The Plight of the Post-Doc


Write place, wrong time*

Already posted this over on LabSpaces, but y'all seem to keep stopping by here, so I'll oblige!

Yesterday was my first day back to the gym after my vacation, aka Lobster Week (like Shark Week, but with eating them!), and boy did it bring the pain. Not just because my Ass & Abs class (yes, it is actually called that) teacher is completely evil--it was so crowded! We were packed in like sardines and I had to use the yucky weights that make your hands smell all metally. Blech. As I was wondering why the class had seemingly doubled in size since the last time I was there, it hit me--the undergrads were back.

Now, don't get me wrong--undergrads are adorable. I hope to teach them someday! But what what their return signifies, other than the end of summer and less room to bust out my moves in hip-hop dance class, is the loss of my favorite writing spot. I wrote two grants and one paper this summer, and I did my best work in the evenings from a bustling coffee shop near one of New York's fine institutions. In the summer it's by no means empty--in fact, it's the quick pace and energy that I think keeps me alert and engaged with what I'm doing. But during the school year this place is an absolute zoo. People in every nook and cranny, on each other's laps, garbage piling up...we're talking fire code violations, here. And as a wise poet once said, I can't go for that (no can do).

Everyone has different environments in which they like to write. Some need complete isolation and quiet, so they lock themselves in their offices with some food rations, a gallon of coffee, and a roll of duct tape (hey, you never know), emerging a week later with a full beard and polished manuscript. Others might see writing as an opportunity to stay at home and not get dressed. Liberating, isn't it?

Well. I don't have an office. I have a desk in one of those giant lab spaces (hey!!!) with bay after bay of bench-desk combos. And while I love all the camaraderie and whatnot that goes along with being able to talk to my lab mates even if they are 25 feet away, I cannot get any real writing done there. It is impossible, because there is just too much 
fun being hadinteractive science going on. I do sometimes work from home if I don't have anything I absolutely need to do in lab, but it's not always that productive--the cats are all over my papers, I get distracted by things that need cleaning, and I spend way too much time playing Are You Lunch?

I like coffee shops. I wrote my entire thesis in a coffee shop in my grad school town, and it was awesome. Every day for an entire month I did nothing but drink coffee, eat bagels and cookies (I have yet to meet the person whose thesis-writing experience was not a complete carb-fest), and write. When I go to a coffee shop to write, I am not distracted, because that's the coffee shop's sole purpose. Places like lab or my apartment have lots of other purposes, which makes it hard to focus. But when I'm in my favorite coffee shop, my brain is like, 
OK, this is why we're here, and I totally lock in.

Between job applications, another grant, and probably a paper revision (it's currently under review), I have lots of writing to do in the coming months. So I have to find a new favorite coffee shop, boo. You'd be surprised how hard it is in NYC to find the perfect combination of good coffee, free wi-fi, decent music, and ample tables for working, so if my readers have any suggestions, by all means hit those comments! In the meantime, I'm working from home today, and it's almost time for Are You Lunch?

*As you might imagine, I thought long and hard about which write/right pun I'd use for the title of this post. I could have gone with the obvious, "The Write Stuff," or "The Write Moves," or abandoned that and gone with a more highbrow reference to "A Room of One's Own." In the end, "Write place, wrong time" seemed to fit the best, as I'm discussing how it is the WRONG TIME of the year to WRITE in my favorite PLACE.


No crying in science, part 2

OK, so obviously there is a lot of crying in science. It's just that whenever I try to come up with a title for a blog post all I can think of are pop culture references, and with "crying" as a theme it's either Tom Hanks' famous line from A League of Their Own--which I've never actually seen, but which is a sort-of reference itself, I think (though calling Virginia Woolf "pop culture" may be ill-advised)--or The Crying Game,   so.

Where was I?

Oh yes, running out of my PI's office in tears. Now, there are some ladies out there who look really pretty when they're crying, like delicate, weeping flowers, but I am not one of those ladies. My eyes puff up like crazy and get thoroughly bloodshot--physiologic responses that take ages to restore themselves.  If I were a damsel in distress, the knights would probably run away in disgust.

While I was waiting for the transformation back to recognizable human to occur, I emailed my graduate advisor; I was still too embarrassed to tell Famous Dude.  I told her the long, sordid story, asking her advice on the whole situation.  It was a rare feeling for me, but at that moment, I just wanted someone to tell me what to do.

My grad advisor is amazing. She got back to me in 20 minutes with names of people she knew who she thought might be good for a short post-doc, and lots of words of encouragement. And not warm squishy "poor baby" encouragement--she knows better than that. She wrote, "Inhibit that stress response and think of all the opportunities that interest you. [Learning] a new method could lead more easily to a job! Let me know what happens--DO NOT GIVE UP!!"

That helped, because my initial instinct was to write to Famous Dude something along the lines of, "I'm soooooooo sorry, but we didn't get the grant. If you think there's any way you could consider the possibility of maybe having me in the lab anyway, I would be eternally grateful!"  Instead, I realized that I had to write to Famous Dude with confidence and with purpose, not humility and desperation.  I said (and I'm paraphrasing, here), look, bad news re: the Foundation.  But this is a good grant, and I think it could be re-purposed for this new R21 FOA I just read about.  I want to write this grant with you as a co-investigator--I think we'd have a very good chance of getting funded. What do you say?

Famous Dude is not sure if he can support me without the Foundation money, and seemed perplexed by the comments from the Foundation review.  One point of issue seemed to be that the Foundation wasn't clear on what Famous Dude's role was in all of this, and they were worried that I didn't necessarily have all the support I needed to carry out the studies I'd proposed.  After emailing back and forth over the course of an hour, we decided that it might be a good idea for Famous Dude to send the Foundation a letter to clarify his full support.

Within 15 minutes I was Bcc'd on this letter, and again, the floodgates opened wide.  This letter, from this man who owes me nothing, was incredible--four solid paragraphs on his commitment to the project, and, more notably, his dedication to my career development.  He called me "an outstanding young scientist" with whom he has "long been impressed," among other nice things.

Between this and my grad advisor's correspondance, I was completely overcome with emotion.  To know, at this time when I am feeling my absolute lowest, that there are people out there who firmly believe in me and are ready and willing to go to bat for me...well, it is more than I felt I deserved.

Unfortunately, Famous Dude's letter fell upon deaf ears. The Foundation sent a brief and dismissive reply, with no indication that resubmission might be possible.  Fuckers.

So, where are we now?

Best case scenario, Famous Dude does his fall budget and is able to find funds for me.  We apply for the R21, get it, and live happily ever after.  This won't be known for at least another month, though, and I can't just sit around making no other plans.  So in the meantime, I need to start looking for another lab for a (hopefully short) second post-doc.  There are several concerns I have about this:

1. I feel like from a career standpoint, if you're going to do a 2nd post-doc, there has to be a real point to it.  In other words, I think I should go somewhere I can learn a brand new technique.  However,

2.  I'm expensive.  I've now had over 5 years of post-doc experience.  Are people going to be willing to hire someone who's not only pricey, but needs to be trained as well? I'd imagine that if someone were going to shell out the dough for an experienced post-doc, they'd want that person because she would be bringing a well-honed skill set to the lab.

3.  I talked to one of our new faculty about possibly joining his lab.  He uses some very cool techniques that would be great for me to learn and his interests broadly overlap with mine, so it seems like a good fit.  He agreed, but he doesn't have enough money.  He also made the interesting point that if I plan on applying for funding, I shouldn't be with a new faculty member like him, I need to be with someone like Famous Dude.  Given how ecstatic my K99 reviewers were over my "Environment" (all 1s!), I think he's probably right.

I'd love all your thoughts and advice, here. I feel like I'm teetering on the edge of either doing something awesome or completely blowing it--like expat postdoc notes in the comments of the last post, I don't want to take any old shitty position.  However, I do need to pay my rent--as you might imagine, living in NY on a post-doc's salary does not allow one to save much of a cushion for times like these.

Finally, thanks again to everyone who commented and sent nice messages--on the blog, twitter, or via email--I'm so grateful to have such a caring and supportive group of readers!


There's no crying in science!!?? (part 1)

Like 28% of iPhone users, I popped on the interwebs before getting out of bed Thursday morning. I was greeted by an email from the Foundation telling me that they would not be funding my proposal.  The proposal that they asked me to write, and were very enthusiastic about in general.  The proposal that would allow me to work with Famous Dude, crank out a high profile paper or two, and score a sweet TT job in another year or so (that easy!!!!).  We really thought this grant was going to be funded.

Instead of a done deal, it's simply done--all of those hopes dashed by a reviewer who seemingly did not actually read the grant.  Yeah, I know everybody says that when they get their summary statements, but seriously--how else do you explain criticisms like "it is not clear to us how many animals will be studied and what is the number of rats per experiment," when the first line of each Aim's methods states, for example, "Sixty male Sprague Dawley rats will be used for this experiment?"

The rejection has a lot of ramifications that are really quite serious in the context of my very near and very distant future.  Not only does it mean that I most likely can't go work with Famous Dude, but it may mean that I will be unemployed in a few months. For the purposes of actually getting out of bed, though, I flicked the old denial switch to "on" and went about my usual morning activities: kitty medicine, Luna Bar, gym clothes, subway.

Once in lab, however, reality set in as I repeatedly fielded "how are you's" and "what's new's" from my lab mates (we are a friendly bunch!).  Unlike Famous Dude, I have a terrible poker face, so it wasn't long before I was reaching for the Kimwipes. Per usual, my lab peeps were super supportive and awesome and agreed that the reviewer comments were probably written by the Foundation CEO's pomeranian.

When I broke the news to PI, he was extremely surprised, but had few words of comfort.  He did, however, have many words of discomfort, most of which served to inform me that the grant I'm currently on would definitely run out sometime this fall. I listened to him, pressing firmly on the bridge of my nose, willing the tears back inside their ducts. It was of little use. When there was nothing else to say, I quickly thanked PI and ran out of his office before I completely lost it.

It is as if the floor has dropped out from under me. In 2-3 months I will lose my job, my health insurance, my productivity...all at a point in my career when I really need to be working.  It is terrifying.

There is more to this story, of the not-necessarily-solving-any-problems-but-uplifting-nonetheless variety. But this is quite long already, so I'll leave it there, for now...


I AM the 3rd reviewer!

I remember being a first-year grad student, sitting and having beers with some other first-year grad students and one of the "cool" PIs. We were talking about papers, and how much we thought some of them sucked.  Cool PI smiled, and told us that she, too, had been ready to tear pretty much everything to shreds when she was a grad student and post-doc, but that as she grew older and wiser, she became more thoughtful, less quick to judge.  Naturally, we were all quite surprised to hear this--we all expected to do more tearing things to shreds!

Since beginning my post-doc, I get reviewer requests maybe 2 times a year, which is just infrequently enough for me to be sort of flattered and happy about doing it.  Cool PI's advice has really stuck with me, and I always try to be balanced in my comments, thinking carefully about the paper and finding something nice to say before considerately listing my concerns.

Sometimes, though?  I can't help it.  The paper is such absolute shit that the 3rd reviewer** in me starts begging to be let out, and I give in just a teensy bit.  In the actual review I remain, to the best of my abilities, a paragon of equanimity and tact.  In my head, however, it sounds more like this:

To the editors:

It is beyond comprehension how we live in a world in which the final author of this manuscript has an independently funded lab and I don't.  The experiments contained herein--if one could even call them experiments--are poorly defined, uncontrolled, and lack any basis in the existing literature.  To say that the methods are incomplete would be to expand the definition of "incomplete" beyond any semblance of its original meaning.  What's that?  OK fair enough, that last bit makes little sense.

The authors neglect to note the way in which their animals were sacrificed, yet it must be presumed that the animals were, indeed, sacrificed, as analysis of "the cortex" is claimed to have been done.  Pray tell, would it have been too much to report which region(s) of the cortex were analyzed?  It's just that I'm so curious!  Of course, "analyzed" may be overstating the case, as no actual measurements or calculations were done--it is simply stated that the two experimental groups look different.

In sum, to allow this manuscript to progress even one step toward publication would be an insult to all that ever was or henceforth will be considered "science."

Respectfully yours,
Dr Becca

** In case you missed it, the "3rd reviewer" refers to to one of many Downfall parodies, particularly one in which the subtitles are altered to suggest that Hitler is a PI receiving reviews of his recently submitted manuscript.  He is informed that the first two reviewers had generally favorable comments, but that a 3rd reviewer was, shall we say, considerably more harsh.  Hitler is not pleased, and utters the now-infamous catchphrase, "F%*$ REVIEWER 3!!!!!"  Naturally, this being a parody, it is also exactly how things happen in real life, too.

The 3rd Reviewer is also now a real website, where anyone can comment anonymously on recent high-profile neuroscience and microbiology publications.  Fun!