The boss of me

There are times (and these weeks appear to be such times) when I don't feel like I am fit for running a lab at all. Usually it is because I have way too much stuff to do (teaching, grading, traveling, sitting in meetings, fighting administration) - stuff that my lab doesn't benefit from and either doesn't know goes on or thinks is taking too much of my time.

And now, the week before I take a much needed break, I finally have some time to catch up with some science for a change and I find that projects are not running smoothly, some people don't do what I thought we had agreed on, while others depend on the results and are now freaking out, which makes me freak out. On top of that, I find that I am intimidated by my own postdoc, who always has a reply to no matter what I say and who sometimes makes me feel like I am stupid and incapable. And who has too much work on their plate, and therefore not yet finished any of it, but who refuses help and support whenever I offer. I think I need to manage this more and be more strict about who does what and what data belong to whom, but I don't have the will nor the energy.

I am so freaking tired.

Debbie Downer

Is it normal to feel like this two months after getting tenure? I presumably have all I have ever worked for,  and yet I increasingly catch myself thinking: 10 more years, and then I am out of this crazy environment. I am constantly dreaming about my back up career - but I have no time to work on it on the side, like I had always imagined. There is absolutely nothing romantic about being an academic. The only upside about the presumed freedom (education/teaching always comes first) is that I can just show up late on days where it is simply too much for me to handle. I have been showing up late way too frequently.

It could be hormones, it could be total exhaustion and me being in need of a serious break - but I felt down all week. There is simply too much on my plate. I had to do experiments for one full day (one student couldn't operate an expensive piece of equipment and for another experiment my technician needed an extra pair of hands so I played assistant). It was good to get my mind off of all the boss business I usually fill my days with, but also a good reminder that I really do not miss bench work at all. Couldn't care less. I don't mind it either, but it doesn't make me happy. Just give me a computer and an office and leave me alone.
Except for the fact that of course I am never really left alone. I'm just running from meeting to meeting, from problem to problem with the piles of 'to do' and 'to read' and 'to grade' on my desk getting higher and higher. This week I was in a meeting for 2 hours and I had 20 e-mails waiting for me when I came back. I think half of it was spam. I may have deleted some important ones as well. Ah well. I had a meeting for which I had to read 40 pages of text and I had 15 minutes to prepare (thank goodness for my increased ability to play bluff poker). My to do list is now prioritised by the people who ask me "did you do this yet" after which "this" gets moved to the top (where it should have been weeks ago already, but where it was pushed out with other equally pressing to do's).
I just didn't like my job this week and I felt sorry for myself. Which I know is not productive, but sometimes I just cannot help it. Quite frankly, I left work in 'fuck this shit' mode last night. For now I don't care about grants, about papers or about anybody else. I just care about me and the fact that it feels like I am all alone, treading water to just prevent myself from sinking. I am so overwhelmed and under equipped that it feels like all I am doing is putting out fires with a leaking bucket.

I'm a grown up now

Unlike Janis Ian, I didn't learn the truth at seventeen. It took me well until I was 40 years old before I shed my last ounce of naiveté. I guess my thanks go to the other two grown ups who lied straight to my face in the past two weeks. And I'm not talking about a little white lie. No, I am talking about me asking them a question and them responding "alpha" when I knew the truth to be "omega".
Of course I was't just truth-stalking them - these people were breaking rules left and right and causing discomfort for many other people (this is al non work related, by the way).

I am so disappointed in grown ups, it makes me really sad.

Sitting at the grown up table

I don't know if there is a causal relationship, but since I got tenure (now some 2.5 months ago - yay!) I have found myself in an increasing amount of grown-up meetings. You know, with adults, often full professors and higher management, 10-20 years older than I am. And with fancy sandwiches, that you are supposed to eat (because: polite) while also making sure nothing drips down your chin (because: awkward) and always being ready to speak (because: need to get your voice heard). Some are once-only meetings, others are committees. All of them leave me baffled and confused about the state of grown up affairs. Here are the major faux-pas:

1. The chair usually doesn't chair. There is no agenda, no structure. Everyone sort of yells things, some things end up on paper, others don't. The chair doesn't summarise, lead or focus. It usually ends in a lump of stuff hanging in the air and then we are kicked out the room because ah, well, time is up and nobody was paying attention. I was editor in chief of my high school news paper and even at 16 I ran meetings that were more organised than this.

2. Pictures are not always worth more than a thousand words. Details are for kids. The grown up meetings are about big picture views. About future strategies for the university. About a point on the horizon. About visionary breakthroughs. You know the synonym for big picture views is you're not careful? Blabla. I am all for ambition and setting major goals. I can dream as big as anyone. But if I listen closely, these meetings never reach the stage where we actually end with something concrete. Suddenly I know why the upper-upper management is so out of touch with what happens on the floor. Because even one level up from where I used to be, the details are forgotten and we already talk in glossy-magazine paper. It sounds nice, but does it have a backbone?

Oh my. How am I going to make sure I don't become one of these people? How do I make sure I still keep an eye out for the reality that we are actually living in? I think this is a good example of why we need age diversity in our ranks. Because I may feel like a toddler slowing them down or holding and back, but at least every now and then I can also make them stop and really look at the world again. Then again, maybe not just youth but also hope is wasted on the young.

Looking Back

Now that I have had tenure for about 30 days, the realisation has slowly sunk in. I can feel myself slowing down (my blood pressure has literally dropped a few points). And I have decided to grant myself this time to slow down, for the first time in almost 20 years.

Has anything changed?

Yes. I have never been someone who kept their mouth shut, but now I am definitely more outspoken when it comes to organisational and political issues. It is not so much that I did not dare to speak up before (I did, both dare and speak up), but it feels as if if now I also deserve to speak up and be heard. I am not just visiting, I am here for the long run. This is also really my organisation now. My vote counts - I am no longer speaking up just for show, it's serious business.
I am also going in full force to protect and fight for the well being of my team members whenever required (and as far as I can exert some influence, obviously). It feels as if a new confidence has come over me, that I didn't even know was hiding somewhere. And it is really good to find out that she had been there all along: as I was struggling to make it, she kept quiet. She waited in hiding, until it was time to come out and shine. And now she has taken center stage. It turns out that tenure has been my Patrick Swayze and nobody can and will put me in the corner any longer.

Not everything has changed because of tenure (I think). A lot of it also has to do with time passing. You see, my confidence didn't just wait in hiding in some sort of coma. She was actively learning and developing as I grew into my role of PI and teacher. We both matured in the past 4 years. As I sucked it up, she absorbed it like a sponge. And as much as I still think it is crazy that it now commonly takes until you almost reach the age of 40 before you can really become an independent scientist, I must admit that I am much more ready now than I was 4 years ago. The funny thing is, you can only see it when you stop for a minute, capture your breath and turn around to look back at all the ground you have covered.
In the first year of my TT, I enjoyed myself. Everything was new, I was learning new things (both in content and skills) every day. In year two, the honeymoon was over and I just felt completely overwhelmed and constantly doubting my abilities and future success. I took problems home, I was stressed and worried. Year three has been like detox. I learned to let things go that I couldn't control and to really take control of the things that I could. And for the first time in many years, I actually have found some of the fun in science back. I'm reading more. I'm granting myself time to mull over ideas. I can actually feel myself acting like a scientist.

Has anything not changed?

Yes. I am doing the same amount of crazy teaching and grant writing. With the same variable success.
I still get disappointed by grown ups and I am still frequently amazed by my students. But we all need some form of stability in our lives.


The strangest thing has happened. Perhaps a wormhole opened up. I have no other explanation for the anomaly that evidently occurred in the midst of Brexit, Trump and all other random craziness and university politics. But my tenure track committee got together for my midterm evaluation and in all their infinite wisdom decided to give me tenure.
I guess, in the words of the great Sally Field, they like me. They really, really like me. A weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I can now open my mouth, speak my opinion even louder than I did before, get involved in politics, think long term and fight for my people and what is right instead of fighting for my own survival.
It's weird though, I thought that I still had a while to go and so now it comes as a bit of a surprise that I have made it to the top of the mountain and came out a winner in the academic survival of the fittest. There are no more hoops to jump through. Just a couple of years and then I will be too old for all the career development awards with time-post-PhD-award deadlines. I can buy a house. I can relax. But I will also admit, that while fireworks were going off in my head when I heard the news, a little part of my heart broke, unaccustomed to stability and security, and thought: but wait a minute... so this is it?

And indeed, if this is it, then what am I going to do with the rest of my life? I've been mulling over that thought for the past few weeks and the answer is that, quite frankly, I don't know yet. This must be why athletes prepare for the next Olympics even after winning gold. Because there is passion and dedication and true grit in the struggle for success. Once achieved, you have to identify new goals and challenges. And that's not something you do overnight when you've just had your eyes on the same ball for 20 years.

Work, Life and Balance

I took one and a half weeks off over Christmas and New Year's, which mean I will start work again tomorrow. And I so do not feel like it!
I barely made it to Christmas, I was on the verge of collapsing and during the holidays I just read, did yoga and slept. I was once again too close to complete exhaustion (I had a burnout during my PhD so I know all the telltale signs like the irregular heartbeat and the headaches and the tense muscles and the general apathy and overall lack of willpower). Well, at least the willpower is back (I have been eating properly during my Christmas break with zero pounds gained - yeah) and I feel more rested and energetic but I still feel like a little kid who just doesn't want to go back to school after the holidays.
Unfortunately, I must. In fact, there is a massive grant deadline looming - not even on the horizon, but right in front of me. I had allocated time (in my calendar if not in reality) before the break, but I was too tired to do anything or come up with any ideas at all. So now I have to squeeze all of that work into the next four weeks (yikes) and on top of that my people need attention.

But this year I am putting my priorities straight. And my number one priority is going to be me. I need to take care of myself and be healthy, or this is not going to work. The second priority is to produce output - which means the focus needs to be on science (papers, grants, analyses) and not on teaching. This should align with my goal of making an impact. And not in terms of factor, but in terms of finding my own way of making a mark on the world. And for that I need my health and happiness - and I must admit that I have put those behind work for far too long.

I've thought about all of this over the holidays and I think I have come to terms with the fact that I will just never be a scientific rockstar. And that is okay. Because it doesn't mean that I cannot be a rockstar in some other realm, I just need to figure out the way.
I will probably also forget about all of this as soon as I am back in the crazy academic rollercoaster but this year I am going to fight it with all my might. I at least want to feel like I am in the driver's seat for a change.

It's a wonderful life

You know them - the movies in which the main character wakes up as someone else. Someone simpler - who suddenly has a family with kids (he hates them at first, then grows to love them) instead of his glorious job (it's usually a he). It's the story of the Christmas classic "It's a wonderful life" with Cary Grant. It's the story of "The Family Man" (Nicholas Cage). It's the story of many a Hollywood blockbuster, actually, in which the main character learns to appreciate what they have. Or in which they learn to be happy with less than what they had at the outset.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately - because it feels like I've been through my own version of this classic movie tale. I'm just not sure that I've reached the happy ending yet - or that I ever will.

You see - once upon a time I was a science snob. I was trained (both postdoc and PhD) in rich labs in top institutions. It's the world I knew and the world I wanted to be a part of. Then life happened and it turned out to be insanely difficult to find a place to set up my lab. Fast forward and here we are, three years later, at my current university. Don't get me wrong - I really like it there. I like the teaching, creepy time sucker that it is. I like being exposed to strange new worlds. I like my colleagues. But I hate that everything is a struggle. I hate that the equipment is old and that the infrastructure is not the best in the world. I am so proud of my people for what they are able to achieve - much more proud than I have ever been at anything I ever achieved in my wealthy institutions where science was basically handed to me on a silver platter.  They are doing experiments in much more difficult circumstances. I was fed with a golden spoon - and I didn't realize it AT ALL at the time.
But now that I am on the other side of the fence (still capable of doing decent science, don't get me wrong, and far better off than many others in countries south and east of my borders) I realize it ALL OF THE TIME.

Just today I was in a meeting with a bunch of international colleagues from all over and the divide stuck out to me like a sore thumb. It was clear that there were scientific haves and have-nots. And it was clear to me that I was in the second category. And it was also clear that the ones in the first category were completely and blissfully unaware of how good they had it.

So I have had my wake up moment. I think I am a better person for it, because nobody likes a snob - even when it comes to just scientific affairs. But now what? Cary Grant may have discovered that he should work less and love his family more. Nicholas Cage may have realized that he liked his simpler life much better than his high-paced overachiever job. But I am not so sure yet. I'd much prefer a faster qPCR machine and better institutional support. And I don't have a family to snuggle up to when I get home - I just got the short end of the deal with nothing in return. Same crazy hours, same crazy hard work, but with far less to show for it. I am just scared that I am going to end up old and bitter - because the reality is that the chances of becoming a science superstar in a less than top-notch environment are just slim. And I never got into this business to be second rate.
And so, like Psych Girl, I am thinking about what I want to be. Because I started out climbing Mount Everest and I am finding out that maybe I am just going to be stuck at basecamp. Sometimes I'm perfectly fine with that, but it's the week before Christmas, I am dead tired and being surrounded by my superstar colleagues during this meeting today was not inspirational at all. In fact, it brought out the worst in me: I felt stupid, unproductive and self-conscious. And at the same time I was jealous of them and angry that they didn't see how good they have it. Not an attractive response to say the least, but at least I know where it came from, I think. I saw a glimpse of my old life - and it made me yearn for the days when I was a science snob. Because sometimes life is a little more wonderful when you are just living in your own perfect little bubble.

So now what?


To every person that still thinks "ah, but Brexit or Trump would never happen in my country", remember this the next time an elections comes around the corner.

from via 

Tips on how (not) to apply for a PhD position (2)

Following up on my previous post, in which I gave a glimpse behind the scenes of selecting the top contenders for a PhD student vacancy, I'd like to discuss the letter of motivation. Also called the cover letter, I like the name "letter of motivation" (LOM) better - because that is exactly what I, as a PI, am looking for: your motivation.
I like reading these letters, even if it takes up a lot of time. I read them carefully. I read every single line - and I read between the lines. So craft them like Rodin would craft his most precious sculpture. What am I looking for? Her are my five tips for crafting your letter of motivation.

1. You tickle my curiosity
Your LOM should convince me that I need to spend more time with you. It should invite me to really go over your CV in detail, because I get the impression that you've got something to offer that I might want. How do you do that? As I said before: the golden rule is that you should give me no reason to doubt that you would make a perfect PhD candidate. Spelling errors, grammar mistakes: get them out of the way. If I ask for you to be fluent in English, please be so when you write this letter.

2. You want me
This is not about flattery. We all know that gets you nowhere. But I do want to get the feeling that you thought about applying to this specific position. This specific lab. Of course, the worst LOMs are the ones that look like total form letters. A robot could have sent them out. They are generic. They do not mention a single detail about the advertisement. They look like they are copied and pasted from application to application.
Are you rolling eyes and saying "but I would never do such a thing"? Good. Then make sure you actually tailor your letter to this position and this job. Don't write about how awesome my University is. Or my city. Neither of those make you sound interested in what I have to offer. You don't have to sing my praise and tell me I am the smartest thing since sliced bread, but there is nothing wrong with showing that you have an inkling of an idea what I am doing right now (google my website) or have done in the past (read a paper). Tell me what you like about the job. Is it the topic? The field? The particular question? Something must have excited you, or otherwise you will not be right for this job. So tell me what that something was!

3. You make me want you
Don't repeat your CV in prose, but lift out some of the main points that make you a good candidate for this position. Does your prior education provide a seamless fit? Do you have experience with a particular model organism? Does your prior research experience make you super excited about finally working on a single question for four years? Let me know!
Of course you can also overdo it. I'm okay with your LOM being over one page in length. Really. But three pages, to the point where you are repeating yourself? That is just making me dread the editing of your future papers. Knowing when to stop is a skill in and by itself. And with that I will move on to the next point.

4. Lift my concerns
Your CV alone might confuse me. Perhaps your background doesn't sound like the perfect fit. If so, take extra care to motivate why is should consider you after all. Remember, you are up against candidates with CVs that look like a more "logical" fit. Is there a weird gap in your CV with a perfectly good explanation? Let me know. There are all sorts of little red flags that will be just that, red flags, if you don't explain them away. Are you currently working for a company? Then why on earth do you want to come back to academia to do a PhD? If you don't offer a plausible reason, I will just fill this in myself, and you may not like the stuff I come up with.

5. Show me who you are
Now this may not go for everybody, so don't take my word on this. But I like to see a bit of your personality shine through in a letter. We will both be better off if we get along at some level. So I'd like to get a taste of the person behind the application.
At the same time, you don't want to overdo it. This is still academia. I am not expecting 3D animations and fancy slideshows. Clean and crisp, that is still what your aiming for.