This week I've been working a major outreach event that seeks to give underrepresented minority college students training and further opportunities in science. I was honestly apprehensive to take a week out of the lab right now when things are incredibly busy, but this has been good for both the soul and the mind. I've interacted with people I've been meaning to meet, people I wanted to meet, made new connections and most of all, helped train the next generation. The curiosity and wonderment of these kids reminds you why we got into this business in the first place: Science is fucking fun! Doing stuff that few or none have done before is exhilarating. As we come to a close its been really fun and I'm glad I got the opportunity to do this.
Archive for the 'Mentoring' category
I paraphrased a quote from Field of Dreams for the title of this post, but you get the gist. If you build the opportunity, women will come be a part of it.
We ran an event for young women last year to get them interested in STEM fields as a career. Cut to me now sifting through the applicants for high school summer interns and we are getting a lot more applications from young women in high school and particularly women from underrepresented minority backgrounds than we have before. This to me is a huge success and does not occur in a vacuum. This is a testament to the huge buy in from our institution, local civic groups (in particular women's groups), and STEM-related businesses.
Now we have the fantastic opportunity to show these young women that would normally not have a significant exposure to science that STEM careers are attainable, rewarding, and really damn cool.
So I got saddled with a presentation to some local undergrads about our work that we do in the lab in hopes of inspiring these young and bright minds to come do a senior thesis in the lab. I've got ~20 minutes and I'm wondering how to organize the presentation. I'm thinking of either talking on project in some detail or giving a broad and quick overview and then presenting two or three short vignettes on projects that these students could work with me on. I know I can give a better presentation if I just present one project, but since this is a sales pitch I think I'm going to work present it as here is what we do and some things that you can work on.
Thoughts. Tips. Excuses not to?
For the summer I have been fortunate to be assigned (read: saddled) with a high school intern. It turns out this kid kicks ass and has been nothing less than a pleasure, making reevaluate my dim view of summer interns. My goal from day one was to make them fairly autonomous but giving them a real project for which they have helped to collect data on. And they've done a great job helping me finish up the last few figures for a paper we are trying to push out the door soon. And its a win win for them to as they are wanting to use the work they did in the lab towards gaining an International Baccalaureate diploma.
I've been really impressed at their desire and ability to grasp not just the procedural stuff but also the conceptual aspects of what we do. This intern has been fun and really rejuvenating, I'll be sad to see them go. But we might work out some type of research arrangement in the fall.
So now that I'm ensconced in my new position as a postdoc, I felt it was time to talk about the post Ph.D. Transition. The last few months of my Ph.D. program felt like a wild ride. It also felt so far removed from the rest of my experiences in grad school.
1. Thesis Writing: I wrote the thesibeast in about a month and a half of full time writing, followed by a round of making edits with the boss before submitting to my committee. What really helped was developing a solid outline and sticking to a writing schedule. Otherwise I would have fallen apart. I also learn that while I work best in the lab in the morning, my most productive writing occurred between 8pm and 2am. Nights were spent writing, just getting thoughts to paper and leaving placeholders, no worries about editing. Mornings and the rest of the day were better spent doing routine editing or working on figures.
One other huge benefit during the thesis writing was enlisting a really good editor who dissected it line by line pointing out issue. It is humbling to have some just ripped though your stuff and have so much red ink on it that it looks like a prison knife fight took place over my thesis. But it was good, it made me realize where I need to clean up my writing and how to make me a better writer and communicator of ideas.
2. The Defense: I'd like to say that I spent a lot of time honing a well-crafted and beautiful presentation, but I didn't. I spent 30 minutes putting it together and my boss spent 5 minutes reviewing it with me the day before my public seminar. There were no practice presentations, no run throughs with trusted friends and lab mates, none of that shit! I had already given a similar evolving talk on multiple postdoc interviews (more of this later) so it wasn't much work or effort to give the talk.
The public seminar went really well and then came the room. This had been filling me with fear and dread. Not because I thought it was going to go like 12 rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson, but because I never really knew anything about the whole closed door meeting. My boss was tied up before the seminar so I couldn't ask them what was standard operating procedure for this so I went to another professor. Their question to me was how did you enjoy your qualifying exam, it would be like that. I nodded my head and feigned pleasure at their response saying that the qualifying exam was a pleasant experience. This dear reader, was a bald face lie. My experience with the qualifying exam was tantamount to sandpapering the asshole of an alligator in a telephone booth and the exam was chaired by the professor who I had sought advice from. This same person came to apologize to me the week following my exam about how rough they went on me. I'd like to say I remember a lot of the details from this event but I guess we tend to repress the most painful of memories.
But my time in the room with the committee post-public seminar was brief (~45 minutes), the committee had minimal edits to my thesis (most of these came from my boss). Most of the discussion centered around clarifying things that I had written about and then talking about future directions of the project, even though I wouldn't be there to do them. I amended portions of my thesis that caused any confusion to be much more explicit so whoever (read no one) picked it up to read it would have an easier time understanding it.
It took all told about a week and a half to finish all of the edits and get it into final format to be submitted to the graduate school. And because it had a good chunk of preliminary data I had to go through channels to embargo its publication on Digital Commons for at least one year to give us time to publish the data.
3. What's next: Okay, so you are about to get or just got a Ph.D., what the fuck are you going to do for that? That's a very personal question that we all have to answer our own self. For me I knew I wanted to do a postdoc in order to expand my knowledge base and skill sets. About 5 months prior to my defense I sent out enquiry packets to prospective labs for postdoctoral positions. This was timed as the main publication of my thesis was set to come out a month later. My first interview occurred a week before the publication went live, so everything was happening really fast and was a bit exciting and nerve wracking.
I feel that part of my success at getting postdoc interviews was crafting a nice application packet that included a personalized cover letter, cv, and copy of my in press manuscript. The email was also personalized and literally every person I sent it to, I got a response from whether it be an invitation for an interview or a sorry I'm out of money. Even the folks who didn't have space or money told me to check back later or suggested someone else to contact.
Interviews...I had all kinds of interviews...less than 24 hours on site, three days there, skype interviews, phone interviews, you name it, I did it. Dinner with the PI, dinner with the grad students, nice PIs, standoffish PIs that try to elicit a response from you, it was like Patty Hearst in the bank video...all a blur. But I was there. My suggestions for interviews are to make sure you have enough cap space on your credit cards as some places made me pick up my accommodations and then I would get reimbursed or other places would pay. Everyone I met I always asked them the same few questions: what makes their lab different from any other lab, what frustrates you about their lab, and if you could change one thing about your lab what would it be. Its interesting to see the spectrum of answers that come from techs, students, postdocs, and even the PI. It also provides insight if everyone says the same thing is a problem then it probably is a real problem.
If you want to chat more about the postdoc interview process and how and why I selected the lab that I did, shoot me and message or email and we can chat in a more private manner.
3. Ramblin' Man...This is the really tough part, when do you put the pipets down, pack your shit, and hug your friends. For me the decision was easy. I got my main paper out and one co authorship out. Other future stories that I was developing were proceeding with some progress and could be capably handled by other members of the lab that I had trained. I decided jump shit approximately one month after my defense so that I could start my postdoc. This was due in part to the fact that my previous lab was going through a period of funding troubles, so one less mouth to feed at the table, means you can feed the rest of the mouths for that much longer. The good news is a grant came through for the lab, spurned by some of my work and contributions.
I think the main reason that I bugged out quickly after the defense was that we had a glut of papers that still needed to get out. Those papers would take close to at least one year before anything else of mine may come out. So to quote the Allman Brothers "When its time for leavin', I hope you understand, that I was born a ramblin' man."
4. FNG. I'm still the FNG and the stench has yet to wear off. Making the long move and starting the postdoc was exciting but brought with it a whole new set of frustrations: orientations, trainings, byzantine rules of supplies and procurement, etc. The lab is good and I'm making good data (which I'm happy about) but not at the pace that I want (which I'm not happy about). But overall things are looking up and my new master, at least for the time being, seems to be pleased with me. I'm adjusting to the differing mentoring styles and how this PI likes to conduct individual progress and laboratory meetings compared to my old PI.
The folks in the lab are great about teaching me new techniques and in return I'm showing them things from my bag of tricks, so its been great. I'm still less than four months in the lab but I feel like I have yet to be able to turn it up to 11.
So in conclusion, the transition has been interesting and is still ongoing. I'll post more as time allows. Feel free to leave feed back about your own journeys and transitions from post graduate school. Maybe this will help someone out or at least bore them into fitful sleep if the Ambien has yet to kick in.
Just a quick poll the audience question. Our lab is getting some summer interns in a few months and was just wondering how everyone distributes them (to grad students, postdocs, techs) and what kind of projects do you give them (plug and play, extra stuff in the lab nobody has time to do but may be helpful)?
A clear idea of what your mentor expects from you and what you expect from your mentor can make for a very symbiotic mentor-trainee relationship. I've seen trainees get read the riot act for not living up to expectations that they didn't know about until later in the game. For instance, a PI lit up a 2nd year postdoc for not working enough in the lab since they started. Whether this is right or wrong is not germane, um should they be having this conversation nearly two years down the road. After a few months, maybe this talk should have taken place. And on the other foot, I've seen graduating PhD whine to their PI's that they didn't have enough experience in scientific writing and grantsmanship. A little late for that one too.
A healthy relationship requires both the mentor and trainee to bring up their concerns in a timely fashion and not to mention that if you have the problem, the onus is on you to bring it up. Its not going to bring itself up. Some of my biggest growths as a scientist have been when the boss has called me into the office and told me that I'm not living up to my end of the bargain and that I need to correct whatever deficiency that I have. Avoiding these conversations is like allowing a nasty wound to fester.
So I have the unique situation of having a former mentor that is to put it best MIA. He was the mentor for my MS and is no longer in the scientific research game not because of retirement or death, but because he got squeezed out of the game. And to make it worse, the dude fell off the grid, I mean his phone number has been changed, no longer answers emails, etc. Also no one in my former department even knows where he is, for all I know he could be living in a van down by the river. He was a good boss, but this is kind of a pain in the ass now when I need to include him as a reference in my CV, but he has no current academic affiliation or contact information.
Any suggestions? I'm installing LoJack on my Ph.D. advisor to make sure this doesn't happen again.
I'm getting to the point in my graduate student career where it is time to start contemplating postdoctoral fellowships and all that goes along with that. I know I want to stay in the DNA repair field but want to shift away from my current spectrum of work into another subfield, maybe the implications of DNA repair in aging or maybe cryptochromes. Honestly who knows right now. I'm more looking just to get my name out there by attending some of the smaller more intimate meetings (Gordon, etc.) that are patroned by the movers and shakers in my field. Hopefully by them seeing me and me seeing them I can lock up a good postdoc. For those of you in postdocs or who have done one, I would be interested in knowing how did you find your PI and what were the circumstances of setting up your postdoc.
I hear the term "exploitation" being bandied around by trainees when they talk about the training regimen of life science research. The pejorative seems to be tossed around a bit carelessly, I understand that the system sucks and that there are not enough PI jobs for all of us, but lets face it I'm not sitting in sweltering jungles of (insert 3rd world country) stitching together Nike sneakers for $5 a week. Don't get me wrong there are exploitative PI's, they do exist, but I feel they are a minority. I'm willing to wager for every Kern, there are at least 3-5 good bosses to work for.
But I pose a question for trainees to sit and chew on for a bit. Are we not exploiting our PIs? Do we not wholeheartedly consume their financial and intellectual capital to try and get us to the next step in the game. Are we not sponging off them for their grant dollars, ideas and projects, collaborations, and other assets in order to take our science to the next level and then take off for our own greener pastures. Some trainees even get to leave with their projects (or a piece of them) when they move on to take over their own lab (thus negating the feudal analogies that I here graduate students and postdocs whimper about).
There are PI's that will work you like a rented mule and cast you aside when you appear to show the faintest signs of a limp, but are we not also trying to squeeze every ounce of resources and advantages out of them as well? It is a two way street after all.