The sippy cup is half full – a story of having kids in Academia

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Both parents in our household are academics (The Two Body Problem Awesomeness). We knew we wanted a family and I knew I didn’t want to put it off forever. We picked a biological time instead of a career time to try – and we were lucky to have no fertility issues. We had both just secured postdocs at the same institution when we discovered I was pregnant. I defended my dissertation in the first trimester, my husband defended his in the second, and then we moved across the country to start postdocs on the cusp of the third. We had a second child less than two years after our first (while still postdocs). I applied for, interviewed (while pregnant with #2) and secured a tenure track position during my first application cycle, and we negotiated a soft money position for my husband. We were able to defer for one year so I could take maternity leave and we could (try) to wrap up our postdoctoral work.

Planning and some luck are responsible for the fact that we are both still academics. My post doc advisor was so, so, so, so supportive of me. He put no pressure or guilt on me from day one, and his entire lab is family friendly. Having a kid is hard enough, I can’t imagine adding boss guilt to the list. I will always be grateful for this fact and hope to emulate it in my own lab. I also applied for and received a fellowship that allowed me to work at my own pace and on my own project for the last two years of my postdoc. This was huge for my career. My husband’s advisor was similarly supportive. Without the understanding and flexibility of our mentors, I’m not sure we could have made it this far.

Personally, I say I “crash landed” into parenthood. It wasn’t pretty. I had never been around kids. We had a serious health scare. I had the Baby Blues and a short period of post-partum depression. Breastfeeding—not easy under the best circumstances—was much, much harder than I thought it would be (physically and mentally). Pumping at work is the second worst part of parenthood (in my opinion). The first worst part is sleep deprivation. That shit is real. It’s a torture mechanism for a reason. At the start, some babies need to be fed every hour. Go ahead and set your alarm for every hour of the night, stay up for half an hour then repeat. Your next day is not going to be great. Then repeat that for a couple of months and the fact is, your work productivity is going to take a hit. It just is. Plan for it as best you can, don’t beat yourself up for the biological realities, sleep if you need to and rest assured, it will pass.

It took a long time for my fully functional science brain to return to my head. I doubt I worked “full time” for many months after having kids – having children alters every aspect of your life and it’s reasonable to expect that it’ll take a little while, or maybe a long while, to adjust.

All that said – kids are amazing! Now that they are 2 and 4, I am more efficient, happier and (at this point) more productive as a scientist than I was before. Kids give my work brain a break (and work gives my kid brain a break!). I love playing with them. I love reading to them. I love weekends and I love having a very full life. I just traveled to NYC to give a talk and I loved being able to take a short awesome trip and I loved buying two dinosaur toys to spoil them when I got home. I love my life and although I wouldn’t choose to go back to the hardest parts of the last four years, I would never ever change that decision.

I don’t really know what useful advice I have for the young-uns out there. We’ve been lucky and privileged in a lot of ways and it’s not exactly helpful to say “Just be lucky!” We wanted children so we had children. And it’s worked out pretty ok (so far, knock on wood). I guess knowing my priorities helped me a lot. I’m very lucky. I’m very happy. I work my butt off at work and at home and go to bed exhausted every day – and I love it. Good luck to all (and please feel free to post questions here or on twitter @sarahmhird and @NM_Reid)

Noah’s notes on…

  • …mentor support: Both of our postdoctoral mentors were incredibly supportive. That said, the system is unfair to everyone in this circumstance. On average, people starting families are going to experience a productivity hit, particularly women. And PIs on the grants supporting them are likely to feel that. If we want science to be more diverse, PhD students and postdocs can’t just rely on the magnanimity of tenured professors to start their families, we need a system that renders that magnanimity unnecessary.
  • …institutional support: The University of California postdoc union has negotiated decent healthcare and benefits. The first two trimesters of the first pregnancy at our PhD institution cost us dramatically more money than the third trimester, birth and the whole second pregnancy combined at UC Davis. However, technically mothers only get 6-8 weeks “paid” maternity leave (paid by disability insurance! pregnancy as disability, how wonderful!). That is absurdly short. There is amazing variance in needs of infants, and each of our kids completely destroyed our ability sleep out to at least six months before gradually getting better.
  • …the nature of the postdoc: We both did work that allowed flexible hours and did not require extended time at distant field sites or 12 hour stints in the lab. I walked into a postdoc where the initial stages of the project were already underway. I had clear goals for skills I wanted to develop and the project had low technical risk. When your life is about to be upended by children, managing uncertainty is key.
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Reality check: Applying for the Dream Job : Part 2

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PART II

Dear reader,

Thanks for continuing on from Part I. Here, I add a human component to Part I, reacting to the criticisms, advice, and to-do list for my career by actually considering that I have growing family, a desire for work-life balance, and  goals in life additional to being a tenure track faculty.

The crux of Part I was that I need to publish more, apply broadly, jump start my career, and move around a lot to land that perfect (or at least good enough) tenure track job. Let’s unpack the implications of this from a more holistic point of view than I had in Part I.

  1. I’m not complaining nor am I surprised by the prescriptions. I had a good sense for all these challenges when I started graduate school and that sense was strengthened when I took the postdoc. Publish or perish is not a new revelation, and the peripatetic postdoc life is well known. The rules have always been clear (mostly, see below), and I’ve intuited the holes in my CV for some time now.
  2. However, I do take umbrage at the implication that, to succeed in academia in the future, the majority of us will have to take a post-postdoc, assistant professorship as a stepping stone. The argument goes, that there are so many people on the market now, to be competitive, you have to have run a lab already. In other words, we’re in danger of another level being added to the process. Postdocs used to be quite rare—they were fellowships that exceptional people took before becoming faculty (I think E.O. Wilson is a good example). But now the postdoc is a standard step in the pyramid process. Is the post-postdoc about to become normalized too? Perhaps, and maybe 20 years from now, it’ll be expected. But I am disheartened by the idea of having to take a sub-optimal (for me!) faculty job to eventually land in a better (for me!) faculty position. **
  3. At some stage, how much can one move? How many postdocs does one accept? Moreover, I have a spouse, and have already moved them for my work once. How many times can I ask them to move to a new place, make new friends, find new jobs? And my family is growing. How many times can I move my kids, especially as they approach those challenging middle school years during the post-postdoc I’m now supposed to be considering to jump start my career?
  4. Finally, I am trying to optimize more than just my faculty job aspirations. I want to move to a place where my spouse can find good work, where we can build a good community, where my kids can go to good schools, and where we don’t have to spend more than half of our income on housing and school. I want a broader quality of life to go along with that tenure track job (which brings some good quality, I agree). Am I willing to hang on for a post-postdoc and spend 3-6 years in a sub-optimal place (again, per my specific parameters) in the hopes of perhaps getting a better faculty position perhaps in a better place?

If you’re paying attention to tone, you’ll have intuited by now that the answer is bordering on no. I’m not really willing to apply broadly and move a lot to land that final job. Publishing more is the only thing that I will reasonably do to make myself more competitive. So, I will do that, and keep applying. Frankly, I am not confident that anything will come of it. My postdoc has gone on too long already and extending it another year won’t really patch the holes in my CV. So, I may be coming to the end of the line.

At some level, dear reader, you’re thinking to yourself: “Sounds about right. Objectively, you’re not good enough. You haven’t published enough, and you aren’t willing to move enough or sacrifice enough to become a tenured faculty at your dream school. There’s no judgement in that statement. It’s just how the game is played, and the game demands more.”

To which I say—fair. I’ve suspected this for some time. I decided long ago that I am going stay in the game, while playing it at the level of work-life balance that I am happy with, until the game tells me it’s time to get out. I’ve done that, and now—empirically, i.e., no interviews—my playtime seems to be coming to an end. So, I’ll pack up my good memories, friendships with great people, and large set of transferable skills and take my PhD out into the real world. I’ll have some sadness in doing that, but no sense of failure (a topic for whole other set of blog posts) and no regrets.

 

** PS. I wrote this piece and then let it sit for a while. In the intervening time between when I wrote it and when it was published, I talked to a number of folks and realized that perhaps the post-post-doc, temporary assistant professorship isn’t really all that new. Lots of people move around at the pre-tenure stage apparently, so it seems that this is an obscure rule I just didn’t know about. I still take umbrage, but my surprise is lessened. Now you know too.

Reality check: Applying for the Dream Job: Part 1

antlion

This post is from a good friend of mine. They are on the job market and I asked them to write what it’s like to currently be on the market. The answer is: bleak. So they agreed to write an anonymous post describing their experience and offering advice to those of us currently out there pursuing the dream tenure-tracked job:  

Dear reader,

I imagine you’re a graduate student or a postdoc aiming for a tenure-track academic job. Here, I present a case study of that endeavor, from my own experience on the job market. I present it anonymously because that feels like the best approach. I want to offer general advice, not just draw focus to my specific situation. Names spark a search for idiosyncracies and contingencies, whereas I hope you are able to see some generality and applicability to your own path. In that way, perhaps you can glean some wisdom from this, even if I’m not sure what it is.

I’m going to do this in two parts. In Part I, I will describe my situation, factually, from the point of view of someone whose sole goal is to get a tenure track job. Who am I? What have I done? Why haven’t I succeeded yet? What do I need to do to succeed?

In Part II (next week), I will consider my situation as a human being, discussing family goals, work-life balance goals, and non-academic desires and ambitions.

None of these are ground shaking revelations, and I don’t know if I have any answers, but it never hurts to have one more case study out there in the ether. If this helps one person better understand their career and life, then I’ve succeeded.

PART I

My academic history

  • Field: evolution, ecology, genetics
  • Current employment: Post-doc since early 2013
  • Publications: >20 total, 2 first author glossy papers (e.g., Nature, Science, PNAS etc.), 1 first author high-impact review paper (e.g., TREE, AREES, etc.), several first author field specific papers (e.g. Ecology, Evolution, etc.), several papers with undergraduate advisees as first authors. My H-index is between 6 and 10.
  • Grants: NSF GRFP, NSF DDIG, co-author of a full NSF grant during my postdoc.
  • Teaching: Instructor of record during my postdoc, plenty of TAing in graduate school
  • Future projects: Solid (admittedly not spectacular) project ideas in model eco-evo-gen systems with strong potential for grant funding, student involvement, and new research trajectories
  • Toolkits: Ecological genomics, field work, lab work, organismal biology, museum experience, multivariate multi-level statistical expertise, outreach
  • Pedigree: Top 10 EEB program for undergrad, graduate school, and postdoc, with nationally recognized letter writers. Pedigree shouldn’t matter in an ideal world, but to the extent that it does in reality, mine is objectively excellent.

Application History

I got my PhD in early 2013, and a I published 1st author glossy paper from my graduate work in time for the 2014 job season. Since then, I’ve applied to ~ 7 jobs per season at a mix of R1s and SLACs, for a total of 26 applications. Overall, I’ve gotten zero interviews (phone, skype, or in person), hearing only that I made one long-short list (though I wouldn’t necessarily have heard about others, depending on grapevines at each school).

Real talk

I’ve had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about my job search, and I’ve come to a stark realization, which my graduate advisor put most bluntly: “My CV is not as strong as I think it is”. That is, I’ve never really been competitive enough at any one time during my postdoc to land a choice tenure track job. Here’s why.

  • Early in my postdoc, I didn’t have my graduate work published.
  • In the middle of my postdoc, I didn’t have enough first-author postdoc papers, and my graduate papers, including that glossy, were getting old.
  • By year 5 in my postdoc, I finally had that 1st author, glossy postdoc paper, but too little too late.
  • During my entire career, I haven’t done enough to distinguish myself from my advisors.
    1. My graduate system was too similar to my advisor’s: I’ve actually had people confuse my work for theirs.
    2. My postdoc position was initially a hired position on a pre-existing grant, rather than a system I developed and funded.
    3. It is unclear how much of the second grant that I did co-author during my postdoc are my ideas versus my postdoc advisor’s, as the work is an extension of our previous work together.
    4. I may have a massively multivariate dataset from my postdoc that will churn out papers for years, but my publication record hasn’t proved that I can write those papers on my own.
  • Though the strong letters from my advisors address these concerns and promote my intangibles and other skills, the letters will not stand out because every advisor writes a glowing letter for their student.

In short, I’ve gotten stale, and I don’t have enough publications or independence to compete with the younger postdocs who have their own system and a higher rate of publication. My graduate advisor, at least, was thus not completely surprised that I haven’t gotten any interviews.

What have I done wrong and what do I need to do?

  • Publish or perish: I haven’t published enough. This is clear and not surprising. My h-index is decent and growing, but currently not competitive. More importantly, perhaps, my rate of publication is too low, despite the high profile, complex papers and datasets I have produced. Before the 2018 job season, I need to get two or three more 1st author manuscripts at least in review.
  • Numbers game: I haven’t applied broadly enough. Successful tenure-track job procurement requires an appreciable amount of luck (as discussed by Jeremy Yoder). Even with a strong CV and research program, many other factors need to line up just right to get an interview: who is on the committee, what are the final parameters of the job search, who is in the applicant pool, how many are in the applicant pool, what are the diversity goals, etc. Thus, one has to apply very broadly to increase the chances of success during a low probability process. Again, perhaps not surprising, and I need to be applying to 40 jobs per year, not 7.
  • Jump start: I took too long to get papers out as a postdoc. My main projects had long gestation times—2.5 to 3 years of data collection, plus a year in review for my big paper. I should have focused on taking other datasets to publication in the meantime, but did not. Thus, for a 5-year postdoc, I haven’t produced enough. One bit of advice I received recently was to take any sub-optimal (per my parameters) tenure track job and use that to jump-start my career (see point 2: Numbers Game and applying broadly). In that way, my productivity clock could restart, and if I was productive during the 3-4 years of being an assistant professor, then I’d be competitive again for my preferred jobs.
  • Move around: The jump-start, sub-optimal assistant professorship would make me competitive enough to land the choice faculty job at the close-to-perfect university for me. Apparently, plenty of people move several years into a professorship, as they are way more competitive than any postdoc who will not have shown yet that they can successfully run a lab. Maybe instead of looking for the “right” position, I need to look for the “right now” position, without the intention to stay where I land forever.

Conclusion

To paraphrase Cersei Lannister, in the game of academia, you publish early, apply broadly, jump-start your productivity clock if you need to, and move around a lot, or you die.

In Part II, I consider the implications of these rules for me.

 

How the first trees grew so tall with hollow cores

Imagine a world without trees, and then try to think about the changes that would need to happen for these trees to evolve from the small primitive plants that came before them.

When paleobotanist think about this possibility, it usually results in a really weird looking fossil (paleontologists spend a lot of time thinking about fossils…). It has a tapering truck, at least up to eight meters high, with distinctive short branches attached around the top to form a crown. From a distance, the trees would have looked like palms, with bases up to a meter in diameter. There were no leaves as such, just branched twig-like appendages which presumably had a photosynthetic function in the carbon dioxide rich atmosphere.

Most trees today have a solid trunk, which gets bigger through the formation of a new ring of woody tissues – made up of xylem cells – under the bark each year.

However, this primitive older tree, cladoxylopsids, the xylem grew in a ring of individual parallel strands around the outside of the trunk. Inside this zone, more xylem strands formed a complex network with many interconnections both to each other and to the outer parallel strands. The majority of the inside of the trunk was completely hollow.

But if they are hollow, then how did they grow so big? Read more here!

Breeding a better bee

One problem with honey bees is that we move them around so much. Specifically half of the bees in the US go to California during a critical 22 day period to pollinate the almond orchards.

This means that most bees are best adapted to survive in the California, which means that the PNW bees don’t really thrive in their colder than optimal environment.

Well one bee keeper is taking it upon himself to stop honey production and focus on making queens that are best suited for the Washington and PNW environment! Read about it here.

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The field of human evolution is crazy right now

I’ve been avoiding posting about this for weeks. Every time I go to write a post, I find a new article explaining how everything we know might actually be wrong.

Which is an alarming pace for any field to be moving, but in a field with such a paucity of resources, it’s nothing short of awesome.

Want to know what’s currently being shaken up in the field of human evolution?

Read about it here!

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