Love/Hate relationship with science

We at Portrait of the Scientist recently received this question: “I just wondered if you had any words of advice on how to manage the love/hate relationship with the current state of science career paths?”

What a tough question. I am sure each of us has a unique answer to this. I am in a non-science job that I was able to get based on my science background. My job is interesting. I get to learn new things all the time. I have learned more than I could have imagined about radiation therapy. I get to read about new genetic testing topics regularly. And when I get time I’m going to start learning about uterine transplant. So novel, yes. Interesting, yes. But it is not the same as doing science. Of course it isn’t. As a scientist you are always trying to figure out the why and how. Always trying to dig deeper. Not just to understand what people already understand, but to understand what is not yet explained. Compared to science my job is superficial.

One the other hand, the everyday of science can wear you down. The experiments that don’t work. The methods that leave you hanging. The unclear results that leave you more confused than you started. On top of that there is the current culture of science that values the bright and shiny over the thoughtful and well-planned. The system that puts so much pressure on every level that as a trainee, at the bottom of that pressure cooker, you can feel so small. The limited number of jobs that makes all of the above so much more painful. In that environment it can be hard to remember that you’re doing what you love. With all of the publication bias, the lack of value for negative results, and the (pressure) to get out the pretty story that will get you the grant, get you the job, it can be hard to remember that what you’re doing is uncovering the truth. That it is your responsibility and your honor to find the real story of how the world works.

So, working in science you have the privilege to do work that you are passionate about, but it can be hard and painful and feel like it is without reward. Whether or not you love science, you may not love the science lifestyle. As much as you might be an idealist, your life might turn out to require more money than your third postdoc can provide. Do I think that a science career should be accessible to all good scientists? Yes. Do I believe that all good scientists should put themselves through what it takes to make it in academic science? Not necessarily. It is not a life for everyone.

This weekend I was talking with a friend in a similar place as me. She was a neuroscientist, and she even became a PI. The fears of overwork and never feeling secure or successful that were part of what held me back from seeking a PI position were echoed in her experience. She moved for her husband (but kept her position long-distance) and then had a child and ended up leaving academia. She is currently in a data analyst sort of position for a hospital working with physicians running oncology clinical trials.

When I heard about her job I thought it sounded great. A way to be in touch with science and data, but to be closer to an impact on people by working with clinical trials. In addition, she’s not fighting for grants and doesn’t have a lot of the pressures of being a PI. She is a professional and a scientist. It turns out the reality is not the dream it seems. She plans to stick it out to the end of a year working there and then start looking for a new job. The physicians treat her like a bad PI treats a postdoc. They have no regard for her time or her expertise. She is forced to make and remake figures to suit their whims. I am sad for her and sad for the world of scientists looking to leave the rat race, the “pipeline,” but stay connected to science.

So do I have advice on how to manage the love/hate relationship with the current state of science career paths? Not really. I made a choice and it is working for me but I don’t know that it would be the right choice for anyone else. Individuals who write for this blog have made a variety of choices (that you can read about here, here, here, here, and here). No matter what you do, you will have to sacrifice. No job is that magical dream job that I long for, that I once believed was possible. Academia has huge challenges, including for many a lack of support and the demands on time. Other jobs may be less interesting or allow less freedom. To figure out what is right for you, you have to balance your own values and tolerances and listen to yourself.

 

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Posted in academia, alternative career, dream job | 1 Comment

#Me Too

Last Sunday night it started popping up on my Facebook feed…
“Me too.
If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

I almost didn’t speak up, again.

I worried about how it would make my family (and my husbands family) feel. Hurt, sad, embarrassed?

I worried about my coworkers and my friends seeing and worrying that I was talking about something they did. Sometimes I was, most of the time I wasn’t.

I started reliving the memories, rehashing them. Imagining what I could have done differently if I didn’t always freeze.  I don’t want to presume, I don’t want to be impolite and make things awkward.

I started making excuses. Was this one just a misunderstanding? That one was so long ago. I didn’t scream. He was drunk. I flirted. He’s old, was it ok back then?

I justified, it wasn’t so bad.  Others have been through so much more.  I’ve moved on.  The day-to-day instances a so small. They don’t hurt me any more.  I don’t want the attention/pity/questions if I say “me too.”

I got angry that I was still thinking about all of this; frustrated that I couldn’t either just join or just let it go. Why should I have to deal with this all again and speak up?

Then I remembered, there was a reason my mentors were mostly women.  It was a conscious choice I made, because I didn’t want to put myself into “that position.”  I remembered that I chose not to pursue a position in an exciting lab at a top University because the PI had a reputation and I was scared. I remembered that when choosing my new job, on the con side (unfairly for him) of my pro/con list was that my boss would be a straight man.

Maybe it is my problem. Maybe my experiences do count. Maybe I am one of the women they talk about, who don’t speak out. Maybe this is my chance not to freeze.

I posted.

#Me too

Posted in female scientist, no regrets, peace, sexism, vulnerability, women in science, Women in STEM | Tagged | 1 Comment

A day in the life of a Mother-of-a-5-month-old/Scientist in biotech

Oh my goodness it’s so hard to be a working mom!  I always respected working moms but it is so much harder than everyone else makes it look!  First off, leaving my little man at daycare was really hard at first… and then it got hard again when we all got sick… and just today I got scared again because another mom in my son’s class told me that they wrap the babies in muslin and put them on their stomachs for naps-that’s not normal right???!!! Secondly, because of where we work and where the daycare is, I get to/have to do both drop off and pick up for our little guy. It really makes me evaluate how I use my time at work because I don’t want him to stay at daycare for too long (and we have a 10hour max each day). Lastly… pumping… oh man, trying to make time to pump even twice a day (30mins with set up and clean up each time) is really hard. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE being a mom and I still get so much satisfaction from work. It is all worth it and I’m figuring out how to juggle everything, but it is hard. So here’s a look at a day in my life.
12am-6am wake up a million times to flip the baby back over (he can roll onto his belly but it freaks him out and he wakes up crying), or put his pacifier back in, or feed him.
6:15 wake up and give the baby his reflux medicine. Then get up and get ready for the day.
6:45 get the baby ready and feed him again.
7:15 kiss my husband goodbye and wave to the puppies (he takes care of them in the mornings) and get going
7:45 drop the baby off at daycare
8:00 get to work and get some breakfast, check and respond to emails
8:15 prep solutions etc for my experiment for the day (I’m setting up a new assay so I’m excited to get going)
9:30 stop everything to head down to the “mother’s room” to pump/read papers/email/zone out. When I first got back to work I was able to pump enough for my little guy easily in 2x/15min sessions each day. Then I got sick and my supply tanked. I was pumping 25mins 2x/day and getting only half of what he needed. Luckily I had a good sized freezer stash to hold us over (we tried to get him to take formula but wasn’t having it). I realized last week that I had also stopped eating enough for two so I’ve upped my caloric intake and voila! My supply is back, fingers crossed I can keep it up. Ps a pumping bra is essential!
10:00 head back to the lab and start my assay
12:30 finish up and head down to lunch and relax with friends
1:00 pump again.
1:30 sort through and analyze my images from the histology core
3:30 meet with a new mentor in another department – I can’t wait to tell you guys more about it in my next post!
4:15 grab my pumped milk and head out
4:30 pick up my little one
5:00 get home, give the baby meds, feed dogs, start dinner and to get some errands done while baby plays
5:15 hubby gets home and we tag team – playing with baby/dogs and getting dinner ready
5:30 eat dinner
6:00 the whole family walks the dogs up to the park and watch the sunset. 6:45 get home, get little one in the bath
7:15 all snuggle in the baby’s room, feed him while hubby reads him to sleep
7:45 pump and watch tv
8:15 prep for tomorrow. I’ve started showering at night, pulling my clothes for the next day, preping lunch and getting everything I can put by the front door, this seems to help everything go smoothly in the mornings. Get ready for bed
9:00 get into bed and unwind. Try to get some sleep before the little one wakes up, usually around 1am.

Posted in a day in the life, biotech, female scientist, gratitude, having it all, motherhood, pharma, women in science | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Science administration: what’s that?

watchingforsunbreaks is a research administrator living in the pacific northwest. After getting a PhD in biochemistry, she switched to a career in research administration and hasn’t looked back. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, photography and travelling the world.

 

When I went to grad school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. During my undergraduate studies, I really liked working in a research lab. It was more fun to run experiments than study out of textbooks, so I figured I should just go get a PhD. Well, I got one and then realized I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. By the end, I was burned out. Instead of jumping into a postdoc, I decided I would take a break, try to find a job still related to research and de-stress. If I missed the lab in a year, I’ll try to go back, but if I didn’t, then I needed to move on and find an alternative career. Suffice to say, I didn’t go back to the lab and now several years later, I’ve ended up in a career path I never really thought I would be in, science administration.

Maybe I’ll go into how I got started in this career in another blog post, but for this one, I’ll just try to describe what Science Administration is, how my research background is useful and some pros and cons of the job.

Science administration – what is it?

I think of science administration as having two broad components, research administration and program administration.

Research administration covers everything related to grants, contracts, and sometimes project specific work if it is a large award encompassing multiple projects and multiple sites. People are often divided into pre-award and post-award, where pre-award is all about finding sources of funding, getting research proposals together, putting together a budget and making sure applications conform to not only sponsor requirements but also institutional requirements. Post-award is everything that goes into making sure once a proposal is funded, that the money is spent in accordance with the terms and conditions of the grant and that the project progresses in a timely manner.

Program administration is more generalized, more similar to admin you would find at any organization encompassing personnel onboarding/offboarding, providing support and guidance for program activities such as seminars and recruitment, and financial support for core funds (money that does not come from external sponsors). Program administration roles are often more strategic, looking into what the needs of the department/program or institution are and how to working toward fulfilling those needs through a mix of institutional resources and sponsored funding.

Do I use any of my science training?

Short answer is not really. Vast majority of science admins don’t have a science background at all. This is changing, though. Since I started in this career, I’ve seen more and more people with science backgrounds and even a few more PhDs starting in this field. I’m not sure if that’s in part due to there just being too many graduates in biosciences who are looking for alternative careers, or if the field itself is professionalizing more and thus looking for people with more science background.

While I rarely use my research training, I do find that it is helpful. I can look for funding opportunities that are more directly related to the work my faculty do, I lightly edit their research proposals (though more with postdocs than with PIs), I can put together budgets that are more in line with the actual project and not just based on generalized estimations. But mostly, I think it helps with just being able to anticipate the questions faculty have and be a better conduit between them and sponsors since I’m familiar with how they work and their thought process. I can speak in their language and that makes them more comfortable and confident in me, which then allows me to be better able to help them. There are lots of science admins who have no science background who are great at their jobs, so this is definitely not a necessity.

Pros

  • My values are aligned with the goals of the institution I work for. It might sound hokey, but the fact that the goal of the organization I work for is to cure cancer is really important to me. I still feel like I’m contributing to a cause I believe in even though I’m not doing the hands on research anymore.
  • Good work/life balance. I have regular hours and I rarely take my work home.
  • Good colleagues and work environment.

Cons

  • It’s boring sometimes. I’m always looking to learn more but most of the time, the work is not particularly challenging.
  • It can be hard to advance. People in this field tend to stay and hold on to their jobs for a long time since the pay is decent and the job is stable, so there’s not a lot of opportunities to advance within the organization.

That’s a pretty quick and dirty introduction to science administration. For researchers looking for an alternative career path, I think it’s definitely worth considering.

 

Posted in alternative career | 1 Comment

Gender exclusive STEM education?

This summer I enrolled my 6-year old daughter in a math camp exclusive to girls, “Girls Rock Math.” I knew about the existence of the camp before my daughter was old enough to enroll, and this year as she became eligible I did not hesitate to sign her up. She is showing keen interests in numbers and math, constantly performing arithmetic in her head. The one-week-long camp was held at a botanical garden, with its theme “Math-Magical Garden.” The campers explored patterns, shapes, mental math, and logical reasoning inspired by nature. My daughter had a great time. Everyday the camp ended with singing of inspiring and empowering songs about math, girls, female mathematicians, pi number, and not giving up, and she still sings the songs after five weeks.

In Seattle where I live, there were many other STEM camps and programs exclusively for girls. I marveled at the number of opportunities and thought this is a great era. Given the current demographics in STEM fields, girls interested in STEM could use all the opportunities and encouragement.

As summer ended I came to find out that Seattle Parks and Recreation newly created a science class for parents and children to attend together, called “Sonsational! Mad Science.” The original description of the class indicated that this class was for boys only. There was a bit of an uproar, and many concerned parents protested that it gave wrong messages to girls, and that the boys already had enough opportunities in STEM there was no need for new one. The office responded and claimed that the class was created in response to community requests. The city held “father-daughter dance” for more than 25 years with good attendance, and they were asked to organize a similar event for boys. Yes, nice dinners for girls and science for boys. Parks and Recreation later edited the description that even though the class is titled “Sonsational,” it is still open for all children. The office also claimed that the “father-daughter dance” is open for parents and children of any gender.

There were many responses and entertaining discussions in social media.  Many responders advocated to make the event title, description, and event itself gender neutral. Why not make it all inclusive? Why single out one sex in any activity? I got to thinking, should STEM education / programs be segregated between the sexes?  Is it helpful? To both sexes?  What are pros and cons?  

I asked my daughter, what if there were boys in the math camp?  Would things be different?  Would she still have liked it?  She said, boys tend to / can be more rough and disruptive than girls. The presence of boys would have made the camp less calm and peaceful.  She really enjoyed being with just girls and female teachers and assistants.  

Is this answer positive or negative?  Has she already formed a stereotype for boys?  A preference for not working with boys?  Should she just learn to get over roughness and disruptions and deal with it? Should she learn to cultivate and pursue her interests in any type of environment?  Is “Girls Rock Math” a good idea?

There are studies (for one) showing that graduates of all-girls schools have higher confidence in their math and science skills compared to their cohorts in coeducational schools. The proportion of girls who pursue careers in STEM fields is much higher in alumnae from single-sex schools than coed.  What is it about female-only education that produces such outcomes?

A recent survey by Microsoft lists conformity to social expectations, gender stereotypes, gender roles, and lack of role models as reasons girls steer away from STEM fields. Perhaps those stereotypes and traditional gender expectations are less obvious and less reinforced in female-only surroundings.  So do we educate girls and boy separately, and build up their skills and confidence, and send them to the world?

Eventually, girls will grow up, go to college, and work side-by-side, up-and-down with male colleagues/superiors/subordinates.  If neither party was exposed to each other in professional settings until that point, would there be more seeds for conflicts than potentials for successful collaboration? Perhaps gender stereotypes are even more strengthened in segregated settings. If my daughter continued in girls-only camps and classes, she may never find out how to work with boys, or that there are calm and cooperative boys out there, too.

I suspect that the Google employee who wrote that now famous memo was never sufficiently exposed to female counterparts during his training.  If he was exposed to more female colleagues (i.e. bigger sample size), he might not have formed those blatant prejudices regarding women. Would not mutual respect be more likely together than separate?

It is a conundrum. How do we achieve equality, when one group is underrepresented?  Is segregation of the lagging group the best way?

Would I still enroll my daughter in “Girls Rock Math” next summer?  I have 6 months to think it over (sign ups start in Feb!).  My current parental challenge lies in maintaining my daughter’s math interest beyond the age of 15, segregated or not.

Posted in confidence, diversity, education, female scientist, sexism, Uncategorized, Women in STEM | Leave a comment

Writing your own letter of recommendation

In response to a recent post, a reader asked for advice on writing a letter of recommendation – specifically for oneself! Yes, for better or worse, “minor fraud” and ethics aside for this post, this is very common and important so let’s discuss the logistics. For general recommendation letter writing guides and advice, see other sources such as this addendum to Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, a valuable resource for this transitional time in your career. This post will focus on writing a letter for/about yourself. I know many people feel it is simply wrong for a mentor to ask a trainee to write their own letter, but for the trainees who find themselves in this uncomfortable situation without other options, I hope this advice is useful.

First, it is a good idea to at least offer some version of this option to outline or draft your own letter to anyone you ask to submit a recommendation for you. It’s obviously helpful for them because they probably have many letters to write for you and others, and the submission process alone can be time consuming, so you’ll make their lives easier and make them happier to do this for you – and potentially keep doing it for (hopefully not too many) other applications in the future. However, it’s an opportunity for you as well, to make sure your letter addresses all the important aspects of your capabilities, and wonderful accomplishments you want to highlight. Even when recommenders don’t take you up on your offer to draft the letter, you would be wise to outline the specific points you wish them to address in the letter.

Basics: content

1) Accomplishments

First and foremost, the goal of the letter is to bring to life your many brilliant accomplishments and how wonderful it is to work with you. You should describe, in a coherent and succinct narrative, how the author came to know you, what impressed them about you, what you achieved while working with them, and where they see this work taking you in the future. Be sure to use concrete examples and the “show, don’t tell” principle.

2) Drive and ability

Throughout this narrative, and perhaps in a separate paragraph at the end, the letter should address how the writer has come to know your capabilities that make you well suited for the particular job you are applying for. Also include notes on your ambition/passion and how pleasant you are to work with.

3) Justifications

In your application package, there is no great way for you to explain difficulties you’ve encountered that might show up as gaps or deficits in your CV. Your recommender, however, is in the perfect position to explain such issues, so take advantage of this. Just remember to turn the negative into a positive. It could be as succinct as a sentence, “Despite Trainee’s year-long battle with a serious illness, Trainee managed to finish the research project, and published 2 first-author papers over the following two years, while also teaching an undergraduate course, showing Trainee’s commitment and determination.” Or it could go into detail on why a project didn’t work out and what outstanding qualities you applied to push it forward or move on to a winning project.

Fine points: writing

1) If you know your recommender’s voice/writing style, use it. This can be especially important and difficult if you have to write your own letter for multiple recommenders. Get a friend to help you rephrase things in one letter.

2) Be positive! Everything in this letter should be about how wonderful you are. Resist the urge to be modest or talk yourself out of boasting. If your recommender chooses to scale back anything you’ve said, or insert some more reserved comments, that is their right to do after you’ve given them the draft.

3) Tailor each letter to the institution/position you are applying to. This could just be a fillable spot in the salutation/introduction/ending sentences, i.e. (“…and so I am confident that Trainee will be a good fit for the X position at Y institution.”), but ideally you will have a specific reason you fit in or want this position, i.e. (“Trainee’s passion and experience uniting clinical and basic science research programs will be a unique addition to your department’s strengths in translational medicine.”)

Details:

Your recommenders should address the details such as putting the letter on letterhead paper and formatting when they do their own final edits. However, just in case they do copy, paste and send, you will want to make sure the draft is all set in terms of perfect grammar, etc., and point out if there’s anything in particular that needs to be changed, such as the fillable phrases mentioned above.

 

Finally, when asking for letters of recommendation, remember to make it as easy as possible on your recommenders: ask them far in advance (3-6 weeks) if they’d be willing to write you a good letter; at least 2 weeks in advance, give them a list of each place you’re applying, anything notable about your fit or excitement for that position, the name of the person or committee to address the letter to if known, the deadline for the letter, and the way in which it should be submitted.

All this is based on my experience writing letters for myself for/with mentors, and writing letters of recommendation for my own students, and advice I’ve read and received over the years. But I must say I’m a post-doc, not a professor, and so any advice from PIs and professors or other who have more experience writing letters, especially for scientific positions in academia, would be appreciated in the comments.

Good luck!

 

 

Posted in academia, advice, bosses, finishing postdoctoral training, graduate school, job search, mentoring, postdoc, professional, research, strengths and weaknesses, support, uncertainty | 1 Comment

When Your Pregnancy is a Job Hunt, or The Amazing Community of Women in Science Part II

Several months ago, I wrote about the experience of being 5 months pregnant and told that my postdoctoral mentor was leaving our institution.

This was my chance to leave my oppressive pit of a working environment without burning any bridges. This meant trying to find a new position before giving birth so that I might avoid unemployment. This was exciting. This was terrifying.

Four months later, I have a fellowship and a job lined up for after my “maternity leave” [read: unemployment]. I gave seminars and had interviews at 7 months, 8 months and 9.5 million months pregnant and each time have been pleasantly surprised that I portrayed myself first as a capable scientist and then as a pregnant woman (inevitable shortness of breath notwithstanding…). This experience has shown me what women are capable of, and given me a newfound respect for myself.

The Process:

Despite now feeling that this journey has ultimately been a success, I have never had a more confused, frustrated or nihilistic perception of my career and future. It was at once a frantic crisis and insignificant. During this experience, I not only interviewed for academic postdocs within my current institution and at nearby institutes, I applied for industry scientist positions – something I thought I would not do for several years to come, if at all (and thanks to very active support and a recommendation from our very own Curiouser&Curiouser, I was even invited to give a job talk!).

But all of these interviews were hard. Because throughout the whole process, I was so disenchanted with my previous aspirations, and overwhelmed with the possibility of entirely changing my career track when all the while all I actually cared about was keeping my little imminent offspring healthy and becoming a new parent. How could I possibly communicate my interests and goals in an honest way when my thoughts were in such an unmotivated place? Somehow, I channeled Ragamuffin circa 2016 for every interview and she did me a great service by masking my current intellectual turmoil.

I narrowed my opportunities down to two academic labs and an industry position (I had way more options with diverse potential than I expected, which made the whole process even more confusing). The industry opportunity continues to play out, but I expect this was more a chance for me to introduce myself and be remembered favorably when I apply for a more fitting position in the future. Of the academic labs, one lab was small and very low-key and would probably have prepared me well for a future industry position. The other lab was mid-sized with high expectations and would probably prepare me equally well for either a career in industry or academia. The small lab required finding my own funding, and only when I had secured that was I able to really consider which lab I preferred. It took me a month to decide.

What if I make the wrong choice because of pregnancy brain and end up hating my next position?

What if I misinterpret what lies ahead like I did with my current postdoc lab and wind up losing another year of productivity?

What if it turns out that my career goals change drastically after I become a parent and I chose the wrong work environment to accommodate whatever those are?

I calmed down a bit when my self-employed husband’s income (which crashed the day my PI announced his departure) started to recover, and I felt less guilty about the fiscal implications of staying in academia.

And after several communications with each of the PI’s (both women), I chose the mid-sized lab with high expectations because I felt a strong connection with the PI that made me believe I wanted to and could continue (for now) down the path I would have chosen a year ago. Because there were no wrong choices, only the next chapter of life.

Closing Up Shop:

I left my current lab last week to begin maternity leave. I put all the materials I’ve developed over the last year in cryostasis and labeled them to be shipped to my adjunct faculty oppressor so that he can continue my work (ostensibly) and take credit for my contributions (inevitably). I photocopied my lab notebook, backed up all my meticulous protocols, and archived my server emails so as to have a record of my contributions if I need to defend my right to authorship in 5 years (undoubtedly). I said heavy goodbyes to the colleagues who have been such wonderful influences over the last year, and begrudgingly said an adulatory and pleasant farewell to my PI. And left behind a year of professional struggle and wasted scientific effort.

 

And now, I am ecstatic to spend the remaining two weeks of my pregnancy job hunt-free. Bring it on.

Posted in academia, biotech, bosses, early career scientist, female scientist, industry, Interview, job search, postdoc, transitions, women in science | 2 Comments