Time to find a PostDoc position

Faced with the need to find a job after my PhD, I turned to my friends and remaining authors of this blog for some guidance, as they have already gone through this same challenge. Together, we came up with a list of items that seem important for us to have into consideration when choosing a lab for postdoc.

Goals

What are your goals for 5 years from now? How can this topic and lab help you achieving it? Furthermore, would your new PI be able to help you getting there?

Topics

How excited do you feel about the current topics of research of the lab and what do you think of their published papers? You need to decide whether you like the topics enough and whether they fit into your own career plans. Moreover, you should check if their topic of research is significantly different from of their previous supervisor, as competition for funding could impair your chances and there is a higher probability of being scooped. Also, you should try to have a line of research independent from your own PhD supervisor as this can also impair your ability to apply for grants of your own.

Techniques

What sort of techniques can you learn in the new lab, and how do they fit into your long-term plan for your own career? Are you bringing some knowledge to this lab, or just another pair of hands?

Funding

It is important to know in advance the funding strategy: does the lab have current grants that can fund you? If so, for how long? Are you expected to apply for grants anytime after the start of your postdoc? What sort of funding are you eligible for? And what about your potential PI?

Team

How big is the team and how experienced is the PI? Do not forget that new(er) PIs will have more pressure on their selves for publishing and showing they are capable; hence, they will pressure you more and the pace of the lab will be faster. Therefore, make sure you clearly assess the sort of support you will need and check as much as you can whether you would be able to get it from the PI or from senior members of the team.

Options

What are your alternatives and plan Bs? You need to decide how long you can be unemployed as this defines how picky you can be.

Forty-four days later, I resumed my in vivo experiments

When at the end of February I took some days off to attend a swing dance workshop in Germany, I did not expect to spend half of my time second guessing whether I should have gone at all. By the end of the first day, news of the rising number of positive Covid 19 (corona virus disease 2019) cases in Italy made me wary of my environment.

Back in town, I initiated some experiments that should have lasted for 25 days. Two weeks in, it became obvious that an unfortunate timing meant that families who have spent the school break in north of Italy and Austria had highly contributed to the spread of the virus in Switzerland. The talks became very monothematic and rumors started circulating around the fact that research was going to be brought to minimal levels.

The reasons, although easy to understand, were not obvious: identifying key areas of research and experiments that for ethical reasons would have to be continued meant that resources could be managed efficiently. The main aims were

1) avoid spreading of the virus among entire teams, so that at least minimal services could continue running; specially in core facilities.

2) ensure that enough personal protective equipment was available in the clinics.

3) avoid compromising research quality due to lack of optimal reagents, as deliveries and transport across the borders were not certain to happen.

 

I cut short a couple of experiments, without consequences for the outcome of my research. I worked crazy hours the entire weekend, and on the 16th of March I started working in home-office. I analyzed the data I had just collected and took some time to do an extensive literature search on one of the main topics of my thesis. It was extremely useful but did not go without its ups and downs.
Finally, last week we were given green light for resuming research, under a lot of space and personal interaction restrictions. So, I went back in and started a particularly important experiment that was initially planned to start on the 16th of March. Unfortunately, it will take another 39 days to get the full data set, but I do not mind: I did my part, I learned a lot and now I get to go back to be a more hands-on biologist again.

A biologist in home-office

Being a biologist, it is quite odd to think that one can actually work from home. Laboratory work is not easy to adapt to times in which danger to public health speaks for staying at home. However, there are plenty of aspects in being a biologist and most of them do not involve fancy machines or pipetting samples around.

Research is about knowing what has been done before you, identifying what needs to be explored further and the best way to do it. So, in lock down and without access to the laboratory, one can always review the literature, either for one’s own benefit, for a paper, or even for one’s (bachelor, master, PhD) thesis. Furthermore, even without deadlines, one can start writing research proposals that would be ready to edit and revise before the next call.

Another important part of research is data analysis and interpretation. For PhD students, this is often seen as a minor task. Being so busy collecting as much data as possible, one forgets to display and cleverly look into it. Sometimes, completely not seeing some important features of the data. Data analysis is extremely important in guiding experiment planning. And experiment planning means making sure all resources are available when needed. This means ordering reagents, preparing calculations, coordinating with collaborators…

There is also a lot of emails to read and reply. Often these emails have hidden time consuming tasks: re-designing experiments, or graphics, or presentations.

Finally, some of us must teach and, when the entire world seems to be being run from home-office, classes need to be made online compatible.

If I think back to a normal week in the lab, perhaps up to 60% of my time is not spent on hands-on experiments. So, home-office is not ideal, but it is far from being a major drop in productivity.

Science Events – more questions than answers

 

Science events are like science communication: we often aim to target a general audience but end up talking exclusively to our colleagues. So, a question arises: how can we reach the people that are not already primed into coming to our events? Moreover, in a city like Zurich, where a large part of the population is foreigners, we always ask ourselves: should the event be held in the local language?

I have been involved in organising several types of science-based events, from career fairs, career chats to science film festivals and pint of science and I still don’t have answers for the questions above.

The language topic is quite complicated: in Switzerland there are four official languages and even more dialects. To target a wider geographical region, dialects shouldn’t be used, which can exclude some immigrants who have only learned this aspect of the language. However, most teams I am aware of are volunteer based and composed mostly by foreigner students, who also do not master the official languages. This creates the added issue of either restricting the staff to people who are fluent in several languages, or creating the basis of the event in a language and running it in another. Of course there’s a third and more popular option: just stick to English. When it comes to science communication, helding events in English automatically excludes the population that has the most time and possibly the most interest in STEM topics: children, young adults and pensioners.

So, if we are already targeting a very small part of the population, how can we make sure that at least our audience is aware of our events? Advertisement is very important, for long enough, repetitively but not boringly. Over the years, we found that word-of-mouth is the most effective way, targeting our friends and colleagues. To get out of this bubble, social media can be of advantage by the use (and abuse) of hashtags. However, this should not create a false sense of message spreading, as social media can as well reach someone on the other side of the world as completely miss the person next door. Therefore, a wide range of advertisement options, from billboards to press releases should be considered. On this note, these days I tend to get most of my information on “science-related” events through instagram stories.

Lá Vamos, Cantando e Rindo

 

Para os poucos (que me perdoem se assim não for) que possam associar o título deste post ao primeiro verso do hino da Mocidade Portuguesa, não se exaltem. Não pretendo apresentar um texto de enaltecimento de tal organização juvenil que, nestes dias implacáveis do politicamente correcto, rapidamente iria ser catalogado como uma ode aos tempos da Outra Senhora.

O efeito perverso (e perigoso) deste tipo de pensamento ficará para outras núpcias. Mantenhamo-nos, no imediato, no tema que norteia este blogue: a ciência. Num rasgo de criatividade que quase me leva a acreditar que estou a escrever um artigo para o jornal Público, não deixo de sentir que o estado da ciência em Portugal se adequa bem a esse verso: “vai indo”. E bem sabemos o que esta expressão – quase que arriscaria a elevá-la a património imaterial português – significa: “vai mal”.

A política científica nacional seguida nos últimos anos é, no mínimo, discutível. Sob a louvável bandeira de combate à precariedade, várias medidas mais ou menos profundas foram aprovadas no sentido de promover o contrato de trabalho como mecanismo preferencial de vínculo em detrimento das bolsas de investigação. Necessário? Sem dúvida. Justo? Parece-me óbvio. Anunciado com pompa e circunstância? Confere. Eficaz? Tenho (sérias) reservas.

Tal como afirmei, num plano teórico, as medidas são positivas. Melhor dizendo, as intenções das medidas são positivas. Quais são então as razões para o descontentamento generalizado da comunidade? É uma pergunta legítima para a qual julgo não existir uma resposta universal que se adeque transversalmente a milhares de investigadores.

Ainda assim, a postura dos responsáveis máximos – com o Senhor Ministro à cabeça – certamente que não contribui para acalmar as hostes. De igual forma, o aparente experimentalismo das medidas parece-me não ajudar muito. Assumindo uma postura marcadamente empírica (John Locke e David Hume ficariam orgulhosos) de “fazemos e logo vemos no que dá”, as instâncias governativas conseguiram lançar ainda mais incertezas a um mundo já ele bastante nebuloso o que, reconheça-se, acaba por ser um feito notável.

Tomemos por exemplo o fim das bolsas de pós-doutoramento. Teria sido, porventura, sensato não trocar o mau (mas ainda assim existente) sistema anual de financiamento pelo vazio? É bom lembrar que entre o último concurso de bolsas (Julho 2016) e o primeiro concurso CEEC (Fevereiro 2018) decorreram cerca de 18 meses. Que oportunidades/perspectivas existiram nesse período? Qual a lógica de acabar com um sistema sem ter o seu substituto minimamente preparado? Note-se que seria utópico esperar um sistema afinado, mas no mínimo não afunilar (ainda mais) as parcas contratações existentes.

Novo exemplo: a rábula do DL57. Com as devidas distâncias, o DL57 conheceu quase tantas voltas e reviravoltas como o caso de Tancos. Claro que entre a sua aprovação e o seu início efectivo passaram mais uns largos e longos meses. Apreciei o pormenor da lei contemplar ou excluir pessoas consoante a data de término da sua bolsa: excelente promoção do mérito científico e pessoal. Proponho, aliás, que se adopte um sistema equivalente nas listas de espera na saúde: quem está inscrito há x tempo, salta fora. Os doentes excluídos podem tratar logo de falecer sem perturbar os serviços públicos e os doentes contemplados (sortudos!) talvez possam aspirar a um tratamento eficaz em tempo útil. Todos saem a ganhar!

Felizmente que quem ficou de fora, dispõe de ferramentas várias de contratação. A começar pelo CEEC em que a solução (de génio) perante os 4500 candidatos para os 500 lugares do primeiro concurso foi diminuir as vagas para 300 lugares nos seguintes. Seguindo pela contratação pelas Unidades de Investigação (curioso que o financiamento concedido às Unidades sofreu cortes tais que impossibilitam qualquer estratégia eficaz de contratação). Acabando nos projectos de investigação que, perante a retirada da obrigatoriedade de contratação, encontram mil e uma resistências das Unidades (e, perante a escassez dos seus recursos, até compreendo a posição) que dizem a alto e bom som para quem queira ouvir (aparentemente toda a gente que não a Fundação e o Ministério): “não façam contratos”. No meio deste imbróglio, surgem então as inenarráveis afirmações do Senhor Ministro com o seu propalado “pleno emprego científico” (lol como diziam os jovens do meu tempo).

Qual então a solução para este (potencial) apocalíptico cenário? Como bom português, não sei. No entanto, talvez consiga avançar com o problema de fundo: não há dinheiro. E, já diz o povo na sua sabedoria, “quem não tem dinheiro, não tem vícios”. Ocorreu-me também “não há dinheiro, não há palhaços”, mas esta alternativa não seria tão precisa: há muitos palhaços no cenário actual. Até posso aceitar que há sectores nevrálgicos que merecem maior investimento público – só não acho justo é, nesse caso, manter o paradigma “precisamos de mais doutorados” em vez de adoptar algo como “precisávamos de mais doutorados, mas não temos dinheiro para isso”.

Uma definição transparente e inequívoca desta premissa será, talvez, o primeiro passo para agir em conformidade e elaborar um plano de acção viável que não exclua oportunidades empresariais, mas que não caia na demagogia barata que todos os tópicos de investigação têm uma aplicação imediata. O que é, para mim, inconcebível é bradar a alto e bom som a qualidade da investigação portuguesa e não haver um apoio condizente com a mesma. Haja a hombridade de reconhecer: “não conseguimos fazer melhor com o orçamento disponível”.

E o que fazer até este pequeno/grande passo ser dado? Emigrar e/ou abandonar a investigação seriam hipóteses atraentes, mas sendo ingénuo e acreditando nas capacidades do meu país, irei estrategicamente deixá-las à parte. O que nos sobra? Uma visão cruel e cínica da vida diria “sobreviver”. Uma visão mais esperançosa e romântica talvez possa remeter novamente para o hino da Mocidade nomeadamente o verso “Lá vamos, que o sonho é lindo!”. Se o sonho se vai ou não realizar é a grande questão que asfixia toda uma comunidade.