Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Networking 101: Why follow-up emails matter

Now more than ever with horrible job prospects and abysmal funding rates your network can make you or break you in academia. People in your network will mention jobs that could be a good fit, will provide collaborators and co-PIs for grants, will give a second opinion on grants and papers, will invite you for seminars and pick your for talks at conferences, and overall will make your life much easier. I have discussed why networking in important and how to network here, but going to back to back meetings the past two weeks reminded me of a time honored tradition, the "nice to see you" email.

Johannes Vermeer - Lady with her maidservant
holding a letter
After I received a couple of lovely notes, including one from the senior PI who had prompted the
meltdown chronicled in my last post, I took half an hour to send my own. It doesn't take long, since "It was great to see you, I enjoyed catching up" or "I enjoyed your talk/poster" or "Thank you for taking the time to ..." followed by similar pleasantries is all it takes. Maybe you had brief discussions over coffee about possible collaborations you'd like to consolidate, and you can mention the specifics. If it's someone you just met and they have a LinkedIn profile, it also makes sense to connect on LinkedIn, so that you are permanently in their gravitational circle.

There is really no downside of this, as long as your correspondence is brief and pleasant, AND it is directed to someone with whom you made a connection. Do not email the keynote speaker or everyone at the meeting, unless you have had a meaningful 5-10 min conversation about their work or your work. Some people will reply and consolidate the relationship, other won't, but in any case you have planted a seed to grow your network.
I have never been particularly good at remembering to follow up, but whenever I get one of these notes, it always reminds me of how important it is. As humans we want to feel connected and appreciated, and with all the rejection of grants and papers going around these days, it's good practice to be sociable and polite...good karma may follow.

Photo credit: Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, March 14, 2015

More thoughts on the new PI transition: recovering from a bad talk

As a new principal investigator, I'm always in a frenzy to promote my work, so that I'm going to establish myself in my field(s) presenting cool new data. I have written before about trying to develop your ability to be a bit of peacock (shaking your fancy tail around) and how uncomfortable it can be, and every time I go a conference nowadays I am stricken by a sense of doom. Conferences used to be fun as a trainee when you saw wonderful stories from senior investigators and were inspired to come up with new ideas and apply new techniques. Now I'm always teetering between feeling small and irrelevant because there are large groups and consortia which will move faster than I even could, and panicking that I will be crushed because my lab cannot generate data quickly enough or because my questions are not interesting/visible enough.

So this week I am at conference where my abstract was selected for a talk. This is a brand new collaborative project with a paper in revision and I was very excited it was picked, until I started working on the talk and realized that I still don't have a stunning conclusion, at least as it would be expected by the type of people attending this meeting. At the meeting there was a complex combination of stressors: 1) it's a specialized conference for a disease foundation that funds my work, but I feel a bit of an impostor because I focus on a specific aspect of the disease that has nothing to do with the major therapeutic targets people here care about; 2) some of the experts knowing the clinical details and the fine biochemical details much better than I do were going to be there, so I had been studying and rereading the literature like mad while preparing my talk; 3) I really wanted to give people a good show hoping to get noticed by the program officers in attendance, potential collaborators, pharmaceutical companies and colleagues.

As the talk took shape I began to worry about its scope: it was picked from the abstract, but should I give an overview of the lab instead since it was 20 minutes and the invited speakers had more general abstract? Or should I just focus on the abstract which is looking at a specific model which really didn't provide information relevant for the specific crowd that would be attending? In the middle of the freakout, I spent a couple of late nights trying to generate last minute data that would be interesting to the clinicians and other researchers. My postdoc had not been successful in generating some data I needed to make me more comfortable presenting the work as it was, and my undergrad had decided to go on spring break without letting me know until the very last minute...
I was back in that state of feeling like half a postdoc half a PI that I described a couple of weeks ago, where I'm stuck between doing the work and focusing on the big picture. Maybe it's a phase, hopefully a growth spurt, in any case it's very uncomfortable.

I think I'm usually a good speaker and I have developed some good talks. I enjoy public speaking and am very happy to have an audience. Despite these premises the whole thing was a mess. I started focusing on the abstract and then realized I wasn't going to fill 20 minutes, so I backtracked and added a shortened version of my usual spiel on findings that would be more interesting to the audience. I practiced like crazy (which I usually don't do) to the point where I started messing up over and over again, and kept modifying the intro slides to almost the last minute, struggling with the transitions and actually forgetting some key detail in one which likely pissed some people off. I think I did an okay job delivering the talk though I got nervous a couple of times, and had some issues with the Q&A since the questions ranged in disparate directions. I stepped off the podium feeling dejected and as I watched the other speakers discuss the awesome things they do in their labs, I wished I had taken a completely different approach.  I should have taken more time to flesh out the part of the talk which is more comfortable for me and which would be more interesting to the audience describing some additional published studies without spending 10 minutes on the more problematic new project. One reason why I chickened out from that is that the big dog in my field, whose shadow I need to escape, was talking in the same session after me, and I graciously mentioned he would do a much better job that I ever would at describing some of the mechanisms involved (which incidentally he did without ever even acknowledging me or my work). Everyone I know said I did well, but don't they always? A much better benchmark is when strangers come up to you to ask questions or to say how they learned something new...

Next week, I'm going to another meeting which is on a different topic and with a much more fitting crowd and I'm just presenting a poster, so the pressure is low. A couple of friends who have been very successful and are rising stars will be there and will definitely make me feel like I still need to reach my full potential, but that is another story for another post. There might be a component of raging impostor syndrome  bringing me down, but the bottomline is that I wonder whether this also reflects the struggle of new investigators to becoming "established" and "developing their identity" which senior people constantly bring up when talking about tenure.

Ideas, comments, advice are welcome.