In the spirit of all the "year in review" articles and blog posts that grace our timelines in January, i thought i'd jump on the bandwagon to summarise the last year for me; which also happens to have been my last year as a postdoc. The transition to independence is a challenging time for any early career researcher, so hopefully this first blog post will offer some "warts and all" insight into the process for those coming up behind me, and also more senior academics who have become comfortably removed from the process.
Disclaimer: This turned out to be longer than I expected.
Funerals and Fellowships.
My Gran died a few days before Christmas, so 2017 started with her funeral.
January was a strange mixture of grief and grant writing. I'd found out in late December that I'd made it to the full application stage for the Royal Society Wellcome Trust Henry Dale Fellowship. Now back in London after Christmas, I had four weeks to submit. I worked nonstop, all day, every day for at least 12 hours. Honestly, I barely remember any concrete details about that period of time, just waves of sadness, tiredness and the very British sense of keep calm and carry on. Most salient perhaps was that I had to stop drinking coffee because I was just too anxious. Anyone who knows me well will appreciate that when I decide I need to stop drinking coffee this is a cry for help. Somehow I pulled everything together and when I finally did hit submit I went for a, slightly fancier than usual, lunch near UCL with my partner. You have to celebrate the small victories.
I meet a lot of academics (mostly around the "golden triangle") who look down on the lectureship route as if it's some sort of consolation prize. The arrogance astounds me. Teaching is the lifeblood of any University worth its salt and without good lecturers none of us would be academics today.
I was given the opportunity to cover undergraduate teaching for a colleague at the University of Cambridge and I jumped at the chance. The load was admittedly heavy; eight Part 1b (2nd year) lectures, six Part II (third year) lectures and two lectures for the Part Ib medical students. February and March were almost exclusively taken up with reading the original research papers, making slides, travelling to Cambridge and speaking in front of large groups of undergraduates.
The experience took a lot out of me, Sunday 4th March 2017 was the first day I didn’t do any work since the beginning of January. I remember this specifically because I went for Turkish breakfast to celebrate my birthday with some friends. Burnout aside, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity because I now know that I really enjoy teaching and, from the feedback I received, I think i'm actually quite good at it.
I am, of course, very fortunate to have had a boss who fully supported this endeavour (Thanks G!), others wouldn't have been so happy to let their postdoc be distracted for two months by a full undergraduate teaching load. I've been very lucky as a postdoc to have had two supervisors who valued my professional development as much as my publications.
The Wellcome fellowship might have been the first application I submitted, but I didn't think so much of myself to only put my eggs in that highly competitive basket. Throughout 2017 I also applied for three faculty (lectureship) jobs. Each job application took at least one full week to put together (often a condensed 5 year research proposal is required). Full disclosure, I didn't get interviewed for any of these jobs. Don't let anyone tell you it's easy to get a lectureship, ECR's who say they'll "take" one if they have to are deluded. If you want to teach somewhere nice with good students (don't we all?) the bar is high and the departmental politics that shape the shortlisting process are often opaque.
As soon as my teaching in Cambridge was over in March I re-jigged my Wellcome application for the MRC Career Development Award, which took about a month. This was longer than I expected, but I really tried to hone the research aims in this rewrite to hit the strategic priorities for the funder. At this point, well into April, I'm still working past 9pm most days and weekends to juggle everything.
Believe it or not, research didn't stop because I was lecturing and applying for grants. Manuscripts were ticking over throughout the whole process and I managed to put a few papers out. At the end of the previous year I’d submitted a paper I was very proud of to Nature Neuroscience, and by May I was deep into extensive revisions. This involved, among other things, teaching myself how to apply a new modelling approach (which didn’t make it into the revised manuscript), and collecting a bunch of new data. The paper had already been well received (but ultimately rejected) from another top journal, so I was hopeful that if if I pushed myself to do everything the reviewers requested then I might stand a chance of being lucky this time.
In May I went to VSS in Florida but I didn’t actually have any time to attend much of the conference. I woke up every morning, went for a run on the beach, then sat down at my laptop and put in a full day of work. The deadline for revisions was tight and I needed every hour I had to get it done. It was the first time I went to VSS and didn’t come back with a tan.
I found out just before VSS that I had an interview for the Henry Dale in early June. Travelling to Florida and paper revisions ate up half of the preparation time but in the end I managed to squeeze in one mock interview before VSS, and one after I came back. In between the two there was no free time or head space to think about the interview very much at all.
I could easily write a whole separate post about my experience of interview (and I might just do that). The questions were fair but challenging, and I didn’t leave with a sense that i’d blown it or nailed it. It was just fine. I received a lot advice about how to perform beforehand but, in the end, I think I was just a slightly more nervous version of myself. I don’t think there was anything in particular that I did or didn’t do that day to affect the outcome.
After the interview I met my partner for another, slightly nicer than usual, lunch near UCL and then I went home and slept until 8pm.
Two weeks later I got the phone call from the Wellcome Trust telling me I got the fellowship. A week later the Nature Neuroscience paper was accepted.
July was awesome.
In July I slept and socialised and spent time with loved ones and returned to being a normal functioning human being. I just about forgot about how unpleasant the previous six months had been.
Two body problem.
My partner is also a cognitive neuroscientist and 2017 was the year that we both needed jobs. We’ve been together for almost six years and choosing to live apart isn’t an option we were willing to seriously consider. I’m generally rubbish without her, and that means I’d be a rubbish scientist too, so we tried as much as possible to plan our next steps together as a team. I was keen to live back in Scotland but that wouldn’t have worked for her right now, so we ruled it out. I was really craving some more space and less traffic, so we agreed to be within commutable distance to London, even if not actually in London. Choosing Cambridge as the host institution for my fellowships was as much about her as it was about the science; a location where she could potentially work with a strong list of people she wanted to work with.
That said one of the most challenging aspects of 2017 was undeniably trying to pin down all the moving parts and deal with the uncertainty of not knowing whether we’d succeed in finding jobs in the same place. We still pinch ourselves from time to time now that we are both in Cambridge, but the reality is that it didn’t just happen to us - we put a lot of emotional energy into making it happen.
Catch up and Finishing up.
Autumn onwards has been all about analysing data and pulling manuscripts together. I have a long list of collaborations that I have neglected (sorry, sorry!) and I started with the most overdue (from 2013), and I have begun to work my way through. Many more are still outstanding though (sorry, you have to wait your turn) but the curse of being a senior post-doc is being your own bottle neck.
One of my collaborators in Australia visited for most of August which allowed us to finish off an autism project that we started together. Thanks to the EPS for the travel grant that supported his visit, as of right now the manuscript just received minor revisions and the resubmit is looking promising.
In September my partner and I relocated to Cambridge and in the midst of moving house I’ve managed to pull together and submit two further manuscripts throughout autumn and winter; one currently in revision and the other (my first last-authored paper) was revised in December and is now published.
Work in general has been much more manageable than the unsustainable pace of the spring and summer. My physical and mental health are improved and I am no longer too anxious to drink coffee. This is how work should be. I’ve had time to review papers and grants again, and i’m relishing the return to a world where I don’t work weekends (I don’t even check my email on weekends). I’ve also had the time to accept talk invitations and in the latter half of the year I’ve given talks in Oxford, Cambridge (x2), York and Budapest (with talks in London and Durham coming up very soon).
This year also ended with the brilliant news that I’m the recipient of the 2018 Society for Biological Psychiatry Early Career Research Award (International)*. I can't wait to collect the award and attend the annual meeting in New York this May.
*rolls off the tongue doesn't it?
My last postdoc (not just my last year) has been all about making preparations to be independent - practically, in terms of securing my own funding to start a lab, but also more generally in terms of doing things by myself.
When I have this shiny new lab I have to be able to stand on my own two feet, and support others to find theirs. For this reason I made a point not to outsource data analysis, modelling or writing to anyone else. I wanted to get my hands dirty and do everything by myself. This was perhaps needlessly time consuming; why spend a month coding this analysis from scratch when your pal Data Danni™ can run your data through their scripts? Why not just hand your data over to The Modelling Person© and let them do it for you? Simply because I wanted to, slowly and painfully, develop my own skill set. As a consequence, most of my research outputs from this post-doc have just three authors.
This also means that when it came to my fellowship application it didn’t sit well with me to ask for a lot of help. Of course I solicited feedback on my research proposal, and I’m extremely grateful to everyone who read the various drafts along the way (especially other ECRs) - you undoubtedly made it better. But the truth is that all the other parts of the application - the technical summary, the lay summary, the career contributions, aims, personal statement, justification of resources, pathways to impact and so on, were written by me, spell checked by my partner, and no one else saw them before submission.
Was this sensible? Probably not, but it does mean that if my application had a voice it was mine, and it matched up to the voice that spoke to the panel at interview. Fail or succeed I would truly own the outcome.
My last year as a postdoc has been bittersweet. I’ve pushed myself beyond my own limits on more than one occasion and I’m going to have to try hard in future to keep my work-life balance in check. We can all get a lot done if we work more than 12 hours a day for 60 days straight, but that's not sustainable and we shouldn't expect it of ourselves (or others).
I’m lucky to have had a boss who let me get on with things and allowed me the space to grow towards independence (whilst making it clear that he was there if I needed anything). I’m grateful for having a partner who put up with all my late nights and weekends in the office, and my withdrawal from coffee (all while she was writing up her PhD no less). She believed in me when I didn’t have much faith in myself.
My first year as PI will bring new challenges; as I wave goodbye to my last postdoc I will soon have to hire my first. I also have to integrate into a new department, set up a lab, manage a budget and develop some management skills. I hope to find some time along the way to document the process, in shorter posts, here in beckyneuro's diary.
ID card from my first day as a PhD student at Cambridge (in 2006) and my first day as a principal investigator at Cambridge (2017).