Wednesday, February 29, 2012


I was chatting with a colleague of mine who shuddered at the term "networking." He had a PhD, an academic postdoc abroad for several years, and had found a research associate job back at his alma mater university. I was on my way to give a career seminar to speak about the importance of networking, among other topics. Talk about contrasts.

From his perspective, he thought that the CV, cover letter, publications, and interview should be the only items needed for a job application. Networking? He thought the whole concept was a personality contest, a social medium invented by people to "act nice" to the right people to obtain a job. This is an opinion that some people may have, particular those who were never given classroom instruction about networking. They usually go straight by the book, nothing too out of the ordinary, usually not likely to start their own company based on a passion and a network of qualified colleagues.

How was I to explain to this colleague the whole concept of LinkedIn? The concept of finding a potential partner, mentor, corporate sponsor or organization through a network which could change or supplement my career was too foreign to him. Since he was satisfied with where he was at with his own career, I decided not to pursue the debate; but he knew where I stood.

Networking to me, is a way to meet like-minded colleagues. Of course, you will be cordial and respectful, as you are with all professional interactions. No need to "butter" on the charm, but a face-to-face meeting is more memorable if the person has an energy about them. This is not being "fake". It is creating a fun, genuine, personable environment for that person to remember you by. If you share a passion for an idea, a connection is born and usually stays for a long time.

Creating a network is not just about attending a meeting or reception and talking about trivial ideas. Effective face-to-face networking involves self assessment and research. Assess what you want to know more about. Where do you want your career to be? What drives you? Research up on who is attending the event. Read about their backgrounds and science interests. Find those you are interested in and ask pertinent questions that relates to them and that would help your own career goals. Go home and write a professional follow-up email with a thank-you. If you found the interaction a success (personality and like-minded in the scientific or career ideas,) maintain the relationship with a LinkedIn invite and few relevant emails throughout the year.

With the power of LinkedIn and Groups, I have broadened my own electronic network and have made email connections to those individuals I find to share similar interests and goals. For example, I am currently helping with finding guest speakers for a career development course. Some of them I already knew, some of them I met at a networking reception, and some have volunteered through my a LinkedIn discussion I started. I have met a myriad of people, all of them eager to help support my cause. "Networking" to me is not "evil." It is a great tool to support an individual's pursuit to achieve a common goal and passion.

Along the networking journey, I have also helped others in return. It's a lovely circle.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Our Education System..from Child to PhD

I guess I am on a TED talk kick, but here is one you can't miss (almost nine million views), especially if you are in education. I thought his whole section on university professors was especially entertaining.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Where are the Women Leaders?

Just wanted to share a TED talk. Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) summarizes her view on why there are too few women leaders and suggestions to change that. In brief, 1) believe in yourself, 2) don't "leave" before you leave, 3) make your partner a real partner.

Here's a great peer mentorship idea especially for women with careers. Thanks to Jim Austin, Editor of Science Careers, for bringing it our attention.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Nonacademic Careers for BioScientists

According to the National Postdoctoral Association and NSF, more PhDs will eventually pursue nonacademic careers.

Here is a list I have thought of and compiled of non-academic careers/areas pursued by bioscience graduate students and PDFs.

1. Management Consulting
2. Science Writing/Editing
3. Pharma Field or R & D Scientist / Sales
4. Biotech Field or Application Scientist / Sales
5. Patent Agent / Tech Transfer Officer / Patent Attorney
6. Science Communications
7. Government Research and Development
8. Research Administration (Federal, Provincial)
9. High School Teacher / Head of Science
10. Science Outreach Programs
11. Science / Medical Liaison
12. Science Policy (see first resource below)
13. Market Analyst (Consult biotech for Finance)
14. Intelligence Analyst (for the Government)
15. Grad Student/PDF Career Advisor (after some experience)
16. Science Translator (for foreign labs wanting to publish in English, recently saw an ad in LinkedIn)
17. Non-profit, Independent Science Research Foundations
18. Applications for Social Programs, Public Health Organizations
19. Environmental Policy and Research
20. Forensic Science
21. Research Projects for Biodefence
22. Think Tanks
23. Science Consultant for Entertainment Industry
24. Venture Capitalist (after years of experience in biotech)
25. Cosmetic Industry Scientist
26. Global Health Scientist
27. Medicinal Plant Research and Development

And more, suggested by other colleagues:
28. Market Research Consultant
29. Regulatory Affairs
30. Clinical Trial Management
31. Science Recruiter
32. Food Science
33. Nutrition and Food Supplement Industry

Read my "Career Transitions" and "Serving the World with Science" to help you achieve any one of these dream careers.

Also, you are an intelligent, problem-solving leader! You can make your own career that is not even a list. Add some creativity, your expertise and some passion - read "Living your Dream."

For those with children, join a new linkedin group "Parents with PhDs" to form peer mentor groups and keep focused on career development even during the hardest times of integrating family.

Here is my Science Careers Article
Here is the updated 2013 list.

Other resources:

Good luck!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sincere Appreciation for Motherhood Update

In my last entry for "Sincere Appreciation for Motherhood," I wrote about a boy who has terminal cancer and how his life has affected mine. I also wrote how I could not think of a song for him.

Well, the song and lyrics came out the other day. I wanted to give him a song that was about him and celebrated his each day, the present. So that is what I composed about: the present, his name, his age, his sister, his favorite stuffie. The melody was not melodramatic and it was something that I hoped he would enjoy, hearing his own name in a song.

If there is anything we can all take from this story is what my Mom used to say. Plan life with your head, live each day with your heart. Be grateful for each day you are here.

Serving the World with Science

For some of those in graduate school, you may not know how you are going to apply your research and leadership skills in your future career. Here is a suggestion. While you are inventing in the lab, keep up to date on the social implications of medical and life science research. It is not just big Pharma out there; other options do exist.

Listen to TED talks which showcase worldly "ideas worth spreading." Keep up to date on the social impact of science, such as organizations like Union of Concerned Scientists.

Check out the Martha and Bill Gates Foundation.

Learn about research agencies like the International Development Research Centre and CIDA with programs such as the maternal and child health program.

One inspiring story is when a group of graduate students got together to design a baby warmer, to save premature babies in developing countries.
Foundations like Edesia produce Plumpy'nut for famine relief.

Read up on environmental issues.
Find independent research and think tanks that you might want to intern or work for.,

Check out the founder of Genetic Alliance. She is inspirational.

Think outside the box, and develop a passion.
Follow-through with networking and internships, and you may end up working for your cause after graduate school or postdoc.

Good luck exploring the world!

Work Titles for Moms and Dads

It's funny how different people react to a parent's decision to make child nurturing her/his number one "work." Not that anyone should be judged on that decision, but it does come up in conversation sometimes.

Many people define themselves with the title they are given at a particular institution. It is easier to say "I'm an Applications Scientist at Company X" than "I am the Lead Director of Household X, Developer of Children's Programs, Psychologist, Primary Care Provider on call everyday and night, Head Chef, Manager of Housekeeping, Director of Social Relations, Event Planner, Head of Transportation, Inter and Intra-personal Relations, CoChair of Finance, Music and Visual Arts Director, Athletic Coach, Charity Organizer."

Moms and Dads who are at home with your children, these are all the titles you earn. You do not need a paycheck to define who you are. Keep your head up, even when there are days you question your choices. If your spouse were to hire all of these people, you would be in serious debt! And I always say, at the end of your life, you are not going to think about how you "lost" 5-7 years of your full-time work life getting to know your children.

Having said all this, I do know that some parents have no choice, but to work full-time outside the home. Trophies to all the single parents out there! I have no idea how you do it. I am very lucky to have this choice and thankful for my supportive husband.

For those thinking of transitioning back into more "outside work," you can click on the "Children, Career, Life" labels to view more entries.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


The art of communication is most effective with brevity. Keep it brief, but informative. If I am reviewing a written document or email, my attention wavers if the message is a rambling outline of the thought process. Capitals, correct punctuation and spelling are key in relaying effective communication. Even in this day of instant messages and quick emails, every exchange that you make should be professionally written especially to work colleagues and mentors. "Hi Sam" looks much better than "hey." The context of the email should stay brief. Find phrases of words that relay the same meaning but are shorter. It is more effective, grabs the attention of the reader, and keeps it professional.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


The resume and CV may become obsolete in the near future, if not already. Most companies, when looking at your application, will check out your LinkedIn profile. If you are a graduate student and you do not have one yet, please make one. I am mentoring high school students who have profiles which are quite impressive. Remember, this is a professional networking site so anything you do not want on your CV or cover letter, please leave out.

A few years ago, I introduced some friends to LinkedIn and they were a bit wary. A few year later, they all have profiles and business networks have grown.

All of my initial LinkedIn connections were those people I knew as friends and colleagues. Here are some examples of my personal experiences. 1) A connection of one of my connections wanted a biotech consulting job and posted it for those connections. Hence, only the "inside" group knew about this job. 2) I asked a question on Science Careers Forum, and through this, one of the moderators linked me in. Through his connections, I found some relevant professionals I wanted to speak to. 3) I linkedin to Women in Science and found a potential speaker to help with one of my talks. I emailed her, chatted with her and now I have found a professional who shares the same career interests. 4) I received an email about a potential job through someone looking through my profile. All of these would not have been possible in the old world.

The world is becoming more connected. Stay LinkedIn, especially if you promoting a business or yourself in finding the dream career.

Groups to consider:
Parents with PhDs
PhD Careers Outside of Academia
Life Sciences Ontario
Biotech Toronto
Women in Science and Technology Businesses
Association for Women In Science

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Effective Teaching Tips

I recently found some teaching articles by Dr. Barbi Honeycutt, PhD (NC State) which promote a more exciting, interactive classroom experience as opposed to a "one speaker show." Perhaps you can try them next time... I think I already have. In brief, 1) it's not about you but providing the space for group learning, 2) it is about your energy, 3) stop talking too much.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Shopping...Our Eco Footprint

Perhaps it is because of my experiences or just being more aware, but I have noticed that the older I become, the less and less I am interested of acquiring "things."  The whole notion of going shopping for the fun of it or because of a great sale has long since passed. Perhaps it is because I am more aware of the whole global market industry. Perhaps it is because I want to purchase local items, even though the "Made in Canada" are hard to find. Perhaps with children, we want to make sure they are taken care of too. But I think one big reason is that I do not want to leave too much of an eco "footprint." The more you buy, the more chance it will end up as "garbage" one day.

I now only buy clothing if it is a classic piece that I hope to wear for a long time. Before I pick up a houseware item, I ask myself, do I really need that? I got along perfectly fine without it. The other limiting factor is that our home does not have much storage so we are forced to purge every six months. Kids outgrow many things so their items are donated to friends, Goodwill, or sold to "Once Upon a Child." Some of our furniture are second-hand. Our lovely Heintzmann piano was listed on Craigslist from a family that had used it for three generations. My husband has purchased used cars from ebay. Yes, ebay. We try to take the subway whenever we can.

Sometimes, I imagine I would love to live in a home with just a piano and minimal furniture. In the older Asian homes, people used to have one closet and one folding table that was low to the ground. In the evening, the folding futon mattress would come out on the floor for sleep. In the morning, it would be folded back in the closet. Breakfast would be served on the one table while family members would sit on the floor to eat. After meals, the table was folded back up and set aside. Studying was also done either on the same table or another similar one. People would sit on flat cushions on the floor. And that was it. No bed frames, no tables with chairs, no sofas, no loveseats, no cribs, no headboards, no night tables. Floors were heated in the winter. Although that would be a great ideal for me to live in, the houses here are not built for that lifestyle and people are not as comfortable sitting on the ground. It would have to remain as a thought for a rainy day...

Living in a home in North America with cars leaves a large eco footprint. I hope we can learn from other models in other countries like Brazil (thanks to their sugar cane) to improve North American fuel resources as well. I know a few young scientists interested in pursuing biofuel development. This is a topic that can be easily take several pages, but I will end it with...

Good luck and a big thank-you to our environmental scientists and policy makers! You have a hard job ahead.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Graduate Students Networking Reception

I attended a reception tonight to help "advise" graduate students on career paths and choices. Thanks for all those that enjoy my blog and find it helpful. Thanks for all those who stopped and chatted with me. All of you reminded me of how I was before the whole career experience. Unsure, tired, but excited to face the unknown with new questions. I am happy these functions exist now for grad students, as the option into academia is the road less taken. For those trying for academia, do not give up! Read about the hidden secrets of an academic career in my blog and other resources and find other mentors. Opting for industry? Talk to people already there and how they got their jobs.

The take home message today was: network and find those mentors.

Thank-you to the organizers!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dividing the Hours in a Day

Some people have asked me "What is your typical day like?"

Well, the days can be different, according to the activities lined up. Some days, the kids need more of my time if they are sick, or I am volunteering at their school. On days which I am on conferences, meetings or speaking engagements, I do not see the children as much.

However, on a typical day, I see my kids for breakfast and off to school, at lunchtime, and after school. I try to walk most of the time, to fit in my exercise. My work fits in during their class hours and after they are in bed by 7:30/8 pm until midnight or so. My husband and I usually work side-by-side in the evening. Hence, it is important to set up an reasonably early sleeping routine in their earlier years (see Healthy Babies, Sleeping Babies.) Once in a while, my husband and I have date night (see Date Your Spouse.) Once a week, we each take one night for our own exercise activities or friends. My music students take lessons on weekend early mornings and some right after school. I also squeeze in my own piano practicing all over the day. At night, I use the damper pedal as my little ones sleep.

Speaking of seeing my kids at lunch, I played a game with my 4 year-old the other day where she put a rice cake in her mouth and I ate the other half. Her incessant giggles brought forth more silliness. I laughed. She laughed. I am happy to be at home with them at this time.

On that note, I'm off to work on this week's piano piece....

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Importance of Communication

As graduate students and postdocs, we are rewarded when we discover new concepts. "I have invented!" I am sure most of us have "danced the happy dance" when the critical experiment goes well.

However, the innovation, the actual application of these inventions do not happen without other people. We need a peer review, a legal team, patent officers, policy makers, market analysts. One person cannot run science alone. One of my consulting jobs was for another management consultant (Dave). Dave told me he had a client who claimed he had the best thing ever since the discovery of electricity. However, Dave did not understand a thing about the biotechnology he was explaining. Dave asked me to talk to him and clarify. I am sure the scientist I talked to was genius and he had discovered something amazing. Unfortunately, I could not fully understand his details either. He spoke to me on the phone and sent documents. He did not have any publications, as he wanted to patent the idea before it became public.

This scientist could have invented the next best thing. I am not sure if he continued with it or not. However, if his ideas could not be communicated to an ivy-league trained management consultant and another PhD scientist in the same field; his invention may take a while to be innovated.

Communication is critical. A clear, concise way of transmitting your scientific thought and its applications makes all the difference. The best way to practice is explaining the basic ideas to a four year-old child, a high school student, your friend who is not in science, and then to a colleague not in your lab. If you can master these four audiences, your communication skills are developing well. With children, try to explain your science using illustrations and simple analogies to everyday processes, such as cooking and food. Think outside the box to explain your box. It will expand your thinking and communication skills.

A Music Break...Sistema Toronto

What a wonderful music program to start in Toronto. I know some of the musicians involved in this charitable program that changes these children's lives. I highly respect their work. Thanks for making it happen!

You can view the recap on

Friday, February 10, 2012

How do I find a Mentor?

During your PhD and postdoc, it is always beneficial to have at least two mentors, one that is associated with your work (perhaps your academic advisor) and somebody who knows you but does not know the exact details of your work, especially for career development advice. Finding which type of mentor depends on what your career goals are. The first step in any career move is self assessment. Where do you want to be? Then find someone either within the department or university that you know and respect and can visit once in a while.

If you need to broaden your search, potential sources can be from mentornet, national postdoctoral association, networking opportunities from campus student and postdoc associations, Science career forum, professional society meetings such as AAAS. Contact a scientist in industry and send a short email asking for an informational interview with a link to your LinkedIn bio. Help organize a conference, volunteer to be on a panel. Attend workshops that will help strengthen your areas broadbase knowledge, communication skills, networking, project management.

Once you have found a mentor, set goals and expectations. Discuss what you want to get out the experience, the objectives, and divide the timeline into achieveable goals. An example of long-term goal is an academic career. Having just started a postdoc, the immediate short-term goals would be to design research projects towards high numbers of publications. If the long-term goal is industry, the projects should also include more collaborations.

You may want to write out the boundaries of the mentor/mentee relationship so that it remains constructive, predominantly work-focused, and keeps a professional relationship. NIH provides suggested mentoring guidelines. Work/life issues will always come up, and it should be up to the mentor/mentee on how they agree on handling them.

With my mentees, I exchange and agree on 1) expectations, 2) time per month, 3) they come up with an agenda, issue or question before the meeting or phone call, 4) they provide a list of 3 short term and 3 long term goals and how they think they will accomplish them. An example of an expectation list is: I can help you with career interests, skill development and setting goals, but not fundraising, getting a job or university applications.

Finding a mentor has become much easier since my days. Having said that, it is still up to you to find the mentor that you will "click" with who can help you with your career path. Also, if you plan well, you will have many mentors along the way. Even I, found my most recent mentor, at a recent conference at a networking luncheon. She was one of the speakers, I liked what she had to say, so I approached her with a question about my career path and followed up with an email so she would not forget about me. She was very accommodating and supportive. Due to this interaction, I have had several contacts with new opportunities.

Good luck with your search!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Job...after Baby #2

Between the 2.5 years of my two children, I had a great integration of science and life. As Director of Application Science, I was responsible for sales, marketing, scientific collaborations, and customer relations. The miracles of webinars and conference calls made working from home with 2 kids possible. I had some babysitters in the home, but I still nursed and spent time with my babies. Throughout my several years at the start-up company, I had worn many hats. With the upcoming delivery of my second child, I worked until the week before I was due. Although I had proposed to find my replacement, my CEO again took care of it for me. I mostly trained the new Sales and Marketing guy, as I wanted to continue the other work from home.

After a few months of maternity leave, I came to the realization that I wanted to work as a Consultant basis, mostly on finding potential new partners. Some days were busier than others; I mostly spend time nurturing and helping my daughters develop into people of good character. I have gone through months on just being a Mom, especially while the kids were younger. For all those parents who are faced with taking care of newborns while trying to stay on top of science: don't worry too much. Your science career, publication record and network will not go anywhere. Taking the extra time for children is lovely. I would not trade it for the world! Just remember to keep reading, try to consult for your previous work, attend a conference when you can, try to sit on a scientific advisory board, stay in touch with your network, ask one of your mentors if you can review some of their papers, keep mentoring others.

As my children are finishing up the last lap of "primary" years, I find myself newly inspired to dive into more work. Some people who take time for children may be accused of "not being serious" about science. I find that unfortunate. Life is interwoven with work, children, parents, circumstance. Since I have taken this time, I feel more inspired. I am a professional multi-tasker. Yes, I have directed a conference call followed immediately by a nursing session and then tending to toddler while making dinner. I am more inspired to tell my story and help other graduate students. Perhaps even change the career direction myself. It's a life-long process. I am currently engaging in more mentorship roles and giving career development seminars at my alma mater. I am linking up students with colleagues who I think can help them. I find this work to be very rewarding.

In short, I would say the "job" right now with 2 kids in tow would be full-time Mom, part-time science & career consultant, part-time music student, composer and teacher, part-time artist (yes, I also attend a School of Art,)  full-time wife, and full-time at living life to its fullest.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Funny Kids

Boy (5 yrs) has on a puffy coat. He looks at Mom. He pulls in his arms with the zipper still intact. Turns the coat around. His zipper is now on his back and still together. His hoodie is at the bottom of his chin. He tucks his arms in again and rearranges his coat around and around. Again and again. Not frustrated, just entertaining himself.

Six kids all under 8 years old are seated around the dining table and are talking about how their Dads napped on the weekend.
"Who has a Dad that likes to nap?" I ask. All eight hands go up in the air.
"Who has a Dad that like to watch football?" asks a 5 yr-old. All hands go up in the air.
"Who has a Dad that watches football while he naps?" All hands shoot straight up accompanied by barrels of laughter.

"I don't get it. Why is it called 'kindergarten' when it is not a garden?"

Monday, February 6, 2012

Career Decisions

After the chaos of graduate education, postdoc training, finding the job, promotions to Director, babies, toddlerhood, I find myself at a time when I can take a breath. There was a point in my life when I had to decide a music training or a science education. Although it has been over 20 years since I made " the" decision, I realize that it was never a decision I had to make in saying farewell to music. It was a decision to somehow combine the two.

I say that because if you truly have a deep passion for something, it never goes away. I remember that even after some late nights in the lab, I would find the baby grand on campus somewhere and just play. Trust me, I know where to find these pianos on all of the campuses I have attended.

Even now, I find great joy in composing songs for my children's classes and personal milestones, teaching the art to our young generation; and after all these years, I have restarted my Royal Conservatory of Music training. I even attended a RCM Piano Teacher's Workshop and listened to a great master class taught by the Dean of Glenn Gould Music School. I am not sure if I will take the exams or pursue my music even more seriously. All I am sure of is that I am happy that I am still in it today.

I am happy I discovered the roads to scientific research and still maintained my musical creativity. I am not a professional concert pianist, nor am I a Nobel prize-winning scientist. I just feel lucky. Lucky I am having the chance to dabble in both. One of my biotech consulting leads actually came from my piano instructor. Funny. All this to say, maintain your interests, your passions, most people have two or three. With the pursuit of higher academia and building a family, many extra-curricular activities are likely to fall away. However, try to maintain those that help you unwind and appreciate...just being alive. You will love that you did.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Moms Returning to Work

To all those moms who stayed full-time at home after the babies came and whose kids are gone from 9-11:30 and 12:30 - 3:30. I know you have thought about it. Should I try to find outside work now? What do I do? I have been out of the loop for years! Where do even start? And if I do return, how am I going to set up a system so the kids are walked to and back from school, sometimes for lunch, and helped until I return? It would be great to be back for 3 pm. Is there such a job?

I have noticed our neighbourhood has a rich source of intellect, compassion, multi-tasking super Moms. They are the untapped resource of quite the brain power. I know a few who would love to return to some sort of "work" outside the home, but are contemplating the direction.

I think that this is very similar to a career transition (see Career Transitions, Jan 2012). The transition year when your child is going from half day school to a full day (with lunch at school or home) is a tough one for both child and Mom. Moms feels like there should be more time; but the stresses of friendships, bullying, social issues, academic development can be overwhelming some days! Baby is no longer baby with physical needs, but a growing child with psychological needs. The latter is more difficult, I would say. Along with this child transition, Mom may find a need to return to her career. I know a few Moms trying this. Some are returning to supply teaching, with a relative on stand-by to transport her own kids to and back from school. Some are making their second career attending full or part-time in teacher's college with kids in daycare or with nanny. Some are taking classes. Some are volunteering with their favorite organization, such as their child's previous daycare, school or swimming club. Some are setting up their own web businesses. All these activities will lead to some type of "work" outside the home eventually.

As for my science career, I have maintained my interests by attending conferences, consulting biotech projects, speaking at career symposiums, mentoring science students, and trying to give back by writing my stories. I am not quite sure when I will return to the regular 9-5; but I know whatever the future holds, I feel privileged to have met these Moms these past few years.

For those science moms who have stayed home for a few years for children, please read the link for some inspiring stories. It is possible!

Good luck, Moms!

Friday, February 3, 2012

"Integration" instead of "Balance"

Thanks to a colleague of mine, I now use the term "integration" of career and life instead of "balance." The term "balance" gave a connotation of barely maintaining the scales from tipping one way or another, almost an unachievable task. Hence, the term "integration." We weave a web of career, parenthood, community involvement, grandparent care, and other interests which are all connected together. One day, your child may be sick and your work does not receive enough attention. The next week, you may be at a conference and not see the kids at all. Even though it is merely a word, I feel more at ease with my life when using "integration."

Many moms that I speak to say the toughest question of all at this point in their lives is, "When do I find full-time outside work?" Some moms feel taking care of the well-being of 2 or 3 children is more that enough "work." Having said that, many would like to return to some career stimulation. A friend of mine says he loves to hire moms because they are so motivated, come in at 9 am, eat lunch for 20 minutes, leave at 3 and put in the most efficient time at the office. One mom re-entered the workforce while negotiating a contract for 9-3, PD days and holidays off, and a longer summer break. As some of my mom friends now have children entering full day school, their integration of life and work is slowly changing. Good luck to everybody!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Postdoctoral Feedback

My thoughts on postdoctoral "supervision" stem from the various experiences collected over the years, some are currently in academia. The postdoctoral experience for many is a time of excitement for new research but also a time for uncertainty, as the window to the "real" career is fast approaching. Some feel this is the time you should be committed to the lab all hours of the day and night, making those critical connections, giving those plenary session talks in lieu of your famous PI. It is also the time when most people are likely to have little children and a spouse. So, it is crucial that your hours in the lab away from family and in planning for the experiments are efficient and effective.

What is not mentioned with the lab environment or even your own PI is the feedback you should be receiving from your PI. As a postdoc, you should be an autonomous researcher. However, you do present your data in lab meetings and even if your PI is never in the lab, he/she does hear about your work. You may be publishing papers, reviewing grants, training grad students, presenting at conferences. What most postdocs do not hear or receive communication about is how they are doing in the lab with all of their work or their career development. You may attend career workshops and perhaps your job has already been lined up. However, just as a committee meeting or progress report helps out a grad student with their objectives and timelines, I think it is important to have a similar document for the postdoc with at least one other committee member.

I illustrate some real postdoc experiences below.

Postdoc 1 worked with a PI who was well known for her power publications. She worked long hours with a daily 25 minute commute to her home and husband. She had to keep looking at her watch if she left the lab for a meal break. I remember it was 7 pm one evening. She started an experiment to run and was leaving the lab to grab a bite to eat when her PI asked her "Where are you going?" When she explained she was hungry and was off to dinner, her PI gave her a "look" and shuffled away to her office. Intense. Since there really is no "check" system placed in the postdoc world, some people like my friend, feel "trapped" as they know the PI's recommendation letter may make or break the next career move. Several years later, this PI came under university investigation from several postdoc complaints.

Postdoc 2 also worked in high power lab, and he thought things were going well. He was reporting every week about his findings at his lab meetings. His supervisor did not express any negative comments. In fact, they had a jovial relationship. He thought he had found his niche in a specific area which he made collaborations with other departments and published several papers. Having said all this, he did not receive any career development guidance and one day in his third year, his PI asked for a private meeting. It was during this discussion that his PI talked about how he was not happy with his performance, and that he thought it was best for everyone if he left in 3 months. Postdoc 2 feels blindsided. "Since when?" he asks.
"Since the last quarter of year 1."
"How come you never told me?"
"I thought you would improve on your own."
"Well, if you never told me you were not happy, how am I supposed to know?"

In both of these instances, effective communication on both sides with an official progress and feedback system would have prevented all the headache for everyone involved. It was stories like these that inspired me to write a feedback form for the postdoc association. It was a one page document to be completed every 3-4 months with postdoc name, PI name and date. It included 1) experimental milestones achieved, 2) publication progress, 3) performance feedback for postdoc,  4) performance feedback for the PI,  5) career development, objectives review. The performance feedback would include questions like a) what did you appreciate about the performance of the postdoc (PI)? and b) what would like to see improved?

Having this type of progress report would provide written documentation to improve communications, enhance the postdoctoral experience, and improve the postdoctoral mentorship. Alongside the publications, the postdoc has a written record of the work that was accomplished, scientifically and otherwise. If issues do arise from this type of communication, a third party at the university (postdoctoral affairs) can step in to mediate a solution.

If you university or mentor has an official form like this, then awesome! However, most do not. It can be your first contribution to the lab. I am sure your new PI will have no issue with writing it up. You may space it out as you wish, but twice a year at the least sounds about right. It is always about two-way communication; and just like in a marriage, feedback for the postdoc-PI relationship is critical.

Resources: (see p19)

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