Saying No

I just played my first “no” card as a tenure-track prof, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. The particular request was for something that may have had some actual benefit to me, AND it may have even been enjoyable. Hell, I really wanted to say yes to this request!

But it was also a last minute request, and I have a ton of deadlines looming, out-of-town visitors knocking on my door, and a date to pick up my son tonight at daycare. After considering the request for a couple of minutes, talking to Hubby about trading off daycare pick-up nights, I decided it was just too much. I had to say no.

And now, well, I feel a little bad about it. I worry this was an amazing opportunity that I just passed up. And I worry that I let someone down. Truth be told, neither of these concerns is probably founded. But I don’t know if that’s true, and I hate the idea of the unknown. I’m working on getting over it, which involves reminding myself that this would have been a very irresponsible “yes”.

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A GOOD day

It’s easy in this job to feel out of your league. It’s easy to get down on yourself and wonder what the fuck you’re doing. Its easy for imposter syndrome to take over. It’s easy to get scared shitless that you won’t get funded, get tenure, whatever. I share a good deal of these frustrations here, partly as a sort of therapy, partly because of the kinship I feel and advice I receive from other bloggers.

But I thought it might be nice, for a change, to share the other side of my adventure, the GOOD side. Today was a GOOD day:

    I finished writing a grant a week before the deadline. I received lots of positive feedback from mentors and other folks, and I feel good about it. It was time to finally let it go, and I’m sort of
    proud of myself.

    The lab is producing data, and my students are getting excited about their projects. If that doesn’t get a PI crazy happy, I don’t know what will.

    I’m writing an invited review for my sub-sub-field, which is fairly nerve-wracking, but also quite fun. And besides the fact that my brain is jello from the grant-writing, I think I have a shot at writing a fairly decent review.

    A new scientific relationship is developing between myself and another junior faculty in my field, and our increasingly frequent conversations are helping me feel less, well, alone. It’s a great thing to not feel alone in this job.

    I’ve given my first couple of lectures at TTU, and they went pretty damn well, if I do say so myself.

    Unlike the past several months, I don’t feel quite as much like a loser parent (one of the reasons I haven’t been blogging about that side of “the tightrope” lately). And with the realization that I’m not permanently damaging my young son, comes less fear over being at work, as well as coming home from work.

Tonight, I’m celebrating my GOOD day with a GOOD glass of wine.

How to obtain a tenure-track faculty position

As I prepare to move off to TTT for my new faculty position, I’ve started fielding questions from fellow postdocs and even a few grad students regarding how I did it. Oh, I’ve come up with some great answers: network! publish! write grants! take control of your career! But to be honest, I’m really not sure how I did it. The past couple of years, I tried just about everything to gain some traction. I listened to the advice of great bloggers and IRL mentors alike, and continually worked to improve my application package. I consistently put myself out there, sending emails to touch base with faculty I met at a conference or at my current MRU. I honed my sales pitch by participating in MRU-wide poster sessions, chalk-talking some of my departmental seminars, and chatting with local faculty about my project and future research plans. Yet I came up empty time and time again.

So what actually turned the tide? Maybe it was the Skype video interview with my future chair, for which I wore no pants due to a pumping incident minutes before the call. It certainly wasn’t the awkward fall because I was running (in new heels – bad idea) to keep up with a fast-walking faculty during my first live interview. No, my victory was a combination of my work and message, a little bit of luck, and a fuck-ton of persistence. When all seemed hopeless, I resolved to continue my research in any capacity I could, regardless of my prospect for tenure. I love my project dearly, and as long as I had the opportunity to write grants, I knew I would continue to push forward. I would have to be dragged from my science kicking and screaming, and I’d find an abandoned lab space in which to squat if necessary. (Fortunately, I was granted the opportunity to conduct myself with a tad bit more dignity.) As this same brand of persistence will be required throughout my career, it’s probably the best kind of hurdle for becoming a junior prof.

So that’s my advice. Think of why you’re doing science, decide if you love it enough to do it under a bridge, and, if you really want it, keep putting your nose to the grindstone. Ignore your preconceived notions of what your career in academic science should look like; instead, forge your own path. Do whatever you have to (and can) do to make it work. Will there be trade-offs? You better believe it, and only you can determine which ones are worth it. In my opinion, THAT’s where the line is drawn, and nobody else can tell you how, if, and when to cross it.

Shizam!

I’m officially on the tenure-track!!! I’m not sure how often I’ll be updating this blog, seeing as I’m already buried in administrative hell. And I’m not sure I’ll be sharing a whole ton of details about the interview process, in service of my pseudonym. But I will spill some tidbits as time allows, and I’ll (of course) be posting about the transition to faculty-dom. And, as always, I’ll keep you guys entertained with fantastic stories of balancing an academic career with parenting a little Monkey – who’s now walking (yikes!!!).

For now – it’s a tenure-track paaaarrrrttttyyyy!!!!  😀  Hmm, I wonder where  that stinkin’ bottle of champagne wandered off to…

Some final thoughts on grants, big-wig universities, and competition

A comment left by Gerty has helped clarify what was truly bothering me about the myth that nobody is getting tenure-track jobs at big med schools without money. The original impetus for last week’s posts was a series of comments from IRL and blogosphere faculty, stating it was incredibly rare for junior faculty to land tenure-track jobs at top-tier (top 20, even top 50) biomedical institutions without money. I myself have learned of a few specific scenarios in which search committees can’t even consider individuals without 2+ R01s (in an open rank search), all but eliminating any chance for a brand-spankin’ new assistant prof candidate. This is undoubtedly frustrating for someone trying to find a tenure-track position with *merely* a K grant to bring to the table, but I’ve still been able to get plenty of traction in other searches. Something bigger was getting stuck in my craw.

Gerty’s last comment reminded me of that something:

This is a culture issue. In some places, the dept. works hard to make sure that the junior faculty they hire will be successful. In other places, assistant professors are a dime a dozen. There are some places where more than 1 asst prof will be hired for one tenure line. In these places you are given a little bit of lab space and expected to find a way to win (of course, more lose than win). Just know what culture you are entering before you start. The only thing you can do is try to know what the expectations are.

This sounds eerily familiar to a close call I had while applying for postdoc positions (years ago). One of the big-wig PIs I considered was [evidently] notorious for putting several postdocs on the same project – the winning postdoc earned papers, approval from the PI, and tenure-track glory; the losers left academia or found a second/third postdoc to try and earn their stripes. Instead, I ended up postdocing with a PI who is well-known and respected as a mentor, and actually (*gasp*) cared about my future from the moment I walked in the door. He made the decision back then to invest in me, and has heartily supported my efforts to publish, secure grants, and land a TT position.

You see, there are two types of  pedigrees out there for the TT-aspiring scientist. One requires working your ass off with little to no support from your PI and in heavy competition with your labmates. The other is available by working [your ass off] with great mentors who are respected in their field and actually invest in their students and postdocs. I chose the latter of these scenarios, and wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m sure there are many out there who thrive on the competitive energy provided by the former environment, but there are some for whom the pressure produces a plethora of less than desirable results.*

The same can likely be said for junior faculty in these types of high-pressure environments. Some researchers undoubtedly do very well in this setting. At these institutions, the newly-minted assistant prof finds herself in competition for a single tenured position with 5 other competent scientists, all vying for the same pot of NIH monies in a tough, tough funding climate. They understand their career may ultimately be dependent on chance rather than skill, but also enjoy the intensity, fighting for grants and publications with every fiber in their being, ultimately winning the tenure race. Others don’t do as well. If lucky, they transfer their program to a less intense environment, or they leave academia all together. Some buckle under the pressure.*

While appreciating the intensity that is inherent in academic science, I myself prefer to find a place that’s personally invested in me, my research program, my future students/postdocs. It’s how I was *raised* as a scientist, and this model has served me well for many, many years. I’m guessing faculty in these environments work just as hard as those at high-intensity universities; the nature of our funding systems requires it. In many cases though, the majority of their paycheck is provided by the institution rather than their own grants, so they have a safety net when federal funding gets ugly, an important quality even after acquiring tenure. Tenure requirements are also much more clear-cut at many of these institutions – teach, do your service, make yourself known, publish, and secure funding**.

So, like Gerty said, it’s all about knowing what to expect; I just don’t understand the model where faculty (or grad students, postdocs) are subjected to insanely intense competition to succeed. I’ve always been expected to work hard and get my shit done, but I’ve found clearly-defined goals best kept me motivated to move forward. Nothing is ever for sure, but I need some sort of assurance that I’m not working my ass off for nothing.

Of course, I’m sure there are a few out there reading this who themselves work as faculty in an environment such as this and can provide much more insight into what the expectations and pressure are like. I (and probably others who frequent this blog) would be interested in hearing why you chose this environment, if you did your grad studies and postdoc in a similar environment, and whether you’d change your decision based on what you now know (after all, isn’t hindsight 20/20?). In case it’s not clear, I’m really, seriously not judging; I just believe understanding more about the environment and expectations of some of these institutions may help  others out there in their quest for tenure-track positions and, ultimately, tenured success.

*This can manifest itself in several ways, but most notably (but certainly not always), it can involve some level of scientific misconduct.

**Number 1 goal is ALWAYS securing funding, but everything else on that list (maybe aside from teaching, maybe) should help achieve this goal.

Getting a fancy TT job without big money – it can happen!?

The results are in, and I’ve had way too much fun drawing scientific-type conclusions from my non-scientific and poorly-designed survey. Based on the propaganda with which I had been littered prior to this survey, the data from yesterday’s poll are somewhat surprising, indicating you CAN get a tenure-track faculty position at a top-tier institution without big bucks already in your back pocket. The survey questions and results: Continue reading

An informal, totally non-scientific survey

I’ve heard tale in the blogosphere and IRL that *nobody* is getting TT jobs at top-tier research institutions without money right now…that even K grant money isn’t gonna do the trick. That in order to get a faculty position at a top-tier med school, you need serious dough – like multiple R01s. Before I comment on this, I would like to find out how true this may or may not be using an incredibly inaccurate method for data acquisition – the blog poll!! Continue reading