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Entries in science careers (52)

Friday
Aug252017

Academic careers are stressful

New report from the Royal Society and Wellcome Trust, in the UK:

* The majority of academics working at universities are stressed

* Academics have a higher risk of developing mental health issues than other professionals (37%)

* Levels of burn-out are far higher than average and comparable to high risk groups such as health-care workers

* Main problems are lack of job security, limited support from management and the weight of work-related demands

(but we shouldn't stress - science is a great gateway career if you want to leave later on)

Tuesday
Jun132017

Work-life balance interview

The interview below was with Jorg Stange, the manager of the "equality4success" program at the Babraham Institute.

Why did you want to achieve a good work-life balance?

I don’t really think that I have achieved a good work-life balance. I work a lot more than I probably should, and I don’t have much time or hobbies or the like. I would love to have the time to learn a language and spend every weekend and evening work-free. On the other hand, I really like my work. Working 9 to 5 doesn’t sound appealing to me, and I don’t really make an attempt to firewall work and life.

The one place where I would say that I achieved a good work-life balance was in parenting duties. Many fathers automatically step into the part-time parenting role, happy for the mother to take most of the parenting duties. For me this is ideologically incompatible with having an equal relationship. I am a passionate feminist, so I actively seek not to replicate the typical mistakes of fatherhood. Equality in my relationship with my wife is a must, and I want to be a good example to my son.

But that doesn’t mean I have work-life balance – sometimes I have too much work AND too much parenting. When decisions on priority need to be made, I make sure that the most important facets of life come first, but the less important parts of both work and life sometimes get sacrificed.

Why do you think you have achieved a good WLB?

To the extent that I have, it is because I have amazing people in my life. My wife is an inspiring example of being successful at both work and at home, the people I work with are both amazing colleagues and wonderful friends. It is the support network for when things get tough that is most important. The other really important trick is being able to say no. Sometimes that means saying no to parts of work that are not critical (to keep up the parts that are most important), sometimes it means choosing to say no to parts of home life that are less important (but always preserving the important moments).

What actions did you take to maintain / improve WLB?

The big decisions need to always include both work and life. Where will you live on both the macro (which country/city) and micro (neighbourhood) needs to consider both aspects. Does the country have good healthcare and parental support? Will that city provide good career options for both people, or is someone going to become a trailing spouse? Does this neighbourhood provide an easy way to enjoy weekends, and a minimal commute during the week? If you make the big decisions deliberately friendly to both work and life, then the everyday decisions tend to fall in the right direction. For example, when I was working in the US, everyone around me worked late every evening and the lab was full every weekend. I had to make an effort to notice the time and leave before everyone else just to be home before 10pm. In Belgium, if I leave at 7pm I am often one of the last in the building: one work environment promotes long hours, the other discourages it.

What was the rationale behind these decisions?

I only see one good reason for life choices: being happy. My ideal work-life balance is going to be different from someone else’s. You would think that optimal happiness is something that we automatically drift towards, but actually (for me at least, and, I suspect, many others) it takes an awareness and an effort to arrange your life to be happy.

How did the working environment (attitudes of leaders and colleagues, policies in place, general culture, etc.) impact on your plans to achieve a better WLB?

Like many research institutes, my institute is a negative impact on work-life balance. Pressure is high, and I suspect it is physically impossible to achieve the required objectives within a normal working week. To do anything other than put work first constantly is to be an outlier.

On the other hand, Belgium as a country is very positive on my work-life balance. The culture is generally built around assumptions of normal working hours, and we picked key aspects of our life (where we life, where we work, where our son goes to school) to make healthy choices easier. Doesn’t mean that we always make them, but to a certain extent it counteracts the work pressure.

What support did you receive (from employer / national system / family)?        

The Belgian system is very good for young families – full day crèche from three months of age, great support from in-home nurse care during days when the child is sick, high quality schools everywhere so we can pick based on convenience and not feel guilty.

From my family, my wife and I took equal parenting very seriously, and so we both sacrificed either personal time or work success at various points. Our extended family are in Australia, so we were entirely reliant on each other and external support.

How did you benefit professionally from your solution to integrate life and work (e.g. increased motivation / creativity / focus)?

When I delegated work tasks to senior people in my laboratory, they stepped up to a much higher level than I expected, and things were soon being done better than I had been doing! When you give the right person responsibility you can be very pleasantly surprised, and they also get an opportunity to grow that they otherwise might not have.

How have your decisions for achieving WLB impacted on your career progression?

In the short term, it has probably been mildly negative. There are certainly meetings I should have attended that I didn’t, dinner that would have been good for my career that I skipped, grants I might have got that I didn’t write. On the other hand, I kept up all the really important career goals, so my career has been advancing better than I could have asked for. I certainly don't regret my choices for work-life-balance.

Wednesday
May102017

Ways to succeed in science

Hidde Ploegh, Harvard/MIT, finished his lecture today with a message to the PhD students:
If you can buy it out of a catalog, you can assume that all the obvious experiments have been done. You will not make a major discovery or make an impact in the field until you develop new tools. You need to be willing to take a risk and invest in designing and building new strategies to look at old questions.
Very good advice, of course, coming from someone who has been incredibly successful in just this manner. There are many great immunologists who have made their mark in this way; Pippa Marrack and Gary Nolan spring to mind.
I would say that it is not the only way to be incredibly successful though. I tend to think of three basic types of high level success in science:
  • The builder. In the vein of Ploegh, Marrack or Nolan, they constantly build new technology or techniques to push back the boundaries of the possible
  • The bridger. There are many "builders" out there, working in different areas. And the tools created for one purpose always have great potential in other areas. The bridger is someone who keeps an open mind and an eye on many fields, looking for the opportunity to pull in a new approach or idea from another field into their own arena. Researchers like Diane Mathis, Sasha Rudensky and Jean-Laurant Casanova have been very successful in rewriting their field without inventing new technology. 
  • The thinker. Perhaps the rarest is the person who thinks of a simple elegant experiment that could actually have been done decades ago, but just wasn't. Not every advance relies on the brute force of new tech, some just need another way of looking at the problem. I see Gita Stockinger, Polly Matzinger, Ruslan Medzhitov and Chris Goodnow as successful in this approach. 
Of course, many of the best use aspects of each approach, and I am sure there are other models too.
Sunday
Mar192017

A biology PhD (in America)

Thursday
Mar022017

International science

This is a time when the international nature of science is under threat - from Brexit, Trump and war, the movement of scientists is being restricted, and with it the scientific advantages of 'brain circulation'.

Just how international an endeavour is science? At the moment, our lab has 21 researchers: 12 are international (from 12 different countries) and 9 are Belgian. 

Over the past 8 years, our lab has trained 113 young scientists. 52 have been Belgian, 61 have been international (31 from the EU, 30 from outside the EU, from 32 nationalities). Belgium has benefited from this international talent, our researchers benefited from being trained here, and the country of origin benefits from the additional training they receive. Immigration is a win-win!

While I am discussing demographics, it is worth noting that 65% of my trainees have been women, so if any departments are struggling to hire female Professors just ask - there are lots of amazing women coming out of my lab. 

 

Tuesday
Jan312017

Interview with Science Minds

Recently I was interviewed by Vinoy Vijayan for his excellent Science Minds podcast. 

You can download the interview here, if you are interested in a discussion on science careers, different pathways to take in science, mentorship and diversity in science.

Friday
Jan132017

To post-doc or not?

This Nature Biotechnology paper has an interesting analysis of American biomed PhDs who chose to post-doc or not. Essentially, doing a post-doc is essential for an academic position, but it actually lowers net salary outside of academia. How well this translates to other countries is not clear - American post-docs are paid much lower salaries than some other countries, but it is worth a read.
This was my favourite paragraph:
"Ex-postdocs continued to earn less on average than non-postdocs ten or more years postPhD. In-fact, ex-postdocs gave up 17–21% of their present value of income over the first 15 years of their careers. This suggests that postdoctoral education is inconsistent with a model of human capital investment. Instead, it indicates that postdoc positions work as tournaments, where individuals compete for an increasingly limited number of tenured/TT jobs by signaling their ability and commitment through long hours in laboratories and years spent underpaid."
Sounds about right. Except that it forgets to mention some of the great things about doing a post-doc. You can easily relocate and live for a few years pretty much anywhere in the world. It is like starting your PhD over again, except you are actually competent at your job, you don't have to write a thesis, and you can leave whenever you feel like. You meet great people that are in research for the love of it, and you will keep some of the most valuable contacts you ever make for the rest of your career. 
Sunday
Jan082017

Science career advice, age 5

Want to be a scientist?
Like to solve problems?
Good at maths?
Patience?
Like to experiment?
Want to be a doctor?
Like to help people?
Not afraid of blood?
Good listener?
Like to study?
Want to be a professor?
Like to read?
Like to teach?
Patience?
Good memory?
Friday
Nov112016

Position available: Flow Cytometry Specialist

Thinking of moving to Canada? Try Belgium. We are looking for an experienced flow cytometry specialist to support our immunology team. The candidate will work on converting current stain sets into high parameter (20+) stain sets, working in the fields of clinical and mouse immunology. Salary: commensurate with experience. Relocation support possible for international applicants.

Qualifications and Experience

The candidate should either hold a PhD based on flow cytometry, or hold a Master degree and have at least three years of research experience in flow cytometry. Experience in immunology is a plus, but is not required. Fluency in written and spoken English is required. 

Application

Please submit 1) a full CV, with an emphasis on flow cytometry experience and 2) names of two references by 31-Dec-2016 to:

Prof Adrian Liston

adrian.liston@vib-kuleuven.be 

Saturday
Oct292016

Success and failure in science

Science is a very competitive field and demands a high level of success. Not only do you need to make an advance, but you need to make a major advance, get it published in a top-tier journal and repeat over and over again to have a career in the field.

But perhaps how science treats failure is the really remarkable part. Science is remarkably tolerant of failure, even repeated failure. I've probably had 500 rejections from scientific journals - I don't even bother counting. My grant rejection rate is over 50%. I've had projects that have been cut after years of investment, with no return. It happens, and you get used to it.

As scientists we are always inching our way forward into the unknown, making wrong turn after wrong turn until we finally stumble onto a new truth. Constant, gruelling failure is just built into the system. This is one of the toughest lessons for new PhD students to learn - yes, nothing is working, but that is normal! My first paper was one of the most important of my career, earning me my post-doc position and being critical for my faculty position. Yet if you were to look at all the experiments that are included in the paper, they probably only took an accumulated 10 days. The actual project took two years, but most of that time was design, breeding and genotyping, experimental troubleshooting, and generally being busy without producing results.

It is a funny thing to consider, but science completely ignores all of your failures and judges you on your absolutely best days. Those few days that get results are the ones that make your paper. Even if you have published a hundred papers, you are only judged on the best five. So to students that are stressed out about failure - don't worry, failure is normal and healthy in science, and will never be held against you. If you can follow up four years of failure with one good breakthrough, you will be widely congratulated and rewarded.

It is a funny old career in a lot of ways.