Friday, November 30, 2012

More on the Impostor Syndrome

One of the responses to my "benchmarking charts" was that essentially I am a "Postdoctoral baker agonizing over meeting the metrics instead of working on what really matters". The word "baker" here is referring to a metaphor of building your career through following a rigid "recipe" instead of freely and creatively improvising.

Me - a baker? Agonizing over the metrics? Ha-ha-ha-ha! Ha...

...Well. Yes, I am agonizing over it.

But: I am not quite a baker, simply because my pie is long ruined. I have no papers from my grad school (or rather I have 3 decent papers that nobody cited, and probably nobody ever will, as they were written in Russian, and published in Russian journals. They are translated, and even indexed in Pubmed, but it doesn't help). My university will never send my transcripts when I am applying for jobs, because Russian universities just don't do this kind of things, ever. And my transcripts are in Russian anyway (I have a translation of course, but still). I was not doing science for 5 years after getting my PhD, for that reason or another. My pie is ruined, and the only thing I can do now is to be creative about it, and to try to transform it into some kind of a stew, or a shepherd's pie maybe... Why not? Remove the crust, add some water, some celery, make the roux, pour it on top... Everything is possible! Also come up with a nice name for this dish. Claim it to be a good example of the traditional Zanzibar cuisine. Nobody can verify it! Improvise!

Thus for me the metrics is only important because it gives me the lower threshold, and the ideal target. I try to prepare for something modest and low, while aiming for something high and clearly unachievable. In a hope to fall somewhere in between. That's the strategy.

And on the impostor syndrome: you know, when teenagers fall in love they often don't understand that a rejection does not always mean that they are bad, awkward or even unpopular; it does not always mean that they are "a failure". Quite frequently it just means that their crush is not smart enough to see them, and to appreciate them as they deserve it. If they care about your skin color or social circle, are you really sure you want to be with them, to meet their family, and their friends? Really?

I believe that the same, at least to some extent, applies to job searches. If a company doesn't hire you because you're not boring enough, I'm not sure you'll be happy working for this company. You may give them another chance, and even the third one. But at some point you just have to give up on saving them. And look for a different place. So when applied to science, I try to convince myself that it is not the Academia evaluating me. It is me putting it to a test. If I work really hard, and publish as good as I can, and learn to write, and network, and collaborate - will the academia be fair enough to notice that? If yes - well, that would be nice. If not - there are other options.

And also it definitely has something to do with this "Scientist as a monk meme", or with a problem of "sacrificing your family for your career". There's no point in doing a postdoc if you don't like being a postdoc. There's no point in expecting the future to reward you for your sacrifices. Live it here and now. Try to have fun with this Science thing. If at the next step it will be rewarded - good for them. If not - move to another state / country, shave your head, go under your middle name and start it anew. Also write a memoir!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cumulative Impact-Factor Benchmarking

Speaking of CVs, publications, and impact-factors. Some time ago I got pretty anxious about this whole publications benchmarking story. You know, when some people say that "everyone should publish at least one paper a year", or somebody mentions in passing that "nobody is hired without at least 1 glamours paper", or "second-authors do not count", and so on.

So I decided to do some research myself. I did the following:

  1. Identified some people in my field who did something remotely similar to what I do, and who are or were on the job market within last ~5 years.
  2. For each of them, I downloaded a full list of their publications as undergrads, grad students and postdocs, as that's what they showed (or are showing) on their CVs when looking for a job.*
  3. For every publication I found the impact-factor of the journal it was published in.
  4. I discounted 2nd-author papers and reviews by 75% (so 4 second author papers = 4 reviews = one first author paper). It's obviously a wild guess, and an oversimplification, as the formula would not hold at extremes, but overall it's probably about right.
  5. And finally, I calculated their cumulative impact factor. And then plotted this value vs. years that passed since they got their PhDs.

Here are the results. Black lines represent those who got their TT positions in really cool (glamorous) places. Brown lines indicate successful landing on TT positions in quite decent places (universities, colleges). Blue lines are for those who either got a non-TT positions, or only got some really terrible (unacceptable) offers in some weird places, or did not receive any offers so far.

What do we see here? A bunch of stuff!

  1. To get any kind of a TT position in my subfield you need to reach a threshold of about 60 cumulative IF. That's either 2 publications in Nature, or 15 Plos-ones, or anything in between**.
  2. You need to get it in about 12 years including grad school. A gentle slope means asking for trouble.
  3. Glamorous papers (those sudden jumps in the cIF) do increase your chances, but mostly because they pump up your cIF. Although one can argue that they also improve your image (see that black line among the brown ones, with a distinct CNS jump).

I personally aren't on track yet, but I have some chances to get on the brown tack, if only the papers I'm working on now are published properly (in good journals).

* Practically speaking, I took all papers published before they got their first last-author research paper; plus any non-last-author research papers published in 2 years after that. (This additional complication is necessary, as apparently many people publish their last postdoc paper already after publishing their first PI paper. But I assume they still had it shown in their CVs as "submitted"; thus the adjustment).

** Update: No doubt, the "threshold" will be very different for different fields, and even subfields. My goal was to benchmark myself against those who would have been my peers, had I started my career some 5 years earlier. It would be really great if somebody could make a personalized online benchmarking tool like that, for everybody to use, for my web-programming skills are just not good enough for developing it. If you can do it - please, do it!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On the Impostor Syndrome

Over the last year I read a lot of excellent blog posts about the Impostor Syndrome. This famous feeling that all scientists have every now and then (young folks especially): the feeling of being the most stupid person in the room (or in the department, or in the field). When you go to a scientific seminar, and have no idea what the person is talking about. Or when a person says something that you think is either boring or insane, but suddenly everybody start asking serious, thoughtful scientific questions, and you realize that it is probably you who are not really a scientist. Or when you have a great idea for an experiment, only to find that it was done back in 1976, and your PI references it in a good half of their papers. Or when you meet your peer at a conference, only to realize that they have 3 Nature papers, and 2 job offers, while you do not exist as a human being. The occasions are endless.

And while there are ways to fight the impostor syndrome, and some of them are really cool and important, what I find interesting is how this whole phenomenon looks in the light of another topic, the most popular topic for midnight academic conversations. That of the overporoduction of PhDs, in comparison to the TT positions available.

Based on my original research, of every 10 people entering grad schools in Neuroscience, only one will get a "normal" tenure track faculty position. Well, do you realize what it means?

It means that when I feel a surge of the "impostor syndrome", statistically speaking, I'm just feeling the truth, as it goes down the spine. Statistically speaking, the most plausible hypothesis is that it is not the "syndrome" at all, but just the reality looking in my eyes.

But if it is true, and I am really an impostor, what should I do with it? Can I still survive in academia, at least for a while, without getting depressed, even though statistically speaking I know the truth?

One solution (and I've seen some people following it) is to claim that everybody are impostors, and the question of getting a TT position is that of pure luck. Well, I don't like this idea, because I find it almost as depressive as the "simple solution" of leaving the field immediately. I don't like raffles and lotteries. If it's pure luck, then not only I'm an impostor, but also the world around is more unfair than I can handle. I want to believe that people who get TT positions usually deserve it. Even if I won't make it there, at least I'll know that the world is in good hands.

My solution so is to pretend that being an impostor is an inherent feature of science. It has something to do with the importance of stupidity in scientific research. Scientists are impostors by design: because they venture to describe and explain something that cannot possibly fit into one person's head. And so this whole science affair is a giant Mardi Gras procession of impostors. Quantitatively some of them are more efficient then the others, but qualitatively - all are alike.

Which means that "Fake it till you make it" is not just a saying, or a joke, but actually a viable practical advice, and the only solution to the problem. To boldly pretend something that no man has pretended before. Coz having dirty hands makes you right, and who cares if you are really a "wrong person", as long as you do what a "right person" would have done on your place.

And as for the career perspectives... I'll think of it tomorrow.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Introductory Neuroscience Links

Here I'm posting my collection of links that may be useful for teaching introductory neuroscience at a freshman level. I collected them last year, when preparing for my summer course, and while this year I'll try to update it, the core is likely to remain the same.

One major change in my attitude this year is that I grew somewhat tired of TED talks, as I've simply lost trust in them. TED is just not peer-reviewed enough, which is quite of a problem for science topics. In a popular science talk a presenter has to oversimplify the facts, and also to explain them in some way, even if scientifically speaking these "explanations" are still at a stage of being highly speculative theories. And the audience will never know that. The situation is kind of awkward, because both the simplification, and the "explanation" are required part of the packaging that make the talk popular, and the information - digestible. They have to be present in a good talk, because you have to explain to people why your research is important, and what all this stuff could actually mean. The problem however is that the world of science is so vast and specialized that even scientists themselves often have a hard time distinguishing a mainstream scientific star from a passionate but weird marginal, unless the talk hits on the listener's immediate field of research.

But still I'll provide at least some links to the TED talks, because I want my student to improve their presentation skills, and TED talks I've selected are rather good in this regard.


Free neuroscience textbooks:

My favorite series of lectures by Robert Sapolsky (playlist of 25 hour-long videos):

Some TED videos:

Youtube case presentations:

Transient global amnesia:

Bipolar, both phases in same patient:

Split brain:

Broca's aphasia:
Wernicke's aphasia:

in childhood:


Absence seizures in children:

Parkinsonism + Deep Brain Stimulation (before and after in each video):

Dystonia and Deep brain stimulation:


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Xenopus Thanksgiving Card

PI working hours

One of my colleagues made the following statement today: the PI, they said, should serve as an example to the lab. And thus the PI, at least theoretically, should be the first person to come to the lab in the morning, and the last person to leave it in the evening, thus making students/postdocs stressed, and encouraging them to work better.

It's hard to convey how much I disagree.

First of all, such a PI would not have any normal life outside the lab. And as a person aspiring (maybe delusionally, but that's a separate topic) becoming a PI one day, I don't want to live in the lab. Working a lot, and working after hours is fine. But not too obsessively, you see; not in a robotic fashion. Not just staring into the screen 24/7.

But maybe even more importantly, such a workaholic PI would not be a good example for the younger scientists. When I worked in P&G, the young managers were explicitly told that working long hours is fine, but one should be always aware of the fact that the employees will look at you, and benchmark, and feel bad for leaving the workplace before you. And that they'll just stay there unproductively, for the sake of not making you see them leaving; and they would suffer, and burn out, and start hating their job. Which is not something you want your team members to feel.

So we were told that if we need to regularly work till midnight for some reason or another, it is advisable to find a conference room, and to hide there. Also switching the work instant messenger off. So that no one of your direct reports would know that you are still working.

Because that's the point: while for some people working long hours is a result of their passion, for most of us working long hours is a consequence of bad organization, and bad time-management. The self-perpetuating vicious circle of procrastination. Which is even more painful in science than it is in those more predictable jobs I used to have: it is easier to procrastinate in science, for so many reasons. Because the things you're supposed to do are so much more vague; and because the results are that slow to come; and because you're supposed to think every now and then, which may look superficially similar to day-dreaming...

Anyway. In my opinion, the ideal PI should go home exactly at 5 (or whenever the working hours happen to end). And then secretively work at home if they wish to. And still be productive and successful. Being productive in 8 hours of work per day, weekends excluded, - that's the inspiration, and the model behavior I'd like to see. I really want to believe that it is possible, and I need somebody to demonstrate it to me on a daily basis!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On blogging

Suddenly I realized that writing here (and also writing comments to other people's blogs) is mighty hard for me exactly because I blogged for so long in Russian. And not even because of the language (it's a problem, but an unrelated one). It's because of the difference in cultural biases and assumptions.

In Russian I am habitually controversial and provocative. But I can afford that exactly because I know what the assumptions of my readers are (on average at least), and what they are taking for granted, and what they can tolerate, and what they can't. Every now and then I make a mistake in one direction or another, but overall I know where we are, and where I'd like to lean, so I do it.

But when I try to write in English, suddenly I find that all my "default cultural settings" are wrong! I'm not even sure if what I say is acceptable at all. Because I can never be sure people would understand me. Let me give you one example: I'm really interested in human population genetics, and in human evolution is accelerating over last several thousands years, in ever increasing speeds. And how weird and unpredictable our evolution has become, with all these cities, diseases, personal choices, economical considerations, etc. It's fun, it's interesting, and I think it is a good topic (even if provocative) that can be discussed.

And I know for sure that it is being discussed in some way or another. I know of a great blog on this topic; I know of some books about it. It is possible.

Yet when I feel like saying something, or even worse - try to say something, it turns out quite awkward. Like in these discussions on PhDs having, or opting out of having kids for example:

I really wonder what the effects of "PhD being the best contraception" could be, in terms of genetic drift. But at the same time I am aware of the long and uneasy history these kinds of questions had in the US, with all this eugenics and other horrible stuff. So can I even muse on the impacts? Or is totally socially unacceptable? On those instances when I talked about human evolution with fellow scientists sometimes I got pretty harsh rebuttals that I feel I did not deserve. And my guess is that mostly it happened because of the different baseline assumptions. It's funny and sad at the same time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Should I reference it?

I'm now writing a paper, and in it I'll be using a certain FDR (False Discovery Rate) statistical procedure. It's a clever and not-too-conservative way to adjust for multiple comparisons, and to keep P-values in check. You should absolutely use it in your work if you have not being doing it yet:

But what I don't quite understand here is whether I need to reference the original papers in which the FDR method was described for the first time, or not.

The method is not too old: both papers that justify it were published in 1995 (see 2 first references in the Wikipedia article). At the same time by now this method is kind of known, and used, and based on the Google Scholar statistics the firsts paper of these two has an impressive number of 15582 citations. That's a lot! Does it mean that I can afford not referencing it?

Also would the fact that the Wikipedia article is that nicely written, and comes as the first result in Google Search, affect my decision?

Generally, what are the criteria? When do you stop referencing a methodological paper like this one?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Xenopus laevis tadpole neuroscience art

Here's an animated gif based on my tadpole painting from 2 posts ago. Now I feel pity for not being fully scientifically rigorous about this circuitry thing. It could have become a really funny educational material.

But anyway. Tadpole of Xenopus laevis, with most neural circuitry I care about: projections from the retina to the optic tectum, and then from the tectum to the hindbrain. Reciprocal projections from the hindbrain that pass somatosensory information and that from the lateral-line back to the tectum, for multisensory integration to happen. And then also some downstream projections from the reticulospinal neurons to the spinal cord, and the cycle pattern generators there. And all that - in one animated gif! I'm somewhat proud of it =)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

How to fight procrastination?

How to avoid procrastination? I don't really know. I've just spent around 2 days looking for a software to build a knowledge base (this search failed; the software of my dream doesn't exist, so the search was essentially vain and counterproductive). And then about 1 more full day (in total) blogging about neuroscience of homosexuality in Russian. (Why? Why? It's not even my topic!)

But introspectively I can list the following reasons (or maybe rather ways) I procrastinate:

1) The first reason is the simplest one: I try to avoid work; try to find distraction. Any kind of distraction!
2) I seek news; any kind of novelty; any kind of information that was generated recently, that is "hot from the press". As if to prove myself that the world is still moving on around me.
3) I seek interaction with other people. To prove that I'm not alone.
4) I seek praise from other people. To feel that I'm useful.
5) And sometimes I'm just too tired to keep working.

Normally I would cover all 5 points by procrastination, and mostly of Internet kind: checking the e-mail, blogs, twitter, facebook, Reddit, wikipedia watch pages etc. And it's bad. It should not be like that.

Some people (theorists and mathematicians) can afford working without a computer, with just a paper notebook. Or at least unplug form the Internet. I usually can't afford it, as I have to check Pubmed, or google for Matlab tips and tricks all the time. So I need to find another solution.

After SfN I successfully (at least so far) quit Reddit, which was by far the worst way of wasting time for me. Reddit is a great tool; I quite successfully used it for conducting science-related polls, advertising some of my work, and I learn(ed) a lot form it. But it's just way too demanding. I can not afford it. I also stopped checking Twitter and Facebook, by consciously making the feed unreadable. I unsubscribed from most of Google+ alerts. In total it should help with Reason #1, at least for a while.

Instead, I subscribed to some "new publications" kind of alerts at WebOfScience and Pubmed. Maybe it will satisfy the craving for the "hot" information (Reason #2).

Reasons #3 and #4 aren't a problem when I'm teaching, or when I am to present, or have recently presented my work outside the lab. I still don't know what to do "in between". Maybe developing this blog can be a solution.

And for the #5 - I will probably try alternating tasks. Can not program any more? Read some papers. Can not read? Reground the rig. Can not work with the rig? Read some science-related (but really science-related!) blogs about giving tenure talks (as if it were relevant) and what not. We'll see how it works.