What do you do when they say "no?"

(by Dr Becca) Jan 03 2018

It's funny to look at my blogging history and note that my last post was exactly one year ago. 2017 me had just made it through unanimous recommendations for Promotion with Tenure from both the department and college committees and was working on a short list of grad applicants to invite for interview weekend. My current (and only) PhD student was less than a year out from defending and I was excited to bring in some great new students to train and mentor. Little did I know that just a few short weeks later, I'd be asked to un-invite the prospective PhD candidates, because the Dean had overturned the committees' votes*. He would not be recommending me for tenure.

My initial response was one of stunned anger. All I remember saying to my chair upon hearing the news was, "This is a mistake." But there was nothing I could do until my case went up to the Provost, which would take several months. And so my semester began, and anger gave way to sadness--unrelenting, soul-crushing sadness that everything I'd worked for my entire adult life was all about to be taken away. I think I cried every day, sometimes in my office. Sometimes after I went to bed.

I did my work, though. I taught three days a week (and twice on Mondays), met with students, submitted grants, and helped an undergrad put together his first first-author paper. I traveled to Washington, Ohio, Montreal, and Botswana. In June, the Provost informed me that he agreed with the Dean, and that per the Faculty Handbook, I had ten days to submit an appeal. My chair didn't see the point of appealing--what grounds did I have? This wasn't a case of blatant discrimination or a failure to follow protocol--just my opinion that he made a bad judgment call. But I couldn't simply shrug and accept this Wrong Thing. I had to push back until pushing back was no longer an option.

How do you convince someone to change their mind? I couldn't magically make an R01 appear (if only!). In my mind, my best play was to drive home how accomplishing what I had without a million dollars was even more of a testament to my tenure-worthiness. To help bolster my case, I emailed essentially every senior colleague in North America I could think of, asking for a letter of support to include in my appeal package.

I received twenty letters within a week. Strong, detailed letters. Such an overwhelming response provided much-needed validation that I was doing the right thing--I belonged in academic science and had earned the right to stay. On a train rumbling up the northeast corridor, I pounded out what might be the best piece of writing I've ever crafted, a passionate, clear-headed letter laying out why I was an asset to the university, and how misguided it was to outsource tenure decisions to NIH study sections. I used words like "persisted" and "enterprise," and brought up documented implicit biases in peer review.  No snark, no bitterness. Just honest arguments about who I am and the realities of my field. I put that letter together with those from my colleagues and one very powerful letter from a former undergraduate (who had heard about my situation and volunteered), and sent it to the Provost. A few days later, he asked to meet.

"I can see that you are very popular," he said, "but I still need to be convinced that giving you tenure isn't a risk to the university." My heart fell. This was still about money. I took a breath and said, "I am the opposite of a risk. My lab's been running on fumes for the last 2 years and I have continued to publish and build recognition in my field." I explained how through collaborations I could be highly productive without spending a lot of money, and that my most recent paper was entirely the result of undergrad work. "Ask anyone here with a big lab and multiple grants what their plan is to keep going if everything ran out tomorrow, and I bet they wouldn't have one. I do." He thanked me for my time and said he'd have a final decision in the next week or two. I left feeling terrible, and fought back tears until I got out of the building. Hadn't he heard all this already? I was so tired of begging for my job.

I went to Ireland and then to Maine, where it rained every day. We came home on a Friday, and I became very, very sure that this was not going to work out. Why would he change his mind? He wanted me to have money and I didn't have any. Over the weekend, I started to make a job search spreadsheet and update my research and teaching statements (although I was not optimistic that I'd be competitive - who would want to hire a "damaged goods" candidate?). On Monday, the letter from the provost was waiting in my mailbox. I didn't open it right away, visiting first with my department BFF to catch up after a few weeks of on and off traveling. While still in her office, I waved the envelope and was like, "Ugh, here's my stupid letter from the Provost telling me that I'm fired." I decided to just rip off the band-aid and at first glance, the brief letter looked identical to the first one, using expressions like "My evaluation of your tenure case is now complete" and "My decision is based on a thorough evaluation of your dossier," and I concluded that I'd been right about the way things had gone. But then I noticed some different language.

"I am pleased to inform you that I am recommending to the President that you be awarded tenure and be promoted to the rank of Associate Professor."

HE CHANGED HIS MIND. He just changed his mind! People can change their minds about things like this, it is honestly so strange to me. I think my colleague and I set new decibel records for our hallway with the shrieking that ensued.

What was even stranger was understanding how to feel in the aftermath. After almost 6 months of consuming depression and hopelessness, all of a sudden the source of those emotions was just...gone. What was this new brain-space I was in? Do I just go back to normal or do I get some time to acclimate?

My PhD student utterly slayed her thesis defense and moved to Los Angeles. I went back to Botswana and then to Zimbabwe. When I returned, I received an NoA for an R56 - a full year of R01-level bridge funding to kickstart a promising project. Although I was technically on sabbatical this fall, I had no senior full-time personnel, and so did my best to be present in the lab for my undergrads and regroup both mentally and physically. I would say that only in the last month or so has it really felt like the fog has begun to clear. I'm hiring people, I have concrete plans for grants and collaborations, I am ready to be a strong leader again.

Although this is obviously a happy ending in which (IMNSHO) justice prevailed, I would not wish going through what I did on anyone. It SUCKED. And I know it would have sucked a thousand times more if it weren't for the emotional and professional support of dozens to hundreds of colleagues and friends, many of whom I know through this blog and/or twitter. Thank you to everyone who reached out along the way with advice, letters, gourmet chocolate, a spa day, or a shoulder to cry on--I never would have made it through without you.

Finally, here is my favorite photo from my safari in Zimbabwe.

It is a juvenile black rhino, and I love it not just because the lighting happened to be incredible and it is an adorable creature, but because this rhino is the success of conservationists who did not want to give up. There were no rhinos in this game reserve, and a few years ago they did a Noah's Ark and put two in. Now there are twelve!



*The reason for his decision was that despite having a healthy independent publication record, great reputation in my field, stellar teaching evaluations, and one small and one medium sized grant, I still hadn't received R01-level funding.

37 responses so far

Are bias- and privilege-free PhD admissions possible?

(by Dr Becca) Jan 04 2017

A question for my readers: if you have ever sat on a Ph.D. program admissions committee or similar (e.g. recruited Ph.D. students directly into your lab), what are the major criteria that help you pare down the applications into a short list for interviews? Here are some examples:

high GPA
prestige of undergrad institution
good GRE scores
experience working in a research lab
personal statement
great letters

Now, here's the second question: are there any of these possible criteria that do not probably select for some kind of privilege?  Obviously there are plenty of Cinderella stories of overcoming hardships (and truly, this is who we'd want in our lab, is it not?), but the reality is that broadly speaking, excelling in academia is more easily achieved when you're financially comfortable. Therefore, applicants with the time, money, and resources for internships, test prep, and independent study are generally going to be more attractive.

So the question for admissions committees and PIs is: how do we correct for this bias while still identifying applicants for whom a career in science is a the right choice? Obviously it would be great if we could just accept everyone and let things shake out, but that's not how Ph.D. programs work. It's a commitment for both the student and the mentor, and our goal in admissions decisions is to make an educated guess about who's got the best chance of coming out the other end ready to put that Ph.D. to good use. In biomedical fields, that student is often being paid and/or conducting research with taxpayer dollars, so we also have at least some responsibility to ensure that the student is productive in terms of scientific output. Once again, is it possible to tip the scales to these outcomes without privilege bias?

In my program, we don't have rotations. Students are accepted directly into labs, and so it's up to me to choose 3-4 students to interview out of the dozens of applicants who expressed interest in my lab. Since my lab is tiny and my time in the lab is limited, I would love a student who already knows how to work with animals, make solutions, and use a microscope. Plenty of applicants have these boxes ticked, either from undergraduate research or a year or two post-bac working as a lab tech. But many don't. It would be easy to just select from the former, but that's biased, right? So among the latter, how do we find those who are like little scientist butterflies who just haven't been given the opportunity to bust out of their cocoons yet? Is there any way within standard application materials to identify students with amazing potential but poor resources, or does the whole system need an overhaul?

Comment away!




32 responses so far

Another #sfnbanter in the books!

(by Dr Becca) Dec 12 2016

Wow, you guys. This year's banter was just beyond. What was once 25 bloggers & tweeters in the corner of a bar is now LITERALLY ONE THOUSAND neuroscientists of all stripes taking over San Diego's 5th avenue like rock stars. I believe, now, that my work here is done, and it's time to pass the torch while it blazes with the light of one hundred Deisseroth Cell papers.. Below, please see a post from your new banter overlords, @shrewshrew and @CousinAmygdala. To help them out, leave your banter feedback (both positive and negative) in the comments so that next year's banter will be even more spectacular! It's truly been an honor. See you next year!

Hi everybody, can I get real with you all for a minute about something important to me? It’s called #sfnbanter, and it is the best everlovin’ party at the Society for Neuroscience meeting.

But you don’t have to take my word for it:


#sfnbanter is so popular we had insane lines to get in this year, with 1000 people trying to get into a space that accommodates 200. (Sorry about the lines!) #sfnbanter is so good that I loved it even though I couldn’t even drink because of a migraine. #sfnbanter was so good I was there from start to finish with a migraine! #sfnbanter is so good that people make @twitter accounts to follow a half peeled sentient orange (@sfnbanter) to learn the party location, and then use said accounts to stay connected with all their newfound science friends.

The fact that #sfnbanter existed at all this year was thanks to the incredible efforts and generosity of @INCForg and @Helena_LB, and the organizing prowess of @doc_becca. They threw a rocking party and helped pay for the space, booze, and my many ice-cold Coca-Colas (buying out bars isn’t cheap, people). INCF does incredible work supporting informatics in the neurosciences (I hear big data is big these days) and their love of connecting people enabled them to help make #sfnbanter a reality. I am incredibly grateful for their support this past year. I hope you join me in thanking them!

But it is time for us to GROW. I say “us” because in a brief moment’s departure from sanity, Becca elected to involve myself and @CousinAmygdala in planning next year’s #sfnbanter, and now she cannot take it back because I just told all of you. We need to find a space that can accommodate all of neuroscience Twitter at once, a group that gets bigger every year. A place that will serve us negronis while we meet new friends, and meet old friends for the first time. And that means we need to find the financial support to make that happen.

The best thing Twitter ever did for anyone was make it easier to connect, in order to to support each other, to tease each other, to share new findings, and, critically, for the Journal of Neuroscience (@JNeuroscience) to share new cat gifs.  Our ability to do good science depends on our ability to know what our colleagues and friends are working on, thinking about, struggling with, and figuring out. Good science is the best tool we have to make the world a better place, and you all are doing it! I know you are, because I saw it on Twitter.

Let’s have a party to celebrate that!

Shrew out.

2 responses so far

And now, waiting.

(by Dr Becca) Jul 13 2016

After nearly 5 years of fumbling, my tenure packet is in. Preparing the dossier itself was an absurd exercise in email searching, document drag-and-dropping, and Adobe Acrobat wrestling. But I admit it's nice to see the last five years all in one place - physical evidence that I didn't completely squander my startup money and fade from existence.

Am I confident about the outcome? Not particularly - how could I be, without a big grant? Nonetheless, I don't think anyone could read my dossier and say that I didn't do all I could. In 5 years, I've submitted at least one proposal to NIH every cycle but two. I've received one R21 and one small foundation grant. I've published 6 senior-author research papers in journals of JIF 3-10, 3 review papers, and edited a book. I've given over 2 dozen invited talks. The undergrads like me.

So now...we wait. But "waiting" isn't really the right word, is it? In reality, it's back to business as usual. Keeping the science churning in the lab, getting grants out, and trying to keep sane as the house renovations slowly progress.

I would like a vacation, but I guess it'll have to wait for sabbatical.

13 responses so far

Personnel TBD

(by Dr Becca) May 10 2016

One of the many things that suck about being an utterly broke PI is having to put "TBD" for all personnel in NIH grant budget justifications. You are essentially saying, "trust me, I'll find someone to do the work." But why should they? To me, having competent personnel in place is as much a "feasibility" situation as having preliminary data for all your Aims. Why should they trust you to get the work done if they don't even know who's going to do it?

So the question is, should I add a note somewhere (either in the introduction to the Personnel justification or in the biosketch statement where you account for gaps in productivity or whatever) that says, in effect, "Look, my lab is empty because I have no money to pay anyone, so everyone here is TBD. Past personnel searches have resulted in X quality applications. If you give me some (money), I am confident that I will promptly re-populate the lab with highly qualified individuals who can carry out the work in this proposal."

Or no?  For those of you on study sections, have you seen applicants dinged for "TBD" personnel?

10 responses so far

How to make bagels even your NYC bagel snob friends will eat

(by Dr Becca) Mar 21 2016

If there is one thing I miss about living in New York (and TBH there are many things), it is bagels. I'm not saying they're impossible to find (although some may say that), but the bagel CULTURE is just not here. Just when I had started to learn to live without, we saw an episode of America's Test Kitchen that promised perfect NYC-worthy bagels. Why not give it a go?

A true NYC bagel is crunchy on the outside, dense and chewy on the inside, and has a deep, savory flavor with just the tiniest hint of sweetness. According to ATK, there are a couple of key steps that make this possible: first, that flavor comes from barley malt syrup, which you can get at Whole Foods. When you get the jar home, try a little on your finger. It's delicious! Second is a long, cold proof. Unlike most breads, which prefer a warm place to rise, bagels develop best in the fridge over at least 12 hours. Third, develop the gluten with lots of rolling, twisting, and stretching. Finally, boil the bagels for a minute before baking to get that crust.

Our first batch, we followed the ATK recipe to a T. And after all that, they were...OK. They had the right flavor and crunch, but the inside was WAY too light and airy.


I have no idea what went wrong, but these were not the bagels I was looking for. Luckily, the magic of the internet led me to the Epicurious recipe, recommended by Michael Eisen via twitter. So on a recent long weekend family getaway in the woods, I attempted these. And like a terrible scientist, I changed a whole lot of things at once.

I used the dough recipe exactly (which is not that different from the ATK one) and let it rise in a bowl in the fridge for 30 hrs. This is probably overkill, but I wanted to be sure! Before shaping them into rings, I prepared the boiling water by the Epicurious recipe and added a peeled and chopped russet potato to get the water nice and starchy. I used the ATK shaping method of flattening, rolling, twisting, wrapping, and rolling to seal, just to give that gluten one last workout before boiling a minute on each side, and adding toppings.

Then I baked them in the $15,000 Wolf oven that happened to be in our otherwise reasonably appointed AirBnB.


That's what I'm talking about! I could tell the second I took them off the baking sheet that these were going to be just the right chewiness and density. And OMG yaaaasssss they were divine. Here is the amazing tomato, cuke, dill, & onion sandwich I made.


A couple of notes & tips:

  1. The recipe says it makes 6-8 bagels, but I'd say that's 6 small ones (by NYC standards), not even close to 8.
  2. Bagels will stick to whatever you bake them on, even parchment. ATK has a cool trick of baking them on a non-stick spray-coated cooling rack set inside a baking sheet.
  3. They are perfect and crunchy straight out of the oven, but the outsides will soften after they cool. However, 10 min in a hot oven (pre-sliced) will perk them right back up!

They obviously take some planning, but for a special weekend treat and a huge dose of NY nostalgia, they're worth it. I still think there are little tweaks here and there that could make them even better, so I'm all ears if you've had success making bagels. Gab away in the comments!

6 responses so far

I need a hero

(by Dr Becca) Mar 09 2016

Hello, readers! This job is hard. Between getting my tenure materials together, gut renovating a house, and repeatedly banging my head against the hallowed walls of the NIH, I haven't had the mental bandwidth to blog about academia with any kind of real fervor. However, Drugmonkey tagged me in this "who would you like to rescue you?" meme thingie, so I suppose I can muster up five names (the one thing I do have mental bandwidth for is staring at my TV screen). Some of these are actual people and not characters, but whatever. Maybe they're totally different in real life.

  1. Imperator Furiosa
  2. Nicole Curtis
  3. Jessica Williams
  4. Special Agent Dale Cooper
  5. Titus Andromedon


5 responses so far

Going to SfN next month? Come to BANTER!

(by Dr Becca) Sep 17 2015

I'm not allowed to get too excited for SfN until I get this R01 in, but I do hope those of you headed to Chicago next month will come to our yearly shindig that is expressly for you, the People of the Internet. This year we have not one, not two, but THREE amazing sponsors - INCF, NeuInfo, and Nature - who are doing their best to ensure you get at least one Negroni and a snack or two on the house.

We'll be at Frontier in West Town, an easy ride on the L (or even easier Uber ride).  Note that we're starting at 9:30p to allow you to hit your SfN-sponsored socials and have dinner and whatnot beforehand, so no excuses! I have a 7:30am meeting the morning after.

Details below in this handy flyer! If you're on twitter, be sure to follow @sfnbanter and the #sfnbanter list of attendees. See you all in Chicago!


Can you guess the theme?


5 responses so far

Whose problem is the "reproducibility crisis" anyway?

(by Dr Becca) Aug 18 2015

One of the absolute best things about Twitter is that there are a bajillion scientists on it, and if I have a random question - what's your favorite cfos antibody, what's the best statistical test for ___, what do you think this blob on my micrograph is - I can just throw it out into the ether and am likely to get a number of super helpful responses almost immediately.

Today, however, my random question started quite the firestorm! Let's go to the highlight reel:

(BTW, the reason that the y-axis seems excessively high is that I am comparing the correlation in this experimental group to that of another experimental group whose y values do go that high, and non-matching axes are one of my biggest pet peeves)

I got lots of helpful responses from my lovely Twitter friends, which you can see if you click through to the conversation. My real question was, "do I include or exclude this data point that is 6 SDs away from the mean from analysis?" but a young mosquito scientist had this recommendation:

After which the following exchange occurred:

Letting alone the fact that in my mind, a single funky data point out of almost 60 is not a "result," but a...data point...the answer is no, I do not "usually" replicate. Look, I get that in some labs it's super easy to run an experiment in an afternoon for like $5. If this is the situation you're in, by all means replicate away! Knock yourself out, and then give yourself a nice pat on the back. But in the world of mammalian behavioral neuroscience, single experiments can take years and many thousands of dollars. When you finish an experiment, you publish the data, whatever they happen to be. You don't say, let's spend another couple of years and thousands more dollars and do it all again before we tell anyone what we found! So I thought, OK, this guy runs an insect lab, maybe he doesn't know what's involved.

Well, to borrow from Don Draper,

Screenshot 2015-08-17 21.18.39

Jason later doubled down, responding to @neuromagician:

"CORRECT." I cannot even with this. What does it mean? His answer was blissfully, elegantly circular in its logic:

OK, then. Let's leave the tweets there (but grumpy subtweets this way lie).

Here's how I see it: different science fields have different experimental conventions that depend on all kinds of things. The "reproducibility crisis" may be real, but asking scientists to fix it by doing everything twice (or more) is naive at best and intentionally, self-righteously ignorant at worst.

As I've said before, the data are the data. You report them, along with the methods that you used to get them and the stats you used to determine your confidence in them. Someone else reads them and maybe decides to build off of them in their own work, which necessitates trying to replicate yours. Maybe their results are the same, maybe they're not. If they're not, are you a bad scientist? Are they? Obviously not. Part of what makes science exciting and fascinating is figuring out why some things don't always replicate. When we define the intricacies that drive our data, that's when we're truly making progress.



67 responses so far

Getting noticed...

(by Dr Becca) Jul 17 2015

...is NOT making sure your chair spots you at seminars in hopes that you're hired internally.

By now I presume you've read the train wreck of a "careers" article over at Science, puzzlingly titled "Getting noticed is half the battle" when in fact the bulk of the piece is dedicated not to tips on getting noticed per se, but on congratulating yourself for brown-nosing your superiors and abandoning your family to work 100 hrs a week. I guess that's the other half of the battle?

Sciwo at Tenure, She Wrote has a pretty thorough takedown of the myriad ways in which the article is wrong, dated, heteronormative, and straight up dangerous, so you should go read that. However, there is one thing I will give the author: getting noticed is important for career maintenance and advancement.

The $64,000 question, of course, is how do you get yourself noticed without looking like an arrogant peacock? I'm going to turn some of the specifics over to New PI for a moment, who pondered some of these questions a couple of years ago. She writes,

It is a constant struggle in my mind on when to shake those back feathers and fan that tail. Do I tout my own horn at every little accomplishment in my department? Should I remind people who invited me for talks in passing that I was invited? Do I walk up to important people at meetings and just introduce myself pitching my "awesome" research?...The purists hate this and complain to no end about how your science should speak for itself.

Now, YMMV, but my answers to these questions are: yes, yes, no, and don't even get me started. When you're TT, accomplishments of any size are evidence that you're moving forward, and I see nothing wrong with updating the news section of your lab website and sending your chair an email when something particularly good happens.

Second, You. Must. Give. Talks. If you're at a conference talking to a buddy in the poster session or at the bar and he casually throws out a "we really should have you down to Fancy University to give a seminar," say, "that would be great, thanks!" and then follow up with a quick email once you get back home that says "Awesome to see you last week! Looking forward to the possibility of a visit once you get your seminar schedule for next semester set." Or whatever! But giving talks not only gives you a captive audience for an hour, you get a whole day to visit a department and meet one-on-one with whatever fancy people they have there. These chats can lead to collaborations, grand, paradigm-shifting epiphanies, and perhaps most importantly - letters for your tenure packet.*

Getting your shmoozing in this way has the added benefit of relieving you of New PI's 3rd scenario - the cold pitch to bigwigs. Just don't do it. If you absolutely must meet Dr. SuperFancyPants, find someone you know to introduce you in a casual environment. Otherwise, your interaction is pretty much guaranteed to go like this:

Finally, and this is a no-brainer, put in a session proposal for every single conference you attend, which has several benefits. First, obviously if it gets accepted you are a total baller and will get noticed for being the rockstar who organized that panel everyone loved. Second, it could give you a reason to contact and build a relationship with Dr. FancyPants, if the conference is the kind that likes their panels to be a mix of senior and junior folks. Third, even if you don't get FancyPants shmoozing out of it, you will definitely get camaraderie with your contemporaries out of it, which can also lead to all sorts of career bonuses in both the long and short term. And finally, if it gets accepted, the conference will usually give you at the very least free registration, and at the very best free hotel and airfare. That is like COLD HARD CASH in your pocket, all because you sent a few emails and wrote a paragraph about how exciting your sub-sub-subfield is.

Above all, be a good scientist who is kind to others and enjoyable to be around, and trust me, you'll be noticed in all the right ways.

*not to mention that these people are on grant review panels and journal editorial boards!

15 responses so far

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