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19 juillet 2014 6 19 /07 /juillet /2014 13:23

In the words of a colleague, a career in academia is a long string of failures sometimes, and sometimes only, interrupted by success.

I had one such success two years ago when I received my coveted job offer. Since then... I wouldn't say it's been downhill from there, but it hasn't been easy. ProflikeSubstance is currently running an interesting series of posts on surviving the pre-tenure years, which cover a lot of ground. My job pretty much came with tenure, but while job security is not a concern, the situation is similar in terms of getting a research program off the ground, getting funded, hiring...

News from the funding trenches

Since chances of getting funded are about 1 in 7 or 8, simplistic math dictates that you should submit about 10 proposals before you see 1 funded. Sure enough, Year 1 I submitted 7 proposals and got 1 funded. Year 2 I submitted 8... and got none funded, although many went through first round selections placing them in the top 30% of submissions. This submission season has left me exhausted - not necessarily because of the results per se, but because of the sheer craziness of the process. Submission requirements and venues change every year, so learning about them is a lot of work - and what you've learnt this year is not necessarily going to be of any use next year.

  • One proposal got turned down because it was essentially off topic, but I didn't realize it until it was ready to be submitted, so I just went ahead and submitted anyway. My research overlaps with about three or four fields, so I'm routinely borderline off-topic anywhere I submit. This particular venue was decribing their scope in broad enough terms that I thought my proposal could fit in, until I discovered a more specific description of the funding agency's goals for this funding year that made it clear I was way out of left field to them. 
  • One proposal was turned down from the get-go because of a combination of bad logistics - the scientific write up was ready two weeks ahead of submission time, but needed to be submitted together with a bunch of admin letters that I finally received - I kid you not - 20 minutes before the deadline. At which point the submission website choked under the pressure of whooosh, 30 submissions. The very local venue declined to accept proposals through other means than the crashed website. 
  • I suspect one proposal was turned down because of unclear muddy local politics arrangements
  • ...

Overall, many things factor in the outcome that are out of the applicant's control. I'm not entirely clueless, but I guess I just realized how much of it is out of your control.

All of this is highly time-consuming and energy-draining because it drags over the best part of nine months between write-up and results.


Meanwhile, how's the research supposed to actually move forward? I suppose recruits are part of the answer, but that's the other thing. Once you got the money, you'd think you'd be out of water. However...

How to Hire a research associate in 10 days

...when you have the funds, the ideal candidate, and labor law behind you. 

Answer: it can't be done. Period. Not in ten days, and not even in ten weeks!!

Year 1, I learnt the basics of hiring: finding a willing, competent candidate and funds to hire them ain't easy. This year, I found out that having the funds and a candidate who is competent, willing, and legally able ain't enough. You have to have the candidate vouched by the institute who draws the contract, and, for some labs, by the department of defense.  I tried to hire two associates this year.

  • The first one had worked for a government research institution for three years over the past six years prior to accepting my offer of a 1-year-renewable-once position. If they had effectively been in the offered position for the maximum amount of time, they would have had at most 3 years tenure at a government research institution over a window of six years at any given time. The law states that an individual with six years experience in a six-year window needs to be tenured, and institutes are making a point to avoid giving tenure in this way. So, even though in this case we were far from reaching the six-year limit, they flat out declined drawing a contract for this person. 
  • The second one had a time-sensistive agenda, and needed to know where they would be working in three months time. Because we're one of the lucky labs required to seek defense approval before hiring folks, the best comitment we can make is: you're hired, pending defense approval which may or may not be granted within the legal ten-plus week time frame. Unsurprisingly, this candidate accepted a solid offer from a lab with the ability to draw a contract there and then.

These battles are equally time-consuming and energy-draining as the funding quest. I now understand the statement of a former mentor that the first rule of hiring is in fact to pick a candidate that will do no harm. Qualified candidates are hard to come by, and should you be so lucky to find them, likely to have competing offers. So in the end, the candidates that will be willing to put up with the bloody process are the ones with no other options - so what your job description comes down to is: ability to not blow up the lab, getting some actual work done optional.

Long live the batrachians

What about the Science? In the midst of all this, it's trying to move forward, with exciting progress. Since it's definitely the most interesting and rewarding part of the job, I am seriously considering quiting the other quests, or at least putting them back on the back burner that should have never left. If nothing else, this will give me time to build up the stamina to collect more rejection.

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14 juin 2014 6 14 /06 /juin /2014 11:47

I recently came accross this essay about procrastination. I found it quite interresting in general, and in particular it helped me articulate the main issue with my professional situation: I lack much needed time to procrastinate.


I think I view procrastination a little differently from the author of the essay, but in essence, I am in full agreement with his perspective. I believe the key phrase in that essay is the claim that "real work needs two things (...): big chunks of time, and the right mood."

Where I differ from the author is in the belief that, to reach the right mood, you need "bad" procrastination, i.e. what he calls type-A and type-B procrastination: periods of time do "do nothing", aka clean your house or office space, watch TV, goof off on the web, read papers that are only remotely related to your research topic... After a while of "doing nothing", the urge to get some actual work done does build up, but you're not quite ready to commit to the hard tasks yet, so that's the perfect time to "do something less important", such as reply to email, document recent work, admin stuff... And finally, the "right mood" is there, hard work can begin! That's when you need to be able to sit at your desk for hours without being interrupted by meetings, errands, domestic chores. At least, that's how I operate - well, how I used to operate... Because over the past few years, I have not been able to go through all the motions in the game plan. I simply do not have the time. I've been able to either "do nothing" and then "do something less important", or go straight into the "do something less important phase", but I never really make it to the last phase. Or if I do, I have to drop everything after five minutes to rush home. My errands and domestic chores are no longer of the kind that I can throw to the wind and just postpone indefinitely or even for a day. When it's time to pick-up my son from daycare, I can't just decide to let the teachers drop him off at the local police station until I'm ready to take custody of him. When it's time to go shopping, I can't decide that my son can do without proper food or diapers for a few days. I suppose I could decide that I will sleep another day, but that's treacherous when the little one will wake you up at 6 a.m. no matter what.
I realize it's a common predicament, but to this day, I have not found the right strategy to make adequate time for procrastination.


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3 juin 2014 2 03 /06 /juin /2014 13:42

Ce post fait suite à deux autres, qui évoquaient la consommation de cafféine et l'utilisation du jacuzzi et du sauna. Dans ces deux cas, une étude rapide de la littérature montrait que les interdictions fortes associées à ces activités pendant la grossesse n'étaient pas fondées et  relevaient plutôt d'une application abusive du principe de précaution. Une autre interdiction largement relayée auprès des femmes enceinte est celle de la consommation d'alcool, dont l'ensemble du corps médical semble s'accorder à dire qu'elle doit rester nulle. Mais qu'en est-il vraiment? 


Comme pour les posts précédents, je tiens à préciser que je ne suis pas médecin - mon expertise se limite à la consultation (ici rapide et non-exhaustive) de la littérature médicale pertinente.


Une recherche ciblée sur PubMed donne... quelques milliers de résultats, dont finalement peu portent sur la consommation d'alcool seule (non associée à d'autres facteurs de risque comme la consommation de drogue ou des affections diverses comme le diabète ou le tabagisme), et encore moins sur une comparaison des volumes de consommation, ou sur les effets d'une consommation modérée à très, très, modérée.


Le résultat qui semble faire consensus correspond à la conclusion de cette revue de 1997 selon laquelle vu les conséquences néfastes avérées dues à l'exposition prénatale à l'alcool, mieux vaut s'abstenir de boire pendant la grossesse. Je n'ai pas pu consulter l'article entier, mais en gros, il semble dire que consommer beaucoup d'alcool a un impact très néfaste sur l'enfant alors que ne pas en consommer du tout n'a aucun impact négatif. Entre les deux, c'est moins clair.


Une revue plus récente indique que s'il est acquis qu'une consommation d'alcool importante et fréquente est évidemment néfaste (on parle de 4 verres par jour et plus), il faut relativiser l'impact d'une consommation modérée et occasionnelle. Là encore, hélas pas plus de détails car l'article complet n'est pas facilement trouvable. Un article plutôt récent du British journal of obstetrics and gynaecology rapporte une étude danoise menée de 2003 à 2008 qui conclut que la consommation occasionnelle de faibles volumes d'alcool pendant la grossesse n' a pas de conséquence inquiétante sur l'enfant. Un commentaire sur cet article décrit des limites de l'étude, portant sur le nombre de sujets étudiés (1628 au total) - notament dans les catégories avec les consommations d'alcool les plus importantes (seulement 195 rapportent une consommation moyenne supérieure à 5 verres par semaine pendant la grossesse). Une autre critique porte sur le fait que les tests employés ainsi que l'age des enfants ne permettent peut-être pas de détecter des différences pourtant réelles. Globalement, la critique principale est la crainte que l'étude danoise anihile le travail de prévention fait ces dernières années pour informer le public des conséquences de la consommation d'alcool et encourager les femmes enceintes à ne pas boire. 


En conclusion, l'impact de la consommation d'alcool pendant la grossesse sur l'enfant est grave et avéré dans les cas de consommation importante et fréquente d'alcool. On ne sait pas exactement où placer le curseur de la consommation "dangereuse" - s'il est certain que la consommation zéro n'a aucun impact négatif, il semble qu'une consommation très modérée et ocasionnelle (entre 0 et 4 verres par mois max en moyenne selon l'étude danoise) constitue un risque faible.

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17 décembre 2013 2 17 /12 /décembre /2013 11:08

I read a few blogs written by academics with great interest as they address issues related to research, student supervision, grant writing, publication, work-life balance and much more. One topic of particular interest is that of women in science, which is often discussed by FSP and GMP among others. As a women in the field of computer science, I have often been in a male-dominated evironment. However, either because I'm lucky or because it happens in too subltle ways to pinpoint, I do not feel that I have been treated differently from my male peers throughout my career, nor have I witnessed blatant gender-differenciated treatment.


That's why I want to report something that happened a few days ago as my lab was going through a round of external evaluation by peers. There was a specific meeting where our branch chief presented the branch research activities over the period and answered questions from the evaluation committee. One question was related to the time to graduation for PhD students. The expected time to graduation in France is 3 years and about 50% of the branch students graduated in 4 years or more, which was a concern to the committee. So they asked why students took so long to graduate. Our branch chief (a male colleague) clearly did not expect the question, and just told them the first thing that came through his mind: the female students tend to go on maternity leave which delays their graduation. In all fairness, the conversation was quickly back on a more professional and accurate track - the committee spokesperson noted that many of the students with the longer time to graduation seemed to have male first names and another colleague came to the rescue to explain that while our research topic is multidisciplinary, many graduate students come to the lab with training in only one of the relevant disciplines, so the first few months of their time at the lab is spent on complementing their training in the other discipline sometimes at the expense of immediate progress on their research. It should also be noted that the colleague who blurted out the unfortunate response is one of the most fair persons that I know, always trying to make everyone feel included and appreciated for their contribution.


Yet, when 25% of a "problem" student cohort (12% of the total student pool) fits a particular women profile, the knee-jerk reaction is to just blame it on the women! While I can understand why he would say that (he was taken by surprised, and he advised at least one of the students who did go on maternity leave so it would be natural to think about that person as a token student), the disastrous notion that "the lab average graduation time is delayed by female students" might be remembered more than the rationale discussion that ensued. So in addition to unfairly blaming former female students, this might also hurt the chances of female applicants to the PhD program.


The harm is done, and brushed off as a funny faux-pas that everyone can laugh about in the hallways for weeks to come.

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3 avril 2013 3 03 /04 /avril /2013 20:19

 Last week, I attended the new employee day at my institute. It was quite a contrast from the last shindig of the sort that I had the privilege of attending two years ago. No flags, no pledging. What they told us was, in essence: "Congratulations. You are gathered here today as employees of the premier research institute in Europe because you have been identified as the best scientists of your generation." To this day, I am still not entirely sure they didn't have me mixed up with the batrachian model of disease guy, but... OK, who wouldn't like to hear this?


Then, somewhat addressing my recent concerns, they went on about what you're supposed to do in your first year: "You have been working really hard to get where you are now. You made it. So lighten up! Look around you. Take time to understand the system. Take time to understand the diversity of experience and expertise of your labmates. Enjoy the opportunity to develop your research in this environment. We, the institute and your country, expect a lot from you. But we have chosen you. We have chosen you because we trust that you will deliver. And we pledge to be by your side to provide the help you need along the way."

Folks, I was quite blown away. Who said France wasn't good at pep talks?


Beyond this ephemeral warm, uplifting feeling, I am not sure what I am taking from this meeting, really. Perhaps I should linger with my impression of that day: when all is said and done, I like the idea of mutual trust that science will advance better than that of unilateral obligation for defense against all ennemies, so help us God.

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21 mars 2013 4 21 /03 /mars /2013 10:49

We have been back for over 6 months now, and yet I still feel completely overwhelmed by... life itself, it seems. At this point, it is hard to pinpoint the problem: is it adapting to a different country, a different position at work, being a parent? Was that too many changes at once?


I am getting nervous as all the important conference deadlines in my field for this year are coming and going and I still don't have anything to submit on my current research - over the past few months, I have been submitting 7 single PI or collaborative grants, which seems like a lot but is apparently only the obvious thing to do, I have experienced some issues with getting work material (also a classic new independant investigator obstacle, I know...) and got a taste of administrative and student-related adventures. Technically, things are starting to fall into place and I can start working properly while waiting for the grant results and new deadlines, *but* it seems there is so much to do and so little time to get it done! In the end, I guess that's the bottom line: I am just not putting in the time anymore. Nor could I do it if I wanted to. Between family duties and local logistics, I am basically in the office between 8:30 am and 5pm and I am so toast in the evening (with the prospect of getting up at 6:30 am!) and having my hands full during the week-end that I am down to the proverbial 40-hour week that my postdoc self would qualify as a walk in the park. While everybody else is going full steam ahead...


So, I have to come to terms with the fact that in the grand scheme of life it is not a big deal to skip a couple of conference deadlines, and that "every body else" is not necessarily without qualms. This post in partcular resonated with me, as well as this other post on work-life balance and on a less personnal level, this post about the emerging requirements for reseachers. In fact, I even recently saw a workshop at a major conference proposing a discussion of the challenges new independant investigators face: moving on from working on your own research project to in addition get funded, hire students and other collaborators, set up a lab, and so on.

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16 juin 2012 6 16 /06 /juin /2012 02:24

Just like Harvard, Princeton and Yale, French national research institutions send their good news in big enveloppes. As can be seen from the photo below, exhibit 1 (top) contains a letter from the AO supervising hiring procedures: "I regret to inform you..." while exhibit 2 (bottom) is from the director of the institution himself and states "congratulations for this achievement..."




It's been a long time coming, so excuse me while I go jump up and down in my new t-shirt!

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30 mai 2012 3 30 /05 /mai /2012 14:28

For today, it was confirmed that I achieved the single most difficult goal in my career: I got offered a permanent position at a national research institution in France. Pinch me now! 


Besides being extatic and excited, there are two things that I want to write about today, because they will be worth remembering. The first one is that I still don't know how the hell I got there (a.k.a. PTSD) and the second one is that now that I am here, I will make it my mission to improve the life of research position applicants (a.k.a. beware, search committees). 


Batrachian models of disease

So, how did you do it? That's always the question you want to ask role models and people who got where you want to be in the hope to understand their success and emulate it. It feels pretty anticlimatic to confess that I don't have a clue.

It may have something to do with the fact that my application is not entirely shabby (objectively, my yearly publication level over the past 6 or 7 years has been consistently meeting the requirements of the French national evaluation agency for *a four year period*), but I was turned down from similar jobs, and people with seemingly less achievements got in. It may have to do with practice - I did fail a good three, four similar interviews this year alone before apparently "getting it". It may have to do with the precious help of colleagues and family reviewing and critiquing my project and presentation slides (many thanks!!). It may even have to do with the wrath of ennemies bullying me in the failed interviews, pushing me to prepare better answers and making me reach the "whatever" point that took the stress away.

The wait for that final and successful interview was excruciatingly long, long enough to overhear committee members on a coffee break praise a presentation they just had from an applicant working on batrachian models of disease. I kid you not. Batrachian models of disease. I just had to laugh out loud at the silliness of it all. My research is so far from batrachian models of disease, that I would not know a bloody batrachian if it kicked me in the face, animal model or regular beast. And yet, they picked me (and my batrachian free research topic)! So it did work out somehow, but it is essential to be well aware that it might have tanked just as beautifully. The whole application process is such an ordeal that I can't say I feel undeserving, I'm just pleasantly surprised.



Have mercy on the applicants!

It did work out in the end, so of course it was worth the effort. But there is such a fine line between success and failure that really, is it worth it? Should it be that hard to get a job offer? And in the end is that really how a country should be recruiting permanent staff? Considering that some places will fly (i.e. cover all travel expenses) applicants (yes, multiple applicants) to a 2-year position to have the opportunity to adequately discuss the potential collaboration, I am left dumbfounded by French practices. While I understand all the legal requirements that formally bound the process, there is some wiggle room, there always is. And I don't understand why hiring committee choose to blatantly walk away from legal opportunities to ease the applicants' financial, logistic and personnal burden. At the very least, videoconferencing should be offered as an alternative to flying 3,000 miles or more for a 25 minute interview. Seriously. So

if - or rather , let's be bold, when I get the opportunity to have a say in the matter, I shall remember this day and try to make a difference. 


On that note, I'll go toast to new beginnings at Rumba Cafe, my all time DC favorite and temple of the pink, sparkly and fruity!

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12 novembre 2011 6 12 /11 /novembre /2011 14:37

Apres le mythe de la caffeine, l'utilisation du sauna et du jaccuzzi semble arriver en bonne place dans les interdits rabaches aux femmes enceintes.


Comme pour la caffeine, j'ai donc regarde ce qu'il en etait sur PubMed, tout simplement. Une revue parue en 2006 dans un journal d'obstetrique specialise sur les malformations congenitales indique clairement que des malformations congenitales peuvent etre causees par l'exposition de l'uterus a une temperature elevee de maniere reguliere et/ou prolongee. Avant de trancher en faveur de l'interdiction totale du sauna et du jacuzzi, notons quand meme que l'article mentionne que ces conditions de temperature elevee sont rencontrees principalement dans des cas de fievres chez des patients malades par ailleurs. Les canadiens ayant etudie la question du sauna et du jacuzzi de pres montrent dans une etude mesurant precisement la temperature corporelle de femmes enceintes pendant l'utilisation du sauna et du Jacuzzi que les participantes sortent spontanement du sauna ou du Jacuzzi avant que leur temperature corporelle n'atteigne le seuil critique. Pour ce qui est du Jacuzzi, la temperature corporelle depasse le seuil critique a partir de 15 minutes d'utilisation et plus.


Sachant que la duree recommandee d'utilisation est de toute facon de 10 minutes, on ne peut que conclure qu'une utilisation raisonnable est a priori sans danger.

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25 avril 2011 1 25 /04 /avril /2011 03:44

Je decouvre par mes collegues et amies que les gynecos recommandent unanimement un regime absolument draconien pendant la grossesse. Ainsi, la consommation de caffeine serait prohibee sur la base d'une serie d'etudes dont la plus recente, parue dans Am J Obstet Gynecol une revue d'obstetrique, indique tiedement qu'il serait prudent de reduire ou d'arreter les apports en caffeine pendant la grossesse. ("…it may be prudent to stop or reduce caffeine intake during pregnancy.").


En regardant de plus pres sur PubMed, on trouve rapidement un commentaire dans le meme journal qui retorque qu'en fait, rien ne permet de conclure: "To date, the literature is still inconclusive regarding the influence of caffeine on miscarriage."


Au moins deux autres articles recents critiquent les conclusions des etudes sur le sujet, dont la methodologie ne permettrait simplement pas de conclure dans un sens ou dans l'autre (en particulier  parce qu'il est difficile de separer le facteur "caffeine" d'autres facteurs de risque bien plus influents pour les fausse-couches, tels que l'age, le fait de fumer ou de consommer de l'alcool pendant la grossesse) - mais bon, par precaution on va plutot dire que c'est dangereux que le contraire.

Par ailleurs, sur la base de ces fameuses etudes, Sante Canada preconise de limiter les apports de caffeine pendant la grossesse a 300mg par jour maximum, ce qui d'apres leur tableau d'equivalence correspond a 2.5 litres de the vert par jour - pas de quoi se priver beaucoup quand meme.

En clair, ce pataques me rapelle quelque chose (cliquer sur la planche pour la voir en grand chez PhD comics): 


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