Scientopia Mon, 24 Oct 2016 17:32:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 76009644 Dual-body career planning Mon, 24 Oct 2016 17:32:13 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The ‘dual-body problem’ gets a bad rap in academia. It’s seen as a major difficulty even though virtually all couples with at least one career in academia, and many other fields, have the same basic issue to deal with. This career path requires multiple changes in position, usually at different institutions, and often different geographic locations. It’s hard for anyone to make these career transitions, and made even harder when there is a significant other’s job to take into consideration, no matter the field. Oh how we envy those wise enough to have settled down with a someone who can work from a computer anywhere, and rake in the money to boot!

Anyway, my spouse and I have one of many versions of the dual body problem. We graduated from the same PhD program at the same time, are going on the job market at the same time, and some aspects of our research are fairly similar, meaning we have a lot of overlap in the actual job postings/departments we’re looking at. We are also very picky about where we want to live long-term. There are many “solutions” to similar situations, from the individual to institutional level, but for now, here’s our dual-body approach to applying for jobs.

  1. Who is more needy/picky in their requirements? Will they be happy if they settle for less? Will the other partner? Is one person’s skill set more in demand? In other words, do you have a “trailing spouse” or does it depend on what position is offered to whom? For us, it is my husband who has more specific needs, and may be a more desirable hire since he has grant funding to go with him to his new position. To do the research he wants, he needs to be at a major university with specific facilities and collaborators. I am more flexible in that I’m applying for anything from primarily teaching positions at small liberal arts colleges to more research-focused jobs at R1s, and I would also be interested in other kinds of jobs if things didn’t align perfectly for a traditional academic job.
  2. Restrict/expand searches geographically to match. We’ve done the long-distance thing when we couldn’t get a perfect match for our postdocs. That’s not going to happen again, though you do hear those stories about couples who go the majority of their careers living long distance!
  3. Make exceptions. When I see a job that I’m a perfect fit for, I’ll apply anyway, even if my husband doesn’t have plans/options to apply in that region. At the very least it could be a competitive offer to give me negotiating power; at the most it might sway us both to move for my dream job, or my spouse might discover another match there at a later date. Don’t give up before you’ve exhausted your options!
  4. Strongly consider jobs that advertise multiple positions. I don’t know if it’s the economic recovery or what, but I’m seeing a lot more institutions advertising large hiring sprees this year. Even if they are not ideal in one way or another, this could be the best all-around fit for getting both of us in decent positions.
  5. As with any job search, spread the word! We got wind of two positions opening in a department we both wanted to be in, from a friend who was keeping an ear to the ground for us. We were able to get our applications in despite the short window the post was open because of our friend’s influence, and never would have known about it otherwise.
  6. Prepare for when and how to bring up the dual-body issues with the department (most sources say for this early career stage it should be after an offer has been made) and what to ask the department to do about it. Can they create a position for the spouse? Hire both of us to share a lab/position? Exert influence on another department/institution to consider hiring the spouse? We are choosing not to mention our dual-body issue in our cover letters and will see for each position when it makes sense to broach the subject.
  7. Support each other! Pass along job ads, decide together which jobs to apply for, read each other’s application packages, and be enthusiastic about all promising opportunities that come up without over-analyzing what you would do if

Stay tuned for future posts on interviews, decision making, rejection… and wish us luck! If you have any other experience or advice for the planning/applying stage, please post in the comments!

Query of the Day: Career Self-Awareness Mon, 24 Oct 2016 15:24:58 +0000 Aptitude for different roles in academic science is a tricky business. Until a person has been serving in a particular capacity, we never really know how well they will do. Sometimes one is very surprised, on both the "more capable"and "unexpected disaster" fronts.

And yes, I am fully aware that Imposter Syndrome gets in the way of self-assessment.

I am also aware of the Peter Principle.

Nevertheless the question of the day is whether you think about those future roles that you might reasonably be considered to fill. Do you have a firm idea of your strengths and weaknesses as an academic/scientist? Are there certain roles you could never do, wouldn't be good at? Are there other ones you just *know* are right for you if only given the chance?

I think that I do. At my stage, these next-steps are mostly leadership roles for which I am utterly unsuited. I know this about myself and there is no way I would pursue them or feel slighted if passed over for that behind-the-scenes grooming/encouraging process.

I see other people who I think are eminently suited to be leaders of larger collectives. I've been able to observe several people who ascended to power (ahem) from petty to very grand indeed. I think I know what sorts of people do well and I am not that. At all.

Of course this post isn't really about me but rather about those that do not seem to be aware of themselves. I marvel at that phenotype that doesn't seem to recognize their own skill set and the strengths and limits that they express.

This got me to pondering and of course I am now curious about your experience, Dear Reader.

Do you feel as though you have a good assessment of your suitability for various next-roles that might lie ahead of you?

quote of the day Mon, 24 Oct 2016 14:23:31 +0000

Worry a little bit every day and in a lifetime you will lose a couple of years. If something is wrong, fix it if you can. But train yourself not to worry. Worry never fixes anything.  ― Mary Hemingway

I wish I could do this. I wish I could do this.

Ugly politics at work are a grain of sand in my shoe.


The ego blows that are NIH reviews Fri, 21 Oct 2016 13:52:52 +0000 Recently on the tweets:

I wish to be fair to Sean, who is thoughtful and was trying to make a specific point:


@pottytheron I really am not talking about her score, or the outcome.

— Sean Eddy (@cryptogenomicon) October 20, 2016



@pottytheron no, and to be clear, I'm not complaining about outcome. I don't think those *particular* critiques are good for the NIH system.

— Sean Eddy (@cryptogenomicon) October 20, 2016


The NIH process favors large laboratories. Solo theoreticians have a rough time. But we need theoreticians too. @drugmonkeyblog

— Sean Eddy (@cryptogenomicon) October 20, 2016

Sean felt that these reviews discouraged, significantly discouraged to the point of leaving science, a promising young scientist. He said that these reviews were another straw on the camel's back.

I do not know the person to whom Sean refers, and can't even take a guess at who it might be. But I've seen this story many times. Heck, I've been part of it on both sides. I've given what I thought was a fair review that probably wounded some young scientist to their very core. I remember when I was that scientist. Truly, even in those golden olde dayes, there were NIH rejections, and some of them had unpleasant comments that were a bit beside the point. And a critique to my mother, in the 70's or 80's: Why should we study heart disease in women, since we know how it works in men. This would be a waste of funding. Ah, there has been some progress.

My response here, longer than a tweet is twofold:

First, the substantive claim: that NIH does not care about "small science" or solo-practitioners or small-dogs.  This is just blatantly not true, as much as NIH can be said to "care" about anything. NIH may not prioritize theoretical or small lab, but it does not penalize for it either. I don't have DataHound's data on this, but I have always been small, and I've mentored people who stayed small (one trainee at a time, no tech). They get funded. They do. NIH does support theoretical work. I know theoreticians with funding.  But they publish, even if most of their papers are single -authored. Yes you publish less when you do not have an army generating data for you. But probably one paper every other year is not sufficient, no matter what your science. Please don't tell me about the snowflake nature that makes more than 1 paper every other year impossible. Shades of Maria. It may be wrong. It may be cruel. It may not promote the best science and research. BUT... if you want to survive, get tenure and be part of this world, you must publish.

Second, the response of a junior person to rejection and review comments that range from cruel and hard to silly and stupid. It happens. I would love for this to be a world where we all sing Kumbaya all the time. But its not. Expecting the world to take care of someone's ego is not a good strategy. Sometimes those comments are not meant, delivered or in reality as ugly or nasty as they are perceived. My unvarnished truth (for example, "concerns exist that with this level of productivity, this PI may not be successful if funded") may be your hurtful ad hominem ("I am publishing as much as I possibly can"). Your blisteringly obvious hypothesis is totally opaque to me. Everyone hates peer-review, but damned if I can think of a better system that would be less biased, less idiosyncratic, and produce less garbage at the end.

Everybody gets rejected. Everybody. Again, the world is far from perfect, but if you want to give up after your first rejection, you are not going make it. Your first grant rejection is nothing compared to what is coming your way.


Friendship and a death grip on truth Fri, 21 Oct 2016 13:20:05 +0000 Again, a post written two weeks ago, only now being posted:


A friend of mine, years ago, going through a divorce from their (very liberal, right-thinking) ministerial spouse, once mused that while the spouse loved humanity, it was people in specific that this spouse could not stand.

I reminded of this as I watch the (near-adult) child of a dear friend go through hell. This child, who I have known for years, is a good person. But this good person did something wrong. There was (minor) injury to another.  But the child's community of peers has judged, and found this near-adult child wrong. The situation has a lot of she-said/she-said, and it is not clear where the exact truth lies.  Yet, the peers of this child have piled on, saying things like "I cannot possibly be friends with someone who has done what you have done" and "until you admit your sins, and truly repent,  I can only turn you into the police". (note this was not a police-actionable deed, and let me add that race was not an issue). There was much public shaming and harassment and the near-adult child is devastated and left college

I am sad that these young people, the friends of the child, the lover of the child,  have drawn this line so stringently, so harshly. No peer has stopped and asked to hear the child's side of the story. The lover of the child has said "I need to let you go so we both can move on". No peer has said "yes, this was bad, but I love you anyway".

The question of when you forgive someone, when your love and relationship is more important than a single deed, is not necessarily black and white. There are things one may not or  cannot forgive: rape, murder, torture. But smaller transgressions? There needs to be room for a person to say "I did this wrong thing, and I am sorry" in the company of friend who will say "I love you, especially for saying this". Part of the problem comes where you draw the line between unforgiveable and forgivable. Young people, in my perception, often have more trouble with that line.

If I have learned anything, walking this earth for as long as I have, it is that I can be wrong. That my judgements, my clear-eyed views of the truth are often more cloudy than I know, at the time, even now. That sometimes caring for a person, even a person with a history of not caring for you, is not just an objective good thing, but something that makes me better in more ways than I know.

My hope is that these young people, years from now, maybe only months, will look back, if not in shame, at least in a larger understanding of their standards for love and friendship and support. My hope is that the young person, the child, will not be so injured as to turn around and do this to others.

S'hana Tovah, to my Jewish brothers and sisters, to my brothers and sisters of all faiths, and to my brothers and sisters who profess no (organized or otherwise) faith. May everyone have a friend that stands by you in time of need.

Repost: What do you own? Thu, 20 Oct 2016 12:12:45 +0000 One of the most important things one does is write letters of recommendation. They may not get read. They might be ignored. But then again, they might not. One of my favorite old posts is "What do you own?" So, I'm putting up here, as a starting point for thinking about writing letters for others:


What do you own?

When you are a grad student you own your thesis. period. Maybe you are lucky and have an undergrad who is helping you with some of the tedious pars). And while you may care about the undergrad, you don’t own their success or failure.

When you become a postdoc you own the project. Maybe you own part of a grad student’s career – because what happens to them reflects back on you in ways that the work of an undergrad doesn’t.

When you become a TT person (or sometimes, in some very big labs, a senior postdoc fellow, who is figuring out a non-TT career), you own the lab or your part of the lab. You all of a sudden own the careers of a technician, and any trainees you’ve got. What they do reflects on you. And what’s more you own your career, in a way that wasn’t really so obvious when you were a postdoc and you just owned a project.

The transition to ass prof (as opposed to a full ass prof) is a bit more subtle. You can continue to own your lab, the classes you teach, and your family (remember them?).  Or you can do more and start owning other junior faculty.

Now obviously I mean “own” not in the slavery sense, or the apples for the grocery store sense. I mean it in the “take ownership of a problem or process” sense. It is a way of identification of things for which one takes responsibility. It is the sense in which another person’s successes or failures not just reflect on you, but are things that you truly care about, prioritize and work on. Understanding what you do and do not own is a critical ability for academic success. Not to mention personal mental health.

One way of assessing leadership (another douche term), that is now so corrupted that it can mean anything from inspiring and directing others to achieve more than they could on their own to have double digit R01’s), is to see what a person thinks they own.

When you are a junior faculty and own your lab, you can be very successful with trainees, they got lots done, they get jobs, you’ve got lots of grants that make all this possible. But their successes still have your name on it. Mature “ownership” (if you will) means that when you start working with other junior faculty, that you work towards their success, and that to you, their success matters, even if you do not get your name on their papers. Even if you are not included for 10% effort on their grant. Even if your department head will not acknowledge your activity as part of your job.

This is harder. All of the previous ownerships had some assignable outcome (papers, grants, invites to sit on study sections), most of which can show up on your CV. When you take ownership of other faculty, or even other groups of people (as the Chair of the Support for all those XX, Brown, disabled or  people we have to let in, even though we wouldn’t live next door to any of them, unless they were rich and good-looking), it may turn up as “chair of the…” or maybe not even that.

The decision to do something like that is a decision based on knowing what kind of person you want to be. You do it for you, when no one else is looking. Maybe you do it because someone else took a risk and did it for you ages ago. Maybe you do it because you have a spiritual basis for such behavior (I will admit to being hugely suspicious of this one, but acknowledge that it is possible). Maybe you just like helping. But to me, that's part of leadership or maturity or whatever  – when you recognize that as a senior person you’ve got stuff to share, and ways to help,  and acknowledgement of ownership doesn’t matter.

How do I know what is the right thing to do? Thu, 20 Oct 2016 12:08:17 +0000 I wrote this several months ago. I had forgotten it.


My mother is slipping out of this world (see these posts: here and  here and here and here). I've written a lot about my pain and hers:

I too want Mama

Winter of her life is now

Snow on hair and mind

I see her once or twice a week. I care for her when I see her, but that's almost more for me, as there are others who care for her where she lives.  She is in a good place, a safe place. She is being taken care of by people who have a calling to take care of her. But almost every time I leave her I think: should I being doing more?

And then the internal dialogue starts:

"Should I be doing more?"

"But what else could I do?"

"I could go see her every day"

"That would be very difficult, and end up taking 60-90 minutes out of my already over-filled time"

"But I waste so much time... maybe this instead of reading sci-fi at night"

"Would it matter to her?"

"How can I possibly know what matters to her?"

I do not think that I am alone in this dialogue. I would guess that every aging child, every adult child who cares for their parent, whether they have the resources I do, or whether the demented (or not demented) parent is living at home in too-small of a space, has this discussion with themselves. To take on the care of a parent, one must already have made a commitment.



On selling your soul to the devil Wed, 19 Oct 2016 12:52:12 +0000 Say you work for a toy company*. You enjoy making toys and you know the toys make the kids happy. The company that you work for has to sell the toys in order to make profit. But in order to get the parents of the kids to buy the toys, the company thinks they need to market them with gender-specific advertising. You are not in the marketing department, so very far away from where these decisions are made. And - as I said - you like the toys, the company and the fact that you make kids happy with the toys, but not the way the toys are marketed. And when you address this with your direct colleagues (so not the marketeers), most of them say:"Well, this is just how the world works, boys like cars and girls like dolls, we cannot change this. Also, this successful marketing is what pays your bills."  Whereas I feel that changing this might actually be a little contribution to a more equal world, and at the same time, the company emphasizes they value a diverse workforce, which in my mind is almost not compatible with the marketing strategy behind their products.

Have I sold my soul to the devil? Do I accept this is the way things are or do I try to change this somehow? If you work in a commercial setting: how do you deal with things you personally disagree with?


* Clearly I don't, but for the sake of the argument it doesn't matter.

Thought of the Day: SFN Tue, 18 Oct 2016 18:22:18 +0000 I didn't repost my annual SFN suggestion to go talk to Program yet.


I'd almost rather Open Thread this idea for this year. A certain person who shall remain nameless seems to be of the opinion that I must surely annoy the ever-loving hell out of my Program Officers. This could very well be the case, I don't know.

Do you go talk to Program at SFN, Neurofolks? What's your plan? What do you get out of it?

Take the good and leave the rest Tue, 18 Oct 2016 04:49:27 +0000 Continue reading ]]> I took a postdoc with a intense advisor because I wanted to be tougher.

I had a great grad school experience with a great mentor. I worried that, although I felt strong from this experience, perhaps I felt this way because my advisor had shielded me from criticism. I worried that I would not be tough enough for the “real world” of science. So I challenged myself by taking a postdoc with a mentor who holds nothing back when it comes to criticism (indeed, one whose interview style led me to cry in my hotel room).

I thought that just by experiencing the criticism I would grow a thick skin. I thought that by daily facing this challenge I would learn to take criticism better. Maybe in time I will see that I have gained strength from this (or understand that it saved me from something that does not suit my personality, as academic blogger The New PI says that you need to be made of steel to be a PI), but going through it has felt like an unnecessary tearing down of my confidence instead of a positive skin-thickening, strength-building exercise. Criticism still hurts. And, as Drug Monkey recognizes, this approach does not necessarily develop strong academics. While one needs to be tough in science, what one needs even more is confidence. So lesson number one learned so far: build confidence to face challenges, don’t put yourself in a negative space to face challenges.

I recently have come to lesson number two. I realized that what I need is not actually  to be tough in the face of criticism. It is to see criticism for what it is. It is the ideas of another person colliding with my ideas or my creations. Their ideas are not inherently better than mine. It is not my job to take all of their criticism and patiently see how wrong I am. It is to critically evaluate their ideas and my ideas and create better ideas out of the two. Instead of allowing criticism to bounce off I need to allow in the good feedback and let the ideas I don’t agree with, or those that are simply negative, slip on by.

I started off this year looking for confidence. I wasn’t expecting to find it in the same place that felt like it was taking away my confidence, but here we are. Everyone in academia deals with criticism regularly, and while I’m sure some are naturally less sensitive to it, I’m sure many have developed strategies or ways of thinking about the criticism that make it manageable. How about you?