Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The first rule of Academic Speakeasy...

Academic Speakeasy will be a monthly appointment to privately and anonymously discuss academic life and struggles (see blog post). This is how it's going to work.
  • 5 minutes before chat start time @Professor_Chat will post the link and password for the Niltalk chat room 
  • you can choose whatever name you like: your real name, your Twitter handle or a different name every single time
  • in the chat room DO NOT CLICK the "Dispose" button. Niltalk is set up so that every member can cancel the chat at any time. Please, let the moderators do that
  • we will chat for an hour or less about the topic (for the first time about how to set up)
  • be courteous, be constructive and feel free to share
  • the Niltalk chat will be destroyed as soon as it ends and no record will be kept
If you are also interested in an open chat on Twitter post topics on @Professor_Chat and we'll try and make it happen.

How do we build a secret advice network for scientists?

In the past few years I posted several times about the struggles I'm facing in academia. I am always
really scared of putting my thoughts out there, but the thought that this could help other people always make me click on the Publish button. The responses have been in general very positive expressing support and gratitude for sharing. While we often believe that we are unique snowflakes in our sorrows, we really are not and many scientists at different stages of their career have similar problems.

Multiple times on Twitter and on the blog people have expressed the need for a forum to meet and talk about our professional issues. I am fortunate to have a good cohort of new investigators who meets regularly to discuss what is going on and come up with hacks to get around administrative hurdles. But there are thoughts I cannot share with colleagues at the same university and sometimes I would like to learn how things are at other places or how different people solve problems.

After some thought on how to do this and some discussion with @drosophilosophy, aka Tim Mosca, who most recently raised the issue, we really like the format of Diversity Journal Club #DiversityJC on Twitter (run by the awesome @Doctor_PMS, @IHStreet and @DrEmilySKlein). They set a time once a month to discuss an issue on Twitter. Since Twitter is still a public forum, I have been looking for a private password protected chat room and I discovered Niltalk. Niltalk allows you to create a password for a room that exists for only 2 hours and then gets deleted forever. Think of it as a speakeasy! Users can be completely anonymous or not, as they prefer. We can just set a date and time, decide on a topic or a couple of topics and open as many chats as we like. Each topic should have a moderator (myself, Tim or ideally the person proposing the topic would be willing to moderate). There could also be a monthly chat on Twitter about academic career development, with a common hashtag like #profchat and this could be storified to provide a more permanent record.

I'll start one tomorrow June 1th at 10pm EST (7pm PST) just to see how it works and start the conversation. Link for the chat room and password will be posted on Twitter at 9:55pm on a dedicated Twitter account @Professor_Chat
Come hang!!

Friday, May 27, 2016

How do you know when to change and not quit?

I have been thinking a lot about quitting recently. As I wrote in a very hopeful post the day before I started my faculty position, thinking about quitting is part of my process. I have considered alternative careers since I was in college and I have become accustomed to chose my job every day. I am going to work because I want to, because there is nothing else that I would rather do. Sometimes things get so hard, that you question your choices and wonder whether whatever you are doing is really what you should be doing with your life.

I was looking for articles or blog posts about transitions in academia and I found a whole lot about quitting. There is a great article on Vitae that summarizes some of the views of the so called academic Quit Lit which they collected in a handy Google doc. (Warning: you should read these posts only when you are in a good mood or in the company of a good bottle of Scotch)

However, what if you should not change careers altogether, but are just unhappy where you are?
Sometimes we mistake profound dissatisfaction with our current situation with having chosen the wrong profession, but this is not necessarily true. Throughout my training, I have met people who just needed to be somewhere else and did not necessarily fit where they were. Someone who started a PhD in Neuroscience and switched to Computer Science to another university. Multiple people who were in the wrong thesis lab or the wrong postdoc lab. When you think everything is hopeless and you are stuck, this is hardly ever the reality. You are never ever stuck unless you're in jail without the possibility of parole, but then you have other problems than deciding what to do with your PhD.
You can be unhappy for a multitude of reasons:
- your job is toxic and your boss is a monster who makes everyone cry;
- your job is great/okay, but the rest of your life sucks;
- your job is okay, but you do not have the right resources for advancement.

It boils down to this. You institution/lab can 1) destroy your career, 2) allow your career or 3) support your career. If you're in position #3, great for you! Stop reading and go do something fun. If you're in position #1, you need to come up with an exit strategy stat! In the best case scenario you are a year 1-2 grad student or postdoc and you can exit gracefully to find another lab. In the economy of your life, 1-2 years mean nothing. Trust me. If you are more advanced, you need to discuss with trusted colleagues and mentors how to best position yourself to get out. A good number of people will be in position #2, some things are okay, some things are not, so you're not sure what to do. Science has a lot of ups and downs. You may just need to sit down and figure out the pros and cons of your situation. A senior mentor recommended a very good strategy. Make a list of every single thing that is important to you in your life and your work, for example, good colleagues or good museums. Then as you consider moving, rank the new cities and universities for each of the criteria (this may require research). The perfect university/perfect city match may not exist, so you must decide what you can live with and what you really want. It may turn out that where you are is the best compromise or that you can ask for something to change to make things better. If not, you use your network to start figuring out how to move somewhere higher on your list. Academia can be for life, but does not have to be a life sentence.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Where the New PI tries a time management exercise

I have multiple posts at various stages, but lately the time is lacking. I feel exhausted and unproductive, being pulled in a hundred different directions while I need time to focus and write an R21 and an R01 in the next 6 weeks. While barely keeping my head above water, I've been on Twitter sporadically, but yesterday I caught a couple of posts about time management. In one, which I can't find anymore because I forgot to bookmark it, the author was describing a time-management exercise. You make a spreadsheet of your day in 30min intervals and log what you do for some time. I have tried in the past to use different online time management tools to figure out where my days go, but I always forget to turn on or off the timer. I thought this more gross approximation of where time goes would be easier, so I will try for a week or maybe a month.

I have decided on simple categories: research, service, teaching and administration for work, exercise, TV, social, culture and sleep for myself. I have multiple questions in mind.
1) Simply put, how many hours a day and a week do I really work?
2) I feel like I have an inordinate amount of administrative work to do or followup on and I've been spewing random numbers when complaining about it. How much of my day is actually spent doing someone else's job?
3) Am I doing too much or too little service?
4) Can I make sure I exercise at least half an hour each day?
5) Am I happy with my activity distribution or do I want to make changes?

The first day was very informative. I worked 9.5 hours with a 1 hour break in the afternoon, because lunch was eaten during a seminar. 60% was actual research work, either writing or discussing experiments, 31% was some kind of service dealing with someone else's faculty candidate and reviewing grants. Only 9% was admin. I put in my half hour walking to work this morning, so now I feel justified going home and crashing on the couch...

I am curious now and I will report how it goes...

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Maintaining your ESI status...

With one R01 application waiting for additional experiments before resubmission and one R01 submitted, I received the dreaded email from the NIH saying that my ESI (early stage investigator) status had ended. I was sad and wondered what would happen to my lab that the extra bump in percentile for funding is gone. Since I have never had an R01 the New Investigator status still holds, but it's institute dependent and not as codified as the ESI.

The fact that ESI status depends on the date your PhD was conferred is a real issue as people stay longer and longer in their postdoc position. All candidates we interviewed in our latest faculty search had started their postdocs 2007-2009, so their ESI bump could end as early as next year. I was talking to a friend about this and actually found out that things are not as black and white. With some planning you can maintain your ESI past the dreaded deadline.

It turns out your application is listed as ESI as long as you SUBMIT before the ESI ends, so, phew, my currently submitted R01 will be regarded as ESI-eligible. Not only...

For individuals who are still New Investigators at the time of resubmission of the A1 application, there is a 13 month period during which the New Investigator can submit the A1 resubmission application to retain ESI status. 

This means that you have 1 year to resubmit your application and will still maintain ESI status. So, my first R01 application will still be considered ESI if resubmitted in July 2016 AND my second R01 application will remain ESI until March 2017...a full year after my ESI status ended.  Of course the ESI advantage will disappear if R01 #1 is funded, but it's nice to know that I have multiple chances. I had no idea that any of this was in place before I started my lab and most of your senior advisors do not know either. But this could be make all the difference in your funding!