I actually allow myself to entertain the possibility of a job in publishing?  We can DO this! (that's the royal "we," which I've found is also quite useful re: self-esteem.)

More concretely, I've been invited to apply for a grant from a Private Foundation, which would fund two years of work with Famous Dude.  I wrote the proposal, and it pleased Famous Dude.  Things are moving along.  I'm not letting myself get too excited, but I like to think of things as "definitely not not happening." If it all works out, my stock should rise significantly. And in anticipation, my standards have begun to creep up as well.