What have I learnt from post doc-ing?

I am no longer a postdoc. This both makes me ecstatic and sad. As a belated goodbye to academia post, I thought I would share my thoughts on my period as a postdoc. I learned a lot over the last 3 years or so and, looking back, am very glad I became a postdoc. I don’t consider myself a failed academic, I just decided that I could earn and achieve more in a different field.

  1. Helping students is fun – When I first became a postdoc, I was worried about students asking me questions and me not knowing the answer. It turns out that I knew more than I think I did. There were plenty of times that I didn’t know the answer, but I gained enough experience to point the student in the right direction.
  2. I became a skilled technician – when GCs break, I am your gal. I would never have guessed that I would spend half of my time changing liners and inlet septa but hey ho it was a useful experience. I am also handy, and somewhat ambidextrous, with spanners (and wrenches) as working in flow chemistry required frequent leak fixing and blockage removal.
  3. I can write half decent prose, much faster – I can now write a report or presentation in the fraction of the time that it would have taken me during my PhD days. It is also better written, formatted and edited. I am continually learning and improving this though –  I still have a lot to learn!
  4. I learned to enjoy presenting my work – as I gained more and more confidence in my subject, my confidence in presenting grew. I wasn’t the most confident presenter at school or as an undergrad but now i’d day I am OK at it.
  5. I understand terms such as mass transfer and flux – collaborating with chemical engineers certainly increased my understanding in a range of areas, sometimes more than i’d like, but it was been a great learning experience.
  6. I learned that it really helps to have friends in finance, purchasing and stores – when orders or equipment fail, these are the people you need to have on your side!

I am sure there are many other things that I learned during my postdoc years and I shall try and add them to the list as I remember. What would you say were the skills that you have picked up or improved upon during your postdoc?

And with that, bye bye lab, hello desk.

Why do I use twitter?

It has been a while since I have blogged. This mini hiatus has been due to a hectic summer in the lab and the arrival of new graduate students, who need frequent direction.

More and more people in my workplace have found out that I use twitter and are surprised to find out how many followers I have and how long I have been a member. This had led lot of people to then ask me why the heck I use twitter. They seem to think that social media, in particular twitter, is for teenagers to follow the exploits of their favourite boyband. I have found twitter to be an excellent tool as a novice scientist and wish to express my feelings here (thanks to @_byronmiller for the helpful inspiration).

1) During my PhD

I found twitter very useful during my PhD write-up. I could vent to people who had gone through the same laborious PhD process as me, using the hashtag #phdlife. There were people on twitter just like me who could offer excellent advice and ideas from how to deal with the stress to how to improve my thesis writing, for example, I found out about Mendeley because I was exasperated with Endnote and tweeted my feelings. Many followers offered their experiences with various software packages and I ended up with Mendeley, which I still use to this day. Chemdraw are even on twitter now, so if you get stuck drawing a molecule you can just ask for help!

2) Literature searching

I am very capable at literature searching. I have RSS feeds, Google scholar alerts and I read my favourite journal website daily to see if there are any new developments in my research area. I have found, however, that twitter has broadened by chemical knowledge, with editors, academics and students regularly tweeting publications of interest from all areas. I even read computational publications now, due to the sheer number of computational tweeps online (I still don’t understand it all though, sorry).

3) Networking

I have been able to converse with the editors of journals and academics, join in with outreach activities (e.g. ScienceGrrl who recently gave me the opportunity to meet Brian Cox), contribute to magazine stories (e.g. Beth Halford’s Postdoc Pains and Gains piece) and even get free bits of lab kit! It is such an easy place to join in a conversation  and ‘meet’ people. It doesn’t matter if it is only over the internet, the people you converse with are just as important as those contacts who you have met in real life.

4) Job postings

People, including me, post jobs of interest that they have found, using the hashtag #chemjobs. There is even a tweep, disguised as a duck, who dedicates much of his time to job postings (@chemjobber). I used to regularly look at the Nature jobs and jobs.ac.uk websites but now I mostly just use their twitter feeds.

5) Conferences

Going to a conference? Don’t know anyone else going? Just tweet about the conference using a relevant hashtag and you are sure to find drinking buddies. I recently did this on a trip to Kyoto, not only did I find drinking and karaoke buddies, but I also found people who could recommend places to visit. Twitter is also a great place to find out about conferences and which talks to go to at a particular conference.

6) #Realtimechem

Ok, so I am a little biased, but I do love the #realtimechem hashtag. This hashtag is used to show the world what chemists are up to everyday, in and out of the lab. Some people post  awesome pictures and I get to learn so much about the techniques that other chemists use.

So readers, what one reason would you give a person to join twitter, or conversely, why do you think it is pointless to join twitter?  Leave your comments below or tweet me!

p.s. If you are new to twitter and not sure where to begin, I highly recommend Heather’s post on ‘How to Use Twitter’

p.p.s If I haven’t convinced you that Twitter is great, then believe Nature Chemistry.

Identical twins but not identical income

Recently Beth Halford over at C&EN wrote an article on the pains and gains of the postdoc life so I thought I would expand a little on my own experiences using my twin sister as a direct comparison to me…

The odds of becoming an identical twin are around three in one thousand and I am one of those lucky three. Throughout the twenty eight years of mine and my twin sister’s life we have constantly been compared to each other in looks, personality and brain power. Abigail is a trainee general practitioner (GP) which means that she has completed her medicine degree (5 years) and subsequent foundation training (2 years). I am an organic chemistry postdoc, having completed my MChem. undergraduate degree (4 years) and PhD (3.5 years) in chemistry. Considering that the training for our respective roles has been a very similar amount of time, you may or may not be surprised to find that our lives and career prospects are very different.

The MD

Abbie has recently given birth to her first child and a year before this she got married and bought her idyllic, village-based family home. This story is very similar to many of her doctor friends, most of who are married, have a mortgage and child. Her current salary is close to £50k a year for a five day a week, 8.30 am – 6pm job[1]. On completion of her GP training (her chosen specialism), her salary will significantly increase, although her work responsibilities will also rise.

As background, In the UK, you do your degree, which is very competitive to get into, and then do two foundation years[2] in a range of specialities. If this goes well, you then apply for your, sometimes very competitive, specialism. At this point there is a relatively small risk of not getting a job, especially in larger cities and for popular specialisms, but the odds of gaining a job are in your favour.

The PhD

In comparison, I earn £28k a year and am on an eighteen month contract (1 year left) with no guarantee of employment on completion. My working hours can be very variable as research is unpredictable, with late nights or weekends not uncommon. My job is not only laboratory based, but also involves helping students, keeping the lab running smoothly, writing up publications and liaising with industrial partners. I currently live in rented accommodation with my postdoc boyfriend and we can not afford to buy a house or get married. In the last three years I have lived in three different cities and settling down is still not possible if I want a career in academia, which I am not sure that I do. My next step would require a prestigious fellowship, which are harder to come by than a clean NMR tube in a synthetic laboratory! So do I stick it out and hope that I get more publications which would give me a higher chance of a fellowship or do I head into industry?

There is also the issue of having children and, whilst my university does have decent maternity entitlement for fixed term staff, it would not necessarily be a good time in my career to have a child. There are many women that have succeeded in both becoming an academic and mother but the statistics show that only 20% of professors employed in 2011 were women[3].

To conclude…

I earn almost half what my sister earns even though we have spent the same number of years in training. My sister has deal with potentially life or death decisions every day and I applaud her ability to do this. Apart from the higher salary (and therefore larger shoe collection), her education and training allows her to be confident of getting a permanent position, having career progression options and a work-life balance. I feel my education and experience should have more value than is currently given to it, with industry and academia giving more financial incentive to stay in the research sector. I want to work hard and reach the higher echelons of my chosen profession whilst having job satisfaction and a work-life balance. These job requirements mean that it is becoming more likely that I will leave research and change career paths. For now though, I am happy as a postdoc and I will continue to work as hard as I can!

ScienceGrrl at MOSI

At the weekend I had the pleasure of being a ScienceGrrl for the day in Manchester at the Museum of Science and Industry. I was joined by a range of women scientists from all walks of life from archaeologists to nuclear physicists to cell biologists. The aim of the day was to communicate to museum-goers about what we do and promote science to all. We all had props relating to our job and the parents and children had to guess what our job involved.

For my prop, I decided to take something interactive and, after a lot of umm-ing and ahh-ing, I finally decided on demonstrating the fun of glow sticks. I went to a dark section of the museum and shared the wonder of chemistry with young children. I described the chemical process occurring in the glow stick and let them “crack” them open and see the chemiluminescence happening in front of their eyes. The children were wide-eyed with wonder at the changing colour and parents were genuinely intrigued by the science involved.


Apart from the props, the other ScienceGrrls and I spent the day wandering around the museum with a badge on saying “I am a Scientist, talk to me”. The idea of this was that we share the reason behind our research and show people how varied and exciting science careers can be. I shared the pharmaceutical relevance of my project, whilst others demonstrated how PET imaging works, how statistics is important in archaeology and how we are all made of stars (yes, really!). We also had the opportunity to stand on a soapbox and share science stories with the museum-goers, which was both a nerve-wracking and exhilarating experience.

My hope is that children went away from the museum inspired to read more about science and think about how science really is all around. I tried to share with all children that I spoke to that chemistry is everywhere, from the shampoo we use to the medicines we take to the cakes that we bake.

I had an amazing day. I met some fantastic women and I am even more inspired to keep researching, but more importantly, to keep sharing my love of science with the world.

Thanks for letting me be a ScienceGrrl for the day, bring on the next event!

p.s. Also check out Biofluff’s, Gemma’s, ScienceGrrl‘s and Becky’s blog posts on the event

My academic family

A short blog post….

I realised today that @KarlDCollins, who blogs at A Retrosynthetic Life, and I have an academic connection: his PhD supervisor (Procter), was my 1st postdoc supervisor’s (Rayner) PhD student. It then came to my attention that @_byronmiller, who blogs at Behind NMR Lines, was in the same lab as Karl for his Masters degree project.

This got me to wondering: what other academic connections do I have out there with my blog followers and tweeps?

Feel free to email me at theorganicsolutionblog at gmail dot com or leave a comment below!

P.S Apart from twitter folk, I have a connection to a Nobel Prize winning chemist, which is almost like me winning one, right? George Olah was my PhD supervisor’s (Sandford) postdoc boss over in the US of A.

Up-Goer Five challenge

Anyone that follows the XKCD comics will know that they posted an Up-Goer Five comic about the US Space team.  They said that “Most of the jargon used in rocket science is not among the most commonly used words in everyday life. This comic is a commentary on the absurdity of boiling down technical explanations for lay people.”

A few people on twitter have attempted to describe their working life using this concept, including:

Stephen Davy at The Sceptical Chymist shares information with the world

Chemjobber makes people money

Derek Lowe makes people feel better

As well as the many blog posts, people have been using the hashtag  #UpGoer140 to try to explain their work in lay terms, in less that 140 characters.

I have decided to have a go at this. As you know I am a postdoctoral researcher in carbon capture but I cannot use the words science, lab, research, carbon etc. My new job will be to make drug-type molecules.

Here is my Up-Goer Five attempt:

At the moment I work to make the world a better place by trying to find ways of taking the bad stuff out of the air. I want to see if using new things will help or make the world a worse place to live. I wear a white thing and funny glasses every day and play with round glass things and then put other stuff in the glass. I also show other people how to play with round glass things and how to make stuff using them. I sometimes use long glass things with white stuff in to make the thing at the end much nicer. My new job will be to make stuff that will help people who feel bad, feel better some day.

Why not have a go yourself?

*I have realised that only chemists will really get my description, maybe I should have another go and try to write about my work in a way that everyone can understand …?

Did I work hard enough?

As many of you will know, @Chemjobber and @Vinylogous are hosting a kind of blog conversation called “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?”, with many other bloggers out there also giving their opinion on the matter.

As a Brit, I feel like these posts aren’t really aimed at me so much. Although I found the PhD process somewhat stressful, I can honestly say I enjoyed 99% of it (I even enjoyed my viva!). I had a great boss who knew the important of social activity within and outside of the group. He also encouraged us to pursue sporting achievements, in moderation, which for me, involved competing in national ballroom dancing competitions. We were also allowed to take a few weeks holiday and the odd day off, if required. I loved (and miss) the mad research I was doing and I can say that met some life-long friends as well as my boyfriend of three years.

My experience of the UK system is that we work from around 9am-6pm with the working hours getting longer as the end of the PhD draws near (most PhDs are between 39 and 48 months). I worked weekends but only when I wanted to catch up on reactions or set reactions up for the week ahead. I also found weekends a relaxing time to do columns as my favourite (communal) glass column would be available for use and I could control what radio station was played. I was also, of course, productive during the week, except maybe when the Ashes were on. I spent my time between reactions writing up experimental and planning my next reactions.

I am aware that the UK has research groups and departments that do expect much longer hours. I know people at these groups and some of them have told me they stay late just because they are expected to and that their productivity in a day is no higher than if they had done an 8 hour day. I know some academics that require their students to put on a certain number of reactions a day. My view is that chemistry just doesn’t work like that. I am also of the opinion that, because I worked somewhat sensible hours, I kept my passion for the subject that I loved and my sanity.

I was recently of the thinking that I should have gone to the States to get the best PhD that I could have done but I now realise staying in the UK allowed me to become a much more impassioned and motivated chemist. I may not be the best in the world or have millions of results, but I can say I still love my subject.

I hope that this post does not appear to you like I am trying to rub it in your face. I just thought I would share my point of view.

** I feel that I should add that there were plenty of days, especially in my second year, that I thought I was a failure, nothing was working etc but I got through it. It seems most people suffer from “second year blues” so I dug deep and persevered.  I am also not a stressed out person generally. I tend to take whatever is thrown at me and deal with it. I have a somewhat easy going temperament which probably would have not been the best personality to have in a huge, cut throat lab elsewhere.

Every ending is the start of a new beginning

I have 4 working days of my current postdoc left and so I thought I would write a bit about my experiences of postdoc life so far. My contract was only for one year and I started it a month after handing in my PhD thesis, in January this year.

A bit of background first…As you all know and are bored hearing about, I did my PhD in organo-fluorine chemistry. It was a methodology project and I got some decent results. My best work will be published very soon, according to my ex-boss. I decided at the beginning of the final year of my studies that I wanted to do a postdoc in something a bit different but with sustainable chemistry as the theme. I approached a few people and then got offered this project doing organic synthesis for physical chemists under the umbrella of CCS (see previous posts on this).

I think securing my postdoc before starting to write my thesis was really good for me. It meant I had a reason to get my PhD lab work done and written up. Fortunately for me, my boss was happy with me leaving the lab “on time” and was really good with reading my corrections and helping me get the thesis done. I had written up my experimental as I was going along so this meant thesis writing was a little easier for me (smug face). On that note, for those still doing their PhDs, WRITE YOUR EXPERIMENTAL UP AS YOU GO ALONG. Writing as you go along makes you think about your research direction a little more and means that you get all your all-important analytical data . There is nothing worse than realising you are missing the data for a compound and then have to do a 5-step reaction to remake it. You have more important things to do.

So, back to my current postdoc… I ended up doing two different but related projects. My original project was making isotopically labelled derivatives so that physical chemists could fire lasers at them. The second project was carrying on one of our final year PhD’s work which involved making particular intermediates to understand a mechanism. The synthesis of the compounds was rather tricky as the molecules were small, extremely water soluble and “sticky” which meant purification and characterisation was a nightmare. One bonus from this is that I am now a pro at distilling.

I very much enjoyed my first postdoc. I have learnt a lot. I was also given plenty of opportunities to improve my CV by helping to write a review article and running an organic chemistry revision session for the students in our lab. I also helped design and run an Open Day experiment.

The next 18 month postdoc, at the same University but with a different boss, involves larger molecules with aromatic rings, which means I can TLC and column to my heart’s content again. You miss it when you can’t use it, trust me. I will be doing catalysis and flow chemistry which are always fun. I did quite a lot of flow chemistry during my PhD but I think there may be a steep learning curve with these machines, however, I am looking forward to the challenge. I am particularly excited to learn even more lab techniques and I hope to further improve my supervisory skills through supervision of MSc and PhD students in the lab.

The aim after this postdoc is to get a postdoc abroad and then who knows?

Wish me luck!


Chemistry Careers – more than just research

A bit of a different post for me…

On Wednesday 14th November the Yorkshire and Humber regional group of the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) hosted a careers options seminar at the University of York. The aim of the session was to show undergrads, postgrads and postdocs that there is a range of research and non-research careers paths that they can take, both in and out of the lab. As their newest communications officer, I thought I would share a summary of the evening with you ahead of the next session for the Uni of Leeds students and postdocs (message me for more info).

Matthew Thornton talked about his career in Knowledge Transfer. Not surprisingly, no one in the audience had even heard of knowledge transfer as a career option but Matthew explained it very well. Matthew has a degree in chemical engineering and a PhD in materials science. He showed that there are great opportunities to meet interesting people (e.g. Duke of Edinburgh) and to travel to many countries in his job. He gets to work with a wide variety of people from industry, academia and government.

Gareth Ensor works in process development and scale up at Astra Zeneca. He demonstrated, in his talk, that it is possible to have a great career in research without having a PhD. Gareth talked about the importance of the development of transferable skills such as acting decisively, strategic thinking and working collaboratively. He also showed pros and cons of his career, highlighting the learning that comes from scale up of processes.

Dan Woolaston is a trainee patent lawyer. He had a very entertaining talk on the intellectual challenge of patent law, and variety of work, switching from cutting edge science to lone inventors with simple ideas like bike locks. He described the required skills as excellent communication skills and the ability to understand the science behind the inventor’s idea quickly. He said the downside was the number (8+) of exams required.

Finally, Jason Lynham gave a talk on his academic career. He talked of the pleasure of working in something you really enjoy and the travel opportunities and collaborations abroad. He also described the pressure of constantly having to find funding, and the highs and lows of getting papers and funding bids accepted or rejected.

The turnout and feedback from the session was really good, let’s hope the one at Leeds is just as successful!

My lightning bolt moment

I have been neglecting this blog lately as lot has been going on. Sorry! I have been working on a blog about crying in the lab, but I had a sudden urge to write this post during my mid-afternoon Earl Grey tea break… Is there a person that you would call your chemistry idol? Or perhaps someone that inspired and propelled you to break boundaries in your subject area?

I remember the moment where I felt like chemistry was really for me and that I really could change the world. It sounds corny but it is true. It all started during the early years of my PhD. I was begrudgingly dragged away from the lab to attend a three day series of lectures by Dan Nocera from MIT. I had no idea what to expect (I hadn’t googled him before the lectures) but I didn’t expect to come out of those lectures feeling as inspired and up for the challenge as I did.

For those who don’t know, Dan Nocera‘s group pioneers studies of the basic mechanisms of energy conversion in biology and chemistry. He has, for example, accomplished a solar fuels process that captures many of the elements of photosynthesis outside of the leaf. He has hundreds of publications which are all on his website. As well as his really interesting and important work, it was his attitude and presentation style that grabbed me. He was very passionate about what he does but he was also relaxed and open to questions. He showed of all of us in the audience that we, as scientists, need to be working on the future energy problem, sooner rather than later.

Although Dan Nocera isn’t my idol as such, I can put my desire to remain in research down to those short three days. He showed me that we can try to answer the ‘big’ questions by working our guts out in the lab and that, one day, humans could potentially be smarter than plants!

So who or what was your inspiration to go in to research? I am really interested to find out.