Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for the ‘Two-BodyProblem’ Category

Applying for a Postdoc – Take 2

Work for foodI am teaching at a short course and I spent dinner mentoring some senior graduate students in the course about how best to apply for postdocs. I wrote about this a while ago, but I like this advice better, so read this one!!

The students I was talking to are at just the right time to really plan for the next step – about a year out from getting their PhD. While I was talking, I realized this would make a pretty good blog post full of advice. Of course, this is just one WomanOfScience’s idea of what works. It is certainly from my position as a hirer of postdocs. These are the things I do and do not want to see when you approach me for a position. If anyone else has things they want to add or other strategies that work, please post of comment.

  1. How do you find a postdoc? Unlike applying for grad school, there is no one place to particularly apply. There is no clear application process. Being a postdoc is like being a gun for hire. You just have to go where the job is. But, how does one find that job? You have to approach people individually. When reading papers or at conferences, find stuff you like and see who the PI is. Be systematic about it. Make a list and see what is in common about those then maybe look for more working on those problems or with those techniques that interest you. Think to yourself: “How does this position fit into my life goals? Will this position help me to achieve my goals?” You should be able to answer that question should the PI ask when interviewed. You should also be able to answer the question, “What do you want to do for your career? (Or as I say, “What do you want to do when you grow up?) Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” If you cannot answer these questions, then perhaps a postdoc is not right for you. If you can, double check that you need a postdoc to achieve your goals.
  2. Now that you have a list of people to approach, you need to reach out to those people. The best way to do this is via an email. What should be in your email?
    • First, make sure you address the person personally. Do not write “Dear Sir.” This is for two reasons: 1. The person you are writing to might be a woman, and she will be mad if you say “dear sir” (don’t believe me, see this post). 2. “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” is impersonal. It sounds like you are writing a form letter and have no idea who you are writing to. If you are applying to a postdoc, you should not spam (send a million emails to a million people)  nor should you sound like you are spamming. I will not read your email if it sounds impersonal.  You should always write, “Dear Dr. SoAndSo,” or “Dear Prof. WomanOfScience.” This is formal because you are using my title, but it is also personal, because you used my name.
    • Next, write something that identifies you, “My name is Wendy Scientist, and I am a 5th year graduate student at BigStateU working in the lab of Dr. BigName.” Now add a sentence or two about how you know of the PI you are writing to, “I saw your work at the ScienceOfImportantStuff Conference last March and was very excited about it.” Or, even better, “We talked at the ScienceOfImportantStuff Conference about my work on ReallyCoolScience.” The second is better because you actually talked to the person. Will the PI you are applying to remember you? Who knows, but if he/she should, he/she will try to remember and continue reading to hear what you have to say. Of course, only say you talked to the person if you actually talked to them. Don’t lie. Scientists are not supposed to be liars.
    • Now write something about your work and their work and how you are excited about the opportunity to do a postdoc with them. This should be brief – not more than 1-2 sentences. They get the point that you are asking about postdoc opportunities.
    • Thank them for their time and sign off. Don’t write a long email because professors get 100s – 1000s of emails every day. You don’t want to waste their time. If they are not interested, they will let you know. If they are, make sure you include some information for them to read more about you.
    • Give them your information. What should you give them?
      • Your full CV. See this post for a lot of information about CVs. In a postdoc application, you need your contact information, your education, research, and work experience, any awards or honors you have won, and your publications in that order. After that, you can add anything else you want. A full CV can be long – it is full. Do not put a picture of yourself on your CV.
      • A one-page summary of your work. The PI you are applying to is not going to read your papers. Besides, they are listed on your CV, so he/she can look them up. Better to give a one-page summary of your thesis work and any technical skills you have. Yes, you can include a picture.
      • A list of references. These are people who can write you a recommendation. You should have at least three references. You can list them at the end of your CV or in a separate document. My university requires three letters for hiring. I will not only ask for the letters, I will also call at least a couple of them to ask about your abilities, skill set, and mentality in the lab.
  3. What to do if you do not hear back? If you don’t hear back in a week and you didn’t get an away message that they were out of the country for a month, send a short email to ping them. This should be very brief and remind them that you applied. Sometimes people won’t write back ever. That’s OK. They are busy or jerks, to whatever. You don’t want to work for someone who doesn’t have time for you, and we are all guilty of this at some point.
  4. What to do it they reject you? Accept it and move on. Sometimes people do not have money. Sometimes they need different skills? Sometimes it just isn’t a good fit. The relationship is about both of you, and it has to work for you both. If the PI senses something isn’t going to work, it isn’t going to work, and you should not push it. Try, try, try again. Just remember that this job is full of ups and downs (see this post) and that criticism is part of the game (see this post), but you have to push forward and keep applying.

So, what do you think? I think this advice is more concrete than the last set about applying for postdocs. I hope you find it helpful. Please feel free to add comments or other suggestions – especially those professors who have been doing this a long time. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Pop Star PI

buckaroo-banzai-movie-poster-phantom-city-creativeI have been thinking recently about how being a research-intensive academic in science (I will qualify with many fields, but realize not all are like this) is like being a pop music star. Now, you may be scoffing and getting ready to stop reading this post, or you may immediately think of Buckaroo Banzai, so hear me out. I think that this analogy can go pretty far and actually has merit. Further, I hope that by making this analogy, I can help some of you come to terms with different aspects of this career path. For instance, if you are part of the postdoc army and thinking you want to be a faculty member, thinking about being a research-intensive academic in this light might help you to position yourself better to become a professor.

  1. Scientists and Musicians are both creative. I know it is obvious that pop stars and musicians are creative because they make up new lyrics and guitar rifts that are catchy and moving. But, scientists are inherently creative, too. Our entire job is to solve new problems that have never been tackled before. We invent new techniques to observe, analyze, model, and describe the phenomena of the world around us. I think that there is some idea that what we do is not creative because it is often opaque, uses math, and results in facts and new knowledge. On that note, there is another issue, too. By the time we present our results (perhaps on NPR, if we are cool), we are telling you some new facts. But, we don’t capture and retell all the creative moments it took us to get to these new facts. We don’t advertise very well that science is creative.
  2. Scientists and Musicians are influenced by the past and present of the field. In music, it is clear that there are trends in sound (remember auto-tuning?) and rehashing of old sounds to make them new again (sampling and covers). Scientists need to be pushing forward while constantly keeping the literature of the past and present in mind. Previous experiments and results help us to find the path on our future experiments. Referencing the literature is the first thing we do in journal articles. Further, some of our intellectual work is in the form of review articles where we completely rehash the literature in new ways, trying to make connections between what has come before with what is happening in a field now. Finally, every now and then, a field will “rediscover” a whole type of experiments or model that was basically ignored or dead to completely revive these ideas to have significant impacts on a field.
  3. Scientists and Musicians both have to re-invent themselves every couple of years. Part of being creative is pushing yourself to be creative about new things. Musicians come out with new albums every few years. Many times the sound is new and they even re-invent themselves. If they are good at it, a pop star can have a 30 – 40 year career or longer (think about Madonna or the Rolling Stones). A typical tenured and continuously active (see below) scientist will have at least 30 years of productivity in their career. Over 30 years, there is no way to continue to do the exact same thing. A scientist must re-invent themselves every few years to continue to come out with new ideas, results, and papers. So, it is not enough to have an idea of what the next experiment is, you must think about what the next big idea that will result in 5-10 or 20 papers. Then you must give it up and move on to the next, next big thing. To be truly excellent, you should be inventing fields that hit and riding the wave of popularity – not following it. Of course, there is merit to studying one thing really well, but even in that, you should be applying new techniques and learning about new avenues, or else there will be nothing new to study.
  4. Scientists and Musicians have a public face and profile to maintain. In my “state of the lab” address (post, post, post), I call myself the CEO of the lab. Much like a pop star, you have a public face that you present that needs to be maintained. In addition to being the “front-(wo)man” of the lab, I am also the manager. I maintain my lab website. I make sure that our great achievements are properly advertised. I make sure we are seen at all the right venues (parties for pop stars and conferences for scientists).
  5. Scientists and Musicians both have to go on tour. In order to both maintain their public profile and to promote their new work (album or results/papers), musicians and scientists both have to travel. Musicians can also make money on their travels because touring is the best way for musicians to make money these days. For scientists, some fields do pay honorariums for giving talks, but usually you just get your travel paid for (reimbursed). Around tenure time, many people go on a “tenure tour.” I am not an advocate of the tenure tour. In my mind, by that time, it is too late. You should be touring all the time to promote yourself, your work, and your personnel and students consistently.
  6. Scientists and Musicians often marry others in their field. Musicians often marry other musicians, artists, actors, or similar creative types. Scientists often marry other scientists. This can make touring and work-life balance difficult (see next item). At least musicians can make music wherever they want. To do science, you must be at a university or research institute. There are not an unlimited number of open slots at these locations. There are very few (I have met one only) self-employed scientists. There are many, many self-employed musicians, and you can live wherever you find inspiration, if you are self-employed. So, this ended up being a similarity that resulted in a huge difference.
  7. Scientists and Musicians have to juggle work and family. With all this touring and creating, it can be difficult for pop stars and scientists to have kids, juggle their jobs, and get to PTO meetings. Also, creative jobs are often all-consuming. Creative types, when engrossed in the creative process, often have a hard time putting their jobs to bed at night. This also makes work-life balance difficult.
  8. Scientists and Musicians are both mostly men and there is a glass ceiling. Many of the top pop stars are women, and certainly being a woman in music is more socially normal than being a woman in many scientific and engineering fields.  That being said, there are few women in the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame (salon). Beyonce is not remarked to be a marketing and musical genius (although I think she is) (Atlantic). How many women in rap can you name? (girl talk, smithsonian) I won’t rehash all the literature about the fact that there are very few women in STEM, but I’m just saying – women musicians and women scientists all live in the same male-dominated society and are fighting a lot harder for the recognition they deserve.
  9. Scientists and Musicians collaborate. Musicians naturally collaborate to make their music. Most obvious are musicians in bands, but even solo artists work with musicians, producers, and sound mixers. In science, very few papers are single-author. As a PI, I always have my students and technician on the paper. This is the equivalent to the band and support. In addition, the duet is making a comeback in pop music and people have always sung together with people in different bands. Similarly, scientific collaborations are common, frequent, and often changing. This is because working with new people can be intellectually invigorating and enable you to recharge your creative spirit.
  10. Scientists and Musicians set their own schedules daily, monthly, yearly, career-wide. Just like some pop artists are one-hit-wonders, there are a number of scientists out there who basically only did one thing. A pop artist with a one-hit-wonder might be able to live off the royalties for their whole lives (maybe not so much anymore with pirating music), just as a one-hit scientist can get tenure and hang around forever living off their singular accomplishment. In both science and music, one-hit-wonders are not well-respected… I’m just saying.
  11. Scientists and Musicians can both be “night people.” There are very few fields in the world where waking up late and working to the wee hours of the evening is a plus, but both musicians and scientists can definitely do this. For musicians where you might be taking the stage at 10pm, it is a must. For scientists, it isn’t a requirement, but seems to be very popular. In fact, as a morning person, I feel like a huge slacker compared to HusbandOfScience, who can work on real science all night. All I can do is write blog articles with millions of typos.

So, have I convinced you? Did I miss anything? Add it via a comment or send me a post of your own! If you want to be a tenure-track professor, are you thinking of the job in these terms? To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Work Life Balance – Other Stuff

HairdoneThe age-old woman’s issue: work-life balance. First, this is clearly not a “woman’s issue,” yet it is still labeled as such. Men make these choices, too. BUT, it feels different. I feel like, when I say I am leaving early to do a family-related activity, it is frowned upon, and I often do not reveal why I am leaving early. But, my male colleagues often use personal excuses for leaving early or not showing up to work and they seem fine with using these explanations.

Second, we have discussed many of the big work-life issues on this blog. For example: When should you have kids (see these blog posts: flexibility, grad school, pre/post tenure, postdoc)?  Should you take a job when you don’t have one for your spouse (see our posts on two-body problems: problems, surprisenegotiations)?

This weekend, I was thinking about the little work-life issues. Many of these issues are not about kids or family at all. Many times they concern myself – my personal well-being and how I don’t do things for myself because I am prioritizing work and other life choices first. I was thinking about it because I have been trying to dye my hair for about 2 weeks. The process takes about an hour, and I did not seem be be able to find that hour until today.  Here are some of the other things I prioritized over my personal activity: hanging out with my kids, making a figure for a paper, working on a grant report, writing this blog… You get the idea. And these other things are more important than dying my hair, so I was making the right choices, but I also want and need to dye my hair, too.

I always find the personal stuff hard to schedule and hard to prioritize such as hair, eye, dentist, and doctor appointments, or going to HR to fill out non-essential, but helpful, paperwork. Unless I am actually sick, I never go get regular check-ups. I should, but it seems like a waste of time. I go to the eye doctor once every 2-3 years and only because my glasses have broken and are hanging off my face.  I try to schedule a lot of this stuff in the summer, but that is also when I am busting my butt to get my papers out and get research done and traveling to conferences, so it still isn’t ideal. Are others like this? Am I a weirdo because I don’t keep my life on track?

I would think that it was just me except I have also been thinking back to my advisors, and I remember weird stuff coming out of their mouths. For instance, I had a graduate advisor who once told me that it was annoying when students (me, I was the only student) went to conferences because they not only missed 4-5 days from the lab for the conference, but they always had to leave early to do laundry and pack. My advisor also used to not go to the bathroom and do a sort of pee-pee dance. Maybe my advisor also didn’t want to waste time evacuating her bladder. I also had a postdoc advisor who told lab members that they should schedule dentist appointments on the weekends. I don’t even know any dentists who are open on the weekends.

So, maybe I was “raised” to be this way. I do try to be careful around my students so that I do not affect them the way I have been. I don’t want them to not go to the doctor or dentist. I don’t want them to not urinate because they feel they are wasting time. And I want to stop feeling that way, so I continue to fake it in the hopes that some day I will not feel weird about taking the time I need to clean my clothes and pack before a conference. (I am sure my fellow conference attendees also prefer I wash my clothes before the conference).

So, what about you? Do you have weird tendencies to be self-depriving spurned by an internal feeling that you are not working hard enough and still need to prove yourself? I do, clearly. I should say this is better after getting tenure. The removal of the feeling that you are going to lose your job if you don’t work hard enough hasn’t stopped me from working hard on science, but it has allowed me the freedom to go to the dentist. But, these feelings are clearly ridiculous. I try to stop them and “act normal.”

If you have something to say, comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, click the +Follow button and give your email address.

Applying for Postdocs

Although the Fall is traditional application season, applying for postdocs can occur at any time. Unlike other jobs in academia that have start dates that coincide with semesters, postdoc start dates start when the money and the person coincide. You still have to apply for postdocs.

In my experience from the application side and the hiring side, are that hiring postdocs are extremely flexible and somewhat informal. When I was looking for a postdoc, my husband already had a postdoc offer at FancyIvyLeagueUniversity. We didn’t want to be apart, and were both graduating with our Ph.D.s at the same time. So, I had a targeted place to go for my postdoc. I saw a FancyBigShotProfessor from FancyIvyLeagueUniversity at a conference, and I went up to him and told him that I needed a postdoc at his university. He invited me to give a talk at his group meeting. FancyIvyLeagueUniversity was across the country from UniversityofState where I was getting my Ph.D., so I bought a plane ticket and went up and down the coast giving the talk at a number of places set up by graduate student friends. By the time I gave the talk at FILU, I was very prepared. FancyBigShotProfessor invited two other FancyBigShotProfessors to my talk, and they offered me a position doing a joint project with them. I feel like this was all very fortuitous and lucky. Or was it shameless self-promotion and crazy networking at a conference?

From the other side, as a professor hiring postdoc, I am trying to figure out what I think about when hiring. First, I very carefully read the letters from the recommenders. I often even call the recommenders on the phone and ask very specific questions about what I need from a postdoc at that time. Next, if the application looks good, and the letters and recommenders gave me what I need to know, I will bring the person for an interview. In the interview, the person will give  talk on their research. Can he/she communicate science to a general audience? He/she will meet with me and other faculty members in the group close to my own research. Most importantly, the candidate will meet and possible have a meal with the members of the lab. This is a crucial part of the interview. I need to know if this person will get along with other people in the lab. Can he/she be a mentor to the younger members of the lab?

So, the basic application for a postdoc can be anything from virtually nothing, as in my case when I applied, to a true full-fledged application process, like how I hire postdocs. The full-fledged application involves your complete CV, a cover letter (can be an email), and 2-3 letters of recommendation from people who know your research well from your Ph.D. Some people just ask for the recommenders’ information, so the PI can call or ask for the letters via email.

Do you have advise or information on your postdoc application experience? If so, post, or write a comment!

A case for kids during your postdoc

From another WomanOfScience:

For me, it worked best to give birth partway into a three-year postdoc because:

– Postdoc salaries are high enough to support child care expenses. My husband and I couldn’t afford childcare on our meager graduate stipends.

– Postdocs can often arrange flexible work hours. Plus, if you can only work 40 hours/week as a postdoc, they are all research hours and you can maintain excellent scholarly productivity if you manage your time well. As an assistant professor I had so many other duties–teaching, faculty meetings, grant proposals–that if could only work 40 hours/week, my research productivity would have been much smaller.

– That third year gave both of us time to adjust to life as working parents before entering the job market again. And for the first few months after I came back to work postpartum, I was allowed to bring the baby to the office Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving him in the care of a neighbor on MWF. It was a great arrangement to help me through the transition, roughly from age 3 months to 8 months.

Job interviews during pregnancy and breastfeeding were a real challenge for me. I found morning sickness and job interview stress to be a bad combination, and in the early stages of pregnancy it made me nervous not knowing whether I was “showing” yet. As for job-interviews during breastfeeding, leaving the baby at home for more than a day or so becomes a challenge; plus, I didn’t have the maturity to ask for a pumping break during a full-day interview, so was uncomfortable and risked leaking through my nursing pads.

I am a firm believer that postdocs who are new parents should be able to convert a 2 year full-time postdoc into a 3-year, 66% time postdoc. Has anyone tried that?

How about your story?? Comment or post!

Two-Body Solutions Bring More Problems?

This was a comment left by another WomanOfScience. I decided to repost to share with all. Enjoy!

Hello, WomanOfScience, this is your friend SeniorTrailingSpouse. I am not sure I like this name! I made up another one, below. For those of you who could not glean from my given name, my husband and I are both academics in science/engineering. We were apart for several years, during which time I had two babies and raised them up to school-age and almost-school-age largely on my own. After lots of looking, drama, negotiation with both institutions, we are now together at his institution.

I have so much to say on the Two Body Problem that I am not sure where to start. I will get around to writing the guest posts I have promised you, WOS. However, today in particular I am struggling with something, and I thought I should pose the comment/question to you and hopefully your blogosphere.

If you are lucky enough to have the Two Body Problem solved, how to then balance both of your ambitions? Suppose we both have the opportunity to submit (different) big grants, both with deadlines around the same time. Our own individual research programs are fine in terms of funding, so working on these grants would be a choice. These are both large-scale proposals that actually won’t give us much money directly, but are great for the institution and would be high-profile wins in terms of reputation if we get them.

But we are tired, and we want to spend some time with the kids this summer, now that we are finally together as a family. One of us could definitely work on a proposal like this while still leaving us collectively with enough “family time,” I think. But if we both choose to work on proposals like this, it will mean a lot of craziness this summer. So which one of us “leans back?”

Strangely, I never thought about this much when I was living apart from my husband, even though I was solely responsible for the kids during this time. My ambition was really only limited by what I could physically handle. Kids were in daycare a lot. If I had a big deadline, I hired extra babysitting help. If a particular project required consistently working after-hours, well — I couldn’t do it, or rather I was not willing to be away from the kids more often than I already was. Similarly, for travel, if I was invited to give a talk domestically, well fine. I made these trips as short as possible and cobbled together some solution — leave the kids with grandparents, bring Grandma along on a business trip with me, find a daycare in the area willing to do drop-in care. But if I was invited for an international trip — no, sorry, I could not manage this. (Saying no to these kind of trips was a choice, but again it was more than I felt I could handle at the time — I do know a single academic mom who did manage to take her daughter on international trips).

Now, living with my husband means I have more choices. He can of course watch them if I have to work late or if I am out of town. But when we both need to work, how do we balance this? I don’t want to just hire babysitters a lot so that we can both work like crazy — then our life wouldn’t be all that different than what we had before, honestly. It defeats the purpose of living together!

On a mostly separate note, I think work-life issues are one area where more senior women in science can benefit from mentoring from younger women. Mentoring does not have to go one-way, only from senior women to junior women. The culture has changed dramatically in the time that I’ve been in academia — negotiating for a position for your spouse was unheard of when I started. I think younger women have a better idea of how to navigate and negotiate issues around this than senior women do.

Surprise! I have a husband!

When on the market with a TwoBodyProblem, at some point you must reveal that you have a two body problem. But how and when are still a mystery. Multiple WomenOfScience, I have talked to have said that they faired best when they revealed it late. Yet, I talked to a WomanDepartmentChair, and she said that knowing earlier is better for her, since it would give her more time to negotiate and line up the second position. Now, this was a clearly enlightened chair who herself had a two body problem that was solved in that department.

Personally, I tried several different reveal times. For a couple, they knew or found out that we were together. For these three schools, I had two offers, and they both worked out something (one was tenure track and the other was soft money – I am sure you can guess which we picked). For one, I told them I had a spouse at the first interview. I was second on the hire list, but did not get an offer. For a couple, I didn’t tell them until the offer was made. One said it was impossible; the other offered my spouse a postdoc. From these experiences, I concluded that it is OK if they know already or find out through “natural” means, but if you are a complete stranger, it is best to not tell people too early.

Do others have stories or options that would work? What about telling the chair only, to enable some early probes before negotiating, but not telling the hiring committee?

Tag Cloud