Why I’m not an engineer

My pipet-aid has been performing poorly this week, so I opened it up this morning, just enough to replace the battery. After putting it back together, the thing wouldn’t suck. I’ve now taken this damn thing apart 4 times, examined it, and put it back together. Each time, there was a new problem.

Now I’m stuck with this and completely confused:

This is why I didn’t take things apart as a kid. This is why I’m not an engineer.

Manuscripts, grants, and growing up

It’s official. While I’m not on the tenure-track, I am well on my way to becoming faculty. Or at least faculty enough to write grants. (In service to my pseudonym, I won’t be sharing any more details than this about my new “job”.) I’m now embarking on an aggressive money-finding campaign, without which my research career will stall, and I’m not passing up any open, or closed, funding doors. It’s all a part of my current plan to “grow up” and claim my independence as a scientist. I can’t (and won’t) be a postdoc forever, and I’m not going to wait around for someone to give me a tenure-track spot and sweet little deal of a start-up package. I love my research, and I won’t give it up without a fight.

The best thing about the poster I put together last week was the realization of how much data I’m sitting on right now. Since my third trimester with Monkey, I’ve been working my ass off at the bench, without very much interpretation of the data. Looking at what I have now, I see several different stories developing – which possibly can translate into several different papers. But I need to figure out how it all fits together, if it even fits together at all. I need to read. I need to think. I need to organize. And I need to figure out what to do next before spinning my wheels at the bench any further. I need to get a publication or two out this summer, and I need to start writing grants ASAP.

So I’m shutting down my bench. Reading papers. Writing manuscripts. Organizing specific aims. Focusing on the quickest route to publications… and money. Wish me luck. I haven’t delved into the literature in a while, and it’s easy to get lost on a tangent in the PubMed wilderness. If I’m not heard from after a few days, y’all might want to send someone in after me.

More than one way to skin a (tenure-track) cat

I’m currently doing something for my career and family that I swore I would never do; funny how pride takes a back seat when your back’s against the wall. It’s all well and good to have a plan and stick to it. To have a standard and uphold it. But at some point, you have to step back and re-evaluate those standards, or you could get left behind. Continue reading

Why am I doing this?

originally posted on LabSpaces

A new post by Ambivalent Academic caught my eye this morning, posing many of the familiar questions that I and other postdocs in the blogosphere often ask ourselves:

However, I am thinking about the what ifs…What if I don’t get this NRSA, and what if PI still doesn’t have an R01? Can he still support me? Will he still support me? What if he can’t/won’t? What if I end up unemployed? How long will it take me to find another position? Should I start looking now, just in case? Would that be a faux pas? Should I look outside of academia? What if I do and I get offered a position? Do I want to leave academia? Do I really want to stay? What if this is the only job I could ever be happy at? What if I choose to do something else for a while and find that I hate it and can’t break back into academic research? What if I don’t take that risk, and stay in academia, and end up living hand-to-mouth for the rest of my life? What if my life/job/whatever is meaningless?

As I near the end of my postdoc (and plan to head off to only God knows where – hopefully a TT position), I realize that a postdoc is, more than anything, a time and place for young scientists to come of age – kind of like a teenager heading off to college. Some postdocs have a smooth experience, impressing their mentor, and finding their scientific independence without falling flat on their face. Sometimes two or more attempts are necessary to find the right “fit” and postdoctoral success. Quite often, young postdocs leave academia altogether, finding happiness outside the academic world. The postdoc is a time to find out who you are as a scientist. There’s no one right or wrong “postdoc experience”, as every person/scientist possesses their own personality, abilities, and career preferences. Naturally, this time of growth is filled with quite a bit of uncertainty, questions, even a bit (or more) of misery. It’s normal and, even for the most successful of postdocs, expected.

These days, I’m spending much of my time thinking about what I want my [hypothetical] future lab and research program to look like. My planning has involved plenty of conversations with PIs in my department, collaborators at other universities, and tenured/TT faculty right here in the blogosphere. Through these interactions, something has occurred to me – these questions will never go away. I may get better at handling them, as an adult learns how to deal with any kind of uncertainty in life, or a parent learns that there’s only so much they can control about their child’s upbringing. But I’ll always be left wondering – why am I doing this? I wrote a while back that science has taught me to embrace uncertainty – in my career, my life, even my faith – and I think I’m a better person and scientist because of it. For now, that’s going to have to be my answer.

What am I really?

originally posted on LabSpaces

A short while ago, Microbiologist XX lamented about how little she gets to use her favorite science tool – a microscope. As a fellow microbiologist, I sympathized with her. Until a few weeks ago, it had been years since I peeked at my bugs under one of these amazing little guys. Some recent data, however, prompted the need for a gram stain, which I haven’t performed since I was an undergraduate (some 12 years ago). After scanning a protocol online, I thought “no problem”. I had forgotten how much of an art this protocol was when I first learned it, though, and it took several hours and attempts to finally get an answer I could trust. This experience got me wondering, am I really still a microbiologist? I spend most of these days doing molecular biology, lately even dabbling into some biochemistry (which is really quite fun, considering my fear of chemistry). When doing genetics, I feel a bit more like a microbiologist (streaking and patching bacteria out on plates day after day can do that), but genetics is more of a means to an end for me. This may seem like a stupid question, but it’s brought up some issues for what seems to be the focus of my life these days…the TT job search, better known as “what the hell am I doing with my life?” Enter in a brief interlude by The Talking Heads, since I haven’t gotten this song out of my head while writing this post.

So maybe the more apt question for this discussion is, am I just a microbiologist? During my first year on the job hunt, I only applied to positions “in my field”. But the current dearth of available jobs has got me branching out quite a bit more this year. Not only that, there are many labels I feel like I fit under now. Depending on the week and what aspect of my project I am currently focused on, I feel like I could be considered a biochemist, geneticist, molecular biologist, or, yes, even a microbiologist (I did just do a gram stain after all ;). Yet I wonder how much of a stretch it is to be applying for some of these other positions. How much should I spin the cover letters/research statements, and is it even considered “spinning” if I just focus on the aspects of my project that more closely fit into the job description? Am I locked into ignoring one aspect of my project if I take a job in a department focused on another field? Will I still be able to enjoy interactions with other microbiologists if I end up in a job outside of “my field”? Do I even need these interactions to do my job well? Am I wasting my time and the time of search committees in these department by even applying?

I’ve already answered some of these questions, and, in general, I’m considering each of these “stretch” jobs on a case-by-case basis. In some situations, when there are other microbiologists at the institution, and the job description seems open enough, I feel completely comfortable moving forward with the application. For others, Hubby and I think about the place and institution as a whole: would we (both) be happy living and working there, even if my job was quite a bit different than what I imagined? When the answer is yes, I’m applying. I do still wonder how much, if at all, I should alter the focus of my application in these cases (guidance here would be fantastic).

The biggest thing I’m learning, or trying to learn, right now is to be open-minded. Not only about where I want to go or what kind of job I want to do, but also about who I am as a scientist. The fact that what I actually am is unclear could be considered a strength. I’m asking an interesting biological question, and I’ve got a lot of tools and knowledge at my disposal. The fact that I’ve picked up this knowledge without somebody holding my hand should translate to a nicely diverse research program in the future. And, while I likely won’t need to be a gram-stain aficionado to run a successful research program, I know how to get one done if needed.

What I’m glad I didn’t know before…

originally posted on LabSpaces

We’re all writing about “What I wish I knew before…” today at LabSpaces, or at least some of us are. I, on the other hand, am celebrating the naive ignorance of my former self. Why? ‘Cuz sometimes in life, it’s worth jumping in blind and full of optimism.

For all of those that don’t know, I’m a bit of a planner…okay, so “controlling, Type A, organizing, OCD planner” might be a more apt description. I had my life planned out to a “T” in high school – go to college, get accepted into med school, become an amazing pediatric oncologist, achieve world domination, then, eventually, find a husband and have three kids.

After a couple of years in college and some clinical rotations at a local hospital, though, I realized I wasn’t really into the whole physician thing. I liked science, especially biomedical stuff, and I liked my lab courses. I also really liked kids (hence the pediatric angle). But an afternoon job at a nursery school taught me that I hated their parents…at least some of them. I also started wondering if I really wanted to spend my days around kids who were, or had a good chance of, dying from cancer, and it all sounded so very depressing to me.

So onto Plan B… …which was graduate school. As hard as I tried, there just wasn’t much planning after that. I had no research experience as an undergrad, I had no idea what I was getting into, and I’m glad. If I had known how hard it was going to be, I might not have done it. I jumped head-first into a very scary new world…and I loved almost all of it. A few years later, I started sending letters out to potential postdoc mentors, again having no idea what I was getting myself into. I found what ended up being a great postdoc lab, moved to a new state (never thought I could bear leaving the South or my family), and started working on the next phase of my academic career. As a new postdoc, I pushed full throttle on the pre-tenure-track peddle, hoping to one day hold the coveted position of “assistant professor”, no longer even thinking about the husband-and-three-kids thing.

But even the best laid plans sometimes go off track…with amazing results. One year after moving here I met my best friend and Hubby. Two years later we were married. A year and a half later, we found out we had our first little one – The Monkey – on the way. In the meantime, I’ve busied myself in the lab, establishing a nice little scientific niche with some strong publications, helpful collaborations, and sound advice from my mentors. I’ve also enjoyed the research at this phase of my training even more than I did as a grad student.

But the hunt for tenure-track jobs this past year has not been friendly, and the coming year’s job postings are even less promising. With a baby (and new-found monetary responsibility) on the way, Hubby and I have finally begun working on back-up plans (aka – Plan C). At this point, I have no idea what the next phase of my life holds for me. At most, I have the possibility of two years of tenure-track job searching ahead of me before my mentor retires. There’s always the possibility that K grant funding will come through next month, ideally boosting me to the top of search committee short lists. I might even be competitive without the funding, and maybe find a “real” job in the next two years. Or I could end up on the still-developing Plan C track when/if nothing comes through on the tenure-track job front.

There’s just no way in hell to know what the future holds. If there’s one thing I’m glad I didn’t know about this career, however, it’s how unpredictable it is. And while I may not grab onto the golden tenure-track ring, I’ve gained so much more in the past 10 years. On top of the thrilling experience of being a “Scientist”, I’ve gained a husband, family, confidence, and a new-found appreciation for the unknown. I never would have chosen this life for myself, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.