Adventures of a Postdoc

December 14, 2007

Too far in?

I started watching Dirty, Sexy Money on ABC because I grew up with one of the actors on the show.  Turns out, it’s a pretty good show and it’s one of only 2 shows I watch regularly (the other being The Office).

Incidently, my favorite character on the show isn’t the person I grew up with.  It’s Brian, the reverend in the family.  I like him the best because he’s not fake, which is unfortunately how I view most religious people.  He doesn’t act like he’s better than anyone, and he doesn’t act righteous only to do things behind closed doors that are not only immoral but downright illegal.  He swears, he has sex with his ex-wife, and he once told a little girl she’d go to hell if she pissed God off.  If more reverends were like him, I’d be a regular at church.

Recently, Brian had thoughts of leaving the churchhood after a series of misfortunes.  When asked why he was a minister in the first place, he replied he wasn’t sure.  He was interested in it, studied it, and what else could he do now that he had chosen that path?

If that sounds familiar, it should.  That’s how most people, including myself, end up where they are.  They choose something that interests them (i.e. a major) and that becomes their career.  Most people are unhappy with their jobs, but feel they’ve committed too much time and effort to start something else.  The saying that you’re never too old to start a new career…that’s bullshit.  There comes a point where you have a spouse, kids, car payments, a mortgage, college loans, and you wake up one day realizing you’ve completed a third of your life, if you even live to the average age.

So when do you throw in the towel and continue what you’re doing and give up on any other dreams?

I know someone who was a principal of a school, went back to school to become a dentist at 50 years of age, and is now contemplating going to Law School.  I used to think that he was crazy, but then I realized that doing something you hate for the next 40 years is even more crazy.

After a year and a half at my postdoc, I realized I can’t spend the rest of my life focusing on just research.  I miss teaching too much, but since I still want to perform research, I want to teach at a liberal arts college.  It isn’t a complete change of direction, but it’s slightly different from my original plan to go into industry and get back into teaching later in life.

Life’s too short and being unhappy at work was taking its toll on every aspect of my life.  I didn’t want to wait to teach at a liberal arts school just because industry pays more.  Some things you just can’t put a price on.  We’ll see how the job apps turn out, but in the meantime, I’ll be teaching full-time at a community college.  For the first time since I started my postdoc, I don’t dread waking up each morning.

I can already see myself in the next Mastercard commercial:

Gas for weekly commute:  $50

New teaching outfits:  $350

Reduction in monthly salary:  $2000

Waking up each morning and loving your job:  Priceless

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November 18, 2007

Deja-vu

Filed under: research-related — Tags: , , — mxc305 @ 2:23 pm

Have you ever performed a literature search, found the perfect article, and printed it out, only to realize a few days later that you had already found that article, read it closely, and made detailed notes in the margins?

If your answer is no, go through that pile of papers you’ve read and I bet you’ll find a duplicate copy of an article or two.  If you’re like me, this happens on a regular basis.  While this may make you chuckle as you recall the last time this happened, it brings up a more serious question:

How important is the research we perform? 

This has been on my mind for quite some time now.  I came from a lab that was highly respected and published regularly in upper-tier journals.  Yet when I think about it, nothing we did will ever save the human race.  The papers may get cited, or they may help another lab come up with new ideas, but is it (and other similar research) worth the billions that are spent on research?  Can that money be better spent on getting people out of poverty or educating our youth?

There was an article in The Scientist, one of my favorite magazines with talented writers, a well-rounded collection of articles each month, and daily news articles online.  It was called “An Economic Gamble” and asks a similar question to the one posed above.

The problem is that most labs are so desperate for funding that they will write anything in their grant proposals/renewals in hopes of getting a high priority score.  While this may seem harmless, it often means saying they will do something clinically relevant (i.e. help the human race) when in fact they have no intention of doing so.  It seems like a vicious cycle of agreeing to perform research to answer a question, yet performing experiments that may not necessarily have anything to do with it.  In the meantime, that money is spent on buying the newest computers, supplementing salaries, and funding trips to tropical destinations (i.e. conferences).

I used to laugh at every paper that included a line or two about how their study was clinically relevent, but after re-reading my publications recently, I realized I did the same.  As a graduate student, I justified it by saying that I was merely following my PI’s wisdom.  In reality, I only cared about getting my PhD and getting out of there, and as long as it paid the bills, I was more than happy to oblige.

Fortunately, my goal is to teach at a liberal arts college where I can still perform research, but it won’t make or break someone receiving tenure.  My research also has a very clinical relevance (obesity, satiety, etc) that would actually fulfill the goals of many smaller grants and funding opportunities.  I don’t think I’m more noble because of this.  I feel there’s a broken system in which a lot of money is being given to people who don’t necessarily intend to or are able to fulfill the goals.  To me, that’s the same as Bush (or any president) using money to fight questionable wars when there are homeless vets who don’t eat enough on any given day.

I don’t have the answers, but I’m hoping that during my lifetime, I can witness a time when we all feel confident that government-sponsored research money is being spent as efficiently as possible.

September 4, 2007

How is the gym like research?

Ponder this:  Who gets the most attention at a gym – a fit, attractive woman or an obese woman?  While some might be tempted to say the former, I’d wager that it’s actually the latter.  Why?  There are a lot of average/attractive people at the gym, and many of them blend together.  But it’s rare to see an obese person, and chances are, they’ll get noticed and remembered by more people.

The past 3 trips to the gym, I couldn’t help but notice 3 different obese people.  I’m sure I’m not the only person to notice them, either.  One was walking around the track at a very slow pace yet was clearly out of breath.  Another was riding a bicycle, struggling to keep the pedals moving continuously.

The people I respect the most at the gym are not the attractive females with the perfect tans, or the muscle-heads who look around between sets to see who’s admiring them.  It’s the obese people.  It takes more courage for them to go to the gym and be the subject of stares and private chuckles than most people have, including myself.  Yet each time they go, they do so knowing they’ll stand out, and that they’ll have to work 20 times harder just to obtain a fraction of the results.

What does this have to do with research?  I chose a path in research that makes me feel like an obese person at the gym.  I worked 6 years to obtain my PhD in Neuroscience, focusing on animal physiology and behavior, yet instead of sticking with the same field for my post-doc, I chose to do something that was related to my dissertation yet in a field unfamilar to me.  I didn’t want to be like most post-docs I knew, who were an inch wide but a mile deep (i.e. they knew a lot about a specific topic).  I wanted to expand my knowledge and experiences so that I could be a mile wide as well.

So, I’ve essentially been that obese person for the past year, playing catch up regarding the knowledge and background that everyone already has, knowing that I would work 20 times harder just to obtain a fraction of the knowledge and results.  I’m sure I stuck out at meetings when it was clear I didn’t know things that grad students had already learned.

I could have stayed in my field and made my life easier, but I chose a different path.  Is it tough?  Absolutely.  Would I do it again?  Probably.  Most importantly, do I respect myself more for it?  Most definitely.

If you’re like me, and are considering a different field for your post-doc to broaden your experiences, ask yourself if you can handle being the obese person at the gym.  You’ll have to work harder than everyone else, you’ll feel inferior and feel like the world is looking down on you, and at times you’ll ask yourself why you did it.  But in the end, you’ll be rewarded with a broader knowledge, new experiences, and you’ll respect yourself more for taking the challenge.

The next time I see an overweight person at the gym looking self-conscious, I’m going to shoot them a smile and let them know that there are people who respect them the most.  I wish someone had done that for me when I started my post-doc.

July 6, 2007

The ultimate oxymoron: productive meetings

It seems like an episode right out of Seinfeld.

“Let’s meet on Wed around 3pm,” my PI demanded.

“For what?” I asked.

“To plan future lab meetings.”

“So, we’re having a meeting to discuss meetings?”

“Well, chances are not everyone can make it, so we’ll have to see when people are free, then meet later to discuss the future meetings.”

“What?  A meeting to discuss a meeting to discuss meetings?”

“Yes.”

I kid you not, this is an actual conversation I had with the PI of my lab.

Meetings are a waste of time.  There are no two ways about it.  It’s not just the 2 hours you have to set aside each week, it’s the hour before and hour after when you can’t do anything because you don’t want to be late, and there’s always the chance the meeting will run over.  So that’s 4 hours.  Not to mention the prep time – reviewing data, reading an article, or (in my current lab) walking around asking if anyone knows what the meeting is about, to which you usually get a shrug and a helpless look.

My previous lab had 2 scheduled meetings – The first was on Mon at 8am, when we’d meet for 15 minutes (no, that’s not a typo) and anyone who had any major issues concerning equipment, animal orders, supplies, etc, had a chance to do it with all personnel around (techs, animal caretakers, grad students, postdocs, PI, etc).  This is actually a good idea because 1) it’s short, and 2) everyone is there so you don’t have to waste time hunting them down.  It may not seem like much, but try adding up the time you spend emailing/calling people, waiting for replies, etc, and it’ll be much more than the 15 minutes we spent each week.

The second was on Fri mornings, the infamous journal club.  It was set for 1 hr, no more, no less.  Why?  That’s plenty of time to discuss an article, and if you have important things to say, you’ll say it in the time allotted because you know no one will stick around after that hour.  It forces everyone to leave out the insignificant small talk and get to the good stuff.

There were no other planned meetings, except of course for things like committee meetings.  If you needed to speak to the PI or anyone else, you did it when you passed them in the hallway or on the way into or out of work.  It may not seem like a big deal, but the hours you save each week by not having meetings just for the sake of having meetings adds up to a lot of time over the course of years and years of research.

Has anyone really walked out of a 2 hour meeting and said “Wow, that was the most productive meeting – putting my research on hold was definitely worth it!”  No.  Chances are, those 2 hours could have been dwindled down to 1 hour, or not at all, and the important issues could have been discussed impromptu in the hallway or during a 15 minute meeting.  There are people who hold meetings out of habit, and don’t stop to think about the best use of one’s time.  If you can get something accomplished in half the time (or less), you’ve actually accomplished something before the meeting even took place.

Now that’s productivity.  And we didn’t even need a meeting to do it.

June 2, 2007

Quantity vs Quality (i.e. Publish or Perish)

Everyone knows the most important aspect of research:  publishing.  Anyone who says their students, families, health, or anything else means more is merely lying.

Which begs the question – when is quantity more important than quality?  It’s a trick question, as the answer should be “never.”  However, as we all know, there are plenty of instances when quantity has taken precedent.

There are many cases of researchers falsifying data.  But there are other “lesser” evils, although, like cigarettes, there really isn’t a “light” or “ultra light” wrong-doing.  Some examples include manipulating statistics, excluding data, or adding to a sample size to squeak past that infamous 0.05.

I know a lab that has an on-going bulletin board of the number of publications they want to have each year.  It doesn’t matter how it’s done – reviews, brief communications, full articles, as long as they get that magic number.  They include everyone on their publications, even if they did nothing more than read it in passing.  They split up studies into smaller ones if they’re not on track to reach the magic number.  All this while forgetting the main point – science is supposed to be about quality research, about finding answers to questions that need to be answered.

I came from a lab that taught me from day one that it doesn’t matter how long it takes – that my research will be replicated repeatedly to ensure confidence in the results, that sometimes studies will be done to provide knowledge without being published, that “good science” is by far the most important thing that will come of the lab.

I criticized it at first, but after leaving the lab, and now being a part of a lab that doesn’t hold those virtues, I realize how important it is to emphasize quality early on.  Too many labs focus on quantity and in the process forget the big picture.  It’s a shame because there are a lot of brilliant scientists out there who have forgotten why the got into science – for the love of finding answers and making discoveries that provide important information.

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