Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014 as The New PI

Following DrugMonkey's lead I put together a year in review post, as dictated by the blog meme rules:
-Post the link and first sentence from the first blog entry for each month of the past year.

Despite realizing that my first sentence is often quite verbose, I found that this really reflects what my blog is all about and some of the greatest hits of 2014 made it in.

January: Happy 2014 everyone!! A new year is starting, so I thought I would talk about trends and about how the world in changing...

February: The NIH emailed me 2 months ago that my Progress Report was due on February 15 and so as busy little bee I started working on my progress report and got everything done until I found out that the Research Performance Progress Report (RPPR) is the new progress report format for NIH funded multi-year awards starting on January 31 (NOT-OD-14-026).

March: I wanted to share a couple of books which list all the things I wish I knew before I applied for my first research grant from the National Institutes of Health: Research Proposals: A Guide to Success and How the NIH Can Help You Get Funded: An Insider's Guide to Grant Strategy.

April: I now have one year of being a PI under my belt.

May: Your website is your labs' ambassador to the outside world.

June: When I was leaving my postdoc lab, my boss told me to be careful about my effort because when he started he did not pay much attention to it and soon he was stuck with no effort to give. In my head I was thinking "That's a nice problem to have, but that will definitely not happen to me".

July: Lovingly nicknamed the "kangaroo" grant by the NIH, the K99/R00 Transition to Independence award is designed to help postdoctoral fellows leap into a faculty position by supplying two years of mentored research time to obtain training to develop their independent project (K99) and supporting the newly independent investigator for 3 years (R00).

August: 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.

September: Wikipedia defines a pilgrimage as "a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs" and I would add that in general you embark on a pilgrimage to ask for something or reach some kind of enlightenment.

October: A recent NYT article on women being criticized in workplace reminded me of the time I received a lecture on how not to be a bitch.

November: For the first time I am learning what it's like to be in the SfN host city and while everyone in the lab gets to go for cheap, the prep is not trivial.

December: I finally made it to the other side!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Life on an academic search committee

I finally made it to the other side! Not only I have a faculty position, but I get to be involved in picking other faculty since I'm now part of a search committee. I already had the sense that there were a lot of variables to be considered when finding a job, and now I'm even more certain of it. Bottom line, don't take it personally if you don't get an interview!

You have no idea what is going on in that room.  There are some great posts out there describing how a search committee gets to the short list (here and here) and why jobs sometimes disappear (here), so I don't need to rehash in detail that there is a huge amount of politics and that there are directives from the people who hold the purse strings. Unless you or your boss know someone at that institution who can tell you what current priorities, you will not know whether you are a good fit or not. Even if you have excellent publications, your very worthy application may be dropped because 1) you don't have the right expertise the group is looking for, or 2) you don't bring in enough money (or are likely to bring in money) or 3) it's badly organized and difficult to read.

While I used to be obsessed with helping people develop the perfect research statement, now I realize that there are other parts of the application which are as critical, simply because when you have >100 applications to read in a limited amount of time, you look for any kind of short-cut to get rid of 85-90% of them. As a newly minted assistant professor, I did my absolute best to develop a coherent spreadsheet and look at every single app with an open mind, because I still remember when I was applying. Be certain that more senior faculty has no time whatsoever to do this.

My strategy was the following.

1) I would look at the CV and look at the number and quality of first author publications, then look at the number of fellowships and grants. That got rid of around 70% of the applications. The fact that every CV looked different was a huge problem as you have to scroll up and down all the time to figure things out. If you want to make the life of people in the search committee easier I would recommend to a) make sure your CV is organized and readable; b) list the amount for each grant you have active/completed (Do not list $100-200 travel grants...those don't count. Put those in the Honors section.); c) number your publications and separate those accepted/in press and those in preparation, because padding your CV with 10 articles in preparation looks pretty bad and make this committee member annoyed.

2) Then I found myself gravitating to the cover letter more than the research statement. A really good cover letter giving a succinct and clear summary of your interests and a brief overview of your past accomplishments can actually do wonders to sway a search committee member. In my case it informed the decision of whether or not I was interested in reading the research statement or not.

3) I finally read the full application of the top 30 candidates based on my spreadsheet and narrowed it down to 10 as required by the chair, but also flagged another 10 which would be equally good. The applicants and committee members were from a variety of fields and there were some candidates who would not have been interesting to me, but could have been interesting to other people. For this reason, i.e. that search committee members can be from different departments, remember to make your research statement very simple and clearly understandable.

Since this was my first time, my primary objective through the meeting was to stay quiet because I really didn't want to make the faux pas to put someone down or to step into some interdepartmental infighting. There were very clear directives from the top, which gave us some guidelines, and luckily many of us agreed on several candidates, so that my 3-4 top people actually made it to the short list. It was a bit terrifying to see how easily someone's hopes and dreams could be cast aside, but the applicant pool was exceptional so many great candidates were left out. I know people don't want to hear this, but that is where a call from your boss to the right person or a friendly face in the committee can make all the difference, because literally all that is takes to get you in the shortlist is a strong advocate or just someone that knows you and can say you are good.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

I'm a professor now. A week in the life..

This week there have been a lot of firsts which finally made me feel like a real professor. Since my teaching is still very limited, I just spent the first year preoccupied with the lab and getting everything up and running, but that didn't necessarily make me feel "professorial".  So while things are a bit crazy, this week I get to delve into different aspects of the job. Everything is new, so it's all very exciting. It may soon become a chore, so I'm enjoying it while it lasts.
I don't know if I have been protected so far or if I'm on track for things I should be doing at this point in my career, but I'll just list what's happening, which is what I'm thankful for in this Thanksgiving week.

- Sunday-Monday: I got to be an ad hoc reviewer for a big grant for a foreign funding agency. This was likely a present from a senior investigator, but it was great fun especially because the grant was great! I did consider the bias of giving some slack to a well known investigator over minor experimental issues, but overall the work was really cool and should get funded, so I was exceedingly positive.

- Sunday: I worked with a collaborator to rewrite a paper for resubmission. The first from my lab without any "mentorly crutches".

- Monday: I was part of a thesis committee for a colleague grad student and tried to give cogent suggestions.

- Tuesday-Wednesday: I wrote the mentoring plan and sponsor information for my postdoc's NRSA application. While this is not the first mentoring plan I write, since I wrote all of mine, this is the first one I really mean. This included a lot of tap-dancing to navigate the trickiness of writing a mentoring plan for my very first trainee. I'm very curious to see how it is received. And yes, we do have a senior co-mentor.

- Wednesday-Saturday: I have to evaluate and rank 100 faculty job applications in the next 4 days (Happy Thanksgiving to me!). As part of my first job search committee, I'm really looking forward to our first committee meeting next week, to see how things shake out. Will I get to pick a buddy? What will the dynamics be?

- Sunday: As soon as I am done with the job applications, I have to finish a couple of powerpoint presentations for a mentoring workshop for postdocs I'm running next week, where we will discuss grant and faculty job applications.

- Next Monday? Finally, at some point I should get to read a semi-final version of my postdoc's grant application to give it the final polish before submission.

In the meantime, for the following week I was invited to review a paper, to give a talk and to participate in one on one mentoring program for female postdocs. Sweet!
I still feel like I'm trying this new skin on for size, but so far it seems pretty comfy.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

You never know who your peers will become

In the comments section of my last post about networking at conferences we discussed whether as an early trainee it makes sense to randomly go up to senior scientists just for the sake of networking and this brought up a couple of excellent point which I think merit an independent post. 

1) As a young trainee (grad student, early stage postdoc) you feel that you are not justified in going up to someone without a valid reason, i.e. a brilliant question about their work or wanting a job in their lab. It's scary and daunting and often they are in a huddle talking to their equally famous friends. I tend to go back and forth about the schmoozing just for the sake if it. I have friends who are fantastic at it and will just go up to anyone and engage them in fascinating conversations. This has made them well known to a lot of people and has resulted in a lot of exposure, because the more people know who you are the more they will invite you to speak at symposia and meetings. Unfortunately, science is a popularity contest, in addition to your publications and grants, your tenure also relies on how many national and international talks you have given and on how many meetings you have been invited as a speaker. These early interactions to "make yourself known" can make a difference. While introducing you to people should be your advisor's job, some advisors are not as adept as others and you need to take your networking into your own hands.
This said, there are multiple ways of networking, and I find that small meetings are much more useful than large meetings. I hardly ever meet people I didn't already know at large meetings, but at small meetings you can have a meal or a drink with lots of new people in a much less frantic environment. Getting to know people happens over time. If you genuinely enjoyed a talk, just go up to the speaker and say what struck you. Very very few speakers are 100% sure that their message got across and they will be happy to hear that they made an impact on a young trainee. This may lead to a brief conversation. If the person is in your field, you will see them again. The next time you'll remind them you met at the such and such meeting and talk again and this person will begin to know you. Years later you go on vacation to their country and say "Hey, can I come see your lab?" and they invite you to give a talk and talk to their students. There you meet other faculty who would like to invite you to a symposium they are organizing...and maybe a few years later one of their awesome students becomes your postdoc. True story (potential postdoc still wishful thinking). You never know how a scientific relationship will progress over time. The important thing, I think, is not to expect the world from that initial interaction. The people you need to know, you will see again and again and again, so you can network bit by bit.

2) Never underestimate your friends. The postdocs and students you work with already ARE your scientific community. You all can grow up to be the keynote speakers you admire at the meetings. So when you go to meetings, it is often easier to strike conversations with other students and postdocs. You can share your experiences, learn about their work and their institutions and just start building your network from the bottom up. I can say that right now 70% of my network is people at my level or immediately above I have met through grad school and postdoc. Many have progressed to faculty jobs, they sent me examples of their grants and job applications, they read my stuff, they invite me to speak. Some have been really close friends for almost 20 years, some I have met as conference buddies (people working on similar things whom I always met at the same meetings), some overlapped somewhere and have kept in touch. Many have moved on to industry or other jobs and they are as important as the academic contacts because you can refer students to them when they are thinking about switching jobs, or you can just talk to them about their experience if you need a pharma collaboration or maybe another career altogether.
Your pipeline can go in many different directions as I discussed previouslyMy network happened organically throughout the years. There was no intent to have all these people in place all over the world in all different aspects of STEM. They are friends, buddies, people I met over time, who have spread out in often unexpected ways. Everyone watching out for everyone else. If in addition to your grad school friends, you comfortably meet 4-5 new interesting people at each meeting you go to, over 15 years of grad school/postdoc your network will grow a LOT. You never know who your peers will become and it's amazing watching everyone evolve.

Friday, November 14, 2014

It's conference time. Network! Network! Network! But how?

The approaching madness of the Society for Neuroscience conference bringing 30,000 neuroscientists to DC had gotten me thinking about the relative calm of the American Society for Human Genetics with "only" 6,000 people and the absolute bliss of small conferences. In all cases, be it your society or your subfield conference as a graduate student, a postdoc looking for a job or a new investigator, it is imperative to network. It's that dreaded pit in your stomach when not only you have to discuss your work in front of the world, but you actually have to go walk around introducing yourself to people selling yourself as a job candidate, a seminar invitee or just as an all around fascinating scientist.

I've had multiple discussions throughout the years with friends who refuse to accept the public relations portion of their science job. Well, I'm sorry, but with scientists becoming more and more specialized and funding dwindling, how you write, talk and present yourself makes a huge difference and unless you are a rare exception, PR is just part of the job. As I have written before in a post about the struggle of getting noticed as a new investigator, your network, i.e. the people you know, you collaborate with, are critical for your success. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear, does it make a sound?

One of the most important things I learned during my PhD was how to network, since my PhD advisor was great at introducing us to everyone she knew...which was a lot of people. We were included in conversations with scientists visiting for seminars, we were introduced to several people at conferences and even now she still makes frequent email introductions to people she thinks I should meet. This made things much less intimidating when I went to a meeting alone as a student, because I could just go up to people and just say "Hi, I'm M's student. We met in her office." and immediately strike a conversation. A lot of PI's don't do that, and I find that male PIs do it much less than female ones. This is not necessarily a malicious thing, since they are just generally oblivious of the importance of introductions for a trainee who may be otherwise tentative to approach an established investigator. I would urge the new investigators and even the postdocs, especially the male ones, to remember to act as "connectors" for trainees and colleagues. And you can always just use your friends for introduction, like LinkedIn in real life. Grad student should remember that other students they meet at meetings may one day be the other junior investigators in their cohort and that decade-long transition and evolving relationship has been great fun to watch.

While it's definitely easier to have a previous introduction, the standard "Hi, I'm X from Y. I work on Z." or "That was such a great talk! I really liked...I was wondering about..." would work with most people. The vast majority of scientists will react positively to a nice comment about their work and will want to talk about what you do. Don't be intimidated. After all we go to conferences to present our work and to communicate with other scientists. Everyone would like to have a very insightful fundamental question which will impress the target scientist, but sometimes even a simple question or clarification can lead to a deep conversation. In the past 2-3 years, one question I tended to ask a lot after striking a scientific conversation with a successful scientist was "What is your advice for a new investigator starting out?" and it has always led to great discussions on running a lab and on academia in general...and to multiple blog posts here, here and here.

Science is a common language all over the world. It doesn't matter how different your language or culture is or even how broken your English is, scientific discussions break those barriers. Large conferences bring together scientists from all continents and that is just a remarkable opportunity to meet different people and generate collaborations you may not otherwise have started. However, large conferences can be more difficult to navigate and isolating than small conferences. At a small meeting career networking can be much easier because you have more direct access to possible collaborators and high-profile investigators in your field: you can sit next to them at lunch and have a higher chance they will have time to stop by your poster or hear you talk. For large conferences, you'll need to do more legwork, in the sense that you need to schedule meetings and coffees in advance, since virtually all keynote speakers will be booked non-stop at committees and other events. At a recent large meeting I wanted to touch base with a keynote speaker with whom I had spoken before and on whose radar I need to be for possible tenure letters, but both our schedules were crazy and I just told her I would stop by after her talk. I said Hi, commented on some cool new data she presented and went my merry way. Showing you face periodically is always better than fading away. Eventually, of course, the goal is that work out of my lab will stay on her radar because it's awesome and relevant, but it may objectively take time to get there.

As your papers are brewing and your projects are moving along, communication with potential collaborators, reviewers, or future colleagues will make your career trajectory much easier and most likely your science better. Sometimes a collaborator you had been looking for comes out of left field when you least expect them, or a really cool project is born over drinks at a social. Think of all the possibilities! Go network!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

SfN 2014 restaurant guide and other things to do in DC

For the first time I am learning what it's like to be in the SfN host city and while everyone in the lab gets to go for cheap, the prep is not trivial. I have been suggesting restaurants, making reservations, organizing dinners, lunches, etc for the past couple of weeks, so now my readers get to reap the benefits of such activity and get a break from my new lab management rumblings.


The best source for restaurants in DC is usually the Washingtonian “Very Best Restaurant” list. I’ve never gone wrong trying one of these.  Several are already booked for the weekend of the conference from 5pm to 9pm, so make your reservations pronto. The list is across DC, Virginia and Maryland, so make sure you figure out where they are located.

This said these are my favorites in the Convention Center area (in no particular order). Click the names for more info.

Casa Luca (Italian) 1099 New York Ave NW (11th and NY Ave – 5 min walk) Great central Italian food from Fabio Trabocchi who is one of the most popular chefs in town. This is the cheapest of his restaurants which also include Fiola @ 601 Pennsylvania (6th and Indiana Ave – 12 min walk) and the hottest new restaurant (and Obama favorite apparently) FiolaMare @ 3100 K st NW in Georgetown (31st and K on the waterfront– Take the Circulator bus). So far I've been unsuccessful at getting into Fiola Mare, but I've heard it's great.

Zaytinya (Middle Eastern) 701 9th St NW (9th and G – 5 min walk) and Oyamel (Mexican) 401 7th St NW (7th and D – 12 min walk) are two iterations of the tapas empire of Jose Andres, who took over the DC food scene with Jaleo (Spanish) 480 7th St NW (7th and E – 10 min walk). Zaytinya and Oyamel are awesome. Small tapas to share of Turkish/Greek or Mexican inspiration. The tequila selection at Oyamel is extensive. Jaleo I find kind of blah so for tapas I go elsewhere…see below.

Estadio (Spanish tapas) 1520 14th St NW (14th and Church, after P – 18 min walk) has my favorite tapas in the area. Make sure to try the slushito…a slushi for adults.

Around Estadio on 14th street is the hottest new restaurant area with new places opening every month (some are too new to even get reviewed). Other options are:
Birch and Barley (American) 1337 14th St NW (14th and Rhode Island/O)
Pearl Dive Oyster Place (Seafood) 1612 14th St NW (14th and Q). Oysters, yum!
Le Diplomate (French Bistro) 1601 14th St NW (14th and Q). Hard to get into French spot from the people who brought you Buddakan and Morimoto in NYC. Good brunch. One of the 10 places to eat this Fall according to the Washington Post.
Ted’s Bulletin (American) 1818 14th St NW (14th and S). A DC staple with its original in Capitol Hill, it’s worth a visit even if just for their homemade pop tarts. Also good lunch.

Other good options around the convention center are
Brasserie Beck (Belgian bistro) 1101 K St NW (11th and K) Mussels, steak frites and hundreds of beers in menu.
Ping Pong Dim Sum (Chinese fusion) 900 7th St NW (7th and I – basically across the square) Fun twist on dim sum also…dim sum all day!
Mandu (Korean) 453 K St NW (5th and K) Great Korean + Soju martinis
Busboys and Poets (Breakfast/brunch) 1025 5th St NW (5th and K) another DC staple with multiple locations
El Rinconcito Café (Salvadorean/Mexican) 1129 11th St NW (11th and M) a hole in the wall with awesome tamales, papusas and burritos. Good for lunch.
Daniel Boulud just opened DBGB in the City Center  (9th and I) and it usually looks mobbed, but I have not tried it.
Rasika (Indian) 633 D St NW (6th and D) is very famous and Michelle Obama's favorite, but I've never been able to get in there.

If you want burgers the closest Shake Shack is on 9th and F, Bolt Burgers by the convention center (11th and L/Mass) is not very good, but fries and smoothies are okay.

Places with lots of restaurants to explore are also Georgetown and Capitol Hill. Georgetown is easily reached on the Circulator bus (1$ fare) which has a handy tracker website.

Also in DC you have to try food truck food for lunch. Closest trucks to the Convention Center will be in McPherson Square between 13-14th and I-K. A lot of good restaurants have trucks and all will take credit cards. Trucks can be tracked with Food Truck Fiesta and are usually only around Mon-Fri.

Other useful places
Closest supermarkets: Safeway (New York and 5th just walk on NY from the Convention Center) is open 24 hours and Whole Foods is on P between 14th and 15th

Closest CVS: tucked away on 10th and L

For a moment of peace the National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum building is just a few blocks away at 8th and F and you can sit and use the free Wi-Fi in the Foster re-designed courtyard or walk around the exhibits. Both the American Art and the NPG have lovely things....unless of course you want to go for a real art trip to the National Gallery (Should I mention the only Da Vinci in the American continent?).

For the runners and #rundouchery fanatics
3mi #1: from the Convention Center area go straight south to the Mall, run west along the Mall, say "Hi" to the Obamas, run back up on 17th and loop east on J until you hit New York Ave all the way back. This is also a good evening route...Secret Service is every 300ft or so.
3mi #2: go straight south to the Mall, run EAST along the Mall up to 1st street and the Capitol, wave your fist at Congress demanding more science funding, loop back along the south side of the mall and come back up on 9th or 10th.
4mi: Combine #1 and #2
5mi #1: Combine #1 and #2, but also go say hi to Lincoln at the west end of the Mall.
5mi #2: go straight south to the Mall, at the Washington Monument keep left and go towards the Tidal Basin, run all the way around, say "Hi" to TJ in his marble temple, slow down at the FDR Memorial which is really awesome and under appreciated, dodge the ducks, avoid the mobs at the MLK you can run back, or since you've come this far, make 5.5/6mi, go say "Hi" to Lincoln via WWI and WWII...if it's early enough in the morning you can try and pull a Rocky on the steps.
Water fountains for your convenience at every Memorial :)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

How do you keep your lab on track?

Dr. Yellow Shinkansen, Japan
It's merit-based salary increase time at my institution and before I left for vacation at the beginning of October I had a cram all my lab annual reviews into one day, so that I could complete the reviews and turn in the paperwork. Back to back annual reviews are exhausting, so I don't recommend you do it, but I do really like doing periodical official reviews of my lab members and they also really appreciate it. I have already discussed why I do annual reviews and some ideas on how to structure them here and here, so I'm not going to delve into that, apart from saying that reviews are really important to keep you lab on track, to keep in touch with what is going on in people's minds and to give them a chance to discuss their career plans.

While I was traveling I visited a friend who just sold a small biotech company she had started a few years ago with her husband and we talked a lot about her experience and how she built a lab for developing assays and cloning. In going from 1 to 15 people, one major thing to keep in mind was culture, as the people who had come in first were used to a lot of attention and felt "like family", and pretty soon the place became a business and some of the early people became upset. Defining your relationship with everyone at work so that there are no favorites and everyone feels valued so that they remain productive, is incredibly difficult.

One of her solutions was to have quarterly reviews, so that the "This is how you are doing"/"How are you?" discussion was given continuity throughout the year. With continuous reviews it was not a surprise to someone that their boss thinks they need to improve and will not give them a raise, since they have had multiple chances to discuss their performance and improve. Quarterly reviews were capped at 15 mins unless the employee thought they needed more time and needed to discuss something specific. In general academic lab scientists may be more motivated than biotech employees and not necessarily just see it as a job, but I have realized that in the weekly meetings I sometimes I get too worked up on the particular experiments that are being done and the next steps and forget to take a step back and make sure that the postdoc or student thinks of the project as a whole. So a "Where are we? How should we structure the paper?" meeting every few months may not be a bad idea in addition to a discussion on performance and career objectives. I have been more often in situation where people felt ignored than smothered and I have a tendency to be pretty hands off myself, so I am hoping that having frequent fixed checkpoints may hep me be more involved and the lab peeps feel that they know where they are going. Since our usual review is at the end of September, we will try January and May and see how it goes.

Picture by ませはるゆき (間瀬晴之_撮影) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Step up or lean in or whatever. Finding your footing as a woman in academia.

A recent NYT article on women being criticized in workplace reminded me of the time I received a lecture on how not to be a bitch. We were coming back from a large group meeting where a female PI behaved very aggressively towards the speaker. By non-gender-biased standards she was very aggressive, but I was shocked at this senior male PI suddenly giving me "fatherly" advice that as a woman you don't want to be perceived as a harpy. Note: that particular woman was doing very well where she was and she moved to another place where she's doing even better.

I have to admit I had never given much thought about being a woman in science until recently and that I never felt hindered or discriminated for my gender in my career. Maybe because I never really worried about it and I have always spoken to men as equals. In my science high-school, in college and grad school I was always surrounded by brilliant and ambitious girls and women, and the highest achievers around me were consistently female. So it was kind of a given growing up that girls were smarter than boys.

Yet, as the years passed, some women continued their ascent in academia or in industry or even running their own company and some did not, and I started wondering why. A high-power industry or consulting job is as bad or worse than an academic position, so don't tell me that those women "dropped out", because they did not (see my thoughts on the science pipeline here). When I'm sitting at home watching TV and a girlfriend IMs me at 1am from the office, I feel like a slacker. The issue is not what you decide to do with your life, which is entirely up to you, but whether your environment is poised to support you in any decision that you'd like to make. I have grad school friends who never liked the lab and decided very quickly that running a lab was not for them, but I also have friends who were discouraged or "pushed out" and I think in the end, one of the determining factors in your success is the right mentoring and role models.

It took me a while to figure out what "He's not a good mentor for women" meant, until I saw how the wrong personality combination can destroy a promising career by generating complete lack of support, especially if you end up in a very large lab. In a fast paced and somewhat aggressive lab environment, in general you need to be self-sufficient and take charge of your own career right away and if you are at all tentative or open-ended in how you portray your research, you get in trouble. I had a friend whose project would change every 6 months because she would start incredibly awesome and innovative experiments and as it took time to set everything up, the boss would just say to drop it because it wasn't going anywhere. After four years, not much to show for it and a baby on the way, it made sense to look for a different job. Another friend, who is an exceptional scientist, was so beaten down by a bully PI who told her her work was crap, that she didn't care about research any more and started looking for random non-academia jobs, until she found a second temporary postdoc. A transitional position turned into five more years, a couple of great papers and a faculty position. The work that was once "crap" is consistently recommended by the PI in the previous lab as the best example of how to address that particular problem.

So how do you take a phenomenal scientific mind and turn it away from the thing they loved? You beat it senseless and make it feel worthless. And the criticism described in the NYT is one of the aspects of it. Do you have to make your skin thicker and learn how to take it? Maybe a little bit, but you can also just do your legwork and avoid it as much as you can by finding the right people to talk to. Of course I don't have all the answers, but I thought I'd jot down some ideas from the prospective of a trainee recently turned mentor.

1) Look for the right mentors. As a mentee you have to be active in building your mentoring team. It is absolutely possible that the guy who is considered your primary mentor, is not mentorly at all. But maybe you just really need him for the money and the prestige. As long as he's not creating problems, and he is signing any recommendation letter you put in front of him and paying for everything you need, that is a perfectly viable situation.  There is a lot of mentoring around you, ripe for the plucking.
- speak to senior postdocs in the lab or in other labs;
- schedule meetings with friendly faculty at your institution to pick their brains;
- join mentoring sessions at your society meeting;
- assemble a job search mentoring committee: the one for my K99 application was composed only of women, from an HHMI investigator to a brand new faculty, and it absolutely kicked ass in helping me through the process;
- ask people you meet at conferences "What is your advice for someone starting a postdoc? starting a lab?" If we didn't love hearing ourselves talk, we wouldn't be doing this job. If this spurs a really great chat, shoot them an email to thank them and ask them if you can keep in touch. They may be more than happy to comply.
A lot of us are academic scientists because we like mentoring people. You may already have an excellent mentor, but you cannot expect a single mentor to be good at everything, so you need a lot of them.

2) Don't be afraid of leadership and becoming a role model. I recently attended an informal get-together of women scientists, many of whom are in a horrible situation with a very misogynistic department chair. Everyone was profoundly unhappy, yet nobody wanted to take the lead and propose a solution. I had to restrain myself from doing my best Cher in Moonstruck impression "Snap out of it!" How do you get out of something if nobody is willing to do anything about it? I was just reading a great post from Dr. Isis on how the Association for Women in Science had to sue the NIH to get more women on study sections. They saw a wrong and they addressed it, and they made the NIH a better place substantially increasing access to women. At a forum on women scientists I attended this summer they said that the environment changes when women have at least 30% of leadership positions, but how do we get there? Women have to step up or lean in, as we say nowadays. As a senior postdoc, I took a fantastic Leadership course, offered by my institution and I think these should be available everywhere for women (and men) in academia. So,
- start a group at your university where you can discuss issues and how to address them (this could be open to men and women as long as it's inclusive);
- actively engage in mentoring of younger women: you can mentor undergrads as a grad student and so on and so forth;
- speak up nicely and politely to have your problems solved when they arise and engage the leadership;
- remind seminar committees to keep a 50-50 gender balance in your seminar series...and in your job searches;
- look for leadership courses offered by your scientific society or start one within your university (someone from the business school might be intrigued and help);
- there probably are quite a few misogynistic bastards around, but most men are likely just oblivious, so send them a handy guide like this one from Tenure She Wrote;
- raise well adjusted boys who will know how to cook a full meal and clean their room, and know how to do the laundry when their wife has a grant to write...or a company to run.

I don't know. Some days I'm more hopeful than others, but unless we step up as a group as mentors and role models, men are not necessarily going to do it for us.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Advice to prepare for your academic job search (in biomedical sciences)

I should be working on a grant, but I don't feel like it. So I am going to write something else.
This is the season when academic job postings are coming out by the dozen every day and in the past few weeks I have been having multiple discussions with friends and colleagues getting ready to apply. I have been reading proposals, having lengthy conversations about strategy, I joined my first search committee. Heck, I'm even working on putting together a seminar on the US job market for foreign postdocs. I thought I would share some of this advice with the world.

Dr. Becca has put together a wonderful aggregator post with job search advice from the blogosphere. There is tons of stuff for you to peruse on all the aspects of the search. When I interviewed I also used Karen Kelsky's site and blog The Professor is In for a lot of wonderful advice. What I want to do here is bring up a few things I think are critical that are sometimes overlooked and that could give you an edge.

The overall strategy
1) Planning takes years. This is going to upset some people, but I went to a "postdoc strategy" seminar in my first year, that basically said "You have to plan your path to your faculty job from the very beginning of your postdoc". You work your way from fellowships to larger NIH K grants, you maintain a steady level of paper productivity, balancing safer projects with the large blockbuster idea. If you are the person who is in their 7-9th year of their postdoc without a personal grant and with only one paper, no matter how large and glamorous, your path will be uphill. A CNS (Cell, Nature, Science) paper may be necessary in some places, but it is not sufficient. A steady stream of good publications and funding in this horrible climate and a promise of a well-thought out, exciting and fundable research program can do the trick. When you are ready (or even the year before) check out sites collecting job postings in your field, like Neurorumblr for neuroscience.
2) The network is your friend. Unless you are the one with the super hot paper/technique who will get 15/20 interviews, you must use your network. You (or your postdoc/PhD advisor) could start reaching out to people you know in institutions of interest:"Do you have a search?" "What are you looking for?""Oh, too bad you don't have a search, are you still interested in hiring people?" You work your network and your friend's network to get the application looked at. Don't worry about your status, as a postdoc I successfully sent a emails to people I knew on behalf of friends saying "Hey, my friend is applying to your search. She's absolutely awesome, you should check out her application". If you know someone well at the target institution, even if they are not on the search committee, a nicely phrased email or call can lift the applicant from the rest of the pile. Of course, the application has to be good, but humans tend to prefer a known entity to an unknown entity, so the endorsement of a respected friend can be the tie-breaker.
3) Be realistic about your options. If you have geographical restrictions or a two-body problem, it will be harder to get the job you want, but not impossible. You just have to plan, and use your network, and probably go on the market for 2-3 years in a row. Or reconsider, hopefully not your spouse, but your geographical location. Just discuss your strategy with as many people as you can and don't get flustered. Getting a job is difficult, getting a job in the city you want is more difficult, getting two jobs in the city you want is almost superhuman. I'm not saying it cannot be done, but it's always good to have a plan B.
4) The wait sucks. After the full time job of sending out applications is done, you will experience a state of permanent anxiety and self-doubt. The wait between the last application and the first interview email is horrible!! Everyone feels horrible and it's okay. It's not just you. If you want to feel really bad you can Google every institution you applied to to find out who's being interviewed...

The application
1) Your research statement must show 5-10 years of exciting, fundable research.  DO NOT propose more detailed analysis stemming from your CNS paper, instead propose a groundbreaking new direction your paper inspired. DO NOT propose to make 1,000 mouse lines to show you are ambitious. I saw this at an actual job talk and could feel the hair rising on the neck of the search committee..."Do you know what a "per diem" is?"
Some of the really big places want their applicants to have the potential to revolutionize the thinking in their fields (and that is an actual tenure criteria). But even there, you have to develop a well thought-out plan with safer and riskier projects to continue the balance of funding and publication. You might be a revolutionary, but the revolution must be funded.
2) Give your research statement to read to AS MANY PEOPLE as you can. Email your grad school friends, email faculty you know around the country, especially, email people who have been on search committees, and ask everyone if they would have the time to read your statement. If someone is or has been on a search committee you should ask whether your proposal is at the level of those picked for interviews at their institution. This way you will collect an incredible array of comments that you will have to collate. Everyone will see something different and you will figure out all the places where your proposal is unclear for the average scientist. Psycgirl recently wrote an awesome post about what happens on a search committee. You don't know who all these people are, nor what their expertise is, and they may be reading your application at 2am buzzing on caffeine. Clarity is really really important to convey how exciting your work is.

The talk
1) Simplify and be clear. My postdoctoral advisor was a master at giving talks and one of his most important roles in the lab was whipping talks into shape. The rule is "This is what I am going to tell you. Now I'm telling you this. This is what I just told you". Choose 1-2 good representative projects leading to your preliminary data for your future directions and make sure EVERYONE can understand them. Big picture, some detail, big picture. Do not overload people with data, just focus on telling a good story. The mantra is "A good story makes the listener feel smart, which makes you look very smart!"
2) Practice your talk with AS MANY PEOPLE as you can. As for the research statement, don't be bashful. The first time you give the talk, it's going to feel like a terrible beating. Your ego is going to be down the drain and probably you will cry. Make sure you still have a couple of weeks before your interview. Then take the advice and do it again and again. Find out where it's unclear, where the difficult transitions are, and make sure that EVERYONE can understand what you do and what you want to do.
3) No matter how many interviews you have, be humble. Have you ever heard of that guy with >10 interviews and not a single job offer? Well, I have. Don't get cocky. It can happen. It's always good to be gracious and a little intimidated, and to do your best in every single interview.

For the interview itself, I don't have much to add. All the usuals: be comfortable, test run your shoes, bring chocolate/energy bars in your bag and sneak to the bathroom to eat when your blood sugar levels drop. The one thing I really liked was having my talk on my iPad. Though I think that giving the talk from the iPad is douchy, so I used my laptop for that, I carried my iPad with my job talk on Slideshark at the individual meetings. Before my talk or with people who had missed it, I could just show some of the data on the spot and it really helped with the conversations.

There you go, little birds! Time to fly!!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The NIH site-visit: a scientific pilgrimage

Wikipedia defines a pilgrimage as "a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs" and I would add that in general you embark on a pilgrimage to ask for something or reach some kind of enlightenment. So it's only fitting that a visit to the NIH to the extramural program of your choosing will resemble a pilgrimage of sorts. Many senior people I know, pilgrims before me, have extolled the importance of this trip on the true path to an R01, multiple R01s or even the elusive P01. So there I went, and back again. It was an incredibly useful experience.

The approach: Some program officers are more helpful than others, but in general most POs I know really want to talk to you about your science. As stated in the bible of federal grant writing, How the NIH Can Help You Get Funded, once you become one of "their grantees" they have developed an investment in your career, and if they believe in your research then it's a critical relationship to nurture. Senior people always say that in the past a good PO could really help develop a scientific career, now with the paylines the way they are, they are probably more frustrated than anything, but most of them still want to help, and they may also help you find other institutes to target if their pockets are too shallow. So, email them and keep them in the loop. If you are a K99/R00 grantee planning to transition to an R01 or an early career investigator looking for your first grant, you should just email them and say that you would like to talk about options. Once you have developed a relationship, I know a lot of people who travel to Bethesda on purpose once a year to talk to POs, so it's not strange to inquire about their schedules and come to talk in person. Of course it's easier to just stop by if you are invited to serve on a study section or are attending the same conference, so if you know they go to meetings you can always shoot them an email "Are you going to XYX?". Remember that your PO may be busy, so if they don't reply it's fine to wait an appropriate amount of time (like a week or two) and try again.

The preparation: If you go to the NIH or meet your PO elsewhere, you should always be prepared. The PO may ask you for a draft specific aims page and if they don't, you should prepare it nonetheless and send it beforehand.  It may not be your best work if you are way in advance before the desired submission date, but it will really help you crystallize your thoughts and will provide a showcase for what you are doing/planning to do. Also, come up with any question you may have about administrative changes in your current grant (budget, effort, supplements, etc), applying for funding for your trainees, whether they know another PO you would like to talk to/try another institute, etc. Try and maximize the time you have with them: prepare well and don't waste your/their time.

The meeting: They may want to put things in prospective, so be prepared to start with your elevator pitch about your lab: what is your overarching question, where you are going and where the grant/project you are talking about fits in the lab. It will help them understand what is going on, but it will also give them confidence that you have covered all the bases and have allocated resources appropriately. Then you can just chat about your specific aim draft and expand on your preliminary data and on alternative grant structures. I find their questions really interesting, because I think they have this birds eye view of what gets funded and by just asking "Are you going to do this?", you start wondering whether that's what you should do...Also when you give them the outline of a hypothesis and a proposal, they can usually tell you very quickly whether it fits in their portfolio or not, and whether you should contact someone else in their institute or another institute.
One thing my PO told me is never to go in for an R01 in the parent call for applications without having a home for it, i.e. an institute and a PO. It's just too risky a gamble, and it's really nice to see a friendly name when it shows up in eRACommons in the right place. It still needs to be good and to get excellent reviews, but at least your precious grant is not lost somewhere all by itself. By doing your homework, you have insured that at least you are proposing something that is in line with the funding priorities, which will increase your chances if your score is borderline.

Despite initially being a little intimidated, I always found my interactions with the NIH and its officials to be very positive and most importantly useful for understanding how the system works. While I'm not sure barging into someone's office would work well, if you don't know them, eventually developing cordial professional relationships with POs could be really important for new investigators. So don't be scared, they are very nice and many of them used to be just like you years ago, so they get what you are going through.

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....