Saturday, August 30, 2014

Labor day sale! Shopping for job interviews or the new semester.

I have read several posts on how a new female faculty should dress (good ones here, here and here), but since I come from a European country known for its fashion sense and for years I have been the designated shopping companion for job interviews and other major events, I thought I'd add my 2 cents to the mix. Guys whose eyes are rolling at this point, just stop reading. I'll have a gender neutral post next. If you are interested in advice for males there's a great follow-up post from Jake at How to Write a K99 blog. Bargain hunting is my favorite competitive sport, so I'll share some tricks and ideas for the ladies.

I will preface this with a general suggestion: balance being aware of your surroundings and showing who you are. You have to look professional and be appropriate, but the level at which you dress up or down should be within 1-2 standard deviations of the people around you. Yet don't be afraid of your identity. One of my best friends is a petite geologist who wears combat boots and cargo pants on surveys, but can rock stilettos and a hard hat on construction sites...Another friend is an academic who is sporty and outdoorsy. She has a very definite style, but when we'd go out shoe shopping and she tried on the pointy heels I like, they would look so uncomfortable and out of place on her. Suffice it to say she wore colored Camper shoes under her gown on her wedding day and she looked absolutely stunning. You are who you are and you have to own it.

The job search look
One piece of advice I received years ago at a job search advice seminar, was to go to interviews wearing at least one item which was distinctive, be it a scarf, a piece of jewelry or something with an interesting cut. The trick was to not overdo it, but be memorable and unique, which is easier said than done. Your talk and the way you interact with others are always going to be more important factors, but projecting professionalism and a sense of identity never hurts. I know that some people will talk about what you were wearing after you are gone.
My thing for my interview season was muted but strong colors, sometimes patterned, in tones of either petrol or oxblood, which work well with my coloring. Petrol is nice and calming and oxblood is softly energetic. I quite often wear fire-engine red, but unless you're campaigning for office, it may not be a good idea on the interview trail. I never wear jackets, but I also bought a couple of grey/beige blazers that fit nicely...and never wore them again. Shoes had a little bit of heel, but had to be comfortable enough that I could stand and give a talk for an hour AND if necessary walk 20 minutes to a restaurant if the guys taking me out for dinner wanted to take a walk and had no concept that my heels could be hurting. The most important thing is that the clothes are comfortable and make you feel good. No snags, tightness, loose necklines which could accidentally become revealing. Break new shoes in and invest in insoles or padding (my favorites are Foot Petals, which you can sometimes find discounted by the cashier at DSW). You can also use transparent surgical tape to protect your feet wherever you may get a blister.
Just in time for interviews, the Saks Consolidation Sale will have great designer outfits at 70-80% off at the beginning of January. Their sales people are often really good at helping you put things together, and will work with you to retrieve items from other stores or get tailoring done. I know it's not an American thing, but Tim Gunn is right when he recommends to have things tailored, especially dresses. If you are busty, get a larger size and have it taken in. If a dress you like is marked down from $500 to $100 but only exists in a larger size, $50 worth of alterations can make you feel like a million bucks. Hemming pants to the right length to hit your heel will cost $10 at your dry cleaner. See recommendations here on how to pick garments that can be easily altered.
On interview day, when you have the jitters and are desperate to make a good impression, the last think you want is look in the mirror of your hotel room and become self-conscious. It doesn't matter what size you are. Good tailoring, that hits in all the right places and fits like a glove, will help your confidence. Especially if you are not a average height size 6-8 C cup, since most off the rack clothes will not be cut for you.
My petite geologist friends had a mom who could sew well and she could point to anything in a magazine and say "Make me this" and her mom would make it. Most of us are not that lucky and if you are smaller, taller or curvier than "average", the fashion industry becomes trickier to navigate. The thing is that with a lot of different types of women buying clothes, there are brands and cuts out there just for you and when there aren't, there are still good seamstresses and tailors.

The "professor look"
As a new faculty, you will probably have more disposable income, but even as a postdoc there are a lot of deals to be had. Business attire advice always says that you have to dress for the job you want, but you don't need to break the bank doing it.
If you like suits, go for it, but as you go in and out of meetings and classes and try to still do experiments, blazers may be uncomfortable (as you have probably figured out by now, I hate blazers). Two really good pieces to pull together a jean/slack and tank top look are the DKNY cozy and the J Crew Jackie cardigan, both coming in a huge array of neutral and bright colors.
DKNY cozy styles
Cozies are wonderful because you can tie them differently every day and you can adapt the style to your shape. Forget the $195 price tag and pick some up at any DKNY outlet store, especially when end of season colors go on sale for $30-40, like this weekend. They come in P-S and M-L size and that's all you have to worry about. The cozy ring which looks like a big belt buckle is awesome to get some of the more complex ties to look put together.

The Jackie cardigan is a proper name for a little 3/4 sleeve cardi with pearly buttons which Jackie O might have worn. Its cheaper sibling the Clare cardigan is now on the sale at the J Crew Factory site for $24.50 in 14 different colors. It lasts a season of washes and then starts to look a bit faded, but it's an amazing deal at $25.

Despite all the advice to the contrary, my big thing since getting my faculty job have been costume necklaces in different colored resins that match or complement the sweaters which are usually in bright candy colors. Senior female faculty in my department is big on jewelry, so I have experimented a lot. Flash sale places like RueLaLa or ideeli have really cool designers like Amrita Singh and Sparkling Sage in the rotation and surprisingly has a huge array of jewelry from all over the world. I call this my "professorial necklace" collection. Nothing steps up a look like properly chosen accessories.

In a way you can see the interview outfit shopping as your trial to assemble your faculty wardrobe. With comfort and personal style in mind you may try new designers and buy go-to pieces for your first talks and conferences. Since we are all crazy busy and don't have much time to keep track of stuff ShopItToMe is a great resource: you tag what you like and you get an email when the price drops. Pinterest will also do that, if you make a board with different pieces. For example see Dr. Mellivora's board for new faculty attire.

I think that muting your femininity and your identity to fit in a boys' club sounds like an absolutely ridiculous concept. So, if you like to shop, shop away, ladies! 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Live Tweeting SFN2014 vs data protection

There has been a lot of chatter last night and today on Twitter about the SfN2014 embargo policy to hold communications about presentation until the end and it got me thinking about what the SfN meeting is for, since I'm dealing with issues of identity this week.

I'll start from the fact that I don't live tweet because I find it distracting and I like to listen and take notes, but if someone live tweeted one of my talks I would be fine with it, so I have nothing against live tweeting. As far as tweeting in general I just went to a conference where I tweeted about cool talks and posters I saw and to one that was completely embargoed (top to bottom) where as instructed I didn't tweet.

The first was the European neuroscience meeting FENS which is similar to SfN: large, with tons of posters, with large plenary/presidential lectures and whatnot. The second was a subfield Gordon Research Conference for 200 people where almost everyone apart from the paranoid usual suspects presented completely unpublished work. At FENS I presented a story that was already accepted and coming out within 2 weeks, at the GRC I presented a whole bunch of brand new unpublished data. At SfN we will present a story which will hopefully be submitted before the meeting. Why? Because SfN is too big and scary and most people, like at FENS, only present accepted or ready to go data. I would be happy if someone tweeted about my SfN poster, but I wouldn't have been fine if someone had tweeted about my GRC poster.

So the issue is "What are the large society meetings for?". I would not necessarily send a postdoc to SfN with the intent to learn about our field, I would (and I did) send them to a smaller meeting where they can meet people and see what is happening at the cutting edge. I would instead send an undergraduate or grad student to the SfN meeting to learn about the breadth of neuroscience and see what lots of people are doing. SfN is also great for networking and looking for all kinds of jobs. I go to SfN myself every few years to catch up with friends and get a general feel of what people have been interested in and what trends are emerging. With 30,000 people symposia are mostly impossible to attend and posters absolutely insane, so after I have seen the greatly curated posters in my itinerary I just stroll down the A-D lanes and pick up key words.

And that's the conundrum, you can live tweet presidential lectures all you want, but in reality you just need to say "PubMed Prof. X about Y" and there's the content of the talk. You can also live tweet the posters, but what that is going to do is that people will make sure not to put any critical new data in it unless the paper is in the can. That is still very useful, because the audience will know in advance what are the cool things coming out. You just have to realize that with an abstract submission deadline 6 months in advance you are really seeing last year's data.

As a hybrid between a geneticist ("Do not say a word. They could scoop us tomorrow.") and a cell biologist ("Don't worry. It'll take them 2 years to catch up.") I understand both feelings, but I really appreciate sharing. I think that science will move much faster if we share openly and distribute credit appropriately and I've been doing my best to push geneticists terrorized by the advent of next-generation sequencing into doing so. Yet scientists always have a little bit of Gollum in them ("My preciousss data"), so the question behind all this is not really whether you can live tweet SfN, which you can, who's really going to stop you? There is really no reason to get that incensed. SfN is last year's data, what should we do about today's data? Are you ready to put what you have out there right now?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Who am I? Defining your identity on the tenure-track.

"Who am I?" is the question I have been pondering in the past few days after attending a conference I have attended religiously for the past 10 years.  Since it's a small subfield conference, I know basically everyone there and people come back every 2 years over and over again. Old friends attending for the first time wondered why they didn't know about it and vouched to become regulars. It's is my version of summer camp. Awesome science camp!

Yet, this time I felt like I don't belong any more. The work I presented just didn't fit. Maybe it didn't fit because this year's slant was skewed towards the conference organizers' interests, but this feeling of suddenly being in the wrong place raised some questions I've been struggling with: my identity. A piece of advice I received when I was interviewing for jobs was to develop a strong identity, an identity that could be summarized in a few words. Having an imaginary moniker like "Embryonic Stem Cell Boy" or "Endosomal Signaling Girl" makes it easier for colleagues to pick you for symposia and seminars. And it will make it easier for people in your field to know what your impact is when they write letters for tenure. As a new investigator on the tenure-track I need to define who I am, strongly assert my independence from my postdoctoral mentor and make myself known. Regional, national, international reputation! What do I want to be known for?

The conundrum comes with having two lines of research in the lab. I had two lines of research during my PhD and during my postdoc. Both my postdoctoral projects came with me. They were funded during my postdoc and they got funded now. I was talking about my work with an NIH Program Officer at the meeting indicating that I want to apply for two R01s and he laughed "Blessed youth!" Then I talked to some of the medium-level investigators and I got conflicting advice: some say "FOCUS! Put everyone on one paper at once!", others said "Be dispersive! Follow the biology wherever it takes you! Have fun!" I think this is maybe the hardest decision I have to make as a new PI. Part of me is scared that remaining split will doom my lab, but part of me wants to ride this wild funding wave to the end. If both projects stay funded and productive, each with its own independent animal model, why not continue and instead devise a new umbrella identity for myself? At the end that would be the same umbrella identity that got my the job in the first place. I get really really bored doing the same thing and having multiple lines of inquiry keeps me interested and motivated...and now I can focus my people without having to focus myself. During my first year I have never written the same grant twice and I am really encouraged by bloggers like DrugMonkey who recommend to diversify your grant portfolio. Among all this, the project that I really want to do is yet another one, which is going to take more than 5 years to come to fruition, and which will never get funded if not by my start-up money.

Mind, it's not that I am doing diametrically different things. A neuron is always a neuron and my interest in development is focused on some specific events, but the mechanisms of interest are different, the animal models vary, so that sometimes I'm jumping between different approaches and ways of thinking. Is the balancing act worth it? Will I come out of this with a more interesting and competitive research program?

I know the detail is scant, but thought and advice would be greatly appreciated.

BTW, hope the YouTube sharing is kosher because there is nothing that helps an identity crisis as much as Hugh Jackman....

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Learning how to hire #5: is team building a science?

As my team grows I have been fretting not only about finding the best people, but finding the best people who are compatible with each other. I stumbled on a 2-year old Harvard Business Review article discussing the science of building a productive team and I thought "Science? I can do that!"

By assigning devices recording daily employee activities scientists discovered that communication across all team members is one of the most important factors for team productivity, as it is finding people with the right qualities to join the team. Team members must communicate with each other and with management often, the more they communicate outside of formal meetings and the more they "gel" with each other, the better performance gets. I love sitting in my office and hearing them chit-chat and laugh out there, because it means they are happy and they are comfortable in the lab...and if they are comfortable in the lab, in the lab they stay as long as they need to. Also if they are comfortable with each other, it is easier to ask for help and to collaborate. With a really small lab and no lunch room on the floor, we have all been having lunch in my office which is often a chance to just talk about random things. As the lab gets bigger, it will become more difficult to fit everyone in there, so I'll need to figure something out to make sure the new people are included in the group.

The HR Council in Canada has a great page with suggestions for building a productive team from how to develop a team to understanding group dynamics in order to defuse problems. My main concern at the moment is to find people who will get along. I am assembling two small teams for two projects and based on team-work experiences from previous labs I want to make sure things run smoothly: personalities have to fit and roles have to be well defined, so that conflicts can be resolved when they arise. Because conflict will come one way or another and the worst possible thing it to ignore it and let it sit there and fester. One of the best suggestions of this Forbes article on how leaders can deal with conflict is to view conflict as an opportunity for team building and for innovation. I had never thought about the possibility of leveraging conflict, but it totally makes sense and makes it sound less scary.

Usual HR advice is not to hire yourself and not to base hiring on personality, but qualifications for the job. While I do agree with the not hiring yourself over and over again because variety in the work place is actually quite nice, I do think personality if very important and I think that it should be matched to the project at hand. There are experiments that can accommodate a mercurial and innovative mind and there are others that require a careful and methodical approach. I have funding for both, and I think that finding people who will naturally gravitate towards one or the other may be more productive than trying to push someone who likes diversity on a repetitive task.

As the lab grows in the next two months I'll have my work cut out for me.
For more "Learning how to hire" posts and other management tips, go to my Management page.

Image credit: Working Together Teamwork Puzzle Concept, lumaxart, Wikimedia Commons