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.

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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.

Annoyed with checking-in

Welp, we’re about ready to schedule some phone interviews.  I got one of the industry ex-pat candidates I really like, but the rest are relatively run-of-the-mill.  So I’m just hoping they don’t blow it.

Today at the end of the meeting, the chair was complaining about the number of check-in emails to know what’s happening with the status of the search.  I know some schools are already bringing candidates out, so us being a little later must be a little anxiety-inducing.  When he was complaining he had no sympathy for the job-seekers it twisted me up a little inside.  I’m sure it can be annoying to have to deal with this every day, but does he not remember what it was like on the other end?  I distinctly remember having to wait and wait and when I finally got emails it was great, but it would have been nice to know if I wasn’t even under consideration.  Even if the school’s job portal just had a ‘no longer under consideration’ next to my application, that would have been nice.  I remember getting a few rejections over email, but knowing I’m not a fit early on would be nice.  Especially since it allows me to say yes or no to a school knowing that the one I wanted doesn’t want me.

So I mentioned to him that he must remember how stressful the job search is, and he said it was easy for him to find a job.  He talked about how his research and teaching statements were afterthoughts and 30 years ago how easy him and everyone he know had it (I told one of my old advisors this and he disagreed though).  But (maybe) unsurprisingly he couldn’t put himself in the current candidates’ shoes about how tough the market is now.  I understand not being able to say no, but he seemed to care exactly zero about them.  Maybe I’m just more sensitive that the other members.

I think it’s okay to check on the status of a search.  I didn’t do it, but I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to know how things are going, or to update one’s CV.  Clearly, my committee doesn’t think so.

Academia v industry (again)

I got an anxious email from a soon-to-be-PhD about the industry versus academia decision, so I’ve done posts like this before, but given that I’m a few years in, this might be a good time to weigh the differences from a different perspective.  A lot of these will be things that plenty of people have talked about before, but with some more exact details.

The biggest thing I have noticed has been my time.  From the standpoint of how I spend it, and how much free time I have.  During the workday, I bounce between a lot of tasks.  I have one class this semester and I end up taking about 1-2 hours/day on teaching-related things.  Maybe an extra hour here or there depending on what’s happening with the class (exams to grade, lecture I’m unprepared for, etc.).  I typically put in 6-8 hours a day on pure research: meeting with students, writing grants, editing papers, meeting with collaborators, coming up with ideas, reading papers, etc.  Service bites into this, but usually only a couple hours a week.  This is all work, but something about it is just way more satisfying.  When I was in industry, it was 4-6 hours of meetings and 4-6 hours of real work.  This was a little crushing because, while these were mostly my ideas, they were ultimately going to benefit the corporate overlords and not me as much.  I really don’t mind putting in a lot of time when it’s my lab to run.  On the free time side of things, I don’t really have that much right now compared to before.  When I was in industry after work, I would get calls, emails, texts, etc, but these were quick answers not requiring much work thought.  I write, edit, respond to students and come into the lab on weekends and nights more frequently than I probably should.  So overall, I work more now, but I enjoy it more.  So if you’re considering industry versus academia, think about how much you value free time versus the type of work.

I traveled a ton for work, and very comfortably I might add.  I would usually spend an extra day or two in Turkey, France, China, Israel, Italy, England, and many more!  Being able to feed my travel bug on the company’s dime was pretty nice.  And then racking up miles that I could use in personal travel was a huge benefit.  I hardly travel now for work other than a few times a year for conferences or to visit a collaborator.  Not traveling as much is nice since I really like my bed, however, I do sometimes miss the jet-setting life and seeing amazing things throughout the world.  This might just be my industry/academia experience, but if you want to travel more then maybe industry is your thing.

In industry I never once wrote a grant.  I would just show off a prototype or idea in a meeting and we’d get some cash in the budget.  There was a ridiculous amount of money to go around.  And it was kind of cool to just have perceivably unlimited money to do all kinds of cool stuff from unlimited animal work, 3D printers, cameras, spectrographs, etc.  I could do anything, but again didn’t always want to since they weren’t my projects, per se.  Right now, the vast majority of my time is working on grants.  I’ve been reasonably successful in getting money from the government and industry, but this has come at an obscene time-cost.  And even with the onslaught of grants, I’m still nowhere near my industry budget.  If you don’t want to fight constantly for budget then industry is for you!

My personal income was the only thing I dreaded in the transition.  This was massive.  The majority of ex-pats I know cut their salaries in HALF when coming to academia.  If you’re curious about numbers, most public universities have professors’ salaries online.  Double that.  I felt this pretty hard, but I’ve slowly settled into my current lifestyle and suddenly I don’t notice it as much.  Having a second income is nice, but not necessary and my quality of life being so great definitely makes up for the salary hit.  If money matters most, then stick to industry!

Mentorship was the one area I didn’t really think much about before.  I did think about it a little, but the mentorship right now is incredibly rewarding compared to before.  I mentored/managed engineers and scientists before, and when they grew I felt nice, but I knew they were all just vying for my job; trying to climb the corporate ladder and step on people if needed.  Right now, I see mentorship from a few different areas.  Seeing them learn and grow as scientists is incredibly fulfilling, and then helping place them in jobs (usually through my industry contacts) makes me feel almost the reward of being a parent (given recent developments I hope this is a feeling I will feel).  If you want to make a real difference in younger people that aren’t just out to get you: stick to academics.

Two lines

Two lines orthogonal to each other makes a plus sign. I don’t have to tell you all that. And when you see that on a stick that you pee on you realize it can change your life. I’m terrified though. Will I not be able to travel anymore, have spontaneous trips, stay late at the lab, get sleep? My parent couldn’t be less excited, but my friends are stoked.  How will this affect my career with all the parenting duties coming up?  Will I have to take calls from home or will I have to bring the little one into my office?

I’m freaking scared and excited. So freaking scared and excited. I’m not sleeping at all.  Oh God….

Meetings

Meetings are one thing I hate more than almost anything.  In graduate school, we would have our weekly meetings as a group then weekly individual meetings.  The group one was just stupid.  I understand the point, but weekly progress on everyone else was not something I cared about then.  The individual ones were quite helpful for focusing the research and overcoming any hurdles.  These were pretty much the only meetings other than faculty committee meetings for which I was frequently the student representative on.  Industry has a whole other level of meetings.  I kid you not-meetings to schedule other meetings.  Some people just wouldn’t have much to do so they’d want to have meetings to try to solve nonexistent problems.  And then ‘Town hall’ type meetings, and planning meetings.  And no one knew how to arrange for a meeting that gets to the point where afterward I can look back and say that was time well spent.  I would arrange a group meeting then the occasional brainstorming meeting and these often had useful outcomes, but the number of useless meetings were boggling.  I learned at this point how much corporate waste there was, and it always left me wondering how some people were employed.

This brings me to the meetings I have now.  I have my typical students meetings.  These are beneficial to my research, though they could be smoother.  The faculty meetings are my problem.  I’d say 20% of what is said is useful, and there are a lot of people that just like the sound of their voice.  In faculty planning meetings we discuss changes in policies, lab space, etc for the first 15 minutes then the last 45 minutes is information we already know or complaints that we can’t do anything about.  In faculty recruitment meetings, it’s me trying to get the other members on board with recruiting a little outside of the box, and then no one listening to me.  In staff meetings….don’t get me started.  Now, these meetings are far better than the average meeting I had in industry, but they could be way more efficient.  And what I’ve realized is this: In general, the more someone hates meetings, the better run the meetings are and the better the meeting is.  It’s weird to think about it this way, but I’m 100% sure I’m correct.