Tag Archives: science jobs

The Dual Science Job Hunt: The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn (Part 6)

We had decided to make a lifestyle move and settled on Newport, Rhode Island as our destination. We had the promise of two good jobs, family friendly neighborhoods with good public schools, a plethora of outdoor water activities, and an achievable cost of living. Making the move was far more arduous than we had anticipated and our first months were exceptionally trying, albeit a cherished time for our family. 

The Jobs

When people ask me what my new job is like compared to my old job, I say that both labs have their problems. The difference, however, is that the Newport lab’s problems are comparatively small, while the old lab’s are large. Here, it is hard to buy yourself a computer without paying absurd amounts of overhead and waiting for six months. However, your boss and their bosses genuinely care about you and the people they serve. At the old place, one can buy computers all day but if you want to go out on a limb and do something unusual, good luck.

I started in the sonar division in December. Adjusting to the more restrictive (security wise) environment was difficult, especially when attempting to do scientific discovery-type work. Lauren had been given a verbal offer, then a written one, but there were delays. A poorly timed government shutdown meant her background check was postponed. Months went by when we were on one income. We were starting to really feel the expenditure. We did not want to dip into our deposit for our next home. After one attempt that ended poorly, we kept the boys out of school during that winter, saving us about $2K per month. They enjoyed the time with Lauren, but it was clear they desired an environment where they could interact with their peers and learn from loving teachers, just as they had in D.C. It was also challenging for Lauren to finish her remote sensing paper that was the culmination of her remote sensing postdoctoral work. It got dark at 3 pm and going outside was a challenge, and especially hard on little hands and faces. The small house became much smaller when the kids had to stay indoors. We were at a nadir here, and depression was starting to rear its ugly head.

 

 

It was March 2018. Lauren had finally started her new position and we were a two-income family again. We had found a fantastic new school for the kiddos. Our Alexandria house had finally sold. While still cold (unusually so in 2018, according to neighbours) the thaw was beginning. Daffodils were popping up and most of the snow had gone. While we were moving, we had continued our conversation with funding agencies. They had merged our ideas with some others and had issued a broad agency announcement on the topic. We flew down to D.C. and presented at a “proposers day” – a public event designed to team interested parties so that they could generate more effective research proposals. Pre-proposals were due and it was clear to all that Lauren and I would be making a submission. The budget was an eight-figure number and we wanted to involve five institutions, but we figured now was the time to go big or go home! The concept and team seemed natural and intuitive to us and the proposal development seemed to be moving forward on greased skids. Supportive staff and new opportunities in Newport meant that we were coming to our program manager with further news they wanted to hear. They told us to cut the budget but to submit a “full” proposal. The situation was becoming serious. A full proposal is a lot of work (hundreds of pages) and a funding agency would not make such a request unless there was a very good chance we would be successful. Lauren secured an internal grant to support our salary while we put the proposal together. Several of our collaborators flew to Newport to meet with us at their own expense so that we could be more effective in proposal development. All of this took place during Lauren’s first month of employment as a “new hire”, equivalent to someone who has just graduated with their Ph.D, with no expectation that they would bring in funding themselves. I would love to have heard the conversations between her managers. Fast-forward a few months and here we are, with several million dollars for 18 months of Phase I work. We will be going to Hawaii again for field work next year and the one after, just like we did last year. We will take the kiddos again.

 

 

On the sidelines of building a joint multi-million dollar research program, the algae bubble paper is in press, we have set up two international grants for overseas collaborations, and we continue to build our team of scientists and engineers. The science and tech community in New England has welcomed us with open arms and we are very happy to be here.

We were a little desperate ten months ago. Now we are desperate again – for staff! Lauren will be returning to Scripps in August not for a conference or holiday, but to recruit graduates to full-time federal oceanographer positions. What a triumphant tour de force of her Ph.D!

This is part of a series chronicling our decision to leave DC and make a lifestyle move to Newport, RI. 

Part 1: A Challenging Year

Part 2: California Called & We Want to Go Back

Part 3: What’s So Great About Newport?

Part 4: New State, New Job, New Home

Part 5: Welcome to New England

Part 7: Finding Our Newport House

The Dual Science Job Hunt: A Challenging Year (Part 1)

Things have changed a lot for us in the last 18 months. There have been some big ups and downs – emotionally, financially, and career wise. We’re lucky to have come out of it mostly on the up side, partly due to planning, partly due to luck, and in no small part due to the support of wonderful people who have helped us fight to keep our careers and find a place where the kids could grow up happily and safely.

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We had built a happy life in DC, including local knowledge of all the best spots for kiddos and a strong network of dear friends. We weren’t excited to leave either of those things behind.

This story begins in Washington D.C., when we both worked at NRL. Lauren had won a research grant to go to Hawaii as part of the NASA HYSPIRI preparatory campaign and I finagled some of my fellowship funding to come along. Two things happened there. One, we discovered (along with Giacomo Giorli and Andy Haas) that algae make sound (accepted in PLoS ONE, watch this space!). Two, I discovered that Lauren’s boss wasn’t the best and did not think anything of her, as he told her to abandon the work she had been doing for the last two years and try to start afresh with six months remaining in her postdoc. For the record, she submitted the work to a peer reviewed journal and received a “publish with minor edits” response, first time around. There is another blog about that issue, but the consequence for us was that we were realized we would be leaving NRL / D.C. sooner rather than later.

I would need to walk away from a multi-million dollar research grant. One could consider that to be a difficult decision. While I liked my division and people in my lab, the decision was black-or-white for me. We had completed our PhD’s together, worked well together, and it was important for us that we remained as equals. It was in our best interests to fight anything that compromised that arrangement.

And fight we did. The search for an ideal solution to our two-body problem 2.0 began soon after we returned from Hawaii. All but the lowest hanging fruit from the data we collected were left on the tree. We submitted one paper but most of the data are still there, waiting. All our attention was now focused on solving the most difficult problem in science, again: how to find meaningful and interesting work for two Ph.D’s in the same geographic area and set up a nice life with a family.

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We had an amazing time in Hawaii, and realized just how important family time and quality of life were for us as we thought about our long term plans

We discussed our most important filters and mapped out possibilities – we wanted to good jobs for both of us, good schools for the kids, a safe community to raise them in, and water access for recreation in the evenings and on weekends. There were a number of locations where these might all have been possible for us, and we both travelled extensively around the country to look for solutions. We considered other positions in the D.C. area. We interviewed at universities, private corporations and federal labs. Sadly, the timing was poor for academic positions: it was already March 2017 and universities typically open their applications for new faculty in the early winter, for faculty to begin teaching class the next September. People did not get back to us after initial enthusiasm. Some labs kept asking for copies of our C.V’s again and again. An excerpt from a diary Lauren kept is a great snapshot of the situation:

“April – We literally hear nothing from anyone. When we check in with folks in San Diego, they say they should know more soon. The hiring freeze is a problem for the San Diego jobs. I apply for a teleworking job in education technology.“

By June, we are oscillating through the roller coaster of applying for jobs – this is my dream job! I hope I get it! Think of all the cool things I could do at NPS! Wait, Monterey is really expensive. It is in the middle of nowhere. It’s far from everyone we know. NPS isn’t a traditional university. But wait – middle of nowhere is kind of nice, that’s what we were looking for. Check out the schools – they are amazing! We could give our family a great life here! I hope they hire us! Oh, they want to have me for an interview. I don’t have time for an interview…. So on, and so forth.

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Giving our water babies a chance to grow up by the water instead of being weekend warriors was a huge driver for our search, and their joy and enthusiasm kept us going.

In the end, there were three serious candidate locations: San Diego, where a Navy lab (SPAWAR) were looking to hire, as was the University of San Diego. Monterey CA, where the Naval Postgraduate School were looking for new faculty and NRL Monterey were very excited about Lauren. Lastly, there was Newport, Rhode Island. I had met a scientist from NUWC (Jason) at a program review that year, who was interested in my bioinspired robotics work offered to circulate both our resumes at his lab.

Lauren was invited to Rhode Island to interview at the University of Rhode Island and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. We love a lot of things about Rhode Island including the proximity of the two universities and NUWC. Both universities immediately offered Lauren a path to a soft money position (where she would have to raise all of her own money), and invited her up to give a seminar and talk about a more secure position. The possibilities were tantalizing and the little beach towns were quaint. Houses with a water view within walking distance to a beach cost about half of an average home in San Diego or Monterey. However, the big caveats here were that these ‘soft money’ positions were terrible. Not only do you have to raise your own salary, you need to pay overhead to work at the university! Paying to work? Perhaps an unsustainable model, academia. I hope everyone I know in soft money science survives and moves on quickly to tenure-track. Nevertheless, out of desperation, we interviewed for a number of soft-money university positions. They did not cut the mustard for us. Now that we have the kids, job security was an important priority.

This is Part 1 of a seven article series chronicling our job hunt and move – read the rest here:

Part 2: California Called & We Want to Go Back

Part 3: What’s so Great About Newport?

Part 4: New State, New Jobs, New Home

Part 5: Welcome to New England

Part 6: The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn

Part 7: Finding Our Newport House

 

Why I Like Working With My Partner

We had a wonderful catch-up with some dear friends in San Diego last weekend, who mentioned that we had it “all figured out” when we talked about how we work together. I had to laugh a bit, since I think we have it far from figured out! Most notably, we do not live by the ocean right now. We drive three hours each way for a weekend beach break – shew!

That said, working together has been a good life choice for us. We’ve been working at the same location for 7 years now – since 2008 when we both started at Scripps, followed by our dual move to NRL. Here’s why we like it:

  1. We drive to work together. This saves us the hefty expense of a second vehicle, and the lesser expense of daily fuel miles.
  2. We can have lunch together any day we want to.
  3. Simon is my #1 advisor for science, strategy, and my best brainstorming partner. If I want his input, all I have to do is walk downstairs.
  4. Being established as a couple at an academic type institution gives a bit more staying power – if one of us is deemed very desirable, the other benefits.
  5. When one of us bikes, the other has the car and can rescue them in an emergency (we aren’t on the other side of town).
  6. If Joey has an emergency and needs us, we can discuss it in person and make an action plan quickly.

Here’s what we do to make it work:

  1. Plan ahead (especially since we share a car) – we work the same or complementary hours depending on the day, and we have to constantly remember to respect the other’s work needs and our nanny schedule.
  2. Respect one another’s workspace. We are in different departments and each have our own office, so we aren’t literally together all of the time. It’s important to liaise with our co-workers and be productive while we are here.
  3. Don’t abuse the privilege – I don’t spend time in Simon’s office having prolonged discussions on non-work related topics (where we want to go on vacation, what we want to do this weekend, etc)

Plenty of folks think we are a little crazy for both living and working together! We’ve seen a variety of strategies where both members of a couple are employed. The most common is that each works in a different place. For those that are in the same location, there is a range from complete dis-interaction with each other (they prefer to keep work and home separate) to couples like us that regularly consult one another throughout the day on statistical tests, the best journal for a certain paper, or coding assistance. We think of ourselves as a team, and so far this works for us.

The Academic Interview

I have recently been getting to know the academic interview or “job talk” very well, as I search for an amenable position to begin in the late summer/early fall. I also have learned from the questions of friends and family that this is a somewhat unusual and unknown process, so I thought I’d break it down for you.

As with many jobs, academics start with some sort of job application. The specifics vary, but in general for postdocs I have been asked for a copy of my curriculum vitae (CV, a more academic version of a resume); the names and contact information for three references (I use my PhD advisor, co-advisor, and a collaborator from my dissertation committee); a cover letter; and a brief statement of research interests and/or proposed research.

Then a variety of hurdles must be crossed. Not everyone adheres to all of them, but in general the order is:

  1. Someone reads your cover letter, CV, and proposed research statement. If they feel that you are a strong candidate, they contact your referees for letters of recommendation.
  2. If your letters pass muster, you may be contacted for an interview via skype or telephone.
  3. Finally, if you are doing really well, you are invited to give a job talk.
  4. At this point (and possibly also before) a committee meets to discuss your merits compared with other candidates. They select a first choice, and make them an offer. If the first choice declines, they move on to their 2nd ranked candidate, etc.
  5. If you are lucky (VERY lucky in these days of limited funding for science) you have multiple offers and can use them to try to leverage more funds or a more flexible work schedule from your first choice.

The main interview I’m referring to in this post is the ‘job talk.’ I get the impression my friends in other fields that their interviews are scheduled events in which they dress up in a suit, visit a climate-controlled location, and answer questions from a committee for 30-75 minutes before being excused. The job talk is quite different.

Academics are wonderful people, but tend to organize these things at the last minute. You set up the date and time and arrange your travel to the institution. Usually the hosting institution pays for you, but not always. If it is particularly far away you may need to spend a night or two in a hotel.

About 0.25-24 hours before you arrive, you will be given a schedule of the day’s events. This consists of tightly packed meetings with as many scientists and researchers as possible at the institution to discuss one another’s research, some kind of lunch meeting, and a scheduled talk. Here is a sample schedule from my interview at Princeton/GFDL:

(Lauren – wake up at 5:30, drive to metro station, take metro to union station in downtown DC to get on Amtrak northbound at 7:20am)
9:46am pickup at Trenton Station
10:30 – Scientist Meeting 1
11:00 – Scientist Meeting 2
11:30 – Scientist Meeting 3
12:00 – Lunch with Scientist 1 & 4
1:00 – Scientist Meeting 5
1:30 – Head to seminar location
2:00 – Seminar – “Oceanographic Controls on Coral Reef Habitats in
Present and Future Climates” (given by me)
3:00 – Scientist Meeting 6
3:30 – Scientist Meeting 7
4:00 – Scientist Meeting 8 (Phew! at least this is someone I went to grad school with!)
4:45 – drop-off at Trenton Station
(arrive in Union Station DC at 8pm. Metro and drive. Hope to arrive home by 9:15 so that I can kiss my kiddo goodnight)

Since you are traveling to this place, you spend that time googling each individual on the list so you know what they look like, what their general field is, and what they have recently been publishing on. (This is especially important if you have never heard of them before.) I must note that Amtrak is great for this as you have spacious accommodations, free wifi, outlets for charing, and access to a snack cart with coffee.

The entire day is an interview. While it is best to appear relaxed, intelligent, and entertaining, you (should be!) constantly thinking in the back of your head – this person will get to vote on whether or not I get a position here. Make sure that they know it would be foolish to vote no. The meetings will focus on science, but topics can range from microbreweries to family life to fine literature. You don’t have to study these things ahead of time, but you may have to discuss them with some degree of charisma. Scientists love debates and analytically solving problems, so healthy disagreement is great – just be prepared to back up your claim. (For example, I am willing to point out unsustainable seafoods offered on a restaurant menu at the lunch event.)

The schedule is quite tightly packed (see above). You are unlikely to have a reasonable number of chances to go to the bathroom, fill your water bottle, or get a much needed coffee since you woke up at 5:30 am to meet with these people. If you see even the tiniest opportunity or someone frees you early – take it. Even if you just went to the bathroom 45 minutes ago, go again, and at least take the 2 minutes to yourself to regroup.

The talk is either the best or worst part depending on how you look at it. For about 45 minutes, you are allowed to speak uninterrupted about yourself and your research. For about 45 minutes, everyone is staring at you and you must be careful to not say ‘um’ or play with your hair. This is an excellent time to be confident and engaging. The talk itself is usually adapted from one you gave in the past. I started with my PhD defense talk and have made several spin-offs since. No two talks are identical, but once you have the pieces to work from it isn’t that hard to put it together. The delivery is key. After the talk, you don’t have to spend half of each meeting explaining what you do, and of course you will be more relaxed.

The job talk day is different to a classic interview. You certainly want to look presentable, but most academic institutions don’t expect you to wear a suit (I don’t – but I do switch out my everyday flip-flops for flats). Your demeanor and your science are the two most important factors. The meeting rooms may be hot, cold, small, dark, or really nice – but almost never a polished conference room with aircon running and a large fancy wooden table in the middle. You may have to walk up and down hills or stairs (this was a particularly big deal at Scripps – I remember feeling terrible for visiting scientists as I led them up and down ‘the hill’ along the 300 meter high sea cliff). Finding the locations of meetings is almost impossible if you don’t already have familiarity with the complex, so always ask for help. Instead of feeling scrutinized, there is a much warmer, welcoming feeling. Often scientists engage you with tales of how much they love their institution and how much you will also love it there. Because the truth is, you are interviewing them too. This full day process gives you a very real chance to learn who you would be working with and what science life is like at this new place. You get the sense that it is a low-key private club. If you leave thinking that everyone wanted you to join and also feeling that you would like to join, you have done well.

Finally, the wait time on this whole process can be REALLY long.  I still have pending applications that I submitted last October. So rest assured, I will be letting you know when I have accepted an offer. I am far more anxious about this than you are!