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?
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.
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
Time always seems limited, whether you’re a parent in the lab or not. So how do you best spend that limited time: with writing grants or papers or doing experiments? Obviously you have to do experiments to get data. You need data to put into papers to have publications in order to look good for your grants. Or you need to do experiments to get preliminary data for your grants. But how do you prioritize what to do first?
I spend most of the second half of last year writing grants, thinking that I would need money to have a job in the homecountry. Actually, I got a job on somebody else’s money, because all 3 of the fellowship applications that I wrote were rejected. This makes me wonder whether I should have spent my time doing more experiments instead of writing those proposals. But had I not written those proposals, then the one that I submitted recently would probably not have been as good as it was (at least I thought it was good…).
How do you go about this? When does writing take precedence over doing experiments? As a post-doc what are your priorities? And as a PI where do you think your post-doc’s priorities should lie?
The other day Dr24hours wrote about when you decide to abandon a paper because a bunch of journals do not want to publish it. Personally, I think that if you’ve come to the point of a completely written paper, I would never abandon it, but just send it anywhere (with perhaps a lower impact factor) instead of having it die in a drawer. However, what happens in this case if you’re not the senior author on a paper?
For example, I worked in a lab for 9 months during my master’s training (which in my homecountry is required before you can enroll in a PhD program). I did a lot of work in that lab and became 2ndauthor on a paper that (at the time) was relatively novel and interesting (now, 10 years later, it’s not novel anymore at all). The grad student whose project I worked on was the first author and the PI was the last author. They submitted it to a pretty okay journal that rejected it. And then the grad student left science, and the PI assumed a position with a lot more administrative work and neither of them was interested in trying to publish the paper anymore. I’m still a little sad about the fact that my CV doesn’t show the work that I did (and that my H-index isn’t 1 point higher because of this…). However, in this situation I don’t think there is much I could have done.
But what if you’re a grad student or a post-doc and your PI is not interested in publishing your papers, because they are either not suitable for high impact factor journals and therefore the PI is not very eager to publish them (this happens, I’m sure) or because the PI is leaving academia? (this also happens) What if you have a finished manuscript but a very uninterested PI who does not care to look at the manuscript let alone submit it? (and I know some of you think that this will never happen, but trust me, it does). When I was afraid this might happen I decided that I needed at least a decent first author paper from my post-doc, so I took the following measures: 1) I got a collaborator involved who helped me a lot with writing the manuscript, and who was helpful in setting deadlines to get the paper out. 2) I sent it to a lower impact factor journal than I might have otherwise because I had an invitation for a special issue at that journal. This way I was pretty sure it would get reviewed and published relatively quickly and I wouldn’t end up with a manuscript with good review comments but no possibilities to address these comments.
So what else can you do when you’re feeling like you’re beating a dead horse trying to get a paper out that you need, but that the other authors don’t really seem to care about?
I’m in my fourth year as a post-doc (well technically I’mnot a post-doc anymore, but it does feel that way) and yesterday I submitted my first first-author paper as a post-doc. Is that a little late? Perhaps, but in my defense: I had to learn slice electrophysiology first, and then I got sucked into a bunch of collaborative projects (one can argue about how smart that is, but it did leave me with 2 published (2nd author) papers and at least one (shared 1stauthor) paper in the making).
What I want to tell you about is how this paper came into the world. It started when the collaborator I consulted about my main project asked me to do a control experiment. That control experiment showed something interesting to me, and even though the collaborator was not super interested, I pursued this and got a bunch of rather interesting data. Then I got an invitation to submit a paper to an okay, but not very high-impact journal. I figured that this could be a fast and relatively easy way to get a first author paper out, where I could show the world the things that I can do. So I did some slice electrophysiology to make my side project a bit more interesting and when I sent this to the collaborator he was pretty enthusiastic about it. Without really realizing it (because, shame on me, I wasn’t aware enough of the literature) I had discovered something new and interesting! So something tiny, that no one was really enthusiastic about at first, turned into something cool!
And my main project? That turned out to be way too ambitious and technically challenging (read: impossible). And thanks to my mentor’s “hands-off” mentoring style and my own stubbornness, I realized this only this year… It was a good lesson in project design, that I hope I will be able to use in the future.
This morning I got the dreaded email telling me that I’m not invited for an interview for the important home country grant I applied to. You know, the one that would guarantee me a job and all that. However, there is no time to sit around, cry, shop online and do all that, because I have to give a talk at our annual retreat in about two hours and on top of that I have to rewrite the entire discussion for a manuscript TODAY (because it’s an invited paper that needs to be submitted early next week and the collaborator who always gives me great feedback only has time tomorrow). So my day of being sad about this will have to happen some other day, because today I will have to pretend that science is great and lovely and awesome.
Thank God for waterproof mascara.