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.

Tips on how (not) to apply for a PhD position (1)

I know that things work differently elsewhere. I know that in the US you apply to grad school and then you rotate in different labs and during that first year you identify your mentor and your lab. But in my (European) neck of the woods, things work differently. You apply for a PhD position like you would for any other job: straight at the source (i.e. me).
Positions only open up when a PI gets a grant - so that is completely unpredictable. As a result, the positions are not always (I should say hardly ever) in sync with the academic cycle in which most students obtain their university degree at the end of the summer/some time in the fall. This is tough for the job candidates, but also for the PI. There is no predicting how many people will respond, or what their background is. As I was making my way through the applications for my latest opening, it dawned on me that some of the applicants could have used some advise. Because believe me, I don't take some sadistic pleasure in rejecting you.
So let me start with saying this: I read all of your applications. I read your letter of motivation and I read your CV. I don't scan all of the gazillions of transcripts and certificates and letters of recommendation that you send in at this point. But in the end, I am looking for the best fit for my lab. I need to get the impression that you want this position. And that you want me. Because that makes me want you. Yes, it is a little bit like falling in love: We are going to spend a lot of time together. We'll hopefully have fun (if we fit well together), but we will also are going to have to stick it out when things get rough. And so I need to know that you are going to be in it for better and for worse. So how are you going to woo me?

1. The numbers are not in your favour
From actual, real-life experience I can now safely say that it is not uncommon for the number of applicants to be somewhere in the 90s or even 100s. So follow the instructions (honestly, if you don't follow the instructions for how to apply, how am I going to be convinced that you will be able to follow a protocol?) If I ask for a single PDF file, don't send me zip archive. A cover letter in which you say absolutely nothing about the project or the type of research we are doing? It doesn't land you on the right pile. Don't propose projects that have absolutely nothing to do with what is going on in my lab. Don't call me a sir when a little bit of googling could have pointed out that I'm a woman. In fact, why don't you just address me as Dr? If your background is a poor fit, but you want this more than anything else in life: explain why and convince me of that (it happens!). If you graduated more than a year (or even many more years) ago: Convince me why I should hire you instead of the recent graduate - or even the soon about to graduate eager student. (More about the cover letter at a later point.)
Think about the other stuff that you send along. A letter of recommendation (which I did not ask for at this point) that was written 2-3 years ago will not help. It will do the exact opposite. The fact that your English isn't perfect? The fact that you made a spelling mistake? The fact that stuff on your CV is misaligned? I guess you could call me a nitpicker. But hey, you are applying for a job as a PhD student. You were (hopefully) trained as a scientist. I expect you to be specific and precise. I also expect your lab notebook to be in order. I expect you to pay attention to detail in your experiments. Of course I am not purpously screening your application for little mistakes like this, but I do notice them. If everything else in our application is perfect (your background and overall fit, your cover letter), I will not reject your application right away based on a tiny error. But among those 99 other applicants there are going to be 5-10 people who get it right (on top of everything else). And that is the absolute maximum of people I can realistically invite over for an interview anyway. So don't blow your own chances. Make sure you don't end up on the maybe pile. These little mistakes are totally preventable. Get it right. Don't give me any reason to doubt that you would make an awesome scientist in my lab.
So here is my first and most important piece of advice: You cannot change who you are and what your background is, but be the best version of you!

2. Know what you are up against
Based on a poor cover letter, lots of question marks surrounding parts of the CV, and/or just an overall poor fit, I can usually reject 50-60% of all applicants after the first round of reading. This is still not an easy decision. When I was looking for my very first PhD student, I lost sleep over this, as a matter of fact. There were so many letters from ambitious people all over the world, many of them looking for better chances than they would ever get in their home country. It felt like I was personally responsible for crushing their dreams. Have I gotten all cold and heartless? No. I still remember what it was like to be at the other end of the table. Hell, I am still fighting every single day to even make it to the end of this tenure track. I too am still waiting for the powers that be to give me their vote of confidence.
But what I did come to realize over the past three years is that this is just the situation we are dealing with. I have a single opening, for one PhD position. That means I am ultimately going to reject all but one of you. Even the runner up. So that is the best you can aim for at this point: your application should be so spotless and on the mark that I cannot help but invite you over for an interview. And here, some may have a more difficult job then others. After all, I know the education system in my own country like the back of my hand. I can judge the knowledge and experience of the people quite easily. I can also be pretty sure that they won't get homesick because they are far away from home. That they know our academic system and culture.
Now most of the time, after this first round of reading, I will have at least 3-5 "local" people that look perfect on paper and that would probably make a fine PhD student on this project. They did everything right. They got excellent grades for their research internships (and I can easily judge that, because I know the grading system). They showed that they are ambitious and adventurous (by going abroad for an internship, for instance, or by doing extracurricular activities or by taking an donors program). I've gotten angry e-mails from applicants who said it "wasn't fair" that these people were always getting the jobs. But my lab is not a charity foundation. Science is a tough business. Even the best and the brightest will be having a hard time. And unless someone can convince me otherwise, the best indicator for future success is someone who did a great job in their research internships. So by all means, if your score/grade is above average (in whatever grading system your country uses - and please explain it to me if you are from another country): mention it! I like modest people, but now is not the time to be shy. If you decided to do an internship with a company, tell me why. I could see that as an indicator that you are not 100% committed to academic science. Which is what you need to be, if you want to get a PhD. It's as simple as that.
What I do NOT care about at this point is publications. We all know that these are not an indicator of future success. Landing a publication during one of your internships has more to do with luck than anything else. For all I care you collected nothing but negative results (I know I did, during my first internship). I also do not care whether you are already familiar with the specific techniques we are going to use in this project. Any good scientist can learn new techniques. What I want to see is that you are that scientist.
So what do I care about? Persistence. Enthusiasm. Curiosity. Passion. Because those are traits that will get you through the deep dark valleys of your PhD. And so these are the things that I am going to look for in those remaining 30-40 applications that are now on the "maybe" pile, so that I can add 3 or 4 of them to my "invite for an interview" list. And now you can already see that the tiny little things are going to make a difference. You might just be unlucky because among those 40 candidates, one or two may be completely familiar with the experimental techniques. Or they may already have some of the certificates needed to do the type of work we do. There is nothing you can do about that. Sometimes, science sucks.

to be continued 
if anyone has any specific questions, please ask them in the comments!


So far, this academic year has mainly been filled with teaching. It feels as if there is barely any time for actual research (reading and writing) - although I have scheduled it into my calendar. I'm afraid that the next step really is going to have to be to actually block a few hours at the start of every day to actually get started and write. There are simply too many interruptions to actually dive into a topic and focus in depth. 

On the bright side, though...

... I can't believe I actually managed to achieve it, but I have officially erased all of the weight I put on during the first half of my tenure track (yup, that would be a whopping 10 kg). Now that taking care of my body is slowly becoming a habit (I know they say it takes about 28 days), I can now start to spend energy on writing and getting projects to the next stage. Because I must confess that with all the time I spend sleeping getting a proper night's rest, the work has been piling up. And there must be papers, or otherwise I am going to be out on the streets in a couple of years (I.s it weird that this can sometimes feel like a relief as well as a scary thought? As if part of me wouldn't mind to have all other options open again, instead of thoughtlessly swimming deeper and deeper into this academic fish trap?)

I did fall off the wagon a few times.
There was that one weekend when I only had three days to write an entire grant proposal, because I had been too busy teaching to get started earlier. That means I was stuck in a chair behind my computer (something that I naturally happen to be quite good at - I have an amazing attention span and can work for 15 hour straight without any distraction). I wrote the entire grant in two 15 hour sessions, getting 9 hours of sleep every night - and eating mindlessly whatever was available in my immediate surroundings. But I made up for it by going for a few walks (including a really long hike) in the week after.
There was also that one week where all my Apps told me I had PMS. And so I ate more chocolate than anticipated. Until I asked myself: "Wait a minute, am I eating chocolate because I feel like eating chocolate, or because I know I'm supposed to be craving chocolate right now"? Ah, technology. I got my period the next day, when I had to teach an early morning class. It was a question of either packing my lunch (like a well organised professional) or of attempting to do everything in my power (hot water bottle, pills, shower, heating pads) to alleviate my cramps so I could actually stand up. I chose the later and survived the day on apples and Quakers oats bars.

All in all, it could have been a lot worse. And so I am on to the next stage, which is losing the weight I packed on while being on the tenure track job market.

Remember how I was going to take better care of myself?

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I was going to make changes to my life so I would live healthier (and therefore, I presumed, better). I figure it's time for a short update - and I am happy and proud to say that I have nothing but success to report.
The first weight has come off (sadly this is not even a third of what I need to lose in order to reach a healthy weight if you believe in BMI indices), I haven't missed a single day of sticking to my food plan (which includes bringing my own lunch every day and cooking dinner every day), I've almost gotten it into my system that I tam a person who takes stairs instead of elevators (at least when we are talking about <3 floors) and I feel so much better! I even survived my first conference abroad (and still lost weight while traveling - a first if ever there was one).
I also sleep. A lot.

Just in case you are wondering: Yes, I have also managed to purge my e-mail inbox and I still keep to the not checking e-mail before lunch rule. I am probably boring as hell, because I don't really drink or eat cake or hang around in the break room to lament everything that's wrong with science and academia, but I just need to get my shit done so I can then go back to focusing on me.
Honestly, I don't know where I found this drive and motivation, but I am hanging onto it for dear life for as long as I can... while I anxiously await The Moment when A Major Stressful Event is going to wreak havoc on my good intentions. Until then: steady as she goes - because even if I don't get tenure, at the end of this track I will at least have got my shit together.

Could it really be this easy to publish our first paper?

This week we resubmitted the revised version of what I will call "My Very First Paper" (MVFP). The review reports were pretty positive and although the editors always find a way to phrase their decision so that it lacks anything that could be perceived as enthusiasm, I think it's safe to say that with the minor changes we made, MVFP should find a home (one where the door is always open) any time soon.

As a PhD and postdoc I have always been in charge of my own paper writing. Even as a PhD student my PI would let me oversee the submission process - including cover letter and rebuttal stuff, so I have been through all of this many times before. MVFP won't even be my first senior authorship paper. Still it feels special.
Because this is the very first story/study that came out of my own lab from absolute scratch. Where the idea was completely my own and where the hard work of my PhD student ultimately brought it to the point where we decided that this would be a story rather than a dead end street. Where we muddled through the analyses of data that seemed to be going in all directions (welcome to biology) until somewhere along the writing of the draft manuscript and the re-re-re-reanalysis (and re-re-re-replotting) of the data it all fell into place and the message actually turned out to be solid.
The message is not going to be earth-shattering. The paper is not going to be life-changing. In some big shot labs this would maybe remain on the shelf. But it will be helpful for people in my field though (in terms of our findings), as well as for a larger audience (in terms of our experimental approach). And so I feel proud. Because MVFP is the most solid evidence of my own maturity as a scientist. I know collaborations are important, but I also knew that I could bring stuff to the finish line in such a collaborative setting, with lots of back and forth discussions and brainstorming with others. This time I was the most senior scientist on board and completely responsible for everything from start to finish. And so, for that reason I am excited that we brought this little seedling to life, let it blossom and saw it to a safe harbour (at least, that is what the review reports and the editors comments appear to suggest).

How do you push people without pushing?

What do you do when it appears that someone has just sort of levelled off in their academic growth? They get the work done, they make progress in their experiments, but their academic development into an independent, critical scientist just isn't taking off?
In those cases, I give feedback whenever the opportunity presents itself, but I try to do it nicely - because I am afraid that I will completely turn them off and/or demotivate them if I'm too harsh. I will point out areas that need improvement - over and over again, but for some reason it's as if they just don't get it. (There are others in the lab that do pick up on these things and I can see that they slowly progress as they become more critical, so it is not something inherent to my overall mentoring, I don't think)
Should I just accept that that's what it is? That some people might just never reach the next level that would qualify them for continuing on in science (mind you, I am by no means of the opinion that that is what everybody should aspire to - we have enough postdocs without the prospect of an academic career-, but as a PI and supervisor it is my job to make sure that come graduation, all PhD students are well equipped to be an independent scientist if they so choose)? Apart from letting them try over and over again (and then showing what holes they missed, which critical steps they omitted, which specifics they just skipped.... over and over again), what can I do? I feel like a broken record, but perhaps I'm playing the wrong song.

What do you say?

Every now and then I will be talking to a male scientist when out of left field there comes this off hand comment. And while not directly offending, it might be slightly politically incorrect. And almost invariably, I will let the moment pass, because either it only sinks in later (making it feel strange to go back to something that might just have slipped out) or because I honestly don't know what the proper retort would be.

Two examples.

Exhibit A
I was talking to a guy my age for the first time. We were exploring future opportunities and without going into details, suffice it to see that I had the upper hand. He needed more from me, than I did from him. And at some point during our conversation he let it slip that I'd probably do just fine in my TT "because you're a woman". My calm response was that while agreed that I would likely be successful, I personally assumed that it was due to quality of my work. I am not sure if he noticed his faux pas at all. It just seemed to slip out and my reply didn't really seem to raise awareness either.

Exhibit B
I was teaching a class and one of the male students commented how this specific topic was really a "women's field". I asked him what he meant by that and he pointed out that I (thanks for noticing) and all of the TAs (all members of my lab) were women. I replied that sometimes it was just hard to find good men (okay this was probably not the best thing to blurt out, but this was my attempt at responding to a weird comment with a joke) and then went on to explain that when you hire people, you just hire the best ones you can get for a job and by chance, all of my recent hires had been women (looking back I wish I had expanded a little more and explained that in any team it is always best to strive for a balance/mix of people with different qualities, sex being one of them - or that based on an n=4-5 you cannot make sweeping statements about a hole field).

So my question is: what do you do in situations like these? I feel like I am always more prepared when I talk to older men. It's like I am almost expecting them to be unaware of women-in-science issues and so it is easy to point out why their assumptions are wrong, or whether they are missing something. In fact, that is also how it often is (at least in my experience) with older men: it's more of a lack of awareness than an outright sexist comment. But I am always caught off guard when it is people my own age (or as in the students' case, half my age!) that make these comments, which touch upon male/female scientist issues quite directly. It depresses me that apparently the bias against women is not going to magically disappear when the older generation retires: it is just as present in the ones to come.
I feel like I should take each of these opportunities to raise awareness, yet I also don't want to become some feminist warrior with a label attached. But how can you change things if you don't openly address them? You don't want to make these things bigger than they are, obviously, but at the same time, they offer room for discussion. Would the male student also have made a similar comment if I and all of the TAs had been male? Would he have said "wow, this is really a male topic"? Would it be okay to let someone know that telling me I'll have a job just because I'm a woman that this is a rude and insulting thing to say?

So help me out here. What do YOU do in moments like these? And what would be the best? Do I let it slide so nothing ever changes? Or is "in the moment" not necessarily always the best moment? Do I collect these stories and instances so that at some point I have a small "awareness lecture" that I can pop in at the start of one of my classes?

How the first half of my tenure track nearly destroyed me and what I plan to do about that in the second half

I did not do any work for the majority of August. Instead, I decided to focus on me. It's easy to put everything first: the peeps in my lab, colleagues, students, Big Problems, Small Problems, Urgent Issues. I've been getting a lot of feedback that I should perhaps care less about certain things and not try to fix everything. Part of me thinks these people are right and part of me doesn't agree. On the one hand, it is easy to waste a lot of energy on things that are outside of my circle of influence. On the other hand, I have always cared about my surroundings and the people in it and I also derive some joy or satisfaction from listening to people and advising them or nudging them towards the next step en route to their problem solution. But after collapsing on the couch like an imploded zombie, I had to admit to myself that if I keep on doing what I am doing (working all the time, not taking proper care of my body), I may not even make it to the end of the tenure track.

In the end I am surprised with how little soul searching it actually took. I just needed to step away from work. I was obviously exhausted, out of energy and did not feel good about that. Rationally, I knew I was caught in a trap of sedation, chronic stress and unhealthy eating habits. For some reason, that had always seemed like an insurmountable obstacle to tackle. And then it just happened. I decided that I was so sick and tired of not having this one fundamental aspect of my life under control, that I just started. I made a plan. A concrete plan. With how much weight I needed to lose (ouch) in order to reach a healthy weight. With a time schedule that would basically give me a whole year to reach that goal. With a healthy diet (as in food plan, not as in depriving myself of everything that's good). With moderate exercise (the minute I realized that walking also counted as exercise I already felt less guilty about not going to the gym). I dusted off my Fitbit (I really, really like that thing). I put new batteries in my scale. I made an Excel spreadsheet to track my progress. And then I just started at step one.

Then the best thing happened: I went on a holiday, all by myself. And I lucked out: the weather in my Holiday Country was better then expected. And whereas I had planned to do a lot of writing and reading, I decided that I could just not sit inside when I was surrounded by so much nature and sunshine. So I started walking. And I found out that my body, which had basically been stuck behind a desk for two plus years, was capable of so much more than I had given it credit for. That I was capable of so much more. And so it turned into a solo hiking holiday where it was just me, the great outdoors and a map. Where the only decisions I had to take were extremely basic: did I bring enough water and where shall I put down my foot. It was an eye-opening and transformative experience.

I've been back for a week now. The first weight has come off. I've also gone back to work, but I am still eating healthy, packing my own lunches and trying to squeeze in an evening walk when I get home. Part of me is scared to death that as soon as the Old Madness returns (my class starts tomorrow, all of my colleagues will be back, all of the old to do lists are still there, only with a few things added) I will fall off the wagon again. But I cannot let that part win out.

Funny enough, I have noted a few unexpected changes: As I am eating healthier and cooking, I also have more energy to clean the house. Which means that for the first time in twenty years, my apartment actually looks like a home instead of like a shag occupied by a hoarding bachelor. I am actually loading the dishwasher every day, instead of letting stuff pile up in the sink. I stop staring at screens at 11 pm and go to bed, preferably a little earlier, with a book. Sure, I've managed to miss basically everything that's on tv, but it does allow me to get up at 7 am relatively rested and I consider that a pro.

Here are the changes I've made at work so far:

- Last year I implemented a strict division between Teaching/Admin and Science. I am continuing that this year. Monday is my main teaching day (including office hours). It's when I will do prep work, meet with students, read and score reports, etc. I will allow this to run into Tuesday if needed. The same holds for Admin/Service related tasks: I try to keep these limited to a Tuesday, with some going into Monday if meeting schedules etc. require. This coming year I will be super protective of my research time (Wed-Fri). This is when I am only meeting with my own lab peeps, where I will read, write (papers/grants). I try to keep it as free of other meetings/obligations (of course some classes and outside events are impossible to move) as possible - because I need to focus on getting output for the second half of my tenure track.
- I jumped off the e-mail train. I changed the preferences of checking e-mail "automatically" to "manually". And I stopped checking it first thing in the morning, as well as on Saturdays. I now check e-mail for the first time around noon and once more around 6pm. Oh and I have also begun purging my inboxes, which had thousands of e-mails in there. In two weeks time (I am scheduling the purge into small sessions over my lunch break), I will have an empty inbox.
- I leave on time so I can cook dinner at a reasonable hour. I still feel a little guilty, but I also think that "setting an example" does not mean that I always have to be in the lab. In a way, this should be the easiest time in my career to take off in time, because I am not stopped by late-running experiments. I've done the 12-13 hour days in the lab and there may be times when it's required again, but I cannot be on all the time. I also need to be alive and sharp in order to be there for my lab peeps. So at least until the weight that needs to come off is off, this is how it is going to be.

Confession time

I took a few weeks off. I told everyone I needed a break. That I needed to catch my breath. That I've been too busy. Reality is, I am completely and utterly exhausted. I feel drained. No, that's not really true. I don't feel anything anymore and I haven't for a very, very long time. I have only been working. I have been working my ass off ever since I started high school because I always wanted to be the best. I don't know why. To please myself? To please my parents? To make up for the fact that I have always known I was socially awkward and fat? I don't know. Everybody has issues and these are mine.
It could have been much much worse. I know I have been lucky. I come from a loving home. I had four grandparents until well into my thirties. I was born in a great time and in a first world country. It could have been so much worse. But in reality all I have is work. I am alone and while I am perfectly happy about that, I am reaching a point where I really miss talking to someone. My parents are getting older. I cannot keep confiding in them. And I also cannot really tell them everything because some things are just too private. And maybe it's not true that having a significant other person in my life would make things easier. But my hopelessly romantic heart yearns for a soulmate.
I am a scientist. I know I don't deserve anything. That all of this is happening as sheer coincidence and that I am just a little speck of organised matter in the midst of great chaos. But there are times when I wish I had done everything differently. When I wish I would've have had my teenage nose anywhere else than in books and movies. That I had lived a life instead of dreaming about it. That I had taken better care of myself. That somebody had taught me how to do that instead of algebra.
The real problem is that at this point I don't even know how to do that anymore. I don't know how to eat properly. I don't have any fixed schedules because there is just always me and so it has never mattered when I eat, when I sleep and when I don't clean. I have no structure. I pour all of my control into work and it has gotten me to where I am, but I have lost all control over my own life and over my body. I know I have eaten like a slob. I haven't enjoyed a bite of food in forever, no matter what I have been shoving down my throat on those late nights when I come home from work at 10pm.
When I started this job I was already heavy, but in the past two and a half years I have gained 13 kilos. All the statistics tell me I am obese. My mom has told me she is worried. I hate myself but I don't know how to start fixing it. I am scared to get help, but I know I need it. My house is a mess because I don't think it is big enough to hire a cleaner. So how sad is it to go to someone who is going to have to teach me how to eat properly and how to take care of myself? I feel like such a loser, but I know something has to change because I have not been happy in a long time and I cannot keep hiding in books and movies.
I can blame it all on stress, lack of exercise and poor eating habits. And I know that I have nobody to blame but myself, but at some point along the way I have just stopped caring. I stopped caring about my body ever since I was bullied in elementary school. Ever since the family physician said it was just how I was built. Ever since I noticed I was not popular with boys. Ever since strangers called me fat or ugly or just looked at me like I was. Rationally I know it is never too late. And rationally I know it has to stop. But when my parents call me I just tell them I am okay. I always tell everybody I am okay. But I am not. I am stuck in a body that I have loathed for as long as I can remember and that I cannot blame anybody else for not loving either. I have spent the best years of my life hating myself, and I have dealt with that by just completely neglecting myself. I don't know how that is even possible because I am a huge control freak in every other area of my life. I have so many talents that I know other people admire. So I always sort of thought that maybe this was my one weakness. But it is starting to get in my way. And I really want to feel again. I want to fall in love and experience heartbreak and live. But I just don't know how to fix this - if I have never found a way to fix it before, how can I possibly fix it now when even with 120% of my energy focused on work there is not enough time to do everything I need to do?

To do and not done

Instead of doing everything on my Very Urgent to-do list, I gave up and

- went for a walk
- looked at the sky
- read two newspapers
- went to bed with an awesome book at 4.45 pm only to fall asleep until 6.30 pm
- watched five movies

I will never tell anyone about this weekend because it doesn't make me look like a science rockstar, but I really needed it. I should have actually gotten out of the house more, which I totally would have had time for as evidenced by the fact that I watched five movies and one of them was Twilight.

Hanging on by a thread

Three more weeks until I take a break. I cannot really afford one in terms of work to do. I wish I didn't need one, but I do. I badly do. I sleep about 9 hours every day, I feel like a zombie and I don't absorb anything. I also don't feel anything. I just function. I really wish I would fall madly in love and then get my heart broken or something like that, just so I can feel alive again. Instead, I will take a few weeks of and go somewhere where I am away from science and politics. I need time for me.
I mean, so far my weekend has been composed of the following: I just slipped in the bathroom after taking a shower and was too damned tired to get up off the floor. I think I should go for a walk, but my body would rather just slouch and do nothing. My brain wants to sleep. Or shut down. I am falling apart and there is no one to pick up the pieces but me.

I had hoped to use July to actually do some science. Like think about some of our projects, analysing data, reading. Oh my, there is so much reading that I need to, no, actually want to catch up on. I had hoped to crystallise some of my thoughts into actual research questions and grant aims, so that they can incubate for the Major Application that is lined up for next spring.
Instead I am still frantically working off my to do list (gotta love Things but it is there are just so Many Things) in the hopes that I will at least get all of the Important Things done. Unfortunately,  all of the Important Things (like submitting my groups first really independent paper - nothing mind blowing but a decent enough technological study) is constantly being threatened by Stuff that I simply need to get out of the way if I don't want to screw myself over in September when teaching starts again. Honestly, I cannot believe a year has passed and I have to teach class again for the better part of two months. It means I will not have any time to hear myself think or pay real attention to my peeps until (*gluck*) November. major stuff out of the way that would really screw me over come September if it hasn't been arranged. There is just so much freaking stuff to do that I don't even know where to begin.

What I am doing these weeks? Well, trying to still hire some people, getting two review pieces out - one that has been smooth sailing and one that has been dragging on for two years but that now suddenly has a deadline, reviewing a grant (postponed because I was writing my own last month), reviewing two papers, trying to get a really cool collaboration off the ground, trying to wrap up a massive assignment I said yes to that I will never say yes to again (once bitten...), grading student essays and theses, running after students (who are adults but still make me feel like I need to run after them because they don't stick to deadlines but who also don't realise that I am not a robot who never needs a break). Oh and organising the course stuff, finalising the last new addition, ordering stuff for the practicals, making sure the time schedule is finished and that all of my teaching files are uploaded into The System so the paperwork can be ticked off.

There are days where I wish I could just drop everything and walk away. But then I read an interesting article and I realise that no, I still really like science. I just need some time away from it.
Three more weeks until I take a break.

Project management: How not to lose friends and alienate people

I've been quite lucky in getting my grants funded. I've also been incredibly lucky with the team members I've managed to assemble. They get along with each other and I get along with them. They are my family. However, we have now reached a stage where I have to start making sure there is output. And if I am honest, I don't really know how to do that.

I have always worked for PIs who were very hands off. I have also always worked for PIs who were senior, male, tenured and financially secure. And while I was very happy to discover that I am not a natural micro-manager, I realise that I have to be way more on top of things than my own mentors have ever been with me. For them, it was okay if output came after 5 years. Or 6. In my case, I need output after a maximum of 4 or my contract will run out before my papers are in press. 

The thing is, I have some awesome people working on a very demanding project. And because I also have other obligations I just haven't been able to put any practical time in on it myself, although part of it really is my expertise. My peeps are doing the best they can, but there is just a lot more work than they can handle (plus the usual setbacks and sideways that need to be explored before we can pick things back up on the main road) and it is super clear to me that we need an extra pair of hands. I've got the funding to hire someone, but this is not going to be a 100% natural and organic merger. It needs active management from my side, because it is clear that my peeps see it as an intrusion on "their" project. They feel someone else may run off with "their" data. That he or she may interfere with "their" publications. And it doesn't matter how many times I turn "their" back into "our" in the conversations that we are having - they just don't see it that way. 
The thing is, I cannot blame them. I would have had exactly the same defensive response if it had been me as the person working on the project. And as they get defensive I become insecure as to how to handle this.

I need help. 

How am I going to make sure that this is going to improve output from the project instead of destroying everything I've built so far? Of course I have everybody's best interest in mind, but guiding all of this into a situation where everybody gets the papers that he or she deserves requires leadership on my part that I am not sure I am comfortable displaying yet. 
I think we need to sit down together and divide work - but I've never done this: predicting who goes where on papers that are still completely up in the air and that may look entirely different tomorrow? It's basic science. Who knows what we will find. And even if that's the way to go - how do I get them on my side, not just logically but also psychologically? I know they will probably see (once everything is sketched out) that there is too much work to do for just the folks we have now, but that doesn't mean they will just welcome another wheel on the wagon. They are working hard, they are tired. I want to treat them as equals. But in the end, I am in charge. They don't need a friend right now, they need a boss. And I need to figure out how to do that.

The midway point

I have reached the point in my tenure track where I really need to start thinking about output. It's not that I haven't been doing that, obviously. Believe me, the first 2.5 years have been no picnic. While I continuously try to think of this whole business as a really long postdoc (after all, my 6-year tenure track contract is the longest I've ever head), I also know that I cannot just ignore the fine print. After all, my contract stipulates quite precisely (or, if you want to know my real opinion: my contract lists everything I need to achieve in order to get tenure down to the last insane decimal in terms of impact factors) what I need to achieve. On a good day, I will look at the list and be like: "well, that is what I, as an ambitious person would want to achieve anyway". On a bad day, I look at the same list and get a panic attack, because deep down I know that giving it my best just may not be good enough - in the end it is completely out of my control as to whether I get the grant or whether my paper is accepted for publication.

I have a serious mid-term assessment coming up and things are looking good (administrative surprises pending). In fact, I was ready about half a year before the scheduled date and started to prepare my package around that time because I know the bureaucracy at my University. It turns out that was wise: no one had any ideas about the procedures that needed to be followed and while everyone gave me the "oh it will be fine", no one actually gave me a hand to make sure I got to the only "fine" that counts: a positive evaluation in writing signed off by the proper, responsible person.

Would I have done things differently if it hadn't been for this mid-term assessment? No, not really. But I might have done things in a different order. I constantly got the advise: "the most important thing is to focus on your research". I am sure it was all well intended. I am sure they probably knew that I was not so naive as to think otherwise. But with demands on an X amount of teaching to be done and teaching certificate Y to be obtained and Z amount of cold-hard-cash to be brought in by the end of year three, you have very little choice to postpone course development and grant writing until your lab is up and running. What the administrative bureaucratic trolls seem to forget when they are drafting their list of bullet points is, for instance, that a course only comes around once in an academic year. Obviously, you are not magically teaching an X amount of hours in the curriculum when you are hired mid-way through the academic year. And all those people who say "you'll be fine" don't just offer you things on a gold platter. So, I used that first (incomplete) academic year to make sure I carved a niche for myself in the teaching curriculum in the second year, so that could actually fulfil X and Y by the time of my mid-term assessment. If I had not given priority to these things and had been only slightly more naive, it would have been practically impossible to meet my mid-term requirements.
Would I have been fine without doing it this way? Well, let's just say I saw what happened to another junior faculty member who didn't tick these boxes. Our tenure track is "up or out" and apparently that also holds true mid-term.
Did my research suffer? I did my best, but I am only human and if I am honest I have not been able to devote as much time to research and my awesome lab members as I wanted to. And so I am now getting to a point where I really need to make this my main priority for the second half of my tenure track. It's "up or out" and if I want to move up, the papers need to go out.

The Young Ones

I've been spending quite some time away from the lab, attending conferences and so on. It was useful to get the latest on what's going on in my field (I am a bit secluded from other going ons in my area where I am at) - but more than that, it has given me time for reflection. Not in terms of planning my next few months of work (as I had hoped) and not in terms of crystallising my thoughts for big grant proposals that are due in the coming year (as I had also hoped), but in terms of how the different generations of scientists look at academia - more precisely: how they look at academic careers.

I must say that I really tink that "my generation" (i.e. the ones that have had there labs for less than say 5-7 years) have the best of both worlds. They still remember what it's like to struggle as a postdoc, but they also know what it's like to have made that next step (something you cannot possibly completely envision if you haven't done it yet - no matter how much you prepare yourself). Now I am not patting myself and my contemporaries on the back: this is just how it is. In another 5-10 years, I will no longer really know what the current academic climate is like - although I would like to believe that I will keep up with "the real world" by interacting with the younger generations. But I'm afraid, that I will inevitably follow in the footsteps of my predecessors.

So when do you get out touch? I honestly think that after 10 years it just becomes more difficult to put yourself in the shoes of the younger generation. In the same way that you cannot relate to their music preferences and their online viral videos, you cannot really know what it is like to be in their position. Unless you try really, really hard.
Over lunch and dinner, almost invariably, professors over the age of 50 would utter phrases like "I think the young people are just to negative. We just did it, even if we didn't know where our careers would take us" (fact check: none of them spent 2 years on the TT market after a successful postdoc like I did, growing closer and closer to desperation with funding running out and no job on the horizon). They would sigh and wonder why postdocs and even PhD students are so focussed on their CV and their output, rather than on the fun of doing science (fact check: because they see people like me crash and burn, the lucky ones succeeding, but with plenty of good people not being able to build the academic career they always dreamed of).

And where do I find myself? I find myself wanting to fight a system that is overly hung up on publication output in an easy-to-check numbers game, while not taking the time to care about actual content. A system that expects me to spent ample time on teaching and outreach activities, while at the same time ultimately not rewarding those efforts because, well, high impact papers. A system that literally demands that I publish papers in high-impact journals of the CNS family (because we all know that is something that just happens when you work hard enough, right?), while at the same time pretending to promote open access. A system that I have to fit myself into if I want to get tenure in a few years, even if I keep telling myself that I will fight the system after I've passed that hurdle. But will I? Or will I ultimately fall victim to the system, and be assimilated by it? Even Jean-Luc eventually could only fight off the Borg for so long.

And as for the young ones? I tell them not to be naive. I tell them that yes, it is hard. And if their heart isn't in it for 100%, then no perhaps it is not worth the struggle. And I tell them that if they really want to be in science, that they then have to make sure they position themselves in the best possible way. But I also tell them to do science for the sake of doing science. To not build their CVs by just ticking of boxes, but by developing themselves into the scientist that they want to be. Because the system may be a rat race, but it should not be occupied by rats. It should be rebuilt by original and creative individuals, who each bring something different and unique to the table. And I hope that as long as I keep telling them that - as long as I keep telling myself that - that then, one day, the system will change.

My heroes of science

Now that I've been at this trying-to-run-a-lab business for two years, I want to say thank you to the people that helped me get there. Of course there are my scientific mentors and my parents (my dad still gives me the most valuable advice and now that I am old enough to no longer care what other people think I am proud instead of ashamed of it). But we are so lucky to live in a time where you can get helpful advice and good suggestions from just about anyone. So this shout out is to two ladies who are no longer updating their blogs, it seems, but who were really valuable to me as a postdoc.

You see, as a postdoc everything was going pretty well. I was in a great lab. The atmosphere was good. My experimental life had seen worse times. I took advantage of the career development seminars that were offered on campus (something I find that my current university could do better at) and then... I was slowly starting to realise that there were many more ambitious postdocs out there then jobs on the market. I had worked so hard to get to the top of the pyramid* and now it turned out that there were all these other workers fighting for standing room. WTF?

And so I started reading. I read books (I can really recommend "what color is your parachute" because 1) it helped me realise that yes, this is what I really want to do and so it gave me energy to really fight for that opportunity to get a faculty position and 2) it helped me realise that something that is a seemingly random for just about anybody else can be a priority or a deal breaker for me and that is okay!). But I also read blogs. Especially blogs from female scientists, because as much as we are all equal science-wise, I was slowly starting to realise that men and women are different and the experience of a 6'5" white alpha male is going to be different than that of a 5'5" timid woman.**

I had two super useful blogs on my blogroll.

First, I was an avid reader of FemaleScienceProfessor ( She was in a different field, and she already had tenure, but she was so rational and calm and she made it all seem so possible, while still addressing all of these issues that women in academia encounter. She made it seem like there were mountains to conquer, but at least she made them seen conquerable. She gave me insight and quiet confidence and for that I want to say: thank you.

Second, I devoured YoungFemaleScientist ( She was a little bit ahead of me and so I had to catch up on about 2 years of blogpost when I first starting following her. But that wasn't too much trouble. She addressed everything with more emotion and drama. But boy, did she usually hit the nail on the head! She made me feel like she was out there in the jungle with me, playing scout and forcing our path through the bushes. Every now and then she really struck a cord and I commented on her blogposts. Anonymously. She also made me reflect on the type of environment I was in and liked to be in. None of my experiences were ever as bad as the stuff she described, but she made me super aware and helped me develop feelers for all of the bad stuff that could be lurking out there, in the jungle. For that I also want to say: thank you. And I do hope that she is still going to give us that book she was always talking about.

In the end, these two ladies and fine scientists have helped me strike a healthy balance. One in which I am no longer blissfully unaware, and completely comfortable in calling out the men I work with when I think they are off in their opinion on female scientists. But also one were I am not completely paranoid. Because I am not unique due to the fact that I am a female scientist. I am unique because I am me. And my life is neither of their stories. But I sure am glad that they were there to guide me along the way.

* this is five years ago and little old me was so naive as to think that I was at the top of the pyramid. Haha, a little training-wheels pyramid maybe, blissfully unaware that the climb of Cheops' pyramid was yet about to start.

** I never wanted to believe that at first. I didn't want to believe that until I started reading more about this and while no, this doesn't hold for ALL men or ALL women, I think that on average males are more comfortable playing the (scientific) career game than women. A hunter mentality (scream and pound yourself on the test) is definitely more visible and sometimes, it feels, better appreciated than a more nurturing stance. Oh boy, how do I say this without sounding unfeminist or sexist?

Managing the budget: financial insecurities

My parents taught me how to handle money. I spend it wisely, I don't buy stuff I cannot afford and I am super good at saving. I don't live on the edge. Now that I have my own lab, I notice that I am handling my lab budget in the same way. I want to make sure that we have enough money for experiments, which are always more difficult to interpret than planned and which always require more follow up than the aims section in my grants promised.

In a recent comic I read at the Node (originally from the Journal of Cell Science), Mole suggests keeping a monthly budget: if this month's funds run out, people can no longer order. They can read instead. Fortunately, my peeps read papers on their own and the only one who should be forced to spend more time reading the literature is me, alas.

I am slightly less strict than Mole (I must confess that I am also never sure whether Mole's advice is to be taken seriously - could someone fill me in on that?): I check throughout the year (every three months or so) to make sure that as a group we don't overspend on an annual basis. I know what that number is, because I do allocate a virtual amount of money to spend on reagents as well as on mice in a spreadsheet where I keep tabs of all my grants.
It was difficult to decide what strategy to follow at first. Both during my PhD and postdoc I was in the lab of established scientists who were pretty well off. They always had a bit of money here and there. I was hardly ever told not to order stuff (at least not for financial reasons - one of my PIs did have the occasional nasty habit of not signing off on orders if he didn't like the experiments you were planning to do). My rich mentors never taught or told me anything about budgeting.
Starting out on my own, funds were considerably more tight and, being the goody two shoes that I am, one of my worst fears was to overspend and to run out of money. At the same time, I didn't want my people to suffer from joining a small, junior lab. They shouldn't feel like they cannot order stuff when they have an exciting new idea. So I am educating my lab members like my parents educated me: Think about what you need before ordering, make sure we don't buy stuff we already have, try to find the cheapest price, but if you really need it: get it. So far, we are doing okay.

My biggest concern now is to decide how far I can stretch my grants when it comes to hiring new people. I am now facing a situation where I got a few "smaller" grants* and I am not sure what to do. The "problem"** is that this grant only pays for, say, half a PhD. In my ideal world, I would save that money until I would get another grant that would pay for the other half, but that's not how it works. The granting agencies want you to start spending that money within the fiscal year (so their bookkeeping checks out), but I am just not comfortable hiring someone when I am not sure I will have money to keep them for the second half of their contract as well. My risk averseness doesn't really serve me well here. I can already imagine the sleepless nights and the stress that is going to bring me. So how do others deal with this? Should I just get over it? Do others ask the department to tie them over in case something doesn't work out in the end? Any good or bad experiences are welcome in the comments.

* it's funny how quickly you start to think about a certain number as "small" simply because you are now also dealing with amounts of money you only used to hear about in the Powerball lottery.

**its also funny how having money can be as much as a problem as not having money, just a different kind of problem.

My time flies

I really needed to be away from the lab for a bit. I was completely exhausted and I spent all of my free time surrounding Christmas and New Years sleeping 10 hours per night whenever I could. The rest of the time was spent sensibly watching Netflix, but only the good stuff, like season 9 of HIMYM (finally). On the Sunday before going back to the lab I still couldn't imagine being at work again, but then Monday came and before I knew it I was back to 10 hour days instead of 10 hour nights.

It's funny. You can be away from the lab and the world just keeps turning, but the minute you are back there is shitloads more stuff that needs to be done than time to actually get to even half of it. That's what I find the most depressing, I think.

I decided that I really needed to start keeping track of my time. And so I decided that I will try to schedule all meetings that are not about content on Mondays through Wednesdays, with Thursdays and Fridays solely dedicated to science. That means the odd experiment every now and again, writing grants and papers, and talking to my people about actual data. And, hopefully, reading a paper every now and then or simply think about a problem for 2 hours. Ah, 2 hours of undevoted attention without a knock on the door. Of course I can spend time on science on Mondays through Wednesdays, the challenge will be to keep Thursdays and Fridays free of teaching/politics/other stuff.
It worked this week. I just looked at my calendar and of course there are already appointments seeping into Thursday. Man, this is about as tough as sticking to some crazy new diet. But here too, there is no failure, there is only a chance to begin again.

The second thing I started to do was actually logging my time. I want to do that for a couple of weeks straight to really see where my time goes. The first thing I noticed was how easily I let myself be interrupted. When someone comes in, I never send anyone away. I always jump up to help/talk/listen. And then it takes me a while to get back into what I was doing. Or, worse, I forgot what I was doing and start up something else. Total time drain! What a wake up call.

Also: e-mail. I am trying to NOT answer e-mail first thing in the morning. Instead, I do it once mid-day around lunch and once in the evening, before going home. Which is risky, because it means there will never be a clean line of being finished and so I will stay at work until forever (which is a risk anyways, because I am definitely an evening person).

I also try to eat better, because I can no longer pretend that chocolate cookies at 11 pm are a decent dinner for a grown up. That's why I had home-made salad on Monday and Tuesday, cooked a real meal at home (at 10 pm, but that's still progress). And then I fell off the wagon and had pizza on Thursday and cookies for dinner on Friday. I swear I need someone to take care of me. Oprah would not approve.

To be continued and, once I have logged stuff for a month or so (which takes a lot of time, actually, because since I apparently let my self be so easily distracted/claimed, I am logging lots of 15 minutes this, 15 minutes thats) I will be able to make bar graphs to see where the time goes. Yay.