Postdoc Interviews: Don't be a Loser

Lately, I've been reflecting on the long process of obtaining my current position at Brilliant University. Only the last step of the process involved the physical interview. I actually wasn't too worried about the interview, because as a graduate student, I had witnessed more than my fair share of idiots interviewing for postdoc positions.

My grad lab usually had 2-3 postdocs at any given time, but it seemed like we were constantly interviewing to fill vacancies. We had really bad luck with the people we interviewed. These candidates would look great on paper, but when they showed up, we were the lucky recipients of lesson after lesson on what NOT to do during a postdoc interview. I thought it would be fun to count down some of the worst offenses I saw during my time as a grad student.

5. Candidate is immobilized by fear and refuses to speak except during his seminar. No one has any idea who the hell this person is, because he is mute.
4. Candidate severely criticizes work done previously and currently in the lab in which he is interviewing.
3. Candidate wears a very nice navy pinstripe suit, complimented by 4-inch gold stilettos, an enormous gold belt that jingles during movement, hoop earrings with a diameter sufficient for small mammals to jump through, and enough perfume to anesthetize everyone in the conference room. Moral of the story: If you're going to dress professionally, go all the way. Buy yourself some tasteful accessories.
2. Candidate seems very concerned about appearing to have accomplished a lot as a graduate student. Candidate gives a very long talk packed with many, many different kinds of data that she says she has collected. One of the group members is particularly interested in Graph #57, because it is very relevant to that group member's work. The group member asks a number of questions to the candidate about the graph. The candidate seems to know nothing about the graph, then admits to stealing the graph from one of her labmates! Moral of the story: Don't engage in academic dishonesty during an interview.
1. Candidate is out to lunch at a nice restaurant with several group members. Candidate is completely obnoxious and laughs uncontrollably. Candidate tells a 'hilarious' story about how he once met a black homosexual in a Cadillac on the way to church, and now he thinks all black people are gay, and he's decided he hates gay people! Moral of the story: Don't be an asshole during your interview, esp. during lunch.

So, after seeing a lot of these crazies parade through my grad lab, I felt fully confident that I could nail my postdoc interview. All I had to do was dress in a professional outfit, be willing to talk to people, avoid insulting the PI, only take credit for the work I've done, and not make any bold statements regarding race, religion, or sexual orientation! The job was mine!

Postdoc Possibilities and Preferences

Now that I am a postdoc at Brilliant U. (for better or worse), I have been thinking more about different types of postdoctoral opportunities and the process of selecting an appropriate position. Although I am confident that I will be able to succeed in my current setting, I think a little more forethought would have been appropriate during my job search. Let’s break down the possibilities:

Give Versus Take

Advisor Takes, Postdoc Gives: In this scenario, the advisor is looking for a postdoc who is already a demonstrated expert in subtopic Q. By bringing this postdoc into the lab, the advisor will be able to capitalize on the previous knowledge of this postdoc and glean some “easy” training on subtopic Q for other students in the lab. I imagine this is a common situation in the labs of assistant or associate professors who are interested in branching into a new area of research with which they themselves are not particularly familiar. This is great for the advisor, but perhaps not so great for the postdoc (unless s/he hadn’t gotten enough of his or her grad work and wanted to do more).
Advisor Gives, Postdoc Takes: In this case, the postdoc has a general interest in the work going on in the advisor’s lab, but little to no previous experience with it. Typically, the postdoc has previously demonstrated some excellence with subtopic N, and the advisor trusts that the postdoc will have some fresh insights into subtopic P. The postdoc requires a significant amount of ‘start-up’ time in the new lab, as it is difficult to digest an entire new body of literature overnight and suddenly spew forth unique and/or head-spinning ideas. Such a circumstance can arise in a variety of labs, but usually occurs under the tutelage of an advisor who is simply interested in good science and doesn’t have a burning need to delve into any particular sub-discipline. If the postdoc is smart and creative, this is probably a win/win situation.
Degree of Mentoring Received

Too Much Attention: The advisor is either overly excitable, overbearing, or obnoxious. This kind of relationship should be completely unnecessary at the postdoctoral level, since one of the major goals of a postdoc position should be research independence.
Happy Medium: This advisor has a vested interest in the postdoc and enough time to be available for mentoring, when needed. Most likely, this advisor manages a medium-sized research group (say, 10-15 researchers). The postdoc has enough freedom to plan his or her own experiments, but can approach the advisor when additional advice or input is desirable.
Advisor? What Advisor?: This advisor is so busy and/or manages so many people, the postdoc has little to no opportunity for regular interaction. In this scenario, the postdoc is left to fend for him- or herself. This situation may result in a highly independent and capable postdoc, or it may result in a postdoc that wallows in indecision and regularly cries him- or herself to sleep. Get out of the boat. Sink or swim.

So, I guess you have to ask yourself, which set of circumstances is best for you, for your work style, and for your growth as a researcher?

Working in the lab of Extremely Famous Professor, I am in situation 2C. Right now, it is scary to be thrown into a completely new area of research with virtually no guidance from any kind of advisor-figure. I think it’s totally bizarre that I have developed a couple of random ideas about subtopic K, which I know little about, and now I just go for it! I have talked to a couple of colleagues about my plans, and they have given me their feedback and seem to think my ideas have merit. Now, I get to begin spending massive sums of money on a project that may very well fail! Extremely Famous Professor will step in just in time to tell me that I am a pathetic fool of a researcher and to throw me out on my ass. Terrific.

Ideally, I would have chosen a lab where I could have been a 2B postdoc. My problem was finding such a lab in an area that interested me. And, I have to admit, having Brilliant University on my resume certainly had its appeal. Subsequently, I was thrown overboard. Let the swimming lessons begin.

So, how about you? What kind of situation are you in? What are the pros and cons?

With this Name, I Thee Wed

This weekend, I traveled to the ancestral home (to use one of my favorite FSP phrases) to attend the first nuptials of this year's blissful wedding season. The days are getting longer, the flowers are blooming, and love is in the air. I can barely contain my excitement.

Now is the time that a woman marries a man, and (almost) everyone assumes that she will take her husband's last name. This phenomenon is less common among Women of Science, although still prevalent. Something like 10% of American women do not change their names upon marriage.

So, the question is: What's in a name?

Truly, a name is an identifier. It is not unreasonable for a woman to want to identify herself with her husband. It is also not unreasonable for a woman to want to identify herself with herself, especially if she has some kind of professional status. Of course, there are many solutions to this problem, and the choice is very much personal:
Woman takes Husband's LastName.
Woman keeps Woman's LastName.
Woman hyphenates both LastNames.
Woman takes Husband's LastName legally and personally, but keeps Woman's LastName professionally.
Woman keeps Woman's LastName legally and professionally, but uses Husband's LastName personally.
Woman decides to become a celebrity and just goes by "Woman", eliminating the need for a last name.
Many members of the general population have a hard time accepting anything but option 1 (and maybe option 4). My biggest beef with the whole Name Business is that people assume that you must be an anti-societal man-hater to choose anything other than the 'acceptable' options. There are many non-feminist reasons why a woman might decide to take a non-traditional approach to her name post-marriage, including practicality, comfort, and perhaps a simple preference of which name she likes better.

Fortunately for this weekend's bride, she is choosing the assumed option 1, and everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. No issues or discomfort here! Just a simple Mr. and Mrs. Husband's Last Name. No explanations, no excuses, and no insecurity. Sometimes, conformity seems so easy.

Pushing Buttons

My husband knows me well, and, as a matter of sport, takes advantage of the occasional opportunity to push my buttons.

I was commenting to him the other day that it has been refreshing to encounter such a large variety of blogs written by Female Scientists. I also told him that I found it a bit strange, that no matter how much I looked, I just couldn't seem to find quite as many blogs written by Male Scientists.

He looked at me with his most factual, I-know-everything face, and informed me: "That's because while all of your Female Friends are writing their blogs, the Men are actually doing Science."

Don't hate him. He didn't mean it.

You Are what you Publish

To continue with a related topic: I would be inclined to conjecture that >95% of scientific individuals are sensitive to their publication record. Of those individuals, I would guess that >80% are insecure about their publication record. Why are so many gripped by manuscript-manufacturing anxiety?

Because we can’t all publish in Science. Or Nature. Or your favorite One-Word Wonder.

There is extreme prestige associated with the acceptance of a manuscript to a Big Journal. Your work will become the subject of press releases and commentaries, and a blurb about your fabulous efforts will probably wind up on the home page of your college or department. Your PI will become giddy (at least for a day or two), and random Important People will stop you in the hallway to congratulate you on your accomplishments. And perhaps most importantly, the Big Paper will go on your CV, where it can impress the pants off of people from now until the end of time.

This is all very nice. But, I think it’s important to keep in mind how the paper was tagged as Top Dog in the first place. Hopefully, some good work was involved. But at the end of the day, maybe 1 or 2 editors thought the paper met some minimum threshold of decency and interest, and then, 2 or 3 (or if you’re lucky, 4) reviewers gave the paper the thumbs up. These reviewers may or may not have been qualified to review the manuscript. And I’m sure we’re all aware of the extreme subjectivity of the peer review process. There is a certain amount of luck involved with getting any paper published in a Big Journal.

People who make a big show of their Big Papers leave a bad taste in my mouth. Given the sensitivities of the general scientific population to publishing-related issues, I think tact and modesty should be involved when discussing publications. Big Papers are relevant to people who want to hire you, and also are cause for celebration with your lab group, family, and friends.

It should not surprise the astute reader that certain individuals at Brilliant University want to boost their image by bragging about their Big Papers, even though bragging is typically unnecessary (not to mention counterproductive). Imagine how *impressed* I was when, 5 minutes into my very first meeting with a colleague, he declared “I have something that you want to see!” I was kind of excited, wondering what it was. Then, my colleague procured an issue of Big Journal and dropped it on my lap, declaring, “I’m on the cover of Big Journal!!!!” I offered congratulations and smiled sweetly, but I wasn't impressed in the least. Put off, maybe, but not impressed.

Nothing but Nature

Academic tagged me with a meme the other day, and although I don’t really know what a meme is, I thought this would be a good segue into topic o’ the day. The rules are to create a 6-word ‘memoir’ (which I have interpreted as ‘statement’) and to post it along with a picture.

Big paper. It’s what’s for dinner.

Given that I live in the academic world, I have always been aware of the Holy Grails of publishing: Nature, Science, and maybe some other one-word wonders. I occasionally came across such papers in grad school, and I would read them, usually think they were pretty nice, and file them into the unorganized void in the back of my head.

Here at Brilliant U., it has been brought to my attention that I have not been paying proper homage to the Jesus of Journals all of these years. But salvation is mine to be had! I should cast out my trade journals! Throw anything with an impact factor less than 7 to the back of my closet! I should repent for my diverse journal-reading ways!

To put it succinctly, some of my coworkers are obsessed with the big journals of this world. They believe two things which I do not:
Anything published in a big journal is a god-send to Science.
Anything published anywhere else is not worth reading.

It is the blind loyalty with which I take issue. For two reasons:

Sometimes the revered journals publish crappy Science. For example, most of the articles published in PNAS are not subjected to (thorough) peer review because either the authors have a friend who is a member of the academy (Track 1) or one of the authors is a member of the academy (Track 3). Although most members are probably loathe to embarrass themselves by communicating garbage science to a prestigious journal organization, the fact of the matter is that plenty of crap gets through… enough to make me realize that coworker belief #1 is just not true.
It goes without saying that there is plenty of quality science going on at non-Nature level. Fundamental studies that make significant headway in the understanding of basic scientific issues often wind up in trade journals. Sometimes, it is precisely this *understanding* that leads to Really Cool Application on the cover of Nature Biotech. We often overlook this key point.

I try not to get too worked up about the paper-reading preferences of my strange colleagues, but the longer I am here, the more I have to laugh. These people are really missing out.