A Scientist does not equal Scientist and why. Seriously. Why?

Omitting all the explanations on why I had been silent for so long again (because what is there to explain: busy busy busy or procrastinating hard to seem busy busy busy), a short update: big career decisions made (well, half-way, sort of), big move over the Ocean complete, trying to figure out my next scientific step… Wich comes with a plethora of observations, many of which would have/should have made really good posts, but: busy busy busy.

But here comes the most frustrating thing, which I need to let out, and feedback is oh so welcome (answers, anyone?). Frustrating at least when you come from Academia, where you kind of always know where you stand. Yes, perhaps there are standard differences in what completing a PhD entails in different countries (a bunch of publications in some places vs. a thesis with sometimes nothing published (!) in others), and of course a Post-doc does not equal a Post-doc for variety of reasons (e.g. the difference sin what their PhD meant). But still, you know more or less who you are, what it means and where you are on the ladder.

Now I have for a while been  browsing the colourful world of industry, and countless Scientist positions, only to realize that a Scientist in one company is a person with BSc degree doing technician kind of job, while in another company a Scientist is a minimum PhD, sometimes with Post-doc experience, often expected to lead a group of Associates, etc.

I am deeply frustrated. Why do I care you ask? As long as my job matches the degree requirements and is challenging enough, why worry what it means somewhere else. Well, I do worry. I see people change their positions every 2-3 years, migrate between companies. What if I apply somewhere where my PhD-holding shiny Scientist position will be frowned upon, because at their company Scientists are more like Research Associates somewhere else?

HR people out there, please make some order to this, do not call Research Associates Scientists, or other way round, make clear ranks for who fits into which position. Would it not benefit the Industry world as well? So they would always know exactly what they get when somebody migrates with a Scientist title? Sigh.

It is not Academia, so little chance anyone shall care to develop a unified standard. But…



Dream on…

Right, I gave up.

Big changes are coming. I’m hung in the time-zone gap, half the Earth apart, rooting for my partner starting his new job. In not so long, I’m supposed to close the gap. Take the flight. Take the chance.

It was a series of realizations. Realizing I could perhaps do it, that there would be plenty of options there for someone like me. Then realizing I actually want to do it and was weary of the idea of staying. Realizing I want a (new) life. Realizing I don’t want the two-body problem for much longer.

Realizing that if we are all so smart scientists in academia, then for Christ’s sake, being the best educated most intelligent skilled gifted talented folk, why shouldn’t we use it to our benefit. Doesn’t it all mean we should be able to make the life what we want it to be, get the (or at least a) job anywhere we want, at the level we want, and nurture our lives with it, rather than be those academia entrapped miserable folk, who go wherever their lady commands, never free to choose the place, the time, never able to choose for life. Sacrificing hours for our passion, in the least rewarding fashion a career has ever seen.

It might be rationalizing. But it was also further realization. Realization that after next few years of post-doccing I would be entering the industry world at exactly the same position I would right now. Realizing that the PI position dream might never come true, anywhere. Realizing that where I am right now I’d have even fewer options than in the livid, booming, biotech-rich area I want to move to.

Now I’m also realizing I really like my job. I’ll miss how everything finally fit here, the freedom of doing what I want, having sufficient resources, supportive boss and good colleagues. I can only hope the future will bring some nice places and people about too.

But I’ve always been drawn to change. And to challenge. Maybe my new job search is so compelling simply because it is a challenge. Something I haven’t tested myself in quite yet.

Wherever it takes me, it’s science anyways. I hope.

Giving up

I suppose I have given up on this blog in my mind about 20 times. It’s like with other hobbys when you’re a scientist: you pick them up; you are fascinated for a month; then you start attending to them less and less often; then you start feeling guilty…

Now, once you started feeling guilty the merciless self-perpetuating vicious circle starts, where the more guilty you feel about not doing something you planned to do, the harder it gets to ever do it. You feel bad about not keeping up with your own agenda, and not keeping promises to yourself. About starting and not finishing. About another side project of your life that gave in to lab and science (and, yes, sitting on couch staring at Netflix the rest of the time, but science works better as the ever-fitting excuse for why nothing works in my life).

I still haven’t mastered the art of taking it easy on myself. I joke around and try to emanate slightly ironic attitude of a person who’s seen it all (works especially well in lab as the medium-stage post-doc attitude: you’ve just started trusting you actually got the PhD for something and you feel you know so much stuff those poor students have no idea about…). But so often I catch myself feeling as if the matters of my life are matters of… well, life, or death. Practising distance to life while desperately wrapping my arms and legs around it… that seems to be me!

Conclusion, if not apparent, is: I will try to care less. And instead of dramatically quitting this blog because I rarely write, I will rarely write. I don’t have to become the next internet guru. And while more visitors would be fun, hey, some day maybe.

Meantime, the post-doc life is holding up some surprises. Literally: things are changing, and I don’t even know which way they’ll turn tomorrow. Two-body problem, torn between academia and the great unknown world of industry – all the old dear troublemakers at first-hand experience, closer than ever. Stay tuned…

When THAT paper is finally OUT

Last two weeks brought on the proofs and the online presence of the last paper from my PhD Thesis. Feelig so happy! And counting every share and read the paper gets, although… it seems to go so slowly.

I consider it the most important paper of my PhD work, and a very interesting paper conceptually and results-wise as well. How to get the right people to notice it, read it, use it, propagate it? Still no idea. But I’m sure – it has to be found!

Wish me luck 🙂

Mobile scientists and the personality collage

People don’t change. Well, people also divide roughly in half (?) in the opinion on that matter. And yet, I believe we… grow. We evolve. We acquire tastes and habits. Reaching my 30s, I can’t help to wonder wether it is the property of the past 10-15 years of my life, or wether it continues on, into the old age. I suspect the latter.

How much we evolve and enrich ourselves, depends on how much we expose ourselves to. All the books, movies, plays. All the travels, people, events. Some of us consciously and carefully plan it. Being a lab-stuck scientist, one probably plans it even more. Wasting time feels like a heavy sin.

But another property of being a scientist is the never-ending (?!) mobility, that drags you and throws you from place to place, country after country. This vagabond life wears some off. I feel it makes me thrive. I love the new places, I love to learn and experience, it makes me feels alive. Somehow the fate has spared me the home-sickness so many people develop when abroad. Being European, I feel much more a Europe’s citizen these days than the citizen of the country I’ve left a few years ago.

What this mobility means, though, is that you keep picking up pieces and patches of the cultures you experience. Even the itchy and uncomfortbale at first, may well become familiar or even your habit.

The first cultural shock is always… well, a shock. You came to a new country and never even imagined that people could possibly behave and think in ways other than your home society. But in every next place you’ll live or visit, you will already anticipate those differences. You might even become curious of them, welcome them, observe, take mental notes for later (the last being possibly a science-specific behaviour).

Conclusions? Just opinion: I think it’s good. It makes you a more complex, but richer person. It surely costs you an identity crisis every now and then, but personally – I love it. Because you are what you make yourself into. And so maybe we do change?

Pipetting doesn’t make you a scientist!

Spending hours pipetting in the lab makes some people think they do big science. Well, they don’t. Not likely. It’s not about how much you pipette. It’s about what you pipette and what you do with it afterwards.

Now that I’m a post-doc, all I can think of while sitting and pipetting are all the grants I am not writing and papers I’d rather be working on. It feels like time wasted. And unfortunately lately, having a lot of optimizing to do, I feel like I’m a technician and not a scientist. Which worries me and makes me rethink my scheduling and my approach.

It is something people tend to get confused about. My own boss tells me that he finds it funny that in some labs post-docs have technicians working for them. I often think I really wouldn’t mind: let someone do my piepetting while I can do… well… the actual science.

It is what you do with your data that matters, not how much of it you manufacture. And don’t we all know it? The countless PCRs and Western blots that don’t account to anything? So, isn’t it smarter to sit down and do your homework: read, plan, design, analyse. Then, go to lab and pipette these few experiments that will actually matter.

Trouble is, working hard in lab is an easy excuse. Very often it is a perfect escape route into… procrastination. Yes! When you have to do your writing or data analysis, spending long hours in the lab or finding yet another experiment to perform is just a way away from the actual Science work you have to do.

And in the end, what will make you, are not the pipette-hours you put in, but the concepts you develop, the novelty you contribute and the… well, yes… papers you publish.

Conclusions… I suppose:

  • Whether you have the technician pipette for you or not, stop for a moment, sit down and read that paper stuck on your desktop for weeks; let it inspire you!
  • Plan your next experiment so that it means something…
  • …and maybe make a figure of it and write it down.
  • Science is done with heads, not with thumbs!

Why “Getting noticed is half the battle” is (not) as bad as it seems

The recent article “Getting noticed is half the battle” in Working Life section of Science triggered an emotional discussion.

I will play a bit of a devil’s advocate here and try to polemize with the comments I saw below that article. Even though I think most of them are well justified, and in their own way perfectly right.

And so here’s 4 points about why the “Getting noticed is half the battle” is (not) as bad as it seems:

The author is clearly devoted to science. Even if it comes across more as a dedication to the career than to a specific topic, I can hardly imagine a person feeling happy about his children playing in a lounge, unless he strongly feels that it happens for a greater purpose. He is a person who, I’m guessing, must have been extremely motivated and enthusiastic in his journey through science. Sadly, you can hardly trace this presumable enthusiasm in this piece any more. Which indeed makes you wonder: well, does he think it was worth it?

The supposed “gender-discrimination” is not really discrimination. Actually, it’s just reality. Now, before the thunders hit me, I would like to point out that at no point does the author note that he has in any way forced his wife to take on this burden. While the paragraph could’ve been crafted to express more gratitude or clarify it better, we cannot exclude that it was a mutual agreement. And we must admit it is still the reality around us.

Note the two-body problem in academia – the difficulty for 2 researchers to find a job in the same place. Well, let’s be honest: even in close enough proximity to each other. Dual career couples struggle hard. And I do not think it is an uncommon solution that one partner decides to take a different, more relaxed or simply non-academic career path.

I know a professor who, together with his wife, decided that he will try to pursue the career, while she will go for a less demanding research-assistant-like position. Fate had it that nowadays she co-authors papers published much higher (IF-wise) than him, which he frequently jokes about, when telling the story.

I have a collegue who decided she would be much happier doing lab-based research, while she thinks her husband is very well suited for a PI. She would like to have a home and kids, and does not want to go through the stress of setting up her own lab. I believe we should admit it is ok to take such decisions. The only problem she will face is obviously the fact that academia is not ready for all the people like her (and there is plenty!) who would like to do science, but not really become group leaders.

Now before I am accused of promoting gender bias, let me tell you about another friend of mine, a female scientist, who’s been followed by her IT-specialized husband to any city she goes. Trick is, his skills are very much in demand almost anywhere, so the two-body problem does not apply. And yet, gossip has it she would like a more balanced job anyway, to actually be able to spend some time with her spouse.

Conclusions? We need to let people make their choices, independently of gender. Gender equality doesn’t mean all women have to pursue challenging careers. It means they can always choose to do it. They should be allowed to choose otherwise. As much as men should be allowed to choose otherwise too, and e.g. stay home with their children when they want to!

The work-life imbalance in academia is sad, but true. Actually, it is the culture. The long hours and scarce social (don’t confuse with networking) or family life are not unusual. Actually, they are usual. And when in science, we get imprinted very quickly. My Master thesis advisor worked 24/7. My PhD advisor didn’t, and I found myself thinking he doesn’t care enough about his science. Many post-docs will know what I mean by the phrase “free weekend”. An oxymoronic phrase for any person with a “normal job”. Or a “free evening”. A good post-doc friend of mine once told me about her work-life approach which was allowing herself one free evening a week. I’m always feeling guilty if I get home at 5 pm. Whether it is indeed the prerequisite for making it in science or not (see my comments on work-life balance and creativity), the culture of science nowadays is the culture of workoholism. The author of the article is not a weird exception. He just joined in the game.

Getting noticed does matter. When reading this testimony I found myself thinking: well, this man is brave to so openly admit things. But as the work-life imbalance, the self-promotion part is perhaps ugly, but still true. You may go about it in different, perhaps subtler ways. But have you really never asked a question at a seminar to show what you know rather than to get an answer? Have you never walked in a room and hoped the PI or Director noticed you’re there? It might not always be pretty, and you might not always admit it to yourself, but we all know – it’s publish or perish. Nowadays, it applies to your very person as well as to your science.

Whether we can sympathize with the piece or not, we must admit: one thing it certainly is, is true. Couragoues and true. It tells you the things the way they are.

If you’re in science, you know they are.