Archive for: February, 2012

A tiny little break

Feb 18 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Wow, it's been a crazy week. I missed SONYC because I was sick (sorry guys, I reaaaaally missed you but I think it's better to keep my germs to myself). I did manage to post something new almost everyday, except during the weekend, mainly because I was resting (hey, depending on which flavour of Christianity you follow I'm doing the right thing by keeping the Sabbath (on Saturday or Sunday)).

Next week I'll be at a small (local, not national though) conference/meeting and the schedule at work is looking pretty hefty even though it will be a short week. My last day at Scientopia (oh no, so sad) is the 19th, but chances are I'll post my goodbye on Sunday. Plans for the weekend include: continuing my recovery, doing a bit of shopping (mainly groceries, though I do still need to pick up a pair of jeans for work) and cooking at home (something that had been going on for a few weeks and was postponed this week due to illness), a bit of cleaning and just resting and re-gaining my strength. I'm doing a lot better. It's funny (or not) how rhinovirus can knock you off for a couple of days after not being sick for 7-8 months (I may be a bit of wimp).

Stay tuned for my last post, and in the meantime, enjoy your weekend! Thanks for reading 🙂

2 responses so far

Relocation decisions ...

Feb 17 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

After the entries on the job search and how hon and I met, I had a inquiry as to how our relationship factored in my decision of where to look for work.

The epic job search of 2011 was ... well, epic. It stemmed from feeling like I wasn't getting anything accomplished during my postdoc, that my talents and knowledge were being wasted by my project and mentor (and even myself) and how unhappy I was. I was pretty frustrated, which, sadly, seeped into all areas of my life, especially my relationship with honey.

I was very miserable most days. I'd be happy and excited on Friday afternoon and then by Sunday at noon I'd be pissed and frustrated. I wasn't aware of it, until one Sunday when hon pointed it out ... he said something along the lines of being tired of seeing me become miserable because Monday, and consequently, the work week, were approaching, and that it was beyond frustrating to have a partner in a sour mood come the weekend. The weekend was to relax, and enjoy. There was no reason to be sad! It dawned on me how my attitude was affecting him and how frustrating it was for him to try to keep a smile and feel happy, when he had this big blob of unhappiness around. Another time he said, with tears in his eyes, that it was incredibly frustrating for him to see me depressed and pissed about my postdoc, because he thought having him there, and close to me, even under the worst of circumstances, would be enough to keep me happy. Later, I realized that while I was happy to be with him, if my work/lab life were frustrating, it would invariably invade every aspect of my life.

So, one day, once I'd made the decision to talk to my postdoc mentor and alert him of my impending job search, hon and I were talking about the future, and future plans, work, outlook, etc. He looked at me with his usual, loving eyes and said that it didn't matter what corner of the world I ended up in moving to, as long as I was feeling happy and fulfilled, he'd be happy for me ... even if it had us be apart again. That was beyond generous and wonderful on his part, because it lifted some of the weight off my shoulders and helped me brave it out and try places I wouldn't have considered otherwise. I also knew that whatever position I'd end up in would be somewhat short-lived, as I wanted to a) test the waters and see if I could start loving (and enjoying) research again, and b) use said opportunity as a jump start to eventually go back to my family and my known surroundings and either teach, or teach and do a bit of research (as a SLAC or something whatever similar situation) or work as staff.

With that in mind my obvious choices were to look for work in Canada or in the East Coast of the US. It didn't matter what part of Canada it was (well, except the Yukon, Nunavut and the Northern Territories ... brrr, too much snow!) as long as we could stay in Canada. And it really didn't matter which part of the Eastern US, as long as it was a blue state. I wanted to be close enough to visit hon and my family whenever I could (hasn't materialized yet), be close enough to big cities and have a somewhat decent climate.

Hon's openness and encouragement served as a much needed force to keep me going, and his willingness to visit/temporarily relocate wherever I moved to were crucial. Some of his most moving words "find a job, any job, as long as it keeps you excited and smiling, even if it's miles away ... because if you're happy, I'm happy" were uttered many times. Having his support was important during the search.

Making the final decision wasn't easy. While my current position was at the top of my choices, ideally I would have had a combination of the location of possible position #2 with the benefits and freedom of my current one. I'm by no means pissed at my current position ... but there will always be room for improvement. Since our relationship has lasted this long, and survived several moves (and states, and countries!) I was confident that the skills we'd acquired would come in handy and keep us going.

It hasn't been easy having half of my heart away while adapting to a new city, and new ... everything. Thankfully Skype, IM, texting and his visits, have kept us alive. Hon has come a few times and stayed for a bit, one time almost 3 weeks! I know the job market in our neck of the woods is tough, but I'm scouting it out and hopefully in the next year or so I can start the relocation (once again ... I hope for good!).

An understanding partner, experience in long-distance relationships, trust, humour, taking chances and faith in us allowed me (and allowed hon a few years ago) to move to across countries to pursue opportunities that have helped our careers. It hasn't been easy, but we also haven't shied away from taking chances and moving away (temporarily) to pursue dreams and training.

2 responses so far


Feb 16 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Or could it selfk3rned? I don't know. I'm tired, I'm sick (I've said that before).

Over the weekend I started feeling tired (even though I had two wonderful nights of sleep). When I woke up on Monday I had a sore throat and body aches, and my head felt twice its normal size (and people, I have a big head, ok?). I had a lot of things to do in the lab as we readied for even more changes. Since it's only a few of us in my "division" I knew they'd be counting on me doing my part. The adrenaline kept me running. Same yesterday. Same today. But boy am I tired. I had a horrible night of sleep yesterday and today I'm paying the price.

So, why am I doing this to myself? Well, for starters, there aren't that many of us, like I said before, and people are counting and depending on me. I had a couple of people show up this week to do set up equipment I exclusively know how to operate. I could have canceled, but their experiments of a whole month would have gone down the drain. Then we had some major changes and had to change a few things in the lab to accommodate those changes. Lastly ... because I don't have much sick time, and I can't afford much sick time anyways. If I don't work, my bills don't get paid. No bills paid, even more blemishes on my credit score.

Above it all, there's this sense of responsibility. Growing up my mom bundled my sister and I up when we were sick (with colds or ear infections) and sent off to school. To my mom it was very important to have us take our own notes, be responsible, and attend classes ... every single day. When I graduated elementary school, I even got a prize for having perfect attendance. But at what price? Overall I was a healthy child. I had my bouts of colds, ear infections and the like, but thankfully it never went past that. I never broke an arm or a leg. I never fell in the backyard (because I had to play, but always watching out and being careful!!!). And I was scared that my dad would seal the deal (if I ever got in a fight) by hitting me (that was his way of keeping me in line; I have to say, I've never been arrested ... but I did get myself into my share of dysfunctional relationships with guys throughout the years).

Long story short, I never missed class in elementary or middle school. But, I probably did my share of sending my friends to their doctors by passing on colds, etc. When I was in grad school I sat down my mom and explained that sharing germs, by sending a kid to school, rain or shine, in sickness or in health was a disfavor to society, at least in my book. In grad school I finally made peace (somewhat) with not showing up to the lab when I was sick, with fever, aches and sneezing, or worse (one time someone did that in our department and it sent me to the hospital ... I think that's what finally triggered the reasoning in not being at school when you're sick).

I call that autok3rning ... the "ability" or impulse to work, rain or shine, in sickness or in health, because science and work have to keep on going. It hit me today that I should stay home and rest, because missing a day or two (even if I can't afford it), helps me stay productive in the long term, by not lengthening my illness, my symptoms and discomfort. By keeping me behind close doors when I'm shedding whatever microbe it is that's making me sick. By protecting those around me and their samples. Sure, canceling people is a PITA ... but truly, when I'm feeling this bad (even though I don't have a fever or any major aches, or the runnies), the best I can do for myself and my lab is to stay home.

Let's see how I feel tomorrow. For now, I'm off to the pharmacy to get some honey and some OTC stuff and back under my covers it is.

Do you have any other instances where you've autok3rned? How did you cope with it? How has your understanding of the situation changed? Do you stay home? Do you brave it out?

15 responses so far

A story of love

Feb 15 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

As promised, here's the story of how my (awesome) boyfriend/cheerleader/inspiration of 6 years (and counting!) and I met.

Mr. 30-and-almost-a-PhD and I met in high school. We were in different schools, and met at a national honor society meeting/competition in the spring of 1999. We were both seniors and had been accepted to the same college. Different faculties, same school. I'd become a biology major and he'd be a poli sci one. We were both passionate about our respective disciplines and (as far as I can tell) college was an awesome time for both.

I was a huge nerd ... have always been. He's always been a bit of a nerd, scoring 4.0 all through college, his master's and some of his semesters in the PhD. We met and thought that each other was nice (and cute, OMG he's the cutest thing ever). We also had a bunch of friends in common, so it wasn't uncommon to coincide at student centre or in between classes. During the high school competition, my friends and I did somewhat poorly, but he did great and even got a prize. My friends and I went over to congratulate him and hug him and it was a wonderfully funny memory which we both treasure.

Since I was a huge nerd, I didn't want to be distracted by love and stuff, so during the first two years of college I only dated casually and never went all serious with anyone. Honey did have a girlfriend (or two, or possibly three, I can't remember) and I remember that I'd look at him (and check him out, oh yes I did) and say hi, but nothing more. I was a "good conservative girl" that would never, ever ask a guy out, let alone cross the line with a guy that was going steady with someone else.

Eventually I started dating a former biology classmate and by the time hon and I graduated we were both in steady relationships. On graduation day honey got an important award at school. Somehow, even though I was dating someone else at the time, him having the award made me feel close, familiar, like it also belonged to me. I remember looking over where he was sitting when our names were called on stage and trying to say hi (I'm not sure he noticed me ... turns out he was really sick, and was tired and recovering ... poor thing). A few weeks before graduation we'd crossed paths in one of the halls at school and exchanged phone numbers. We were both going to grad school in neighbouring states. We though it'd be cool to keep in touch.

I failed to mention earlier that we used to be ICQ buddies, and joked that when we turned 30, if we were alone, we'd get married.

Back to the story. So, we both moved to our respective grad programs and occasionally he'd call to say hi and see how things were going. I kinda looked forward to his calls and was always upbeat when we finished talking. We were still dating our college partners. Eventually we both broke up with them. A few months after our respective breakups I was on the phone with one of my college BFFs and she was sitting in a big group of people at school. She passed around the phone for our mutual friends to say hi and one of the was hon! He'd left grad school, gone back home and was on campus that day. We talked briefly, mentioning that we were single, nothing more, nothing less.

About a year after that I was feeling lonely, sad and pathetic. I'd been single for a bit over a year. I was near my quarter life crisis and though grad school was going OK I missed having a boyfriend. I picked the my phone and decided to call a guy, any guy I could get a hold of, just so I could hear a male voice on the line. As I was looking around I stumbled on honey's number ... then thought, "hmmm, we haven't spoken in a while, I wonder how he's doing?" For all I knew he could have changed his number. I certainly had changed mine and he could be with a new girlfriend.

I made the call and he picked up! Later on I found that honey doesn't pick up calls from strange numbers. Mine had changed, but his cell used to show the area the call was coming from, and when he saw the state, he faintly remembered knowing someone there. Maktub.

We had a nice conversation. Hon was friendly, and his voice was as warm as I remembered.  We talked and talked, probably for about 3 hours that night. We talked about our respective break ups, updated each other on what had been going on since the previous year and had a nice conversation. Hon told me he'd started a master's program he was excited about (the program he'd chosen for his PhD was not what he was expecting, so he did the sensible thing and withdrew before going any further ... I was shocked by this because to me he'd never been a quitter, and here was my nerdy superstar, my academic idol falling from grace ... he quickly regained that status after we started dating and he shared his journey of discovery, something that still amazes me) and mentioned he was "shopping" for another school to start his PhD in (originally he wanted to do film, then switched programs in his master's and re-discovered his passion for his current field). That night, right then and there he mentioned that a) he was single (yay!!! but no, originally there weren't any romantic expectations, as far as I can remember; hon, correct me if I'm wrong), b) was going to the northeast to check out a couple of schools, and c) didn't want to go alone, but his best friend was busy or something, and he wondered out loud if I wanted to take a few days off from school and be his traveling partner. I told him I'd ask my boss if it was OK, and would let him know, but it was quite possible I'd be able to travel with him.

Now, I wasn't the kind of person who'd just go with a guy on a multi-state trip (possibly date?) on a whim... miraculously I took the chance! After talking to the boss it was done, August of 2005, our multi-city tour of the North East was happening.

Hon and I talked on the phone (or Messenger) every night from then on. We'd flirt and make plans on where to go, which places to check out etc. But as the trip approached I became apprehensive. I wasn't sure what to think, I mean, we liked each other. But a year earlier my heart had been crushed by my college boyfriend, and I wanted to keep my expectations low, in case things fizzled when we came face to face.

Off we went in August to see schools and see how we got along. Honey had (and still does) the most loving eyes I've ever seen. We hugged and talked and on our way we went. But, I became a total bitch within minutes. For reasons I still don't understand, I put this wall between us, and no matter how loving and kind honey was to me, I was a total bitch. Our visit to a school in the first city was good, he got to meet people in the program and got the info he was looking for. We had time to go sightseeing, so we went to a couple of museums, had dinner, and took photos. At some point I remember honey asking about my wall, and my attitude ... and I didn't know what to tell him.

Eventually we headed out to the second city in our trip. We took the train and in it I started thinking about the stupid wall I was putting between us. Here was this genuinely loving person, treating me like a queen, while I was being totally insane about it and barely even talking to him! Why was I so afraid of him? Was it fear of being hurt? He hadn't even made a move! WTF was wrong with me?

In that train ride I started thinking about those times in the past where good guys had approached me and treated me with warmth, care and patience. And I always went with the asshole that appeared to be more "interesting" ... only to have my heart broken (and seeing them marry one of my college best friends ... classy). I think honey fell asleep at some point and that's when it hit me, I didn't want to be hurt anymore, I was avoiding him because I wanted to avoid the possibility of being hurt. I was dreading the pang in my stomach, the pain in my heart and the racing thoughts that come with a broken heart. But we weren't even dating! And here I was getting all worked up about something that hadn't even happened (hon can attest to this, I do with everything, you should have seen me when I got the job offer last week, I didn't sleep for days).

As we got to the new city I started tearing down the wall and becoming my usual crazy, nerdy self. We walked around the city, drove to a nearby port town and had a wonderful time. And little by little I let him in. I shared with him stories about my life and dreams, and he paid attention to it all. He was not only loving, but hanging from every word I was saying, and wanting more.

When we made it back to the first city on our trip we were inseparable and it broke our hearts when we had to say goodbye. We'd found a companion, a best friend, a travel partner in the other, and we now had to let go to back to our regular lives. I had to go back to my lab, he had to go back to his MA classes. We swore to never lose contact, and to see each other again.

He kept his word, he came to see me two months after. A month before that he'd asked me to be his girlfriend. And I said yes.

Since then, we've moved many times, within my grad school city, his grad school city, and of course, to the Great White North. We've traveled, lived together, lived apart, been sick, healthy, crazy, mad, happy and pissed. We can count with one hand how many times we haven't spoken on the phone (or in person) in these 6 years .... there would be a few fingers left. We've fought hard, and loved harder. And we've been through a lot of stress and wonderful, relaxing times.

I don't know what awaits us, but I'm excited, as long as it is with him. I hope to go back home soon, so we can be together once again, and never, ever be apart. This year is his defense, finally ... and I can't wait for it!

So, I ask you, how did you meet your significant other?

6 responses so far

Under the weather

Feb 14 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm sick. I have a stupid cold that's keeping me under my covers, drinking lots of fluids and cursing all the idiots that sneezed or coughed on me.

I wanted to take a quick moment to thank everyone that's visited, commented, lurked, tweeted and re-tweeted. I'm amazed at how awesome you all are and I hope you've enjoyed these last few days. I promise to be back and write something awesome .... maybe I'll share the story of how Mr. 30-and-almost-a-PhD and I met. It's quite cute.

In the meantime, I'll be resting, cursing the people of this city that made me sick (and my wimpy immune system that finally gave in after all the stress and challenges offered by the city's finest citizens) and getting healthy.

Happy Valentine's day y'all 🙂


2 responses so far

How did you find your job?

Feb 13 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

That's one of the questions I get asked the most after moving from the traditional academic route to the academic fringe (as I like to describe my position). I'm on the academic fringe because I'm technically part of academia, as I serve as a staff scientist for PIs, postdocs and grad students, but my lab is a special sort of core lab that serves the structural biology crowd. It's complicated.

Originally, I hadn't even planned on applying to my position. I was aware of my place of work due to a former labmate, but I wasn't sure they'd ever be interested in me, let alone be advertising for a position like mine.

When I was knee-deep into the job search craze of 2011 I was all over the place looking for resources, from how to prepare for an interview, doing a lot of soul-searching to define what it was that I was looking for and how to get it. I found wonderful resources via some of my awesome tweeps and fellow bloggers (see here, it's excellent, regardless of your position in the TT ladder, seriously).  Throughout the years I'd also taken advantage of many career-advancing workshops and seminars, from pimping you CV to getting your thesis written in no time and out the door to non-academic (or post-academic) positions.

During the dreaded job search there was also a lot of confusion. I kept asking myself if I was doing the right thing, if I shouldn't be shutting up and trying to churn out data instead of complaining and quitting. Deep down my inner voice kept saying, keep going, you can do this (also some of my friends, a very supportive boyfriend and my family were behind my decision).

So, how did I get to find a job as a staff scientist?

Well, it's a long answer (as usual, haven't you been reading my blog? I can never give a short answer). First I had to define what was it about academic that didn't sit well with me. Was it that I didn't find it thrilling to become a PI? Nope, I do think that it would be wonderful to be a PI ... I just didn't want to continue on the road of postdoc after postdoc, temp position after temp position for the next decade. Was it that I hated lab work? Kind of, I'm not too thrilled about bench science ... really. I don't mind running gels, or setting up a PCR (that works!) ... but doing it day in and day out for months .... well, that's just bleh to me. I preferred being on the computer than at the bench. Additonally, I wanted at some point (sooner rather than later) to start enjoying the fruits of my labour, maybe get married, start a family ... I was truly yearning for some sort of stability and not have that cloud over my head telling me that the clock was ticking and I only had funding for X many months/years. I determined that I really liked what I'd seen other staff scientists do and be during my years as a student and later a postdoc. I wasn't afraid of having my name as second, or third, or whatever author. I liked helping people and setting up instruments for people to use.

With that decided, I had to start taking steps in the right direction. I first got my CV out took a long hard look and took it to the teaching/writing centre at postdoc school. There I had a professional look it over and give me their impression. They liked how it was structured, and offered some suggestions which I quickly incorporated. Then, I started brainstorming about the types of jobs I could see myself doing (besides being a staff scientist, because I knew those positions were somewhat hard to come by in my field). I'm good at presentations and I love public speaking, I also like consulting and offering solutions. So I looked into jobs that fit the criteria. I also started sending emails to some of my contacts (except my PhD advisor, but only because  I learned that the lab would be undergoing some major changes and it wouldn't be a good time to apply for a job there .... I also wasn't as thrilled about going back to grad school city, I mean, I love it, but there's a limit).

Then came the location (would I feel comfortable in the US, in Canada, Europe?). What about climate? I was tired of seeing snow (though to be fair, we did enjoy a wonderful spring and summer during my time there, and there wasn't as much snow as I thought there would be). Which coast would have me closer to my family (East, of course) and what states and cities would I feel comfortable in (sorry, Texas, you're definitely not a runner up; but ooooh Massachusetts and New York, you do look tempting). I also looked at the cost of living, and whether I could survive in any of those states and the major cities. I looked at the benefits I wanted to have access to (a decent health insurance, dental for sure and ooooh, a retirement fund, wow I feel all grown up now).

Then I looked at what would make me happy. I thought about what times in the past I'd felt happy, thrilled to do science and/or accomplished. My favourite times in in school were when I was collecting and processing data, and my fave times during the postdoc (yes, I had good times there too) were when I was working on the computer, doing detective work to design experiments and predict whether, based on the structure and previous work, we could see what the boss though we could see (nope, didn't look that way, but he was still hopeful and I had to do the experiments).

Armed with all that I started applying. There are several listservs out there that cater to your particular taste/discipline of interest. There's the CcpNmr software mailing list and many discussion groups (St Louis NMR discussion group for instance). There's the Amber MD package mailing list., the microscopy listserv, mass spec, crystallography, etc. I firmly believe that the listservs and society pages are great ways to stay in tune with whatever your field of expertise is and to interact with people and get yourself known. I admit that I've only posted a few times on mine, but I do take time to read the messages that call my attention and be on the lookout for new labs and/or facilities. I'd seen a post for a position related to mine in one of those listservs and with the encouragement of a friend I sent in my application.

Google was also a tremendous aid when looking for positions within my field and in my geographical areas of interest. Because of a Google search I became aware of a position in Canada that was a top choice during my search. I also updated my LinkedIn profile (which was checked out by a couple of my interviewers). I polished my profile, added skills, and tried my best to organize it and pimp it out. And Twitter, my beloved Twitter, provided me with great conversations, great contacts and resources and a lot of support during the search.

I also didn't shy of sending emails to PIs or organizations that called my attention. Some of them were answered with negatives, and some asked for a copy of my CV or resume. In my mind it made sense to have different people in different places look at my CV and if something was available, hopefully they'd remember me. A couple of weeks after I started in my lab I got an email from a prof in Asia that was looking for a staff scientist with my skills, and from my group! I had to decline his offer, but that's another pair of eyes that's aware of my existence.

I kept all of my communications professional and courteous, no matter how disappointing the results were. I also kept my mind open for part time positions and maybe even a short postdoc ...  but I wasn't as keen on that one. I didn't want another postdoc, because I felt that my interests and goals would not be fulfilled if I took yet another temporary position.

I used sites like Monster or CareerBuilder to check out job postings in areas that I felt I was somewhat qualified, but I didn't get a single reply. And I also checked out the job postings for the companies that make the equipment I use, just in case. I did apply to a couple of positions in one of them (two in the US, one in Europe) ... but that also didn't pan out.

That was my brute force approach. I was very picky (even if it doesn't sound like it) regarding the staff positions I applied to. Almost all of them were advertised in the listserv. I was also very clear with the PIs I talked to that I would not take a postdoc if offered (I know, I was either very bold or very stupid) instead of the staff position. And after a particular rough patch in which some of the offers fell through and I got a postdoc one with the promise to switch to a regular staff position after a year, I politely declined.

Looking for my position without having a safety net was incredibly naive of me, and I can see that now. I don't know if it was that deep down I was still hopeful, but I was sure that something, somehow, somewhere would pan out.

Armed with that experience I now know that I need to prepare, I need to be bold and approach people or companies, I need to follow my instincts and go for something if I'm qualified. I can't be too shy (or extremely modest) if I want to get what I want/need. I know now that I have to fight for what I want and not settle for anything less. I also make contacts (and keep making them) because it was through them that I became aware of my current position.

So, in conclusion, I found my job because I a) stayed connected to my field of training and their postings via a listserv, b) kept my closest tweeps aware of what I was looking for, c) did a lot of soul-searching and organization to find positions that aligned with my goals, d) networked, sent my CV, kept my online persona in shape and updated, e) kept hopeful, even when things were not going so well. I could have had totally different results, even while doing this and more. I guess I was at the right time and place to get me to where I am now.

I hope this answers some of your questions. Feel free to drop me a line if you're curious about anything else.

4 responses so far

Re-post - What's in your CV?

Feb 12 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm taking a bit of a break this weekend as my week was craaaazy. Here's a re-post of another one of my most popular entries. Enjoy! Originally posted on 19-12-2011.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about work (of course) and how I got to where I am, and how happy I feel at this time compared to last year. Last year I was feeling so miserable and sorry for myself. I had a job interview back home, and that had me a little excited, but it didn’t pan out. That did give me hope that there were some interested souls out there willing to pay attention to my training and find it somewhat valuable.

At this time last year, and for the next 4-5 months (yes, 4 to 5 months, almost non-stop), I’d be sending CVs and resumes to whoever gave me the light of day. I had been to a couple of turning-your-resume-into-a-CV and vice versa workshops in grad school and then the postdoc and I was lucky to have a couple of super awesome tweeps look over mine and say “bleh, this is crap! Fix it!!!”

I had things written in paragraphs, I was rarely using (short and sweet) bullet points to showcase my mad science skillz and I needed to make it punchier (to quote my grad school PI who adores using that word).

As soon as I started at my new job, I immediately got out my CV and started adding skills as I mastered them. I’m somewhat lazy, especially when it comes to updating certain things, like my Twitter Bio, the blog, or hell, even my CV. So today, I started looking through the CVs and resumes I’d tweaked (or started from scratch) in the last year, and finally found one of my most recent versions of the CV, dated June 25th, 2011, very soon after starting at my current position.

For whatever reason I started updating the thing (possibly a pre-New Year’s resolution), and all of a sudden I found myself updating every little section, as if I was ready to apply to a new position (no, I’m happy at work, though occasionally I would like to punch my boss, but that’s part of our relationship). This got me thinking that I love to swift through resumes and CVs and learn about other people’s talents and experiences, what was their first job? When did they start in science? What awards and grants they’ve had and for how long? Reading some of these things sometimes triggers old memories, which help me tweak my CV and add old, yet important career points.

I won’t post my CV for obvious reasons, but I wanted to mention the areas included in mine, and see if you have the same, or if you have more or less.

The categories in my CV are:

  1. Work Experience (which is newly added, for obvious reasons, though I feel like changing the name to something less lame. Ideas?)
  2. Education
  3. Languages
  4. Skills (which I divided in categories: computer and lab)
  5. Publications (I’m tempted to move it all the way to the back, like some TT-hopefuls do)
  6. Research experience
  7. Seminars
  8. Posters
  9. Teaching experience
  10. Volunteering
  11. Book Chapters
  12. Continuing education
  13. Awards and Memberships

I think there’s a better way of shaping my CV. It contains a lot of areas that are important to me (like skills, research experience, teaching, etc), but I believe that there’s a more coherent way of arranging everything. As it stands right now, I feel like my stuff is all over the place. I used to have a shorter version of my CV (I know, a lot of people don’t like this as a CV is supposed to chronicle your every step in the education/training/work ladder). But for some jobs I trimmed it down to the bare academic bones, to avoid having someone look at over 7 pages of me, me and more me. It felt …. wrong, I don’t know. I love to talk about myself all the time, yet, 7 or 8 pages of me made it feel … awkward.

So dear reader, I ask you now, how do you arrange your CV? Where do you start it? High school, college, graduate/professional school? How do you organize your CV? If you’re a recruiter, what do you look at first? What do you simply overlook, or ignore? Any areas that I’m missing? Any clever name for the “work experience” category? I’d love to read your ideas?

And, since I had a lot of help trimming mine and making it easier on the eyes, feel free to send your resume or CV my way. I’d be more than happy to take a look and help in any way I can.

PS. If you’ve taken a course, or audited one after grad school, do you bother to include it? Only if it’s specifically related to your discipline or future job? If you do include it, did you create a separate section in your CV for it? If not, where do you include it/them?

4 responses so far

Re-post - I failed my PhD qualifying exam … and I still obtained my degree

Feb 11 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

*** Today (and possibly tomorrow) I'm resting. It's been an intense week and yesterday was a killer day. For that reason I decided to re-post my (probably) most popular entry from the blog. It's about failing the qualifying (or comprehensive) exam on my second year in grad school. Enjoy! Originally posted on 09-29-2009.

A big stepping stone while doing your PhD is the time when you change your status from being simply known as a grad student, to becoming a PhD trainee (or senior graduate student). To achieve that glorious state meant that you had successfully gone through the qualifying exam(s) period, and essentially, your last examination would be your thesis defense. Quals, or comps (comprehensive exams) were the big thing. And I mean BIG … you hear stories about X or Y department, that have the worst reputation, or Prof. W, who’s an ass and could be in your examination committee, and finally those people, those students who nobody knows why, but they failed, were kicked out and never heard of again.

Well …. I’m sort of one of those. And not at the same time. I failed my qualifying exam, as the title clearly states. I had a second chance to take it, and passed it with flying colors, but it was not easy …. thus, here I share my story, and some of the things I learned from that process.

Some aspects of quals remain similar across different higher ed institutions. I’ve heard of people who need to read X amount of articles or books, then write long essays to answer questions on the topics they read. My guess is that this would be a more traditional approach to taking the quals. In my case the department in which I did the PhD did things differently. You had to find a topic, similar (but not identical) to something that was being done by your group, then write and defend a short proposal in front of a committee. To me it was similar to presenting your thesis project’s proposal, but you didn’t have the “freedom” or input in choosing the members of your exam committee or and being helped by the boss was discouraged (but not totally frowned upon).

People, I tell you …. it was HARD. Now, one problem in my field (biochemistry and biophysics) is that not all the research starts from a traditional hypothesis. Yes, indeed we formulate hypotheses, once we have investigated/determined structures of the biological molecules we studied. But because my former department had mostly “traditional” labs, I had to follow the majority, and do a hypothesis-driven proposal.

The first complicating factor for me was choosing a topic. I went through probably 50 scientific papers before narrowing it down to 1 specific topic. Secondly, I could not have any input from my PhD mentor for topic selection, thus asking any kind of question (for instance, does this make for a sound project, or am I too ambitious?) was not allowed. Thirdly, you only had 1 month to write the proposal, and after handing it, you could be examined almost immediately. Lucky me …. I took the exam just days after handing the proposal. I was FREAKING out.

The way my qual worked out was that I stood in front of the examination committee for 2 hours, answering questions about any and all possible things that could be said about the topic. I killed the biological questions (after all, my college degree was in biological sciences, I should have been able to ace something, right?), but when the hardcore questions came, those that were based on extrapolating knowledge, and concepts, that was the killer for me. I could not answer those well, and for it I failed.

It. Was. Though. I mean, I felt like the most stupid, idiotic, worthless piece of crap. EVER. I was devastated. I cried, I felt like I did not want to show my face around the professors from my department. I was a failure, and that’s all they would remember about me. Utter failure. Also, I felt like I was bringing shame to my group.

I thought failing this exam would define me for the rest of my life, but alas! Life does not have to be that dramatic.

I realized that there were things, knowledge I lacked. Specifically the parts of formulating a hypothesis and writing the proposal. See, during my first year of grad school all I did was try to get answers to lab related questions … basically from my sleeve (I always thought that the questions I got were from PI’s that had those same questions and wanted to get a clever answer which they had failed to come up for years … but this is just pure speculation). I came directly to grad school from undergrad. I had no counseling regarding the big change that involves going from spitting out memorized facts, to sitting down, ANALIZING a (scientific) problem and attempt to give a sound answer in an orderly fashion just with scientific experiments and reason.

I guess college is supposed to prepare you for that. And while you do lab work, you supposedly learn these tips, tricks and procedures. But I can honestly say that I went through my college experience without paying attention to that. All I was focused on was getting the highest grades possible, to get into a good medical or graduate program. It was never clear to me that the concepts and problems you learned in chemistry 101 would be useful some day, and could be applied to life in general. The only time I remember something like that happening was when I was taking Physics 2 and we had to solve a couple of problems using the soh-cah-toa method (good thing I remembered, I scored a 90+ in that one). Other than that, I felt like I was just memorizing facts, and nothing more. The analysis and critical thinking skills weren't there.

I could go around blaming people for the things I didn’t learn in college, or how it seems like the system failed to prepare me for grad school (it did in a way). Ultimately, situations like failing your quals bring you back to the reality that you are in grad school, and like my PI from the PhD used to say, you’re here because you have the capacity to teach yourself , and then apply those concepts to help answer scientific questions.

At this point, my boyfriend, who’d taken at least a gazillion classes related to methodology sat me down, helped me organize my tasks and checked that my hypothesis seemed sound (now, I must tell you, the BF does not work in the “hardcore” sciences, yet his knowledge of methodology was superb and he provided support and tools that were much needed at the time). Equipped with readings the BF provided and lots of patience, I reformulated my hypothesis, re-wrote the proposal and a month after failing my qual the 1st time, I took it again (with the same committee) and passed with flying colors.

It was my moment of glory. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. I don’t think I was this happy, not even when my committee approved my thesis and granted the degree after my defense.

The exam committee met with me, they said they were super proud and that it was beyond clear to them that I had taken the time, studied and put in the effort to make things clear, for me and for them, and for that I was worthy of passing.

All in all, I would not have it any other way. Whenever I tell this story I say it proudly, because my efforts (and a very patient and competent boyfriend) got me through the process. It is not the end of the world. And after all this, doing the research to complete the PhD seemed like a piece of cake. I can honestly say that I can probably teach myself many things, and that even if I didn’t learn some things in grad school or college, I can always look for a good book, sit down, teach myself and practice.

So there you have it. Do not feel discouraged. It is not the end of the world, and better times are ahead. Trust me … I am now a doctor :-)

17 responses so far

A day in the life of 27 and a PhD

Feb 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Now that I am a staff member, sometimes, I get asked the question of how does a typical day at work looks like.

When I was in grad school I'd get to the lab around 10am, collect or process data, depending on the project I was working, and leave any time after 6pm. During my first year I got in earlier, mostly because I was taking courses and wanted to go home early. Then during the postdoc I'd get in between 9:30-10am, work, and head home between 5 and 6pm. I didn't stay in the lab too long, partly because I wasn't doing much (yes, my postdoc was stellar... not), and Fridays were usually my busiest. I remember heading home around 6 or 7pm for a month or two straight. Since my lab was full of people (15 at one time), it was easier to get things accomplished when everyone was heading home.

Now as a staff scientist my work flow is definitely different and I get to do different things almost everyday. I'm almost always busy, that never changes. On a typical day I get in between 9:30-10am. If I've left equipment running overnight I make sure that whatever I was running worked, make sure the instruments are good, and if things are done I take out the samples. I also do most of the ordering and purchasing in the lab, and I have to keep records of things I've ordered, things that have arrived and call vendors if things are not in and the lab is in a crunch.

My lab went through some changes after I joined, and since we're sort of a core, a lot of users depend on the limited staff we have now. Since we have a couple of instruments, and varying degrees of user-independence/confidence, sometimes I'll assist someone for only a few minutes, other times I'll be there the whole day. Since we have many users coming by everyday, I'm usually trying to help more than one person. This has caused some friction, because some people need to have someone holding their hand, even though they've known the place and instrumentation since before I even graduated from the PhD. I've been trying to push for some of those users to become independent. Moderate success has been achieved. Other users are a bit more adventurous, but that doesn't necessarily translate into all of them knowing what they're doing. On rare occasions I've had to give warnings about risky behaviour, and I've had to remind a user or two (or three) that more than one person depends on having the equipment in top shape, and if it isn't then I don't have any trouble putting them on the banned list.

On days when I'm not setting instrumentation up for use, I'll be doing other things, like inventories of lab supplies and chemicals, calling vendors about equipment we need to buy or fix, taking care of booking instruments, returning emails and doing other admin duties. Most of these tasks are new to me, I don't think I (ever) purchased something directly, or talked to a vendor (except to get them out of the lab when they dropped by uninvited). Oddly enough I like doing it.

Each lab member knows how to use certain types of equipment, so occasionally users will contact the appointed person (expert) and see if they have some time to work on said instrument with them. Unless the user is new, pretty much everyone that comes in (ranging from grad students, to techs, to postdocs) only needs to have the equipment checked and they can work on their own.

Other days you'll find me reading spec sheets, transferring gas cylinders across the lab, fixing or testing equipment, and doing any number of tasks my PI sends my way just 'cause (you know, because sometimes I *just* have a bunch of free time to do little things while a PI is looking above my shoulder).

By 5 or 6pm we're usually winding down, though occasionally we have users that show up at the last minute. Everyone that wants to work late/after hours, has to have a certification to do so, something we try to enforce. That's also the cue for equipment to break down or users to have any sort of last minute trouble ... which means we leave an hour (or two, or hey, how about 3!) later than projected.

Most days I'm out the door by 7pm, though on particularly hectic times I've left the lab after 8 (not pretty). The commute is >30mins, so imagine how tired I feel by the end of the day.

It is almost never boring. And there are always problems/challenges to solve. The good thing is that I like my job and I think I do it decently well. I know that people depend on me and my ability to help them do the job just right. At times it hasn't been like that and most people understand. Most. I try my hardest, I really do.

3 responses so far

Postdoc fail

Feb 09 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

*** Disclaimer:  Here I talk about what I believe are some of the causes of my failure as a postdoctoral fellow and how that fueled, even more, my interest in getting out of the tenure-track and back into my former field of training. These are my views, of course, and not those of my former labmates or mentors. This is how I'm slowly understanding the whys and hows of failing and moving on.

If you read my blog, especially between the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 you'll notice that I was in a pretty bad mood. I felt terrible, depressed, disillusioned with science, research, and myself.  It is no secret that I was a very miserable postdoc. I started working in my postdoc lab with high hopes. I was pretty pumped after my defense and I was excited to be in a lab (though I can't lie, I really wanted a "real" job, not another temp position in academia). So, what went wrong? Why did I fail so miserably in my postdoc?

The first clue is in the second-to-last sentence of the previous paragraph. Read it again. I'll wait right here. Do, do, do, deee, do. OK, done? Great, what did you notice? I said "I was excited to be in a lab, though I couldn't lie, I wanted a "real" job." And by real what I mean is that I wanted a job, in science, but another transient position. In industry perhaps, or somewhere where I could make some money and have benefits (I know, I'm a sellout). I had reasons to be hopeful. Some of the previous students from my PhD had found positions in industry/government (granted, at the time my PhD mentor was in a neuro/pharmacology department at a different place, and apparently pharmacology has some cachet to it that the title of my PhD department lacks). I was moving to a new country, but I was somewhat positive (oh how naive some of us were as grad students) that I'd be able to find a job, and possibly avoid doing a postdoc.

My defense was early in the summer of 2009. I started sending emails and CVs everywhere in January of that year. If you recall, that's the time when the economic downturn was pretty horrible. And here I was, poor, naive me, trying to find a job just the middle of a sucktastic recession. I thought that 5-7 months would be enough to at least set something in motion, and that someone, somewhere close to the school honey was attending would be at least a bit interested in my skills. Nope, it didn't happen. There was this interesting-looking start-up biotech in postdoc town, but nope, they didn't even acknowledge getting my application (not even an automated response). I know now that had I been as passionate about finding a job then as I was at this time last year, I would have done things differently. I would have pestered asked for guidance from my PhD mentor saying something along the lines of  " boss, I'm afraid of doing a postdoc and going into the TT, can you help me find a job in something else?" Only now am I finally able to embrace that statement and admit what I'd been hiding for a long time ... I don't think I wanted to continue in the tenure-track, but I did, because I needed the income, and I thought that if I could at least learn some skills, that would make up for it. I thought that after 1 or 2 years as as postdoc I could go back into the job market, better prepared, and that with a better economy someone would be interested in me. But it was harder than I thought.

Just so it's clear, I don't hate the TT. I admire my peers who've gone into academic research and teaching. I just don't think I'm strong enough, or capable enough to maintain a full lab, write successful grants, recruit and maintain happy students and techs and teach on top of it. I admire all of you tweeps and peeps who go that wonderful route, but I don't think I can do it. I love doing seminars, I enjoy public speaking, I enjoy teaching and bringing light into a student's mind, to open their horizons to discovery and wonder. I also love doing research (even if it's sounds contradictory). I love doing the type of research I do, collecting and analyzing the data, creating pretty pictures, helping users with their needs. I like each area as a separate entity. I just don't think I can do both at the same time and still be (somewhat) successful.

Back to the story. So, I didn't find a job (and I wasn't insistent enough to keep at it). Instead, I made my peace with being a postdoc and decided to start from scratch, much like I'd done as a grad student. In a new lab, in a new discipline. I read all the papers the boss sent my way, I asked people in the lab to show me how to use equipment, I pestered the lab tech until I fully understood things. I met with my boss regularly, and I told him many, many times that I'd need to learn certain lab tasks that a lot of protein biochemists do routinely, since I hadn't done anything like that since my 1st year in grad school. And that it would take time, but I'd do it. I knew I could.

Little by little I started learning the ropes, but I had no idea of where to take my project. I can't say if it was because I didn't have the right mindset, or I wasn't interested or passionate enough about the project. Or maybe my critical thinking skills were not as developed as I thought. I just didn't have these fantastic ideas that the other postdocs in my lab seemed to have regarding their projects. That didn't frustrate me so much as it was sharing office quarters with the lab bully.

As time went on, one of my labmates started complaining about everything and everyone. At first I didn't notice. I'm a bit absent-minded and sometimes it takes me a while to catch things that seem obvious to everyone else. I'd share with honey how my day went, and one day he pointed out that sometimes I'd be in a foul mood, or feeling bad, especially in days when said labbie went on and on about how no one in the lab worked harder than they did, how the boss was sexist, how no one appreciated their contributions to the lab, and seem to want to take advantage of them (or their reagents). It was pretty poisonous and constant. And I never got the courage to call their hand and say enough, I ain't taking your BS, go complain to the boss and get the hell out if you're so unhappy and full of poison. It was poisonous, to the point where I was very depressed. I know now that I need to speak up and say stop when lab bullies are in and go all high and mighty about how they're the best thing that has ever happened to a lab and no one can compare to them. I'd never been in that situation, and I didn't react when I had to. I was scared and afraid. And it all invariably affected my performance in the lab.

Between the toxic labmate, the lack of interest in my project and the lack of mentoring and direction I got lost. I didn't know how to get out. By comparison, my PhD PI was very involved in everyone's project regardless of their position in the TT ladder. She would ask how things were going, and if someone was stuck, she'd help them out, lab manager, staff scientist, grad student or postdoc. It didn't matter, she was invested in our success and pushed us to go harder and higher than we thought possible. My postdoc PI was passive in that sense, and never really went out of his way to inquire as to how things were. I did drop by his office and asked for his input, which he freely gave, but it was always, "you try it and report it", not a "let me give it a try and see if it's you or me or the system" after many frustrating trials. I also asked to use certain pieces of equipment, and was met with a wall of silence. I think I spent circa 4 months begging to move on to more complicated stuff, and to have access and training on some instrumentation. It did happen, a few months before I left. Just as I was getting used to the new instrumentation the new job starts.

And I realize that I should have adapted to his style of mentoring, and that as soon as I noticed that it wasn't effective, I should have made a move and pester him for time, attention and training (as he was very hands on with the training, at least). Instead I just retreated and lost the battle, without much fight. That was crappy on my part.

By the end of my postdoc I was fed up and I wanted to go back to my original field of study. Though I did like the new techniques I'd learned (and I was consistently getting decent amounts of material to work with and promising results), it wasn't enough to keep me happy. I knew things in my former field, I knew the people, the papers, the instruments. I then decided that if the problem was all me, then I wouldn't flourish in my next position as a staff scientist. If that was the case, I'd hang my science gloves and look elsewhere. I wouldn't be an impostor anymore, because I didn't even have what it takes to be one.

With a battered spirit, I put on my job-searching pants and told my postdoc mentor that I would be looking for work during my last months there, and that while I wouldn't abandon my experiments, I would need time (and was willing to put in more hours during weekends if necessary) to do my stuff and look for a job and go on interviews if it came to that. From that point on our relationship changed a bit, and I got to see the mentor I'd wanted from day one. We had some of the most illuminating conversations ever. I was very open and honest and he was too. He gave me some spot on advice (especially about accepting an offer and negotiating a salary), inquired as to where I was looking and what I was looking for and asked me about my motivations and interests. I guess in a way he wanted to make sure I was in it for the right reasons.

A few weeks before I left we had a long, intense conversation. We talked about our expectations coming in and how some of them were met and others weren't. We gave each other an informal evaluation of sorts, and for the first time I saw the mentor I was yearning for. He was open, direct, yet kind and reassuring. That's what I had wanted all along ... but I couldn't see it until the very end. And it made me sad, because I saw it in him ... I just didn't work hard enough to get it out sooner, to keep him engaged an interested in me. And I felt like a failure. I couldn't accomplish my mission in the lab, and I couldn't get my mentor to stay interested in my project. I still think about the two years I spent there, and how I could have done much more, if only I'd searched a more, dug deeper, asked for what I needed from my mentor from day one. I sometimes kick myself for not doing enough. Other times I think it simply wasn't meant to be, and that two people with weird communication skills didn't get the chance to see the best in each other. It makes me sad.

I know that things could have been different, but they weren't. That even though I didn't get a paper out, I did do a whole lot of growth and discovery. In his lab and via the contacts I made I did take advantage of continuing ed courses, I did attend some very interesting and high profile lectures. I met people Canadian structural bio gods, and I am thankful for it. I learned new techniques and approaches, and I have a better understanding of what it takes to make things work in other branches of structural biology. I'm thankful that even though I didn't want to do a postdoc, I still did it, and learned that it was OK to move away from the tenure-track, to let those that want it bad and can, try their best and do it. I learned that one can find fulfillment in doing lab science without necessarily becoming a professor, and that there's a place for all. Even though I failed as a postdoc, I did learn a lot. And like honey says, as years go by, some of the lessons will become obvious and I will continue to grow and absorb stuff from the experience. If I hadn't been through it, I wouldn't know what I know today .. even if it was difficult and painful.

My current job isn't always a paradise with unicorns and rainbows (and LOLcats, lots of 'em), but this field I can handle, this type of work keeps me pumped. Dealing with some admin crap every now and then, organizing lab things, making sure that instruments work properly, troubleshooting, helping people ... those things I enjoy. Sure, I may not get to be the first author in papers anymore, or be the senior author ever ... but I am content with that for now. Who knows what the future holds. Maybe one day I'll feel like I can be in charge of bigger things, or that I only want to teach, or maybe I can even be a project manager and keep things going and provide support in other ways. Till then, even with my postdoc failure, I keep going on.

29 responses so far

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