I'm going to do what?

Below is a one of those "scientists' stories" videos by the American Chemical Society. They have a bunch more up which I recommend (here). I'm struck by the detail in her "how I got into science" story about her high school history teacher directly telling her 1) that she was going to be a scientist, and 2) how to get started. It seems remarkable that a student could show both an interest in and aptitude for science, for a while, but need to be told directly: "You could be a scientist."  I have heard many stories like this from people who end up in science careers. Often around high school or college, some mentor-type person will say "You seem interested in this science stuff. You know you could be a scientist, right? Here's how to get started.".

You too could have a significant effect on a future-scientist by saying something that simple. See, mentoring is easy!

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Baptized in a pool full of grant money

(blame the person that double-dog dared me)

Now I done grew up 'round some people living their life in labs
Granddaddy had the golden flask PCR every day at U Chicago
Some people like the way it feels, some people wanna kill their sorrows
Some people wanna fit in with the popular, that was my problem
I was in a dark room, loud tunes, looking to make a vow soon
That I'mma get granted up, fillin' up my cup, I see the crowd mood
Changing by the minute and the record on repeat
Took a pipette then another pipette, then somebody said to me:

sci, why you babysitting only two or three grants
I'mma show you how to turn it up a notch
First you get a swimming pool full of RFA’s, then you dive in it
Pool full of RFA’s, then you dive in it
I wave a few grants, then I watch 'em all flock
All the postdocs wanna play Kandel
I got a swimming pool full of RFAs and they dive in it
Pool full of RFA’s, I'mma dive in it"

clean version, for your sensitive ears
RFA = Request for Applications


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a modest comparison

S: sup big worm
W: how much you got left?
S: man I got a lot
W: you still don't have my manuscript?
S: man I'm trying to. PI's is broke these days
W: I don't think you're applying yourself
S: huh
W: you reanalyzing my data?
S: hell you fuck with your shit
W: you reanalyzing my data?
S: now why would I do that
W: I'm going to have to fuck you up. Playing with my authorship is like playing with my emotions.

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Corner Cases and the Big Big Tent of Science

During grad school I spent a year or so being supported by a very broadly defined interdisciplinary grant. At fist I hated it. It meant attending a weekly meeting with everyone at university associated with the program. A group of people I never would have voluntarily chosen to associate with professionally. They were nice people but. This is science?! This is research? What are these people doing?! ..these were my common complains.  It took me a while to get to know these disparate fields. Once I did I saw how much their constraints (and questions) were totally different than mine and it started to make more sense. I just had no idea initially. What they were doing had seemed ridiculous to me because of my underlying assumptions t about research priorities, questions worth investigating, and constraints in answering those questions.

This takes me to the PLOS open data announcement. Let's get this out of the way: not a bad idea. But a tough roll out. I appreciate that PLOS is in a difficult position here. PLos ONE covers all of science. That's a big big tent.

I mean really big. Easily underestimated, when was the last time you seriously talked to someone who works in a research area vastly different than what you do, easy to underestimate.

Here's the list from PLOS One: Biology & Life Science, Computer & Information Sciences, Earth Sciences, Ecology & Environmental Sciences, Engineering & Technology, Medicine & Health Sciences, Physical Sciences, Science Policy, Social Sciences.

That is a massive diversity of approaches to Science. I don't even know what I could confidently generalize about all of these areas. Social Science itself includes many disciplines. This is not simply 5 different ways to do biology. The data that PLOS is requesting varies greatly in, size, type, difficulty of collection, uniqueness, etc. etc.

This difficulty with figuring out the in and outs and whathaveyous of the big tent is relevant for any big how to improve science proposal. These proposals frequently suffer from a bit of discipline (or institution type) myopia. Some the differences across disciplines are merely historical accidents. Others may reflect real differences in constraints, goals, current professional realities, etc. That these differences exist, are important to be cognizant of, and cannot be understated.

(I am a little amused at both large video data and human data being mentioned as unusual corner cases. There are three or four labs on my hallway that use both of those.)

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Selection Processes

In a twitter conversation I mentioned that my department had a decent record bringing in a gender balanced set of speakers. That was silly of me. Since people tend to overestimate diversity I figured it was possible I misremembered. So I checked the last 8 years of speakers in the big department colloquium.


For last year I was correct. About 50/50. For previous years...not so much. That's a pretty dramatic jump towards parity (the talk series is very broad including areas with high % of women researchers. no real excuse).

Related, I highly recommend the quick read There's No Excuse for all White Male Panels. Print it out. Put it in your chairs's mailbox. Email spam it to your society listserv. I'm guessing that the committee here took some of the suggestions to heart (or someone told them to).  Trust me, if the fine fellows here can get their act together and look beyond their golfing buddies, you can too.

Adapted from the linked article:

1. Examine your Selection Process. Who makes the list of possible invites/sources/etc? Do a few grey beards just throw names around during their weekly squash date?
2. Improve you Selection Process. Just because you 'got some good people' last year doesn't mean the process doesn't have room for improvement.
3. Look Beyond the usual suspects. Take Chances. Maybe not every invitation needs to be a known big name.
4. Get Help. Ask for recommendations. Ask widely. Again, step outside of your immediate network.
5. Approach people. You don't need to wait until the perfect opportunity is available to develop connections. Write down names. Keep contact info. Develop a stable of interesting people that's perhaps not as homogenous as the members club at Augusta National. Just a thought. You know depending on your priorities.

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More Science Outreach

I was never really a huge public engagement science person. If you'd asked me early on in my graduate career about it I would have said I was perfectly happy sitting in an ivory tower looking at math equations all day. That has changed.

An unexpected (to me) driver of that has been conversations with my favorite non-science folks (ie my extended family). Below is a paraphrased conversation. Keep in mind I've been in science for 10+ years and have had many conversations about it with them.

Fam: so will you need a grant for tenure?

Me: technically not required, but basically yes.

Fam: Well the economy is a bit better now so there must be more money.

Me: Not necessarily. Congress sets the budget for orgs like NIH and NSF. That might not change quickly.

Fam: Congress sets the budget?

Me: Yes.

Fam: oh you are f@%^ed

The funding of science by government (or other orgs) is certainly not obvious to non-scientist. I remember having a "what is an are-oh-1?" conversation as a college student working in a lab. I was Mr. science all the time and I had no idea where the money came from.  Or how the science system worked in general. I suppose it shouldn't' be surprising that others don't know either.

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A random walk through job interview observations

Here are some random observations about the job market and interviewing for jobs. More than anything I’ve learned that the academic job market really is a rational meritocracy…

LOL, naw. But it’s tempting to start thinking that since I have apparently successfully traversed it.


(after 3ys and 100+ applications). Before I become an entrenched lifeboater (is that the term? I don’t even know). Let me get out some ramblings while I can still remember the feelings of desperation.

Interviews are grueling. If you are a high energy person it will be fun. If not, I recommend your good friend caffeine. I am going to go ahead and assume that for me strategic caffeine consumption was the difference maker. That may seem like an exaggeration but when you need to be energetic enthusiastic and polished at dinner after 9 straight hours of interviewing it can be helpful.

Bathroom breaks are your friend. Take some breaks, even if you don’t have to go. Being constantly ‘on’ is exhausting and even a 5 min break can be helpful. Find a way to keep a few things on you, like a small snack.

 There are a million post-hoc justifications of why you may be rated better (or worse) than another candidate. Maybe you complained about the weather. Maybe you didn’t complain about the weather. Maybe your shoe laced came untied. Your clothes weren’t fancy enough. Your clothes were too fancy. You mispronounced someone’s name. Your accent sounded fake. You ordered that dish that nobody likes at the restaurant. Your talk went 30 seconds over time. Or somehow somewhat during a grueling 2 day, meeting-palooza, you showed a real lack of polish.

Don’t worry about this, as you have no control over it. The applicant pool is deep enough that there's a bit of coin flipping going on to select short lists. Prepare as much as you can, and know that at some point something, no matter how small, will go wrong.

Every interview has a few awkward moments. Some related to research, like a skeptical professor saying that your entire research area is a waste of time. Others may be personal, like asking what your spouse does (happened more often than not for me) or if you're planning on having kids.

The most consistently awkward moment of  interviews for me? The casual chit-chat about what the local city is like. “This neighborhood is nice, this one is more trendy, oh no you don’t want to live that other area, it's full of crime and min-*awkward pause* umm…I mean, that’s where they live, it’s historical, and a shame, we really should do something about it.” Just an FYI for those of you that 'encourage diversity'. I usually just nodded and smiled so as not to display a lack of polish.

All of this will be slightly less stressful when you have a fully developed plan B. When there is nothing between striking out on the academic job market and oblivion (perceived or real) the whole thing has a real desperation to it. Spend some time developing a plan B. Having a plan B will help you with your plan A.

If you get an offer celebrate! Because it’s going to get weird. Right in the middle of all the fuzzy feels you’ll have to start actually negotiating the offer. This may be more or less complicated depending on your research laboratory needs and other issues (spousal considerations). I’ve head a million “I wish I negotiated X” stories from new professors. Even if not required work with your PI to make a draft of a start up requests before you go on interviews. I also recommend a brief read of this book Getting to Yes. It’s not exactly rocket science but helpful I think.


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Go to job talks

PSA: Are you a graduate student or postdoc thinking about applying for academic jobs in the future?

Watch. Job. Talks.

Watch them when not your area.
Watch them even if they don’t seem interesting
Watch them in the mornin’.
Watch them if you have to sneak in.

You’ll find out what a good job talk is like. Job talks aren’t quite the same animal as seminar talks. The goal of the speaker isn’t quite the same. It’s not just “here’s some cool data and a story”, more “look upon my fledgling research program and despair!” The talk is part of the application package designed to make people think “that person would be a great PI. Throw a bag of money at him!”

You’ll find out what a bad job talk is like. I have seen plenty of bad talks. Not overall awful but with a clear problem or two. Too much detail. Not enough detail. Awful slides with tiny fonts. A speaker that didn't know how to answer questions. (That is perhaps an underrated skill.  Learn to answer questions well.)

You’ll see which candidates the department likes & which it doesn’t. Ask for people’s opinions about the talks. This is the profession you have chosen. Try to figure out how it works beyond your PI’s stump speech about fit and working hard.

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What Makes a Competitive Faculty Application Package?

I'm working on a few posts about applying for academic jobs (and developing additional plans). For now check out this article. Her experience is very similar to mine. 3 years on the market. 100+ applications. Increasing attention each year but no job offer yet. My PI has even trotted out the standard line "there will be some retirements soon!" We'll see how it all plays out.

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Where is the networking sleaze-line?

Relating to this article on how to maximize your changes of landing an academic position.

Bashir story time:

A few years ago I’m chatting with a prof in my department. Let’s call him Prof Ted. We’re talking about mentoring and he tells the story of how great his graduate school mentor was. When Prof Ted graduated in the early 1990s from Prestigious WestCoast Uni he actually had 0 publications. Zero. But his graduate advisor knew that he was a very smart man who deserved a job at a university. So his advisor called up people he knew at other universities and made it so. Prof Ted got the job he now holds, at a pretty nice university with zero publications to his name, but one phone call.

After relaying that story Prof Ted just kind of nodded at me, as if to say see isn’t that a great story?

I nodded back, but overall I don't’ think I had the reaction that Prof Ted was expecting. It seemed to cross the "networking sleaze-line", not to mention the "old boys club" line. Would my reaction be different if Prof Ted didn't come from a prestigious university and wasn't part of the demographic that dominates my homogenous department?

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