Author Archives: Lauren Parker

About Lauren Parker

My name is Lauren, and I am a Scottish virologist living and working in London. I am in the final stretch of my first postdoc position carrying out Influenza research, and when not in the lab, I am a big reader of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi, cyclist of bicycles, lover of pet rats, and enthusiastic runner. And now also an attempted blogger. I will be using this blog as a means to talk about my experiences during the transfer from PhD student to postdoc (it really is all in the title) and everything that goes along with that (the rest). I consider myself responsible for everything I write on this blog - any views and opinions expressed are my own.

Life Outside the Lab

Saying, or in this case writing, the words ‘life outside the lab’ will no doubt provoke a mixture of longing sighs, bitter laughter, and general scepticism from some people. But what do I actually mean? Initial thoughts may be about one’s social life or lack of, which is of course very important, and definitely what I instantly thought of when I was a PhD student day-dreaming about life outside the lab. These days however it has another meaning. That doesn’t mean to say that I have given up entirely on having a social life! My own is in fact quite good despite being in the final 10-month stretch of my postdoc and having a battered bank balance post-wedding (which was totally worth it though).

Now I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had days were they have felt guilty, or that they “weren’t really working”, because no physical laboratory work was done. For me these are the days when I need to catch up on my lab book, analyse data and make figures, attend meetings, send e-mails, write reports………. You get the picture. But these are all things that need to be done. Then there are the things that I choose to do apart from the good old experiments and the more routine lab work, and these are the things that I class as ‘life outside the lab’.

I am extremely lucky to work at an institute that seems to provide an endless supply of fantastic opportunities, and I am now into the way of thinking that if something comes along that I like the sound of, I go for it. I’m not so sure that I always thought the same when I was doing my PhD. I can definitely think of a few instances in which I declined the opportunity to do something because I was too busy in the lab or at least felt I was too busy and shouldn’t take the time away. These were things such as training courses or workshops, seminars or lecture series outside of the institute, or poster sessions, and if I could do it all over again this is something I would do differently. I should clarify that it was I alone, and not my supervisor, putting the pressure on to be chained to the cell culture hood.

Recently I became aware of a student who was in the opposite situation. They were repeatedly being told by their supervisor not to sign up, volunteer for, or ask to take part in anything (and in one case were ordered to drop out of an already booked workshop), because they were expected to be in the lab all day, every day. Now of course I am in no place to comment on or second-guess the decisions of said supervisor and I’m sure they had their reasons. However in the age that we live in where employers are always looking for those little extras on a CV that make a candidate stand out, and as there are an ever-increasing number of career options available that don’t involve traditional wet lab work, it seemed a tad short-sighted. Plus, if you spend all day, every day in the lab, your experiments may stop working and mistakes may be made because you will have gone mad. I speak from a place of experience on this one!

Going back to my previous comment about feeling guilty for doing things that are not physical lab work, which I suppose includes work-related events not in the lab – we definitely need to get over it. Getting the balance right is essential of course, as is doing whatever helps maintain a happy-work-face.

My happy-work-face was on in a big way last week entering my first scientific writing competition (wish me luck) and attending a fantastic training course run by Screenhouse Productions Ltd. The course was a one-day communications master class featuring Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE, and I was given permission to write a summary and review for my blog. I am hoping to have it posted by the end of the year, which I am aware sounds like a very long time, but it’s actually only a few weeks away.

Christmas holidays yeah!

Spot the Difference

Several weeks later than advertised I am finally getting some time to write a blog post. Hurrah! The last time I posted was in May which seems a very long time ago. Since then I have been extremely busy attending weddings, hen parties, significant birthday celebrations, flat-hunting, doing things for my own upcoming wedding, going to Berlin for the World Cup final, and of course lab work has taken over all other available time slots. I know – excuses, excuses.

I am now well and truly over the half-way mark of my current postdoc contract which may explain my recent panic about how much time I have left, how much data I have, results I have (or wish I had) etc. And then there is the “where has the time gone and why is it running away from me before my very eyes?!” train of thought. These are familiar feelings though, commonly found during my time as a PhD student and here they are again! I was hoping to have seen the last of them.

I’m sure these types of thoughts are common amongst those of us with fixed-term and non-permanent jobs no matter what sector or field, but it did get me thinking about what the differences are between being a PhD student and a new postdoc. Sometimes it feels like not a great deal but of course that’s not the case. Let me elaborate, beginning with the completely obvious.

First and foremost, after passing the viva you can call yourself ‘Doctor’, which is a fantastic feeling. I was proud. I stood up straighter. I generally felt pretty good about myself. And of course you no longer have the word ‘student’ in your job title so non-scientist friends and family will finally stop thinking that you sleep in until noon, get drunk on week nights and work 3 hour days. Also, if you remain at the same institute/university there is a chance that colleagues may start to treat you differently when you are no longer ‘just’ a PhD student. Little things such as looking to you for input and asking for advice on projects/experiments/general lab running where maybe they never would have before. I’ve not experienced this directly as I moved institutes for my postdoc but I have seen it happen to others both in my previous and current places of work.

Another glaringly obvious and I think my favourite difference between PhD and postdoc is the fact that I do not have to write what is essentially a huge book on a subject that around ten people in the UK have any interest in. And let’s not forget that there is no scheduled four hour grilling at the end of a postdoc either. Well not that I know of……

But then there are other expectations to contend with. One of these is the push for publications. This paper-producing pressure may come directly from your supervisor, or it may be more personal, and be something that you put upon yourself (I’m guilty of the latter). And now that we no longer have to write a thesis, we need to write papers. As we all know, a publication record is very important and in some instances may be the deciding factor in whether or not we get those jobs or even get interviews in the first place. Of course I know that not to be the case in all labs however it is definitely something to keep in mind depending upon what kind of career path you want to follow. I personally am finding it very helpful to think of a scientific paper as being like a very short, succinct thesis – abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion. It’s a lovely way to tie up a project and if it helps me look good on paper then what a super added bonus. Very over-simplified, I know, but it makes it feel a little less scary.

More responsibility in the lab is definitely something that comes with the move from PhD student to postdoc and I have to say, it feels pretty good. Organising and leading lab meetings, training visiting workers, being involved with the supervision of students and having substantial creative control over my project are just a few of the things I really enjoy in my current job. When I first started taking on these additional role aspects, of course I found it a little daunting, but you quickly realise that you are now technically a more senior member of the group who has passed the humiliating initiation phase (also called doing a PhD) and people will now look for you to give more, and some will even look up to you. When I actually realised this it gave me the confidence boost I needed to be able to act like a more responsible, senior member of the lab.

But there are some things that never change. Well at least they haven’t yet. For example, I went from working on mumps virus to influenza, which in virology is essentially a new ball game. So what was my approach? I fervently went on a paper-highlighting, book chapter-reading, note-taking rampage, 24/7, for about a month. Does that sound at all familiar? Oh wait. That’s what I did when I started my PhD. Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing, it’s merely an observation.

Another example comes from when I gave my first virology seminar at my institute in January. While I was making my PowerPoint slides and compiling all my data, I again went into an intense reading and note-making craze for the few weeks before the seminar. I realised afterwards that I was fully expecting the audience to ask me horrendously difficult questions and in general grill me about flu research from the 1930s to present day. Sounding familiar again? Yes that is how I felt about my final PhD research seminar and my viva, so I attacked it in a very similar way. So the end result was that I was hugely over-prepared but also a bit sleep-deprived and harassed. I’ll be giving a talk at a flu meeting in September so here’s hoping I’ve sorted out a happy medium by then!

So to summarise:

– Doctor title
– No thesis or viva
– Write more papers
– Take on more responsibilty
– Approach new subject areas and practical tasks with the same fervour and enthusiasm as per PhD
– Have MUCH more self-confidence and feel less terrified

We’ve successfully survived doing a PhD so can officially handle whatever comes next.

Embarrassing tales from PhD to Postdoc

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly lucky or unlucky person. If truth be told, I believe that there is no such thing and that we make our own “luck”, by seeking out and making the most of the opportunities presented to us and the situations we find ourselves in. However, in the past few years I have found myself in situations that my close friends described as “only being able to happen to Lauren”, or “classic Lauren”. And unfortunately many of them have either been during an interview process or on my first day as the new postdoc. Here are a few choice examples.

On the day of the interview for my PhD student position, I had to travel from Edinburgh to London by train, so the interview panel put me last in the running order to allow me sufficient time to get there. So of course as was expected, the panel were running an hour late. This further elevated my stress levels as I had to get the last train to Edinburgh in order to be back at work the next morning. Now the interview itself went fairly well but it was what happened afterwards that was so delightful. A nice lady at reception called a taxi to take me to the station and asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing with someone, to which I said “of course”. Little did I know the person I was to share with was one of my soon-to-be PhD supervisors. This meant relaxing was not on the cards. Staying in professional interview mode had to be done. All fine. But when we arrived at the station all the trains were delayed, and because of this, when we eventually got on a train (of course it was the same one) we were crammed up against each other amidst a carriage full of rowdy Arsenal supporters. Then the heel snapped on one of my shoes and I lurched even closer to the face of my future supervisor whilst we were making small talk. Then my tights ripped on my laptop case. By this time I was nice and red-faced and massively worried about missing my train at Kings Cross, so I explained my need to rush off and then had to take my shoes off, jump off the train and run along the platform screeching “it was lovely to meet you!” as I went. But as if that wasn’t enough, they then witnessed me trip over my own jacket and crash to my knees just as I saw the last train to Edinburgh close its doors and depart. Needless to say I was convinced I’d be receiving an “unsuccessful” e-mail but alas – I was wrong! Got the PhD studentship and my lovely Dad came to pick me up in Newcastle and drove me all the way home to Edinburgh.

So I made it through to almost the end of my PhD with only minor embarrassments under my belt until I went to visit a lab in Dusseldorf where I had been offered a postdoc position. After lunch, the group P.I. was to take me over to the University hospital to meet the head of division, and he thought it would be nice if we CYCLED. Honestly, I love cycling and mountain biking, however I generally prefer to be dressed appropriately and I like to know that my bike is fully operational. P.I. gave me a bike belonging to someone who was off sick and off we went. It was all going fine until I tried to brake going down a steep hill. The brakes didn’t work. Fabulous. So I crashed into a hospital road sign at full speed, flipped over the handle bars and landed on some muddy grass. Oh also, I screamed a little bit. Of course I jumped up brightly and dusted myself off, trying to act casual about it all, but that didn’t cover the blood running down my shin or wrists. I maintained that I was of course completely fine though and we went in to visit the head of division. The meeting went fine and afterwards I popped to the ladies to calm myself. When I looked in the mirror, I realised that I had just been chatting to my two potential future bosses with mud smeared up my neck and cheek, mascara smeared down the other cheek, and grass in my hair. I am actually laughing out loud right now as I write this. And strangely, they still wanted to take me on as a postdoc.

And now we come to the embarrassing anecdote about my first day in my current job. It started with me calling my new supervisor “Dad” by mistake when we went for a coffee after I first arrived in the morning. I thought it was only school children who did that sort of thing, like when they call the teacher “Mum” by accident in front of the class? Apparently not. He gave me a bit of an odd look but no major harm done (I think). Then we went up to my new lab and I had to do all of the standard signing of HR and occupational health forms. I sat down and started to go through them all, signing my life away with my trusty pen which unbeknownst to me at the time, had burst and was leaking all over my hand. So I returned all my forms to the relevant people (which involved me walking around the institute quite a bit) and then went into the office to chat with the boss about ideas for my new project. He had to nip out for a bit to deal with something half-way through, so the PhD student came to rescue me and asked if I wanted to go for a cup of tea with everyone. As I turned round to leave the office, he burst out laughing and said “ooooooh nice moustache, and I really like your eyebrow too!”. Yes I had of course smeared ink all over my top lip, under my nose and across one eyebrow. Damn my constant face-touching. So I had been walking around the institute, my new department and been chatting to my supervisor with an inked-up face. Great. PhD student was very nice though and provided me with wet paper towels and a mirror to sort myself out. He and I are now very good friends, but he does like to bring up the ink moustache and eyebrow now and then.

I have laughed out loud at myself alot while writing this – maybe you have too? That was the plan anyway. I assure you though, at the time of these incidents I was certainly not laughing! I think that sometimes we as scientists can take ourselves quite seriously and it can be quite therapeutic to stop, breathe, laugh, and remember – it’s all going to be fine.

I’m hoping that even one person reads this and thinks “thank goodness it’s not just me these ridiculous things happen to!”. Maybe they will even fancy sharing their own embarrassing anecdote?

First postdoc job-hunting season

Before I kick off blog post number two, I would really like to say thank you to all of you have welcomed me with open arms to the blogosphere and given such positive feedback. It is greatly appreciated!

What I am going to write about here is essentially a brief account of what I actually did to find the postdoc position I currently hold. Which, by the way, I really like so you now know the story has a happy ending!

I properly threw myself into looking for potential jobs around 6 months before my target PhD thesis submission date. Due to the fact that my PhD was funded by and carried out at a research institute different to the university at which I was registered (partner research institute arrangement), there was a defined end date for everything to be finished and absolutely no possibility of extension, so needless to say I felt quite a bit of pressure to have something in place for post-thesis submission. All institutes and universities of course have different policies so I also knew quite a few people who had the option of an additional fully-funded year.

I looked in all the usual places such as New Scientist jobs, Nature jobs and http://www.jobs.ac.uk, but another online resource I found particularly useful was a group on LinkedIn called “Virology Professionals”. This group has a discussion forum and a dedicated jobs section which was where I found two positions that I went on to apply for, and interestingly they were not advertised on any of the ‘usual’ places. You need to set up an account on LinkedIn to be able to access this group (for those of you not aware of it, think of it as a professional Facebook……) and I do personally think it’s worth having one for job-searching and networking purposes. Another approach I took was to e-mail my CV to our lab’s collaborators (with my supervisors go-ahead of course) for circulation around their virology/vaccines division in the hope that somebody would have a position in the pipeline that I may have been suitable for.

So after all of the many hours spent (yes it’s terribly time-consuming) searching for posts I actually wanted to apply for, the writing of cover letters, sending of informal enquiry e-mails and CV proof-reading, I ended up with five interviews over a 6 month period for postdoc positions in Germany, the USA and the UK. A few were over Skype which was a bit of an odd feeling with time delays and random people unexpectedly popping up into the screen, but it appears to be very common these days. I was very happy, and very lucky to be offered four out of the five jobs I interviewed for, but of course I had to do some serious thinking that eventually lead to me accepting the role I am currently in.

The Influenza lab I work in is located in London, the same city I did my PhD in. I was offered posts in the States and Germany and I’m sure many people will be thinking “argh, why didn’t you move abroad to postdoc?!” And that’s a good question. As young researchers, we are often being told that it is better for our career to do a postdoc abroad and I have heard many people say that without doing this, we won’t get as far ahead as our counterparts who have. I am aware this can be a bit of a hot topic and is something many of us worry about, but I am going to write a separate post about this subject as it’s something I feel quite strongly about – so watch this space…..

So essentially it came down to choosing the best role for me at the time which is exactly what I did. And when it comes down to it, isn’t that what we all just have to do? Everyone and their situation is different, and we could have the most glamorous postdoc position, in the lab of a P.I. with a thousand publications, in some far flung city, but if we aren’t happy then is it even worth it?

What I also realised during my job-hunting is that virology is a very small world! But that can definitely be used as an advantage, and I found that using networking opportunities whenever possible was extremely helpful. Personally, I made sure that during job-seeking season I presented my work at meetings and other institutes whenever the chance presented itself, and I also made sure that my PhD supervisors introduced me to as many new people as possible. You never know when just knowing someone can come in handy. Gosh that was a weird sentence to write.

Thank you for reading! The next post will very likely involve me having an ink moustache, so hopefully that will make you want to come back for more……

And to finish off, here is the link to a short careers video I was lucky enough to have the chance to make for the BBC – Bang Goes the Theory.

Bang Goes the Theory, Series 8, ‘Flu – How do you get that PhD?

http://emp.bbc.co.uk/emp/embed/smpEmbed.html?playlist=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.co.uk%2Fiplayer%2Fplaylist%2Fp01x0hfm&title=Bang%20Goes%20the%20Theory%3A%20Series%208%3A%20Flu%3A%20How%20do%20you%20get%20that%20PhD%3F&product=iplayer

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The first post. Why am I doing this?

These are my first words on the blogosphere. Pretty terrifying.

In fact, this is my first attempt at anything like this so what I’ll say is, bear with me – I’m sure it will get better as I go along……

In my profile I mentioned briefly the purpose of this blog was to give some accounts of and to discuss my experiences of the move from PhD student to postdoc, and of course anything else related that comes up! You may have also noticed that I am already half way through my first postdoc position, so it might seem odd that I am only now writing about the transition, but I’d like to explain a bit more in this first post.

I finished my PhD in October 2012, and within the first two weeks of November 2012, started my postdoc role AND had my viva. Exhilarating yet traumatising times! Now it may have been the shock of going to work in a new lab, on a completely new virus, with scary (not really) new people, or the viva “revision” plus actual four-hour grilling (A.K.A viva), or a combination of all of these things that completely overwhelmed me. But the fact remains I was hugely overwhelmed and didn’t know whether I was coming or going.

What would have been a massive help to me at that time was to have someone to talk it through with who understood the situation, or even just to know it wasn’t just me that felt like they were losing their mind throughout the PhD to postdoc process. I remember actually typing various phrases related to this into Google (other search engines are available) and thinking “surely there must be some sort of forum or blogs or SOMETHING that would be helpful” but alas! I couldn’t find anything that was of use to me at that time. That then made me think that perhaps I should write a few things down which may be helpful to others going through similar things, but then of course my project really got going and once again my life was taken over by lab work.

These crazy ideas then lay dormant in the recesses of my pet rat-loving mind until last week. I attended the Society for General Microbiology (SGM) annual meeting in Liverpool, and was lucky enough to be introduced to Stephen Curry, a Professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, just after he had given his Peter Wildy Prize Lecture “Science Communication: A Communicable Disease?” Professor Curry is a very active science writer with his own blogs (http://occamstypewriter.org/scurry/about/ http://scurrycommonplace.wordpress.com/ ), and his writing appears regularly in The Guardian. In a nutshell, we had a lovely chat (well I thought it was), I mentioned my blog idea, and a combination of this conversation and his prize lecture gave me the inspiration and extra motivation needed to just do it.

And as a result – here I am!

I must admit, I’ve actually enjoyed sitting here writing this post. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed it even just a wee bit, and like I said at the beginning, with more practice I’m sure it will improve…… And of course, with any luck some of the things I post might actually be of some help or comfort to fellow PhD to postdoc travellers.