Academic Career

To leave, or not to leave?

Sadly, I’m not so sure anymore that science is for me.

I absolutely love being in the lab while trying to crack problems. Thinking about the project we’re doing, why it’s important to be pursuing it. How to pursue it. Which methods to use. The thrill of going to the lab and getting some small results every day, even if only cells that are happily growing. After a lot of work, collecting all the data and writing up a paper. Discussing new ideas. Presenting them to the lab, to the institute, at conferences. Setting up collaborations. I really really enjoy it.

At some point however, negatives started to seep through that pink cloud. A collaborator who warns not to try to reproduce some paper, as they think it’s irreproducible. A colleague who is very sloppy in processing data, leading to perhaps wrong conclusions. A supervisor who is pushing their students so hard, that some get depressed, some get to hate science, none of them are happy. A PI who copies his postdocs texts to his grant applications without giving them any credit. The list is, unfortunately, quite long.

I understand the roots of these problems. The pressure is immensely high. Who doesn’t publish, goes down. Who doesn’t get money, can’t pursue their projects. What science needs, is a way of evaluating people other than output in form of publications. But that’s worth of a blog post of its own… I’m very curious how I’m going to end up – after a period in Oxford, no paper yet. No one is going to ask why, not going to care that my promised contract didn’t come when I got pregnant and that 2,5 years just aren’t enough to build up a project from scratch.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness. What really makes me happy? So far, being a scientist has defined much of who I am. But does that mean it makes me happy? Or should I accept that I’ve been viewing academia through pink glasses and that it is in truth a ruthless world of constant pressure, publishing, networking, writing and selling instead of being about careful analysis, observations and hypotheses. Perhaps a 9-5 job, with higher salary and less uncertainty would be better suited to my family needs…

Now that I’ve rediscovered the internet and social media, I’ll find out more about leaving academia such as these podcasts and try to decide what to do after my maternity leave. Any pointers to other people or blogs are most welcome 🙂 Having a screeching 4 month old does limit my possibilities to roam around the net…

When your supervisor isn’t your best friend

In an ideal world, your relationship with your PhD or postdoc supervisor is a mutually beneficial one. You spend a lot of time in the lab or office, probably more than you are getting paid for, and still enjoy it. In return for all that hard work, your advisor will introduce you to people who may help you later in your career, allow you to go to conferences to present your work, give you freedom to get involved in teaching, discuss your plans for the future with you. In short, assist you with getting ready for the next step in your career. Once you’ve made that move, you can keep working together in a friendly fashion.

Unfortunately though, the paragraph above does not apply to all supervisors. Some PIs may regard their students and postdocs as work-horses who should do as told and nothing more. They may not offer any support outside of the lab and may not appreciate any independent line of thought within the lab. The question then becomes, what do you do? Let the situation drag you down, just doing your work and start thinking about the future shortly before your contract runs out and it essentially is too late to change anything? If this sounds like a bad idea, I agree. There are certain things you can do.

Some essentials to progress in science seem to be knowing the right people, securing money and having ideas. When those aren’t thrown in your direction by the people around you, start making your own fortune! Not necessarily in order of importance:

MEET PEOPLE

  • Learn to approach people: start with going to local events and chatting with people you haven’t met yet. There is (to me at least) nothing scarier than approaching strangers, but this is something you’ll have to learn doing.
  • Find conferences to go to. Hopefully you’ve practised a little and are slightly more comfortable when talking to strangers. I’ve found that scientists are always very happy to talk about their work, so why not try paying attention to their seminar and asking them about it afterwards? Or start with visiting posters and having a chat about those? Try to go on your own, without any colleagues, as this forces you to meet new people.
  • When you’re visiting friends, are on holidays, or at a conference: have a look whether there are labs nearby working on for you interesting projects. Approach them – maybe you can give a talk and get some networking going?
  • Organise a local PhD or postdoc symposium, or if you are a bit further advanced in your career perhaps a topic-specific one. Invite as a keynote speaker a scientist whom you’ve always wanted to meet. Try to find people to do this together with, see if your institute would be willing to sponsor [some of] it?
  • Find local labs that can help you. Your project may slowly drift outside your supervisors expertise or touch on other topics. They’re most likely keen to collaborate, as the things you need are probably routine for them. It’s brilliant not only because it speeds up your work, but also because if your relationship with your supervisor doesn’t get better, you are now able to approach this lab to write you a letter of recommendation if necessary.

SECURE FUNDING

  • Apply for travel grants for conferences.
  • Find other small pots of money: your PI won’t mind you applying for these, as they are probably below their radar anyway. But again, it is something to show you can independently get funds and as added bonus have money to spend!
  • Apply for fellowships: EMBO, FEBS, Marie Curie, HFSP are global/European ones, perhaps country specific ones like Wellcome Trust, or maybe something more local.
  • If your PI is reasonable, it might be possible to become a co-applicant on a grant application. Won’t cost her anything, will give you something to put on your CV. Apparently this really is possible.

GENERATE IDEAS

  • Go to talks whenever you can, even if the topics seem far from what you do. You never know when inspiration might hit you. I’m working on protein biochemistry, but the most memorable talk for me so far was one about viruses in bats…
  • Set up a journal club. Find people enthusiastic about science and get a weekly, or as often as you fancy, discussion going. If a different person picks the paper each week, you are bound to get out of your comfort zone every now and then. After discussing a paper, we usually ask ourselves what we would’ve done differently and what we could apply to our work. I’ve taken a few brilliant ideas away from these sessions.
  • Again, go to conferences. If necessary look out for ones that aren’t too expensive or where a travel grant might help cover the costs.
  • Find time to read. If you can’t find peace in the lab/office, find another spot. Be it the library, at home or even the park or coffee shop around the corner, find somewhere where you can let your thoughts go uninterrupted. Try to get let go of your PIs ideas for a while and ask yourself where you want to take your research.

OTHER

  • If there is a (peer-)mentoring scheme, sign up for it! Often, when things are going wrong, you are left wondering why. Is it because of you? Should you’ve acted differently? It’s great to be able to talk it through with people who don’t know you or your background and confirm that it’s not you who’s acting strangely. Doesn’t change the situation, but is very reassuring. They might also be able to help you with handling certain situations. If there is no official scheme in place, try to find a mentor. Maybe a junior PI of the lab next door, or that senior PI who is always so friendly when you meet her in the corridor.
  • Teaching may become very important in the long run, even though some PIs see it as a waste of time. Try to get some done regardless. For many future jobs, teaching experience is essential. Start with demonstrating in practicals and work your way up from there. Offer to supervise students in the lab.
  • Start looking at job adverts early on. Not to find your dream job yet, but to see what’s required for them. You may find that there are some gaps in your CV, but identifying them is the first step towards addressing them!

The bottom line of this post is probably this: be pro-active! Don’t wait for opportunities to come your way, but create them. With this post I do not intend to say that people should stay no matter how horrible their PI or lab environment is. If you are unhappy in the place you’re in, finding a way to leave should be your first priority. Sticking around in a bad environment is only worth it if it’s for a definite amount of time and serves a purpose, such as finishing the project you’re working on…

When your job makes you unhappy

Being in a city full of highly ambitious scientists, I’ve walked into a (maybe even not) surprisingly large number of people who are quite unhappy in their jobs. Like I realised earlier, people come to Oxford feeling they’re the next big thing, only to figure out they are one of many a few months in.

So, what do you do when your job makes you unhappy? If you’d asked me half a year ago, I’d have said easy, find another job!

Some of the people I’ve met, made me see it’s not always that easy. Say, for example, you’ve gotten your postdoc position through a friend of a friend and your CV isn’t that great. Maybe you did your PhD in a country where it’s normal to wait 3 months for the delivery of a chemical and any kind of publication is great. Maybe it isn’t so easy to leave that precious postdoc position in a well-known lab in Oxford. Or maybe you’re on a fellowship, which has the rule that you’ll have to pay back money you received if you quit earlier. Your girlfriend has a job she can’t leave so you don’t want to leave either.

Some of those people are really in a bad shape. Coming to work every day, doing virtually nothing, going home. Waiting for their contract to end. Or being used by bosses who don’t give due credit. It isn’t always pretty. What I can’t understand though, is that people allow themselves to be swallowed by this kind of lethargy.

There are some things they can do in my opinion:
1) Try to make change happen. What exactly is making you unhappy? What can you do to change it? Are there any bosses of your boss that you can talk to, if talking with your boss doesn’t help? Usually there are places you can go to, people who might have good advice for you. Rather often, people are unhappy because they aren’t speaking up about the things that make them unhappy. Sometimes, a simple conversation is all it takes.
2) If you’ve reached the conclusion you really can’t change anything, look for alternatives. What does your dream job look like? Go through job adverts, even though you feel like you can’t change positions yet. See what the requirements are, and use the time left in your current job to prepare you for exactly that. Many Universities have excellent skills trainings, make use of those!!
3) Network! Go to seminars. Go to social events. Go to conferences if you can. Join the PhD or postdoc association and if there isn’t one, create one! Or start a journal club. Meet people. Make sure they remember you. You never know who you’ll walk into a new boss, a new collaborator, a new letter-of-recommendation writer, a friend. If you are so unhappy with your job you’re not being productive anyway, this might be a good way to make more of it.

The side-effect of broadening your skill set, is that they can be very uplifting. I’ve been volunteering at a Museum and after the first (very scary!!) session I’ve spent with 6-12 year old kids, multiple moms and dads told me their kids really enjoyed it and wanted to come back for more. This nicely balanced out a less successful week at work! It’s nice to have some things to fall back on when work isn’t great.

And finally: realise that work isn’t everything. You work to make a living, not the other way round. I’m in a way quite happy with my upbringing, because my mum works at the till in a supermarket. And she’s happy. Which taught me early on that there’s more in life than work… If anything, even if life in academia gets frustrating every now and then, it still is very rewarding. When I’m not happy with how things are going, I’m off to read some totally unrelated articles, or teach a bit, Skype with my old boss, pick up some random experiment that I’ve been planning on doing ages ago. In what other job do get so much freedom really?!

What you should do though, is stop moaning about the things that make you unhappy. Constructive conversations, fine. But many people are happy to moan a LOT, without aiming to get feedback or anything. Which isn’t getting anyone anywhere really…