Showing posts with label Career corner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Career corner. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thoughts on successful postdoc-ing

Unlike grad school, postdoc positions start and end without much fanfare. If grad students are apprentices, postdocs are the journeymen/women of the trade. (Wikipedia defines journeymen as… “considered competent and authorized to work in that field as a fully qualified employee… [but] they are not yet able to work as a self-employed master craftsman.”) Though short compared to a PhD, postdoc jobs are an important stepping stone towards a 'real' job, be that another postdoc, or a position inside or outside of academia. There’s less advice out there about being successful as a postdoc, and often you are on your own to figure things out. I’m finishing a first postdoc this week, and moving on to a second one, and while I think the last 2 years worked out well, they took their own, unexpected path. Some of this is good advice that I was given, some comes from experience or observation, some I even manage to follow :-) *

Choose carefully. If you have some choice, be strategic in choosing a postdoc job. Decide what the position is going to accomplish for you: that may be expanding your skill set, such as by learning a new experimental system or additional analytical techniques; improving your current skills by working with an expert; being involved in high profile research; or being in a certain locale for various reasons. Beware projects too far from your current skill set – the risk is that the learning curve may be so steep that you will be barely competent at the end, and have little to show for your time. Of course, you might decide to use a postdoc to pursue interdisciplinary work, or move away from your dissertation work, in which case this is a risk worth taking.

Because postdocs are short, it may seem as though having a good fit with your supervisor is less important. Don’t assume that your new supervisor be broadly similar in approach to your previous supervisor (or an improvement). Mismatched expectations between supervisors and postdocs seem pretty common and it’s important to get an understanding of what your role is beforehand. The variation in expectations from supervisor to supervisor is huge - from those that require time sheets and expect strict hours, to those that give you total autonomy. Does your supervisor see postdocs as colleagues? 9-5 employees? Advanced students? Lab managers? Talk to friends, colleagues, and students. This may depend on the source of funding as well - will you be working on a specific existing project with specific timelines (common in the US where many postdocs are funded off of NSF grants), or are you funded by a fellowship and therefore more independent?

Get to know your neighbours. Once you’ve chosen and started your postdoc, the most important thing to do is to establish connections in your lab and department immediately. I cannot emphasize this enough. Don’t wait to settle in, or get on top of some papers, or hope people in the hallway will introduce themselves. Postdoc positions are short, and in many departments postdocs are isolated, not students but not really faculty. This can lead to feelings of disconnection, loneliness, and frustration. Seek out the other postdocs - join or organize postdoc social events, go to lab meetings and journal clubs, get the department to maintain an active postdoc email list. Not only will this give you a sense of belonging, but now you have people to talk to (and sometimes rant to), with whom to navigate administrative issues, and potential collaborators. Postdocs are an invaluable resource for job applications as well: they usually have the most up-to-date experience on the job market, and can provide great feedback on job applications and practice job talks. For example, the postdocs in my current department built an exhaustive list of potential questions asked during academic interviews, and shared interview horror stories over drinks.

Mental health and life balance. Postdocs don’t get the kinder, gentler approach sometimes given to grad students and people expect you to stand on your own. This can reignite imposter syndrome. There is no easy solution to this, but some combination of taking care of yourself, working on that mythical thick skin, and highlighting the positive events in your life can help.

Time management continues to become more important, at least for me. More than in grad school, you have to actively decide how much work you want to be doing. There is always something that you *could* be working on, so start scheduling when things will get done based on priority, energy, etc, is important. In addition, people start inviting you to things or asking for you input on projects. Learn to say no. Be strategic about your time management – it’s flattering to wanted, but time is limited and not all invitations are of equal value towards your specific goals.

Practice professional networking. On the other hand, don’t say no to everything: networking and the opportunities it creates are very helpful. Focus on the professional areas that are of interest to you, but consider joining and being active in ESA sections (including the Early Career section) or other relevant organizations; organize workshops or symposia at conferences; host invited speakers. If your department hosts an external seminar series, take advantage (nicely!) of the revolving cast of scientists. They are a great way to make connections with people whose work you admire, and even speakers you have less in common with are great practice for networking skills. From experience, if you have breakfast with a different visiting speaker every week, you will quickly improve your description of your research and your ability to keep a conversation going (also, you will become an expert on your city’s breakfast places). These are helpful skills to have for faculty interviews, for talking to the media and press, even for telling your family what you do.

Take initiative. You are your own advocate now. If you wish you could learn something, or be invited to a working group, or get teaching experience, look into making it happen yourself. This may include organizing working groups (many provide competitive funding, for example, iDiv/sDiv, CIEE (Canada), the new NCEAS, SESYNC), applying for small grants and other project funding on your own, recruiting undergraduates and mentoring them, organizing or co-teaching courses.

Similarly, don’t stop learning new things. Inertia gets higher the less time you have, and it can be hard find the time to pick up the next skill.

Focus on publishing (if you are interested in academic jobs)– this may be obvious, but publishing is more important than ever as a postdoc. You need to show that you are independently able to produce work after leaving your PhD lab. This counters the ‘maybe they just had a good supervisor’ concern. It can be hard to find time to work on both current and past projects, but try to. From experience (and illustrated by the periodic emails from my PhD supervisor), the longer your dissertation chapters sit around, the less likely they are to ever be published…

Know what your dream job is, and apply for it if you see it. Be willing to move on if something better comes up. Postdocs usually have to think in the short-term, because most funding is in 1-2 year increments. So keep an eye on new sources of funding/positions. Make decisions based on your needs (be they career-related, family-related, whatever): it’s easy to feel guilty moving on from one unfinished position to another, but the reality is that postdocs are temporary and fleeting.

I was told to start applying for jobs as early as I felt reasonably qualified. The logic was that the best practice for job interviews is doing actual job interviews, and further, it is better to fail when it doesn’t matter, rather than when it is your dream job.

well, sort of...
*Obviously nothing is one-size-fits all, and this is mostly aimed at people who plan to apply for faculty jobs eventually. Other advice, especially for non-academic tracks, would be welcome in the comments!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

awesome infographic by Caroline Tucker
(click to go large)

There exists a problem in science so complicated that decades of work have yet to solve it. Its causes and consequences make some of the toughest questions in complex analysis or astrophysics look like child’s play. And yet when we consider this problem, the conclusion is immediately obvious and simple: it should not exist.

I am talking about the fact that today, in 2011, female scientists are punished solely because they are female scientists.

In theory, this problem doesn’t exist anymore. Multiple waves of feminism should have chipped away whatever glass ceilings once capped our ivory towers. Women are receiving more PhDs than men in many fields and they are earning such a high proportion of bachelor’s degrees that we may have to rethink that name.

But in the last several weeks, some disturbing realities have resurfaced in the science media. At the end of January, Nature reported that women earn fewer scholarly awards than they should, based on the proportion of their respective fields that they represent. That same week, Science published a graph showing the number of European Research Council grants awarded to women in its last funding round – 9.4%.

Stats like these are nothing new; they pop up all the time. What is new, however, is the article that followed in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a few days later. It turns out that there is no longer much evidence for overt discrimination against women applying for jobs or grants in quantitative fields. Instead, disparities in available resources are causing many of the differences between women and men’s scientific careers.

Yes, there are discrepancies in publication acceptance rates and grants, but the authors attribute these to factors like women occupying more positions at teaching-intensive schools rather than research institutions. When they compared men and women with similar resources, the biases disappeared, or in some cases, favoured women. (If you don’t want to read the whole article, there’s a nice summary of it here.)

Ok great, the science community isn’t explicitly discriminating against women. But this leads us to a much more troubling conclusion; the culprits are actually deeply engrained societal expectations and constraints that likely extend well beyond the sciences, and certainly beyond the scope of this blog post, though a few of them are highlighted in this thoughtful opinion piece.

Here’s what I will say: it’s not written in our DNA. How many times have you heard lines like, “Men and women are just different, they always will be, our brains aren’t wired the same”? This kind of just so statement is rarely backed up with evidence. For a good debunking of these misconceptions, check out two new books, reviewed here.

Now it’s possible that I, as a young male grad student, do not hold the most valuable two cents on these issues. I could keep rambling about things that I don’t fully understand, but my perspective is limited, and I think maybe the most constructive thing to do at this point would be to hear about other people’s ideas and experiences in the comments section below. So I’m cutting this short and leaving it incomplete in favour of a more open forum. In particular, it occurred to me that we in the ecology and evolution community have a unique opportunity to shed light on many gender issues. The PNAS article focuses on the underrepresentation of women in math-intensive fields, but comparing mathy fields to less-mathy fields entails a lot of confounding factors. In ecology and evolution, however, we cover the whole spectrum, from the completely mathless and descriptive, to the suspender-wearing, calculator-toting quants. We generally all come from relatively similar biology backgrounds, eliminating many of those confounding factors, and it would be great to hear how you all think these issues play out in E & E. So go for it blogosphere, do your thing.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Time management for grad students and researchers

As researchers, we all have incredible demands on our time. These demands can quickly snowball, leaving us feeling like things are out of control. This lack of control over your priorities and responsibilities can lead to anxiety and depression and perhaps to dropping out of graduate school. Getting control and developing good time management skills can go a long way towards preserving your sanity and making grad school and a career in academic research enjoyable. All it really takes is planning, and knowing the things to plan for. The critical priorities that every student and/or researcher must plan, includes:
  • Writing/outlining research questions
  • Taking courses
  • Teaching
  • Appointments with supervisor and committee
  • Design/set-up experiments/studies
  • Data collection
  • Analyzing data
  • Writing papers/chapters/articles
  • Rewriting papers/chapters/articles
  • Meetings/presentations
  • Finding a publisher/lay out/submitting manuscripts
  • Administrative duties
  • Holidays
  • The unexpected!
All these things tugging at you all at once can make it difficult to start any single thing -because you feel the anxiety about not starting other things. Here are seven strategies for controlling your time and priorities, and helping you to cope with time stress.

1 - Live by the calendar, die by the calendar. Basically, schedule everything. With freely available calendars like Google's or Sunbird there is no reason to not adopt a calendar. Web-based calendars, mean you can be anywhere, on any computer and still have access. Be sure to share the calendar with lab mates and professors, so they know when you are booked. Schedule everything from meetings, to large slots of time dedicated to time-intensive things like reviewing a manuscript or data analyses.

2- Gimme a break! Working for four straight hours without a break will cause you to be less productive, than four hours with a 5 minute break every 40-60 minutes. Don't be afraid to get up from your desk in between tasks to reset your brain. You could also call or chat with someone, make a coffee, watch a Daily Show clip, update your Facebook status, etc. Don't feel guilty about the 5 minute solitaire game (only about the 2 hour ones).

3- Leave. Have a secret work spot. It could the back corner of a library, a coffee shop, home, or some special place. The point is to have a productive site where you are not tempted to do nonproductive things when you need to be focusing on a task. Leave your e-mail behind if possible and do not let colleagues know where you are. Make it your time.

4- Delegate. You do not need to do everything yourself. If you are collaborating, don't be afraid to ask collaborators to do something. If you are at a big university, search for undergrad volunteers to help out. If you are really swamped, ask a friend to help out with an experiment.

5- Write it down or lose it. I write down everything, and I do it for two reasons. First, I will forget it if it is not written down in front of me (which saves me anxiety about forgetting things). Secondly, these notes become defacto to-do lists which saves me time from having to think about what to do next. If I have ten minutes before a meeting and my list has me e-mailing someone, then I get the reward of ticking something off the list.

6- Enough is enough. Remember, it will never be perfect. Likely, the 13th draft of paper is not appreciably better than the 12th. Plus, reviewers will ALWAYS recommend revisions and you will never win a literary award for it. So if you pour your soul into a manuscript and take 2 years to write it, likely you'll be devastated when you are asked for major revisions. The important thing is getting it submitted and learning when enough is enough can go a long way toward freeing up valuable time.

7- Have fun. Likely, you got into research because you love science. If your work is tedious and boring, find some fun research to offset it. If you have to choose between two projects, and one seems like it will be personally more enjoyable, go for that one. Don't be afraid to shelve a unrewarding project for one that is fun and exciting. Most importantly, reward your self! When you submit a paper, take the rest of the afternoon off. When you finish an intense summer of field work, go to the beach for four days. Tell your close colleagues when you get a paper accepted or an award -you are not bragging, and they will always say 'congrats' or 'awesome', which feels nice. Whatever works as a reward, use it.

Remember, at the end of the day what matters is getting papers out and being a good collaborator/student/mentor/human being. Control of priorities and successful time management will make it a lot easier to get those papers out and be a relaxed, good person to be around.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ecology and evolution jobs 2009

After a horrendous year of canceled job searches and a barren landscape lacking many opportunities for academic-track job seekers, the jobs posted this season seem to be a stark contrast. In a previous post, I blogged about the best ecology job wiki, and when you look through last year's job postings you notice that the 'updates' column contains a multitude that had their searches canceled. Most people assumed that there wouldn't be very many tier-one academic jobs this year, but looking at the list of jobs announced so far this year, things look pretty good! I've also caught wind of a few other positions at good institutions that have not yet advertised. Job seekers keep your eyes open, and definitely check the job wiki regularly. This could be your year!

I for one have been (overly) optimistic and really didn't buy the hype that the job market would crash this year and for the foreseeable future. I think that many institutions over-reacted to the recession. Of course some states, like California, are in absolute dire straights. But my feeling is that over the next couple of years many institutions will try to recover from their self-imposed professor deficits, meaning that many similar-sounding job searches will be active at the same time. The net result is that schools will be competing against one another for good researchers.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Letting out your little Monet

I realized, sometime not too long ago, that I really enjoy adding aesthetically pleasing details to my figures in scientific publications. All scientists look at hundreds of boring, monochromatic scatterplots, bar charts and ordination plots every month, so why not make them a little more appealing? If done right, the benefits are that people are more likely to remember your key figures and perhaps results, you can convey more information by incorporating imagery, and you may actually get a little joy out of preparing those figures. The downfalls are, if done poorly, they are distracting and publishing color figures is always costly for print editions.

Here are some examples of artistically augmented publication figures -but if you have other good examples, let me know and I'll add them:
This is from a recent Ecology Letters from Crutsinger, Cadotte (me) and Sanders (2009), 12: 285-292, trying to explain how we partitioned arthropod diversity into spatial components.

This one is from Ellwood et al. (2009) in Ecology Letters 12: 277-284, which shows co-occurrence null histograms for patterns of arthropods at various hight locations on trees.

This one is from Crutsinger et al (2006) Science 313: 966-968 that displays patterns at differing trophic levels by juxtaposing photos of specific tropic members.

Finally, the use of drawings and images to illustrate phylogenetic trends in phenotypic evolution is particularly useful. Above are two examples, on the left is from Carlson et al. 2009 Evolution 63: 767-778, showing patterns of darter evolution; and on the right is from Oakley and Cunningham 2002 PNAS 99: 1426-1430, showing evolutionary pathways of compound eyes.

And here's one from Dolph Schluter (2000) American Naturalist 156: S4-S16, using drawings to illustrate how fish morphology corresponds to an abstracted index on the bottom axis.

Here are two from Joe Baily while working in Tom Whitham's Cottonwood Ecology Group that are effective ways to remind the reader what the treatments or dependent variables were (elk herbivory, leaf shape/genotype) and what the response variables were (bird predation, wood consumption by beavers). The left hand figure is from Baily & Whitham (2003) Oikos 101: 127-134 and the one on the right is from Baily et al. (2004) Ecology 85: 603-608.

Here is a great one posted by Ethan on Jabberwocky Ecology on Hurlbert's Unicorn!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Best job site, ever

For those ecologists and evolutionary biologists actively on the academic job market, there are a number of sources to get job ads (such as Science careers). But growing in popularity and by far the best job resource is the ecology job wiki. This site is a user modified site (as wikis are) where people list current job postings. But more than this people can actively discuss specific jobs, frustrations, updates, strategies, etc. For example, once a position starts interviewing, often an update will appear on the wiki informing all that interviewees have been selected Thus alleviating the feeling of limbo that we have when information is scarce. While it may not be entirely comprehensive in that not every single advertised job will appear, it does offer more information and the opportunity to share with others.

Good luck job hunters! Hopefully the job wiki is useful.