Archive for: November, 2011

Those pesky pre-interview jitters (a blogspot repost)

Nov 30 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

It was about this time last year that I was about to go on my first TT interview, and I was feeling great. My talk was practiced and polished, and I'd made the executive decision not to wear a suit (a VERY good decision). And then, out of nowhere...I started to freak out. Hard core. A never ending string of varyingly absurd "what ifs" paraded through my brain--including, but not limited to What if I don't actually know anything about neuroscience? Seriously, this is a thought that I had. 

To help quell my fears, I naturally took to the blogosphere, and the outpouring of wisdom and comfort that emerged in the comments is something every last one of you about to go on an interview should read and take solace in. Below is my last minute freak out, to make you feel better about your own jitters. It is OK to have them! Just know that in a few days, when it's all over, you'll look back and chuckle because you really didn't have anything to worry about, did you? Now go slay that search committee!


My first faculty interview is this week, and frankly, I'm losing my junk a little bit. I'm super excited and I'm sure it will be fun, but I'm also terrified of doing something horribly gauche, insulting someone, or looking stupid in general. I've been poring over the very excellent advice on such matters from PhysioprofDrDrA, and Gerty-Z (and their commenters), but I still have a bunch questions. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Is it bad form to ask about the university city? I mean, everyone I'm talking to has chosen to live there, so would they be irked if I asked about quality of life/safety stuff?

2. I'm meeting the Dean. What does he want to talk about?

3. What do the students (grad) want to talk about?

4. Will people not take my relationship seriously because J and I are not married?

5. I'm doing a little reading about the research of each person on my itinerary, but will they expect me to be familiar with their work? How familiar?

6. What do I NEED to ask?

7. Anyone have any experience with those 5 hour energy shot thingies? Yay or Nay?

8. I seem to be coming down with a cold.

2 responses so far

Your TT appliction package: the view from the other side

Nov 22 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Last year, the most excellent Gerty-Z posted a most excellent check list of do's and don'ts re: one's tenure track application package. She is exceedingly wise, and I highly recommend you pay that post a visit. This year I'm on a search committee, and as I really start to sink my teeth into the dozens of applications that have come in, I'm realizing what a shit ton of work hefty task this is. There are so many of you! And so many words that you want me to read! But before I'm going to read the bulk of your words (your research and teaching statements), I'm taking a first pass at your cover letters and CVs, and I want you to remember something very important: I am looking for a reason NOT to have to read your research and teaching statement. 

Now, my departmental sub-division is on the small side, and we are looking for someone relatively specific with respect to research interests and techniques. Some bigger departments have the luxury (?) of just picking whomever has the most Cell papers and/or portable funding, but the reality is that we will pass over Cell papers and funding for a better overall fit (and a reasonably impressive publishing record and evidence of fundability).

As I'm going through all these CVs and cover letters, I'm having some thoughts that I feel it might behoove you to hear. Some of you may disagree with my sentiments here, and that's totally OK. This is my first time seeing things from the other side, and I welcome those who've got solid reasons why I'm doing it wrong. I'm not saying that any of these bad things is an automatic deal-breaker, but the more I love the way you put your package together, the more I'm going to love you, because I will think that you GET IT.

1. Think of your cover letter as the written version of your elevator pitch. Some of the cover letters I'm reading are WAY too long. One page, tops, people. This isn't your research statement--this is an introduction. State who you are, who you're working with and where, and 3-4 sentences max on your awesomesauce research. That is all I care about at this point in the game. If I want to know more, I'll read your statements!

2. Now, about that CV. Here's what I want to see, in this order. I'll be honest, this is not even how my own CV was organized, but now that I've read about a million of them, I feel like there are things I care about more than others, and I want all of those things first, even if it's not traditional.
a) Your title, where you are, and who your mentor is if you're still a post-doc.
b) Your education/training--institution, department, and your mentors at each step.
c) Past/present/pending funding
d) Publications, reverse chronologically. I'm sure you had a very nice undergrad project in 1999 and that's great that your PI made you 4th author, but I don't actually give much of a shit, and so I don't want to see it first. I want to see what you have been doing lately, and that includes submitted-but-not-yet-in-press stuff, but put that in a visibly separate category. And don't you DARE put a journal name if that thing isn't at the very least in press.  I can't tell you how much I LOL'd today at "submitted to Nature Neuroscience" or whatever. Hooray for you! Also: put your name in bold so I can easily see which of your pubs are 1st author, and the journal's name in italics (if the paper is published), because even though we are not GlamourMag whores here, we still like to know. And if you're feeling particularly web-savvy, do as Gerty suggests and embed a link to your PubMed abstracts for each pub--it really says, "I am a 21st century kind of scientist!"
e) Invited speaking engagements
f) Awards (I'd say e/f are interchangeable)
g) Everything else: ad hoc reviewing, students mentored, courses taught, what have you. I realize that it's common to put abstracts/posters for meetings, but that's not what's going to put you in the yes vs no pile, you know? We've all been to a bunch of meetings.

Unlike the cover letter, your CV can be as long as you want it to be, so make it nice to look at! And by "nice to look at" I don't mean "color gradient background" or "mouse drawing" (yes, I've seen both). Use spaces between sections, aligned indentations, and bold section headings! Different reviewers are going to have different things they care about most, so make it easy for everyone to jump around and find what they're looking for. Finally, remember that this is a CV, not a resumé. None of this "objectives" business, and no paragraph descriptions of each of your projects.

Gosh, I feel like I sound kind of angry, here! Sorry about that--I am not, though this process does try my patience at times. Looks like it's time to invest in a new bottle of whiskey for the office...

19 responses so far

Your official SfN fashion evaluation is here.

Nov 16 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Yesterday one of the Sigma reps told me that the neuroscientists were the hippest group of scientists she's seen. Naturally, I agreed. But do I really? Check out my SfN fashion evaluation over at Nature's Action Potential blog to find out.

And watch this (or that) space for a wrap up of just about every party I could charm my way into, later tonight.

4 responses so far

Introducing....your SfN 2011 lifestyle reporter!

Nov 10 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Just one last quick announcement before I head off to our nation's fine capital--

Noah Gray over at Nature (you may have heard of it) has recruited a cadre of bloggers to do a little conference reporting for the Nature Neuroscience blog, Action Potential. Yours truly has happily signed on to cover the culture/lifestyle beat, which means that I'll be dishing on this year's fashions, social phenomena, and general gossip-worthy events. Tips to @doc_becca or at gmail, and if you've got the 411 on any parties, most definitely get in touch, mkay?

See you in Washington!

3 responses so far

SfN survival 101

Nov 09 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

The Society for Neuroscience meeting is huge. I mean, seriously gargantuan. The number of scientists that will descend upon Washington this weekend is over twice that of the population of the town I grew up in, and while it's not for everybody, I love it. I love SfN. I haven't missed a single one since my very first year of grad school, and oh, the stories I could tell!

For some of you, though, I imagine this is your first time, and you may be feeling a teensy overwhelmed, wondering how on earth you can possibly manage ALL THAT SCIENCE! Well, here's a newsflash--you can't, and you shouldn't try. Below is a list of things to help you work your way through the madness without losing your mind and/or will to live.

1. Don't panic. About anything. Pretty much nothing at SfN is worth getting upset about, especially whether or not you get to see every last item on your itinerary. You're simply not going to, so best to accept that fact now. The abstract planner is available long after the meeting, so if you miss something, you'll always be able to contact the authors and ask them questions afterwards. It will probably make them so happy!

2. Don't overplan. Plan a little, but don't plan every second of the day, and don't think you're going to spend 3-4 hrs a day on the poster floor, because you will collapse from exhaustion. What I like to do is scan the daily books (now conveniently available in e-reader form) for sessions that encompass general areas that spark my interest, then stroll that part of the poster floor. Don't worry about the 1-hr time slot that the books list--many presenters stay at their poster the whole 4 hrs.

3. Go to the big lectures. Especially for the n00bs, you can get a very nice sense of recent neuroscience history from hearing some of the fancy people talk. What is considered a Big Deal these days? Now you know, and if you absolutely hate it, you can always leave. The lecture halls are enormous, and people are constantly filing in and out. Nobody will look at you funny or think poorly of you.

4. Go out to lunch. I am so serious, get out there and get some fresh air! We're very lucky because the DC convention center is actually in a part of the city with stuff around it (looking at you, Chicago), so you can easily take 45 min and go have a nice sandwich or something. Convention center food is notoriously bad and overpriced, and I guarantee you'll be happy to have had the break.

5. Comfortable shoes. You are going to be on your feet like you've never been on your feet before, and they (and your back) are going to be killing you. I figure I walk at least a few miles a day inside the convention center alone, let alone going between the CC and my hotel. This is not the time for your fancy dress shoes, OK?

6. Dress in layers. Convention centers are usually cold, especially on the poster floor, but you never know--sometimes the smaller symposia rooms can get warm, especially after a few hours at capacity.  I always carry a scarf and cardigan or hoodie with me, so that I can adjust accordingly.

7. Take a half day for sightseeing, and/or sleeping in. I swear to FSM, the earth will not explode nor will your career be ruined if one afternoon you decide you'd like to go to the zoo (baby red pandas!!!!) or the Spy Museum instead of the conference. You'll feel so refreshed and ready to see more science when you're through!

8. Try to keep your notes organized. It happens. You're at a poster, and all of a sudden you want to write something down or get somebody's email address. You scrounge around in your bag for something, anything to write on, and come up with nothing but your Starbucks receipt. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten home from SfN and found a mess of notes on all kinds of things, and it's all mostly useless. Either bring your own notebook or make a beeline for the Sigma booth, because they usually give out pretty solid notebooks if you fill out a quick survey.

9. Snacks. So you don't end up spending $4 on a yogurt or eating one of those god-awful pretzels, find yourself a 7-11 and buy a box of granola bars. Then, whenever hunger starts to strike but you're not quite ready to vacate the premises, you've got a little something to tide you over!

10. Shmooze. Do not be afraid, padwan, your job is to make friends and impress people. Ask questions at posters and talks, go find your NIH PO, and come to the BANTER party! On that note, if you are a non-tweeting person and are planning to attend, could you do me a quick favor and announce your intentions in the comments? I'm just trying to get a ballpark figure for the bar. Many thanks!

Most of all, HAVE FUN. SfN is not only for you to present your work and find things relevant to your research, but also time away from the lab for you to think about the rest of this crazy, vast, neurosciencey world we live in. Enjoy it!

21 responses so far

The art of negotiating: an analogy, with booze.

Nov 07 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

A couple of weeks ago, the hilarious and awesome SciTriGrrl (aka NatC) tweeted:

Naturally, I couldn't let such a juicy tweet just fly off into the twittersphere, so I asked NatC if she'd do me the great honor of sharing her newly acquired and highly valuable knowledge with my readers. I wrote a post about negotiating my startup a while back, but trust me, her post is way better. And so, without further ado, I give you.....NatC!

Hello World! Today I’m here to talk about an effective negotiating strategy! Because negotiating can get us things that we need – like money, more space, and administrative support. And because negotiating is scary.

For the record, I am not an expert – really not. In this post I’m paraphrasing a seminar called “The Art of Negotiating” by Professor Victoria Medvec.  It was an amazing seminar, and I’m paraphrasing her strategy. All credit goes to her*.

 [Um…Before I start…um…Dr Becca? Does writing this guest blog spot at Fumbling Towards Tenure earn me a cocktail named in my honor? … Can you make me one while at SFN? … No?... um… maybe next time?]

 In terms of negotiating, I did a couple of things wrong above when trying to negotiate some recompense for writing this guest post.

  • I agreed to write this post without using the request as the chance to negotiate what I needed/wanted.
  • I’m asking for a single item.
  • The whole exchange was conducted in an “asynchronous mode of communication” (messaging/email/telegram).

I’m also doing a couple of things right:

  • I’m asking. If you don’t ask, it won’t happen.
  • I’ve asked for more than I want – I’d love a custom cocktail, but I don’t really care if it’s named for me, or if Dr Becca makes it at SFN. This means I have room to concede.


How should I have approached this negotiation?

 The scenario:

Dr Becca sends me a message asking if I’d like to write a blog post about negotiations. I know I want (need?) a cocktail.

 Pre-game: The first thing I should have said is “Wow! Dr Becca! Thanks so much for thinking me worthya. This is an exciting opportunity. Why don’t we meet/talk on the phoneb tomorrowc to discuss how this could workd.

Here, already I’ve accomplished a lot. I’ve (a) showed interest and enthusiasm, but have not agreed outright, (b) arranged to have a conversation in real time, (c) given myself time to prepare, and (d) implied that there’s a discussion to be had, that this could work for both of us.

I. Preparation:

1. Decide what I need (goal) and what the ideal situation would be (aggressive goal). Also be sure to think about what the long-term goal is – what is it that the initial goal is trying to achieve?

2. Do what I can to have/improve/know the alternatives (or Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement (BATNA), this can be the status quo)

3. Know the lowest I’m willing to settle for (insider tip: try to make this no worse than status quo)

4. Carefully analyze what the other party’s alternatives are (their BATNA). Also think about what THEY are trying to achieve. The more information you have on the other party’s goals, the better.

 My short term goal here is obviously a custom cocktail.  Ideally it would be named after me, and Dr Becca would be making the prototype at SFN. My long term goal here is a little less trivial – I want to make sure we set aside time to chat (in the name of networking, of course).

My alternatives are: no cocktail, not custom, custom but not named for me, a drink out some time in the future, or status quo (aka nothing). I’m actually perfectly happy to write the post with no cocktail (shhh! Don’t let her know that!), but my reservation point would be setting a time/place to grab a drink and catch up – so better than status quo, and it helps accomplish my long-term goal.

Dr Becca’s options? No post on negotiations, a negotiations expert, or me. I know she wants the scoop on how to negotiate effectively, but I’m no expert. On the other hand, I went to this kick-ass seminar, took extensive notes, and Dr Becca clearly doesn’t know an expert in negotiations or she wouldn’t be asking me.

 II. Make a Plan

5. Develop a package with which to negotiate. This should include multiple issues (do not just talk about one thing).

6. Develop a scoring system so you can evaluate various possibilites

7. Develop multiple equivalent simultaneous offers (MESOs)– and by equivalent, this means equivalent for you. They won’t be equivalent to the person you’re negotiating with, and this is important.

 For me, MESOs with multiple issues looks like this

  Option 1 Option 2 Option 3
Cocktail: Custom cocktail Custom cocktail Suggest a cocktail you think I’ll like
How: You make it At a bar, bartender makes it You make it
Ingredients: Your Choice Your Choice Bourbon and lemon
When: Your Choice At SFN At SFN
Score: Yum Yum Yum

 Remember, to me all of these have the same value (Yum). Dr Becca will likely see them differently: take Scenario 3. It’s entirely possible that she might not WANT to be making cocktails at SFN, might not want to drag bourbon, lemon, a glass, and a shaker with her - all totally reasonable.

 III. Negotiate

To make the conversation go as smoothly as possible:

8. Think about how the conversation is going to go – best and worst case scenarios, beginning and the end of the conversation.

9. Make the first offer and build a rationale – and focus that rationale on the other party’s goals

10. Leave yourself room to concede

 In planning the conversation, don’t rote learn a script – that never ends well – but do think about how you will broach the topic, the other party’s various possible responses, and how you would come back from those.

When planning the conversation, plan to make the first offer. This way you are in the position of offering, and not in the position of saying “no”. Let them say no! You also want to be able to set the high number – hopefully you know enough to set a high enough number so that you are not low-balling yourself, and it’s always easier to negotiate down than up. Finally, going first puts you in control of the situation – even when the other party has more power than you (think: department chair).

You need to be able to state a rationale in terms of how [providing x for you] will help them achieve their long term goals, then it gives them a reason to listen and support your request. Here, Becca’s goals are to learn about effective negotiations, and to have a successful blog. So a rationale might look something like: “I know that you want a successful blog that both provides information to the blogging community and to learn how to effectively negotiate – and making a custom cocktail for me will help achieve both these things because everyone loves the cocktail posts.  As for effective negotiations, you know that role-playing difficult conversations can really alleviate the awkwardness, and I would me more than happy to practice these techniques over drinks.”**

You’ve set a high (but not unreasonable) number because you’re worth it, but also to give you room to concede. Conceding is good. It makes the other party think they’re winning, which means they’re happy, which means they know they’re getting you for a steal.  Conceding can be dropping your initial request to a lower number, or agreeing to drop one of the multiple offers presented - when I have presented my 3 scenarios, Dr Becca can say “not #3”, and I can happily agree to that. In addition, when you use MESOs, as the other party discusses the various options you’ve presented you gain more information into what the other party wants/likes, which will help you in subsequent rounds of negotiations.

And that’s it!

 For me, the hardest part by far is walking into the room and starting the conversation. I worry about seeming too demanding, about underselling myself, about spontaneously bursting into tears if they just say “No”.  I can see, however, how planning well, using multiple issues across multiple simultaneous offers, and making the first offer can make a negotiation seem like a conversation about how to make things happen. A nerve wracking conversation, for sure, but ultimately doable.


 [In the imaginary conversation I’m having with Dr Becca], we have agreed on Scenario 2***: A custom cocktail recipe to be made by a bartender at a TBD time, while we are both at SFN. In return, while we are at the bar, we will be discussing negotiations, and practicing some of the worst case scenario conversation, with each other as the “other party”.


*All criticism should come back to me.

**Do you buy it?

***This should not be taken as evidence for success.

18 responses so far

When do you REALLY feel like a grad student?

Nov 04 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

  1. @doc_becca comp exams or thesis proposal, whichever comes first.
  2. .@doc_becca I felt like a grad student for real after passing written qualifing exam. I had to study 10 hours a day for 6 months.
  3. @doc_becca From the moment I walked in the door. BAM!
  4. @doc_becca An equally valid question would be, "When do you really STOP feeling like a grad student?"
  5. @doc_becca when I got keys to lab and slept there for an experiment. and when I got library books for the whole semester (dorky, I know)
  6. @doc_becca You feel like a grad student when you change your thesis for the 12th time in a month and celebrate with a drink.
  7. first time you're forced to choose between class presentation and ongoing experiment. RT @doc_becca when do u REALLY feel like grad student?
  8. @doc_becca A week before my first exam.
  9. @doc_becca When I realized I had to leave lab by midnight so I could get dinner before the restaurants on Telegraph closed.
  10. @doc_becca When I started stashing booze in my desk drawer.
  11. @nparmalee @doc_becca when your desk is decorated more than your apartment.
  12. @newprof1 @doc_becca When you try to open the door to your apartment with your lab key.
  13. @nparmalee @doc_becca when you start asking for aliquots of condiments when out to dinner.
  14. @nparmalee @doc_becca when you know where there is free pizza in your department every day of the week.
  15. @sciliz @doc_becca ahh I'll never forget the first time I slept in the lab. I set off the alarm in the animal facility
  16. @doc_becca for me it's being a postgrad. Particularly when I see 18-21 year old psych students, who seem far too young!!
  17. RT @medeavodka: @doc_becca You feel like a grad student when you change your thesis for the 12th time in a month and celebrate with a drink.

11 responses so far

Mind readers, they're not

Nov 02 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Gah. VENDORS, amirite?

Putting together lists of all the crap I need so vendors can wow me with their amazing New Lab Startup discounts has been the single most surprisingly unpleasant thing about being a new PI. In my brain I was all, SHOPPING FTW, but in reality I want to repeatedly smash my MagicMouse™ into my skull. Here's why:

a) Do you know what the things in your lab are called? I mean, do you REALLY know what they're called? Because the vendors probably call them something different, and it's going to drive you absolutely mad. For example, in my post-doc lab we had this thing, right? It had a flat top and you could put things on like western blot membranes or well plates for IHC, and it would gently swirl them around. We all called this a shaker. So I go to the vendor websites and search for a "shaker," and nothing comes up that looks anything like what our shaker looked like, and it takes me at least half an hour to figure out that what we were calling a shaker is actually an orbital rotator. Just shoot me, please. Half an hour, for one item. One item out of about 5000, because do you even realize how much stuff there is in a lab? So much stuff!  Or, here's another example: what do you call the skinny metal thing that you use to scoop small amounts of drugs or other powdered substances onto a balance? A "powder scooper?" INCORRECT. It is a "spoonulet," FYI.

b) I had hoped that my local vendor reps would be familiar enough with the general needs of a new PI that I could give them a basic list that said things like "bottles" and "graduated cylinders" and "centrifuge tubes" and they'd be able to make some suggestions. Instead, I am fielding emails that say things like, "I don't know what you mean by 'microscope slide staining' and "please tell me the catalog #'s of everything you want." Well, dear rep, I would, if it were in fact possible to find anything at all on your website in a timely fashion.

c) And then when you finally do get the quotes, they're nearly indecipherable. For example, could you guess what this might be? "KIT CYTOTRAP XR RAT BRAI" I cannot, and a look at the product description on the website offers little in the way of clarification. Obviously, there's no picture. I have a guess as to which line item on my list it's meant to be, but the quote was about 3x what I've gotten from others, which makes me think it's the wrong thing. This same vendor also quoted me a $200 timer. Please, sir, why don't you know what I mean when I say "timer?"

What I wish is that there were a big store with all the stuff I need for my lab, and I could just shop by walking around and looking at things and scanning them with one of those guns like you get when you create a wedding registry (helped my sis pick out things at Crate & Barrel and it was AWESOME), rather than having to go nuts searching for things online, copy-pasting catalog #s, and not being able to see what I'm buying. I'm really looking forward to the SfN meeting for this reason (among others), because at least there will be lots of vendors there with lots of items for me to check out in the flesh...and call whatever I damn please!

48 responses so far