Starting a new job during the pandemic

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Starting a new job is always a challenge. Plenty of new names need to be assigned to new faces, new networks need to be established and old ones maintained. Your new office is still under construction and you constantly forget about how to get there due to the maze of corridors that all look the same. For newly planned experiments, lots of equipment has to be ordered, but your telephone is not working yet, and the IT guy forgot to set up your computer in time. While you actually like to be productive and leave a good first impression to your bosses and colleagues, ‘getting ready’ takes most of your time.

During a global pandemic, starting a new job is even harder. The amount of hands to be shaken might have decreased, but now you first get to know your colleagues in 2D on your (eventually set-up) computer screen. At least you don’t have to remember where the office of Susan (or was it Megan?) is but just where you buried the Zoom link for the resepective online meeting. While your brain usually stores face-name combinations via eye-catching features like ‘Peter is the guy wearing pink shoes’, you only get to see half of your colleagues’ bodies. Coffee breaks as the heart of sozializing activities of course only happen in virtual form making it impossible to judge someone by her/his coffee-making abilities or to find out about office hate-love relationships between colleagues due to the missing body language information. Equally challenging are meetings with your boss(es). If they can happen in person, you miss face expressions due to mouth-nose protection measures, and thus do not know if he/she really likes your idea or is just laughing about it behind the mask.

If your new job is in another country, the next big challenge is that partner/family/friends might be missing and you feel even more isolated in the beginning. After you managed to cross borders, survived the entry quarantine, you finally end up in home office, which feels like exactely the same situtation. Actually home office is just the professional version of a quarantine… After a day of only online contacts with unfamiliar colleagues you just like to have a beer with a close friend, but heyhey…they are only available on Skype. Reducing your screen time becomes your biggest dream but you cannot place an order because the Universe hasn’t set up Zoom yet. Getting to know new people is so important in this phase but how does it work when pubs, gyms and cinemas are closed? Well, onlinize your hobbies…

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How to calm your mind

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As scientists and women in STEM, we highly rely on our mind and cognitive abilities for generating ideas, planning experiments, analysing data and writing things up. Thinking is great when it comes to problem solving (e.g. repair a bike). But is it equally useful when it comes to emotional challenges?

We are most likely the only species on Earth being able to deliberate on the past and the future. We can extensively stick to thoughts so that our sleep gets robbed. This kind of thinking is mostly related to emotional questions (“Why is he not calling back?” or “What did I do wrong…”). If the thought loops do not end, we risk to develop a psychological crisis. There is an amount of thinking that is no longer beneficial and serving us, but starts to be detrimental if we get too attached, most likely a side-effect of our cognitive abilities and intelligence. Or because the brain is evolutionary hard-wired to solve big problems such as “How does my offspring survive” or “How do escape from the saber-toothed tiger”, and is not challenged enough in modern societies after the invention of supermarkets, delivery services and canteens and the abolishment of saber-toothed tigers and other acute life-threatening events. If there are no challenges and you also don’t like parachuting, the brain will eventually create some wannabe threats aka “Why has my neighbour a bigger car than I do” or “Why has XYZ published more papers in shorter time periods than I did?” While I was in therapy for a depression, a wise woman once said to me: “Perhaps you should let your creativity out somewhere else, otherwise your brains starts being too creative”. Can’t tell you how useful that was, big aha moment for me.

So everyone knows this thinking machine in our heads. It’s talking most of the time, whatever we do, taking a shower, going to work…it always has something to tell or comment, and there is honestly a lot of bullshit in between. But here is the point: you are able to observe these thoughts and listen to them, that means the thoughts/thinking machine cannot be identical to you. It is a part of you, like your leg or chin, but it is not you. This is a first and very important point to accept: you are not your mind or the voice in your head and therefore you are allowed to take a step back from it. Second, you can decide not to take the advice and believe everything that is thrown at your from your inner voice. You can sort out what sounds reasonable and what is just useless. For instance, if the brain speaks: “you are sooo unproductive, you are a worthless piece of crap”, you can just refuse to believe what has been said and accept that you have a less productive day than normal and that this does not define your worth and there will be better days. Let the voice talk to the hand… At some point, the voice gets calmer and ‘gives up’ if you no longer consider taking all stupid advices and threads for starting thought loops. Another benefit: you stop living (with your thoughts) in the past and the future and keep them in the present moment.

This is also when meditation comes into play. Meditation usually gets promoted as stress-relieving super remedy and despite the fact that lots of hyped trends do not keep their promises … yes.. I must agree here, meditation has a lot of worth. Learning to observe your thoughts and to not get too involved with them is key to silence the thinking machine. And after a while and some practice, it helps you to step back from lots of other unpleasant things (anger, thought loops, self-critisism, impulsive reactions etc.). I practiced meditation in my therapy but it took me a year to really understand its value and to overcome my inner temptation and build an everyday routine of 15 min of meditation, and it served my brain health a lot!!! The drawback is that it is really hard to get started and develop a routine like with most things that have no immediate benefits (good nutrition, sports etc.). It’s still highly recommended and hopefully you found this text inspiring to get started!

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The power of rage

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Rage is a feeling that is socially not very well accepted in women. Women are not meant to get enraged, to become aggressive, or get loud during an argument. When releasing rage in that way, too fast women are labeled as bitchy or bossy. Hiding or suppressing your rage over a longer time period is however not very healthy either.

I confess (as a woman I have to confess :)) that I felt a lot of rage in my life, mostly in the face of injustice, discrimination and bullying. Sometimes the rage was so gigantic that I had a hard time finding an outlet for it. Due to the social norms I tried the suppression thing for a while only to notice that I was sitting on a powder keg and this can’t be the way to go. By not letting the rage out, I even tended to direct it against myself, which was a certain route to depression, so not a good option either. Suddenly (or let’s say after some long walks and therapy sessions), I noticed that rage is just a very strong form of energy that is simply channeld in the wrong direction. Rage is super power in many regards:

1.) If you get enraged, not the person or situation inducing the rage is responsible for it, only you are in charge, cause you produced the emotion. If you get enraged by a person, it simply means that the person has a lot of power over you and your emotions. Do you want to give away that power over you?

2.) Rage tells you a lot about yourself and your values. If you would not care about things, you would not become enraged. If you get enraged because you are not invited to a party, the rage tells you that “belonging” is a strong value for you. A more obvious example: If rage comes with a missing promotion, then carreer, money and climbing up in the hierarchy ladder seems to be important for you. And related to 1.): your rage also tells other people what matters to you, and if they are assholes, they might use that knowledge against you. Therefore showing your rage should be an option, but not showing rage should not mean not to feel it!

3.) If you would manage to channel the rage in another direction, it would be a super powerful engine to get things done. Let’s say I am super annoyed by my boss, and instead of fighting an argument that many times leads to nowhere I could rather use the rage energy and go run for an hour, or sit down and write a proposal or otherwise invest the energy into myself. Of course, there are many situtations when fighting an argument can be important, but most arguments are fought because someone wants to convince the counterpart that he/she is not right and has to adopt another opinion and in most cases convincing people that you are right is an effective waste of time. Next time you become enraged, give it a try to invest the energy that comes with it into something more fruitful.

From my own experience: redirecting rage is not always easy, because in the face of extreme rage your mind always wanders back to the enraging situation. But maybe the awareness about the positive and powerful aspects of rage and its energy can be a start. Being enraged does not mean being bitchy or bossy, it means you are strong, alive, energetic and you care deeply about something! To sum up:

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The subtle art of reviewing papers

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I received my first review request while I was a PhD student and the topic was about something similar to the work I did during my master studies. I felt very honoured but also a bit lost during that time. Reviewing manuscripts is nothing you are taught at University (why not???). One of the first questions often ask in this context is: how do journals choose reviewers, do they find you or how does it work? To be regarded as an ‘expert’ in a certain field and become a reviewer, you usually should have some papers published in decent journals, preferably as being a first author. I don’t manage manuscripts, but I guess editors just put some key words of the repective paper in Google Scholar and check who has recently done similar work. If you did and your name pops up, you are certainly interesting for them. Then they might additionally check for your current position, if you are PhD student, Postdoc etc. and for an email adress so that they can reach out to you.

Next they will likely send you an email through the journal’s system including the review request. You usually receive the abstract and name of authors (if review is not double-blind), and then have to decide if you feel capable of providing a review in a certain amount of time. This could be anything between one week and several months depending on the journal. I previously received requests where the manuscript was already attached to the email, and this is a certain sign that the journal is not so decent. I would commend to never accept such requests. If you reject the review, you often have the opportunity to provide a reason. Good reasons to reject are: conflict of interest (you know the authors too well or currently work on a similar topic), you have no time, subject of manuscript is beyond your area of expertise, you are on vacation, sick, or your computer just died. I once heard that for every paper you publish yourself, you should review at least 3 other manuscripts. This gives a good estimate of how many reviews are adequate. I usually like to choose those paper where I know enough about the topic but also get the chance to learn something new (method-wise or similar).

If you accept the offer, you get immediate access to the whole manuscript and can download it. Sometimes you have to register with the journal’s review system, sometimes this is done for you already. It is your responsibility to keep the work confidential. So better don’t forget a hard copy on the office printer or in the bus that everyone can see. Then the review process can start. I usually have a first quick read of the manuscript and highlight some things I don’t understand or have questions about. Then I put the paper aside and come back to it at a later time point doing a more thorough read and writing the report in one go. For the review report, each journal has its own wishes. Most of them ask for a summary (that shows that you actually understood the main message), some specifically ask for the main strengths and weaknesses, quality of the language or novelty of the work. Some provide specific forms, other ask for more ‘freestyle’ reviews, it really depends.

You might ask for the benefits of doing so much unpaid extra work. Well… it’s true there is no monetary benefit. At best, journals provide vouchers or discounts for your own publications. Some journals publish reports thanking their reviewers with your name on it or provide review certificates, which you can print and put on your wall to make your colleagues jealous ; ). You can also sign up for an account with Publons, which allows your reviews to be tracked. After the review is done, you receive a ‘thank you’-email from the journal and can forward it to Publons. Reviewing served me a lot in terms of learning critical reading and thinking, developing ideas, and providing something (my expertise) back to the science community, which is a good thing! Also, after having received some bullshit reviews on my own papers, I get the chance to ‘make it better’ and express the kindness I would expect from others. Therefore I enjoy reviewing papers a lot!

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How to survive a conference talk

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Talking in front of people is not a pleasure. At least it’s not for me. It starts to get better the more often there is opportunity for practice but I wonder if I will ever reach the point of “enjoying it”.

I reminisce about my first ever conference talk, when I was a PhD student and in my second year. I was afraid when I pressed the submit button for the conference abstract after selecting “oral presentation”. I remember a debate with the supervising postdoc, and about me asking if a poster wouldn’t be cool as well, and he constantly re-ensuring that real fame would only come with talks. *sigh*

A few months after hitting submission, I was informed that my abstract was indeed chosen for an oral presentation. This was the second time my heart sank into my boots. Everyone around me said I would be fine and this would be a great chance to show my work, but my confidence had a different opinion. Of course I had given talks before like in front fellow students, but of course it never happened in front of ~100 expert scientists of my field. This was a shock to be honest.

The supervising postdoc and I finally attended the conference. He was great, always asking if I would need anything or would like to practice the talk in front of him. I practiced alone most of the time and I did it until the point I almost knew everything by heart. The morning of the day I had the talk, my anxiety went through the roof. I asked the postdoc if it would be ok to buy some hard liquor to calm myself down and he was fine with it. It was just a tiny bottle but it was helpful in that moment to calm down my anxious stomach (hopefully the conference chairs didn’t smell it). I secretly drank it the restroom of the conference venue and thought this was the beginning of the (my) end. Then we sat in the lecture hall and tried to follow the few talks given before mine was due. Frankly, I couldn’t follow anything, the voice of the previous speakers was just a monotonous “bla”, which I could barely hear due to the noisy heartbeat in my ears. Later the postdoc told me he was afraid I would have collapsed right next to him. I said, I wish I would. When I went to the stage, I was wasted. During the first two slides my voice was actually not there, or at least not close to my usual one. The third slide was a video, which did not work. Then things got fortunately better and I started to relax a bit (thanks to the schnapps?). Anyway, the experience was not a pleasure and I felt like I survived a war. People who saw it said it was fine.

This event is about five years ago. Since then, I had about five or six more conference talks. I still feel the urge to ask for a poster at first, but eventually I choose the talk. I try to convince myself by telling me that real fame only comes with talks and that presenting my work is good for my growth and simply part of my life as a scientist. Lately I even had two talks at the same conference and asked my former postdoc for coming along and have a double shot with me. He was laughing hard but couldn’t make it. This is not to incite students and speakers to become alcoholics and I actually never did that again after the first incidence. What I’d like to say is: even if it’s super bad in the beginning and you really do not like to be on stage or are afraid of it like hell, there is hope for improvement and chance for growth if you go through it despite the fear. One day I will enjoy doing this, I swear!

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The costs of relocating for science

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There is one thing no one will tell you and prepare you for while you are a student with passion for working in the STEM field or the wish to become a scientist. I am not talking about the unspoken expectations for constant work and achievements (‘publish or perish’) but about the other costs that come along with the life as a scientist. The requirements for constant mobility (“for the big grants, you need to have been abroad!”), for leaving behind family and friends and for starting a life from scratch every few years. This life will stop eventually if you are among the lucky (?) small percentage, who ends up with a long-term faculty job and succeeded to become a professor somewhere down the line.

I did my MSc degree at a different university compard to my PhD and compared to my first Postdoc. And guess what, my next employment will be with another institute again (box packing in progress…). I am obsessed with science and thank God, I could not imagine staying in a place longer than a few years because there are so many great places to live and work. I would feel caged being in one location for too long.

My life is so much different from the one of my peers. They start to settle, to build houses and families. I started to minimalize my household effects and was even wondering if it’s really worth to unpack the boxes every time after a move. They go to weddings and baby partys, I sit at home and work on my manuscripts or grant proposal. For sure, this is societally not very well accepted, especially for a woman, but this is a different story I could actually write a whole book about.

Of course, I meet friends in a new place but I would never let the connection deepen in a way that I would get emotionally stuck and couldn’t move on to new exciting science challenges. Not sure what this will do to my mental health in the future. Right now I feel good having few close and lots of long distance (skype/phone/email) relationships with my loved ones. It might be attributable to my introverted nature but I can easily exist without anyone close for a long time (I actually enjoy the loneliness of the current quarantine so much!), and I wouldn’t mind to get stuck in remote places such as Antarctica or the moon for a while. As long as I can do science, I am fine.

Since I apparently have the right personality type for short-term contracts and minimized lifestyle with strong affinity for adventures and travelling, most people actually do not. Some of my friends, also scientists, are unemployed for several years because they can’t find jobs in their regions and don’t want to establish long-distance relationships. They search for a secure job that doesn’t bother them in their spare time and want to start a family, best in the place where they got their doctorate. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is that no one told them that this rarely works out in academia. Of course, everyone finds it out at some stage, and I am sure this is one of the many difficult reasons why many people leave academia sooner or later. I just wonder if it would be useful to talk about the challenges and ‘costs’ that the life of a scientist brings along, for instance during lectures at university. Just so that everyone can prepare for this and plan careers in a certain direction much earlier preventing lots of disillusions and frustrations. My two cents worth…

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How to increase your productivity

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The feeling of being productive or having a day of great productivity behind you is just a great feeling. It means the day was not wasted to netflix binge watching, video games or other absorbing activities that don’t lead to anything. But how can productivity be maintained in the long-run, sustained during holidays or pandemics and perpetuate itself? I have some ideas…

1.) Build a routine. If ‘getting work done’ would be like brushing teeth, you would just do it without thinking too much about it. If you start thinking ‘do I like this?’ or ‘am I in the mood for that?’ it’s already too late. Frankly speaking, get out of your bed and move to your desk and start working, BEFORE these thoughts even get the chance to develop. If these thoughts took over too much already, I recommend meditating and observing them for a while with full attention. If they feel seen, they usually disappear. Ideally you accept at some point that negative thoughts and feelings just pop up on a regular basis (side effects of the intelligent human mind in my opinion) but ignore them and act anyway. For the routine it could help to set up a list of things you like to achieve at a particular day (the popular ‘To do list’) so that it’s not debatable what is due that day.

2.) Work in chunks. It might cost you quite an effort to go for a run for 1 h (because it’s long and painful and your legs just say ‘no’) or to write a full manuscript over a weekend. Therefore start easily and do the really tiny steps. Allocate 20 min to writing every day or start meditating 5 min a day. This is something everyone can do. Then you get the feeling of accomplishment and self-efficacy more easily and you can slowly increase the dose. And even if you don’t increase the amount, it still means you do 150 min of meditation per month, which is great and should cause an effect. Work slowly but steadily.

3.) If your brain gets easily bored by monotonous work, make sure you provide the necessary change and stimuli. This should however not interfer with the overall work routine (see 1.), whose maintenance has the highest priority. I just mean you could change the working environment (from couch to desk, from home office to café), or get more external stimulation that fuel your motivation (e.g. listing to stimulating music, exchange with colleagues, a coach providing another perspective, watching a relevant documentary) or establish a reward system (2 gummi bears for a written page etc.)

4.) Find out what motivates you and feed it. People are usually motivated by three motives: performance/accomplishing things, power, and affiliation. You can be positively motivated by these things or negatively. For instance, it can drive your motivation if you feel you lose power or if you see how you can gain it. You can be motivated by fearing a loss of social connection or by seeing a chance of improving it etc. Then there are of course internal and external motivation forces. Best is if the motivation comes from inside you, then it is less easily destroyable. If you work because you enjoy what you do and are really interested in finding out more (typical for scientists ; )) then this is a better driving force than if you work for a high salary or promotion (external motivation). I noticed for example that I lose motivation if I get heavily micromanaged. I like to work out and think by myself and if someone takes this part away from me, I am no longer interested. Try to find what motivates and demotivates you and use this information wisely!

5.) To my experience, productivity can only last if you create room for idleness, because this is when your consciousness forms the necessary connections in your brain, and brings together what you have learned. I recommend going for a walk in nature or just watch the horizon through your window. Getting enough sleep and good food is also very important. Wish I had such a hammock in my home office 🙂

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The idea generator

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Having great ideas and being creative is very much essential for a scientist. Did you ever reflect on how this process works best for you? And how it can be enhanced?

The list on ideas that was supposed to end up in this blog was created while my body was incubating in the bathtub. A glass of wine usually improves the flow in my brain when it comes to manuscript or other academic writing. Bringing together different threads and generating new ideas happens best when I ride on a train and do nothing else than starring out of the window. The scarcer the landscape and the less people around, the more active my brain. A colleague of mine said that for being creative, she requires it to be dark outside. Important is also not to force anything: being creative at the push of a button is not going to work.

While loneliness and relaxing are one piece of the puzzle, another one can be exchange. Reading helps a lot. Reading or reviewing other peoples’ papers, talking to colleagues about your work and attending (online) talks. This makes me unintentionally think about how to apply similar approaches to my own field. It also helps a lot to chat with people that have majored in the same subject but work in a completely different area. And it helps to explain stuff to people that have no clue about the subject matter at all, e.g. grandparents or siblings. They sometimes come up with astonishing ideas that no one would have ever thought about. Really out of the box!

The last factor is incubation. There are some threads in your head but you cannot bring them together… leave the things alone for a while! Go to sleep and withdraw. Let the subconsciousness do its job. It will let you know when it’s done. Such Eureka! moments are very rare, but if they occur, it’s awesome. Mine appeared in the middle of the night. They woke me up and wanted me to take notes : ) The more obtrusive these ideas are, the higher their value, I guess. Please take them seriously. They are the result of a long process and are like tiny seeds that need to be planted and taken care of.

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Wise decision making or why it’s good to sleep on it for a night

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I don’t like people holding a pistol on my head and forcing a decision. This is especially true for meetings of all kinds. Meetings were invented as a platform for egomaniacal people to display themselves as the greatest and to throw their brain farts as an act of verbal incontinence (sometimes sold as brainstorming). Of course they expect immediate feedback and validation for their output. If you cannot answer, you are out.

Haste makes waste, and that’s why I like thorough decision-making. While my dad was at the army, they told him to sleep over important decisions at least for a night. At the army! This is potentially in an environment where you get shot if you think too much or for too long. Also Rome (and probably other cities) weren’t build in a day, and Rome is nevertheless a really nice city.

While people in the meeting already talk about project 5, my head still spins around the details of project 1 and the lack of organisation in project 2. I have to admit, I am slow sometimes. But you could also say that ideas and thoughts are processed more deeply. My brain pushes them from left to right, rejects, reconsiders, compares and assesses. This has to incubate, and that has to be put aside for a while. Alternative facts want to be included and compared to previous experiences and new treasures have to be collected, sorted and archived in the right storage. Frankly speaking, this takes a while and evokes impatience in my surroundings.

But how can I live up to my introverted nature, which is only satisfied if things were taken thoroughly to the heart? How is it possible to respond to unconscious signals and observations if I do not give them a night or enough space to resonate and get in touch with my innermost self? An overhasty decision might come along with long-lasting consequences. It could even happen that problems solve themselves if you let them alone for some time. This happens a lot. Proof: just go on vacation and check how important the email requests from two weeks ago will still be after your return. 99% solved, I guess.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with spontaneity and quick-wittedness. You get faster what you desire and also what you do not desire, because you did not think about it enough in the first place. There need to be people who perform well at fast decision-making, e.g. doctors and firefighters. But, believe me, we also need the contrary. Conscious decision-makers, who do not get things into a mess in the first place. Those should not be treated as slow, stupid or dull but as a valuable addition. Don’t be afraid, we do not make pro and con lists if we should go to the bathroom or not. We just need a little more time to maintain our thought system. To make a good contribution to matters we deeply care about and to find a consensus. Please take the pistol from our head and chill! Only this will allow us to follow our motto: At first, we don’t do anything, and then we wait. And the rest will come.

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How to write a successful grant proposal early in your career

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Applying for fellowships is equally challenging as publishing a paper, but a largely unavoidable process on your way up the career ladder. Since I successfully applied for a 2-years postdoc fellowship with a huge national funding agency, I like to share my experience to aid others on their way:

  1. ) The idea behind the project: The science of the proposal was a synthesis and further development of projects I worked on during my PhD and my first postdoc. For getting this grant, it was important to show that I could develop independent ideas and work on a subject that was topically distant enough from my current and past supervisor’s ones. This is also important because you ideally want to have your former supervisors on your side and not as prospective competitors. The field of research was related to my PhD project, but the focus and methods were similar to what I have learned during my postdoc. Then I added something “new” and some methods I was ambitious to learn in the future.
  2. ) To brand my name with the topic and to check out the interest of the scientific community in the subject, I wrote a review about the proposal topic and published it in a decent journal (as a single author). While I think this was very helpful in later getting the proposal accepted because it was easier to sell myself as an expert in the field, I think this step is not generally necessary.
  3. ) Next, a host institution for the fellowship was required. At first, I had no clue where to go and whom to ask. Luckily, I attended a conference and saw a talk by a scientist that had the expertise in the field my future project was about, and I approached the person after the talk. At this point I did not know anything about the scientist, hadn’t checked any scientific achievements but I was just fascinated by the way that person conveyed the science. It was in a really passionate way!! At this point, this passion and the apparent expertise in the field were the major things that had attracted me to this person. I approached the scientist with a vague intuition that this might be good fit and asked for an appointment during the conference. Finally we agreed to work on the proposal together.
  4. ) The writing process was tedious, actually similar to manuscript writing with lots of editing rounds from both parties. Not always a pleasure. What helped me was to work in chunks and to maintain some distance. I worked on it about once a week for a period of 6 months. I did not tell anyone from my current working group about my plans. This was related to the toxicity of the current work place on the one hand, but also I did not want people to know and ask me about my progress. My ambition to work on this topic was fortunately super high and of course this also kept me going. I also created a strong vision it my head about the day I would receive the grant and move on to a more friendly place to work on my dream project.
  5. ) We added some fancy methods and experts in the field as collaborators. It is also wise to make sure that the subject is timely and topical. There are things that are super trendy and act as catalysts for your success…, for instance, science related to Climate Change, Artificial Intelligence, Microplastics, Corona Virus, Big Data, Machine Learning, Robotics …just to name a few of these buzz words. It helps to work in any of these fields, I guess.
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