A Tale of Three Labs: Reflections on Environment Dynamics

Sticking to the scenario in which I am a fish, I’d like to reflect on having been a variably sized fish in various sizes of pond… and learning to swim in corresponding tides. In this metaphor, ponds have tides.

Before graduate school, I was a research assistant for 3 years at a medical university in the Pacific Northwest. It was a very small ~4-6-person lab in which I grew partially out of the notion that I could never be a scientist. I wrote my first book chapter, led my first experiments, published my first manuscripts, acquired some semblance of expertise, and had tea with my PI almost every day. It was personal, and the team dynamic was always encouraging. Big fish, small pond.

In graduate school, I entered a medium-sized lab of ~15 people. It was a brand-spanking new lab in which I was fortunate and cursed to spearhead my own research out of nothing but experience. And I did. And it was painstaking and infuriating and rewarding. I became the expert of my field in my lab, but mine became an area of lesser interest to my PI. It was scientifically lonely despite strong personal friendships, and I was an expert whose contributions were of lesser interest to the team. Medium fish, medium pond.

After defending and with a heretofore unknown air of confidence, I launched myself into a postdoc in a huge ~50-person lab. For the first time in 8 years I entered an entirely new field of research. I have adjunct professor and postdoc supervisors-who-are-not-supervisors. I am bringing my own research to fruition under more fiscal and intellectual strain than I have ever experienced. While there is a communal reciprocity, there is no team dynamic. The encouraging aspect is that my PI seems to respect me. Small fish, ocean.

Unsurprisingly, I have found that as the body of water has grown, the tidal force has changed dramatically. In a large lab, one comes up against more subtle yet consequential social dynamics. Often I actually feel oppressed as a scientist*, and have to consider whether I have been spoiled by the luxuries of more personal research experiences or whether this is a real problem. Each lab I have worked in has had meaningful and unique perks and drawbacks. The pattern seems to be that both of these grow with the size of the lab. I am not sure that the perks of my postdoc lab will continue to stand up to the drawbacks, but for now I aim to rage against my restraints and pursue the science that I know to be important and worthwhile.

My experience of course does not speak for everyone’s. In fact, I have no idea how broadly these observations are shared. But these three labs have demonstrated to me that a large lab is much more challenging to navigate, and while protecting my newfound confidence is a battle every single day, I find each win precious and satisfying. Thus far.


*The dynamics of being a woman with all-male supervisors-who-are-not-supervisors is a separate subject for another post.

Posted in academia, advice, Laboratory, postdoc | Leave a comment

New blogger!

We are welcoming a new blogger to the group – Ragamuffin, PhD. Welcome!

Her bio has been added to “Who Are We?”

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I have to pay back what?!

As if it isn’t difficult enough to be in your mid-thirties starting a family while living on a postdoc salary and waiting to move yet again before finally getting a “real” job, some of us also have to worry about making career changes that don’t result in having to pay back up to a year’s income. Yes, you read that right – I could be made to pay back a year’s stipend if I don’t follow through on a commitment to stay in research or select other related positions for a set amount of time.

If you’re unfamiliar with this payback agreement, here’s an article that covers most of the issue and risks, but in short: certain NIH training grants (i.e. institutional T32 or postdoctoral individual F32) require a signed contract that you must “pay back” the time you are sponsored by the grant, up to one year, either by working at least 20 hours per week in research or a related position (including teaching, working in industry and many others at the NIH’s discretion), or by literally paying back the money that was granted to you.

To some degree, I get it. The NIH is trying to fulfill a mission, and in spending money on training researchers as part of that mission, they want to ensure  that they benefit from those investments as much as possible. And, as they will tell you, most people accomplish paying back the first year of training by fulfilling a second year or more on the training grant. Others find related jobs or receive alternate funding for research, which fulfills the obligation.

For the sake of this post, I am not going to go into all the possible scenarios that put someone in a difficult position to pay this back – you can imagine a laundry list of nightmares (needing to quit working for medical reasons and having to owe a year’s income?!?) – but I will focus on the situations for starting and wanting to get out that are most relevant for my situation.

First, it is often the case that a postdoc can only join the lab they want (or find any position at all) if they are sponsored by funding other than the PI’s grants – this is typically going to be a T32 or F32. So right away, one could be faced with the decision to either take a job with this sketchy payback agreement, unsure of what their feelings will be in 1-2 years, or not have a job (in the academic research career path) at all. I actually was given the option and, thankfully, had a boss who was thoughtful enough to bring up the payback issue and discuss it with me. Some people get blindsided with this once they’ve already settled on a position. I accepted it, thinking that I would be staying in my current position at least as long as I needed to fulfill the payback obligation.

So now I find myself in the early phase of my payback year, searching for jobs and leaning more and more toward a new career path that will certainly not fulfill the payback obligation. And a great opportunity has come up, in a place that would be perfect for my family to relocate to… but what do I do? Apply and (if offered a position) ask to delay starting for another 9 months? Accept a position and incur a huge loss in my net income as I payback my training stipend? Not apply now and just hope that another perfect opportunity will present itself when the time is ripe?

And there’s the rub. By being paid by this funding mechanism with the intention of supporting my training for my career, my ideal career path may actually be blocked. I try really hard not to make choices based solely on financial reasons, but this time it really matters, as the financial aspect would immediately and severely affect me and my family, and there is no apparent remedy or even band-aid.

The thing (well, one of the many things) is that there’s no way to demonstrate to the NIH how destructive this may be. There’s no way to measure the lost potential or even count the number of people who haven’t started the career they wanted because they felt stuck in research due to their financial obligation. There’s no way to know how many people signed on or stuck it out because it was the only option for making a living. Importantly, those trainees are really not serving the NIH’s goals in the long run either.

Now, not only am I losing out financially just by doing a postdoc, as this recent heartbreaking article describes, but I am also losing financially and/or in potential career happiness by having signed this payback agreement. I know, it’s never too late and I’ll give the new career direction a try when the timing is right, but I want to be able to make that decision on my own terms, not for fear of owing someone money. In a career path where I’m constantly reminded that the cards are stacked against me, I don’t think this is too much to ask.

Posted in academia, finishing postdoctoral training, funding, money, postdoc, transitions | 4 Comments

The layoff

I’ve heard stories of it happening. I know it can happen. It has happened to plenty of people. But to me? It couldn’t happen.

But it did. I was laid off. With one month of notice. In some industries that is plenty of notice. In academia, in science, it is no time at all.

I had already been on a path to discovering a new career and I was already unhappy with where I was. I tried to take it as a blessing in disguise. At least it was a push to find something else, maybe even something better.

But a month. A month is no time to find a job. My PI told me his health made him do it. He would be cutting down his hours in the new year so he wouldn’t be able to focus on my project. It is not worth worrying about how much this is true versus an excuse. Certainly my project was not his favorite anymore. It took too long. It was too slow. But I am the only one out of 7 postdocs to get a pink slip. Also there were complications. I told him I don’t want to be a PI. I was working less than full time. Then there is the other thing. Someone said it and now I can’t get it out of my head. I was paid on the postdoc payscale. Most others were paid less. Anyway, it is not worth worrying about why I was laid off … is it?

Regardless, I tried to stay positive. I tried to use this as a kick in the butt to find something better. At least a step in the right direction. I applied to more jobs than I ever have. I pursued more options, branching out beyond my comfort zone. I considered alternatives like freelance scientific editing and tutoring.

In the end, at the point when I was really starting to think I’d be unemployed, I was offered a six-month postdoc position in a collaborator’s lab. It is not my dream job and it is not permanent, but it is a good right-now solution. It is better than losing money on daycare while doing freelance editing (I can’t be sure but I don’t think I would break even with daycare costs). No other application came to anything and my emotional energy has been eaten up with all of the applying, looking, and one enormous surge of effort – a phone interview that got me nowhere and left me feeling worthless.

I know job hunting is painful for everyone. I know that I am not worthless. I know something will work out. Regardless of where I end up, I believe that being laid off was for the best. Looking back, my situation was even more toxic than I could see close up. It beat me down in ways I couldn’t see how to get out from under. My new department is much friendlier. My new boss is much more human. I am going to take this month to collect myself, to regroup.

Then I will get back to figuring out what’s next.

Posted in job search, lack of jobs | 5 Comments

Your boss can’t always be your mentor

“You shouldn’t be afraid to tell your boss exactly what you want to do for your next step – it’s their job to mentor you,” is the advice I have given many people, particularly grad students and postdocs who decide they want to pursue careers other than strictly academic research but are afraid to tell their bosses. And now under similar circumstances myself, I have become very hesitant about what information to give my boss about my career plans. I see all the reasons that people would not want to be upfront with their bosses.

  1. I don’t want to get fired. If my boss thinks that I’m no longer right for this job, or the kind of person they want to train, they could just let me go.
  2. As far as I can tell, my boss is not interested in mentoring me for a career outside of academic research.
  3. I don’t want to appear flaky or uncertain. Mostly for reason #1, but also because I still want to be able to count on good letters of recommendation if needed.

At the same time though, there are reasons I should talk to my boss about this.

  1. I could use some advice, mentoring, and maybe even connections or referrals, and I still believe it is part of a boss’ job to provide those things.
  2. I don’t want to waste any more of our time or energy applying for research and training grants, if that is not a direction that will help my career.
  3. Doing so may actually push me to move out into the career I want – even if it was because I got fired.

Plus, I just prefer to be open and honest and I’m sure my boss would prefer that as well. So I will try to first get some mentoring outside of my boss, come up with a game plan for my next career steps, ideally a plan that includes a clear reason why my current position is valuable for my future, and then open up to my boss about it.

With this new perspective, I completely understand why people would not want to be completely open with their bosses, and I apologize for acting like it was so clear cut. That said, as many before me have noted, I do think that most PIs need to be more aware that the majority of trainees are not going to end up as PIs like them, and be open to the many career possibilities that appeal to PhDs. And let’s be honest, your PI probably can’t be a great mentor to you when you’re pursuing a career outside of academia, the only path they’ve traveled, an you’ll want to find another more helpful mentor anyway.

Posted in academia, advice, alternative career, Leaving Academia, mentoring, postdoc, trying to please others, uncertainty | Leave a comment

Resolutions 2017

Happy New Year! 2016 was a little rocky, but just like any year it had its ups and downs and we have all learned something about ourselves. Here are some of our goals for the upcoming year. Please share yours in the comments!

peírama: My goals for this year are 3-fold – professional, personal, and civic.

Professional: Like last year I want to make progress in gaining confidence. I think this confidence will help me understand what I want to do professionally going forward and give me the courage to try out career options.

Personal: With some recent stresses I’ve lapsed into a routine of eating a lot of sweets and only doing a minimal exercise routine. I think I will feel better if I get myself a little healthier. So my specific goal is to reduce my dessert intake and increase my cross-training.

Civic: Everyone says that 2017 has to be better than 2016, but I find it hard to imagine given our incoming president. In light of that, my goal is to make a consistent effort to have a positive impact in my community and in my country. I’m meeting with someone this week about volunteering for Planned Parenthood and I’d like to get better about following through with the weekly call to action.

SweetScience: My only big goal for work is to transition to a new job, but there are a lot of elements of that I want to work on to the best of my ability

  • Learn and negotiate the best path to making my dream job materialize
  • Improve my interview skills
  • Decide with my partner what jobs we can each accept, and how to make the transition timing work in a way that will be the best for our family as a whole
  • Gracefully transition out of my current position without shirking my duties

And yet again, I need to make taking care of my health and sleep a top priority. My personal goal is to improve my relationships with my extended family, since feel like I dropped the ball in 2016 when I was stuck focusing on my own issues. My first step toward this will be to plan at the beginning of the year how to schedule birthday gifts for my nieces and nephews and others. After I survive the transition to a new job, I want to start doing meaningful service in my new community and connecting with people there. Until then, I don’t see myself being able to spend time in service, so I will plan to donate money to local and national organizations, and continue to support charities when asked for donations.


  • Even though I have been at my job for a few years, there is still a lot that I don’t know. I need to keep gathering more information and perspective.
  • Contribute to the positive atmosphere and professional interactions in the lab, and don’t let myself get worked up about the negative things.
  • Keep up with scientific literature.
  • Read my baby a book every night.
  • Notice racism and sexism and be vocal about it.  
  • Go on at least one hike every month
  • Camping trips!
  • Don’t eat french fries.


For 2017 my big goal is to have this baby (due in April) and learn how to be a mom!  I’m so excited but I also know that we have a TON to learn.  Tips and tricks would be much appreciated.

At work, I need to try to become more ok with accepting help.  I’ve been setting up a huge 7 month experiment that will start tomorrow… so obviously I’m not going to be able to finish it up before the baby arrives.  Luckily, I have a great team and my boss is being great (and has had kids so he is making sure that I don’t try to do too much too late in my pregnancy).  I also don’t want to let work slide.  I want to make sure that I’m still on track with my career and pushing myself to keep growing academically.  We’ll see if I can do it all.


This year, I was pregnant most of the year, had a new baby and was on leave for the remainder of the year. Because of that, my classroom teaching has entailed mostly reusing what I did the year before. My goal this year is to change my curriculum and infuse it with more research based labs (maybe adding a zebrafish research project??!). Lastly, I’d like to start to establish a long term career trajectory. I want to figure out what I’m working towards. Is my goal to be the best classroom teacher I can be? Or am I headed in a different eventual direction? I also want to settle into this chaotic life as a family of 4!

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Resolution Revisit


At the  beginning of this year we here at Portrait of the Scientist made resolutions for ourselves for 2016. Here is how  reality lived up to those goals.


My goals were to gain confidence and enjoy the ride.

Over the past year I am not sure that I have increased my confidence, but I have done some useful exploring on the issue. I have recognized that I gain a lot of my sense of self-worth and confidence externally and that I am currently in a bad situation for that. My boss, and supposed mentor, is not a supportive person. This could be ameliorated by finding non-boss mentors, but I have not made enough of an effort to do so. So although my confidence per se has not increased, I have concrete things I can act on. ‘Luckily’ I am being laid off from my current position (PI cites his health issues, gives me 1 month notice, no support finding new position…potential rant for future post) so I will at least not have this bad mentor dragging me down in 2017.

I think I am doing well with the second goal. It’s hard to say what I have done to accomplish this, but I am feeling less stressed about having an exact plan for everything. I am able to recognize that at my age my parents had just moved several states away with two young children so that my dad could start grad school, all while shackled with a house that wasn’t selling. My family made two more moves after that before settling down. I don’t think my mother ever did find a satisfying career, but that doesn’t mean her life wasn’t enjoyable. The moment is worth appreciating even if it’s not the picture-perfect moment with everything exactly as planned.


I did a pretty good job on my personal goals, starting with having my baby! And I was super lucky because I happened to have the best baby in the whole world! I had a relatively easy transition back to work, thanks to my mom coming to stay with us for a couple of months. That went really well, and I’m a lot closer to my mom because of it. I tried really super hard to take care of my sleep and health, but sometimes there’s only so much you can do; I ended up having one health issue after another this year, including a chronic issue that’s still not 100% cleared up. But I can say that I worked really hard to take care of myself throughout, so I have no regrets about anything that was within my power.

For my work goals I either nailed them or completely missed. My first goal was to submit a grant for a career transition award, and I totally did not do that, and still don’t think I’m going to. Mostly for scientific reasons, but all of my personal issues have made me not even want to try. I did follow through on my goal to focus on work for my boss’ grants rather than my own, and have made enough progress to put together a paper, but between that and odds and ends for other people, I have really put my own work on the back burner and it has barely moved forward at all. Next year maybe I’ll get that happy medium. My spouse and I applied for faculty positions this fall and are moving forward in the interview processes, so I’m excited about that and will be reporting about it in the future!


I didn’t post any specific resolutions last year. I was not feeling inspired at the time (or maybe my past, pregnant self was just too tired to do it). I always have some resolutions in the back of my mind though, and if I had to follow up on myself over the last year and give a performance evaluation… I would say I passed.

While some of my neurotic tendencies still flare up, I have kept an open mind, hold myself back from reacting immediately to things. This served me very well in my professional life. I accomplished a ton at work over the year, despite getting to take a ~4 month break to adjust to new motherhood and take care of my new little human. And I have accepted a lot of help from other people. This was a useful skill to have especially at home when recovering from childbirth and figuring out how to care for a newborn. Reaching out to some friends about this for help on certain topics even helped start new friendships, which I am grateful for.

2016 had it ups and downs, but it will go down in my history book as a very successful year.


Resolution #1:  Find a passion that can translate into a new career.

No, I did not achieve this.  However, I did attempt.  In the spring I joined a local moms’ writing group.  It was geared more towards fiction/memoir writing, but I have stayed to improve my writing in general and to enjoy the company of smart, thoughtful, and supportive women.  My discovery there was that in order to improve writing, you need to read more (duh).  I don’t read much these days; perhaps my resolution for 2017 should be to read more.  Although I do take pleasure in writing, I am not certain if it is my “passion” or will become my career…  

Resolution #2:  Lose 10-40 lbs.  

For the first month and a half of 2016, I chronicled my daily calorie in and outtakes on a phone app.   I took out alcohol and sweets almost completely from my diet and tried to stay calorie neutral or deficient.  I lost 13 lbs! However, that was not the way I wanted to live my life.  For me, life without booze and sweets is not worth it.  I decided to go back to life with no restrictions, and my weight came right back up.  In July, a new Barre studio opened near my house, and I got a monthly membership.  I have kept up with going 3-4 times a week.  Barre is not an optimum exercise for weight loss however.  I probably should run or do crossfit if I wanted to be serious about weight loss.  With Barre, I am improving in strength, endurance, and form (my shoulders look awesome! but not anywhere else).  My weight is exactly the same as the beginning of 2016. I’m accepting that for now.

Resolution #3:  Publish a post for this blog on time.

Um.  I only posted twice this year.  Two!  I feel I should not even be here writing about my 2016.  Regardless, for the two posts I think I was more or less on time…?  


My resolution for my personal life for 2016 was to keep working on appreciating the moment, and to start meditating.  I think I did pretty well with the goal of appreciating and staying in the moment.  It’s been a lot easier to be in the moment because… I’m pregnant!  It’s been a very exciting 21 weeks so far and I really think that I’ve just been too tired and sick (yup I’m still throwing up) to be as anxious as I usually would be.  It’s also been a lot of fun to watch my body change and to learn about what is going on with my little one every week.  I have also been doing pretty well with pausing and breathing when I do start feeling stressed.

I said that I wanted to try reviewing general chemistry – I did not do as well with this goal. I was given 2 chemistry textbooks and started reading both… but I only got a couple of chapters in and I don’t think any of the bits that I did review were very helpful.  

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