Nafisa M. Jadavji PhD1,2,3, Emily Furlong PhD1, Gyan Prakash Mishra MS1,3
1 Ambassador Program, eLife Community, Cambridge, UK
2 Biomedical Sciences, Midwestern University, Glendale, AZ, USA
3 Infectious Disease Biology, Institute of Life Sciences, Bhubaneswar, India
We are a group of early-career researchers working to highlight the prevalence of bullying in academia, and our first blog post in November 2019, served to raise awareness of the issue through a series of stories from people around the world who have faced being bullied in academia.
To follow up, we ran a voluntary international survey for four months (December 2019 to March 2020). The survey was promoted via social media and through personal networks. Because of the global pandemic we have had some delays with sharing our results. The survey attracted a total of 364 respondents that comprised of undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, research associates, and principal investigators. The majority of respondents were from North America and Europe, with females making up 64%, males 34%, and the remaining 2% choosing not to identify.
We would like to highlight that 76% of our respondents identified that they were bullied during their academic career. This included feeling belittled when presenting their data at an academic meeting (59%). But, only 33% of respondents had approached a relevant authority (e.g. supervisor, human resources) at their institutions about being bullied, which hints at the practice of normalizing behavior or a fear of retribution.
Only 51% of the respondents knew that workplace bullying is a punishable offence that could lead to disciplinary action. This leaves us wondering whether organizations can do more to highlight the consequences of engaging in bullying during the recruitment or funding process.
While 47% percent of respondents said that they would provide emotional support if they observed a colleague that was being bullied, a small number of respondents reported facing consequences, such as intimidation for having supported their colleagues. In Figure 1, we have summarized our findings on what universities and institutions worldwide are doing to help people who experience bullying. The answers vary greatly and show that some policies are not effective.
The impact of being bullied in academia on the victims’ career plans are not well known (Klein and Lester, 2012). In our survey, 45% of respondents said that being bullied did impact their career in academia, this result requires further investigation.
The results of our survey, and the fact that reports of bullying in academia have been increasing over the past decade (Klein and Lester, 2012), highlight that it is time to address the issue. At present, there are limited numbers of resources that are available as support for anyone that has experienced bullying in academia. We as a group of early-career researchers, aim to next create an online platform where victims can get resources and also share their stories to get advice. We also think research institutions worldwide need to create policies that are targeted at helping victims and that this help does not in fact harm the victim and future career opportunities.
Acknowledgements: Renuka Kudva PhD
I have made it to the end of year 2 of being on the tenure track; it’s been a world-wind. The global pandemic has not made things easier. Overall, I feel like I am even more behind on what I hoped to accomplish, so I am taking some time to pause and reflect on the accomplishments and challenges of this year.
In terms of accomplishments, this year the lab put out 4 publications. One data paper, 100% of the experiments were done in my independent lab! This paper was a collaborative effort in terms of getting samples with Jaci Green and others at the Midwestern University Downers Grove campus. The work was also led by very motivated students, Calli Bennett and Neha Kwatra.
The lab also put out 3 review papers and contributed to a book chapter, this was a result of lots of student involvement, which I think is great! In terms of grants, it’s been a year of rejections, we got one maybe (waiting until September 2021) and then a COVID-19 supplement for one of our current grants.
Several students have been involved in research and we also have two research staff, which has kept me busy! The students and staff have pushed me to keep things moving in the lab and not get stuck behind my desk writing. Our first graduate student, Gyllian Yahn, MBS, defended her thesis in May and graduated. She will be starting dental school in the fall; I could not be prouder!
I had the opportunity to participate in a NIH study section, which was beneficial and a great learning experience. I was resubmitting my R15 around the same time, so the knowledge I gained was invaluable. The PO was very helpful and met with me prior to the study section and gave me feedback on my reviews. I learned so much from those two days of attending the study section, I would highly recommend this to anyone who is writing an NIH application. If you are a new PI, you might qualify for the NIH Early Career Review Program.
Several collaborative projects outside the lab also came to fruitarian this year (aka we made it through peer review and published them). Most of this work was during my time as an eLife ambassador. I was a co-author on a fair funding paper, mentorship and writing effective letters of recommendation. We published the Reproducibility 4 Everyone paper. I am very proud of these publications, and I hope they are helpful to others and help move towards changing the culture of academic research.
The challenges of the past year have been plentiful. Rather than listing them all, I want to focus on the fact that a lot has been done despite everything and that doing a little bit everyday adds up.
The Jadavji Laboratory is two years old!
We are excited to see what the next year will bring!
Today, I celebrate! The Jadavji Lab is a year old! It has been a year since I started a tenure track position and my overall feelings are; I survived! I still like what I do. I really like working with students. They are a driving force for me, to become a better scientist and teacher. It has been a busy year and combined with the pandemic, things have been even more intense! I think the biggest lesson I learned this year was to embrace the chaos.
As a postdoc for several years prior to starting my faculty position, I managed experiments, writing, teaching, and service activities. I had all the activities planned out and the expectations were clear as my training was self-driven. Being a new faculty member is very different, firstly there is a change in expectations of what is required from me as well as a change in my own perception of what my role is. Over the past year, there were several instances and situations where I forgot I was a faculty member, I am getting better at this, but it’s a work in progress. The chair of our program told me it takes about 5 years to make the mental shift.
Prior to starting my TT position, I had the luxury to only work part-time as an instructor for ~2 months. I took the time to write a grant (which was funded!) and set up my lab/research related materials. I also rested, since I was working at a slower pace and packed/organized for the cross continent move. The research materials I set up included drafting lab mission and vision statements, a website, lab manual including policies, as well as protocols for research techniques I was planning to use. I also started exploring electronic lab notebooks. The status for lab notebooks, I love using them! I also did some long-term planning in terms of experiments, and manuscripts. I think having the time to think through things and write was incredible gift to myself. I would recommend this to any other new faculty, if it is possible. I started a an electronic and hardcopy folder for tenure related materials, I am already finding this useful especially when I wrote my faculty activity report for the past year. I have also gotten into a good habit of mentally training myself to file these materials away as I get them.
I had a reduced teaching load this past year, which was nice. I did take time out and watch lectures of other faculty members in the department, especially since our departmental courses are team taught. I have been teaching for several years, so I was not too worried about it, but reflecting back on teaching in the Fall quarter, it would have been prudent to have spent more time on preparing for lectures. I helped teach a neuroscience course in our spring quarter, and really enjoyed it, even with the pandemic and adapting to virtual teaching. I wrote a blog about teaching in academia earlier this year and that has more details.
In terms of managing my lab, I hired an RA and also lost her this year, it was a difficult situation. I did learn a lot from the hiring and managing aspects, I hope that my next RA will be a better fit. I have spent most of the year without any technical help, but I managed. I asked when I need help and pushed through. The lab was successfully in obtaining a grant from the American Heart Association as well as an internal grant, which was combined with funds from the state of Arizona. The lab published three papers; two were accepted after March 2020 (when the pandemic hit the US), which I think is a huge feat, especially with homeschooling fulltime. In the lab, I took on a graduate student, as well as two medical students, a few federal work-study students, and one veterinary fellow. The lab has grown a lot and we are hammering out data this summer, despite all the challenges. I am super excited about the data!
I was able to keep my on-campus service activities to a minimum this year, I served on an admission committee, spoke about being a scientist at a local elementary, and also was a judge for a brain bee competition on-campus. I participated in a lot of service outside of the university including, chairing the Journal of Young Investigators Board of Directors, an eLife ambassador, and reviewing several manuscripts/studies. I also did several grant reviews, which was fun and taught me more about grant presentation and writing. It was on the busy side, but I really enjoyed the work.
There isn’t a formal mentoring program at the university where I work, but I did set up several informal mentorship relationships with senior faculty, as well as other new and junior faculty. As I have written before, I tried to create a network of people I could consult about different things that came up during year. My network is still growing, as I meet more people and develop relationships. I am also an avid user of New PI Slack. I think it is a good resource to get feedback and ask questions. I have asked for advice many times and offered up my own personal experiences. It is so nice to have a community of people.
It has been a learning process this year. I think it was hard to be in a place where I do not know much, but I tried to embrace it and learn from it. I think I became better when asking questions. I think my first year in a tenure track position was a good challenge; I am looking forward to future chaos and adventures!
During my PhD I was in a very social environment and made lifelong friends, it was a collaborative environment to work in. After I started my postdoctorate (posdoc), things were a lot different. I was in a different country and didn’t speak the language. Unfortunately, the language in the lab was not English. Making friends in the department was very difficult, so I looked to outside sources, including social media (e.g. MeetUp) and I met some great people. An added bonus was that these people were not scientists, so they did not understand the culture and pressure of academic research. It was really nice to get that mental break and travel, try different restaurants, and attend festivals. The same thing continued during my second postdoc position, where I was back in my home country, so I could speak the language. During both my postdoc positions, the feeling of isolation was tough, especially when dealing with an uncertain future. However, I tried to build a social network, one way I accomplished it was through social media.
Sometimes social media gets a bad rap, but I think it can also be used for good. I think the current situation (COVID-19) is a good example, when social distancing is increasing in prevalence. During scientific training (e.g. PhD or postdoctorate) social isolation can also occur, I experienced it. I think social media can provide me a lot of opportunities to not feel so isolated. For me, social media helped me learn about new opportunities (e.g. funding, and open lab positions), meet other scientists to network. I think I tried most new platforms that are available (e.g. ResearchGate, Government of Canada Collab, Academics.edu), although TikTok is still foreign to me, so I have not tried them all. Some of these sites worked out and others did not. I was surprised at how much academic support I found on Twitter. One of the connections I made resulted in me publishing a blog about my research and then an entire book! Through my network on Twitter I have learned that some of my scientist role models also face rejection!
I think building a network is very important in academic research, as I outlined in a previous blog post. A support system is needed when things are going well and also when they are going not so well. I was reminded of the importance of a network earlier this week when I was listening to a podcast from the Professor Is In. Since 2016, the Professor Is In have been a part of my community as I tune into weekly sessions with Dr. Karen Kelsky and Kel Weinhold.
Academia is hard, we fail a lot, and that’s OK. Having people, you can talk and work through things is so important, as I have come to realize. If you are in academic research or science, I would encourage you to build a network. And in today’s reality, I think this can be done both in person and electronically.
Stay safe and healthy!
Recently, I have been reflecting back on my time as a teaching assistant, trying to understand what changed? Why do I like teaching now? I think for me it was exposure to teaching that helped me build my confidence. Part of my studentship for my MSc was teaching assistantship, so I had no choice, but to teach. I found the first-year classes hard to manage, maybe because of the number of students? The 3rd and 4th year classes were a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed interacting with the students.
I began teaching when I was a first year MSc student. At that point, I had no confidence and felt like I knew nothing. I think how I felt was apparent to the students when I ran tutorials. What I did enjoy about teaching was marking, providing feedback, and one on one student interactions in the lab.
After I completed my MSc in Neuroscience, I continued to teach during my PhD, even though it was not required for my studentship. The extra money was nice, and so was the exposure to teaching. I stumbled again when I ran tutorials, but then I had an opportunity to teach a small introductory lab section and loved every minute of it. The students were great! I taught the same course for 2 years. During my postdoctorate in Germany, I designed and taught a course for graduate students. When I returned to Canada, I also designed and taught courses during my time at Carleton University. I taught retired students through the Learning and Retirement program. This was really interesting, since I was the youngest person in the room and was their instructor, but I think it helped me with building my confidence and made me more assertive with students, as well as being clearer when I communicated. The process of teaching an undergraduate class taught me the importance of servicing the student.
During the 2017-18 academic year I taught a brand-new course in the Department of Neuroscience. The course was an honors class but was targeted towards students who did not want to go to graduate school. The focus was on communicating scientific knowledge to a non-scientist audience. It was an 8-month long course and I worked with another instructor to design the course, we planned out several assignments over the course of the year. The course was a bit outside my expertise, but I was excited to teach it. I conducted a mid-year anonymous evaluation with students and tried to address the concerns that were brought up by the students. At the end of the year, my teaching evaluations were bad, it was a bit daunting! I spoke with the department chair and took the feedback and applied it when I taught the same course the following year (2018-19). I conducted a mid-year evaluation, but this time I went through the comments with students and listed out how I was trying to accommodate their feedback into the remaining months of the year. My teaching evaluations scores increased significantly. This experience was an important lesson in remaining flexible when teaching. Also getting feedback from people that have taught in the same setting is priceless.
In July 2019, I started as an Assistant Professor, I learned a lot from teaching in a large lecture setting. The students were extremely motivated and pushed me from the first lecture, all in good ways. I tried some new things in terms of incorporating active learning into my lectures as well as information presentation. I am planning to incorporate the new knowledge into the course next year.
Throughout my career, I have participated in some sort of training to help me become a better instructor. In graduate school I participated in a day long teaching course. When I was in my postdoctorate I took a weekly course for a semester that went through all the nuts and bolts of teaching. During this course I had the opportunity to give a lecture that was video recorded. Other participants and the course instructor provided me feedback, as well as I was able to see myself when I lecture and my different mannerisms, it was entertaining and embarrassing all at once.
As an instructor I thought it was important to participate in training, read books, and consult teaching centers on campus. During the end of my PhD I began to put together a teaching portfolio including my student evaluations, reference letters from both students and instructors I worked with. This was helpful when I was in my postdoctorate applying for instructor positions. It also helped when I was putting my teaching portfolio together for faculty position.
I think teaching is a process, you try something and see if it works. Exposure to teaching has helped me get where I am now, somewhat comfortable lecturing to a classroom of +150 graduate students. Despite the challenges, I think teaching is one of best parts of my job as an academic. Science still continues to fascinate me, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to share it with others.
“Those who can do, also teach”
-Joshua Schimel, author of Writing Science
Originally published on ecrLife (11/04/2019) https://ecrlife.org/bullying-in-academia-tales-from victims-and-a-call-to-action/
Nafisa M. Jadavji, Emily Furlong, Pawel Grzechnik, Małgorzata Anna Gazda, Sarah Hainer, Juniper Kiss, Renuka Kudva, Samantha Seah, Huanan Shi
Workplace bullying--repetitive abusive, threatening, humiliating and intimidating behaviour--is on the rise globally. And matters are worse in academia. In the UK, for example, up to 42% of academics report being bullied in the workplace. The national average by contrast ranges from just 10-20%.
Why do bullies bully? According to researchers from Brock University in Canada the goals of bullying come from internal motivations and desires, which can be conscious or not. Bullying takes many forms: the malicious mistreatment of someone including persistent criticism, inaccurate accusations, exclusion and ostracism, public humiliation, the spreading of rumors, setting people up to fail, or overloading someone with work. Bullying is different from accidental or reactive aggression, since it is goal-directed meaning that the purpose is to harm someone when there is a power imbalance.
While anyone is at risk of being bullied in academia, research has found that some of us are more vulnerable compared to others. For example, early career researchers (ECRs), including trainees (e.g. graduate students, postdocs), minority groups, adjunct professors, research associates, and untenured professors are at a higher risk to experience bullying. Employees with more years in a job report feeling less bullied than others subordinate to them, meaning that junior members of a research group or Faculty may be at greater risk of bullying.
An explanation for why particular groups are more vulnerable to bullying than others lies in the fact that the existence of power differentials are a major contributing factor to bullying in academia. For example, men and supervisors of large successful research groups are observed to perpetrate bullying behavior more often than women and other minorities, though exceptions do exist. Other research has shown that the pressure associated with publishing, getting research funding, and lack of leadership and people management training in science may also contribute to bullying.
In some cases, principal investigators (PI) can also experience bullying from students, peers, or administrators. Take the example of one PI who was bullied by an administrator for being too ambitious, making her overly conscious of her success. When she moved to another institution, she did not make collaborations with other researchers in different departments, as she had previously, because she did not want to appear to be too ambitious. This is also an example of the long-term impact bullying can have on future work.
To highlight that bullying can take different forms and occur at all career stages, we include here four anonymous testimonials from victims of academic bullying in the life sciences:
International Female PhD Student
I got pregnant during my PhD and I was told it was not an issue. However, during the course of my pregnancy, I was removed from my projects and left out of discussions about the work that needed to be done. When I asked for an explanation, I was told that science could not wait for me while I was pregnant, even though I was eager to work, and the law permitted me to do so. After my child was born, I was made to return to work after just three weeks, while legally I was permitted up to a year off work.
In the lab, I was given bits and pieces of others’ projects and not permitted to work on my own project. I worked without complaining but this took a toll on my emotional health with time. It was after my then-toddler son broke his arm that everything got worse. I needed to take a week off for his hospital stay, but my supervisor called me to his office and told me that I was a useless researcher and that I didn’t belong in science, and then he fired me. I knew it was illegal for him to do so, but I didn’t want to fight him because I was dependent on him to finish my PhD. I met with him after a week and he told me that I could work, but without pay, to make up for the duration of my pregnancy when I was paid. I did as I was told for the next six months, and somehow with the support of my husband and my best friend, was able to graduate and leave. I now have a permanent faculty position at a university in my home country, but my PhD broke me.
Male Graduate Student Completing His Graduate Studies in His Home Country
After I joined the lab, my supervisors told me that they needed to re-apply for funding, and that they were relying on my results for the application. Unfortunately, they wanted to employ a method that they were unfamiliar with, and as a beginner, I had very limited resources. I managed to get help from someone at another department and it took me three months to set up the method in the lab, but it turned out to be unsuitable for our project. My supervisors were unhappy about this and started blaming me for not smart enough to get the results they expected. I was constantly told that things didn’t work in my hands, and that they would need to decide whether to prolong my contract. This threat was dangled in front of me every few months, and it scared me. I contemplated leaving the lab and moving on, but my supervisors told me that it would look bad for them and offered me another project instead. Things didn’t improve after this either: my project worked fine, but my supervisors continued threatening to terminate my contract.
I decided to graduate after three and a half years of enduring this, but my supervisors then threatened to block me from finishing. I was gas lighted throughout my Master’s and never understood what they really wanted. Why did they offer me a position if I wasn’t good enough? I decided to switch fields after my PhD and am much happier now.
Female Research Associate in Home Country
Within 3-weeks of starting a new research associate position, I was asked to lead the writing of a grant. The research focus of the group was beyond my experience, and I had little exposure to the research environment of the group. The PI had not established the big picture of the grant; it was left up to me. Furthermore, he provided little to no guidance with writing the grant (e.g. his expectations, what had previously been done, etc.). It was a very overwhelming experience.
When I sent out a draft of the grant, I was pulled into a private meeting with the PI and the co-PI, who both told me that my work was crap and that since I was the highest paid member of the group I should have been producing amazing work. They said that all my responsibilities would be given to someone else in the group. I was given menial tasks like uploading files on the One Drive for several months. Most days, I would not have enough work to do or struggle with the work I was required to do because there was not enough guidance. I have been doing research for 16 years but had never been so bored as I was in this position. A few months later, I was asked to do a few more projects, but again was told my work was not good. The culture in the research group was unforgiving and exclusive.
Outside of the job, through my hard work and determination, I obtained another position and was able to leave. When I sent in my resignation, I was even intimidated to leave earlier than I planned because it would cost them less. I stood my ground and left when I planned to. This job increased my imposter syndrome by a hundred-fold. I was convinced that I was the problem and the dumb one. When I told my husband about the interactions with the PI, he would comment on how ridiculous the situation was. When I was in this situation, it was too hard to see how crappy it was. It’s been about a month since I left, and I feel so much better. I have worked hard to combat my imposter syndrome, and this summer I will begin a tenure track position in a STEM field. In 2019, this is so rare, so I celebrate that!
International Male Postdoc
I work as a postdoctoral researcher and my supervisor routinely tells us whom we can talk to, eat our lunch or take coffee breaks with. I recently started collaborating on a project with another postdoctoral researcher in the department but only after discussing it with my supervisor and gaining his approval.
We worked on the project part-time for a few months. I approached my supervisor after we had some interesting results, and he suddenly decided that I needed to stop working on it despite the fact that it looked promising. He informed me that he was shocked that I was working on it in the first place and that he didn’t like me to do things behind his back. He also accused me of leaving him out of my activities in the lab. I was also tasked with informing my collaborator, who was livid that we needed to end the project abruptly. However, he understood and let it go, even though it was unfair for him too. My supervisor then blamed my collaborator for inciting me into doing the project in the first place and threatened him too. I do whatever my supervisor asks of me, but I am not sure if that’s the right thing to do. Unfortunately, I feel as though I have no choice since he pays me.
The impacts of bullying are manifold. Studies have reported a long-term health effects in bullying victims, such as anxiety, sleep disorders, chronic fatigue, anger, depression, destabilization of identity, aggression, low self-esteem, loss of confidence, and other health problems. Bullying also has an impact on the institutions where the victims work, including negative work environments, absenteeism, lower engagement, higher turnover, and reduced performance. The impact of bullying is far reaching, policies need to be put into place to tackle the negative impact.
Recognizing what bullying looks like is just the first step towards tackling it. Many institutions have opted to use a top-down approach to tackle the problem through policies to report bullying via the human resource office or sometimes an ombudsman. Other institutions may not have specific policies to deal with bullying and often victims are not made aware of existing avenues of recourse. Funding agencies may also choose to get involved, for example after being accused of bullying by her colleagues in 2018 Professor Nazneem Rahman lost 3.5 million GBP in funding from the Wellcome Trust in the UK. In addition to what is currently being done at research institutions and funding agencies, legislation should be put into place by the government to ensure that victims are heard and that there are consequences for the perpetrators.
Apart from institutional actions, bottom-up approaches are also available, such as overcoming the bystander effect. The bystander effect is when individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. Research since the 60s has shown that the presence of other people will inhibit one’s own intention to help and overcoming this effect could be an effective way to mitigate bullying in academia.
A study of whistleblowers found that 71% of employees tend not to directly report wrongdoing as the perceived personal cost is higher than the perceived reward. People tend to feel that personal costs may be higher if reporting happens through face-to-face meetings with authorities. Hence, anonymous reporting channels are needed.
Bullying is an entrenched problem in academia, supported by workplaces with power differentials. Combating bullying is a challenging task at multiple levels and over the next year a group of us eLife Community Ambassadors will embark on an initiative to shine a light on the problem, investigate its root causes and eventually formulate a set of universal measures to tackle bullying in the workplace and give relief to its victims. Stay tuned for more on our progress!
Postdoctoral (postdoctorate) training is a period of time when you can focus on your research and carve out your niche, so that you can begin to make a name for yourself in your given field. This training period can be challenging, so building a network is essential. An African proverb says that it takes a village to raise a child, and I think the same can be applied to becoming a successful scientist.
If you are in STEM, your postdoctoral training will likely be completed in a lab or team environment. Supervisors are essential for support on big picture research goals, writing grants, and manuscripts, as well as with providing guidance in terms of attending scientific meetings, and forming collaborations. During postdoctoral training it is great to get involved in grant writing, specially, operating grants, being listed as a co-applicant adds to your CV.
Other lab members like research assistants, research associates, other postdocs can be a great resource for technical and day to day help, as well as sounding boards for experiments or when you are putting data together for presentations/papers. Mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in the lab is a lot of work, but you learn a lot about yourself and it’s also a good time to figure your personal mentorship style. Well trained students can support you with data collection. For example, a graduate student that I co-supervised helped me write a review article, she sorted through lots of data and was able to respond to the reviewer’s comments, it made the writing process a bit easier.
During my postdoctoral training I found it very useful to seek support outside of my lab, I built a network. I did this through networking at scientific meetings and training courses. For example, I was at a meeting in Denmark in 2017 and met a big name in my field. After the meeting I followed up with an e-mail and was then invited to speak at a seminar at his institution. Currently we are collaborating on a book project, as well as we have submitted two proposals for symposia at scientific meetings.
I have also attended a few training courses during my postdoctoral training, which also helped me meet people and make connections. If you can’t attend meetings or courses, I would recommend trying to work with people in similar areas, send out e-mails expressing your interest and ask about presenting your research findings at seminar series. Don’t be shy. Form collaborations with others, share your expertise, being open to opportunities can be very beneficial.
I think another way of building your network is through your personal connections, for example friends you make in graduate school and during your postdoctoral training might make great collaborations. I have a current collaboration combining my area of expertise with a cancer researcher (not my area of expertise), this collaboration came about through a friend I made in graduate school.
In the last 4 years I started to get more involved with social media, through Twitter and writing blog posts. At points during my postdoctoral training I felt isolated and I think that having a network and community online helped with managing the loneliness, depression, and anxiety that comes with being a postdoc on the job market in STEM. Through Twitter I learned about Future PI Slack. By joining this community, I got feedback on my job applications, ideas for publishing my research, and I also offered any advice I had.
I think the benefits of having a network both in your lab and outside is much needed for all postdocs or postdocs wanting a career in academia. Being a postdoc in the 21st century is hard and requires lots of resilience. It is important to note that not everyone you meet will be a part of your network, I have tried to be selective, but I still have been let down. But the benefits outweigh the costs. I have connected with each person differently in my network, which has enriched my training and I think my success in my chosen career path.
Last summer (2018), I read this tweet from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex and it made me realize I was in the midst of my own hustle! Landing a STEM tenure-track position in 2019 is a feat! Less than 20% of PhDs in STEM end up in a faculty position1. This statistic is a result of several factors, one of which includes overcoming a high number of rejections. I was recently on the academic job market and I have decided to write about my experiences.
I completed my PhD in 2012 at McGill University in Canada, afterwards I packed my bags to start a postdoc in Berlin, Germany and then returned to Canada 2 years later. My entire postdoc training lasted 6 years. During my postdoc I published 34 peer reviewed studies (average impact factor of 3.84), 2 book chapters, and 31 abstracts. I obtained $324,000 CDN (~$255,000 USD) in research funding, supervised 26 students in the lab, taught 15 courses, and volunteered my time to service activities (e.g. peer reviews, board membership, etc.). In addition to my research, teaching, and service activities, I applied for 427 faculty positions. From those applications, I had 17 online/telephone interviews and 10 on-campus visits. In 2018, I was offered a tenure track position.
It’s been a long journey to get here. When I started my postdoctorate, I didn’t think it would be this difficult, I was very naïve. During my job searching years I read lots of articles, books, and blog posts about different aspects of the process. One thing that resonated with me at the time was that the academic job search is a hard process, there is a lot of rejection, and everyone has their own path. For most job applications I submitted, I did not hear anything. When I made it to the interview process, I always made a point of asking for feedback if I wasn’t selected for the position. Feedback I was given included being told that I didn’t act like PI, didn’t have high impact papers, that I don’t smile enough, or my requests for feedback were ignored. Setting up an on-campus interview was sometimes difficult, one school contacted me for an interview, and they proposed only one date. The chair of the committee yelled at me on the phone because I could not make it due to personal conflicts. When I didn’t hear back from that school, I was relieved. Some schools I interviewed at ended up hiring other Assistant or Associate Professors, which was really difficult to digest, since there was no way I could compete with some that had research funds and a faculty appointment. It was hard to hear some of negative comments or nothing at all, but reflecting back on them, I knew that those were places I did not want to be.
A lot of preparation goes into the faculty job applications and process, I will outline what I found most useful for each step. Most faculty applications require a cover letter, CV, research proposal, and teaching statement. Schools in the US also require a diversity statement, this is not common in Canada (yet). My biggest advice for writing job documents, is to get examples and after you have written a draft, get feedback from anyone who will read your documents. Also, start drafting these documents early! Have a set of materials that you can revise for each application, do not re-write any of these documents from scratch, this will take hours. Of course, tailor each application for each position. When I first started writing my job documents, I looked for examples on the internet and then framed my documents to those. I was constantly revising them. Then in 2016 I took a writing course, where I discovered the Professor Is In. I read her book and began using the guidelines she provided. The main message I got from her was to stick to the facts and remove any emotion from your applications. You want to show the search committee you are going to get funding, mentor/teach students, get tenure, and not cause issues. In Spring 2018 I had 5 interviews and no offers; I spent the summer re-writing all my job documents in preparation for the fall 2018. Interestingly enough I was hired at a University where I used ‘older’ job documents, it’s funny how things work out.
References letters are a big component of the job application, since 2014 I have seen an increase in the number of jobs that require you to submit references with your application and not when you have been shortlisted. This sucks a lot! References start saying no after you ask them for 10th time, or they just don’t respond to requests. Through FuturePI Slack, I discovered that there are programs like Interfolio where references can upload general letters that can then unanimously be sent to different schools. I think the one downfall of this service is that the letters might not be as tailored, but at least you’ll have a complete application. When I was applying for jobs, I also wrote a lot of my own reference letters, which is hard, but with practice I learned to outline my strongest points, and also used templates from the Professor Is In.
More and more schools are doing online interviews prior to inviting candidates for on-campus interviews. For both online and on campus interviews, preparation is key. For the online interview having text prepared is my best advice. Prepare answers to questions like, why do you want the job? What courses do you plan to teach and develop? What is your research program? What will be the experiments you will do within the first year of starting your lab? After you have these questions generated, practice your answers over and over again. Also, generate a list of question you can ask the committee. An important lesson I learned during the interview process was that the questions you ask need to show your interest in the job. So, stick to questions like what support do new faculty at the University of X have for grant writing? What is the teaching load like?
Getting an on-campus interview, is a huge achievement. Celebrate it and then get to work, on preparing for it! There are a lot of resources out there, again, I highly recommend the Professor is in. A few points I think are really important, try to relax during the interview, it’s ok to be nervous and it takes some practice to relax, but it is important. Practice your research talk over and over again, if you can add a joke or two, to lighten the mood. I am an informal person, so I found making a joke at the end of my talks by thanking my research subject (aka the mice) always lightens the mood. At dinners ask about the area, good schools (if you have kids), and what social things there are to do in the area. Talk to your interviewers as colleagues. Expect to have a ton of one on one meetings with other faculty members. Be ready to repeat yourself a lot, but remember it is OK. For each meeting with a faculty member prepare a potential collaboration or some way you can help the faculty you are meeting with. Be ready to ask about their research and be excited about it! Be kind to administrative assistants, who are arranging the trip for you. Respond to their e-mails promptly and thank them. Keep in mind you are interviewing the institution as well. There are these so called ‘illegal questions’ (e.g. Will your spouse move with you? Are you pregnant or planning to get pregnant?). They should not be asked, but they will be asked. I think in all 10 on-campus interviews that I had, someone asked me at least one. My strategy was to answer them, quickly and succinctly, then get back to talking about my science, teaching, or service contributions.
If you are on the job market or going to be, know this lots of people will offer your advice with good intentions in mind. Some advice will be useful, and others might not be. Seek advice, gather information, but keep in mind your path on the academic job market will be unique. Not all the advice you receive will be applicable to your situation, including this blog, so be selective. Again, I recommend the Professor Is In for every step of your academic training and career development. If you do plan to pursue an academic job, I would recommend joining the Future PI Slack group, I found this group useful for bouncing off ideas, sharing my experiences, getting feedback on my job documents, reading about other experiences, and getting support during the application and interview process. Like I mentioned earlier, I read a lot of articles about the job search process. I found these stories and anecdotes to be beneficial during a very stressful period, so I am adding mine to the universe in hope that it will help someone out there. May the force be with you!
1. Jadavji NM, Adi M, Corkery T, Inoue J, Van Benthem K. The 2016 Canadian National Postdoctoral Survey Report. 2016.
I wrote this blog post for the American Society for Nutrition.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disease, this means that the damage in the brain begins several decades before the symptoms appear. In PD, approximately 60% of a specific cell type in the brain die before symptoms appear. The cells that die are dopamine producing cells. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical in the brain that help cells communicate with each other. Dopamine cells within the substantia nigra, an area of the brain, die in PD. In the figure above you can see dopamine producing cells. PD was first described in 1817 by James Parkinson and the exact cause of PD still remains unknown, researchers and clinicians know that changes in our DNA plays an important role. There is also an environmental component, for example exposure herbicides like paraquat induce PD in people. Another example of an environmental contributor is nutrition.
Nutrition, specifically B-vitamins, have been implicated in the onset and progression of PD. An example of a B-vitamin is folic acid, which is well known for its’ role in preventing neural tube defects during early brain development. Additionally, folic acid also helps lower levels of a chemical called homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine are present in PD patients that take levodopa (L-DOPA), a pharmaceutical drug that helps replenish dopamine in the brain. The breakdown of L-DOPA in the body requires methyl groups generated from folic acid, this in turn increases levels of homocysteine. A protein that breaks down folic acid to generate methyl groups is called methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) and people with reduced levels of this protein are reported to be more affected by PD. In a recent research study from our group we use a mouse model with reduced levels of MTHFR to study how the paraquat model of PD impacts onset and progression.
Our study found that reduced levels of MTHFR result in motor impairments in PD mice, these impairments are characteristic of PD. Additionally, the PD mice were sick and had higher had higher levels of inflammation in the substantia nigra. There were also high levels of oxidative stress, which is an imbalance of reactive oxygen and antioxidant production within a brain region closely connected to the substantia nigra. Higher levels of oxidative stress have been implicated in several neurodegenerative diseases. In terms of targeting oxidative stress through pharmaceuticals there has not been much progress. Food stuffs such as red wine, green tea, and blueberries have been reported reduce levels of oxidative stress, through their antioxidant properties, but more investigation is required.
Nutrition is an important aspect of health. It is well documented that not all older adults absorb as many nutrients compared to their younger counterparts due to several factors, one being inflammation in the stomach. These recent research findings presented in this blog along with others suggest that adequate nutrition should be a component of health care for patients with PD.
I wrote this blog post for the American Society of Nutrition.
According to the United Nations the aging population is growing and by 2050 the number of people aged 60 years old will reach 2 billion worldwide. With the aging population the prevalence of age-related disease is predicted to increase. An example of an age-related disease is neurodegeneration. Dementia can be a result of several pathologies including increased levels of Lewy bodies, as seen in Parkinson’s disease.
Cerebrovascular disease is the second most common cause of dementia and is a result of changes in blood flow to or within the brain. Blood flow in the brain can changes because of hypertension, diabetes, smoking, and hypercholesterolemia. Patients with cerebrovascular disease experience cognitive impairment, specifically when trying to remember things or plan events/trips. It is important to note that symptoms can vary from patient to patient. A type of cerebrovascular disease is vascular cognitive impairment.
Nutrition is modifiable risk factor for diseases of aging. As people age their ability to absorb nutrients from their diet decreases. Several studies have reported that changes in B-vitamins may play a role in the onset and progression of dementia. Additionally, a study by researchers in the United Kingdom shown that B-vitamin supplementation reduced brain volume loss in areas associated with cognitive decline. A recent international consensus statement from leaders in the field suggests that deficiencies in B-vitamin metabolism should be considered when screening dementia patients. My research using model organisms has tried to understand the diseases processes associated with dementia.
Using a mouse model of VCI we have reported that deficiencies in folic acid, either dietary or genetic affect the onset and progression of VCI. Using the Morris water maze task we report that mice with VCI and folate deficiency performed significantly worse compared to controls. We assessed changes in the brain using MRI and interestingly found that folate deficiency changed the vasculature in the brain of mice with VCI. Because of either a genetic or dietary folate deficiency all the mice had increased levels of homocysteine.
Our results suggest that it is not elevated levels of homocysteine making the brain more vulnerable to damage, but the deficiency in folic acid, either dietary or genetic that changes the brain. In the cell folic acid is involved in DNA synthesis and repair as well as methylation. These are vital functions for normal cell function. Therefore, reduced levels of folate may be changing the cells in the brain and making them more vulnerable to any types of damage. We think that high levels of homocysteine may just be an indication of some deficiency (e.g. reduced dietary intake of folic acid). Maintaining normal levels of homocysteine are needed, since studies in humans have shown that elevated levels in homocysteine are a risk factor for neurodegenerative diseases and that reducing them is beneficial.