Perpetuating the PhD pyramid scheme

The Finch and Pea

This kind of thinking drives me up a wall – scientists who are unwilling to approach the PhD labor market from a scientific perspective:

Living Science: Looking out for Future Scientists, Eve Marder, eLife:

I wonder at those who think they can predict which of our graduate applicants is likely to become a great scientist, and am dismayed by the hubris of those who think we should restrict access to PhD programs to a select few…

Ever since I can remember (and that is a long time), there have been wise heads who have counseled that we should drastically decrease the size of our PhD classes because there are not enough academic faculty positions to accommodate all of the able and interested candidates…

While these authors show a deep understanding of how increased competition for positions and funding have deleterious effects on the biomedical research and teaching enterprise, every time…

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I am ready for work, but is work ready for me?

Yes! Yes, of course! There is always plenty to do and so much to learn in an awesome lab.

data mining
This is not what I mean by data mining

The lab that I joined does a lot of data mining and has a lot of ongoing projects many of which could use participation from the general public and the biomedical research community at large. If you study genes, you can contribute just by using the awesome gene portal and giving feedback. If you have a favorite gene, you can contribute by editing gene wiki entries. If you can READ, you can contribute.

Other than that, that the Su lab is also applying the tools from integrative biology to investigate various diseases, and even investigating personalized medicine. To top it all off, this is just a sample of the projects in development by this awesome lab, so of course there is plenty to do…just not necessarily a place to set up shop. Although the lab is expanding into another area (I will have a work station soon), I joined just in time to take up residence in the conference room. My new colleagues are so nice, offering to let me use their work spaces when they are not using them. Apologies for refusing your kind gesture, workmates, but being in the conference room is like having an awesome office. There was concern that the conference room would be too crowded once the Fellow-new-person-but-smarter genius arrived, but the conference room is spacious enough, and more people = more fun anyway.

So what exactly does my job entail?

The short answer from the magic eight ball is, “Hazy, try again.”

The more accurate answer is, “As with any awesome job, there is a degree of flexibility in the responsibilities that will be encompassed by my position. Although some of the initial responsibilities are known to me thanks to the recruitment post there is plenty of room to grow, and even more neat projects to join.”

How marvelous is that?
Disclaimer: This post was actually drafted 2 weeks ago, but did not meet the standards required to be posted until recently. Ginger has since settle well into her role and was not harmed in the process.

Finding an awesome job-is it just dumb luck? part II

quill-175980 Previously, I discussed how my wonky unconventional cover letter enabled me to garner the interest of an awesome potential employer. I should mention that this approach has its risks, as the cover letter might not be appreciated by the person (or computer) that reads it. Furthermore, my cover letter did include all the essential elements of a conventional cover letter. Fortunately, the riskier letter worked allowing me to present my case on how I could be a good fit for the lab. Following the advice of other professionals (primarily from linkedin groups), I learned what I could of the lab and drafted a response that would illustrate how my particular combination of skills could be incorporated into the P.I’s current efforts.

But there was just one little problem.

The lab required a basic amount of programming skills, some sort of code that proved that I could back the statements in my cover letter and resume.

It wasn’t that I didn’t excel in the few programming course I took, so I did have some code I could share (thank you Dr. Kelley). However, that code was written a long time ago in python 2.5, and it no longer worked in the current version of python. I had to build something new–and fast. At this point I suspected that I probably would not be able to meet the basic programming skills needed for this group so I had no qualms about risking it all on a stupid fun little game that essentially gave a variety of reasons why I should be allowed to join this group. If that would be the exit point, I was at least going out with a blast.

I didn’t hear back from the P.I. so I resumed my traditional job search with renewed gusto, because any response from a human being during a job search can be energizing.

Turns out the P.I. had been traveling. When I did hear back from him he had an unexpectedly AWESOME scenario for me.

So sometimes landing an awesome job involves following a lot of good advice and a bit of dumb luck serendipity. But it also helps to 1. stay positive, and 2. to know yourself which helps you to realize how you can contribute to a group/organization’s efforts. (This is, of course, more great advice I got from others in my network.)

Finding an awesome job–is it just dumb luck? part I


As I was finishing up my PhD, I followed the relevant advice I received from colleagues, acquaintances, and linkedin posts quite faithfully: I carefully considered the traditional and non-traditional post PhD routes; I used AAAS’s IDP tool to find new opportunities and to determine key words to use in job search engines; I called up a lot of people I hadn’t seen for a long time while I was in the dissertation research vacuum and had a great time partying with them networking; I polished my linkedin profile, tailored my resume; and I looked for places where I’d want to work, and people with whom I’d like to work.

It took about nine applications before I got my first interview, another eight before I got my second.  I knew I didn’t want to do a post-doc, but more and more it looked as if that was the only route available…that or I’d actually have to relocate.

Since relocating was not an option, I scanned the major non-profit, research institutes for awesome labs. The idea was that if I was going to cave and do a post-doc it would have to be with a lab that:

  1. Did great research
  2. Had awesome people – and by awesome, I really mean: energetic, excited, intellectually hungry, diverse–with a dash of humor
  3. Had an awesome P.I. – Because P.I.’s set the tone for their labs (I know, because I did my dissertation research under an awesome P.I.)

And then I saw this post on one of the TSRI lab websites, which included ‘awesomeness’ as one of their criteria.  By the tone of the post it even looked like their definition of awesome might even match mine.  Ah-hah!  Finally, a chance to write a creative cover letter and to poke a little fun at the usual mind-numbing application-related docs I’d been working with for the past few months.  (Before you say that I was doing it wrong because application-related docs should not be mind-numbingly dull…consider this: all docs look dull after you’ve polished/revised/tailored them for months on end.)

Now, I could easily justify writing a creative risky cover letter.

Worst case scenario– My wacky creative cover letter would not land me an interview, but at least (hopefully) the awesome P.I. who was doing insanely awesome research might be amused for a bit, and I would have had the pleasure of amusing us both.

Best case scenario– I get a chance to meet the awesome P.I., learn more about his lab, maybe even join as a post-doc

Unexpectedly AWESOME scenario— I get a non-post-doc position with said awesome P.I. enabling me to utilize skills that I did not think would see the light of day in even my imagined ideal job.

But I’m really getting ahead of myself with the Unexpectedly AWESOME scenario.  Let’s just end this post with the initial reaction.  I received a response from the awesome P.I. who wanted to understand how all the strange skills and interests described in the risky awesome cover letter would fit into his lab.

Next: finding the fit