A little bit bitch and a little bit buddhist always at the intersection of biology, gender, race, and culture. This blog documents my experience as a Canadian postdoc living and working in the United States. I can't promise to be PG13. In fact I promise not to be PG13.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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Hermitage at Scientopia has a carnival on women in science. But it's sans bebes. She elicited questions and sent them to us. Here are my answers.
1. When you were looking for your post-doctoral position, how (if you knew) did you know that your PI would treat you fairly?
I don’t think you ever know that your PI will treat you fairly until there is an event that challenges this expectation. And it is best to realize that all academics are crazy and because you are an academic this includes you.
One strategy of course is to interview THEM as much as they interview you. I didn’t really do this with Dr.Add’EmUp and while it wasn’t a terrible relationship, I suffered and continue to suffer because I didn’t examine the productivity output of his lab. If I had done my research as to his productivity I would have found out that previous experiemental manuscripts take 2 years to come out. Eight months ago, I sent him a manuscript that had been revised after he, the entire lab group, and several other PIs had a go at it. For a postdoc this is unacceptable. As a result of this experience and HippieHusband’s I thought hard about what I wanted from a postdoctoral supervisor and the postdoc experience. Once I had that figured out, I wrote out a list of questions to ask a prospective supervisor. I augmented this list by combing the interwebs and finding out what types of questions other people have asked. I hoped that this would help me figure out how the PI has acted previously to others and what might be her mentoring approach. I also questioned other faculty members about your prospective supervisor because sometimes they will tell you either outright or in a coded fashion whether the person is a jerk.
Here are a few some examples of the questions I asked
How many manuscripts am I supposed to/minimally expected to prepare as 1st author by end of the 1st year? or by the second year?Who prepares the first draft of a manuscript about the postdoc’s (lab) work? What are your expectations regarding productivity? What are the authorship rules of the lab? Will I be able to contribute to other projects/publications in the lab? Will collaborations be encouraged with faculty outside my discipline and outside the university? What is expected of me with regards to mentoring other students in the lab? Will I have undergraduates who can work under me? Will there be an opportunity to do take part of the research to build my own research programme. How many postdocs and graduate students have you mentored? How many postdocs are currently at (insert institution)? What is the relationship with other universities in the area? Are collaborations with faculty at other institutions favored? Will there be opportunities to do projects for companies and build relationships with industry? Is the postdoc supposed to be responsible for maintenance of specific instruments in the mentor’s lab? what about ordering supplies? How often is there a lab meeting to discuss research results?
The problem is that you can do all the research in the world and you will still encounter a point in your relationship where you might feel as if the supervisor has been unfair. After about 8 months into my new postdoc, friction arose between my supervisor, RedBull and I. A third of it was her inexperience with mentoring postdocs, part of it was my headstrong nature and the last third was a breakdown in communication between us. It was pretty bad and I was ready to leave, but a good friend and mentor suggested that I try talking to RedBull. First, however, she had me read a book I highly recommend, it's called, "Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" (Fisher, Ury and Patton). I did. And I realized that most situations can be turned around.
2. It seems to me that often women don't have as strong professional networks as men - the kind that gets built over shared interests (sports or drinking). People seem to gravitate towards others like them. What specific advice do you have for establishing and maintaining network with men as well as other women?
In an earlier post I described a situation where a female postdoc was not included in an informal networking situation.
I met PostdocXX yesterday at a conference mixer and we immediately hit it off. After the last symposia, we went for drinks and talked and talked or rather she did. I think she was just so grateful to find someone sympathetic to her struggles. She's in a lab with 17 postdocs (50:50 male:female) and 3 grad students. At this conference with her are three postdocs from her lab (2 guys and 1 other gal). Her supervisor is here at the conference and it turns out that he's decided to play hookey and go and see a ball game. The interesting thing is that he's invited four people to join him. Guess who. All boys. And two of them are postdocs from his lab. The other two are colleagues of his that are also both senior faculty. So her and this other female postdoc have been left out. She knows that this is an ideal networking opportunity, but doesn't get the chance to participate because whether by intention or not, she has not been invited. In PostdocXX's words, "I'm just tired of battling the old boys. I don't want to do it anymore. It's not that DrXY is not a good scientist, he's so great. And when I need to talk with him about science, I just email him and he will immediately set up a time. He's got great ideas and is very encouraging, but I don't feel supported, you know. I guess I'm just not ambitious enough." WTF, another one bites the dust, is what I thought.
Just because you haven’t been invited to the game, doesn’t mean you can’t play. There are multiple levels of networking. The first level is establishing a network. Conferences are often an ideal way to meet your peers as well as those who are senior to you. Some conferences will offer career workshops. Take these even if you think you won’t learn anything, it’s a great place to introduce yourself to people you don’t know. This summer I attended to this fabulous workshop for young career scientists before the primary conference. There I met NSF officers, Deans, senior faculty, assistant profs, as well as other postdocs. Then, I knew people at the conference and I was able to get these people to introduce me to even more scientists. A second way I will establish a network is before attending a conference, I’ll look up a maximum of three individuals that I want to meet, read papers from their lab and then when I get a chance either get introduced or go up to them myself. I’ll start with something like, “I really enjoyed your work on x. Do you have a chance to talk about this work and the direction you are taking with the research?” People love to talk about their research, almost as much as they love to talk about themselves. Lastly, I will send an email soon after the conference just as a written reminder of the experience.
The second level of networking is what I call “chumming” - this often takes the form of late-night drinking and in the case of PostdocXX’s labmate - a sports event. I don’t drink and I’m not a late night person. Interestingly, there are many cultures where late-night drinking is not an appropriate activity so this kind of chumming excludes not only women but some minorities too. One way around this is to set up your own chumming circle as the women in Every Other Thursday did. If you don’t want to start one, join your local AWIS chapter - they usually have events where you can meet like-minded individuals.
The third level of networking is a deeper and more meaningful network connection and usually involves collaboration. I am currently working with someone who is completely outside my discipline but who is a senior faculty at BigEasternU. My supervisor, RedBull introduced us over email and I successfully wrote a small grant to try and get money to go and work with him.
It's a good idea to have all levels of networks in your life because someone from the more superficial network level may end up being someone you collaborate with.
3. Early on, what was your "Oh Fuck" moment, how did you recover?
I’ve had several ‘oh fuck’ moments in my life. The most difficult was when I was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness only months after I lost a parent to colon cancer. This was during my first year as a postdoc. Initially, I viewed this as a setback because I was trying to submit manuscripts from my PhD while setting up a new experiment with a completely different system. I was frustrated and angry and felt that this caused me to fall further behind my “cohort” and that that illusive t-t position was retreating far into distance. As I see it, there are three ways in the past that I have responded to these kind of moments:
I think that the “oh fuck” moments are made more difficult by the first two unhealthy responses. In the case of the illness ignoring it is not a choice. But really, if you think about it just ignoring something will cause you to shut down, to become deadened to the experience. Fighting against it, however, can just make things worse. In my case, I ended up just fighting myself and who I was at that moment, i.e. someone who was ill but not dead. Fighting against the circumstance, whatever it may be is not useful and simply caused tremendous conflict within me. Me against myself. Not very useful to be in conflict with yourself. It only increases the anger, feelings of failure and shame.
So in the end, I recovered by opening to my life as it was.
4. For those of us who like things like pink, skirts, baking, sewing, knitting, heels, makeup, and other things girlie, how important is it to not do / wear / talk about these things lest we be seen as fluffy girls who can't do Science?
I don’t wear pink but only because I don’t like the colour. But I do care about my appearance and I do like girlie things like make-up, knitting and baking, etc. I’ve never really tried to hide these things. If someone sees you as a “fluffy girl who can’t do science” it’s not because of what lies on your exterior but because of what lies in their interior. And sometimes you can’t change their prejudices. My feeling is the only way to demonstrate that you can do science, is simply to do it. Let the work speak for itself.
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*copy and saves answer to #1* Thanks so much for your answers, I'm sure they will be helpful to
me while looking for a future postdoc other science n00bs as they contemplate their career progression! Hehehe.
@Hermitage Thanks for hosting the carnival - it's such a fabulous idea!
In general, this is a great post. But I confess that the following sook me aback a bit.
"How many manuscripts am I supposed to/minimally expected to prepare as 1st author by end of the 1st year? or by the second year?Who prepares the first draft of a manuscript about the postdoc’s (lab) work?"
At first glance, that's a terrible question to be asking, since the answer depends entirely on the pace of the science and where things lead. Or at least, it should depend on that. For an awful lot of good postdocs – maybe the majority of the ones that make it to the stage of tenure-track interviews in our highly-regarded R1 med school department – the answer at the end of year two was: none. Zero. Zilch. And then at year 3 or 4 they published a Nature paper. Or a couple of PNAS papers. Or a JEM and an EMBO J paper. Etc.
We are looking for people who do something new, and doing something new most often takes time.
The only way I can see that being a good question is if it's being asked specifically to probe for exlpoitative PI behavior (that is, for a PI who is specifically trying to hire you as a data-generating trained monkey rather than as an independent scientist and future leader in your field). But phrased in that manner, it suggests that you (the applicant) are more interested in a publication tally than in developing a system and a story, and as a potential advisor it would immediately put me on-guard.
@spiny norman Actually you're right it isn't really the way I asked the question. I think the way to phrase this is to ask the PI what is the expectation regarding manuscripts and authorship. The most indirect way is to find out is to ask about a postdoc that the PI thought was successful and then look at their publication record tosee how many pubs per year this person produced and then to ask about an unsuccessful postdoc and determine the same thing. Of course, by sucessful I mean by academic stds.
The problem is - is that different disciplines have different expectations. As someone trained in ecology and evolution, the general expectation is that postdocs will produce 2 good (as judged by impact factor) pubs per year. In fact I have been told that if I want to get a position at an R1 that is what I should aim for. This may not be true in the field of molecular biology and biochemistry where getting a good pub is expected to take 2-3 years.
So it's not really an unrealistic question in that sense. I do, however, agree with you about the wording.
Not to make excuses but this is what happens when you have 45 min to write down whatever comes to your head.
Absolutely! VERY reasonable.
I emphasize to my trainees that three of the key parameters to evaluate win a postdoc lab are (1) outcomes (where did people go? Did they get jobs? Is there a list of alumni on the lab website? Is that list comprehensive?); (2) Per-capita publication productivity (not the lab's total productivity); and (3) Do people in the candidate lab develop projects that they take with them to start a new lab?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, there must be mitigating factors that make the lab a good choice.