Archive for: April, 2012

The semester that *almost* ate me alive

Apr 26 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Allow me, for a moment, to borrow from the venerable and ever-quotable Keanu Reeves, as I take this opportunity simply to say:


I won't sugar-coat things, you guys. This semester--and I say this with absolute certitude--was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Ever. Like, soul-crushingly hard. TMJ hard. Last semester? Last semester was nothing; it was shopping. This semester, I had six people in my lab (including undergrads) who were counting on me to show them how to do science, while at the same time I had to create and teach a class completely on my own.

This class....where do I even begin? It was not an intro class; it was not a class anyone has taught before at NJU, or possibly at any U. It was my idea. There is no appropriate textbook. Each lecture--3 a week--was made from scratch. From my brain, from pubmed, and from the godsend that is Google Image search (and sometimes YouTube). It took ALL of my time. All of it. I have no idea how some of you do this 2, 3, or 4 (!!) times in a single semester, even without a lab to run.

Classroom time was not so bad, and at times it was truly awesome. I've never had a problem with public speaking, especially when I'm talking about things I love, and it made me so happy to share what I care about with NJU's neuroscience-inclined undergraduates. There were some real moments too--the kind of moments pre-professor you dreams that future-professor you will have--philosophical conversations about evolution and the brain and the human condition or whatever. And I have to say, those tiny flickers of an indication that maybe you have caused your students to really think about is a fucking amazing feeling.

But I swear, putting those lectures together was very nearly the death of me. There was always one to work on. Always. There were nights I genuinely thought there was no way I could come up with more than 10 minutes' worth of material to talk about the next day. But I had to, because this was my class and mine alone. And so I did.

Here is the thing about being new faculty--the thing that you know in an abstract way, and that you want, but don't necessarily process until you're actually in it: everything, all the time, is all up to you. There will be a lot of things you simply can't delegate, because in the beginning, you are the only one who knows...well, pretty much anything. And in addition to all those things that you planned on having to do, a million little fires pop up Every. Single. Day. And you have to deal with those too, because again, this is your show.

And still! I am over the moon that this is my job. Stress-induced jaw pain notwithstanding, I feel like I've made it through my first "real" semester mostly unscathed. Without question, there were times I wasn't sure April would ever come, when friends and family would ask me how things were going, and it was all I could do not to burst into tears. It was so, so hard, but here we are. I am super excited for the summer, when I can finally shift my focus to getting the lab in high gear, and write my first R01. I'm speaking at an awesome conference in June, and can look forward to collecting vintage terrariums, books, and trophy cups for my wedding.  I'm through the woods (for now).

22 responses so far

Guest post at Scientific American today!

Apr 18 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Fun news, folks! The most excellent Scicurious has graciously let me scribble all over her walls at Scientific American today. In a bit of a break from my usual tales of early tenure-track shenanigans, I instead offer a commentary on a New York Times neuroscience write-up from last week. To put it briefly, this neuroscientist is not impressed. Read here!

3 responses so far

Guest Post: On Making the Biggest Decision of Your Life

Apr 11 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

'Tis a joyous day, dear readers, as we're blessed with the good fortune of another guest post by the most excellent NatC, who you may recall put forth some most excellent wisdom on negotiating not long ago. Dr C is just coming back to earth after a  hugely successful run on the TT interview trail, and after fielding some exceptionally competitive offers from some exceptionally Classy Institutions (not to mention negotiating LIKE A BOSS), she's  finally signed on the proverbial dotted line (which in actuality was probably more like a solid line). It was without question a very very very stressful decision, and I've asked NatC to expound on the decision making process here in the illustrious pages of FTTT, for the benefit of all of you. Many thanks, NatC!

There’s a lot of really great advice out there about TT Job Search – from writing research plans to negotiating an offer. All of which has been extremely helpful – for my sanity if nothing else – through this process. But there’s one question that no-one’s discussed yet: how does anyone make any major choice between two perfectly viable options?

Decisions are always deeply personal. Sometimes there are factors which make a decision more straightforward– a significant other refuses to move to a state due to work (or perhaps due to the state’s increasingly draconian stance on women?); or one department has the only other person in the world that understands and can support your fancy new technique; or one…um… difficult senior faculty member.

Often there is one offer that is clearly better. But sometimes, based on the tangible things: salary, teaching requirements, lab space, start up package, there is no obvious choice. Add to that wildly different institutions/departments, and the deciding factors become the peripheral* things - like “fit”, personalities, size of the institution, administrative support in the department, and location of the institution.

How is it possible to evaluate and compare these kinds of intangible differences?  Especially since in many fields of research, there is a range of different kinds of departments in which I could work - medical school departments, college-based departments, and strikingly different kinds of departments within those categories. There are large institutions and smaller schools. Different locations: East coast versus West coast versus Midwest. City versus college town. There are different research focuses of the departments – I could be one of a cluster of sub-field specialists, or I could be the person in that department. It’s like choosing between beverages: a negroni, a manhattan, or a glass of wine for example. They are all perfectly valid options, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these, but they are all so different it’s almost impossible to compare them directly. Without the ability to see the future, it is impossible to know which is the best.

There is one more catch to this decision. These comparisons make one huge assumption - that all the offers come within the same time frame. With a window for interviews of more than 4 months, there is a pretty high likelihood of needing to make a decision about one job before interviews at another have happened. Making a decision without knowing all of the options – or even the likely range of options – is even harder.

My strategy for making major decisions has always been: (1) obsess, fuss over, and generally over-think details for a few weeks, (2) Make complex spreadsheets to get my thoughts clear, usually with a glass of wine, a negroni, or a manhattan at hand; (3) Re-visit institution; and (4) wake up one day feeling certain of what to do. (5) Never second-guessing the decision – especially at some point further down the line when things are (inevitably) less than perfect.

[Note: This strategy FAILS rather spectacularly when some options are still only possibilities when decisions have to be made. It can end up getting stuck in a loop between (1) and (2)].

Clearly, I’m not an expert at best-practices in decision making, so people – help me out! How do you make decisions like this? Or, for that matter any major decision about where to apply, what kind of institution, what kind of department?

How does one decide whether to take a risk and turn down an early offer when there are interviews (but no actual offers) lined up at more attractive places?

What are the things outside the startup package to consider when taking a tenure track job?

Is it helpful to focus on the imperfections of each place, and decide which you are more comfortable, rather than the things you like?


*Not to say these things aren’t important. Having worked in a department with poor admin support, I can assure you it matters. A lot.


11 responses so far


Apr 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Neither my grad nor my post-doc PI was the type to say no to a photo op, and so I became accustomed to the ritual early on: the scrambling to find a clean lab coat for them to wear for the interview, the pulling up of spreadsheets and closing of Snood  windows on the lab computers, the setting up of “I’m doing science!” type activities on the benches.

On one particularly memorable day, my post-doc PI burst into the lab Cosmo Kramer-style, and frantically ran down the length of the room, poking his head into each of the bays. “How is NO ONE doing bench work right now?!!” he yelled. “PBS is here!” The truth of the matter was that most of our research didn’t involve a ton of daily bench work, so it was not at all unusual to find the shakers and microcentrifuges sitting silent. Looking up from my Google Reader very complicated data set, I offered, "Do you want me to, like, pipet something?"

He pledged his eternal gratitude, and I quickly set up a rack of 1.5ml microcentrifuge tubes next to a beaker of distilled H2O as the cameras began to roll.

Last week, I was asked to participate in a video for NJU commencement, and an eerie sense of deja vu washed over me as I doted around the lab, making sure everyone was wearing their appropriate PPE. We'd gotten a couple of good action shots when the videographer said, "You know what we really need? One of those shots where you're holding up a tube and looking at it." "Yes!" I exclaimed. "We scientists do that all the time!"  And so we searched the lab for a passable colored liquid, finally settling on one of our pH standards. We were all cracking up, but awesome grad student managed to keep a straight face as he did the honors.

Doesn't he look so...sciencey?

20 responses so far