Monday, September 24, 2007

But, I AM desperate!

Several people have made comments on the CV posts to the effect of "Don't do this because it sounds too desperate."

This is something I fundamentally don't understand about human psychology. But it's true. It's true for dating, so why shouldn't it be true for jobs?

I understand that you don't want someone to settle for a job they didn't really want, just to get out of their current miserable situation, and then be a flight risk when they come to their senses. I get that.

But, um, I really hate being a postdoc??!! And I'm not really sure that's any secret for most people at the stage of applying for faculty positions.

But there are a few who don't seem to mind. I ran into a friend today whose advisor has convinced her to wait yet another year to apply for faculty positions.

She's just relieved not to be out on the street, living in a cardboard box. She talks about it like he's going to "let" her stay in his lab. Lucky her!

But I can't help feeling like these guys don't really have our happiness and satisfaction in mind when they say they can pay us a pittance if we would just be patient and wait. And wait. And wait.

Especially when one of the slowest parts of the reaction is the delay when they make us wait days, sometimes weeks or months, to even have a meeting where we get to beg them for any little crumb of feedback.

Does that seem fair to you?

To me, this is a lot like having children. Should my taxes or tuition go to support someone who has 6 children, no job, and doesn't understand or want to learn how to use birth control? I don't really think so.

Similarly, should I have to wait for my advisor to make the rounds just because he can't make time for all his obligations? Do the accumulated days of waiting actually tack on an extra year, or even two, for each postdoc who desperately wants to leave? And is that really balanced out by the quality of the feedback I eventually get?

I'm thinking it would depress me too much to add up how much time it has actually been, if I counted up a total. I once added up my bus rides from high school and it came to something like more than a solid month of my life.

And is it any wonder after all this waiting if I sound a little desperate? I just don't really think it's fair to say that a little ambition is a bad thing.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

CV questions continued

I'm looking at the Burroughs-Wellcome Making the Right Moves handbook and just noticed a couple of things contrary to what I've been told before.

1. Include teaching interests on your CV. Is this true? It's news to me.

2. List manuscripts in preparation under a separate category. Really? I've heard a lot of debate about whether to list them at all, but I've always seen them listed along with everything else.

3. Do not include posters exhibited at scientific meetings.

Aha! See, posters don't count! In other words, at least to the people who published this handbook, posters are to people who get jobs as Trix are to the silly rabbit.

Or is that only for the Burroughs-Wellcome elite?

The rest of the proletariat should list posters because we don't have much else to show for ourselves, eh?

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Are old books like old clothes?

It's that time of year again. In my annual fit of de-cluttering, I'm wondering if I can cull my gigantic book collection and free up some space that way. It seems like my house is a bermuda triangle of books- they come in, but they don't go back out.

So my question for the blogosphere today is, what's the statute of limitations?

I know the rule for clothes is 1 year. I've more or less got a system for giving old clothes away to charities throughout the year.

I know this won't work for books, though, since I have books from college that I end up referencing sporadically every few years, but when I do, man am I glad I kept them!

Is there some formula that includes the cost/rarity of the book (e.g. science textbook with my notes in the margin + $70 original cost) and how far out of date it may or may not be (bought 15 years ago) and how heavy it is (i.e. how likely I am to want to move it should I have to pay by the square foot and/or ton)?

And what's the best way to get rid of books? Keeping in mind that some of these have been highlighted and scribbled on quite a lot, so maybe aren't appropriate for donation to the local library (which has surprisingly high standards for what they'll take).

Meanwhile I'm wishing there were something like a reverse ice-cream truck for furniture, that would drive through neighborhoods periodically (or maybe only in certain seasons?) play a little song and then you could run outside and tell them to take a certain piece of crappy old furniture away (or three)?

Some of this stuff is so crappy, I think even Goodwill or Freecycle would turn it down, but I'm still going to try to give it away, since I don't own a truck or even know anyone who does...

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

The course of your life.

Yes, that's essentially how Curriculum Vitae translates.

If mine actually reflected my real life, it would be made of tree leaves for the first page, pollution for the second, cigarette burns for the third, tire marks for the fourth... you get the idea.

Today I've been meditating on how you should never underestimate the value of spending two hours polishing your CV. Specifically, the formatting of your CV.

Yes, it's true. The formatting matters almost more than the content.

In a recent Academic Job Search workshop I attended, one of the exercises they had us do was to be the search committee. We got to evaluate two candidates. We used real application packages with all identifying information blocked out.

Most of the people in our workshop chose the person whose CV was formatted to be longer. Much longer. Everything double spaced and indented TO THE MAX. It was very pretty, and seemed much more impressive just because of the length. Every time you had to turn the page you thought, "Wow, there's a lot on here."

I'm talking ~ 3 pages for one person compared to ~ 10 pages for the other.

Oddly enough, I picked the person with the 'ugly' CV, because that CV had more qualifications relevant to the job description, even if it took me on the order of 10 whole seconds of looking through each of them to figure that out.

But the point wasn't lost on me. Not knowing anything about a person, it's hard to know who to pick. If all they look at is your CV, it makes about as much sense as judging whether to like someone based solely on whether they have pretty feet. You're just looking at one part of the elephant.

Considering how much time we spend prettifying our papers and grants, it seems reasonable that if you're serious about getting a job, then your CV should be gorgeous.

Ironically, I've always prized my CV as one of my better application features. I thought it looked pretty good, and had lots of strong content. I've shown it to lots of faculty and tried to take their feedback on fonts, which section goes where, etc. Nobody said I was doing anything egregiously wrong.

But this exercise made me realize that it probably doesn't matter if I have more publications than either of these anonymized people (both of whom now have faculty positions in real life). What matters is that you literally have to look good on paper.

I never understood what that really meant until now.

My CV didn't need to go to a gym. It needed to go to a day spa.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Screw you guys, I'm staying home.

Got a much-needed pep talk from a friend today who insists I should start on the job application process, even as I'm agonizing over publications, publications, publications.

So I swore I'd try to get in the mode of moving forward, not worrying about past mistakes, not being afraid of the worst possible outcomes.

Bite the bullet, make the leap, that sort of positive thinking!

But then I checked my junkmail folder, and found that an abstract I submitted a couple months ago for a meeting got assigned to a Poster.

I am somewhat amused that my email program knew exactly what to do with an email like that!

I hate posters. And this work, IMHO, deserves to be presented in a talk.

And I always hate this meeting.

So I'm thinking I'd rather not go.

It's supposed to be good to go to these things, for networking, blah blah blah.

But this meeting is big enough that it's really hard to meet anyone new.

And most of the people I know who go religiously every year are people I don't really ache to see. You know how it goes, you go out and drink with them because that's what you're supposed to do, but you find yourself having to drink just to numb the pain of having to talk to them?

Yup, this is one of those meetings that makes me question if I'm in the wrong field. It's that bad. It's one of those meetings that makes me remember why sometimes I really hate scientists and science.

So I think I'll take a line from Cartman on Southpark and just skip the whole thing.

I'd much rather stay home and like science than go to this meeting and hate it.

It will be the second abstract I've withdrawn this year for lack of getting picked to give a talk, so I'm wondering if that looks bad.

Somehow I doubt anyone who relegated me to poster status would even care.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Unmotivated and unfocused.

I'm not usually in this mood, where I just don't want to do any work at all. But here I am, uninspired to even try. Maybe I'm just tired or hungry, or both... hopefully this won't last all afternoon, because if there's one thing I don't want, it's to feel guilty about not getting anything done today.

Maybe I should focus on the guilt and self-loathing for being lazy.

Was talking to a friend last night about her high-paying job, which she nonetheless finds unsatisfying most of the time. She said she realizes she shouldn't be whining about it, there are a lot of worse jobs out there.

So today I was thinking about jobs I would not want to do. They include:

garbage collector
mail delivery person
the person who washes hair at a salon
dishwasher at a restaurant
line cook at a fast food joint
tuba player
Victoria's secret model
sports photographer
preschool teacher
personal shopper

Jobs I wouldn't mind include:

bus or taxi driver
coffee shop owner
freelance writer
circus performer

What about you? Whatever is wrong with my brain today, it's making me run out of steam. What are some more jobs I'm forgetting to consider?

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Curse of the female pronouns

When I went to college, I was used to hearing people refer to any example character in a story as "he." Stories went like this:

So let's say there's a scientist studying butterflies. He collects them. Then he dissects them. Then he wins a Nobel Prize for discovering the butterfly testis.

Imagine my surprise when I went to college and sat in a required Philosophy class and heard a male professor use exclusively "she."

Does the chair exist because she thinks it does? She perceives the chair by seeing it, by sitting on it.

At the time, I remember literally gasping out loud. OH MY GOD. I had never seen anyone do that before. Suddenly I realized this college thing was a really big deal. It was a whole other world, where people were really enlightened.

Needless to say, it was that experience that made me sign up for a Women's Studies class to fill one of my other requirements. And other than using "she" for everything, the guy who taught that Philosophy class was terrible. I think my grade for that class was a B.

This week I noticed two examples of something that made me think of the guy who taught that class.

One was in a survey I took online for my university. We do these a lot. Would you like better parking? Yes. Would you be interested in attending this event? Yes.

This one was a safety re-certification. Are you aware that this is unsafe? Yes.

But in this one, there were little scenarios. You know the type.

Bob spills radioactive superglue on his hand.

Does he

a) pick up the phone with that hand to call EH & S ?
b) yell and scream for help ?
c) sit down and calmly wait for someone to come along and rescue him ?

And as I went along and did the little questions, I noticed something weird.

In all the examples where Bob did the right thing, Bob was a guy.

In all the examples where Bob did the wrong thing, he was Roberta.

Similarly, today I'm reading a book about how to communicate your ideas clearly. It's a great book, I'm really enjoying it and learning a lot.

But again, there are almost no examples where the scenario character is "she."
So now I'm on ~ page 37, and I just found one: a female engineer who does the wrong thing.

On the next page is an example of a brilliant (male) engineer who created a great product and led his company to fame and fortune.

Subtle? Sure. Hard to miss? You bet.

And I bet the authors don't even realize they're doing this.

Meanwhile, Larry King was interviewing Bill Clinton, who said something about how Hilary was a great example of her gender. Or something to that effect.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Postdocs get pissed on by PIs

Lucky me, DrugMonkey not only decided to piss on my post, but also has a typo.

You make it too easy. Postdocs may not know much, but at least we can use a spellchecker.

I knew my comment about how "postdocs have the drawbacks of being a PI with none of the benefits" would draw fire, so I was surprised that no one commented on it per se at the time.

Instead I rated a whole rant! Yay, me.

Let me rephrase and address specifics of the complaints from DrugMonkey.

Points raised by DrugMonkey include:
1. Postdocs don't write grants.
2. Postdocs don't write papers.
3. Postdocs mooch off the lab infrastructure.
4. Postdocs have no clue what PIs really do.
5. Postdocs underestimate how much our PIs really help us.

Maybe I shouldn't say postdocs in general. Let's just say one postdoc, me. But I'm going to assume, perhaps with some audacity, that I'm not the only one out there. Maybe represent a small contingent of highly talented, hardworking postdocs who have gotten a raw deal.

So let me start by saying that while I might be really unusual, #1-3 don't apply to me personally.

1. I wrote a K grant, which is the same size, and, if you look at the statistics, more competitive than an R01. I've also helped revise an R01 from triage status to funded in the top 5%. So I have a very good idea of how much work writing an R01 really is.

2. I've written and published papers on my own. I wrote the cover letter, made all the figures, wrote all the text, and argued with the editors about the reviews. Everything. Admittedly, most postdocs don't do this, but I have.

3. I've been a sort of roaming gnome of a lab member for several years now, since my project is interdisciplinary I don't have all the equipment I need in any one place.

So I'm not really provided the sort of lab infrastructure most postdocs enjoy. This has been, if anything, a major drawback and has slowed me down a lot.

Note to taxpayers who want us to cure human diseases faster: I would have gotten more work done faster if I had gotten a faculty position years ago, since I could then design my lab to meet my own needs, instead of trying to cobble something together from begging and borrowing.

4. I've been mentoring people at all levels from high school through tenured professor on sabbatical. I've mentored these colleagues (and I treat everyone as a colleague, which is why I hate being treated like dirt) through technical problems, experimental design, project design, grantwriting, committee work, and so on and so forth.

So I have a pretty good idea what most PIs spend their days doing. Do I like it? Hell yeah. Am I good at it? Hell yeah.

Does anybody notice or care? Not if they can help it.

5. I have a pretty good idea of what a good PI can and should do. I'm also pretty certain that I've never really had one.

My current advisor is smart, but I don't get much feedback without a helluva lot of nagging. My advisor is either not in town, or doesn't have the door open, and not often seen walking through the lab (or because I'm frequently working elsewhere, not when I'm around).

PhysioProf, on DrugMonkey's post, comments that "the trainee has forgotten the numerous casual transient interactions through which the PI has guided the science and trained the trainee."

To which I have to say, I always remember the help that I get, because I get so little of it, and only when I ask.

But in a way you're making my case for me. If that's such an important part of being a PI- and I'd argue that it's the gravy part of the job- why do you make it sound so easy, casual, and transient?

I can say quite honestly that I get as much, if not more, helpful feedback from my other colleagues- fellow postdocs, students, collaborators- as I do from my PI.

So I have to wonder what's so great about the advisor-advisee relationship.

In the best of times, it's Buffy and Giles. Maybe some rough patches, but ultimately a relationship based on respect, mutual need, and a lot of hard work side-by-side in the trenches.

In the worst of times, it's anything but.

And you can say, as DrugMonkey did, "Scientific trainees that, for one reason or another, just don’t have what it takes either smarts or motivation-wise. When you get a whiner perspective like YFS, it is possible you have someone who isn’t going to make it."

Another great example of the Blame the Victim mentality.

In the best of circumstances, I'd like to think that most of us would be wildly successful.

Throw some roadblocks in the mix, and most of us would quit.

If you had half a clue what I've been through, you wouldn't be accusing me of not having the motivation. You'd be amazed I'm still standing.

And there's no doubt I have the scientific ability.

Still, you could argue that I'm lacking a certain kind of wisdom to navigate around the assholes, and you would be right. I'm definitely missing something about that.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


Saw this quiz over at Geeka's site. I love it!

You're The Handmaid's Tale!

by Margaret Atwood

An outraged feminist, you have been oppressed and even silenced in
your life, fueling your fury against the society as it stands. Your role has been
strictly defined by society and you are almost certainly unsatisfied with it. You
have some vague idea of how this has come to be, but insufficient power to stop it,
let alone reverse the trend. And somehow you blame yourself for everything because
people ask you to. Beware people renaming your nation a Republic.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

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