A new series! Scientist in Industry

Last year, NiB ran a series called “When I Grow Up”, providing insight on various stages of the academic career ladder (undergrad, MS, PhD, Postdocfinding a faculty job, having kidsthe early years).

This year, to compliment that, I’m running a series about leaving the academic ladder and going into industry. I’ve been pretty openly talking about the research showing that there are very few jobs in academia, and more importantly, that those jobs may not be the jobs we want.

So in this space every Tuesday, we’re going to hear about other professional possibilities, what it’s like out there, how researchers decided to leave the ivory tower, and what the other side looks like.

Stay tuned.

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Sundays at the Altar of Science

I hate the title of this article. I really do. Science is not a religion, as it does not necessitate a leap of faith, and is based in empirical evidence.

But, it is an interesting article over at the New York times about how they found science and how that changed their views on the world.

Worth reading here!

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Surviving the pre-tenure years

Following up from yesterday’s post, here’s another When I Grow Up about surviving professorship. This week Joel McGlothlin talks about advice for new professors, and the pre-tenure stresses. Joel is an awesome evolutionary biologist who is currently at Virginia Tech. Also, he’s looking for graduate students

Back when I was a postdoc looking for a tenure-track job, sometimes I thought the search would never end. I had the disadvantage of being on the job market during the Great Recession. I submitted my first job application two days after the stock market collapsed in 2008, and it took me four years and 139 more applications to finally get job offers. Once I had secured a position, I felt like the hard part was over. After all, I had been a postdoc for five years, and had worked in a lab in some capacity for thirteen. I had done plenty of research, had written plenty of papers and grants, and had even taught a few lectures. I should be ready for this, right?

Now I have been an assistant professor for five years, and a few weeks ago, I turned in the final version of my tenure dossier. This document serves both as an excruciatingly detailed summary of everything I have done in my academic career and as yet another job application. This time, if the college tenure committee (and eventually higher levels of the university administration) reviews my application favorably, I get to keep my job. If they don’t…well, then I had better get busy submitting even more job applications.

Putting the dossier together forced me to reflect on my time as an assistant professor. The job has been extremely rewarding, but it has also been challenging in ways that I couldn’t have predicted five years ago. Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot from the experience. Below, I share a few of the lessons I’ve learned, which I hope will be helpful to others who find themselves in my position.

Lesson 1: There is no time

The biggest change a new assistant professor faces is the sheer number of things that are supposed to get done at any given time. As a postdoc, I didn’t keep a calendar, because I knew that I had one thing to do every day: get my research done. A faculty member’s time is split among research, teaching, and service (the percentages will vary depending on your institution). All of these categories hide a multitude of tasks and responsibilities. For example, research no longer means just doing your experiments and writing papers. On top of this, you need to get grants to keep the lab funded, purchase all the things the lab needs, keep the lab in compliance, and advise your students in their own research. With all of these other things to do, it often seems like there’s no time to do experiments and write papers anymore.

The first year was particularly hard for me. When I showed up, the lab was empty and I had to order everything it would take to get research cranking, from beakers to thermocyclers to computers. At the same time, I also had to teach my first lecture course. My department gives first-year faculty an extra semester off from teaching, but I elected to teach in the first semester while I waited for the completion of some animal space renovations, with the rationale that I should be able to get the lab set up and teach in the same semester. However, I severely underestimated the amount of time it would take to prepare to teach a course for the first time. By the end of the semester, I found that teaching your first class takes precisely all the time available. I managed to survive the class, but by December, most of the stuff in the lab was still in boxes. Even worse, the manuscripts I needed to work on hadn’t progressed at all.

The reality of being a faculty member is that whatever you’re doing at the moment, there’s always something else that you should be doing. There will always be more things to do than time to do them, and your to-do list will just keep getting longer. A colleague of mine has likened this to trying to juggle bricks—and people just keep throwing you more bricks.

If you’re like me, this reality quickly turns into guilt. It becomes hard to focus on getting any one thing done because of the weight of the to-do-list albatross around your neck. I wish I could say that I found some magical time management solution to balance tasks and get caught up, but I never did. What I did realize is that it’s possible to let go of the guilt. You can forgive yourself for not getting things done on time or done as well as you would like, or for prioritizing one task (sometimes the wrong one!) over another. Yes, I still apologize to others when I’m late or otherwise let them down, but I try to forgive myself, cut the albatross loose, and move on.

Lesson 2: Assembling a team takes a while

As Melissa Wilson Sayres noted recently, the first few years of a tenure-track job can be extremely lonely. In most places, you don’t start your faculty job with a cohort—you’re hired on your own, and you’re the new kid in town. (I was lucky enough to get hired in the same year as three other assistant professors, so the four of us were able to stumble through the darkness together.) For most people, this will also be their first experience leading a team. It will be the first time that there is no adviser to consult when there is a tough decision to make, which can be daunting at first.

Unless you’re lucky enough to find students or postdocs right away, when you start you will be leading a team of one. This can be a huge adjustment for people used to being part of a large lab, as I had been as a grad student and a postdoc. The first year, when you’re working solo in your office or in an empty lab, can be incredibly isolating.

Finding the right people to work with is the most important part of establishing your research program. For me, it took a long time to get my lab going. I recruited one student who started my second year, but I failed to recruit anyone the next year. By my fourth year, I finally managed to recruit a second student and hire a postdoc, and I felt like the lab was gaining momentum. After a year, though, the student decided to leave science and the postdoc left to take a tenure-track job, so the lab was back to being tiny again.

This was not for a lack of trying. Every year, I advertised my lab and reached out to my network of colleagues trying to drum up applicants, but the applicant pool was always very small. One year, I received zero applicants for a graduate position that would have been funded by a NSF grant. Unless they are part of a small handful of programs that naturally get a lot of applicants, New PIs face an uphill battle when trying to grow their lab. When you’re just starting, no one knows who you are. If potential applicants do find you through your work, it’s often a safer bet for them to apply to work with your previous advisors, who already run established labs.

In year six, the lab is now back up to size and I have my best pool of applicants ever, so I feel like we’re now out of the slow growth phase. I wouldn’t have been able to make it through that phase if I hadn’t had sought out scientific interactions elsewhere. One good strategy is to team up with other people in the same situation as you. I’ve been lucky enough to get involved in some really productive collaborations with other early-career faculty. In the best case, these collaborations can drive both of your research programs forward. I’ve also been able to get a lot of work done with some very talented undergraduate students and lab techs.

Lesson 3: Say No

This is advice that everyone who mentors early-career faculty—including my mentors—will give. But it’s been hard advice for me to follow. When you get a request to review a manuscript, write a book chapter, or serve on a committee, it’s difficult to say no for many reasons. For one, when someone asks you to do something, it’s flattering. Less egotistically, you might be able to help, or at the very least learn something. In my first couple of years, I rarely said no to any request, and this led to a lot of problems. Occasionally, when buried under a pile of manuscripts or fellowship applications to review, I would lament the choices I had made. Recently, I have gotten better at figuring out what requests I can afford to turn down. Because time is limited (see Lesson 1), it’s an essential skill to develop. For example, now I try to say yes to only one manuscript review at a time, and I usually only take on the ones that I feel are going to teach me something important to my research. When you say no, it’s a good idea to do it with grace. Tell whoever is making the request why you’re saying no and suggest others who might be able to help out in your place.

Lesson 4: Say yes

On the other hand, it’s just as important to say yes now and then. I think it is crucial to get involved in one or two substantial commitments (beyond your research and teaching) that connect you somehow to your scientific community, society at large, or both. My most important commitment has been to my primary scientific society, Society for the Study of Evolution, where I have served on the Hamilton Award Committee since 2013. This experience has been richly rewarding for me. Each year, I get to facilitate a process that might help graduate students along in their careers, and as a bonus, I get to see some of the best talks at the annual meeting!

Lesson 5: Look for synergy

When you’re juggling a lot of bricks, it’s helpful to figure out ways to reduce the number of bricks as much as you can. One way to do this is to look for ways to accomplish two things by doing one. The easiest place to do this is in your teaching. Many of us have a huge amount of freedom in choosing the material we cover in class. If you’re not locked into a rigid curriculum, try to teach the kinds of courses and cover the type of material that will help you in your own research. This doesn’t mean you have to teach your students about the narrowest niche of your subfield. Rather, you can use the opportunity to teach a course to learn about the breadth of your field, making it easier to understand how your own research fits into the bigger picture. A NSF program officer once told me that to write a good grant, I should try to imagine how my research could serve as an example in a textbook. This was so much easier to do after a couple of years teaching evolution to undergraduates.

Lesson 6: Take care of yourself

Academics like to talk about how much they are working, and it’s often seen as a badge of honor to work long hours. I have never been able to sustain the workaholic pace of some academics. Sure, I occasionally work 80-hour weeks, most often around grant deadlines, but they’re usually followed by a week where I feel can barely function. A regular 40-hour schedule (punctuated by periods of insanity) is the steady state for me. I don’t want to tell anyone how many hours to work, but it’s important to find your groove. You want to be productive and do your job well, but you also don’t want to burn out. Try to find a work-life balance that works for you, and if you’re having a hard time doing that, refer to Lesson 3.

Final Reflections

Looking back over the last five years, I have made my share of mistakes, but in general, I feel good about how things have turned out. I’ve been fortunate to get to work with an excellent group of students and postdocs, and I’m proud of the work we’ve done together and excited about the research to come. I’ve also enjoyed my time in the classroom, and I have improved as a teacher after a bit of a rough start. Despite the stresses it sometimes brings, I love my job and I hope I get to keep it. I’m looking forward to tackling the unpredictable challenges that being an associate professor will bring.

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Running a Successful Lab

This week’s post is from a established and successful professor at an R1 institute. The author  prefers to remain anonymous, but is happy to pass on valuable information for starting a lab and becoming a successful academic. This post also represents the last post in the “When I Grow Up” series. However, if you are at a different stage in your career (how to run a field station, how to design a study abroad class, how to not burn-out, how to sabbatical, how to set up an NSF research station, etc.) and want to write a blog post about it, please contact me
You’ve landed a job at a research 1 university – congratulations! You’ve set up your lab, you’ve got tenure, you’re ready to go! Now… how do you do this long term?
One of the keys to success is how you set up your lab,  and this can vastly influence your chance of being successful down the road.
1) Have a specific research project that can carry you through the first few years. You’re going to be writing grants, recruiting graduate students, possibly teaching a new (to you) course, and getting things up and running. Yes, this is a busy time, but you are expected to be producing during this period. Make sure all your research isn’t focused on starting out brand new, and have something already simmering to carry you through those first tough years.
2) Make sure you have a deal with your chair for teaching assignments and committee assignments. Most places give you up to a year with no teaching sometime in the first years. Each new class taught will take about 8 hours of preparation for each hour of new lecture. I took my time off in my second year ( I showed up with funding), so got my lectures prepared in year one while purchasing stuff and getting the lab set up. I rocked and rolled the research in year 2 +, generating the papers that got me tenure a few years later.
2.1.) Women tend to accept more than their share of committee assignments, and sometimes teaching assignments. They should realize their dude colleagues will be ok with this, but it’s not ok. That’s why it is even more imperative that you have a deal with your chair capping your assignments. 
3) Use your start up funds to hire the best people you can. Getting crappy people working in your lab, as techs, students or post-docs, is like a ship taking a torpedo under the water line. You may not notice it at first, but the ship is listing if not going down. Spend money, immediately or soon after you start, on hiring good people. It’ll make the difference immediately and pay off down the road.
4) Get a good mentor, a more senior faculty member who has learned some of the time management issues, and is willing to provide advice on personnel management. Most places have some training sessions for newbies, so get some of that. Grad school and post-doc jobs largely do not train you on people management, and this part of your work can use up significant amounts of actual and emotional time. Learning how to set and enforce boundaries is a critical professional skill.  The administrative part of people management is not intuitive and there is rarely a complete, comprehensive reference/guidebook available to assist you through the labyrinth.  By being connected to someone in the department who has already gone through this, and is willing to be your Sherpa, you save yourself time and effort trying to reinvent the wheel. You are not the first person to do this, and asking for help/advice is not weakness. So find yourself a mentor.
5) Hard work is not enough. You have to work smart. Surveys show that assistant profs work  55 hours per week. MORE time is not necessarily good time. Use your time efficiently and make sure you do not burn out. Work-life balance is a whole other topic.  This goes back to whether you really WANT a research one job, and whether you have a partner (if you want one) who understands that that you’re gonna be busy and focused. But this is NOT the time to start a second career doing something else. Family issues definitely depend on a supportive all-in partner and understanding on your part.
6) Networking in your field is important (meetings, conferences, etc.), but doesn’t help if you’re not bringing your A-game. It’s great to have good friends, but in the end, being recognized in the meritocracy is more than bonhomie. Your real goal is becoming a good scientist. Just showing up at conferences without presenting ground breaking, or even just solid, research is a waste of time. Pedigree and who you know matters, but ultimately, not nearly as much as good research which has seen the light of day. Consider presentations as a way to showcase your awesome work, not as your ultimate priority.
7) Make sure you’re genuinely passionate about biology. It’s what gets you through the tougher parts in this most difficult of times. This is what I mean about being sure you WANT a research one or academic career (turns out small colleges, especially the really good ones, choose faculty on the same criteria as Research 1 institutions, believe it or not). It’s going to be really much harder if biology is not your top three distractions. In the end, it has to be fun (e.g. I still get an actual physiological buzz when a paper gets accepted for publication).
Don’t forget, this is the dream! Make time for fun things, including but not limited to, your work!

Moving Abroad for Science: US to Europe Edition

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine wrote about pursuing a PhD in Europe, and tried to highlight the ways it is different than the U.S. PhD.

But there’s more to being abroad than simply the difference in acquiring a PhD.  While I can only speak of my experience as a postdoc moving to Germany, there are a few bits of advice I can impart to others considering the big move.

  1. Find someone to rely on back home. There are all sorts of problems you won’t expect and you’d need to be in the States to deal with, but you won’t be. So you’ll need someone there who can handle things for you. Sometimes it’s small things (mailing address for your US bank account), sometimes more substantial things, but either way, having someone to take care of these needs is SUPER important. In my case, it’s my mother (side note, she’s also my editor… and a number of my blog posts are a collaborative enterprise). She has a power of attorney over my affairs, so when my credit card needs verification, and the company refuses to allow me to call from any number besides a U.S. number, my mother can step in and handle it. It solves all sorts of problems, and I’ll be honest, I would be screwed without her help (not just editing help, although that’s pretty awesome as well). So find someone who can handle such things and then tell them all the time how awesome they are for helping. [Editor’s note: A power of attorney is a very powerful document, so be very cautious in selecting the person to whom you grant power to manage your financial matters.  And a specific power of attorney, limited in scope, is a better choice than a general power of attorney.  Make certain it has an expiration date – better to go through the hassle of reissuing one and sending the new one out than to have an open-ended document.  Just ask legions of U.S. Navy sailors who have come home to find all their belongings disposed of by “friends.”]
  2. Figure out how to move money. I won’t recommend specific ways to move money internationally and deal with currency exchange (although I have strong opinions and if you want to know them, email me), but regardless how you do it, you’re going to need to figure out how to do it. There are still some bills I need to pay in the U.S., that I can’t pay from my European account, and vice versa. This was startling for me at first, because I hadn’t considered it (what do you mean I can’t set up auto payments from my European account?), and seemed difficult to figure out. But I have great friends who have already solved this problem, and reached out to help, and while I won’t endorse services here, if you find yourself in the same situation, feel free to reach out.
  3. Set up temporary housing for your arrival. Every time I’ve moved in the U.S., I usually have had an apartment sorted before I arrive in my new location. I know the routine:  you find a place online, contact the owner/management company, pay the deposit, move in. This is not how it worked in Germany (and when I explained this simple system to Germans, they were blown away). In Germany, when you rent an apartment, it is viewed as an intimate relationship between you and the building owner. You have to see the apartment (sometimes a few times), you have to provide evidence that you have money/a paycheck, you have to talk about each others’ families and goals and dreams, and after they have done that with you and a few other perspective tenants, you all gather for a ceremony where the owner gives out a rose to the person they choose… just kidding about that last part. But the other bullets are all true. Culturally, this is SO different from the U.S. (where the relationship is: “Here is my money, I’d like to move in now”).  I was fortunate and had a place to stay for 2 months, but you should plan (including budgeting) to have a temporary place set up while you sort out your semi-permanent home.
  4. Culture shock is a real thing. I have traveled all over the world (see blog here), and I’ve even lived abroad a few times. But boy, almost none of that prepared me for the culture shock of being in Germany. And Germany isn’t even the most extremely different place I could have moved! There are all sorts of quirks ( ingredients that aren’t available, always paying cash for everything, the entire economy and all grocery stores being closed on Sundays), but the biggest thing is that tasks that were easy at home are more difficult abroad. An excellent case study is the experience of buying a lightbulb. If a light goes out at home in the U.S., I’ll casually stroll down to any number of stores where I know I can purchase a replacement. In Germany, none of those stores exist. And lightbulbs aren’t sold where I thought they should be. And I don’t know how to ask for help at the stores where they might be sold (I don’t speak German). So an easy, mundane task is now a HERCULEAN issue that takes energy and perhaps half a day to solve. And once I succeed, I need to go home, curl up in a ball and sleep from exerting so much effort. Things definitely get easier, but expect there to be a transition period.
  5. ADVENTURE! There are many difficulties of moving abroad, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome it can be as well. I get to travel to cool places around Europe for the weekend. A Friday night in Paris has become the norm. I jaunt up to Berlin for an afternoon. The Alps are a short train ride away. And mundane things are sometimes more difficult, but they are also sometimes more spectacular. I will be walking home from work, or grocery shopping, or going out to eat, and it’ll all of a sudden hit me: I live here. My every day is an adventure, because I choose to go on this adventure. I often think of Bilbo Baggins (“I’m going on an adventure!”) and embrace the struggles because they are only small speed bumps on the massive highway of fun I’m having.

Again, this is just my experience and I tried to make it general. Also, I moved for my postdoc, and as mentioned before, the PhD is VERY different in Europe.

But I’d be happy to hear other experiences! Comment away!

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The European-Style PhD

In this weeks continuing series of “When I Grow Up” I’m covering a topic for which I have no direct experience (this is going to become an ongoing theme). The good news is that I have friends who do have experience (Hooray!) and they will be stepping in to add their voices/experiences.

This week I asked my colleague, Eckie Stolle, to answer a few questions about the differs I see between the American and the European systems. Similar to how every American PhD program is a little different, every labs program is slightly different. But this is some insight to the major differences.

How did you apply for your PhD? Does it matter what University you get your PhD at? Is the department important?

At the time I was doing my BS project I thought about possibilities. I was quite interested to continue with it as my PhD project, but there was no specific funding for it. So I had the choice between getting my own funding, for example through a scholarship, or by applying to one of the PhD positions regularly advertised. In Germany, state funded scholarships exist, but require the student to have achieved quite good grade. A drawback of them is, that they do not pay very well and they do not include significant funding for the project. In addition, receiving a scholarship means not paying numerous income related taxes. Even if this sounds great, it means that nothing is paid into the social system for you, nothing for retirement and nothing for unemployment. In contrast to the scholarship, the PhD position as a proper employment, so your tax deductions help you later for your retirement and to have financial support if you do not find a job immediately after your position finishes. In my opinion this is the far better option. These positions are usually advertised publically and for a specific project which has been funded already. Normally a PhD student in such a position is paid half time and the idea is that you work on the project and at the same time have the possibility to do your PhD. To get such a PhD position you obviously need to apply for it and beat the competition. Thus, it helps if you know already what your interests are, which direction you will want to go into, whether the supervisor or department/Uni in question are well suited for this and so forth. There are many student which take up a such a post, just because it suits fine at the time, or its local, thus there is no need to move etc. This should be not a reason to start a 3 or more years investment of your time. To know whether the respective University or department is a good place is difficult. While some universities have a good reputation, this seems to play a smaller role in Germany, than elsewhere. Maybe the factor that some universities receive special excellence funding could be helpful for a PhD project, but that’s hard to predict beforehand.

What’s the application process like? How many other people applied to your position?

It is like a regular job. You send your application for the advertised position, you get invited for an interview and then have to get lucky. I don’t know the number of applicants or interviewees anymore. Other projects in our lab, received a few dozen applications and typically 3-6 applicants are invited for an interview.

Did you start your PhD at the beginning of the school year? Is this normal?

No, the start of the PhD project is entirely dependent on the term of employment and the specific project. Except for specific reasons, they could start all year round.

How much input did you have in your PhD project?

The main frame and aims did not change much, maybe only the technical or analytical approaches as well as certain additions I created to add value to the results.

My PhD project started out as a funded project in which certain aims had to be achieved. While this leaves not extremely much flexibility to develop your own project and follow own ideas, I found it to be quite valuable. First, having a specific aim can get you started really fast. As a fresh PhD student I was quite naïve anyways and did not have enough knowledge on the specific topic to think about own new ideas. With a project where the frame is set, there is still plenty of room to develop strategies to achieve the aims and get more along the way. I felt relatively free to develop technical approaches and specific aspects of the project. The more I got into it, the more ideas came up and I was able to explore them in parallel. This often came at a very low additional financial investment as there were many synergistic effects. In the end I got two publications from this part of my PhD alone. And based on my acquired knowledge I developed new ideas of which one became another, completely knew project.

Did you teach during your PhD? Is that more or less than most European PhD students?

In Germany lecturing is supposed to be limited to postdoctoral positions and above. In some cases a PhD student would maybe give a single guest lecture on a specific topic. But seminars and practical courses as well as supervision of bachelor or masters student projects are part of the duties of a PhD student. Most PhD positions are third-party (e.g the German Science Foundation) funded to conduct a specific scientific project, thus teaching activities are limited. I think this is different to some other European countries where PhD position are regularly much more involved. There are some cases where a German PhD position is funded full-time rather than half time when a higher teaching load is expected.

How often did you meet with your advisor? How often did you meet with your committee?

For a typical PhD project there is no (or at least there was no) committee, only the PhD supervisor, called doctor father/mother. During my time, we had a general lab meeting on Monday and an area-specific lab meeting on Wednesday morning, both of which were lab-chat style and very informal. Here we discussed briefly progress, problems, results and future directions. Every couple of month, I think it was a ca. 6 month interval, I gave a seminar presentation about my project. Other than that, I occasionally met with my supervisor to discuss specific parts/issues of the project, but it most often were little updates/results requiring small changes in the approach or additional materials to be ordered. I think this was good balance between supervision/control and freedom to organize/develop the project. Also, the time sitting in meetings was not getting out of hands.

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The other side: I Love Being a Professor

Everyone I know is leaving academia. It started a few years ago with great postdocs taking alternative academic positions (head of an NSF institute, lead of a nature preserve, etc.), and has now progressed into most of my friends moving to industry (data science, start ups and biology industry).

So it’s really refreshing to read a post about someone who flat out loves their job. Maybe there is still hope?

Read more here.

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