Fuck "descriptive"

(by Dr Becca) Jun 13 2014

It's been a shitty few weeks. After a gazillion paper rejections and two funding "fuck you"s, all whilst working to make a June grant deadline, I do not have the energy to write my full on manifesto right now. But I would absolutely love it if someone could post in the comments a compelling argument for why "descriptive" is considered an a priori flaw in scientific inquiry. Isn't all science descriptive?

If you have ever uttered (or written) the words "You have to have a hypothesis. It doesn't matter if you're right or wrong," then what you are saying is that it is valuable to know the outcome of the experiment being proposed regardless of what that outcome is. And if that's the case, then why does there need to be a hypothesis in the first place? Why is it not enough to say, "I want to see what happens to X when an animal does Y" or "I want to know how groups A and B are different on measure C"?

A hypothesis is supposed to be an educated guess, right? But if there's no data out there to base that guess off of, what's the point of making something up?

45 responses so far

Does a "services rendered" model apply in academia?

(by Dr Becca) Apr 10 2014

So this is in response to a bit of a kerfuffle that, as far as I can tell, started with Dr24hours on twitter Tuesday night, picked up again Wednesday morning, and resulted in a  post over on his very worthwhile blog Infactorium called "Unpaid Work in Academia."  It concerns the exceptionally common scenario in which a trainee--be it an undergrad, grad student, or post-doc--moves on to the next phase of her career before every last data point she collected has been published. But it should be published, and so who's going to do the work to make that happen? In a nutshell, 24's argument is that if said trainee is somehow forced to write up all remaining manuscripts after she is no longer receiving a paycheck from the PI who supervised the research in question, then that trainee is being exploited.

I have a number of different thoughts about this.

First of all, yes. Nobody should be forced to do anything they don't want to do and that isn't required by a contract that they've signed. But let's talk for a second about the plausibility of being forced to write a manuscript. The only way I can imagine that this is something that actually happens in academia is if former PI threatens not to write any letters of recommendation for the trainee until the papers are in and published. That is a super shitty thing to do as a PI, and personally, I do not see this approach working well for either party in the long run.

But my primary question is, who needs to be blackmailed into writing up their own work?

I take issue with 24's implication that manuscript preparation is something you do for your PI, like a service rendered. While technically, yes, the legal tender direct deposited into your checking account each month is loosely related to the fact that you show up to pipette every day, and your PI is the closest thing to a boss you have, this work is also yours. Every time your name appears on a paper, all those western blots and recordings and dose-response curves define who you are as a scientist. To be clear, I am not arguing that these things are rewards or currency or take the place of real money. But they are important nonetheless, and they are not things that you simply give to your PI in exchange for US dollars, either. These things are a part of your narrative, and if your goal is to stay in academia, your narrative needs to have a bunch of papers in it. You should want these papers to be published, and care about them representing your work in the best way possible.

The question of whether you should be paid to work on these papers after you've formally started a new job is an interesting one, and I'm not sure there's a clear answer. If your job while in PI's lab was to carry out a project, was writing the manuscript a part of that job (meaning it was your responsibility to get it done while employed), or do you consider your salary/stipend to be payment only for whatever you happened to get done during your official employment? Because with the exception of technicians, academic positions are not hourly, so how do we define what counts as "above and beyond?" Grad students, post-docs, and PIs work (a lot of) non-traditional hours. Putting aside the issue of whether stipends and salaries should be higher in general, where do you draw the line? Should we be demanding time-and-a-half for any work we do outside of business hours? Should we put a monetary value on every assay and ANOVA? Some of my best science ideas have come to me during spin class (seriously, I have no idea why) - can I ask my university to reimburse my gym membership? Who do I charge for my time spent writing peer reviews?

My point is this: for better or for worse, what constitutes "work" in academia is nebulous (especially re: the concept of "percent effort" on grants, but that is another topic for another day), but if you're planning on staying, it is in your best interest to get yours done (it is also in your best interest to have a conversation with your PI on mutual expectations). Whether you push to get it done before your paycheck stops or do it after (while you are technically on another time clock) doesn't change the total amount of work you do or the amount of money you will earn for it, because that is simply not the pay structure of academic science.

(As an aside, I'll share this: I wrapped up all my post-doc publications before starting my TT job, and was then criticized in my first departmental review for not publishing anything, which could have only happened by writing up leftover post-doc data. So it is sometimes in your best interest to actively "save" some things to work on during transition times).

If, on the other hand, you are leaving academia, you have to be OK with leaving your work behind, too. Tell your former PI "Sorry, this isn't my work anymore. Give it to someone else." If your PI threatens to withhold LoRs if you don't do it, then that PI is most certainly a dick. Can't argue there. But it is also not worth buckling to your shitty PI's demands in order to get that LoR--you have to let it go. You have a new job and new supervisors who will write you LoRs in the future, and unless you were literally chained to the bench for the last few years,  you should know some other senior academic folks who could write an LoR in place of your PI.

Like in many other areas of life, I think there's a healthy dose of good faith to the way academic relationships work. I would never use my position of power to blackmail trainees into doing their work, but I also hope that they will work hard because they care about what they do. If they don't, I would much rather they just hand it off anyway - it's most likely best for everyone.

35 responses so far

Yep, it's hard - a guest post from iGrrrl

(by Dr Becca) Apr 03 2014

I love when excellent blogging leads to more excellent blogging, and I don't even have to do any of the blogging myself! Inspired by the amazing Potnia Theron's thoughtful post on the relationship between rejection and depression in academia, the brilliant and wise iGrrl had some thoughts of her own, which she has graciously put into sentence form for all of us. This is important stuff, folks. Read.


I had previously worked as a tech at the school where I matriculated, and one of my former PI's collaborators came up to me at the 'welcome new grad students' reception with a Why are you here? expression on his face. When I told him I was entering the neuroscience program, he said, "Ah! Getting your union card, I see." He was so right about the end product, but the process? When we're long past it, it's like childbirth: you forget how bad it is.

Being a student again was a shock. I'd gone back for my PhD at 30 after a peripatetic early adulthood. The intensity of that first year, the sense of how high the stakes were, of being molded into something very new and different, can be easily forgotten. I hated the more senior students who dismissively said, "It's fine, you'll get through it." I figured they'd just forgotten, like childbirth. I swore on a stack of Stryer; Kandel, Schwartz & Jessel; and all those journal articles I'd photocopied to read for class that when the next crop of grad students came in, I wouldn't feed them that dismissive line. I would tell them the truth: First year of grad school sucks, and is hard. Plenty of them thanked me for it, for recognizing that what they were going through was insane and hard.

And that's true, but the rest of graduate training is hard, too. I won't argue for a kinder, gentler PhD program. To survive in academic science, you have to learn to be in charge of your own education, to realize that you will be judged harshly for the rest of your career (grant review sheets, anyone?), etc., but you also have to find ways to deal with the self doubt and depression. It may be that not everyone experiences it, but most admit to experiencing some level of both after their second beer.

We joke that the only praise in academe is the absence of criticism, and that feeds into the problem that smart, competent people often have, which I'll call the anti-Dunning-Kruger effect. True Imposter Syndrome is the more extreme example of this, but it's that constant feeling that you're not measuring up, but you're not exactly sure what the standards are, or that they are unobtainable. There is no better way to for smart people to get depressed and self-doubting, and when the culture is that your work is your life and your self, research setbacks have an outsized impact. This changes with time and perspective, as Potnia Theron recently blogged, but when you're in the middle of it, well, let's just say that most of us deal with cortisol excess.

I spent years in grad school where I was angry all the time. The anger was a mask for depression. Lab work did not go well my first three years, and I had to switch projects. Having to throw away all of that work = life = self was infuriating and depressing. I started looking for other avenues to get any kind of positive feedback, so I developed on-line relationships in a tech community and wrote a terrible novel*, but those activities were 'distractions' from research. The combination of oblique comments from others and my own self scorn (born of buying into the work = life = self) just made everything worse.

I would never have finished my PhD if I hadn't taken two weeks completely off, visiting friends who were not scientists, learning to scuba dive, and hiking Oregon mountains. I went back with a sense of perspective that work was work, that the love of science was a part of my self, but not the whole thing. I was reminded of the world outside the hermetic bubble of graduate training, and that perspective allowed me to get out from under the anger and depression, buckle down, and get my union card.

*After writing a novel, writing a dissertation wasn't scary. So, no, I don't consider it a wasted effort w/r/t my time in grad school.

14 responses so far

Does it matter what your Ph.D. is in?

(by Dr Becca) Mar 17 2014

My Ph.D. is in Neurobiology. But when I applied to grad school, I applied to both neuro and psych programs, not really giving much thought to what my diploma would read a few years down the line. As it turned out, I was accepted to several neuro programs and zero psych programs, so my fate was sealed early on. But would it have made a difference in my career trajectory?

My general feeling is that there's quite a bit of overlap among the life sciences. In grad school, it was not at all uncommon for a single lab to have grad students from multiple programs -neuro, pharmacology, molecular bio, etc. Friends from my grad program have gone on to faculty positions in various departments as well. But despite the seeming flexibility of a Ph.D. in biomedical science, I see a lot of hand-wringing these days in applicants over whether they should get a degree in X vs. Y. Obviously, coursework will vary from program to program. But after that, how you define yourself as a scientist is up to you and the research you do through your graduate and postdoctoral work. To me, that factors far more into whether a search committee considers you a good fit than the official field listed on your degree.


28 responses so far

Very competitious*

(by Dr Becca) Mar 06 2014

I have a very clear memory of one of my postdoc lab's post-SfN debriefings--all of us bleary-eyed, with piles of coffee-stained, semi-legible notes in front of us (this was before iPads, can you IMAGINE???). We went around the table, each informing our PI (who had obviously been too busy hob-nobbing to see talks or posters) about the exciting things we'd learned. The thing that struck me at this particular meeting was the student who said, "well, there are a lot of people studying [broad trendy thing that she'd only recently become interested in], which is BAD."

But is that actually bad? I mean, I get it, nobody wants to be scooped. But are there not enough research questions about broad trendy thing to go around? If you realize that some people are already working on the basics of a hot new topic, maybe this is your chance to jump ahead and do the cool stuff! Get a little creative, right?

I realize this isn't everyone's attitude - some people love competition. The secrecy, the anxiety, burning the midnight oil to ensure that they are first to publish the Big Story. But as a new-ish PI, I don't have the time (the tenure clock ticks louder every damn day), the money, or the person-power to get into these kinds of races and risk losing. I would rather spend my time thinking of new questions to answer.

One of my grade school teachers had us do an exercise in which we had to imagine we were alone in a room with nothing but a paper clip. She had us write down 10 things we could do with the paper clip. Then 10 more, then 10 more. As you might imagine, the last set was far more creative and interesting than the first - demonstrating to us that our brains are capable of nearly bottomless ideas, when they're forced to keep thinking.

There's an idea that's been kicking around in my head for a few months, as I've tried to envision a way to get my grants funded by more than just NIMH. I've been pretty excited about it, as it would represent a real new line of research for me and the lab, and the plan has been to submit an R21 for the June deadline. I knew that in a general sense, it was a bit of a hot topic, but I think I didn't realize quite how SMOKING HOT it was until recently, and I'll admit, my heart sank a little when it hit me how many groups that are bigger and richer than mine are working on similar questions with similar approaches. Waaaaah, I am not as original as I thought!

But then I said to myself, self, is that all you're capable of? If you feel this ruins your whole plan, perhaps you're not meant to branch in this direction after all. Stop moping, and work your way down the idea list, which is only going to get more interesting and awesome. Science is the paperclip exercise, on repeat forever. If you think you're out of ideas, I'd say it's time to turn over the reins.

*I realize this is not an actual word, but for some reason when my brain thought of the word "competition" it made me think of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," and there you have it. I kind of like it, actually.

9 responses so far

Convince me to submit an NSF CAREER proposal

(by Dr Becca) Feb 27 2014

I'm quite serious - beyond general "diversify your portfolio" and "cast a wide net" -type waxing, why would I spend the time writing a grant proposal that would require learning a new funding system, developing a "broader impacts" plan, carefully re-crafting my research narrative to be compellingly non-health-related (which it undeniably is), all for less money, when I could just write another R01?

14 responses so far

You're in!

(by Dr Becca) Feb 20 2014

How often, in this job, do you get to genuinely make another person feel happy? Though I like to imagine that my trainees are dancing on rainbows for a week after I give them a compliment, something tells me such a response is relatively rare. But there's one time I know I get to make someone's day, and that's when I call to let them know they've been accepted to graduate school.

Of course, the debate of whether we should continue to create new PhD candidates rages on. But just for today, let's feel the happy feels, and remember what it was like to get that call.

I was in my apartment getting ready to go to my job at Starbucks, when the Swatch Phone rang.

Pretty sure it was this one.

It was my soon-to-be thesis advisor, telling me I was being offered a position in the neuroscience program at [Classy Institution]. I was in total shock. I do not remember the conversation very much at all (I really hope I said thank you), but I do remember that after hanging up, I got on my bike and rode the fastest I've ever ridden down the giant hill to the swanky neighborhood where my Starbucks was, and burst in shouting, "I AM GOING TO GRADUATE SCHOOL!!!!" It was one of the best days ever.

Your turn - I know you've got some good stories, so share in the comments!

43 responses so far

2014: Pork, papers, and preliminary data

(by Dr Becca) Jan 07 2014

It all started when I forgot the slaw. This amazing slaw* that I'd deliberately made in advance of our holiday trip so the flavors would have time to develop, I left in the fridge at home. The forehead slap that ensued when I finally remembered was likely heard across the tri-state area. Once we got to NY we made new slaw for our fish tacos, and I cheered myself up by thinking of how REALLY developed the flavors would be in the first slaw when we returned. Back home, I did a little pre-blizzard shopping (no, not just bread and milk), wondering what would keep us going if we needed to stay indoors for a few days as subzero temps descended, and that also you could eat with slaw. The answer was clear: pork.

Do you know how cheap pork shoulder is? It is very affordable. I got an 8-lb shoulder for I think $12, and we've now had 5 meals and still have leftovers. Would you like to see all the things we made? They were all amazing.

First we slow cooked the pork shoulder. With a little help from my brilliant sister in-law, I adapted Alton Brown's recipe**. It's technically for smoking, but it works like a dream in the crockpot as well.




Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.30.38 PM

After 8 hrs:

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.31.04 PM

I am so serious, this is the best thing I've ever made in the slow cooker EVARRRRRR. Ridiculously tender, falling off the bone with the slightest touch, and just perfectly juicy and NOOMMMMMMM.

The first night, we made carnitas. We had some in the classic style  (below - corn tortillas, chopped onion, cilantro, and lime), and some with the incredible slaw (flour tortillas, not shown).

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.31.23 PM

The next night, we made BBQ pork pizza using this recipe*** for the dough because Roberta's pizza is amazing. I am embarrassed to say that I forgot to take a picture, but I think you know what pizza looks like, right? We used BBQ sauce instead of tomato, and put the pork on top of the cheese. After it was cooked, we put the slaw on it and it was all kinds of good.

The next morning, I woke up and thought for a second about eating a yogurt until I remembered that I had everything I needed to have a pulled pork breakfast sandwich! Sorry yogurt, another day. I fried an egg and laid it on top of some pulled pork, which I put on top of the slaw, which I put on a potato roll, which are the best rolls. A dash of BBQ sauce for good measure.

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.31.44 PM

Cooped up in the house for 3 days now, J and I made great use of our Netflix subscription. One show we've really been enjoying is PBS's Mind of a Chef with David Chang, who takes you all over the world to learn about all kinds of crazy food things, and teaches you how to make a bunch yummy things yourself, too. It is both entertaining and educational. The first episode is all about ramen, and once I get ramen on my mind, it is quite hard to get it off. So that night I made ramen. In his cookbook, the recipe for Chang's ramen broth is SEVENTEEN PAGES LONG and requires multiple shopping trips to exotic food stores. One day I'll attempt it, but this was not that day.  I improvised with what I had, and what could be easily gotten nearby.**** It was awesome anyway. Especially that slow-cooked egg, ho-lee cooooowwwww.

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.32.28 PM


The next night, we were still feeling Chang fever, so we made Bo ssam, which is basically lettuce wraps of slow-cooked pork shoulder and fancy accoutrements. Even though we didn't have everything to make the sauces exactly right*****, these lettuce wraps OMG, just some of the most interesting and delicious flavor combinations ever. The scallion-ginger sauce****** will make you cry, it's so good.

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 9.32.50 PM

Alas, the happy porky days are over, and today I had to go back to the office. But I'm not too bummed - in fact, I'm pretty sure 2014 is going to kick ass. First and foremost, the lab's very first legit research paper is IN PRESS, BABY! At like, a really good journal. I am at long last a last author! And the other authors are my awesome grad student and my awesome tech. We are officially independent. Two more manuscripts are just awaiting some final bits of data and will hopefully be submitted in the next couple of months. Yay papers!

Second, I'm getting back into grant gear,  planning out how to keep this ship afloat. This is my last ESI year - I must get an R01. My first R01 submission got a solid score, but definitely needs some prelim data from a new technique before it can go back in.This could take a while, but my PO advised me to take my time and make sure that we can convince the reviewers (and ourselves!) that we're capable of the work. In the meantime, my goal is to submit a new proposal for the Feb deadline that builds on the data we collected from the R21 project, and for June - test the waters of a new IC, which means more prelim data. Yay preliminary data! Yay taking the lab in exciting new directions!

And of course, yay for the slow-cooked pork that kicked things off! Cooking notes below.

* I pretty much always use Greek yogurt in place of sour cream.
** In the brine, I used 10 oz of salt instead of 12, and it was definitely as salty as I would have wanted it, and I like things pretty salty. You could probably even go lower if you wanted. I also used brown sugar instead of molasses because that's what I had, and I noticed no difference. For the rub, I used pre-ground coriander and cumin and didn't have any fennel. I used chipotle chili powder instead of regular. Add some water and cider vinegar to the crockpot so that things don't burn, and some chopped onions because they will taste amazing. I seriously think you'd have to try really hard to make this pork taste bad. Save the juices (see below).
***I used all-purpose flour instead of pizza flour and active dry yeast instead of bakers' (aka fresh - use this awesome yeast conversion calculator) and it probably wasn't quite as mind-blowingly amazing as I think it would have been had I had the right stuff, but it was still easily the best pizza dough I've made and WAY better than what you get in the grocery store pre-made.
****I mixed equal parts homemade beef stock and chicken stock that I had in the freezer, and added a few heaping spoonfuls of the gelatinized juices that were left over from the slow cooker to give it a little porkiness. I also added a dash of sesame oil and soy sauce to give it a little more of an Asian flavor, and then a hearty squirt of Sriracha. Just make it taste like you want it to taste!
*****I didn't have the special Korean pastes to make the Ssam sauce, but I googled around for some of the paste components, and made a sauce with finely minced garlic and scallions, sriracha, sesame oil, honey, and then grapeseed oil and sherry vinegar like it says in the NYT recipe. I have no idea if it tasted anything like it was supposed to, but it tasted pretty fucking awesome.
******You may be looking at the recipe and saying to yourself, how can I call this a "sauce" when it is a very large amount of chopped things with a very small amount of liquid? But trust me - let it sit for 10-15 min and then something magical happens. It still may not be the consistency of what you would normally call "sauce," but it is out of this world nonetheless.



3 responses so far

Some thoughts on recent K99/R00 updates

(by Dr Becca) Dec 19 2013

Even though classes are over and I'm about to leave for a few blissful days of eating and drinking with friends for the holidays, the all-too-imminent Jan 6 start of spring semester here has me feeling like this break is basically a joke. My goal is to have one paper, one foundation grant, and one R01 submitted by Feb 5, which is essentially tomorrow. However, I felt compelled to pop in here for a moment to make sure you saw the recent Notice of Reissuance for Career Development (K) awards. Most relevant to this blog are a few notes made on the K99/R00, or Pathway to Independence award.

Many people will tell you that a K99/R00 is a necessary thing for getting a TT job. While this is demonstrably false (mine was triaged), I can't deny that they help  A LOT, and I think if you're eligible, you should definitely apply. But are you eligible? It seems that NIH has started tightening the reins on what makes the perfect Kangaroo candidate, and I find some of the new bullet points here noteworthy (bold mine, italics theirs):

  • Candidates for the K99/R00 award must have no more than 4 years of postdoctoral research training experience at the time of the initial application or the subsequent resubmission.
  • Although the duration of postdoctoral training may vary across scientific disciplines, candidates must propose a plan for a substantive period of mentored training not to exceed 2 years.
  • It is expected that K99 awardees will benefit from no less than 12 months of mentored research training and career development before transitioning to the independent, R00 phase of the program.
  • Individuals who are close to achieving an independent faculty position, and cannot make a strong case for needing a minimum of 12 months of additional mentored training, are not ideal candidates for this award.
  • If an applicant achieves independence prior to initiating the K99 phase, neither the K99 nor the R00 phase will be awarded.

So! Let's work backwards here. You must have fewer than 4 years of pd training before submitting, including your A1. Best case scenario you're looking at 8 months in between A0 and A1 submissions, since you'll get your summary statement from A0 too close to/after the immediately following submission date. So be sure to submit right around the 3rd year mark, hopefully after you've gotten one or two nice papers out from your post-doc so you actually look competitive.

The 2nd bullet point is not that interesting.

The 3rd, however, I believe has gotten a little stricter than past iterations. You have to NEED that K99 phase, folks. At least a year. But what that really means is that at the time of applying, you need at least 2 years of subsequent mentoring, because of the math described above. So you should, I suppose, figure out what you're going to learn in the time the proposal goes through review and council, and then what you'll still need to learn after that.

"Close to achieving an independent faculty position" is such an interesting choice of words, isn't it? What does that even mean? You've had a couple interviews? Your big Nature paper just came out? I have no idea how anyone without an offer letter in hand could claim to be "close" to having a faculty position.

And if you do happen to sign that offer letter after applying but before accepting the award, NO GRANT FOR YOU! This I find very interesting, and perhaps a little confusing. I can understand that the NIH really wants this grant's primary purpose to be to help people get TT jobs, and so if you get a job before you get this grant, yay for you! Go write an R01 like the truly independent investigator you are and let some genuinely needy but exceptional post-doc have your money. But I can also imagine a scenario in which someone gets a great score and an offer letter sort of at the same time, and maybe that person works out a deal with the hiring institution to defer their appointment for a year so that they bring all those juicy R00 funds (and indirect costs) with them.

Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. Interested to hear yours, and what your current experience with the kangaroo has been. Oh, and happy holidays!

30 responses so far

How do you choose a post-doc mentor? A guest post by SciTriGrrl

(by Dr Becca) Dec 06 2013

If you're hoping to end up on the tenure track, the work you do as a post-doc is arguably the most critical factor in whether you'll get there. Picking the right lab, then, is huge. But how do you know what the right one is? And is there just one? Weighing in on her experience is semi-regular guest post-er and all around amazing person NatC, aka SciTriGrrl.

How I chose a Post-doc lab [The most unhelpful post on choosing a postdoc that you’ll ever read]

This follows from a tweet from @TellDrTell quoting a speaker on the importance oc choosing a BSD for a post-doc. @dogwearingahat wrote about his experience and rationale for choosing a smaller lab.

At grad school, I started in the lab of a BSD.

It didn’t go well.

So I changed labs, and ended up with Professor X who was established, as yet untenured, had just gotten enough lab space to expand her lab, and worked on the topic that I super ridiculously interested in.

Reader, I was her first grad student.

I got a lot of advice when I started looking for a post-doc - on how different (or not) the research should be from my PhD, on what kind of lab I should join, what type of person I should work for, and where I should live.

My PhD advisor’s advice (because she is TEH BOMB) was simply this: go and do the research you’re interested in, somewhere you think you can do it well.

(For the record, my PhD advisor is now a BSD. And she is till awesome.)

Swedish Postdoc, not Swedish Chef

Swedish Postdoc, not Swedish Chef

My very good friend the Swedish postdoc told me that his criteria were (1) being able to have a good working relationship with someone; (2) doing good science, that you were interested in; and (3) being in the lab of someone that is around to be a mentor.

The mentorship thing was big for me - partly because of my first unhappy lab experience on this side of the world, but also because what I wanted to do was keep one foot in the kind of research I had been doing, while simultaneously moving the other foot into a square over *there*. And I knew enough to know that I had no idea what I was putting that foot into.

At that time, there were few labs doing exactly what I wanted to do. There were a couple of BSD labs, and a couple of others dotted around, and a fair number that started a couple of years after I began my post-doc, but 8 or 9 years ago, there weren’t many. But there was one person, Professor Z, whose work I knew, was already an established scientist, but still untenured, moved to the US

What sold me was that upon meeting Professor Z is that we were able to discuss science, ideas, have a drink and a meal. At my interview, she and I argued about my dissertation topic for so long that we were late to my talk. Any by argue I mean in the best possible kind of rigorous discussion. It was fun.  I joined her lab because of these things, plus (and this was critical) the timing and the funding worked out perfectly. When I joined her lab there were three of us.

In the lab of Professor X, I learned all I know about what is now a huge component of what I do, while simultaneously able to be productive. I worked on projects that ended up going on winding paths and ending up in entirely unexpected places - and I would not have been able to get there without her knowledge and mentorship, which for me was a balance between plenty of freedom, with the support to ask questions and discuss issues when they came up (and the occasional swift kick in the arse, applied with love). Later, with her encouragement, I was able to start, and get funding for, a crazy project, with several collaborators in entirely different fields.

One of the unsung advantages of doing some training in a smaller lab is that you learn how to set up or make things work with what you have. I was also able to learn from her experiences in dealing with the US system for the first time, and departmental politics, and the importance of getting everything in writing.

It worked out for both of us - I am a n00b TT faculty, she is now a full Professor.

More importantly for me, I had one of the best post-doc experiences of anyone I know. It wasn’t that I worked less hard or was less productive, it was that my mentor was around to be a mentor, and that she is an amazing and wonderful person - and I was so lucky to find someone I get along with so well.

My take on finding a post-doc that the thing that matters most is you - what do you need in a mentor and in a lab? What do you want to do? There are different advantages in different types of laboratories, and things will change dramatically over your post-doc - the lab you leave will be a very different place than the lab you joined (when I started in the lab there were 3 of us. When I left, there were 9) and your PI will be in a different career stage (unless you’re working with BSD).

As was pointed out in the twitter discussion, not everyone from any lab - BSD or not - has a fantastic postdoc, or chooses to try to stay in science. Telling people there’s a formula for a post-doc is complete bullshit. Similarly, some people have a great post-doc experience, and for others it sucks, and it more depends on personalities involved (and luck) than on the type of lab you choose.

So my 2 cents is this:

Want to succeed in science? Then you’ve got to want to stay in it. To do that, do research you are interested in, in a lab that you can grow, and in a place you’re going to enjoy. Listen to all the advice, then make up you’re own damn mind, for your own damn reasons.

So you don’t need a BSD, HHMI, Nobel-laureates lab to succeed. But if that’s the kind of lab you want to work in, go for it.

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