Monday, January 30, 2006

Happy Year of the Dog!

Well, for me supposedly it will be a good year. So far it seems better than last year, ha ha ha. 48 hours and counting...

This morning coming in to work it dawned on me that I might actually get my grant funded and thus, all of this freaking out would be totally unnecessary. How stupid to waste all that energy!

So when I came in I found an email about this waiting for me and decided hey, I really haven't exhausted all the possibilities after all.

Had an interesting chat with someone at NIH about these new grants. He said yes, it might be a good thing. But it might cause a few people a nasty surprise in a couple of years when the first batch of wanna-bes start applying for the 'independent' phase of funding... and find that no one wants to hire them because they're too green. He was very much of the opinion that search committees always err on the side of experience, rather than accomplishment, which was interesting to me since I had never heard that before.

I always assumed a handful of Science, Cell and Nature papers trumped more years of experience. I have more data points for that, I think.

So let's consider the possibility that no one wants to admit the real reason postdocs are dragging out to 10 years is because that's how much experience they actually think we need.

More conspiracy theories???

And, of course, I would tend to disagree. But what do I know, since I only have about half that in postdoc years... It's hard to get across, of course, that I started working in a lab as a teenager. You'd think that more years of raw experience should count for something-?

If it's really experience they're looking for?

Something just doesn't add up here.

But, it turns out that I will hear about my grant sooner than I thought, so that is potentially really good news. Probably by the end of February I will have a vague idea what my chances are of getting funded. That will give me enough time to revise it and at least have it resubmitted over the summer. And today I'm in a good enough mood that I could actually consider working on a grant again.

In the meantime... yes, a career in the arts had occurred to me. Not sure how to get there from here. Suggestions??

I may have an excuse to take a few unfunded months off in the summer... a much-needed vacation. Might not be such a bad thing. I've just always been afraid that if I left, I might never come back. Seeing it written out, it seems like a really stupid thing to be afraid of, not coming back.

I think some part of me is craving a hard deadline, like running out of funding and having to say:

"Ok, Once and For All, that's IT. I tried, I tried really hard, I did my best. I got my Nobel Prize, as far as I'm concerned, I published that fucking paper all by myself and it will sit there on the public record forever, for all I know, at least I contributed SOMETHING. There is a record that I did something. I should just be happy with that and move on, no regrets. The END"

I'm a little tired of these neverending things, like grants and papers, where you never really FINISH, you just stop working on it because you have to stop sometime. And these stupid job applications hanging over my head, I've said this several times, but one, centralized repository and finding out ALL AT ONCE MIGHT NOT BE SUCH A BAD THING!

Aside: Had a weird thought this morning since I'm still holding a grudge against my former advisor. Do you think there are any regrets in Heaven? I'm thinking probably not, which is kind of a shame.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Everyone is telling me to quit

Had an interesting chat with my neighbor, who got a PhD and then went to industry and is now doing something that is neither here nor there. She has always been a big proponent of industry. But I think even she knows that's not the right direction for me. She thinks I should quit all of it.

The consensus this week: all of science is going to shit.

Extreme, I know. But when all the animals are running away, you have to look and see what they're running from. It's just instinct.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Your results:
You are Malcolm Reynolds (Captain)
Malcolm Reynolds (Captain)
Jayne Cobb (Mercenary)
River (Stowaway)
Zoe Washburne (Second-in-command)
Kaylee Frye (Ship Mechanic)
Derrial Book (Shepherd)
A Reaver (Cannibal)
Inara Serra (Companion)
Dr. Simon Tam (Ship Medic)
Wash (Ship Pilot)
Honest and a defender of the innocent.
You sometimes make mistakes in judgment
but you are generally good and
would protect your crew from harm.
Click here to take the Serenity Personality Quiz

Your results:
You are Hulk
Wonder Woman
Green Lantern
The Flash
Iron Man
You are a wanderer with
amazing strength.
Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz

Funny Link

Quit Complaining About Your Job

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Yes, it's stress

They found me today, even at home.

I spent some time talking with my mother, who harrassed me some more about what am I going to do with my life and how come I don't own a house yet and when will I own a house, on and on and on and on. We tried hard, we really did. We explained to her the issues with rent ratios. We got the usual response: "Oh sure" they say, and then two days later the nagging starts again.

Why don't you want to get married and have kids.

I just don't, never did, and am frankly tired of trying to explain that to people who can't relate to me any more than I can relate to why they lives their lives the way they do.

And then I came home, only to find yet another rejection letter in my mailbox. And here I thought most of them would be sent to work.

Yesterday was minutely better, but today was bad again. I'm looking at a weekend of working to make up for not getting anything done this week, but along with doing some experiments I'm hoping to get back on a schedule of eating better and exercising more. In theory all of this will make me feel more productive and help me focus on the 'now' instead of freaking out about the near future. Like I need my mother to REMIND me how uncertain the second half of this year is looking.

Meanwhile, I can't help feeling like my advisor is secretly sabotaging my efforts to get a job. Yesterday she said something about being 'patient', which just reminded me of my initial impression that if she actually wanted to help me get a job this year, she would have been more willing to write my recommendation letters . But maybe I'm just looking for people to blame. And lately I am feeling like my experiments have been going so badly, I can see why she's not jumping on a nearby table to trumpet my praises to everyone who walks by.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

No good news

I'm having one of those days, I spent the first several hours trying not to cry for no reason (hormones), and finally broke down when a friend came in to talk to me about science stuff. Of course I couldn't articulate what was wrong, since it's sort of everything and nothing, aka, the usual. Just too much frustration, or something.

Of course I always feel like an idiot when this happens. One good reason to consider going back on the pill, since it tends to damp out the moodswings.

So I'm seriously considering just going home. Not that I know what I would do there. But I think I'm too upset to work on anything important today. And apparently my office will be unusable tomorrow, for reasons I won't go into, which is okay since I have other things I could be doing. But I have been hoping since last week to set up some more experiments, after talking to a friend about some confusing results and finally feeling like I'm slowly narrowing down the possibilities of what I should be doing to sort things out. Sometimes I really wish I had the sort of job where I could just come in for a few hours and get something done, instead of having to plan several days in advance, get the cells ready, etc. and then be committed to doing the experiment that day or wasting all the material.

Honestly right now I feel like I could go home and sob for hours and just end up with a migraine. So I know it wouldn't help anything. But I have yet to find something that helps consistently when I feel this way. I hate being a girl.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mentoring = meaningless buzzword? and, Things I Hate About Industry

Yesterday I had an upsetting encounter with my thesis advisor. I hadn't seen him in a while, but the last few times we talked, he was working on different things than we worked on together. Meanwhile I have kind of moved back to working on things related to what his lab does, although I hadn't planned on it. I also told him I was counseled not to collaborate with him for a few years, just because it's hard to prove you're really independent if you can't cut the apron strings.

Overall, we have had a rocky relationship, but I thought things were going better between us.

So he told me yesterday he just got a grant funded to work on... the same thing I work on. I was too shocked to ask specifics, plus it wasn't really approriate for the time and place. But he said it with a smirk that I know he tends to reserve for people he doesn't like, and I wasn't sure if it was directed at me. I assumed it was.

In retrospect it's possible he was referring to all the other sharks who have, since I started my thesis, moved into our field and started snapping their teeth. And it's not like there isn't enough work to go around- there is. But it really freaked me out.

I realized I'm a terrible person for thinking it was okay for me to come in and start working in his field and then expect him to respectfully fade into the background. But I guess I thought he was sick of the competition and had plenty of other ideas. Personally I would like to transition, gradually, further away from the crowd. I have plenty of ideas myself, but right now it makes sense to continue with the current story before I move on.


Someone suggested to me the other day that perhaps Mentoring is just a frame, and both sides- PIs and postdocs- use it as an excuse.

PIs love to tell you to find a good mentor, but a good mentor is very hard, if not impossible to find. So it's a catch-22, especially for women. They love to say how important it is, but there's a lot of hypocrisy in saying ... and not doing.

Postdocs love to claim they can't succeed for lack of mentoring.

We were talking about this because of my friend (see earlier post) who managed to pull a thesis out of her ass and graduate.

She was frustrated that her mentor didn't give her more training as a graduate student. But the fact of the matter is, she didn't seek it out, either.

She was surrounded by postdocs in her lab, and had a handful of friends who had already gone through graduate school - including me. But she wasn't asking questions along the way, so the whole thing came crashing down at the end. We were supposed to drop whatever we were doing and bail her out. I figured it wasn't too much of an imposition to try to help her out, but I resented the way she expected it to be at her convenience, rather than treating it as a favor. A huge one.

I do find it astounding that her thesis committee apparently had no problems with the final document, which I haven't seen. All I can assume is that she actually put in all the changes I suggested?? I'm not sure how that could be physically possible. But the alternative makes me ill: that her committee didn't notice all the inconsistencies, all the spin her PI orchestrated on the story. Or they did, but they chose not to do anything about it.

So many failures in this system.

But maybe this is the mythical mentoring I never received: how to succeed in science using skills that have nothing to do with science. And I don't blame my mentor: I chose him because he was smart and wants to get the right answer, knowing full-well that he was a bit deficient in the spin category. Although I know it's an important skill, I tend to despise the people who possess it.


Some of you have asked if I would be willing to go to industry. I think yes, if I can find the right situation. I'm tempted by the suggestion that the best situations are like academia, but with more money.

Here are some things I hate about the idea of going to industry, in no particular order:

1. That the high cost of giving people tons of benefits and high salaries, and more importantly, trying to make a profit, gets passed on to patients, when it (usually?) isn't their fault that they're sick.

2. That someone tells you what to work on, how long to work on it, and when to stop working on it.

3. That competition with other companies is the name of the game.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


Someone was asking me the other day about Bridges To Independence , the report by the National Academies on what we should be doing to revamp postdoctoral training and job creation at the faculty level.

Random aside: I couldn't find the link to BTI, so I looked it up on Google and the top hit was, not surprisngly, . Have you heard of this? It's a group that provides support services for disabled persons in the Portland area. Somehow the coincidental naming seems demeaning to postdocs, and yet appropriate, at the same time...

Anyway I stopped reading this wonderful, preaching-to-the-choir report by the NAS, because it doesn't say anything useful for me. (Perhaps in my copious free time after my fellowship runs out and I don't have a job anymore, I will finish reading it.)

I stopped reading it because it's full of great suggestions for how we should fix the system, and by 'we' I mean taxpayers, Congress, NIH, and PIs.

It's also full of suggestions for what postdocs should do- finish within 3 or 4 years, seek out mentors, publish papers, mentor students, write grants, and so on. All of which I'm doing and exactly on the timescale that they suggest is ideal (since Polly Anna asked how long I've been a postdoc).

What they don't say is why, when we do everything right, we still can't get jobs, and what we (the unemployed, frustrated postdocs) can do about it RIGHT NOW. They don't comment on the 9-year rule, but I wish they would comment on how search committees, despite claiming that they don't expect more than 2 or 3 years of postdoc, inevitably just look at the grand tally of publications and hire the oldest, crustiest postdocs they can find.

The whole document laments, at great length, the loss of all these great young scientific minds to industry and other employment than research. I guess we're supposed to hope the system gets fixed so the next generation doesn't also get lost.

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Sexism lives!

Ahh yes. My neighbor, who has a PhD in a field related to mine but doesn't do research anymore (who does?), just came over asking to borrow my boyfriend. She does this a lot, and usually while we're eating dinner.

This time, her car battery died and between she and three female friends, they couldn't be certain how to jumpstart the car. This woman, you must understand, owns multiple cars, which I think is strange but usually the mark of someone who likes cars and knows something about them. Not this one.

She said, and I quote, "Is your boyfriend here? This is something a guy would know how to do."

What she should have said was, "Gee MsPhD, do you know how to jumpstart a car?"

As my boyfriend pointed out, she could have gone to Google and typed in "How to Jumpstart A Car" and hit "I'm feeling lucky." But she wasn't smart enough to figure that out.

(See earlier post on what's required to earn a PhD, and how we give out way too many of these in this country to people who don't deserve them.)

Snide aside: Poor thing. If she only had a boyfriend, she wouldn't have these problems!

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I find it very interesting that all of you were more shocked by the 9 year postdoc thing than by the fact that this school sent me everybody's email address that applied for a job and didn't get an interview.

To go, or not to go, abroad

re: Dr. J's suggestion from Friday's post, the suggestion was What About Jobs Overseas?

I had thought this would be a viable option at one point, but then I visited some collaborators and interviewed for a postdoc in Europe, and decided it probably wouldn't be good for me. Here are some of the reasons:

1. Work as a job vs. a lifestyle. I've always worked at places where everyone is there evenings and weekends. Research = lifestyle. Most places in Europe, I'm told, are not like that. It's hard enough getting good people to work for you in the US, but everyone I know in Europe complains that none of their students or postdocs work hard enough. Much as I would like to hope I'd be more patient, balanced and understanding, I think the slower pace of research would frustrate me.

2. Supplies, supplies. In the US, I've been very spoiled. Most things you can get the same day, the next day, or later that same week (usually at the latest). Double or quadruple that for most other places in the world, and add in issues with shipping on dry ice, shipping animal or human samples, etc. And did I mention that I really hate waiting for things. Really, really hate it.

3. Uh, cluelessness. I know next to nothing about how the funding works, and I speak only one language besides my native one. And that one, not very fluently anymore.

4. Sexism. Yes, other countries may have just as many, or more, women in science. But my impression is that the women still can't make it to the highest levels. My impression is that the glass ceiling is even worse, in general, outside the US. And by that I mean, the PI level. Nevermind director of an institute or department chair. This is partly because of the more hierarchical organization of research departments outside the US. Did I mention I have problems with authority? More hierarchical = definitely bad.

5. Uh, connections. Clearly, I'm not well-enough connected in the US or I would have gotten some interviews here by now, right? But I have even fewer connections overseas. So I think my chances of getting an interview overseas are just as bad as they are here, or worse.

Maybe these are stupid reasons. But, see #3 up there. I started looking at the application process for the equivalent of a foreign NIH, and let's just say it was at least as bad as the one at NIH, and in my second language it was that much more confusing. As usual I have to say, if anyone is confused about why research is slow, it's because we waste huge amounts of time trying to make sense of convoluted, unintelligible paperwork. At some point I have to say, I've done a helluva lot of applications, maybe my time would be better spent doing experiments so I can publish one last paper.

One last hurrah.

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Friday, January 06, 2006

Beneficial faux pas

Well, it has been a strange week, but today I had to laugh because I was the recipient, along with a couple hundred other unsuspecting applicants, of a major email faux pas. Yes, that's right, we got our rejection letters with everyone's email address showing at the top. Unfortunately I can't tell you what the school was, but I thought this is actually the most informative rejection letter I've gotten so far, because I can finally get an idea of the competition (or rather, my fellow rejects). After all, we're probably all applying for many of the same positions all over the US.

They said they got a couple hundred applications and narrowed it down to 4. Of the email addresses, I googled and pubmedded a few of them (who wouldn't?). Here's what I figured out:

Many of them had similar publications to mine (in the 10-ish range, not tons of top-tier journals.

Many were women, contrary to the whining most search committees do about how they don't get enough qualified women applicants. The women I looked at had very good resumes, or at least, as good as mine.

Many were assistant or associate professors, so of the people they sent this email to, we were not all postdocs.

Many more than I would have expected worked in fields similar to mine, which makes me think either

a) there are way too many of us working on similar things, or

b) they just didn't want anybody working on anything like what I do, so all of us who worked on related things, however good we were, got rejected because of our areas of research.

Probably both.

Frightening thought, because when I started graduate school, nobody was working on this stuff, but now my esoteric little research area seems to be very popular. I hate the thought of competing with peers in my own field. In contrast, I have no problem knowing that many of us work on different things, spanning all the way from neuroscience to developmental to biophysics and so on. It's hard to take it personally if a department really is looking for expertise in a particular area.

So I may continue to mine this 'data set.' It's particularly interesting because I found four other people from my school who applied for this job, and quite a lot of people from Harvard and Yale, not all of whom were postdocs. Makes me wonder why people are so eager to relocate! Perhaps they are all the recipients of non-tenure.

And I continue to wonder, because I found out that a colleague of mine is getting interviews this year, after 9 years of postdoc. Yes, 9 years seems to be the magic number. I have a handful of friends/acquaintances who are now PIs after 9 years of postdoc. Why? Why?? Why do these people do this? Why do the search committees want them? It's utterly baffling. This guy in particular doesn't have lots of publications, and as far as I know, he doesn't have lots of political contacts, either. So I'm a bit stumped. I think it must be the 9 year contract: sell your soul, and in 9 years, we'll let you have it back.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

My worthless ego

Ugh, so I spent the whole day today reading and thinking hard, and trying to meta-analyze a huge pile of confusing data. I made some progress, but my brain is tired so I'm giving up on getting anything else done today. I hate how I feel lazy if I'm not working all the time, and I can't just be satisfied that I made some progress. Progress is good! Guilt = bad.

Then I checked my email - I really shouldn't bother doing that at all, it never seems to put me in a better mood, only a worse one.

This time I had a message sent to all postdocs on campus, announcing, among other things, the 'creation' of a few services I had personally orchestrated setting up a couple years ago when we started the postdoc association. We didn't have the resources to extend it beyond voluntary participation, mostly because the administration wouldn't cooperate (privacy issues, etc). And we literally went door-to-door to set some of this stuff up. It was hard work, but we thought it was important, so we did all the legwork ourselves. Literally.

Anyway I was just annoyed because as usual there is absolutely no mention of the contributions of myself and others who set this stuff up in the first place, and instead it probably sounds to most postdocs like the administration finally got their act together (which is partially true, but still).

Anyway I'm just annoyed because it feels, as usual, like no good deed goes unpunished, and I should give up ever getting any credit for anything that I do, whether it be for postdoc policy or science or whatever. I don't know why, I just really want some kind of acknowledgment once in a while. I wish I didn't. It would be so much easier.

Welcome to 2006

Hello all,

This will be brief because my battery is dying.

An update on the news from the holiday break:

1- My former postdoc advisor died. I was shocked to realize I have very little emotion about this. I guess I really just didn't like him very much, which I sort of knew, but I think you're supposed to feel remorse and forgiveness when someone dies... and I just don't have any feeling for the guy at all. If anything I think it's sad that I don't. If anything, I was relieved, since I knew he was very ill and likely to suffer until he died. I guess I don't care that he's dead, but I'm relieved he's not suffering anymore. Does that make any sense?

In talking with people who knew him years ago, everyone agrees he wasn't himself for the last few years (when I knew him). Too bad for me, I guess I missed out. But again, I had heard that before.

2- My former thesis advisor got a new job and will be moving very, very far away. I am happy for him, and surprised to realize how much I will miss him being nearby, even though we don't see each other all that often. I also fervently hope that if he's going to have any other graduate students, that he treats them well and is less of a micromanager than he was with me.

3- I'm getting some good results in lab, so I've been busy and excited about that.

4- No job interviews, just rejection letters so far.

5- Sending out more applications, of course.

6- Parents are coming to visit soon. Must get hair cut, clean house, have pants tailored properly instead of walking around with threads hanging from where I chopped them with scissors. Mom will be sure to comment on these things, and I am sure it will piss me off since on some level she's right, and it's simple enough to take care of ahead of time.