Unsolicited Advice: Mind Reading

A word on interpersonal interactions.

If I ask and I am told that there is no problem, I will conclude that there is no problem. If there is indeed a problem, the person or persons with the problem should come to me and explain the problem. Once I am aware of the problem, we can (hopefully) work together to fix the problem.  I am not a mind-reader and I will not spend time developing those skills.

If I ask if there is a problem, and I am told there is no problem, I will conclude there is no problem. If indeed there is a problem, and the person or persons with the problem refuse to say that there is a problem- we will be unable to fix the problem.

Choosing to respond to my non-acknowledgment of a problem that I was told was a non-problem by any of the following behaviours:

  • Ambiguity and cryptic speech: a means of creating a feeling of insecurity in others or of disguising one’s own insecurities;
  • Intentional inefficiency, e.g. being late or forgetting things, as a way to exert control or to punish;
  • Convenient forgetfulness: to win any argument with a dishonest denial of actual events;
  • Cold shoulder response: withdrawing into long silences to avoid either confronting or connecting with others.
  • Obstructionism;
  • Sulking;
  • Victimization response: instead of recognizing one’s own weaknesses, tendency to blame others for own failures.

will earn the label passive aggressive. I have no desire to interact with individuals who intentionally try to harm or manipulate  me in this way. Life is just too short.

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Faking up the Charm…

There is a kerfluffle going on in the blogosphere over how support staff should be treated. I’m just going to pause here and say WTF???

You should treat everyone that you work with (and everyone that you interact with in general in the other parts of your life) with kindness, respect and the benefit of the doubt. Even people who are rude to you. Period. You don’t need to go about this with fakery and stealth, like our beloved Comrade Physioproffe confesses to do:

Example: I like to eat a few hard candies every day after lunch, but I don’t want to keep them in my office, because then I pound them instead of just eating a few. So I keep a dish in our department business office stocked with candies that I buy, and every day after lunch, I pop into the office to grab a few. While I am in there, I say hello to the admins, and make small talk for a few minutes.

So why should you bother? Because it is the right thing to do. Not because your job might be made easier (and for the record I don’t think this is what CE really meant), not because you think you should, but because it is the right thing to do. I don’t know how to explain it any more simply than that.

I have a special ire for people who think that because of their profession or position they are ‘above’ people in other professions or positions and they act accordingly. The kind woman who empties the trash can in my office works every bit as hard as I do- and I’ve had every advantage. The compliance officer, who I often spar with over the rules, has a job that is amazingly difficult in ways totally different from my job, and a totally unenviable one at that. What we all have in common is that we are all trying to do our best at our jobs and for the competing demands of our various lives.

To Gerty Z on Sunday Afternoon Panic Attacks…

I know I have been neglecting this blog, and I assure you this is not a desired or a permanent state. I am not sure when I’ll get back to regular posting- as I have a January travel hell coming up, but I really want to emerge from my self imposed blog hiatus and give a shout out to Gerty Z, on the occasion of her Sunday afternoon panic attack.

I too recall when I was a beginning Assistant Professor, trying on my new lab for the first time, feeling like I could accomplish everything and nothing all at the same time. The science, as the thing I knew best, seemed like the least of my concerns since I had to deal with all kinds of subjects I had little experience in like hiring people, mentoring rotating people, managing budgets, attend a bunch of meetings (that seemed pointless at the time), and- importantly- submitting 1001 grants on 1001 different deadlines each with their own 1001 pieces of supporting paperwork. I don’t think I mentioned the bane of my existence … compliance paperwork for about the most complicated set of experiments one could imagine- 3 different animal models, non-survival surgeries, and biohazardous agents. And, I was lonely in my new position- not having a fellow jr. faculty buddy to compare notes, successes and mistakes with. Tenure seemed so far off, and I kidded myself that I just wanted a honest shot at it under my own power and it didn’t really matter to me whether I got tenure or not. What I’m trying to say (and perhaps should have used less words for) Gerty Z- is I know where you are coming from.

Take heart though- I’ve made it to the other side of tenure now, and if I can make it- so can you. First- the pep talk. You must trust in yourself, your abilities, and your education, recognize that few mistakes are fatal and try to avoid those that are. Do your science and build a network of colleagues and collaborators as though your life depends on it. Worry less about absolute number of papers you need to get tenure, and more about having every piece of preliminary data you need, publishing it all, hitting every grant deadline, and taking those reviewers just as seriously as you can. Don’t compare yourself to others, just DO the science that got you on the tenure track. And… ENJOY IT… after all… you do this because you love the questions and seeing the results, don’t you?

As for your specific questions….I’ll revert to my preferred mode… the list:

2. In a desperate fit of procrastination, I have been reading drdrA’s most excellent advice about the tenure track and Odyssey’s repost about how many papers you need to get tenure. These seem like great nuggets of useful advice. But I just feel more like I have no idea what is going on. Why are tenure requirements so fucking vague????

Wow. Good one. Stop looking at the tree and look at the forest. Less important that you need 7.4 published papers in journals with impact factors of 9 or higher to get tenure (ok, I totally made those #s up), more important to recognize that if you don’t have a GRANT you are highly unlikely to get tenure at a research heavy institution. More important to recognize that without publishing your data you are unlikely to get a grant… reviewers will say you are unproductive. Tenure requirements are vague, I think (and I’m sure physioprof will correct me if I’m wrong) in part because they depend on your departmental standards, your institutions standards, and what the field considers important contributions. These will vary from field to field, candidate to candidate.

3. How do I know if I am talking to my Chair enough? or too much?

You will know that you are talking to her too much when she tells you to go away. IMHO- better to err on the side of too much talking to chairpeople and senior colleagues- science talk, grant talk, paper talk, or career talk not idle chatter. You are bound to make some mistakes in all that chat- but remember, not everything is a test, and if people remember even 10% of what you say to them I would be shocked. What they will remember is that feeling of being in the loop, that they know that you are trying (submitting grants and papers!), and they will feel brilliant when they can solve a problem or an issue for you.

4. I’m still trying to figure out how you actually meet people in this place. How does a nOOb Asst. Prof get “advocates” that are senior faculty in other departments? Am I supposed to just start stopping by and sticking my head into people’s offices? I assume that other people are busy, and I don’t even know what I would say. I don’t want to piss anyone off or make them think I am stupid! How do I meet other Jr. faculty? There are none in my dept. I assume there must be others in different departments, but how would I know?

Wow, that’s a lot of questions. I’ve had new jr. faculty send me emails saying basically, I’m new, I see our projects are closely related, I wondered about bla bla bla (interesting research angle), and would you have time to meet. You can find other junior faculty by asking around, and by looking at departments related to yours and seeing who has recently been added as asst. prof on their web pages. As for getting ‘advocates’ that are more senior faculty in other departments… I’m not sure why at this early stage you should be thinking about this. You’ve got time. Set up your primary relationships in your own department, seek out other scientists with the expertise that you need on projects that are of mutual interest to you, mentoring relationships and senior faculty advocacy of you will flow from this.

5. I have a rotation student starting in a month!?!?! What the fuck am I supposed to do about that? I barely remember my rotations. Postdoc PI had a way of just throwing people into the lab without a project or even pairing them up with anyone-this never seemed to work all that well. But I have no idea what students expect for a rotation. I really don’t want to start off on a bad foot with the students.

This is an easy one. You need to set up a short, contained project utilizing very few specialized techniques, and preferably some that can be repeated. Unless you have a great tech or postdoc, you will need to hold the rotation student’s hand at first. You should think more about what YOUR expectations for the rotation students are- and less about what their expectations might be of the rotation. Talk to a colleague in your department that has high success recruiting grad students, who gets the smart ones, and whose students walk out having done great projects… if you need advice on how to set up a rotation and how to recruit the best students.

I’m going to skip over 6, 7… and cut straight to:

8. How do I “pick mentors”? I think that I am supposed to have an official mentoring committee, but I have no idea how to get folks to be on it. This is more terrifying than picking a grad committee by like a million-fold. At least then I had someone (my PI) that helped me choose people who would be looking out for me. What if I step in a steaming pile of department politics inadvertently?

There are two issues here- the ‘official’ mentoring committees and those people who are your real scientific and career mentors. These can be the same individuals but often they are not. You must have individuals in your department and in your previous life as a postdoc and grad student that you know well, and whose opinion you trust. I have news for you – those people are ALREADY your mentors. Network like a madman at meetings … find people in your field with like interests, or experiences…  As for the official mentoring committee, no need to set that up this instant. If you have a sense that one or two of the faculty members in your department are in your corner, and are willing to give you solid, straight shooting advice EVEN when that advice might be something you don’t want to hear… then at least you have a start on this.

9. I don’t know how to collaborate. I really like talking about science with people, and collaborating sounds like lots of fun. But I have never been involved in collaborations. Almost all of my pubs are 2-person affairs. Neither my grad school or postdoc PIs were very collaborative. Should I be collaborating with people? I assume so – but how does that work?

This is also a tough question. I never participated in any collaborations as a student, and only one as a postdoc. Now I’m hideously and insanely collaborative. Do all of these collaborations work? Nope. Did I expect them all to work? Nope. Have I gained some really awesome colleagues and mentors this way- and have some really excellent projects been spawned because of this? YES, without a doubt. My advice to you is start slowly, with a colleague that you have a good relationship with and trust, and with someone who has a skill set that is unique to yours. My most fantastic collaborations are with individuals interested in significantly similar questions… but who have an expertise that is completely different from mine. Expect that some (or even many) collaborations are going to fail, and fail miserably. Expect that a few will be better than you could possibly imagine.

10. There are no other jr. faculty in my dept. The last person (and the ONLY person in the last 7 years) that went up for tenure was a fucking rock-star. There is no way in hell that I will not look shitty by comparison.

There is a tendency to compare yourself to the last guy/girl. But resist. You have a unique set of projects- and you know that the milestones are doing great science, putting out some well-thought out solid papers, and bringing $$ into your lab. Outside of that resist the temptation to compare yourself to the last guy.

The Tenure Track, part 1

I’ve written a lot about applying for a faculty job, how to give talks, and the importance of being a good writer. But I haven’t written very much about the things I’ve been doing in the last 4-5 years. All of the professional activities that I’ve been doing can be summed up in a simple word: Tenure.

I started my faculty position with the enthusiasm and excitement of someone who loves what they do and wants to see their science take off. Tenure was really an abstraction that seemed a long way off. In my uphill struggle for funding, my over-riding  immediate fear was not that I woudn’t get tenure, but that everyone that worked in my laboratory would soon be without a job.  Anyway, while I think that this is a reasonable approach your new status as a PI, knowing what is coming down the pike and setting yourself up with the maximum chance of getting tenure is something worth talking about. Don’t obsess about it, but educate yourself.

If you didn’t get a copy of the requirements and expectations for promotion and tenure in your department before you were hired, shame on you. But, since I know that none of you made this mistake and you possess a copy of such a document, don’t just tuck that thing away in a drawer somewhere and forget about it for the next 4-5 years. Read it now! Familiarize yourself with not only the requirements Continue reading

From Non-TT to TT In This Academic Job Market??!!

A reader of the blog recently wrote me the following question:

I noticed in your bio you list your past experience as including a stint as a non-TT faculty member, and I was hoping you could detail a bit more about what that position entailed (rights and responsibilities, degree of independence) and offer some advice on how to make the transition from that to TT.

So, I’ll oblige.

Indeed, my first faculty position was a non-tenure track position. In my case this was a faculty position in title only (i.e. I was not was not yet independent), and was awarded to me basically so that I could submit my own grants. I had no service responsibilities, neither did I have any rights. In my institution truly ‘independent’ non-TT positions (where you are not reliant on another PI for space, salary etc) are incredibly rare. More usually- those on the non-TT faculty track remain employed in their postdoc lab… and are simply elevated to grant submission status. Continue reading

How To Get Scientists To Embrace Web-based Networking Technologies.

If you were looking for an answer to that up there, you’ve come to the wrong blog. I’m totally messing with you. PSYCH!

Seriously. I’m banging my head against that one, and I was reminded of my frustration about this in a post put up a few days ago from my blogging brother-in-arms Drugmonkey. I’ve been ruminating on that particular post for about three days now. At issue is a whole lot of grant money being spent to develop a web-based social networking technology for scientists.

I SO agree with DM that spending buckets full … entire banks full of federal grant dough…on inventing a whole new system so that scientists can network with each other seems pretty looney. The technology for people to network with each other across the web is out there, and I know that if you are reading this blog- it is highly likely that you are savvy to this already. Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, FriendFeed, Linkedin, …and Google for EVERYONE (and others I am undoubtedly  forgetting, and I’m not linking I know you people can use google to find those web addresses)!.  These sites have this networking thing DOWN, tons of users, and been out there on the web for quite some time. My gosh, if you can find your mother’s uncle’s ex-wife’s daughter’s third husband that you lost touch with in 1980 on Facebook… surely you can find (and network with) that guy you met at the Gordon Conference that works on the importance of the 52nd amino acid in your favorite protein. Right?  Maybe he could have all his protocols and all his clinical collaborators listed on one of the sidebars? So that inventing a web networking tool for scientists thing… kind of seems like re-inventing the wheel to me already….seems smarter and faster to adapt existing networking technologies to ‘fit’ scientists…

But here is the problem with scientists and social networking- it is just like DM said they don’t understand or see the usefulness of it. Mention that you use Facebook or Twitter or Google Reader even (and that’s not even networking!) or heaven forbid… that you BLOG-  to your faculty colleagues, and you’ll be met with a bunch of blank stares.  This will be rapidly followed by comments on how your faculty colleagues would not want to, or have time to, read on Twitter about that ham sandwich XYZ person ate for lunch. I hear myself explaining for the 16 thousandth time that I’ve never read about what anyone ate for lunch on twitter… it DEPENDS if you follow the kind of people who post about their lunch, or not. You could always follow the kinds of people who post interesting techniques or papers that you care about… I’m just sayin’..

Anyway- your faculty colleagues have this mind-set not because they are not smart or savvy or whatever… simply because they aren’t convinced of the usefulness of social networking, or other kinds of web-based communication, like this to their career/project/lab etc. I’m telling you though- if there was a place on the web that I could hang out with a bunch of glycobiologists that work on O-antigen, or techie geeks who do biology in high throughput with robots and computers, or people who develop databases and tools to handle large quantities of various kinds of data… you wouldn’t be able to drag me away. I’m totally down with those topics and I want to talk to other people who are too. Web based social networking can connect me to all of those different kinds of people quickly and all at once… and that works infinitely better for me than having to contact people that might have the right expertise one at a frickin’ time.

So- if you all are sold-… how do we sell the other 99% of the scientific community on the uses and benefits of web based social networking to them. This is our challenge.  I say we all write editorials and opinion pieces for our society publications… to do a bit of re-educatin’

P.S.: And as an aside- we shouldn’t forget those ‘networking’ areas directed specifically toward scientists… even journals have their sites… like Nature Network…like PLOS (you can set up an account here and have a profile, but it is not really networking… far as I remember) and the PLOS blog… and even the societies are getting in the game now-… the American Society for Microbiology has its own site now called ASM Community,

P.P.S:  There is a brief related Post over at NeuroScoop.

P.P.P.S: Sorry for the lack of proper linkage in this post… I’m tired!!

I Hate Journal Club

Not really. I just don’t like what journal club has become. It has become a boring recitation of a paper. Period.

Without any general overview of the subject and context from other related literature.

Without any enthusiasm for the subject, or understanding whether or why the topic is important.

Without explanation of important terminology and jargon- indeed sometimes without the understanding of the presenter of what the jargon means.

Without participation and discussion from the non-faculty in the audience.

Without the audience coming prepared by reading the paper… and gosh, we don’t even have to go to the library and photocopy it ourselves anymore.

I’m sick to death of it, and I’m not taking it anymore.

First, for all of you that are making an effort, I applaud you. Seriously. This goes for presenters and active participants alike. It is tough to get up there in front of an audience and present something that maybe isn’t your primary area of interest, give the background, learn the jargon- explain someone else’s work in a coherent and constructively critical way. You are only at the beginning of your training, your business is going include doing some permutation of these tasks every single day of your research career. Good on you for embracing this opportunity.

Second, for those of you that just show up- you have taken the first step and I applaud you for that- but journal club is yours to improve and learn from. You need to take the next steps now- READ the paper and ASK QUESTIONS.  Now don’t even tell me you were too busy to read the paper- you won’t find any sympathy from me on this one. I’ll bet you a million bucks that you and I don’t even measure busy on the same scale, and I read the paper in advance, and I looked up the jargon. This REALLY is not that time consuming, you could probably fit it in between PCR reactions.

Third- there is this issue of participation. I know you all are frightened to look like fools in front of the rest of the audience- but you are going to have to get over this one. Journal club is a fairly friendly, audience restricted venue- if you can’t test your participation skills here- where the hell can you test them?? At a Gordon Conference… or maybe at a Cold Spring Harbor meeting…?  Trust me on this one and test the waters of active participation at journal club at your home institution in a more limited venue.

And what is the absolute worst that can happen if you do participate?? You could get slapped down once or twice?! I KNOW that this is hard, and it feels bad… but I promise you that it is extremely likely that tomorrow no one except you will remember whatever thing you said- and you’ll be one question closer to confidence in this area.

Finally- don’t do this because you ‘have to’ or because I told you to. Show some intellectual curiosity about your chosen field…