Category Archives: life in the lab

Why it annoys me if people say academics should work hard

I am annoyed and I think it is not because I can’t figure out how to hang our curtains that I just picked up from the store. It’s also not because our internet is very slow because the cable that goes into our apartment hasn’t been put in place correctly. (Sorry to my husband who I just called being annoyed with the things mentioned above, I found out I’m not annoyed because of that). I’m actually annoyed because of this blog post I read this morning. It’s about how you need to be the best post-doc in order to become an academic PI.  (it does actually have a bunch of good points about how to write efficiently and don’t waste too much time trying to get things to be perfect).

Sure, it should be possible for someone to work 37.5 hours per week and still get senior positions in academic science;  it should be the case.  However, I fear it is not.  And what incentive does the academic science have to change?  What universities have are a workforce who happily work their 37.5 hours per week and then stick an extra 10-20 hours per week on top voluntarily.  A workforce who don’t take their entire annual leave allowance.  A workforce who work when they are sick and rarely take time off.

So yeah, you need to work hard. I don’t think this is unique to academia. As I tweeted in response to this, I think academics aren’t special snowflakes who work for love instead of money. They are people too. And I think in every profession, the best people are at the top. The best soccer players probably are the ones who practice while others sit in front of the TV. The best garbage men are those who walk those extra two steps to get the garbage that people put a bit further away from the street. And the best academics are perhaps the ones that work 80 hours a week and never take vacation. But does it help anyone to keep repeating that? To keep saying that if you don’t work hard you won’t succeed? As someone who just took a month off in order to make sure our new place gets organized and our kids are supported while moving to another continent, I can so: No, this is not helpful at all. It just makes me feel like everyone is passing me left and right while I am busy being a mom and a wife and a very proficient IKEA-furniture-builder. I think we need to hear more of that: of how to be more than just a scientist and be very successful at it too.

So I’d much rather read things like this: You don’t need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia!

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Filed under absurd, academia, disgruntled postdoc, efficiency, leaving academia, life in the lab, parenting, postdoc, role models, science, women in science, work-life balance

My thoughts on (yet another) rejection

This morning I found out that I didn’t make it to the interview round of the homecountry fellowship I applied for. This was the second time I applied for this fellowship and the tenth time I applied for anything. This fellowship would make sure I could stay for another 3 years and have some time to apply for other things to try to establish my own group. You can only apply twice and this was my second try. For your reading pleasure I have organized these thoughts in two categories.

1. Pessimistic thoughts

Crap, now I only have 1 year and 3 months of postdoc time left if I don’t get another grant or fellowship. And with zero out of ten so far, why on earth would number 11 be more successful. Why would I even bother trying. If I didn’t get this one, why would I be more successful with a more senior fellowship? And why am I trying to get my poor little baby who is having quite some trouble sleeping at daycare used to this place if I’m going to then do something that a couple of reviewers and a committee think I suck at? Why have I spend the past four years as a post-doc instead of invest in trying to find another job? Because so far it seems the only skill I got from this is that I am remotely capable of dealing with a whole bunch of rejections. Is that useful anywhere?

2. Optimistic thoughts

Okay so I didn’t get this grant, but a lot of the review comments were actually pretty positive. It sucks that this one guy (yes I know who you are if you ask me to only cite papers from your own group) was very negative and said my CV was poor, but other than that they liked my ideas. The new lab that I will work in is headed by this professor who is really good at writing grants and might be able to help me improve. Also, I appear to be the only one who can do what I do in this group so they might want to try to keep me beyond the 1 year and 3 months that I have signed for now. And that would give me some time to try for the next things. Because I just found out that getting an ERC starting grant or the homecountry equivalent gets you a tenure track position at this university. Maybe if I get around this corner I can see the top of the mountain?

For the past two years I have told myself that if I got to ten unfunded grants I would stop and find a job outside of academia. But I think I’m going to try again. Because I tend to be optimistic most days.

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Filed under academia, decisions, disgruntled postdoc, finding a job, funding, grant writing, leaving academia, life in the lab, postdoc, review, science, women in science, worrying

On resubmitting grant applications

From the European Research Council (ERC) starting grant brochure:

A Principal Investigator whose proposal is evaluated as category C in the Starting, Consolidator or Advanced Grant calls for proposals under Work Programme 2014 may not submit a proposal to the Starting, Consolidator or Advanced Grant calls for proposals made under Work Programme 2015 and 2016.
A Principal Investigator whose proposal is finally evaluated as category B in the Starting, Consolidator or Advanced Grant calls for proposals under Work Programme 2014 may not submit a proposal to the Starting, Consolidator or Advanced Grant calls for proposals made under Work Programme 2015.
Only proposals that are scored as category A are funded, but sometimes this is only 10%. This means that everybody else, who is scored B or C won’t be allowed to resubmit for one or two years. As an explanation to this rule the brochure says the following:

These restrictions are designed to allow unsuccessful Principal Investigators the time to develop a stronger proposal.

While this sounds very friendly, I think this is a very strange rule. Because once you get review comments to a grant, you can use those to improve the proposal for the next round. However, if your score is not fundable, that means you can’t apply for the next year or even two years. And in the current job climate where for most jobs -at least in the homecountry – you need to bring your own money, this may mean you’re out of a job before you are eligible to apply again. Especially for the starting grant that is designed for early career researchers (-7 years post PhD). Not cool, ERC.

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Filed under absurd, academia, disgruntled postdoc, finding a job, grant writing, life in the lab, science

The fellowship Catch-22

When you apply for a post-doctoral fellowship and the review comments say you’re not a very strong candidate because you haven’t received previous funding yet…

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Filed under absurd, academia, disgruntled postdoc, funding, grant writing, life in the lab, postdoc, science

Advice for productive #naptimescience

Being still partly on maternity leave (I work 1 day a week in the lab, husband 4 days a week so Little Brother doesn’t have to start daycare until we are in the homecountry), I do most of my work as #naptimescience. This is tricky because you never know when it ends: sometimes you get a long stretch of productive time, but other times you have just laid out everything you needed to complete a task and then the baby wakes up and you have to stop. I guess kind of the same as for faculty as you never know when the next desperate grad student or disgruntled post-doc will run into your office to show you some ugly Western blog they just did. What I try to do to be productive during these unknown amounts of time is break things up in the smallest unit possible. When I have to write something I make bullet points of all the things that I have to write and then break the bullet points up into even smaller units. This way, I can take one unit at a time instead of being right in the middle of a lengthy discussion when the baby wakes up and then not know where you wanted to go next. When I do something else, like analyze data, do stats or make figures, I try to take notes of what I have been doing so that if I start again during the next bout of naptimescience I can pick up right where I have left off.

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Filed under academia, baby, disgruntled postdoc, life in the lab, maternity leave, postdoc, science, work-life balance, working mom

Do you apply for a grant with 3% funding rate?

Recently I wrote about prioritizing: when do you choose to do experiments and when do you write papers and/or grants? Over the past year I’ve invested a lot of time in writing grants, with so far not the best results. And in my mind, that is the difference between investing time in papers vs grants. Papers will always end up somewhere, even if it’s in the Scandinavian journal of a Very Specific Sub-Subfield. But grants can get rejected, and then rejected again, and then go to die somewhere. Of course grants are just ideas (+ some preliminary data), whereas papers contain results, so it makes sense that it is this way.

But it does feel like a waste of time and energy when you have a grant rejected. And with the current funding lines of 10-20% (at least for most of the things that I have recently applied for) this will likely happen more often than not. But at which funding rate do you stop trying? I’m asking this because yesterday I found out that a fellowship  I applied for had a funding rate of only around 3%. They did not mention this anywhere, so I had for some optimistic reason assumed it would be higher. It was not. And I didn’t get this fellowship. Had I known that it was only 3%, would I still have applied? In this case, most likely I would have because I basically recycled an older application so it didn’t cost me that much time. But in case I needed to start writing from scratch I’m not sure.

So, where do you draw the line? Or do you always apply regardless of funding percentage?

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Filed under academia, decisions, grant writing, ideas, life in the lab, publishing papers, review, writing

Do as I say, not as I do: advice for foreign post-docs in the US – part II

This time I want to talk about finding a post-doc mentor. This topic of course not only applies to foreign post-docs but to anyone looking for a post-doc position. Lots and lots and lots and lots has been written about finding a mentor. And when I say mentor here, I mean the PI in the lab that you decided to join. Because of course you can always find more mentors in the people that surround you.

However, there are a couple things you might want to consider as a (non-native English speaking) foreigner:

First, a major reason – at least to me – to work in the US as a post-doc for a couple of years was to become more proficient in speaking and writing in English. In order to learn this, it is important that your PI, who you will be writing papers with and who will critique your presentations, is good at these things. This does not mean that your mentor needs to be American, but it is a good idea to go through hir publications and/or see them speak at a meeting and check out their style. Also, when you interview, ask who writes the papers. Because your mentor can be great at writing, if ze isn’t willing to teach you that, it’s useless.

Another reason for me to go to the US is that there are so many great scientific meetings here. Of course there are also great meetings in Europe, but living here is a great opportunity to go to meetings that are otherwise much more expensive to fly to. But you need to find out if your future mentor would be willing to let you go to meetings or whether ze chains you to the bench and never allows you to leave the lab. Ask this when you interview.

A last thing to consider specific to foreign post-docs is funding. Since your presence (and that of your family) here in the US is dependent on your visa, it is nice if your future mentor can offer you some guarantee of funding. Because it’s not that great if after a year the lab runs out of money and you need to find something else fast or you will need to leave the country. Of course another option is to come with your own funding – I will write about that later. Again, this is important for anyone, not just foreigners, but an important thing to remember is that if you’re not a US citizen, you’re not allowed to apply for an NRSA for example.

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Filed under academia, advice for foreign post-docs, cultural differences, decisions, funding, grant writing, life in the lab, managing people, meeting, mentoring, networking, postdoc, publishing papers, role models, travel