Overly honest… job applications


The Grindstone by Kathryn Decker (via flickr)

I am that stage in my life, where many friends/colleagues with whom I previously studied or worked together are quitting academic science. As someone who’s never applied for a real job I had/have no idea what that really means, and have been quite horrified by some of their stories. Apparently, job hunting is a full-time job in it’s own right where you need to keep track of your tens-to-hundreds of applications in complex excel sheets and 90% of the applications end up in some black hole, never to be heard of again. One former lab mate mentioned how, at some point, he had vented his frustration by writing an absurd mock application, which – upon request – he has dug out and allowed me to reproduce here. I hope it brings a little smile to everyone’s face – and some encouragement to those people who are still out there searching… Continue reading


It’s nice to be right sometimes…

I philosophize a lot about the role of journals and scientific publishing as part of the academic ecosystem – and especially how this ecosystem will change. Only last week my boss, Arjun, and I published a blog post (Results from the Guess the Impact Factor Challenge) analyzing how people perceive the of titles of scientific articles. But even back in 2015 I played around with predicting how the role of journals might shift. One of the predictions I made was that

…in The MacGyver age of content creation […], from pre-print servers (like BioRxiv) through science blogging and open lab notebooks, […] “legacy” journals as they exist today will become obsolete. […] Their role will change. So, taking a leaf from the media book, I predict that a key function of journals in the future will be to connect readers to relevant content published across the web.

Now it’s 2017 and Springer Nature just announced Recommended, “a new service which connects the research community with the most relevant content”.

It is definitely nice to be right sometimes 🙂

Looking forward, this also means that we should now be thinking about life after preprints: While in theory preprints could have a truly democratizing effect (anyone anywhere would be able to access papers without a paywall), in practice I’m not sure that potential will be realized. If people can’t trawl online content efficiently, they will rely on recommendation services, which – if in the wrong hands – may well introduce biases and favoritism. Thus, an effort to develop a fair (ideally mainly content/quality-driven) recommendation service hand-in-hand with the open access/preprint movement will be vital to create a healthy, balanced publishing landscape…


How free is Freedom of Speech in academia?

I’ve been hearing a lot about freedom of speech for scientists these last few weeks, inspired mainly by the efforts of the new US government to silence scientists and state employees, particularly on the topic of climate change. It’s been interesting: I’ve learned about what rights government employees have when it comes to freedom of speech, read some interesting comparisons with Canadian science (where government researchers were in a similar bind under the Harper administration, some good reads here and here), absolutely loved the “rogue” National Park Service twitter accounts and of course, I’m looking forward to the March For Science in April. I truly believe that Freedom of Speech should be a thing. Government agencies (or academic institutions in general) should not have the right to gag scientists based on idealogical or political interests.


Speech by PineLife via flickr.

However, there’s this thing that’s been kind of bugging me: I remember the Tim Hunt scandal two years ago (in case you don’t remember, you can read more here and a follow-up from 6 months later) and the Jim Watson one before that, when everyone was up in arms that renown, Nobel-prize-winning, member-of-a-gazillion-scientific organisations-and-boards scientists should NOT be allowed to say certain things. Which makes me wonder: what exactly are the rules of free speech for scientists? Continue reading

Why finding a postdoc position is like (online) dating


Finding the perfect date, science edition… Picture by Jonathan McPherskesen via flickr.

This year, I’ve received a surprisingly high number of e-mails from friends and former colleagues asking me for advice on what to do post-PhD. Now, first of all, I’ve been really honoured/humbled by this, although I wonder every time if I’m even the right person to dispense advice. After all, I don’t have a hell of a lot of experience and I certainly did get it wrong once*.  However, having now had a year of correspondence with various people, I’ve realized that I do have something to say on the topic. I have also come to realize that a lot of the advice that I dish out to people resembles things that I have heard about online dating**, and so I’ve decided to write out some of it***: Continue reading

Death and the Penguin, science edition?

a.k.a. Musings about predictability in science

death-and-the-penguin-300dpiOne of my favourite books is Death and the Penguin, by Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov. The protagonists of the book are Viktor, a young writer who’s struggling to survive in post-Soviet Ukraine, and Misha, a king penguin, whom Viktor adopted from the local zoo after it went bankrupt and who now lives in Victor’s bath tub. To pay for bills (and frozen fish for Misha) Viktor accepts a job writing obituaries for the local newspaper. However, there’s a twist: the people he writes about aren’t dead – yet. Once he writes about their sad passing, they mysteriously die. For example, a senior politician he writes about, falls from a sixth-floor window: “was cleaning it for some reason, although apparently it wasn’t his. And at night.”, the editor of the newspaper comments.

Recently, I was reminded of this obscure plot in a somewhat surprising setting: as an avid listener to pretty much all Nature podcasts, I also follow Backchat, a monthly podcast produced by the Nature team, where they discuss some behind-the-scenes of various stories. One of the things I have found most fascinating is how (or rather when) some of the stories are written. Yes, you guessed it: they’re often written before they happen! Continue reading

InstaScience: a visual exploration of #ThisScientificLife

You may have noticed that the frequency of posts on this has gradually declined over the last year or so. In part, this is because I’m not sure that the various forms of social media I follow (twitter and blogs mainly) have upheld the promise of democratization, “getting your voice heard” and hearing other people’s voices the way I had hoped they would. Continue reading

Sometimes it’s the little things

lego-chickenpoxToday, the Office of the Dean at our Department sent an e-mail to the staff mailing list, informing them that a case of chickenpox had been diagnosed in a student. The e-mail also informed people they were decontaminating the areas where the student had classes, but wanted to make people aware of the possibility of exposure and asked them to look out for symptoms of chickenpox, just in case.

So, first of, I was fascinated to “encounter” a case of chickenpox. Of course, I know that the vaccine isn’t 100% effective, but the number of cases are so small in the countries where I’ve worked I didn’t really expect to ever encounter one.

However, what also struck me was that the e-mail was sent to the staff mailing list. Now, in case you’re not familiar with the US academic system, postdocs do not count as staff. And this isn’t just a wording issue. It means that postdocs are not eligible for a bunch of things that staff are entitled to (eg here at UPenn, staff are allowed to take 2 classes per semester, postdocs are not). We are also not on the staff mailing list. Which may seem like a minuscule detail. But considering that e-mails concerning important issues (which apply to everyone in the department, not just staff – such as a case of chickenpox) are sent are sent out via this mailing list, it shows just how these little things could potentially have wide-ranging consequences. Surely, including postdocs on such e-mails is not too much to ask for?

(Oh, and just a footnote: I received the e-mail because our tech forwarded it. Other e-mails we receive via our PI. I’m not sure other postdocs in the department are so lucky to have co-workers who look out for them.)

The listening game

The last few weeks have been busy: I was visiting old friends in Germany and San Francisco and other old friends came to visit me in my new home, Philadelphia. Since most of my friends are also scientists, naturally much of our conversation evolved around academia, gossip about old co-workers and experiences with new labs. Interestingly, although our careers have diverged extensively, there was one recurring theme that linked many problematic experiences: PIs who don’t listen.

Pis who don’t listen… Cartoon [De Niro as Newton] by RedPen BlackPen.

Continue reading

Paying for equal opportunity

I came across this open letter to the CEO of Yelp from an employee, asking for better wages – and the response: immediately firing her. It reminded me of a post that’s been lingering in my drafts folder for a while about investments in academia. Obviously Yelp has very little resemblance with academia, but in both worlds, believe it or not – money talks! It especially says a lot about how institutions value their more junior/more lowly ranked employees.

More specifically, one of the things that’s been bugging me for a while is the dichotomy between what academic institutions say (nominally supporting diversity and equal opportunity) and what they do. Because, more often than not, it’s just lip service, and they don’t really give a dime. Literally. Obviously, there are also a lot of mindset problems between the here and now and generating true equal opportunity workplaces (think no further than the recent sexual harassment cases in science or or the complex issues LGBT academics face), but sometimes, sometimes a little financial investment could be enough and go a looong way.

Two issues that seem particularly unfair – and easy to fix – are the absence of affordable daycare for young professionals and that most internships in academia are unpaid*. Continue reading

Scientists abroad: citizens of the world or second-class citizens?

In Notes from a Small Island the American author Bill Bryson describes his first ever visit to England. Eager to discover the country, but thoroughly unaware of local habits, he ends up spending the night on a bench in cold, foggy Dover, with a pair of underpants on his head as an improvised headwarmer. Despite this bumpy start, this night was the first spark of a love affair with the country and Bryson has since spent the majority of his adult life living in Britain.

I often think of this story, when I think about scientists on the move, starting a new position in a new country.


Moving country is a frequent feature of scientific life. This infographic from a 2012 Nature News Feature (Richard van Noorden: Global mobility: Science on the move) shows the most prominent trends in migration.

In many ways, these scientists resemble Bryson: they move, eager to discover not only exciting new science, but also a new place, it’s traditions and people. Also, even for seasoned “movers” there are always local procedures and issues that catch them unaware and unprepared. Unfortunately, unlike for Bryson, this time abroad often does not turn into a love affair with the new place – instead it remains a constant uphill struggle, battling with administration and customs that put scientists from abroad at a financial disadvantage or cause emotional stress. Even more annoyingly, often these problems could be resolved with minimal effort on behalf of the academic host institutions, making it all the more frustrating to be stuck in a one-(wo)man war against the system. To give an simple example: When I moved to France a few years ago, my university required a mandatory X-ray of the lungs within the first month, which could only be obtained from a short list of select doctors. I –like many other foreign postdocs – arrived with only rudimentary knowledge of French, only to discover that none of the shortlisted doctors spoke English! It was extremely discomforting having to strip to the waist in front of a rather severe nurse who treated me like an idiot, handled me less than gently and didn’t speak a word of English. Surely, it must have been possible to put at least one doctor on the list, who spoke English?!?

Intriguingly, having spoken to scientists elsewhere, I have found that many of us struggle with the same problems when we move abroad. So I have collected some of these below, together with some suggestions on how to fix them. Continue reading