Small world

(by brooksphd) Sep 20 2011

I just had a call from a friend I knew as a postdoc, who has just started her own lab.

"Dude, did you tell someone to apply for the open position in my lab?"

"no, I didn't tell anyone about your position, why?"

"X just applied and she listed you as a reference!"

Small world! I wondered if this would ever happen - a former student of 'mine' moving on in her career and being part of The Network. I assumed not seeing as I didn't follow the traditional academic career path.

But this feels nice! And scary - is there an added layer of responsibility on both sides of this equation now?

9 responses so far

I get mail

(by brooksphd) Sep 16 2011

Every now and then I get an email from a postdoc or similar asking for advice on how to make the step away from the bench. Sometimes the person just needs some to talk to - a reassuring voice reminding them that there is life without western blots. In most cases when someone drops me a line they have a good idea of what they'd like to do "instead" of continuing their bench career. But occasionally I get a letter from someone who is stuck in that deep existential hole  of self-doubt... I don't know anything else...I have no skills...I have no other passion...

These are hard letters to read and hard phone calls to make. All I can do is relate my journey and offer a supportive voice - seriously, if you'd have told me in 2007 when my bench career was foundering and I was in the depths of an emotional breakdown that in just a couple of years  I would be a well paid Program Manager, working in clinical science, supervising a team of programmers - well, I'd have laughed in your face. And then burst into tears again most likely (there was some emo-as-fuck blogging back then as well *shudder*).

Apropos of this meandering introduction I present the following for your perusal, Dear Reader. This is an amalgam of a couple of letters that came at almost the same time, saying essentially the same thing. I've been given permission to publish the redacted and edited text. Please read them, and tell me: What Would You Do? What is your advice to a junior scientist in this position? And importantly, why do you offer said advice - what do you know that you can share? next time I'll post my replies.


(alas no Isis-like call to my beauty/taste in ties to open with, alas)

Thanks for allowing my contact. I’m interested in learning from your own experiences because they seem to be paralleling my own. ..

I’m a [redacted specialty] and like most postdocs, all I wanted was a tenure-track faculty appointment at a research university.  I assumed that as long as I worked hard enough, that some discovery would come through for me.  But as you know, science can be slow to yield results and I’m approaching the end of my contract with no first author papers. My institute has strict policies on postdoctoral contract terms, so even though I have a decent relationship with my mentor, I don’t see much point in continuing down this road. To be honest, I’m losing my love for it, and whenever I do look for another postdoc it seems that people just want to hire a fresh PhD straight out of school.

I am pursuing several options, including faculty appointments in my field…right now it is the only thing with which I have direct experience. I considered looking for instructional places but like most postdocs I have limited teaching experience, but it's hard to find any position I can take as an adjunct to gain any!

I have also looked into career development awards, which will support someone who wants to make a change of research field. But again, most potential mentors I talk to want me to come with the money in hand, and paylines can be as low as 5-8%. Most professors have discouraged me from going this route.

I have also been applying to pharma and biotech positions.  I’m frustrated that after dozens of applications there have been almost no responses.  It seems like a closed network that I can’t seem to break into, especially with all my experience being in academia only. This has also led me to look into alternative careers.  I have applied to some editorial positions and writer positions although most want some experience/internship.

I have to line up something before my position finishes – I can’t drag this out forever and I don’t really have the energy to pursue too many career alternatives simultaneously.

Perhaps you would be willing to say something about how you finally chose to get out of the lab, how you picked an alternative job, and any crucial insights you learned along the way. In talking with people I find that most of them choose their alternative career based on their “passion” first, then acquire experience and eventually a position.  How do I this if I don’t feel any passion for these alternatives...

Thank you very much for reading my extensive and for any assistance you can provide.

No responses yet


(by brooksphd) Aug 19 2011

This is a knee jerk post. I have done no research. It is based on experience of this case, this "environment*" and today's news about the West Memphis 3 and listening to a news "item" on NPR driving home just now.

The West Memphis 3 get freedom, predicated on signing a plea deal.

The plea deal for the West Memphis 3 says that the AK attorney had enough evidence to prosecute

The plea deal allows therefore the AK to be "right" in what the Prosecutors Office did, (which was to imprison 3 teenagers for 18 years, with one on death row, on bad evidence, in the face of new evidence...)

The plea deal says the West Memphis 3 cannot sue for compensation, because, as stated above, the AK Attorney was right to prosecute and imprison and  impose ultimate sanction on one third of them.

So if the Attorney was right enough to imprison three children and convict one to death, why are they now let out? On a deal that says they cannot now sue for recompense. These three men are now in the early-mid thirties with no skills, no experience of how the world has changed and no financial system to help them. One has been in solitary confinement *for a decade*.

The median wage of Tennessee is $44,000/yr, and the city of West Memphis is 3 miles from here. Assuming these rough numbers and the ignoring a host of other factors, each of the West Memphis Three should be compensated at least $750,000 just on lost wages. Before we complain about my appalling presumption in this math, let's also consider the cost of the social services they will need to help adjust to a society they are not ready for. And that solitary confinement thing too, that's gonna need some work.

There are two dead children and the bills keep mounting...gonna need to pay for that re-trial...based on uh, evidence we've been ignoring for a coupla decades...

Who gets paid for? The living three or the dead two? And do you really think that justice will be served in this case, finally?



*I live in the "East" Memphis that West Memphis is named for. Y'all wanna know about West Memphis? Come to Memphis and ask...half the folks you chat to of an evening are from the west side of the I40 bridge.

One response so far

Hey Kiddo

(by brooksphd) Aug 09 2011

Well, here we are then. I guess you really are real. It's not just your mum making things up to get extra food and sleep, and to uh miss her period, and make me stop smoking finally...and...well, anyway...



I don't know what to say because I have too much to say. Too many thoughts. I wonder if you'll be like me and think too much sometimes. I have a million wonders about you and I can't wait to figure them out.

Sometimes I think I'm going to be right (actually, most of the time for your first decade and half). Sometimes I'm almost definitely going to be wrong (but I'll never admit it, so here is lesson one in self-control). Most of the time though I think we'll figure that out as we go. I can't wait.

It's the oddest thing, I already love you and you're just a kumquat.

But I saw your heart beating inside your chest. I heard your heart beat through ultrasound. You're alive, you're real.

You were our embryo, and now you're our foetus. You will be my baby, and you'll always be my child.

Here we go kid. Wish us luck.

16 responses so far

Territorial demarcation

(by brooksphd) Jul 19 2011

We're moving. My office, that is. The Unit I once belonged to (biomedical informatics) has been subsumed into the Office of Research, along with a couple of other bits and pieces. I now belong to those bits and pieces.

My "old" boss is now doing her job and mine, and looking for a replacement for our faculty technical guru who got a wicked good TT faculty offer at a Big 10 university.

I now work for someone else, at my same rank - the nebulous and newly invented title of Program Manager (above project manager, but below director). But I am now Program Manager of Grant Support (I wanted "Research Development", but am too low on the totem pole to argue the case). It should be interesting, although it takes me further from research itself. I had an offer for a Directorship of Faculty Development and I turned it down to stay in the Office of Research and now I'm doing pretty much the same thing as I would have been only for a different boss and without the pay rise and promotion.

Ho hum, you win some, you lose some.

I'm not badly off, and I've fought and won an almost 50% pay rise since leaving my postdoc three years ago. I'm not great in nebulous roles though, and this is nebulous to the extreme. No real remit, other than, "We need more grants. Do something to help the faculty." I've got some ideas and I've crowd-sourced for more. If anyone has specific suggestions for improving faculty grant application submission rates (and maybe even success rates!) leave a comment. I'm looking at NIH and - shock horror - non-NIH funding. In this funding climate beggars can't be choosers I say.

We have a new Vice Chancellor starting soon and I need to consolidate this position and do wondrous things in the next couple of months. I'll write about them and we can share my successes and/or failures. In a year I hope to either have a (non-TT) faculty appointment as Director (administrative faculty) or be on the job market looking for a move.

Right now though, I am making my introductions to the other staff (they know me but not my new role). And we've been ordered to pack up and get ready to move to new digs. And the territorial demarcation has begun - the place reeks of piss and vinegar as squabbles over space and supplies and furniture break out amongst the junior staff. They don't get it - this isn't the fight you need to be having There's a battle going on and our jobs are on the line.

Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of War!

7 responses so far

On the move

(by brooksphd) Jun 14 2011

Well Dear Reader, the Powers-that-Be have finally made their plans known to those of us at the lower heights of the totem pole...we're moving to the Office of Research! I mean, we we're kind of already under the Office of Research, but as an independent Institution. That institute budget runs out on June 30th, and were being officially amalgamated into the Office of Research.

At my Uni we have the Office of Research as a major administrative grouping. It's divided into two sub-offices: Research Administration (grants, informatics/databasing etc.) and Research Compliance (IRB, IACUC etc). I'm not quite sure where we're going to fit in, but I gather we're under the Office of Research Administration. My group focuses on cinical and biomedical informatics support, but the Office of Research already has 'Research Informatics' (they maintain the funding and granting databases etc.), so we have to get a new name. Dunno what that is yet. And not sure who else is moving with us yet either. But! Me and my team are safe, albeit likely in stasis position-wise.

I just got to tour our new office space and look at the various floor plans and blue prints. Some walls are coming down and there's some general refurbishment to go on, but it's a nice big space. It's in the main admin building so we're in the middle of campus instead of the Chancellery on the edge of campus. The other branches of the Office of Research are either on our floor or the one above, so we're all in one place finally, and this part I am very excited about.

Like most old and rambling institutions there are many silos and fiefdoms and sometimes these inhibit cross-pollination between functional groups. I want to break down some of those silos and make it easier for our faculty to get the administrative support they need for their grants. I know a lot of the folks I'll be sharing space and time with over in the new building and I'm hoping, slowly but relentlessly, to open the Office up to the campus. Our outgoing Vice Chancellor of Research did a great job overhauling the IRB group and the IRB processes to make it easier to find information and get IRBs submitted. Similar actions have been taken with the IACUC too. Now we need to help our faculty locate other vital services: grant writers, editors, funding databases, biomedical and clinical informatics support (my group), mentoring for junior faculty and so on and so forth.

I am very cognizant that we can't be seen to move there and start empire building. We're kind of the young upstarts on campus, and *we* are moving into *their* space. But, with state funding cut across the board we have to get more money in via indirect costs recovered from grants. And for that we need a functional and accessible Office of Research for our faculty, of all ranks, to reach out to for support. And I am doubly keen on this because my next step is to get myself a faculty position so I can enjoy the financial fruits* of my labors as well!

I will keep you posted, Dear Reader, because now I can finally 'talk' about this stuff, I'll be able to post more frequently.

*research incentive bonus. if you cover 15%+ of your salary via funding you get a percentile payback bonus...I am covering 25% of my salary already...

6 responses so far

Deary me, where does the time go?

(by brooksphd) May 18 2011

Hello Reader,

remember me? Sorry I've been so quiet. I know all one of you hang on my every, fleeting word. There have been some major changes at my work and we're moving soon...somewhere. No one really knows what's going on at our level of the totem pole. But, my University is also undergoing some major changes too and those necessarily affect me and my team.

I gather we're all safe for now, but our budget runs out in 6 weeks and we don't know where we're going yet. We cover about 25% of our salary line through grants right now and I have two major deals in the pipeline so I could get us up to 50% by the middle of next year.

I also have some possible career options looming...perhaps a Faculty post? Perhaps a Directorship?

Who knows? ... Well, someone does, but they haven't told me yet.

Anyway, I'm off on vacation tomorrow. 2 weeks in England and week in Tuscany should re-charge the batteries and I'll come back to the epic clusterfuck that will unravel while I'm away exciting changes that will likely start to occur the minute I enter international airspace.
I'll blog from Europe, here and at the other place. See y'all soon...

6 responses so far

Ask not what your Society can do for you...

(by brooksphd) Apr 29 2011

Scientific society that is...

My BlogSis Scicurious has extensively blogged the recent Experimental Biology meeting, and I just found a great post of hers on the reciprocity, or lack there of, between scientists and their professional societies. I suggest you go and read it. now. I can wait...

I was posting a comment about my own activities with my various societies and how I try and do my bit. It grew a little unwieldy so I reproduce here instead (I'm a firm believer that any comment over 2 paragraphs needs to GYOFB'd).

My comment, now blog post is below.


[Excellent post Sci.] I am as active as I can be with a couple of different groups. My local SfN chapter is dead in the water and I've emphasized this time and again to anyone who'll listen, but nothing gets done. I'm not prepared to run it myself because I'm no longer a practicing bench scientist, let alone neuroscientist. Recently the Society sent out a questionnaire about how to engage their membership and was quite vocal in my free-text responses. We'll see what happens.

Of course, SfN also run their "blog the conference" gig and its empty genuflection to the new 'fifth estate' (us).

With the American Heart Association I respond to all their calls to action (they can afford to CapWhiz), and in addition I've spoken with my local AHA advocacy reps. I'm Facebook friends with one, and we email now and then about issues. Essentially I ask occasionally what I can do to help, and also send him tidbits of information I find on the 'choobs he might not have seen yet.

I volunteered recently to work with the advocacy and outreach groups of the American Medical Informatics Association (my prime society nowadays). We'll see what happens. It seems to me their "lobbying" efforts are more focused on big picture issues like EMR adoption, and "opt in" vs "opt out" clauses for patients.

Finally, I bombard my Congresscritters with emails and phone calls. This is done via the CapWhiz actions of AHA and SfN mostly. But the National Postdoc Association sent a call to arms late last year and I called my Representative's office in Washington and spoke to his staffers (I got a 'real' thank you letter in reply too).

When it comes to State level actions I'm more bereft. My local Senator is on emotional sabbatical and TBH doesn't have the best political history. TN is voting on a "don't say gay" bill and only just tabled a "freedom of education" bill - this bill would give protection to teachers who wish to give the teaching creationism and other bullshit and equal footing in the science classroom. Ostensibly this happens as "counter balancing the theory of evolution". I am trying to increase my local outreach efforts, but it's also a matter  of finding time and a few prime causes to invest in.

One of our local museums, The Pink Palace, does a lot of outreach and I kind of know the Director, so I need to get on that...


And now I reiterate Sci's questions: What do you do for your Society and our society? What efforts do you make, or if you don't, what do you think are the principle reasons for not getting involved?

3 responses so far

Time for a REAL change around here

(by brooksphd) Apr 01 2011

As I'm sure my regular reader knows, there are some exciting new changes afoot in the bloggosphere. Occam's Typewriter have agreed to move to Scientopia in exhange for regular cashmoney payments, and I must say we're excited to have them.

Or would be. You see, the only way we can afford them is institute a pay-per-view subscription for our readers. And alas, some of us are morally opposed to that (I prefer corporate branding and gratuitous product placement). Therefore I'm joining some of my colleagues and accepting a long standing offer to move to Occam's Typewriter!

But that's not the only change. Over the last few months I've begun to realise what a mansplaining d00d I can be sometimes. The patience and gentle  pressure of my feminist friends has helped me see the light (plus a regular  thrashing from Zuska, but that costs extra). I feel like I truly understand the struggle women face in the workplace and in the home.

In order to show solidarity I'm undergoing gender reassignment surgery!! Zuska is shutting down TSZ for a funimism blog at Occam's T,  but I believe the world needs hairy legged feminazis and I see it as my duty to pick up the torch (I already have the hairy legs bit!).

So, I hope you'll join me, post surgery (will be live blogged!!) at Occam's Typewriter and help me embrace my new feminine female side!

8 responses so far

Postdocs, unionization and ill thought commentary

(by brooksphd) Mar 30 2011

Disclaimer: I am a former member of the Board of Directors of the National Postdoc Association (NPA). I am still a regular dues paying member of the NPA. This is written in a private capacity and is not sanctioned or otherwise by the NPA, its Leadership or Advisory Council. I am also pro-union on many issues, and find the current GOP efforts to undermine collective bargaining rights across the country un-democratic, un-American and utterly abhorrent. However like much else in life there is a time and place for everything; postdocs do not need a union.


Back on March 17th a PhD trained management consultant called Clifford Mintz wrote a little comment on the Postdoc Forum at Without access to their page views I can’t tell how much heat or light it generated, but given there is only one comment I’m guessing it didn’t really register much in the way of interest. It did however peak my curiosity because in it he makes a series of statements that appear to be so damned ill-considered..
He opens with a non sequitur, saying he’s been talking about a postdoc union for years, but can’t see what the inducement would be for any postdoc to join. That seems odd, because he can’t have been talking very hard if he can’t come up with a few inducements. And if he can’t think why postdocs should join, why is he talking about it? On reflection this might just be a poorly constructed sentence (odd for a self-styled 'science writer) and perhaps we should let it slide, perhaps he’s trying to say he’s anti-union?
He then goes on to lambast the NPA, but concludes by supporting the mission of the NPA. It’s an odd and pointless piece and strikes me as something written in a moment of pique. Given its proximity to the recent NPA Annual meeting, held at the NIH in Bethesda, my guess is that there is a connection between the two.
Dr. Mintz says,

“I learned the other day that there is a National Postdocs Association and was aghast to discover that all it is an organization that collect dues from it (sic) members and provides little else. Talking about robbing the poor!”


Robbing the poor
Yes. Robbing the poor. It costs just $35 a year to join the NPA, and I don’t need my PhD to help me do the math and find out that that’s less than 10c per day. Given the average salary of a postdoc in the US is $40,000 p.a. (about $3300 per month) I hardly think a meager $35 is going to drive anyone to penury.

Of course, there’s a disparity in postdoc remuneration, and not all positions provide for healthcare, daycare, retirement and so forth. The salary gap can be more pronounced in expensive areas of the country. $40k goes much less further for a postdoc at UCSF than it does in the MidSouth. However, the point remains; $35 per year to join a nationally and federally recognized advocacy group is surely not much to ask.


National and Federal Recognition
The NPA represents postdocs on multiple committees that otherwise they would have no access to. For example, the National Academies Committees, the Committee on Research Universities (CRU), the Committee of Women in Science and Engineering and Medicine. They also represent postdocs to the NSF. Importantly, the CRU and the NSF are working on new data surveys and at the CRU meeting in November in Washington, D.C., the NPA made recommendations on best practices that should be implemented.

The National Research Council is working with COSEPUP on new report on the state of postdocs that the NPA had input into, and finally the NPA held their own National Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate, last year in Philadelphia, PA.

All of this hard work, as well as the daily efforts of postdocs around the country in furthering the US scientific and research enterprise was recognized by The House of Representatives by the passing of HR 1545 recognizing National Postdoc Appreciation Week.


Back to finances – who’s robbing the poor?
It’s also important to note that the NPA is a 501(c)3 non-profit and all funds are designated solely for expenses related to the daily operation of the charity. The Executive Director has only a couple of staff members to help her, and she is not heavily compensated for her work. Not nearly as much as, say, the leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW), who gets $173,000 p.a. to look after the postdocs in the U-California system.

The UC postdocs unionized under the UAW fairly recently (after a first attempt in 2006 failed to get enough support). Interestingly enough, UAW has a lot of mouths to feed. Detroit alone has nearly a million current and former UAW members. I’m sure the $2,000,000 a year they’ll rake from the state of California might help, and I’m sure the 5000 postdocs in the UC system feel better knowing where they stand on the ladder right now.

These new union workers now have mandated dues of 1.15% of their gross pay. So, if you’re making the average $40k p.a., your dues work out at $460, or $38.33 per month. Every month, under this system you pay more than it would cost to join the NPA. But for what? What does PRO-UAW offer that is thirteen times better than the NPA?

Well, I guess you have collective bargaining rights, and somewhere to air your grievances. Honestly, this is one of the most vacuous arguments I’ve heard in favor of unionization. In many cases postdocs do have a venue to air their grievances, but choose not to do so because they are scared of rocking the boat; this is worse for foreign scientists on visas. I cannot imagine under any circumstances that an over-whelmed postdoc is now going to run to his or her union arbiter to lodge a formal complaint. How can that possibly be less intimidating than talking to the Dean or Provost about your situation? This does nothing to engender the change that is needed within the system.

What about the pay rises for postdocs though? That is another post in and of itself, and one I’m happy to write. All I’ll say now is caveat emptor – that “extra” money has to come from somewhere and the extra couple of hundred a month in your paycheck will have wide ranging ramifications for you and your lab. A PI often simply can’t shift resources around to cover salary raises, and don’t forget indirect costs (usually about 40%).


But what about forcing change?
Mintz concludes his ‘post’ by saying,

“For what its would (sic), graduates students and postdocs should band together to force curriculum changes at their respective institutions that offer career development seminars, paid internships and new programs that focus on non-academic training tracks!”

Again, more ill considered waffle – forcing change? How much noise can a disparate and disorganized group of junior-rank scientists make, such that the upper levels of their administration will listen? It might work for a larger research institution with thousands of postdocs, but at my University, a fairly typical Academic Medical College, there are only about 120 postdocs and RAs.

We had no voice, until a far-sighted administrator learned of the NPA and saw that it provided a national voice for the tens of thousands of postdocs in the country, and thus gave us a larger platform from which to lobby. Furthermore it provides tools and toolkits, advice and site-visits to help institutions set up postdoctoral offices (PDOs) and postdoc associations (PDAs). Once the administration sees their peers are doing something about salaries and healthcare and other essentials of life, they have a motivation to follow suit.

This is why I support the NPA.

The journey is far from over, but as one of my colleagues on the Board of Directors once said, “I think the ultimate goal of the NPA should be to ensure there is no need for an organization like the NPA need exist.”

8 responses so far

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