Name brands

I went to decent schools for my undergrad and grad experiences.  These are well-respected in certain areas, but they are no MIT or Caltech.  I got into great schools, but for financial reasons (for undergrad), and for familial reasons (for grad) I ended up going to closer state schools.  I regret letting the familial stuff stop me from going to the school I wanted to for grad school, but I finished and did well.  I had to differentiate myself to show I can hang with the best by proving myself since I know I wasn’t going to go in with an immediate aura of greatness.  So I published a ton in great journals, got grants and fellowships, and experimented for days on-end to get over my inferiority complex.  When entering industry, I didn’t have to fight that hard since I had a good background and found a good job.  Then while in industry I had to start all over: playing catch-up with colleagues from better schools that started at better salaries.  Ultimately, a lot of luck and work ethic allowed me to thrive.  When applying to faculty positions I knew I would be at a deficit, but highlighted how great of a researcher I would be (and have been) rather than heavily relying on the “Education” lines in my CV.  I ended up getting a faculty job at a school that actually rejected me for my PhD.

These are some observations I’ve had: the probability of finding a good student, employee, researcher are much higher when they come from a name-brand school.  Much higher.  When I see a good name on the school I immediately have higher expectations.  Correspondingly, it would make me more likely to bring them in for interviews.  It gets their feet in the door.  When they come in, the level of rigor by which I judge them is the same, but it gets them in the door.  And the way they respond is one of two ways: pompous as hell, or crazy down-to-Earth.  This is typically a 50/50 split.  Other candidates are usually just nervous or down-to-Earth.  The pompous ones really rub me the wrong way.  So much so, that I started to develop this overall dislike.

Correspondingly, no one looks at the smaller school people.  I’ve seen people say, “this person is the best candidate, but we should go with this other one because they went to “Name-Brand University”.  This has happened in recent faculty searches (my current favorite is from a run-of-the-mill state school), and it happened in industry.  Maybe because I didn’t have the best pedigree I wanted to give everyone a chance, but I think it’s in my nature to give everyone a chance.  I push for the best candidate based upon performance, but others frequently care about the pedigree.  I understand it’s helpful from so many aspects, but the pompous ones won’t be good collaborators, and I want someone who has an amazing proven track-record and interesting ideas.

Look, early in the career a good name will get your foot in the door, but you have to learn humility and work ethic.  Early in one’s career it can be all about work ethic, intelligence, knowledge, and how you use it.  Later on, it’s politics, your personality, and even more luck, though you better not let the intelligence slide.  Don’t rely too much on the name-brand on your sweater; let it be an afterthought.  If you don’t, you’ll be passed by people who live in the moment and know how to get things done when the boss asks.  People want you (if you’re great), not your school (even if it’s great).

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My big project

For the first project I started here I wanted to go big: combining unique science driven by federal/nonprofit grants and designing an application based on this science while working with industry.  This project has been my baby (I wonder if it will get jealous of the new baby?), and it’s been on my mind constantly for years.  It was the first idea I had when deciding to make the academic switch.  We presented it in a big conference my first year then publishing a few manuscripts based on the work afterward.  The journal wasn’t great, but I was still developing a name.  After the first manuscript, I shared it with a collaborating company I used to work with and proposed an idea for an application.  I hadn’t submitted a patent yet, as I was willing to let them slap their names on this once we did initial work together (IP law…gotta love it).  They liked it and I was able to recruit one post-doc and an undergrad to do the work.  A couple of years later we implanted in vivo and got useful data.  Shortly after, we officially transferred the design to the company for them to run with it.  This was a huge milestone.  It allowed me to fulfill a deal I had with myself that I would find ways to successfully turn my academic research from manuscript to product.  I checked up recently, since I have another idea and the product is preparing for human studies since physicians want to try it in Europe, however, I’ve already been told that it probably won’t be marketed unless they find a different regulatory strategy for their largest market: the US (the FDA….gotta love it).  So I was a little bummed, but I was pretty pumped to see this happen.  When I was in industry, I launched multiple therapies that are curing people every day, but this just feels so damn satisfying.  I have other projects with potential, and I’ve been looking at the start-up route once/if I get tenure.  I grew to hate the business stuff right now, it’s nice to not hate it again.

And then there were two

As I’ve written before my department has been starting to bring candidates out and after this first round, we took a vote.  It came down to two people and that’s when the arguing started.  I was backing my candidate from industry who gave a great talk (I may be partial), had a strategy for funding, and worked on an area outside of mine that was also new and exciting.  I hadn’t even thought of applying their field in the way they planned on.  Not really the same field as mine, but I’m already thinking about collaborations.  This candidate went to a good sports school, but not so great academically.  They have been incredibly productive in industry though (handful of patents, and one product launch).  The other candidate is from a legendary lab for their PhD and has been spending the past couple years helping to run a company created by their advisor’s advisor, so technically they come from industry, but not really.  We were at a standstill and our department head doesn’t want to step in yet.  And so now I feel like a member of Congress trying to lobby for votes for the one I like more.  All the while, the candidate’s advisor has been calling in favors.  My advisor distinctly said that he would email once to anyone he knew in schools I applied to, but after that, it’s on me.

My last effort is to pull out our not-great statistics on placing students in my candidate’s industry even though students want to enter it, but I think it may upset some of the faculty here that work in that field.  So what I’ve decided is in the next meeting to just tell everyone that we need some fresh thinking.  Candidates like the other one come by every single year.  There will be another that does similar research and shows similar potential.  My candidate is not.  Especially right now with the economy so good: people aren’t interested in taking massive pay cuts right now while there’s lots of money to be made.  If nothing else, I just want to be done with this and let the department head be the new enemy.  I’ve pissed enough people off.

Categories

We’ve started bringing out candidates and I’m noticing some interesting candidates that are very representative of my experience on this committee.  I’ve also been going to the job talks for other departments to see how they do things.  The candidates can each to boiled down into just a few categories, which is sad because I like seeing disruptive people, but there’s still a glimmer of hope for the candidates I like.

  1. The popular one.  I have (and so has Xykademiqz and other bloggers) touched on this before, but every search has the candidate that does nearly the exact same research as their advisor and someone within the department.  They have a wonderful pedigree and have been trained to walk the walk and talk the talk.  Simply put, they are boring from a research and personality perspective: they do well in politics and they are working on a topic that is already flooded with researchers but will get funding because they have a lot of other factors on their side.  I will probably never collaborate with them because I prefer to work on completely new things rather than incremental changes of their past research.  No harm in the incremental-I just get bored really easily.  I can tell they have the best chance of all the candidates.
  2. The diversity one.  One of the postings we have is specifically asking for underrepresented groups to apply.  And more specifically related to racial groups that are underrepresented.  Nothing about females.  This candidate gave an okay talk, but from conversing with them they will never establish themselves as a big funding or big paper kind of researchers.  I was even told by the head of the committee that this candidate has a huge leg-up, but will ultimately become teaching faculty.  Not a bad thing, but kind of shitty when I want to develop new collaborations.
  3. The wild one.  This candidate has researched typical topics seem in academia (see The popular one), and comes from a decently respected school.  However, the research interests are not something our school already has much of a reputation for and what they want to work on are in their wheelhouse, but different than the average.  I like these candidates because they think very differently, are the most passionate about their research agenda, and they have more spunk and personality.  I’d much rather collaborate with these folks because they’re fresh-thinking and interesting.  However, these folks barely got the invite to even come out, and they aren’t a carbon copy of the other faculty members here so they aren’t interesting.  They also are, by far, the most interesting to have a personal conversation with.  They speak their mind and are genuine and funny on top of all of that.  Even if they don’t overlap with my interests, I still prefer these candidates just to break up the homogeneity here.

I see myself in category 3 the most, which is probably why I like them, so I guess I’m not so different from my colleagues that want similar people to themselves….

Live by the sword

The economy is doing really well right now, so naturally, funding from industry has been coming in strong.  They have been more interested in investing in new technology and studies, and I’ve been banking on this, literally.  Two companies I collaborate with have had some kind of issue where some analysts somewhere have decided that, while the companies are more profitable than ever (according to their earnings reports), they are going to be taking on budget cuts.  So they will be having layoffs and departmental budget cuts.  I don’t miss those conversations, where business is great, but you still have to make cuts because the higher-ups and shareholders want to pull in more money.  So they make the lower workers work harder.  Then they realize that they can get good results while being ‘lean’, as they call it, then that becomes the new normal.

Now that brings me to the conversation I recently had with collaborators at these two companies.  One told me that funding will be cut in 6 months for the foreseeable future.  The other one said that we’re so far along that we have another year.  But in four months there will be a reduction to just one student plus supplies.  I had always planned for this, and to be honest, industry money was just a way to bring in more funding and work on more applicable projects.  My favorite ones are the projects funded by federal funds.  They’re more barebones science with a huge translational application.  Plus, I can publish freely and there are fewer status updates needed.

I really like working with industry because the money is easy and I get to make real things that will sooner see the patients, but this is really a double-edged sword.  I will have to back off the translational side of things but also lay off a lab tech in six months that has been very good for me.  I essentially have one lab tech for industry work and one for other work.  I won’t have the funds to sustain the industry one and keep a student.  Ultimately, I need to graduate students even though, in all honesty, the tech is a better researcher.  So this budget cut in a wonderfully profitable time will trickle down here, too.  I told the student and he didn’t seem to mind.  He understood how corporate America is like.  Time for me to get lean, too.

Really nice colleague

There’s a professor here that has been around for a couple decades.  She’s not so much a mentor as more of a friend since she doesn’t work in anything close to me, but we’re very similar even considering the age difference.  We will discuss the occasional work topic, but overall she’s just a great person to be around.  We don’t have overlapping specialties, but we do have overlapping equipment.  She lets my students come by and use it, and I return the favor (though far more infrequently).  We go out for lunch and coffee, which is very pleasant considering the professorial life is an often-lonely one.  But alas, she has accepted an offer at a much better program.  One that has better collaborators, and one that definitely has better students.  [Side bar: it’s not that our students are bad, but there are some schools that have incredibly strict standards for admitting students.  Our’s isn’t the loosest, but it’s not the tightest so as a PI, we have to be incredibly picky about the students.  But there come times when the project deadlines are tight that had to take who we can.  End sidebar.]  So we had a pleasant lunch where she confided this information in me and actually gave me advice for the first time since we met.  She said ‘be nice’.  I’m a pretty nice person, and very careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings.  The majority of ‘big players’ in my field are relatively straight-forward, though if they were women, they would be called mean.  The advice about being nice goes against everything I’ve seen that it takes to be successful.  But those two simple words will definitely stick with me, as I strive to be someone as outwardly care-free and successful as she is.  I really wish her the best of luck.  If only being nice meant I didn’t have to buy new equipment to replace the stuff she’s taking with her.

Out-of-body

Sometimes I feel like I’m barely in my own body.  Like I’m just going through the motions of life.  Maybe I just need a good vacation.  I seem to just walk around and do the things I’m supposed to, but I feel like a program is executing properly, and that I’m not really me.  It’s a really tough thing to describe.  But I sometimes feel like my mind is in a completely different spot than my body.  I had a student in my office and they were talking and I was helping since they seemed to be grateful at the end of the meeting, but I couldn’t remember afterwards what I even did.  Maybe some of the student stuff is starting to blend together.  This also happens in meetings where I feel out-of-body.  Maybe, for the parts of the job that I don’t enjoy as much as other parts, I feel out-of-body.  Though sometimes I feel this way in my outside life.  This is a new phenomena in my life, and I’m also finding myself not being as excited about my hobbies lately.  Maybe because the glimmer of the start of the new semester and nice cold weather is gone and the hum-drum of the middle of the semester is upon us.  A vacation could definitely reset things.

Some big grant deadlines passed recently.  I submitted these and I’m in a decent calm-after-the-storm phase.  I’m well-funded right now with two big industry ‘grants’, a large government grant, and a couple medium-sized grants, but I want to start a new big project based on some surprising prelim data.  This new project is definitely exciting, and I find myself able to actually focus and be ‘in-body’, but it’s still not quite there.  Jeez, I really wonder what’s going on.  Maybe after the surge of the start of the new semester and the rush to get the grants submitted my body doesn’t know what to do.