27 and a PhD

Home » Posts tagged 'postdoc'

Tag Archives: postdoc

Too busy to write

For the last 3 weeks I’ve been on data collection binge. I’m not complaining. But it is a lot of work. A LOT. And I’m only one little person. I can’t believe how much data collection I need to do. And I am thankful I have the skills to do it. But sometimes it feels like it’s too much. So, I’m designating one day a week a no data collection day (well, at least a day where I’m not parked in front of an instrument for hours on end). It’s OK to help users out, but no data collection. I have more and more admin things that need to be taken care of, SOPs to write, files to upload, people to help write blurbs in proposals and progress reports. And I can’t keep leaving every little thing until the very end, so that I feel even more overwhelmed at the end of the week or month.

A few weeks ago I even got to present something in one of our lab meetings. Since I’m considered part of a few labs (a few PIs pooled their money to help bring me here), I get to attend, and on rare occasions present, little things about the lab, the instruments or new stuff. I got to present a paper on one of our instruments and it was very fun … though I left that presentation until the very end, and didn’t practice it much … something that’s highly unusual for me, given that my PhD boss wanted all presentations, regardless of how informal, to have some level of professional, practiced-quality to them.

I’ve gotten much better since my PhD days (though the ghosts of bosses past are still there) in terms of presenting things to my groups .. but it still worries me, mostly because I don’t want to do a crappy job and I want to show respect to my audience, regardless of how many beers we down when we’re sad or pissed.

On more than one occasion I’ve caught myself saying to honey that I greatly enjoy the work I do. I get to spend more time on the instrument-side of things, compared to NY, and I also have a variety of very interesting projects (lots of receptors and membrane stuff), which is definitely different from my time in the City. I do miss my former co-workers. But I think I’m finding my niche here … regardless of how boring this new job city is (you win some, you lose some, eh!). I feel more grown up than ever before. And I get excited about the science … something which I truly haven’t felt since my grad student days. I guess it’s the different level of involvement I have, compared to NYC.

Overall it feels nice. It’s different, but nice. And I am so happy I took a leap of faith 2 years ago and left the tenure track. But, I’m busier than I ever imagined!!!!

Le job

So, a little while ago I wrote about being a lab manager. For personal reasons I decided not to divulge too many details of what I do to earn mah moolah. But I figured it doesn’t hurt to give some info as to some of the tasks I have and get to accomplish in my new position.

You may be asking yourself, well, how is your life as a lab manager different than as a staff scientist? I find that most days my tasks and responsibilities aren’t too different from when I was in NYC. I get to sit down and talk to users/trainees. We talk about their projects, what they hope to accomplish, what they’ve done, their workflow and whether they want to get their hands wet or rather have me collect data and hand it off to them. This is similar to how things were in NYC, except that there were more hands to hand over a project (including those of my former supervisor) and we met as a group with them, all staff scientists and supervisor, plus our PI. Here I mostly work for a handful of PIs, and it’s just me (for now), so I sit down with the PI, discuss general things about their project and they send me off to talk to their student or postdoc and see how we want to collect data. Most people have had some sort of training before we meet, and they know how to use the instrumentation. But sometimes they’ll say they feel more comfortable with me in the room, or with me collecting the data. I also have newer users who have no idea of how to collect data, and they’ll often sit and observe and take notes, and once the data collection is done, they’ll see what’s up and determine whether more purification is needed or they need to do a different type of column or filtration to get what they need. We also evaluate whether we have is a single population of their entity or if things are falling apart or (sometimes worse) there’s aggregation. Aggregation sucks and we can’t do shite with the protein … so back to the drawing board for my user.

So far I’ve collected quite a bit of data for all the PIs I work for, along with a couple of PIs who want preliminary data. It’s been fun and I like their projects more than I did some of the ones I worked on in NY. Don’t get me wrong, I worked on some pretty cutting edge stuff over there, and a lot of the users were doing a combination of approaches, from X-ray and NMR, NMR and cryo-EM, cryo-EM and X-ray, and sometimes all 3, plus some mass spec and even EPR. But, the topics the lab were studying weren’t as exciting as the ones I’m working on here. I get to work with things I learned as a grad student and in pathways I’m interested. I do try to distribute my time evenly amongst the projects, so I don’t neglect people.

I do my share of admin-type things, from generating instrumentation time use and availability, to meeting with head honchos to decide how to operate the facility and attract new users. So far we haven’t had much luck with the attracting new users thing, but I try to go to talks, approach PIs or their trainees and alert them to my presence so they know they have one more local resource to use.

I try to keep the lab tidy, so I’ve done my share of disposing of really old samples from a couple of grad school generations ago. I found stuff in a freezer with my new on it … WTF!!?? I also have to certify users, make sure instruments work and things are properly calibrated. Thus, once a week I get on the different instruments and perform said tests and report those results to my bosses.

I get to hear complains about people not being able to use something or how something is out of whack. I’m the first line of defense here, so I try to calmly say that the user must be messing up with something and that they need to get their filthy paws out of my babies (not really). But I do get to sit down and talk to people about different processes and how they can more efficiently use instrumentation time. In general, I just try to keep my instruments happy and my users busy with data processing. So far I’ve been very fortunate that things have gone that way. But we’ve had a couple of engineer visits, so they can check when someone messed up, or when a board on a computer died (ugh).

Finally, I get to answer emails and texts before I even make it to school and sometimes on my lunch break. Things seem to go out of whack just as I enter Chipotle. Oh well. This is what I signed up to do. I just hope my bosses are happy and my users churn out papers (with my name on it, of course!). I like being a manager thus far, but the level of responsibility can sometimes feel like it is too much. We’ll see how the coming months go. I may have a 6-month evaluation coming up this fall, but I don’t know. We’ll see how that goes and then I’ll share my outlook on things. 

Thanks for reading!

Finally had time to write

Not much. Just popping my head to say that I’m alive and well. Have dropped 10lbs in 8 weeks, which is good. But I have a loooong way to go. And it’s getting harder to get out of bed and get my lazy ass to the gym. It’s even harder avoiding snacks, such as brownies, my favourite, since there’s a cafe that sells them just down the lab. Grrrr. Trying to stay strong.

I may have mentioned it on Twitter and perhaps here … my mind is currently all over the place, but a second (and possibly the last) paper out of my previous position is coming out soon. It’s in a journal with a big name, though not a C/N/S one. It’s so exciting to see the fruits of my labour, along with those of the first and senior authors who worked really hard to get a compelling story out the door. I was happy and humbled by the publication, given my not so stellar record during the postdoc. That makes this my 8th publication. Or I should say, the 8th publication in which I appear in the list of authors. I definitely did something good in my first iteration as a staff scientist. And each and every paper, or poster or whatever that comes out and bears my name, makes me happier and more convinced that my postdoc experience was something out of the norm and that though I may take my sweet time to accomplish certain things, I do get it done and do make valuable contributions to science. My hope is to be in a 9th paper, at least in the works, by the end of this year. I was told by my bosses that they hoped I’d be an author, should I help them collect data (which I have … tons!), since they believe it’s important for my name to keep getting out there, for people to notice me, and us and my place of work. We all hope to make this lab a known (and respected facility) .. to attract more talent, and funding and to make sure we can afford the service contracts on our toys.

I hope to write some more about my impressions as a lab manager in a few weeks. Stay tuned! And have a great weekend 🙂

Inadequacies

Four years ago, coming this summer, I had my thesis defense, quickly followed by the start of my postdoc. I remember that around this time 4 years ago, I was sick, writing the second to last chapter of my thesis and still processing data. I was also excited about joining my then boyfriend, now husband, in Canada and *finally* being together. My life seemed to be taking some shape, after being a student for the last 5.5 years. The future looked promising.

But in the back of my head, I still had some lingering doubts. I’d done two postdoc interviews, got an offer out of one, which was in a completely different discipline than the one I’d been trained in. The second interview went well, but I never got a second call. The PI phrased it as, “it’s not you, it’s me. We’re going in a different direction.” I also think he didn’t agree with all the methods we’d developed in my PhD lab to acquire and process data 10X faster than he did. Whatever the reason, I was leaving my PhD discipline behind and embarking in something new and completely foreign to me.

From the start there were signs that things were not going to go well. Most of my labmates had offices in a totally separate part of the building, and it took time to click with some of them. Others embraced me quite easily. I tried not to bother people too much and was flexible when it came to booking instruments. For the first few months I was eagerly learning how to do things and set up machines, mostly from grad students. I don’t remember the boss walking in once to check in on me. He basically left it all to everyone else to show me the ropes. And while some people would be OK with that, I wasn’t. I’d developed what I felt was a good working relationship with my PhD boss and we got along pretty well. I found myself longing for the talks we had about data and coming up with strategies to solve problems together.

Eventually I sort of  grew into the rhythm of things. But I still longed for a lot of the things I had before, not only boss-wise, but lab-wise. I was stuck with a relentless bully. I was having to work on most Fridays later than everyone else, so I could work alone and not justify or be questioned by everyone and their neighbour as to why I was loading my gel like that, or why I was preparing the buffer this other way. I was tired, listless. And honey recognized the depression, the feelings of desperation, anger, frustration. The imposter syndrome was kicking into high gear.

I was able to escape that situation and found my first job as a staff scientist in the wonderful city of NY. It wasn’t easy at first. I was scared of the city, but mostly of whether I could do science after a horrendous postdoc that ended in 0 publications. I felt like a failure. Who goes into a lab and doesn’t even get into the acknowledgements, all while her fellow postdocs and grad students are publishing left and right? What was wrong with me?

I’m still looking for some of those answers. But last year, I realized, that perhaps I wasn’t THAT much of a failure after all. After collecting data for a prof in NY, a paper came out, with my name included in the list of authors. Granted, there were about 10 different authors, mostly because the project had switched hands at various points. But that little paper published in a GlamorMag-type place (well, one of its offshoots) started to give me some of my old confidence back. I felt that I was doing something worthy and that my efforts had landed me in that list of authors. That those days spent in the cold, looking at a screen for hours, waiting for results and then the ensuing long sessions of data processing, landed me there.

But that was only the start. Late last week I got an email from another Glamor-type Mag, in which again I was in the author list, notifying us that the paper had been accepted, no corrections, no third reviewer crap about this ONE more essay the MUST be conducted to maybe accept the paper. I was reading that email on my way to work and a little happy scream and dance ensued. I’m sure people thought I was nuts. Whatever. I finally felt vindicated. In the two years I’d been in NY, TWO papers had come out bearing my name. Countless other projects there had also my touch on them, most which would never make into a publication … but those two, those beautiful papers, have given me so much hope that maybe there aren’t that many things wrong with me. That perhaps it was a combination of multiple factors that led to me having 0 papers out of postdoc-land but that in the same length of time I was in that lab, I got two papers out of my previous position. I was glad, and humbled. And I was pinching myself. I felt, I feel, vindicated.

I should remember this feeling in the future, when equipment breaks, or when I’m having a hard time training someone. I am enough and I can do great things … if I’m in the right environment. Cheers!

Be kind to those who stay behind … and those who come after you

This business of being a lab manager? Yeah. Real tough here, real though. I feel close to the students (in age and, sometimes, maturity) yet I’m not one of them. I can hang out with them when I’m outside the university walls … but I cannot badmouth their asshole PI(s). Just to be clear … most of the students (and the occasional postdoc) I’ve dealt with thus far, and their PIs seem pretty sane. But there’s this PI (who I mentioned in my previous post) who will give me headaches … and this person is the reason behind trying to set some boundaries for myself so that I don’t give them the impression that a) I’m slacking off because I decide NOT to work on a weekend like people in their lab do, and b) let this person understand, very clearly, that  I’m not one of their students or postdocs. Things have gotten a tiny bit better, but for every step forward, we go 3 more backwards. It’s a work in progress.

Besides that, one of the tasks at hand now is to make sure that when we open the lab, it is ready to receive people and be in good (safe) conditions. This lab I’m working on used to be BSL2 lab. Some pathogens (mostly inactivated ones) were worked on here, and while the previous group cleaned up some stuff, it seems as if every time I open a shelf or drawer, there’s some … “surprise.” I went looking for some hazardous material tags the other day … and all of a sudden I find some corroded shelf with bleach and some other stuff, and no sign of the bags … well, they were there, but there was a mess. There’s also a mysterious (and kinda scary)  -20 freezer that has samples from the early part of this century ie. from more than 10 years ago.

It had been my understanding that when the previous tenants of this lab were here, they had cleaned up everything, disinfected surfaces and gotten rid of all the samples and crap. Pretty much no one paid attention to freezers and other sample storage area, just to pumps and other mechanical stuff that other labs were eager to get their hands on. And now I’m stuck with a bunch of machines that don’t work, that environmental health has to cart away, and I have a couple of PIs over my shoulders, saying that it is my responsibility to clean up the lab and make it pretty for when they new users come. Yeah, that in addition to preparing samples, writing standard operating procedures for everything that has a switch or a light of some sort and stock it full of pretty little things for their trainees to play with, I need to clean up the lab. Now, I probably sound like a baby … but it is a lot of work that I have to get done … and it must be done by myself alone as no one else will pony up time to help or sort through things. I know, I know, I signed up for this … but it is truly a pain that the previous tenants only cleaned up the surface of things and left everything else to be taken care of by the new tenants. I think it’s pretty inconsiderate. Also, it makes me wonder why environmental health (or if) they have some sort of procedure for situations like this. If they’re supposed to certify labs, then I wonder if someone is slacking off somewhere.

This business is tough, and I’m the face of my lab, according to all sorts of letters and emails circulating amongst my gazillion bosses. I’m glad to make this lab look awesome, but it takes time. So, I beg you dear reader, should you be a PI or fellow lab manager and are about to move elsewhere, take time to walk around the lab and make sure that everything has been properly disposed of before you leave. Make sure things are bagged and tagged. I don’t know if you get charged or not, but please don’t leave your previous lab space looking like a pig pen. It is not a nice, or safe practice, especially for those before you. And for the love of all that is good and wonderful, have some policy as to what happens to reagents and crap people need to make to get their science done and they leave. Whether is not signing off on their thesis until they’ve bagged and tagged stuff or have at least left some record of where the samples are and are mindful of stuff they may leave behind .. have something in place to take care of the insane amounts of buffer or reagents that accumulate through the years. There’s nothing better than seeing a semi-legible tag on something and find out that it’s from 4 generations of grad students before your time. NOT!

Now, off to clean and cart stuff off. Ugh

Do you like your job?

That is the question my dearest husband asked me yesterday. He wanted to know what are my impressions after being at the new job a few weeks in. First, I want to tell you that this week I’ve effin’ earned my salary. The first few days I was dealing with a lot of admin stuff, but this week started me off with finally getting my hands on instrumentation and working on it and through my frustrations with it for the first time since I left NYC. And gosh darnit, it has been tough. As I get familiar with one of my toys again and show a new crop of grad students and postdocs how to work with said toy, I realize that what I’m doing is hard work and I hope I can make it work and keep people happy or at least keep the instruments working so they can get the science done. And that’s is one huge responsibility.

But that aside, being at the new job has been interesting. In my previous entry I mentioned how people at work seem overly nice and concerned about keeping me happy. And how that freaked me out. Truth be told, I’m happy they’re making an honest effort to keep me happy and to make sure that everything I need, from office supplies, to gadgets for my toys … that every need for the lab (and for me) is covered so I can do my job. During the new employee orientation I heard someone say that one of the mottos  of the organization is that they will give you the tools to get the mission accomplished, it is up to you to pony up the man/brain power. And I’ve seen that in full display during these last few weeks. This is something I definitely lacked as a postdoc, and in some instances missed in NY due to budget constraints (well, a stingy boss, truth be told).

With that said, I do miss NYC and my coworkers greatly. I’m still not over it and I don’t think I will for some time. In weeks like this one, where I get battling with an instrument and a specific piece of software I didn’t understand, I really, really missed them. I don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of here, other than grad students and postdocs, and they have their own labs, projects and responsibilities. I’ve been told this week, on more than one occasion, that I’m putting too much pressure on myself. That I’m starting and that they don’t expect me to know everything, but that they know I’ll grow into my role in time. For now they’re happy to have someone full time and available when there are questions about how a particular piece of equipment. But I can’t help but feel the pressure, since I was in their shoes and in the lab I’m running a long time ago. I feel like it is expected of me to know they little details and the big picture that are needed to keep this core lab running.

Then, on the rare occasion I venture to Twitter, I see this and this. And it makes me think about my own career so far. My 6 years as a grad student, my two as a disgruntled postdoc, my almost two as a staff scientist, and now as lab manager.

During that disgruntled period of my life, many times I asked myself if I could see a career in the TT as my ultimate goal. My answer was always no. I’ve seen the sacrifice that many people make, from singletons, to people in committed, long term relationships, with and without progeny. I simply realized that if I felt overwhelmed, exhausted and pissed, without having kids, or writing R01 apps lefts and right, then the TT was definitely not for me. And I can say, with an honest heart that I don’t regret my decision. I still work my tail off, like this week, but I don’t depend on grant money to feed both my lab and the mouths of those that work with me. That is a responsibility I cannot see myself fulfilling. And I am more than OK with that. That isn’t to say that I do not admire PIs, I seriously do. The more I see the hurdles they have to jump through to keep a lab running, even when facing lack of money or publications, while maintaining a relationship with their families outside the lab, and attending recitals and soccer games, and dealing with admin bullshit and government cuts. My admiration for PIs knows no bounds.

And I can tell you that even as a staff scientist, I’ve pondered, like Isis has done, whether I see myself doing this for the rest of my life …. being a staff scientist, a lab manager, for the next 30 to forty years. That people, is a shit ton of time.

My own path into academic research wasn’t all straight all the time. Sure, I finished my undergrad and quickly started in a grad program. But during the years I was in grad school, I asked myself questions as to what I’d do in the future, once I stopped being a grad student. But I didn’t really face that beast until my very frustrating postdoc. And joining my previous job was an amazing eye opening experience that showed me that my love for the field of structural biology is real, that my PhD wasn’t a fluke (even when during weeks like this one I question whether I learned to do stuff right), and that I can help steer a lab in the right direction, with the right PIs above my head.

But still, I do on occasion wonder if I’ve made the right choice, and whether, should honey and I ever reproduce, my job career will be compatible with said choice. Even without kids, I wonder whether my job, with all its responsibilities, is compatible with hon and I hopping on a car or plane and going away for the weekend to explore a new city. I consider that an important part of our relationship, and something I want to continue to do. But as a lab manager, and as the first point of contact between the university and my PIs and the instrumentation and the service people I’m basically on-call 24-7, I’m kind of the emergency physician of my lab and should something go wrong while we’re away enjoying Charleston, or Lexington, or New Orleans, I can’t simply forget about my responsibilities as manager.

As it is I’m now carrying my phone with me everywhere I go. I answer emails while eating at Chipotle, text students and postdocs with answers about equipment, and have had to juggle meeting with three people in a time span of 5 minutes, all wanting something different from me. If this is a preview of what’s to come … then I’m in it for quite the ride of my life. And while I have the stamina right now and the drive to go from room to room, instrument panel to instrument panel and sit down and babysit students and instruments, there will be a time when I won’t be enough for it all. I saw it with my supervisor in NYC. The man could do 15 things at a time, yet he faced our boss who always had a complaint or issue, who had a particular vision on how to do things, but hardly any grasp on the difficulty to set them in motion. All while having a small kid and a baby and a wife to take care of. I saw the bags under his eyes and I tried making him laugh as often as I could … but even then, he wasn’t enough and it was/is hard on him. Am I just as strong and driven as he is? Do I care enough about my new lab and my fellow users to make sacrifices? And will my honey resent me, should I choose them over him on occasion? Is this a lifestyle I can thrive in and be successful for years to come?

I have no idea and I am scared. I know that the pipeline is leaky and I don’t believe in the work/life balance. To me that’s simply BS, something always gives (or has to), and most of the time it ends up being the family. And I don’t want to see that happen. I don’t want to be like one of my last mentors who would show up at home at midnight, then be back in the lab by 9am, not have dinner with their spouse, only to end up divorced.

These are all important questions to answer, I just don’t know how for now. I hope I can figure some of it out, and that when it comes to choosing work or family, I will find a happy medium …. if that is possible at all.

They really want me … or they’re really crazy

Have had that on repeat in my head during the last two weeks. People here are weird … it’s as if I’d joined one of those crazy happy churches where people look happily stoned and … crazy.

Well, it’s truly not that bad. I just feel … weird. I’m happy to be back, don’t get me wrong. Every time I look around and see green and pretty streets and empty trash bins I’m reminded of how different it is to live in suburbia once again. We’re not in NYC anymore, Toto!

I think that, for now, I’ve made a sensible choice. I’m happy to be here and I’m honestly surprised and humbled by people’s response to my coming. I’ve seen lots of old friends and acquaintances around, everyone acting more surprised than the next person. But it’s good, it feels right.

And I’m definitely noticing the difference from when I was here as a trainee. Some of the benefits are better, people treat me different, with more respect (not that they were disrespectful before … it’s just different. I feel like I can talk to my PI (or PIs, every day I keep getting a new one added to the list, ha!) and they value my input, more than when I was a student or postdoc). The admin people are very nice and helpful and they’ve showered me with attention, wanting to find out if all is well, if I need anything, if I’m being taken care of. This is certainly something that lacked in my life when I did my postdoc (it was so disorienting, no one knew where to send me next, no one informed me of issues and I ended up paying more than I should have for an initial health coverage before provincial healthcare took over, it was disorganized). People here have apparently been getting ready for my coming for weeks, from procuring office space, computer resources (I get a few big monitors, woo-fucking-hoo), office supplies, keys and forms that give me access to the bowels of the building I’ll be working in. I’m simply amazed. Oh, I guess this is sort of a white whine on my part …. well, la dee da

I’m also amazed that stuff is still working and that instruments I’d used in another life are still around and functioning. Lots of good data have come from them. But I’m afraid they’ll go once I get my hands all over them. Who knows. For now I’m tailing people like I’m a first year grad student who knows nothing.

In addition, I get a lot of autonomy. This is something new … and a bit scary too. I’m afraid of making decisions that will make me look like a total bitch in front of the PIs, grad students and postdocs that have been using the instrumentation since I’ve been gone. I don’t want people to think I don’t respect what they do, or that I don’t want their business …. and I would hate to turn into one of my previous PIs who kept everyone out of their lab and even though I’ve been gone from that lab for years, people still relish in mentioning how exclusive said PI was and how they kept their instruments away from everyone.

I’ve been getting calls about consultations with people, nothing terribly involved … just people wanting to get my opinion on things. It’s weird. I feel as if whatever I say now has more weight than when I was a postdoc or a grad student. NYC certainly showed me that some companies care about keeping their customers happy and value their input. It certainly feels like that here too.

Next week I’ll start hands on on the instrumentation. I have to do weekly check ups of certain things to see if they’re within spec. One of my PIs mentioned that whatever I need to do, just go for it, because they want the lab to run smooth and for me to make things easy when it comes to equipment, handling samples and certainly dealing with users.

This is all so new. I don’t want to screw things up.

On a non-work related thing, I want to take a moment and thank you all for your support during the move and especially when my honey got sick. He’s doing much better, out of the hospital, and soon his stitches will be out. He’s lost some weight and is very tired, but recovering more of his strength every day. This last week has been draining. I can only hope we go up from here.

What’s new with you?