Insights into the Ivory Tower

Lessons learned as a newly single postdoc in Oxford

You are special. Remember that. Each and everyone of us is unique and has their own strengths.

I remember the day when I heard I won a competitive fellowship very well. My supervisor came to me – obviously very emotional – and said: you know, no one in my lab has ever won anything that good. After a moment of silence, he added: come to think of it, you may well be the only one in the department.

I was on top of a cloud. A big one. Supervising multiple students at once. Writing papers that summarised the past 3,5 years of work. Winning this fellowship that enabled me to move to Oxford. I was the next big thing, you know?

Welcome to Oxford! My new lab has one PhD student in his final year and other than that, only postdocs with more experience than I have. People with fellowships can be found around every corner. There are no papers to write yet because I have to go through these struggles for data first. I started to appreciate the problems undergrads can have when coming to Oxford – from being the best, they go to being average.

Breaking up my long-term relationship at around the same time might not have been the best idea, but it did give me a lot of time for introspection at an important phase in my career – this infamous PhD/postdoc transit.

I reached a few conclusions after hours and hours of soaking in the bath and hammering away on the piano:

1. Stop comparing yourself to others. Yes, academia is competitive, but so is the top of every career ladder. Ask yourself what you really want and go for it. There may always be others that have a better CV – but can they bring the enthusiasm and passion you can, once you’ve found that special niche?

2. Take some time to listen to yourself, find out what YOU want. I realised I’d been compromising a lot to my BF. Being alone was scary, because I had to make all the decisions all the time! But I realise now that’s a good thing – at least for a while. Try for a second to ignore your supervisor, your peers, your parents, even your partner. What exactly is it you want? I’ve for example concluded I really enjoy teaching and even though my supervisor doesn’t, I’m going to build out my skills.

3. Find hobbies. This is repeated over and over again, but apparently for a reason! I’ve found life quite frustrating lately and hobbies help me relax. I often go swimming in the morning before work, which helps me start the day on a positive note. I completely relax in the water. After work, I often play the piano or guitar. It’s soothing and helps me calm down after stressful situations, enables me to approach them more rationally.

4. Learn to handle frustrating situations. I think there are two options: if it’s a situation you can change, change it. If you can’t change it: either you learn to live with, stop complaining about it and make the best of it. Or it you can’t live with it: leave! You do not have to stay in a lab for years on end, only because you started there. Yes, we do need letters of recommendation often, but just a letter of recommendation is not worth staying in a toxic environment for years.

In other words: take your life into your own hands and trust your own judgement 🙂

Networking at conferences

I got back from a conference late on Thursday. And I’m still positively glowing. It was an amazing experience. The scientific program was excellent and my brain is still trying to place it all into context.

Skip this part if you’re not a biochemist/molecular biologist…
[Did you for example know that phosphorylations can occur not only on serine, threonine or tyrosine but also on for example histidine, lysine or glutamine? Or that when generating high throughput mass spec data sets, ambiguous masses frequently get assigned to multiple proteins, thus generating lists of identified proteins that may not be accurate? And so on.]

Besides some scientific gems, the social program was amazing as well. The hotel was some 4km from the venue, both in the middle of nowhere, which meant we had to catch the bus to the venue early in the morning and couldn’t leave until late evening. For the dinners, participants received random numbers which corresponded with tables. Just imagine the shock on my face when I realised the person seated next to me the first night was the author of at least 10 papers I cited in my PhD thesis?!

I quickly realised that some serious networking could be done here. Now how to make the most of it?!

Starting with the poster session: I’ve stayed around at all the times I was supposed to be. Which paid off: several profs sought me out. One because he was interested in the technique, one because he was interested in a molecule I worked on and a third for another reason. All three of them would be happy to set up some collaborative project. Additionally, I lured some passers-by into a chat about my work. It is still a rather obscure topic I work on, even at such a specialist meeting, so I’m hoping that I can improve awareness of it this way. Vice versa: read through the abstracts beforehand and make a list of posters to visit.

Giving a talk or chairing a session if also a great opportunity of course. One mistake many made, however, is not tell the audience who they are. If you’re a chairman, get up there and first introduce yourself! May seem awkward, or you may think people know you, but typically they don’t… I realised this when only one of the chairmen introduced himself and I realised later on I did remember his name, but none of the others. Likewise for the speakers. One of them had a drawing of Escher on the first slide. The person sitting next to me seriously wrote “Escher” above his notes on the talk instead of the speakers name…

It also helps to know who you’re talking to – look at the participants list before the meeting and think about who could be particularly interesting for you. Find out more about them. When talking to one of the invited speakers, it was obvious he wasn’t really interested at first. But then I told him I’d heard him speak 5 years ago (and yeah, I remember him! He must like hearing that) and told him how amazed I am at the progress between his talk today and 5 years ago. Which sparked some interest. Then I asked him where he sees the future (And of course he likes it when people think he’s so good he can predict where the field is going..) and told him a bit about my views on the topic. In the end, we talked for over an hour. Which I couldn’t have without some knowledge about him and his work.

One of the key things, in my opinion, is enthusiasm. Show them your passion for science. Why are you working on your projects? Try not to loose yourself in too much detail when talking to people outside your field, especially when talking to someone at 9 pm after an entire days worth of science… The people I remember now, are the ones who got me interested in their work, because they were so engaging.

I must admit I’m not a very outgoing person. I’m happiest when left alone. But this networking stuff can be learned. Just start at local get togethers, drinks, seminars, whatever really. Get yourself together and talk to people. It will get easier! For me, it definitely paid off. Three potential new collaborations, multiple LinkedIn connections that might become handy. I even got a job offer! Which is great – if I get frustrated in the lab again, I know it’s my own choice and have some backup options!


PS And be nice to yourself! After this brilliant, but exhausting conference, I’m giving myself the weekend off. Doing some small things and otherwise just relaxing. My brain is happy with the chance to think things over and relax again 🙂 I’m proud of my conference participation and am rewarding myself for that!

Why I can’t *secretly* take over the world

Sometimes, mostly when least expected, I have brilliant ideas. Like on the bus. Or in the bathtub. When I’m not even trying to control my brain but am simply staring at the world passing by, when I’m almost falling asleep and just letting it happen. Lots of ideas are irretrievably lost, but every now and then I hold on to it and get to my laptop or tablet. I work it all out. First this fellowship, then that committee role and organising that event. Et voila, my career is fixed for the next hundred years.

(and yes – if you thought I was thinking about brilliant scientific ideas, yup, they happen too in the bathtub, but those are not what this post is about)

Sometimes, after waking up from my trance where everything is rosey, I wonder whether the path I envisioned is realistic, whether things I’d like to apply for are too ambitious. Or may not fit my supervisors expectations. Like a few months ago, when I asked him to back an application for a teaching role – “you sure you want to do teaching?”…

Yes, I do. But maybe I do not always want to tell the entire world. Maybe I just want to try on a new role, see how it goes. Or just see how far I can get with the application procedure, without having to admit that I’m actually as arrogant to believe my chances are good enough to apply for THAT job.

Impossible, no secrecy permitted here. I’ve asked both my PhD supervisor and my current postdoc supervisor for at least 5 letters of recommendation so far this year. And the end is nowhere near in sight. Travel money. Teaching positions. Research Fellowships. All kinds of things really.

I like applying for stuff. Maybe I’m a bit mad. However, I like to write applications as I simply like writing and think it’s good practice. Especially when, like now, they are not absolutely necessary for jobs I need to live, but are merely extracurricular functions. I’m nosey, curious and restless and I know it, so I would simply like to use that energy for something useful.

But do I really have to admit that to my boss, with every thing I apply for?! Even though he says he doesn’t mind writing letters, he has to start wondering at some point when I actually get to do all these things, whether it doesn’t interfere with my work? It doesn’t interfere with it, but sometimes I’d rather have he didn’t know about everything I get up to.

Besides that, I feel guilty for claiming so much time. Some roles require three letters. Even if some of them have asked me to write the letters for them, they still edited them and wasted time on it. And then the search committees, who have to get through so many letters…

So my plea, arising from a tiny frustration… Could we please stop asking for letters of recommendation up front?! Make a shortlist, ask them for references, but don’t ask them from everyone immediately. I always wonder what the added value is anyway, does it every happen that are not absolutely positive?! It might make a difference maybe when you have two very good candidates, but like I said, it should do then to request more information only about the people you’re actually interested in!


(the actual trigger for this post btw… I sent off an application for something with deadline tomorrow. Warned the beloved letter-writers well in advance. Sent them a subtle reminder last weekend. To get a panicky reply from one of them: “I forgot! And I’m on holidays in Uzbekistan now with my laptop locked away in a safe at home! How can we solve this?” *facepalm*)