Thursday, June 27, 2013

Like a deer in the headlights

I often think about what kind of qualities a scientist should have. I think a scientist should be curious, adventurous (science-wise, not necessarily bungee-jump-wise) and inventive. But lately, it also seems like an important part is to be resilient to stress about having an insecure job. As I said before, whether or not I will have the position I want in the homecountry depends on whether I get a grant (any grant) before next year when we are moving back. This type of insecurity, that I know almost every scientist faces, does not make me work better. To be honest, it stresses me to the point that when I have to write a grant, I can’t because I keep thinking: ‘this has to be awesome, or else’. I think some people excel under pressure, but I’m currently not one of those.

You have to understand that I was raised in a country that has a lot of social security. Everybody has healthcare - and with that I mean real healthcare, not the one where you have to co-pay 20%, leaving you bankrupt after an expensive procedure – and it’s a lot harder for employers to fire people with a contract than in the US. Deep down, I did not envision being older than 30, not knowing where I would work next year or whether I would be able to afford a house.

You also have to understand that wanting to get a grant funded to secure a position seems to be my type of nesting. Being pregnant has amplified these feelings enormously, because I seem to want to imagine what life will look like when this prospective baby is born, and moving countries when he or she is only 5 or 6 months does not really help in this process.

It would help if Dr. BrownEyes would have be a millionaire, or at least have a job that we would know he could keep and that would bring in money, but he doesn’t, because he’s also a scientist. This is great, and his enthusiasm for science is one of the things I like about him, but it doesn’t help in my anxiety about getting a job.

So does this make me a bad scientist? It did for a while, because I really felt like a deer in the headlights trying to write grants and papers, but now that I know that I can at least get bread on the table doing another post-doc that gives me some room to breathe, and to be good and creative while writing grants again. But why aren’t there more scientist-jobs for people who don’t love insecurity about grants and their future (and the future of those in their labs)??

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Will science for money

Last week we were in the homecountry to visit family, eat yummy food and talk to the professor I’m writing a bunch of grants with to return there. Due to the sad funding situation, he (or the department) won’t be able to hire me, unless one of the grants gets funded. We are planning to move back in a year (also because the lab that I’m in will be closing by then), so there’s still some time to get grants funded. But I’m starting to get a little panicky about it every now and then. Sure I’m applying to other places, but we also have this two-body-problem and this city and university would just be the top one choice for various reasons.

So the professor I talked to also set me up to talk to another professor who just got this big European grant. This professor had heard of me and was impressed by my skill set (literal quote:”you would be a great person to have in our department because of that”. Yay! So what could he offer me? A post-doc position for five years for which I would have to officially interview. On the one hand I don’t really want to be a post-doc for 10 years (!) but I also don’t want to work at the local grocery store when none of the grants I’m writing is funded (or when I’m applying for other jobs). So we came to the conclusion that until anything else materializes this would be a good back-up plan.

So I’m sort of happy about the prospect of at least being someone’s post-doc for a while, who would have thought that would happen? Or is this the moment when you decide to leave academia…?

Source. Hire me! I actually have more papers than him.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The importance of side projects

I’m in my fourth year as a post-doc (well technically I’mnot a post-doc anymore, but it does feel that way) and yesterday I submitted my first first-author paper as a post-doc. Is that a little late? Perhaps, but in my defense: I had to learn slice electrophysiology first, and then I got sucked into a bunch of collaborative projects (one can argue about how smart that is, but it did leave me with 2 published (2nd author) papers and at least one (shared 1st author) paper in the making). 

What I want to tell you about is how this paper came into the world. It started when the collaborator I consulted about my main project asked me to do a control experiment. That control experiment showed something interesting to me, and even though the collaborator was not super interested, I pursued this and got a bunch of rather interesting data. Then I got an invitation to submit a paper to an okay, but not very high-impact journal. I figured that this could be a fast and relatively easy way to get a first author paper out, where I could show the world the things that I can do. So I did some slice electrophysiology to make my side project a bit more interesting and when I sent this to the collaborator he was pretty enthusiastic about it. Without really realizing it (because, shame on me, I wasn’t aware enough of the literature) I had discovered something new and interesting! So something tiny, that no one was really enthusiastic about at first, turned into something cool!

And my main project? That turned out to be way too ambitious and technically challenging (read: impossible). And thanks to my mentor’s “hands-off” mentoring style and my own stubbornness, I realized this only this year… It was a good lesson in project design, that I hope I will be able to use in the future.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Poor timing

This morning I got the dreaded email telling me that I'm not invited for an interview for the important home country grant I applied to. You know, the one that would guarantee me a job and all that. However, there is no time to sit around, cry, shop online and do all that, because I have to give a talk at our annual retreat in about two hours and on top of that I have to rewrite the entire discussion for a manuscript TODAY (because it's an invited paper that needs to be submitted early next week and the collaborator who always gives me great feedback only has time tomorrow). So my day of being sad about this will have to happen some other day, because today I will have to pretend that science is great and lovely and awesome.
Thank God for waterproof mascara.