Tag Archives: Chemical Engineering

When funding for academic research dries up…

…postdocs panic!!! ūüėģ

And then, hopefully shortly there-after, come to terms with the situation and focus their efforts on selecting the best course of action to take, selecting the career move that will best position them for career growth and advancement. NBD. :-/

As you may have gathered, this has been my reality for the past few months. The storm officially began in June when, due to financial constraints (for once this is actually true, not just another use of the classic excuse), my appointment was only renewed through the end of February rather than for the next 12 months. Despite the fact that we had all (1 PI, 5x post-docs and 1 MD/PhD student) been writing grants and fellowship proposals like mad, not a single new dime had come through in the last year.

Now I want to emphasize that this really is no ones fault, no one is to blame for the situation. This is simply the unfortunate reality of being in the business of academic research right now. Funding is difficult to come by cut throat  and positions/projects are anything but guaranteed.

Ok, so the $$ train was stalled but I still had until Feb, I still had 9 months — enough time to finish and publish quality research projects and hopefully find some funds to keep the work going. And that’s exactly what I did. In the midst of marathon training, marathon running, friends wedding-ing, sister wedding-ing, friends moving, biology teaching (inside a prison…this little baby will get her own post…), and Halloween celebrating (the very best holiday of all), I finished the research project that I’d been working on over the last year, submitted the paper for publication, and re-applied for the coveted NIH F32 postdoctoral fellowship.

Phew!!

I really did absolutely everything that I could. Which, PS, feels great in the end.

PPS. Thank god for the chemicals your brain secrets during times of stress that make the crappiest of times fade away into a not-as-bad-as-it-actually-was haze.

Unfortunately, as good as it feels to do your best, sometimes your best just isn’t good enough. I was not awarded the F32 this time either, not even close. In fact, the lab landed only one single new piece of funding (a fellowship for a most talented and deserving MD/PhD student ūüôā during the rest of 2014. So, as of March 1st, my postdoc days at Princeton are coming to an end.

Ok, What next? That’s what I was seriously asking myself from mid-October until the end of December. (It was actually more like OMG!!! WHAT THE EFF AM I GOING TO DO NEXT?!?! …but never mind.) Another academic pos-doc? Another small, private university, or back to my beloved public school life? East coast or otherwise? CA? NYC? Or what about industry? Pharma? Energy? Biotech? Consulting? Big business or small start-up? I¬†clearly¬†had no freaking idea what the hell I wanted to do next wanted to keep my options open ūüôā

Regardless, step 1 is to start applying, and apply I did. I applied to postdocs and industry jobs…little private ivory towers and some of the largest companies in the world…from NYC to Boston to Missouri (don’t ask) to CA…healthcare, energy, biotech, and everything in between. I got a number of interviews (and even more rejects or noreplys) and in the end was blessed with making a most difficult decision.

So when I was first applying for postdocs at the end of my PhD (when I was applying to¬†the position here at Princeton) I had fallen head-over-heals in love with this¬†one particular group at Columbia University. Everything about it was perfect, the work was super interesting: cutting edge, diverse applications, a really good fit for me…forwhat I already know how to do and what I want to learn, it was in NYC, it was at a nice¬†university and the PI was/is amazing. ¬†Now, I was going through this application process during the fall of 2012…the fall that Hurricane Sandy had her way with the east coast…had her way with the island of Manhattan…had her way with the chemical engineering labs that reside in the basement of Mud Hall on the campus of Columbia University. ūüė¶ Consequently, my application to join the Banta Group¬†stalled out indefinitely as Scott and his group had to piece their professional livelihoods (and personal lives too quite frankly) back together during the months that were most critical for my interviewing. Damn.

In the end of course, I accepted my position here at Princeton, which has been a most excellent¬†growth opportunity for me overall. I really can not complain for a second about what-I-wish-had-been (aside from Friday nights when Princeton goes to sleep at 9 pm…but never mind…) But moving back to present time, this position is ending, I need a job, and *knock-on-wood*¬†the entire east coast has not recently been nailed¬†by Mother Nature. Hello Scott Banta.

Long story short is that I finally¬†went to interview with the Banta group. (Interview = chatting with Scott for a few hrs in the morning, giving my ~1 hr research talk over lunch to his group, meeting with collaborating faculty and group members and touring the lab and other department resources in the afternoon and then wrapping up with Scott again at the end of the day.) And it was¬†AMAZING.¬†Scott, his projects, Columbia, Harlem. I¬†loved¬†it all. Walking out of the department, through campus, and then on to the streets of my favorite city that day, I had made up my mind before I’d even reached Penn Station.¬†I was¬†finally¬†moving to New York!!¬†How wonderful the way things work themselves out in the end! Right?¬†Right?¬†Right?!?!

And then I went to Exxon.

My interview with the Banta group was on a Tuesday and my interview with Exxon was on the Thursday-Friday of that same week. I had decided in my mind what I was going to do by 5 pm on Tuesday night, no questions asked. But, out of respect for my Exxon interview, I had to hold off on officially accepting the position at Columbia-Banta until after Friday. It was a done deal though, Columbia-Banta was perfect, it was just a matter of going through the motions at Exxon. Or was it.

Again, long story short is that there is actually some really exciting¬†basic science research going on in industry! The resources are wonderful and the people are nice and smart and interesting… For me personally, this is¬†such¬†a unique experience relative to everything that I’ve ever done before (which, aside from a summer internship at a small pharma company, has been confined to academic research for the last 9 years), AND¬†they (Exxon) are interested in providing me with the research/training/publication opportunities/conferences/start-up funds (potentially) that would make me a really strong faculty candidate in ~2 yrs!!! WHAT!?!?

WHAT!?!?

Thinking (out loud…doing more listening than talking…on the phone with my former PhD advisor) about this in terms of building my career was what sealed the deal for me. Making the move from Princeton (after less than 2 yrs) to Columbia would¬†require an explanation (why go from one small, private, research university to another? can’t you get along with people? can’t you adapt to new places?).¬†Although I would also be doing energy-related research at Columbia-Banta, it would be very high-risk-(high-reward)…which does have it’s perks if things work out, but may not be the smartest gamble for a second¬†postdoc position…and would¬†much farther from any real practical application. In contrast, I would be doing cutting edge basic bio research¬†at Exxon that very well shape the way energy-related processes evolve over the next 20 years. AND¬†given the current cut-throat funding climate surrounding the traditional means of supporting¬†academic research (with public $$), it sure as hell wouldn’t hurt to make friends with one of the largest energy companies in the world (and seduce them¬†into supporting the start of/collaborating with my future academic research group). IMHO, the¬†current funding structure in academia is not sustainable long-term (long-term = the length of my careers). I may as well be one of the firsts to stick my neck out there and try to blaze a new path, right?¬†Right?! :-/

Anyway…to say the¬†very least, this was¬†SO¬†not what I was expecting! I had every intention of taking the weekend to think over¬†the decision and then, first thing on Monday morning, officially accepting with Scott. Which, in the end, is SO¬†not what happened.

Exxon made me a most beautiful offer that I would have been a complete idiot to refuse. After thinking things over for about a week, I sent the most painful break-up email to my beloved Scott and then officially accepted with Exxon to start March 1st.

With that, I am now in my final month here at Princeton. (OMG!) I’m afraid these next few weeks are going to fly by as one big whirling vortex. I am wrapping up some of my projects and preparing¬†others¬†to be passed on to/finished by those who will remain in the Brynildsen group…I am looking for a new apt near Exxon…AND I am trying to apply¬†this classic (but nondescript and surprisingly unhelpful)¬†“business casual” phrase in a serious close rehabilitation effort. So far all parts are going slowly :-/ However, I think I finally have all most enough experiments planned out for the next month, I will be apt hunting this Friday and Saturday, and I have successfully determined that no, large bleach stains/holes (in just about any article of clothing) are not generally just accepted/understood.

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My final recruiting weekend

This weekend was our department’s second prospective recruiting weekend of the spring.

What does this mean?

  1. Thesis? What thesis?
  2. Implementation of the hangover cure.
  3. Thesis? What thesis?

Lovely.

Confused? Fair enough. Let me catch you up. First, let me give you a bit of background.¬†Here is roughly how the admission process goes for us (and many other Chemical Engineering departments as far as I know)…

  1. Students apply for admission during the fall of their senior year (or after). Applications are due at some point in December if my memory is correct 
  2. The admissions committee looks through applications, dumps about 3/4 in the trash and sends out acceptance letters  to the remaining 1/4 lucky winners by the beginning of February (Note: these are totally RE numbers, but for the sake of this description that should be good enough. Second note: RE = Rectal Extraction.)
  3. Students who are accepted are then invited to attend one of two visit weekends to meet with the department faculty and graduate students and get a flavor of the campus and city. These weekends take place in March. (DING!! DING!! DING!! They were this weekend!!)
  4. April 15th arrive and triggers have to be pulled. This is the date set by all (or most?) departments by which students must make their decisions of where to go (if they are so lucky as to have more than one offer).
  5. We all live happily ever after.
  6. Until the fall.
  7. 1st year, 1st semester = welcome to hell.

As one of the few females in our department I was shackled and dragged had the opportunity to attend many activities that were put on for the prospective students. We went to lunch together in small groups, had casual informational interviews, went to dinner and enjoyed 324 glasses of wine too many shots and subsequent arguments with my adviser a few adult beverages consumed responsibly and stimulating conversation, and then went out to the piano bar but could only stay for a short while thanks to the aforementioned wine indulgence.  Not bad for a Friday.

Saturday morning on the other hand…

Hangover cure.

Hangover cure = water, Bolthouse Farms mango juice, toast with LOTS of Nutella. ūüôā

But there is no rest for the nerdy¬†wicked. Saturday morning starts with more interviews followed by brunch and then an afternoon activity. Dinner is in small groups again at some of the nicer restaurants in town and then it’s off to see some stand up comedy at Comedy Sports. (Note: if you live in the MSP area and have never been to Comedy Sportz you must have absolutely no sense of humor or are unbelievably lazy or are very ill-informed regarding one of the funniest places in town.¬†EVERYONE¬†should check out Comedy Sportz.) Now this is when the official activities of the weekend end. However, there is this little bar called Legends that we just can’t pry ourselves away from. After the comedy is finished we load up the students and head for the basement of Legends…think cement floor, 2 for 1 drinks with a college ID (yes, many of us are almost 30), pool, darts and booty dancing to the Top 100 and the absolute best tunes of the 80’s. There is something about this trashy little gem that keeps us coming back for more.

After a few hours at Legends 2 am rolls around we are all ready for bed White Castle! (Disclaimer: by we I mean all of the idiots that think White Castle is a good drunken choice at 2 am. White Castle is never under any circumstances a good choice.) The majority of the group, current and prospective students finally actually truly close down the weekend with a few (Note: a few = too many) White Castle sliders.

And then it is Sunday and you wonder why your thesis hasn’t written itself, why the laundry isn’t done and how the hell did my heals get¬†that¬†dirty?!?! Maybe it’s just me.

Crazy? Totally. Worth it? Totally. I’m oddly kind of going to miss this crazy shit come next year. :-/ The next few days of thesis writing are going to be a bit too reminiscent¬†of item #7 in the list above I’m afraid…

 

 

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