Friday, December 26, 2014

finding a sparring partner

These days everything is slow - at least that is how it feels. Days pass by and sometimes I wonder if something happened earlier today or already yesterday. It is somehow disturbing. From this blurriness a thought about work and how to improve my output came up. I've by far missed my goals for this year and I'm very disappointed of myself. Even though there are a lot of external factors involved in why I missed my goals. But it is not all external factors to blame. Often I just can't find this additional bit of motivation to do something right now. Especially with writing papers I seem to waste a lot of time on side tracks or it takes me a day to write five proper lines. 
When I was a teenager I could easily motivate myself for a lot of stuff. My schedule was full of sports and social events and I usually not only participated, but took over some organizational roles. I LOVED doing all that stuff and my parents sometimes had to stop me and keep my duties to a reasonable amount. While I think it is a teenager thing to be easily motivated (maybe not for school, but for a lot of other stuff) and to be emotionally involved in everything, I was wondering how I could get closer again to this base level of passion. 
The word that crossed my mind was: competition. Not super serious job competition, more like in a low level sports match. Or like the hidden competition when you try to match the speed of another runner in the park. I love playing sports, I love the temporal rivalry and I love to win. So maybe it would help if I'd have a secret sparring partner, an "enemy" team, someone on a similar level but with currently better performance to increase my day-to-day motivation. Trying to match his/her speed, then close the gap, then overtake.
But how to measure performance? H-factor is the first measure that comes to mind, but it depends on so much more than my own direct performance, like: are my collaborators productive and put me on their papers, are my collaborators people how are often cited,... . 
H-factor only of first-author publications might be an option, or - similar - how many first-author publications contribute to the overall h-factor. But then I'm already on a level where my students publish and I'm not first author anymore, but not necessarily last one as well. And the next level people are on the junior professor levels. So there the ratio first-author to non-first-author publications gets even "worse" and performance comparison with a sparring partner on that level would be even more difficult. And do I want to exclude all the other time consuming work I'm doing? Supervision? Teaching? It would get really messy if I'd want to include them.
Maybe I keep it very simple. The weak point in my CV is my low number of first author publications. This is what I want to increase. So I'll look for an "enemy" team (maybe even several people) on a similar level to mine and I'll try to match their number of first author publications. Time-frame depends on how many publications they are ahead of me. A long term goal will be to match their h-factor and the number of first-author publications contributing to it. 
Finding a proper sparring partner is a nice task for the last days of the year.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Dear fellow researchers... (this is a rant!)

... it is quite normal that after spending hours/days/months in the lab/in front of the computer/scribbling notes and equations on paper, we have the desire to show the world the results of all our hard work (and of course because the next funding agency we apply to needs to be impressed was well). And of course we are all busy and writing a publication can be a tedious task.
But if you think it is good style to toss all your data of all the 38 systems you've found in your drawer in one confusing graph, that it is enough to describe details of these graphs that can't actually be seen in the text and base your conclusions on them without providing proper evidence and that this huge mess will then be published, you just missed a very important point. You should not be writing to increase the length of your publication list! Surprised? You should be writing to make your research progress available to the public or at least to the science audience. You should write in a way that the story of your research is easy to grasp for the reader. He should not be forced to decipher from 20 different data sets presented as black lines, which one is the double dash dot one. Nor should it be necessary to read up 5 other publications to be able to follow your conclusions. Trying to wrap up your research in a concise and maybe even (gasp!) interesting way is certainly a skill that needs to be practiced, but it is as well a courtesy to your audience to at least try. And in general it is always a good idea to have a good think about the reviewer comments, before you reply something along the line that you don't give a shit. I dearly hope you will not be able to find reviewers who let you publish this mess!
Rant: stop!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

one experiment "too much"

In the process of writing up a paper I often come to the point where my data is not sufficient to proof or disproof the theory I have in mind. There are two options what to do. Either speculate on the basis of the data at hand and maybe the concepts available in the literature. Or going back to the lab and do an experiment that clarifies the topic. The last is certainly the better option from a scientific point of view. However, there is the risk that the experiment does not show what I expect. This might mean that I have to adjust my theory a bit and then the paper is good to go. But it can as well mean that my work turns out to have a bigger flaw and I have to chuck the paper, chuck the data and probably several weeks or months of work. From a scientific point of view it is certainly better to find out if the approach/methodology/sample is flawed before anything goes into publication. From the publish or perish point of view it can break your neck! Especially for early career researchers who don't have ten students working on different topics, it is crucial that the publication stream is steady and continuously growing. So from the science perspective there can't be enough experiments done. From the surviving-in-academia perspective it often seems to be necessary to publish first and then maybe do the additional experiment. Or to just move on to the next topic.
I had quite a few good discussions about the view that one can't publish negative data. Even though negative data would certainly help others to avoid mistakes and safe them a lot of time, money and nerves. But science is all about breakthroughs and world changing discoveries. At least it has to sound like that. In reality the breakthroughs are rare and mostly scientific progress is done in small steps. Digging into a topic until you own it takes time and mental space. The pressure to publish both high quality and a lot is counterproductive and certainly leads often enough to going for the speculative paper instead of risking to have to chuck the work.
This is a very big flaw in the scientific system: publish positive results or perish!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

patience, patience, patience, breath!

A common post-doc contract duration in my discipline is somewhere between one and three years.
To develop a solid project that will make an awesome application for independent research group funding or that can convince a search committee giving away an academic position takes about 4-6 months.
Writing up said project idea into the awesome application - or better applications, considering the success rates these days - and handing it in takes 2-6 months depending on scheme.
Waiting for the outcomes takes a least 6 months, sometimes even a year or longer!
Academic folks, who wonder why so many post-docs drop out and look for other ways to earn their money: do the math! It is not necessarily that they are not good enough, not persistent enough, not resilient enough. Often it is just that the common post-doc contract duration is not long enough to wait for the outcomes of another proposal.
Why am I pointing this out? The waiting time for one of my proposals was just extended by four months! This does not sound much for someone on a continuous contract. But for someone who has timed all proposal such that the outcomes should be there at least half a year before the contract runs out, plus four months brings me close to gnawing on my fingernails!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

my different stages in student supervision (for a particular student)

I have a very difficult student at the moment. Difficult because hir is just very, very slow and has the ability to ignore deadlines up to a painful limit. I went through various emotional stages during supervision and it has been a constant decline.
I started with "Enthusiastic", because the student seemed to be smart and motivated and hir spoken English is pretty good. I like hir project a lot. It was a neat little project that allows the student to peak into a few experimental techniques, but not too much stuff to do for the time frame given.
After the first weeks in I realized that the student had some self organization problems and that hir might need a bit more hand holding to get through the initial stages than what I would usually expect from a student on this level. 
Being enthusiastic dropped to being motivated. I thought, maybe that's just ignition problems and when hir gets to do some experimental work the going will get easier. Well, the way towards getting clearance for doing experimental work was long and stoney and plastered with continuous reminders from my side that hir needs to do the clearance paperwork ASAP. Nothing happened. Literally for months! My motivation dropped continuously.
I had a short caring phase in between this decline of motivation, where I tried to figure out why, Why, WHY is hir just refusing to get hir shit together. Does hir have too many classes during the week? No, not the case. Does hir have a stressful job outside uni? No to that as well. Are there personal/family/friends issues holding hir back? No, everything seems to be sunshine.
Then at some point clearance happened. I still don't know how, but suddenly the experimental work could get started - after more than half of the thesis time was over. I started to hope and tried to motivate the student to keep up the tiny bit of momentum and maybe even accelerate, because the deadline was looming already at the horizon. My student was not impressed - or maybe hir was overwhelmed by the fact that now doing more than one task per week was expected. And the work was still not done at a pace that could lead to a successful finalization of the project. 
At this point I got angry. Not because the student was going to fail the thesis, but because hir expected that everybody else involved (technicians, colleagues, me) would put in all effort to make stuff happen for hir. As if we are just sitting in our offices the whole day, doing nothing, just waiting that hir comes along and gives us something urgent to do. And all because hir was not able to start work a bit earlier.
I had a day where I was so angry it distracted me from doing my own work completely. Which of course made me even more angry. I slept over it and decided to not care anymore. I still care about the project, but in the long run it does not depend on this particular student. I do my job to support the student, but I won't bend over backwards anymore to make stuff happen for hir. I'm sort of indifferent at the moment - which is quite sad. I love to be emotionally involved in the progress of my students, to celebrate their progress and to motivate them through dry phases. But this student brought me to my limits. There seems to be no not even tiny spark of motivation and willingness from hir side and I really wonder why hir came all the way to this theses project. Maybe I am the wrong supervisor for this student, but maybe hir just studied the wrong subject all these years. So right now indifferent with a hint of sad!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

this is so nice

When people remember you even though you have just talked to them a couple of times and the last time was already about a year age. And when they not just recognize your but even remember your name and some topics you talked about the last time you've met. It is so nice it's nearly creepy! I'd love to be as good in connecting names to faces as my colleague is who just remembered mine after a very long time.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

the vehicles for the road to success

The question about what to do to become a successful and happy academic is one that pops up regularly in all kind of early career researcher seminars, mentoring sessions and blog articles. Being successful and being able to maintain a life outside academia is a balancing act that does not always work out as good one wishes. In the last few years I have been sitting in a number of "I tell you about my career" talks given by very successful people and I talked to a bunch of senior colleagues down the corridor about this topic. Some points always re-appear in these discussions - they seem to be the core of successful-senior-colleague-wisdom on the topic "success and happiness".

 1) Don't work your ass off
This is so against everything that everyday life in academia tells us. With funding rates going down, with job insecurity, with "publish or perish" it seems like everybody who does not work hir ass off, should better start to polish their resumes for non-academic jobs. But I've heard this sentence quite often and of course it is the key to whole-life happiness. Maybe it is easy to say that one should take time off on the weekend when you are the one with the Nobel-Prize on the shelf. But on the other hand it is essential to allow myself time to recharge my batteries and to actually enjoy my life today - this is not something that should be put on hold until I maybe have secured tenure.

2) Enjoy what you are doing and check once in a while if you are still enjoying it
For me as an ECR, this is the essential bit for my work in academia. With all the insecurity and the continuous search for funding, I better enjoy my work and the opportunities university offers. Maybe I'll become a professor and I can continue doing awesome research, maybe it'll not work out and I have to find something else that interests me and pays the bills. I don't doubt that I would. And if this happens it is better to not have regrets about the years spend in academia. It is easy to miss the point where you stop enjoying your work, because you just have so much on your plate and the piles on the desk don't become smaller. Taking the time once in while to reflect about what I'm doing and if I still like to be where I am, is a very good advice.

3) Be efficient and effective
This is a life-long learning process: tame the procrastination cat in you. Learn how to approach a task that you can finish it in a timely manner. How to not waste time on minor tasks. How to focus on the important things. How to get other people to support you work. Tons of books have been written about this - it's about finding the strategies that work for you and about applying them every day. Sometimes that works - sometimes it doesn't.

4) Have a bread and butter project and have a risky, exciting one as well
One of my super successful colleagues pointed out to me that the people who will be appointed on fixed term positions are the ones who work on the edge of knowledge and who dare to jump into the really unknown.But on the other hand nobody wants to hire a "crazy" person who is only looking for the Holy Grail. University wants to see solid publications, funding agencies - even though they claim that they want to fund novel ideas - want to make a safe investment and your colleagues will take you more seriously if you publish some not so far fetched ideas once in a while. 

5) Don't piss off your colleagues
Because you never know if you meet them again in the future and in which role. Maybe they will have to decide if your paper gets published or your grant gets funded. And even though we all should be unbiased by our personal relationship to someone, we are not. Even if we try. Especially not when the other one just pooped on your lawn. So it is better to choose which fights are really necessary - and some certainly are - and let go the other ones even if it would feel so good to just grmpf$%*.

6) Have friends outside your field or better even outside academia
That helps to see that the world is not evolving around your research niche. That other people have other priorities in life and still can be happy. That working in academia has a lot of perks and privileges. Getting your head off work is necessary to recharge your brain and having a hobby can actually be quite fulfilling as well, e.g. Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt owns a 4-star winery (to take one of the super successful people with super successful hobbies (= ).    

These points alone certainly won't make me a successful academic, but maybe a more happy and interesting one. It's good to realize that life happens now already and that it does not help to wait until an uncertain point in the future to start with being happy. And I go now and bake some cake, because that makes me happy on a Sunday afternoon!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Australian peculiarities III: beetroot

After complaining about some of the Australian peculiarities in part I and II of the series, here comes one that I really love! 
Beetroot in salads, beetroot on burgers, whole mini beetroots just cooked, beetroot in cake - I just love them! I don't know why they are so popular here and not in my home country, but I don't care either. I'll enjoy this dark red deliciousness whenever possible and I'll convince my whole home country one day that a necessary ingredient for a superb burger is a thick slice of beetroot! Yumm!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

publish! or somebody else will

I'm a slow writer and thus slow in publishing my research. If I manage t write two papers a year, it was a very good year. While writing I often think that my data is not enough, that I need to do another experiment to make the story round. And I develop a lot of side ideas while writing that seem to be essential for the paper and I need to read a bit more literature about it. Up to now this has not been a problem. I published when I had all my thoughts sorted out. But I always worried that one day somebody else will be faster than me and publish the ideas I had been brooding over for so long before I can.
This scenario just became reality. I'm not surprised, I saw it coming, but still I'm saddened and disappointed about myself. I have a 3/4 written paper on my desk since last year, I've discussed the methods with several people on conferences and well, now one of them used these methods on their systems, which are very similar to mine. My head says: no need to be upset. I had a big head start and did not use it. It is just normal that discussions spark ideas - that's how it is supposed to be. I should learn from their publication for my future work. But emotionally I'm disappointed, mostly of myself, a bit of my colleagues. And I slightly start to panic, as for sure they will have a bunch of follow up papers lined up and maybe they will be faster again to publish. Maybe through this lesson I will learn how to not waste months and months on one paper, but to get my writing tasks done a bit more efficient. I have five papers on my to-do list. Let's see how many I can finish this year!

Friday, August 15, 2014

quitting a job for the family

Just stumbled over an interesting blog post by Max Schireson, CEO of MongoDB, about him stepping down from his CEO position to spend more time with his family. He describes that his wife - a professor at Standford - often gets asked how she juggles her career with her family (three kids, 14, 12 and 9 years), but that he never got asked that question. So now he is stepping down from his "crazy full time" position to just a "normal full time" position and the comments to his post are full of applause and admiration for this decision.
It is a big decision, one not easily made and one that will certainly cost him a bag of dollars. And it is great that he wants to spend more time with his family and less with traveling between southern West Coast and northern East Cost of the US. But I wonder how one can even end up in such a crazy constellation. Three kids, a professor at Standford and a CEO of a super growing company - this sounds like a safe way to get a stomach ulcer and a heart attack before turning 50. My admiration goes mostly to his wife, who certainly did the large chunk of family work during the last years, while being a professor at the same time. Her career will speed up like crazy now that she has her husband around much more.
And I wonder what comments a female CEO would get if she'd decide the same way. A lot of applause and admiration? Not sure about that.

Monday, August 11, 2014

LinkedIn for academic job search?

This is what I'm wondering. I have profiles on all those 364 platforms for professional and social networking and of course the ultimate purpose is to use it to find a new job. Now that I have applied to a lot of PostDoc grants and subscribed to even more academic job portals I'm wondering if these non-specific websites like LinkedIn are actually any good to find a new academic job. A lot of my colleagues have profiles there as well, but I've never seen someone putting himself on the market through that. And I wonder if professors or uni HR people really use these platforms to find new folks for their faculty. Or does it look like I'm too lazy to apply for grants? Or not competitive enough? Or like I don't understand how the system works?
Is it worth to add a "I'm looking for.." section to my profile?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

contaminated time

Today I'd like to share a blog where no science or university topics are discussed. Little Eco Footprints is written by Tricia since quite a few years now and she mainly focuses on "learning to live better with less". I stumbled over her blog shortly after we had arrived in Australia with just two suitcases of clothes and two laptops. I loved having not so much stuff around me and instead more space in our apartment. It felt like I'd have more freedom. But things piled up quickly and I still wonder how it happened that by now all our shelves and cupboards are full again. Tricia wrote a lot of great articles about how to deal with this issue and how to live better and more creative with less.
Her latest post resonated with me, because it deals with the contamination of time. This feeling that I'm not living in the moment, I'm not appreciating the here and now, because my head is already checking the next few tasks on my to-do list, is getting stronger during the last years. The days pass and I often can hardly remember what I have done during the day, because all the things I (think I) still have to do block my sight. Especially now that I have not only my own things on my list, but all the stuff for the LittleOne as well. The weeks just fly by and I forget to take time to sit back and reflect about the moment. I've often heard that it is necessary to set time aside for leisure and breaks and private stuff. Sometimes I manage to do that and I know that it refuels my batteries like nothing else and my brain can again create interesting ideas. But I need more practice and constant reminders like Tricia's blog post to make what's now an occasional event a fixed habit. It will not get easier when I return to the office.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

science & philosophy

I've been catching up on interesting bits and pieces about science, universities, gender equality,... that I missed during the last few months. A piece that got me thinking a lot is the Pub-Style Science Hangout from April. The topic was " Philosophy and Science" and it was an hour long discussion about the concept of the scientific method, if there is something like basic rules all scientist do/should follow in their research, what these rules are, how much our perception of "what is good science" is influenced by the labs we've been working in or our cultural background.
We scientists often enough think we are a notch smarter than most other people and with this much more aware of how the world functions and all the not so obvious cog wheels contributing to this. And of course we know how research should be done such that the results lead to rational explanations about the world around us - unbiased, based on a sound and logic foundation. We are convinced that our research is not influenced by our personalities or the way we approach it. But how can we be so sure about that? At least I have not spend much thought on these aspects of my research and I'm sure the majority of my colleagues has neither.
The scientific method and the philosophic concepts behind "doing science" were never a topic during my undergrad education. The curriculum contained an optional course about Science Philosophy for 3rd year students. None of us took it, because at the time it did not seem to be important knowledge. However, in hindsight it could have offered me a totally different view on my thesis research and the following years in my PhD lab. 
As an undergrad the science world is usually very small. Maybe one has been abroad for some studies, maybe one has changed to a different university. Some people have the opportunity to actually work in a lab as student assistants during their undergrad years, but for most people the thesis research is the first "real science" they do. If you ask them about science and philosophy, they might come up with ideas about ethics - don't copy and paste work of somebody else. But to realize that the way science is done is dependent on the specific lab, the people in the lab, the supervisor, the faculty, the university and the whole cultural background takes at least a project in a different lab or a close collaboration outside the well known orbit. These differences include the usage of different methodologies to answer the same question, as well as the way a research hypothesis is developed (if at all), the way collaboration takes place (if at all) and the attention that is given to ethical questions (if at all). To realize that the way science is done in my lab is not the Holy Grale, but just one shade of a very broad spectrum, can broaden the view and maybe lead to new, innovative approaches to research. Not only for the students but for researchers in general. During my education and even until now there has never been an offer from the universities side to discuss this topic - a great opportunity missed to encourage the critical thinking we all hold so high.
Maybe it's common at other universities to discuss the philosophical aspects of science and research with the students or even with the faculty members? I'd love to hear about it!

Friday, May 9, 2014

more structure or less?

After all these years of attending classes and having a pre-structured week there comes the time for each student, when they have to start their thesis work. For many this seems to be a scary thing and I remember that I had no clue what was expected of me when I started with my first thesis. In my undergrad institution there was no structure at all that would have helped to get me on the right track. I worked in my group for several months without having a real topic and during the whole thesis period I saw my professor only twice. Looking back I'd say that the PhD student who supervised me, was quite overstrained with this supervision job - something I can very much understand by hindsight. It's not easy to supervise an undergrad student when you have to keep your PhD thesis going at the same time - with a professor who is not around very often. I wasted a lot of time during my thesis and even though I've showed up every day early and stayed late my progress was slow and I wrote until the very last day possible. I would have loved to have a bit more structure given to me during my thesis.
At my current university the system is different. Still it is a big step from doing solely coursework to suddenly having a thesis project to work on. But the system is set up in a way that it gives as much structure as possible, means a Master thesis is designed as a course. A bunch of thought through topics to choose from, fixed starting date, fixed date to hand in the final thesis, a date to hand in the literature overview, a date to hand in a progress report, to give a test talk, .... . From a students perspective it might seem that doing a thesis is just another course you have to attend. But it's not! And this is the point where the expectations of students and their supervisors usually don't match. If you don't attend a course but you do well in the final exam, you might still get the credit. If you do a thesis, you have to continuously work on it. You can't do all the experiments or simulations in the last few weeks and expect everything to work and expect that your supervisor will be there to help 24 hours a day.
Unfortunately, this insight often comes quite late to some of the students. They don't seem to understand that if you start your "Master thesis course" a couple of weeks late that you have to catch up right away if you want to keep your head above the water. And even if you are used to go for travels in the semester break, it might be a good idea to spend this time in the lab instead. A decent literature overview takes more time to prepare and to write than some homework about the content of the last few classes.
Most supervisors (I guess) have a chat with their students about their expectations and about a thesis being so much more complex than a course. But still a lot of them (including myself) complain about students who do not show up for weeks and weeks, who send in terrible drafts seeking advice 24 hours before the deadline and who need several months to complete the safety paperwork to be even allowed to enter the laboratories. How can they not care about their own degree?
How can you make it clear to the students, that with starting a thesis the bar has been set higher? How can you motivate the students, who are not self.motivated enough? Where does this "I don't care" mentality come from? We had a lot of discussions about this but can't come up with a decent answer. Do we need even more structure? Or less? Have we lowered the bar too much and should we fail more students? Do we need to take them by the hand even more or is there something in our way to communicate that the students don't get that we are serious about this?
Are there any strategies out there to get your students on track? I'd love to hear about them.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

it can be a pain

A warning ahead: this will be a post about breastfeeding. Not related to my university work on a first glance but somehow very much related to it.

When you are pregnant in Australia and you choose to join a birth prep course, you'll notice very fast that Australia is the country of the Breastfeeding Association. They have their 50's anniversary this year, so Australia has been very aware of the advantages of breastfeeding early on. In our prep course we heard a lot about the wonderful, wonderful bub-mum-breastfeeding relationship and how we all will love it. And that it is the very easy, nature intended way to feed your child. And how we all will love it so much! There were a few words about mastitis and how to prevent it, but besides that everything sounded like sunshine, happy birds in the sky and unicorns.
This all might be true for a lot of mums, but as you might guess, it's not true for me. Unfortunately! 
During the last few months I've learned a lot about the dark side of breastfeeding and that there can be much more tricky stuff involved than mastitis.
My bub and I had difficulties in the feeding sector pretty much from day 1. He was a very sleepy fellow and it took him quite long to learn that sleeping and feeding does not work concurrently. During our time in hospital I had at least 10 midwives (all very lovely ladies) examining my boobs and the attachment technique and we tried all different sorts of things to keep him awake when finally attached.
Back home we continued practicing, as I was told, it is just all about practice. I can't even tell anymore when the pain started or if it was always there. Pain during feeding and pain in between. Some days better, some days worse. It took a few weeks until I realized that the pain will not go away with more practice. My GP then diagnosed a thrush and we started treating both my son and myself with different types of medication. Additionally, I tried everything that potentially could reduce the risk of re-infection. Sterilizing dummies on a daily basis, washing our clothes with Canestene, changing breast pads after every feed,... . Nothing seemed to work. 5 weeks and about 350 feeds later I stopped the medication. My GP suggested that I should see a dermatologist and the same suggestion came from the lactation consultant, who at least could assure me that we don't have any attachment problems anymore.
However, getting an appointment with a dermatologist is nearly as hard as getting a date for High Tea with the Queen - or at least it felt like that. 8 weeks waiting time is very long if you are in pain on and on again. I seriously thought about the option to fly home to Europe as it would be much easier there to get an appointment. By now I spent a lot of my day with pumping milk, bottle feeding and sterilizing the equipment again. (My deepest respect for all mothers who feed their babies fully with pumped milk. This is an unbelievable commitment.) And I spend a lot of time with crying. Crying because of the pain and crying because it all seemed so hopeless and the happy birds and unicorns seemed like not meant to be for me.
I'm wondering how women, who have to work, can deal with this. Of course from a practical point of view you can always switch to formula. But it is more what it does to you mentally, when your wonderful breastfeeding relationship is just not at all wonderful, but a struggle and a pain. If you have to go to work you can't have a mental melt-down once in a while. And it is not just a few women who experience difficulties with the "most natural thing". Reading through kazillions of internet forums on this topic and joining the breastfeeding support group around here showed me that I'm not alone with my struggle - which in principle is quite sad. A lot of women struggle for months and months to get this breastfeeding stuff on track. Why do we do this to ourselves? For myself I answer that with: I want to see the unicorns, esp. with all the pain I've been through, I grab every option that shows up on the horizon and promises that after the next treatment it will be ok. I want to know what it was supposed to be like from the beginning. Sounds a bit self-destructive, doesn't it? I had planned to continue working on my paper drafts while at home. Instead I've been spending a lot of time in doctors practices and with the sterilization of the pump. Not quite what I had expected from my maternity leave.
A few days ago I had another mental breakdown and I went to the medical center eve though I knew my GP wasn't there. I wanted to see if I could find a way to get an earlier dermatologist appointment, maybe convince the GP in charge to make an appointment for me. The GP in charge was a guy in his early 60's. Not a women as I had hoped for. He looked at my boobs, said that he doesn't think that my problems are of dermatological nature and prescribed some medication against Vasospasm. Since I'm taking the medication I'm nearly pain free, it's such a bliss! I don't know why neither my GP nor my lactation consultant have suggested this treatment, even though they knew of the Vasospasm problem. I'll have to ask next time I see them. And still I don't believe that this is for good now, that we've found the source of the pain and treat it. Still I'm scared everything will start all over again.
Looking back on the last few months there is one thing that strikes me: I've talked to a lot of women about my problems - midwives, my GP, lactation consultants,... and the way they tried to encourage me to keep going was always the same: "your baby is growing so well, you are doing the right thing, hang in there,...". When I talked to the male GP, he was the first to mention that he can imagine that this is all very difficult for me and that he could understand if I'd decide to stop breastfeeding. And it was a relief to for once be seen as a "normal" person, who is in pain since a long time and not as a mother with the duty to feed her baby.
Today I started thinking about the paper drafts on my desk and which one I'd like to tackle first -  for the first time since months. It's a great feeling!


Thursday, March 27, 2014

I'm a campus alien

Even though on maternity leave I drop by uni once in a while to meet with my students or some colleagues. Sometimes I have to take the LittleOne with me to not be ordered back home after half an hour because he decides that he's suddenly very hungry. It's quite easy to get around campus with a pram because there are elevators and ramps everywhere you need them. But walking over campus with a pram in the middle of semester is the strangest thing!  Because I'm the only one - so there is a lot of staring. I never have realized that there are no people with prams (as I think about it: not many people in wheelchairs either) on our campus. Occasionally you can see someone with young kids and on very hot days there are people with babies enjoying the AC cooled buildings. But they are obviously not there for work or study. In my home country it is very common to see students with their babies on campus and even in lectures. But here: nothing! And it's certainly not because all the babies are in day care - it's very hard to get a place in day care, even in the universities own places. Students just don't seem to have kids. Or maybe they have family around to take care of them? On the other hand: paying more than 10k per year for studying is a very compelling argument to delay the family business until after the degree.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

the newborn-grant writing combination

I've been quiet here for a few weeks now as I've been busy sorting out my new life as a mom-scientist. Since my LittleOne was born my life has been up side down - just as everybody with more experience in parenting tells you beforehand. In the first few weeks there was a lot of getting to know each other and trying to sort out our communications. Or better: me trying to understand what the LittleOne wants to tell me. This is a special time and I'm happy that I can stay at home and focus on it - learn and enjoy.
However, science never stops and so don't the projects that were still on my table when I started maternity leave. It would be good to continue working on all of them to avoid the scary gaps in my CV. But, honestly, most of them don't feel important enough at the moment to give them any attention.
However, there is the one big project that needs to be finished as it will determine if and when the whole family can transfer back to Europe. I've been writing on a big grant application since half a year now and the original plan was to finish it before the family business starts. Obviously, I haven't! And as every month later handed in means another month closer to the expiration of our visa and the finalization of my current funding, there is a bit of pressure to get this monster off my desk.
InBabyattachmode has described it spot on: the secret words are "naptime science". While I was pretty bad in writing when tired beforehand, I feel that now I can get a decent amount of stuff done while LittleOne is asleep (and I should be asleep, too). I quickly realized that more than one task per day is impossible to do. So I give myself one chapter per day to work on, one set of tables or graphs and I sit down to work on it as soon as my son closes his eyes or goes for a walk with his Dad. It's great to see the tiny progress steps and by now my application is in pretty good shape, even though I will need another couple of weeks to finalize it - at least that is what I hope. I haven't been able to work on the proposal every day, which gave me a very hard time in beginning and I was really stressing out about not being able to ever finish this proposal. Mostly these breaks were because of all the 500 medical check-ups babies have to go through, which means hours and hours spend in doctors waiting rooms. Last time I took my laptop with me to continue working while waiting - and then we didn't have to wait for more than 10 minutes. Must be something about the laptop-vibes, I guess.
It really is a game of patience and learning not to freak out if something can not be done as planned. Before LittleOne arrived we thought about how we can organize our little family beforehand, but decided at some point to just wing it. Because who knows what kind of character our son would be, how demanding or how relaxed and on what schedule he would run. Up to now it seems it was a good decision not to stress out too much beforehand, because now we have to adapt to his rhythm anyways - which might change from one day to the other - and we have to fit in our work and our sleep somehow.
I've already decided that when this proposal is off my desk I will spend at least a full week where I will always take a nap when LittleOne takes a nap and leave the science out of it for a few days. Looking forward to it!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"don't leave before you leave"

About a year ago I saw the TED talk of Sheryl Sandberg's "Why we have too few women leaders". I then thought that she makes a lot of good points in her talk about actively taking job opportunities and promoting oneself. I had some long discussion with friends about this talk and the whole "leaning in" concept, about the level of responsibility the government or the society has to improve the chances for women to succeed in the work force and how much women have to contribute by themselves if they want to be successful (which can mean very different things for each individual). 
Shortly after I saw this talk I got pregnant. I started thinking a lot about how to combine my work with my pregnancy and how my career could "survive" maternity leave. The sentence out of the above talk that really stuck in my head back then was "don't leave before you leave" and I found it very helpful at that time. Especially during this awkward period where only my partner and I knew that I was pregnant. I got quite a few request for hosting students and starting collaborations during this time, which not only fell in the "being pregnant" time but as well in the "having a newborn" phase. At that time I did not know if I would have any maternity leave at all, because Australia's laws don't support paid maternity leave for temporary residents. And I could not ask anybody about it yet, because my supervisor did not know that I was pregnant and the risk that he would hear it through the grapevine was too high. Additionally, I thought about what would happen if I'd loose the baby. Then there would be no maternity leave period anyways and every project I would have declined until then would really be a setback. So I decided to not leave before I leave and took on every project and every student and every other chance that came along the way as I would have done without being pregnant. 
In most cases this has served me very well. I had two great exchange students during the last eight months, who have been very productive, I've been promoted and I got my pretty massive review paper accepted - all of which I am very proud.
Now my maternity leave starts and even though I have left the office I have not totally left work. This is certainly one of the disputable advantages one has in academia. I don't have to be in the office to do my work. I can equally well work from home. And so far I really like that! I can't even imagine how it must be for someone in a job that you can't take home with you, where you are truly forced to stop working. I'm able to keep up to date with all my projects, comment on paper drafts, do a bit of writing myself and at the same time enjoy the "being on leave" mood I'm in. This is certainly an advantage of my current position and funding situation and it would be very different if I would be in less secure position.
However, I could not keep up all the projects that I agreed upon six months ago. Some exchange students for this year have their stay scheduled at the end of my leave period and it would be unfair to them if their supervisor was not officially in the office during their stay. So the organizers had to find new supervisors for them and I'm not sure how many minus points I got for my decision on their mental scale. Some paper with collaborator will get delayed significantly  - again I'm not sure how much lower I will ranked by them in the future. (as a side note: I recognized that my American collaborators did not congratulate when I told them about my pregnancy whereas the European ones did - I'm not having enough statistics on that to state this as a cultural difference, but I thought it was noteworthy).
Overall, "Don't leave before you leave" has done a great service to me and I think I'm in a pretty good position now to take some time off and get the family business in order to then hopefully return back to office and lab in few months without a massive productivity setback on my CV. Fingers crossed!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

ridiculous policies

Lately, I have been in contact with a lot of different editorial offices as my "doomed project" (mentioned here and here and here) slowly passes through all the steps of pre-print to-dos. Because it's a Review paper I've planned to use a lot of re-printed figures from already existing publications. The process of getting permission to use these figures is mostly standardized for the pool of journals I'm interested in and just needs a few clicks through the Rightslink website. The difficult task starts afterwards, because the Journal of course needs high resolution figures for the publication. However, with getting permission to re-print the figures I did not get the figures themselves. So the easiest way seemed to just extract them from the online PDFs. As the original authors surely have submitted their figures in high resolution they are certainly embedded in the PDFs as such - that's what I thought. Wrong! Totally wrong! As the high-res figures are only needed for the print version of the paper, the versions embedded in the online PDF are usually of much lower quality than what I'm asked to hand in. So I asked the journal office how to deal with this problem, but I did not get any response. 
The two options I saw were to a) contact the authors of the papers directly and ask for high res figures or b) contact the corresponding journals and ask for high res figures.
Option a) worked well in case I knew the authors and I was able to get a few of the graphs that way. But contacting all the authors I don't know - leave alone figuring out their current contact details, if they happen to still be in academia - seemed to be a very lengthy process. So I opted for version b) and contacted all the other journals. So far I got one response. In a very polite email the responsible editor told me that due the policies of the journal he can't send me a high res version of the figure AND he can't tell me the contact details of the authors! WHAT??? I had to ask the journal for permission to re-print the figure, but now they don'tt provide the figure and they can't even tell me how to contact the people who could? This is like renting a car but without getting the keys and nobody is willing to tell you where the keys are.
Do I now have to hunt down every author and ask if they happen to have a good version of their figures from a publication written 15 years ago and if they would be willing to dig through all their old data and find it for me? Because the journal has "policies" which prevent them from doing three clicks through their electronic archives? This is just ridiculous!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

WTF Nature?

Up to know I saw scientific journals as a medium to present scientific data to the scientific community. And "reading a journal" meant for me that I skim through the content of my usual journals to see if there is anything interesting regarding my own current research. The only journals I've ever read more in detail are the society journals I get in a printed version. And so I have only occasionally stumbled over a piece of "communication" covering lets say topics related to the scientific community rather than the science itself.
My perception of scientific journals has changed dramatically in the last few days starting with the discussions about the Nature correspondence piece on gender and publishing and my eyes kept widening when I read about the personal vendetta of Natures senior editor Henry Gee against Dr. Isis. Following the stream of links I fairly soon ended up at the "Womenspace" article, which just made me puke with all its stereotype-dripping "thigh-slapper" kind of "humor".
It is outrageous and disgusting that the decision makers of journals having so much influence on scientific careers think it is appropriate and  funny to publish "articles" like that. That it would be a valuable contribution to the scientific community. And it is even more outrageous that these people think it is appropriate to reveal the real identities of anonymous bloggers just because they feel like it. What does it matter if I know the real identity of a person who criticizes my work? The whole peer review process is based on not knowing who criticizes my work! This criticism  can be harsh and personal, but it is still expected that the person under critique is able to deal with it in a professional way. People working for scientific journals should be leading examples in this field. Revealing someones real identity without their permission brings no positive contribution to the plate - it is just done to harm someone in the worst possible way. The question came up how safe the anonymity of the reviewers for Nature are, if their senior editor is not able to stay professional and keep his mouth shut - and I think this is a very valid concern. 
I've never seen scientific journals as representatives of some kind of scientific community view of the world beyond stuff that is based on solid data. I've never seen them as a representative of my scientific self - but I don't feel very well represented right now. Quite naive it seems to have such a narrow view on what's going on in the glam world of journals. This will change as soon as I'm done chundering!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

on productivity

"Be productive" is certainly one of the mantras following me around since I started my PhD. Being productive in the sense of using my mental and time resources well, not slacking around and procrastinating too much, creating some measurable and valuable output. Being productive sounds very easy and I've been to tons of time management seminars and alike to identify and avoid all the things stealing my time and draining my brain. Still, it's a constant process of improvement and failure and a lot of "tomorrow I'll get started". My productivity is a very sensitive fairy. Easily influenced by external circumstances, tiredness, hunger, the degree of productivity follows a certain pattern throughout the day with it's daily maximum fluctuating a lot. I've always envied people who seem to be able to be very present and concentrated throughout the whole day. I'm not as you can see in the graph below:
Whoosh's productivity trend throughout a normal working day
I am one of the people who have to get their most important stuff done in the morning, otherwise it'll not get done at all. Too bad, this conflicts with my desire to sleep a lot. Coffee and naps play an essential role in this pattern and if I'll ever have my own research group there will be a quiet space somewhere equipped with bean bags or hammocks for everyone in need of a nap*.
While this is the general trend of my productivity, the daily maximum can vary a lot from day to day. I'm usually less productive if we have a 40°C day with high humidity or if my office mates decide that 26°C is the perfect A/C temperature setting (I'm more the 21°C type). I'm less productive if something or someone bothers me or if I have too many different things on my plate as well as when the mental pressure to get something done is too low.
But the one thing that can overrule most negative influences on my productivity and keep me working even through bad food coma dips is progress. Seeing the progress of my experiments or paper writing or whatever I'm doing is a huge motivation to keep me going. Sometimes even tiny progress steps are enough to motivate me for another hour of work which I would otherwise have spend in zombie mode. 
So I have to take care that I get in a motivation creating mode as soon as I enter the office. Which means I have to avoid all the pitfalls that distract me from my important tasks. I've mentioned writing to-do lists before and how well it served me during my PhD but somehow failed me now that I am a Post-Doc. I still use to-do lists a lot but I needed to take them to the next level. It is not enough anymore to write up my to-do's for the day in the morning of the same day as this list would be too biased by my momentary preferences and the more unpleasant chunks of work would get pushed away further and further.
So at the moment my motivation strategy involves the following subjects and procedures:
  • a general paper list of all of my current projects
  • a paper list of the stuff I want to do during a particular week, which I write new every Friday evening for the following week. It contains very specific sub tasks of my general projects as well as all of my appointments and all the tiny bits and pieces which need to be done.
  • parallel to this process I give all these tasks and appointments a time slot in my Outlook calendar - esp. time slots reserved for checking and answering my emails! In the beginning I thought it was very strange to structure my big writing tasks as well as tiny stuff like expense reimbursement paperwork with fixed time slots, but after giving it a try for a week I found that it gives me a better feel for how long each task takes and it is quite rewarding when I'm done with a task earlier than planned. And Outlook still allows to shuffle time slots around if necessary.
  • as there is always a long list of things on which I can't continue working because I wait for other people's replies, I create follow-up notifications to remind myself to remind others
  • on Friday evening I additionally clear of my desk
So before I leave the office on Friday I have a good overview of what to expect next week and I have a non-messy desk to come back to.
  • I'll certainly do some work on the weekend, but as all of the tasks will be all on my list for the next week I can cross them off directly on Monday morning on my paper list - yeah!
  • Monday morning (and all other mornings) then starts with opening Outlook, but not on the Email page but on the Calendar page. I try to start working on the task I've given myself, which might be an urgent one, but most days I can give myself 2 hours of writing time before I do anything else, before my office colleagues turn up and before the first hunger-dip in my productivity level hits me. 
  • The first time I check my emails is after I'm done with my first time slot of the day, which is then usually followed by a coffee break.
  • Every task that is finished is then crossed of my paper to-do list - for some reason this visual progress is very important for me to realize what I have done during the day
This kind of pre-structuring of my work has helped me a lot to get going right when I sit down in front of my computer instead of wasting a lot of time checking emails and thinking about what would be the best task to start working on. There are very few days when I can perfectly stick to my plan. But even after a disruption it's easier to just refer back to the plan than to start thinking again about what would be the best use of my time right now.

So forcing myself to create tiny progress steps helps a lot to keep up my motivation and with this my productivity. 
Since I'm working more from home now and with the LittleOne arriving soon, all this structure has fallen apart and was replaced by sleeping longer, enjoying nice breakfasts with my partner, taking regular afternoon naps*, spending an increasing amount of time with my GP and midwife on all the standard check-ups they do here and going through the baby stuff we've got from friends and family. In between I'm writing on my big proposal, asking for equipment quotes, checking the proofs of my latest paper,... .  All very much unstructured and driven by my momentary mood and less productive than it could be. A new structure will be needed at some point, but if and to what extend that's possible with a newborn - we'll see. Not sure LittleOne will fit into Outlook time slots! So any tips and tricks how to handle work with a newborn are more than welcome!

* This post for example was supported by a food coma nap from 2-3 pm!

Friday, January 3, 2014

if I had a resolution list for 2014...

It is as Zoe says in her article: I have piles of unread papers printed and electronically stored. All were somehow urgent at the time I downloaded them. For some of them this process took place over a year ago. At the moment I don't read multiple books simultaneously, but it wouldn't be unusual if I did.
In the last few years I've degraded into a skimmer, especially for professional reading. I'm searching for a certain bit of information and just fly over publications to find it. But often I don't see the whole story anymore and I feel too busy to take the time to really think about what I'm reading. Even though this is bread and butter in scientific research.
So I'll adopt this as "optional" resolution for 2014: less but deeper reading. Thanks Zoe - maybe maternity leave is a good time to develop - or re-develop - such a habit.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

globalization issues - baby related

The arrival day of the LittleOne approaches and I find myself more and more often browsing through baby related websites. Compared to most other parents-to-be we know we are not well prepared yet - which means we don't think that the LittleOne will need a lot of stuff in the beginning. When it comes to clothing we did not buy anything new so far, but we got a lot of things from friends and family, even a lot of stuff that I was wearing as a baby. We are quite well equipped in this sector and there are just 2-4 things we'd like to buy new. For buying new clothes we have 2 requirements: they should be organic and they should be made in Australia. Even though Australia has quite a bit of cotton and esp. wool production, it is difficult to find clothing made from Australian raw products. So we would be fine with raw materials coming from China or India if they have the labels sustainable, organic and fair-trade.
Spending half of this afternoon browsing the web for products fitting our ideas, I found tons of websites offering organic baby clothing. But most of them are just retailers selling several different brands, so for each brand I looked up the company and by this about 90% of the content had to be ruled out, because the company was either in the US or it was just Australian-owned, which does not say much about where their products are produced (an most of them don't tell).
A while ago I talked to a colleague about the difficulty of finding organic clothes in general and she recommended to have a look on the Etsy website. You can certainly find a lot of great stuff there, but again many sellers are based in the US and I see the positive sides of buying organic shrinking a lot, when I have to have it shipped from the US. I already have issues with having stuff shipped from the other side of Australia.
The same problem now occurs for my baby-shopping plans. I'd love to support local businesses, esp. in the textile sector as it is such a dumping price market with all the issues that come with that. But living on this huge island does not seem to mean that a lot of products are Australian made. Instead, everything is shipped in from all around the world (sometimes leading to an exaggerated increased price tag) and the local producers are quite hard to find if they exist at all. "Made in Australia" is a tag very positively promoted in the media, but you can find it mostly on veggies or tourist products. The eco textile industry seems to have only a few small sprouts so far - or if there are larger companies in this sector they are hiding very well from my Google skills.
If there are any readers out there who have good suggestions for Australian-made organic clothing, please speak up! I'd be more than happy to invest my salary back in the country I currently live in.