Waiting around as transferable skill

What was most annoying about labwork was that sometimes there were 14-hour workdays of which only about an hour was actual work, and the rest was just waiting. Waiting for gels to set, waiting for gels to run, waiting for machines to finish, blots to incubate, paint slides to dry.
Sound familiar?
Well, guess what: this may just be a transferable skill.
“The logs reveal a job which involves long periods of waiting around but which at any moment could require concentration when something finally happens.”
Writes BBC news, in an article about a job opening at MI5. The Security Service is hiring new “mobile surveillance officers”, and the required skills include both patience and observance.
So if you want to leave science, you can always be a spy!
Like a scientific career, it might not be as glamorous as it sounds, though. The salary starts at £26,250, which is on the low end of the average UK postdoc salary. As the BBC points out, you’re better off applying for another job opening at MI5: they’re also hiring carpenters who get paid a thousand pounds more per year than the new spies.
But if that doesn’t put you off (and why would it? you didn’t go into science for the cash either) here’s the info, with an interactive game to test your skill. I have no idea what the game is like, because it took several minutes to load, and I didn’t want to wait any longer so I closed the window.
I see what just happened.

A metaphor for science and technology

Forget about art and science – this century has a whole new two world problem.
It’s been nagging me for a while – at science online conferences (both the London and North Carolina varieties), in talks with lab mates, at work at a scientific publisher, and hanging out with technology-oriented geeks in my spare time. There’s a gap between science and technology, and it’s growing.
Were we to take some opinions on the street, vox-pop-style, about perceived “two worlds” between science and other fields, I’m sure many would still point to a supposed divide between the arts and sciences. That may be what it seems like – from books and TV, from high school memories – but if you’re in art or science, this supposed divide is so well-bridged that you don’t even notice the chasm when you cross it.
Yet what none of our hypothetical vox-poppers would say is that there is such a thing as a divide between science and technology. To the contrary, they always see them together. “Science and Technology” share newspaper sections, website pages, and ticky-boxes on “occupation” fields in surveys. Science brought us technology, so surely they go hand in hand?
It’s true, they used to go well together, and in certain fields of research they still do, but apart from areas like computer science or bioinformatics, there is no correlation between people who like to use computers, and people who like to do research.
The thing is: scientists are just like normal people. You’ll find that a small group of them is hugely interested in blogging, just like a small group of the overall population is. Another (perhaps overlapping) group is over the moon about new web tools they can try out in the lab, just like there’s a small group of early adopters in the general population. But by and large, many scientists hate new things.
It is this audience of print-reading, references-in-Word-typing, Facebook-avoiding researchers that we are trying to get to download new reference managers, upload their data for their competitors, and while they’re at it, write a blog post or two.
It’s scary for me to sit in a seminar that teaches publishers and scientists about social media – things I’ve picked up on the go, without anyone teaching me – and it’s frustrating to see enthusiastic digital natives pitch the next new tool to reluctant researchers. I’ve seen both. I’m kind of in between the two worlds, and they really are two worlds.
Where art and science have many bridges (a love for high resolution microscopy, excitement about data from outer space, and a common struggle to get funded – to name a few) science and technology have little to go on. They share a past, but they’ve moved in their own direction.
Here’s a metaphor: Science and Technology used to sit next to each other in elementary school, but throughout high school and college Technology got really popular and famous, and Science never changed much. Now when they meet once in a while, to catch up over coffee, Technology still acts like they’re as close friends as they were when they were ten, but Science doesn’t even know what Technology is talking about when he says things like “widget”, really does not think he needs any of the things Technology seems to be trying to give him, and regularly glances under the table at the minute hand on his watch, to make sure he gets back to the lab in time. “Man, Technology really changed”, thinks Science, “and he hasn’t even asked me how I am…”
I’m friends with both of them, and it’s getting more and more difficult to find common ground for these guys. And the hypothetical vox-pop interviewees from before? They just remember Science and Technology from when they were all in elementary school together: they were the two nerds, always sitting next to each other at the front. Surely they’re still in touch? They were always so close…

Why no postdoc?

“Oh, you’re in Cambridge now?” someone said, “Are you doing a postdoc there? Congrats!”
No, I’m not.
Someone else, around the same time, asked me: “But if you just finished your PhD, why aren’t you doing a postdoc now?”
Why would I? I don’t want to run my own lab.
So many people stream into a postdoc after their PhD, because that’s what’s expected of them – at least in certain fields. But THEN what? Are you going to be a postdoc forever? You might have to be, because the message that your supervisory committee may have imprinted on you – that they are preparing you to run your own lab one day – is not exactly in tune with reality.
As Jenny pointed out earlier this week, there are too many postdocs (see also Jeff’s article here: pdf). There is no way that all these people will have their own lab in the future. Not unless research funding suddenly increases tenfold, and we all know that’s not going to happen… If you get stuck on the idea that this is what you need to do, that you are “being trained to be a PI”, then you are going to feel like a failure when you don’t make it.
And if you are the kind of person who sees every PhD student as a postdoc in the making, and consider me a failure for not wanting to do a postdoc, then let me sit you down and explain my choice.
I did a PhD not because I wanted to be a PI, but because I needed more exposure to research and the scientific community than I got in my masters. I love research, but I prefer it if someone else does it. I hate experiments. I hate growing cells. I hate waiting for things to happen and starting all over again when something doesn’t work. I love when the results are finally in, and everything fits together, and I can relate it to something else and it just all “clicks”. I love talking about science, and reading what other people are doing, and connecting one paper with another. I don’t want to worry about partial digestions or mycoplasm or bands running off the gel. And that’s the kind of crap you worry about on a daily basis when you’re in a lab, and you barely get a chance to step back and see the big picture.
I just don’t like being at the bench. My favourite part of research was giving talks about it. I understand that for most people it’s the other way around. Ironically, the people who make it through years of postdocs so they one day finally qualify to be an assistant professor – a job for which they have to teach – are the same people who much prefer pipettes over PowerPoint. I get upset when I hear someone say that they “have to teach”. Of course you do! That’s your job! If you hate teaching so much, you should have done something else.
I could have done a postdoc, but I wouldn’t really have learned anything useful to me. Yes, it’s more experience in science, but only in a tiny corner of it. I like talking to people, organizing events, getting scientists together. You don’t learn that as a postdoc. If I had done a postdoc, I would only have taken up funding that someone else really wants, and I would be part of the excess of trainees. It would be another several years of being treated like someone whose life is a failure unless they one day run their own lab.
So other people, go ahead: do a postdoc, and then another one or two more. Clone, digest, lyse, wash, split, block, incubate, fix, stain, and count all you need. Tell me when you’re done, and I’ll be appropriately excited about the results, and tell you stories about all the other research projects I heard about that were also really exciting. But I don’t want to be one of the people working on a teeny tiny parts of science and getting stuck on the idea that my research is the be all and end all. I’d like to stand back and read and listen and get a more general idea of what’s going on and who is doing what.
That doesn’t mean I gave up or failed. I found the kind of job I wanted all along, one in which I get to read papers and meet scientists and go to conferences, and I didn’t need to do a postdoc to get it. For me, postdoc was my backup plan (read that post and see how far I’ve come!). I told myself I would take a year after getting my PhD to figure out what I wanted to do. And if I really couldn’t find anything, then I would start applying to postdocs after that year. It would have been my safety net, and I know it is for many people: if you don’t know what you want to do after your PhD, you might as well just do a postdoc and delay the decision. But I did find a job within my own imposed deadline, so I never had to find a postdoc.
I didn’t do a postdoc, not because I failed, but because I didn’t fail.

My First Day (Cambridge edition)

Alyssa is not the only one who started a new job today. (Hence my post title. She used up the original “My First Day”)
I just started as Online Editor for Development , in Cambridge. Eventually, you’ll see me pop up on various places online with that hat on, after we launch exciting new things, but today I just sat at my new desk (and only wore a hat outside). I had a great first day, and I’m not just saying that because my new boss reads my blog =) My name was already on the “in/out” board at the door, so that made me feel immediately welcome. I even remembered to switch it to “out” as I left, exceeding my own expectations.
For my new job I’ll be learning a lot about the community of developmental biologists. Next week I’ll be at a workshop about neural stem cells in development and disease, so I can see what these workshops are all about, meet people, learn some new biology, and think about ways to report from these and other meetings without compromising people’s unpublished data or other things they don’t want to be all over the internet.
I don’t want to give too much away, but if you’re a developmental biologist, I will make the internet a little bit lot better for you this year.
You’ll also be glad to know that the positions I left have been expertly filled. I just found out that Joanna Scott took over my part of the Nature Network community management. A few weeks earlier, Ryan Fobel replaced me as Editor-in-Chief of Hypothesis.
I also found a place to live, just met the landlord tonight, and will get the key on Friday, so I won’t have to hog Lou’s guestroom much longer. (It’s Lou’s birthday today, have you congratulated her yet?)
So that was my first day. I hope Alyssa’s is going great as well!

Interesting Development

A year and one day ago I defended my PhD thesis. (I was planning to post this yesterday, can you tell?) I told myself I’d take one year to figure out what I was going to do next. I spent the first 3 weeks off, then 6 months working for an undergraduate biology department, several weeks traveling, and a couple of months freelancing while searching for fulltime work.
Last week I accepted a job with a science publisher in Cambridge (UK). (That’s the real reason I went there .) I’m not sure how much I can say yet about what I’ll be doing, but it’s definitely interesting and something (I think) I’m good at. Sadly, I can’t combine it with working for Nature Network, so after a very brief period doing part-time freelance community managing I’ve stepped down again.
I’ll start in Cambridge on February 1st, so I’m leaving Canada before the end of January. There are a million things I need to do before then, and it’s already starting to keep me up at night. I’m going to have to start a dedicated “moving notebook” before I lose my head.
One thing I have already arranged, though, is a pub night for Toronto science folks. Trust me to get my priorities straight! So if you’re in the area and want to say hello to other science-minded people, or goodbye to me, or both, come by the “Duke of York”:http://york.thedukepubs.ca on December 22nd. I reserved a table in my name after 6 PM, and will be there eating their delicious artichoke/spinach dip.

To science!

I’ve had a bit of a weird week.
I was in London last Monday, for a job interview. I didn’t get the job, but I did get to see Jenny and Stephen for a few minutes after their Fiction Lab, so it was still a worthwhile trip.
I’ve been looking for work since I came back from vacation this summer, and it’s hard. I’ve been doing some freelance work in the mean time, but that hasn’t been enough to live off, and I had to give in and admit that I qualified for Employment Insurance. I don’t like living off goverment money for doing nothing, and I’d much rather work.
When I defended my thesis in December, I told myself that I’d take one year of freelancing to figure out what I really want. At the time, I said I didn’t want to do a postdoc, but I was afraid that it might have been too inspired by a lack of data and frustrating experiments during my PhD, rather than a real desire to do something else. A year should be enough to get some perspective, and was still short enough that I could find a postdoc if I changed my mind.
When you’re in grad school, there is this one path laid out in front of you, and that path leads to a postdoc, and then probably another postdoc, and a tenure track job in the far, far, foggy distance. Leading off from that path, left and right, are scary, dark alleyways. “Teaching”,“med school”, “business”, “law school”, “editing”. There are stories of people who strayed on these paths. Many of them are never heard from again. They “left science”.
And I “left”, too. But people have some vague idea what I’m doing right now, and the kind of jobs I’m applying to. I got an e-mail a few weeks ago, from someone I used to do volunteer outreach stuff with. I had run into her at graduation, and told her I was looking for work in science publishing. She e-mailed to tell me that she heard a rumour that someone from my old institute got a job at Nature. The rumour was so vague that it didn’t come with a name, and she had to ask me “Was that you?”
Sadly, no, that wasn’t me. But it says something about the culture of “people who left” that these stories are passed on from person to person, losing information like a game of Broken Telephone. It’s special, and it needs to be talked about. Who cares who it was, someone got a job at Nature! It can be done!
In the alleyways off the brightly lit path that leads to postdocs, is a rogue gang of deserters looking for alternative ways to live a life of science. And we’ve got each others’ backs.
Another girl that I also ran into at graduation e-mailed me this week to say that a medical writing company she worked for is looking for more freelance writers. That came just a week after I got a contract for about 70 hours of work with the writing company of the husband of one of my exam committee members. Meanwhile, I’m still applying for editing jobs, I’m networking a lot, and Jenny is casting her editorially trained eye on my CV.
Everyone has just been really helpful. I was in a slump about not finding work, about being bored, and feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, but I do belong somewhere – I just don’t have a permanent full-time employer right now.
The real turning point came, as turning points so often do, on Friday night.
I had been invited to a friend’s birthday. I know this girl through a group of local blog friends who since scattered all over the place, and I didn’t know any of the other people at the party. I sat down at a table with a group of her coworkers. They were all media professionals, but with an entertainment angle rather than science. (My friend writes sarcastic reviews of TV shows for a living.) Of course they asked what I did, and I said “I write about science.”
Earlier this year, I had a minor panic attack every time someone asks me what I did, but I found that the common feature of everything I do is some form of writing about science. Whether it’s a thesis or comments on a student essay or a press release or a job application – I write about science.
“Science, cool! What kind of science?”
“Well, my PhD was in Biochemistry, but now it’s more general. Mostly biology.”
“Wow, you have a PhD?” Another guy joined the conversation, and pulled his chair up a little closer so he could ask me all about the H1N1 vaccine. Did I, as a scientist, think it was a government conspiracy? “No”, I said, “I think they’re just being very careful about pandemics these days.”
The waitress brought more beer, and we raised a glass: “To science!” my table mates cheered.
When they all went out for a smoke, I moved my chair to the next table, and met one of my friend’s former classmates from her journalism program. She and her boyfriend were also excited to hear about what I did. “Cool, science! Did you hear that, she’s a scientist!” I explained what kind of jobs I was interested in, and to her, it made perfect sense to look for something in publishing.
To most people, I am no less of a scientist if I am pursuing a career outside of the lab. Science is science.
And with that, and two new writing assignments to work on, my week changed for the better. I left the birthday party confident that I was doing the right thing.
Just then, I heard glasses clinking at the other table. The smokers had come back inside, and cheered amongst themselves:
“To science!”

Once upon a time, in a lab not far from here…

Remember when I was writing my thesis? I don’t really, but I have pictures of it.

Oh, right. It’s all starting to come back…

Haha!! That happened every time. Those are words, stupid Word.
I was vaguely reminded of my thesis when I got an e-mail yesterday, telling me that the entire thing is now available online . It’s under a Creative Commons license, so you can read it out loud to sleepless children or re-enact the whole thing on YouTube, as long as you credit me. This is even the version with the correct table numbers! (As opposed to the final print version…) If nothing else, you can read the acknowledgements. Don’t pretend you don’t read the acknowledgements (and nothing else) in everyone’s theses.

Back to whatever

Tuesday morning I woke up grumpier than usual – and I usually wake up grumpy in the first place!
It was the day that everyone in Canada went Back to School . I have been going back to school every September since 1982, so this was the first September since 1981 in which I didn’t. And it feels weird. I left my full-time job when my contract ended in June, and have been “on vacation” in July and August. But in September you really can’t be on vacation anymore.
I’m keeping busy, but for someone who multitasked her way through crazy lab experiments and juggled three to eight extracurricular activities at any given time, I’m not busy enough. Everything that I used to do on the side has now become my main life. Orchestra started again last night, and rather than having to fit rehearsals into my schedule, the weekly gatherings are my schedule. I’m going to New York City later this month to talk about blogging , and booked my return flight to accommodate orchestra. It’s the only place I need to be these days.
I do have a lot of time to do things I’ve been putting off for a while. I’m still not doing them, but I have time to do them now, and that’s what matters.
Today I interviewed some people for the LabLit podcast, about science and art, and it’s potentially more exciting than Richard and Jenny reading comics from the newspaper out loud . (There’s more in that episode, of course. The calculator story made me laugh.)
I’m also writing some things for people here and there , but again, this was stuff I used to do on the side. I’m really stretching everything out to fill my days. I even started cooking properly, and I don’t even like cooking. Actually, it now got to the point where I even enjoy it a tiny bit. Remember, my New Year’s resolution was to be a better cook, and it looks like it’s actually going somewhere! Like Anna , I’ve also noticed the similarities with lab work. I felt like I was coordinating experiments when I planned to serve the gazpacho (premade, in the fridge) in the 15 minute cooking period of the chili rather than in the 5 minute step before it. Things in the lab work the same way: You can check your e-mail during a blot wash step (10 minutes), and you can go downstairs for coffee during the antibody incubation (1 hour). You can also – if you find yourself juggling three to eight extracurricular activities – use these intervals to e-mail people about an event you’re organizing, and to type out meeting notes, respectively. It’s maddening, and sometimes there is no time to eat (let alone cook), but I miss it.
I know I said I would never miss lab work, and I don’t think that’s it. It’s those bleeping timers I miss. (Or, if you will, those BLEEP-ing timers) I got a lot more done when I saw the minutes tick away until the next step in the experiment than when I have all day to work on something.
Tomorrow I’m going to set some random timers and see how I do.
Or maybe the day after tomorrow. There’s no rush…

In Between Days

I’ve been accused (by “Richard “look at pictures of my garden and this dead pig” Grant”:http://network.nature.com/people/rpg/blog ) of “not blogging”. Apparently my pictures don’t count as blog posts.
But it’s true, I’ve been avoiding lengthy posts. What do you want me to write about? I’m no longer in the lab, so accounts of PBS-soaked lab journals or eppie-blisters just don’t exist anymore. I have been reading scientific papers once in a while, but for a purpose, and the purpose was not “to blog about them”. Besides, I’ve never been one to blog about things in the literature. I’m more of the look at these cool pictures! -type.
I suppose I could be a better curator of the easternblot Flickr group. I get them all in RSS, and only privately enjoy them instead of showcasing them on my other, also neglected, blog. Worst gallery owner ever. I guess I can scratch that off my potential future job list.
My current job, which was only a six-month contract, ends end of this month, so as of next week I’ll be mostly unemployed. This entire year was supposed to be some kind of transition year, to try freelancing and think about research, and I’m already at a totally different place than six months ago. At the end of December, after my defense, I wanted to do anything but work in a lab. Now I still don’t want to work in a lab, but I’m a bit more specific about what I do want. I don’t want to blog about that now, though, so there’s another blog topic gone.
The next couple of weeks I will be only minimally involved in science, but maybe that kick-starts a stream of blog ideas. I actually have ideas, I just haven’t written anything out because the ideas are too big for blog posts. Stories where every sentence makes me jump up in my seat, grab your arm, and excitedly add “Oh, and that is related to….” I can’t write those in blog length posts. I tried. The Erdos post was actually the shortest possible version of an idea I have about a centralized database for anyone involved in any field of academia (not PubMed, but PubEverything). An actual post would take too long, but I don’t think my message was very clear from my “look at this XKCD comic”-style post. It’s what I do, you see, I just show pictures.
And that is why I haven’t blogged properly.
So this is what I’ve become: I’m blogging about not blogging. The one thing I swore I would never do.
(P.S. Re: the title. Not only am I currently in my “in between” days, I have also been wearing out the Ben Folds version of the song on my iPod lately.)

An Owl with images (non-moving)

This is a picture from when I studied at Hogwarts.

And this was when we did the Sorting Hat Ceremony and I was put in Ravenclaw.