Friday, April 4, 2014

Revisiting the PhD vs. the MD debate

So by far, the most 'popular' post that I've written is the below:

It has garnered a lot of reads, and many comments. Some agree with me, and some more, decidedly not. I have approved the majority of them, but if they were overly rude, I did not. My blog, my prerogative.  Yes, I did spell a word wrong. Shoot me.

So that was written over seven years ago. Have my opinions changed? In a way, they have changed dramatically. I have had the opportunity to work with many people in that time. Many were PhDs and many were MDs. I also have much less of the 'inferiority complex' that I did as a new postdoc. I'm in a stable, well paying job that I really love. The uncertainty that plagued that part of my life is over.  It changes your perspective.

I've also learned a couple of key points:

1. Elitism is alive and well in academia: I have had the pleasure to work with many high profile scientists, including amazing mentors - and they have been wonderful people as well as highly intelligent and innovative scientists. But I have also encountered many PhDs, at varying levels  of their career path, who are arrogant, self-centered and project a strong scent of self superiority. What I've learned is that those people are trying very hard to convince you how smart and important they are, when in reality their work should speak for itself. If the mouthpiece speaks louder than the science - it may just be because the science doesn't have much to say.  On the flip side, I've worked with many MDs who I may have previously projected the above traits on based on my own bias, but found the exact opposite. And I've also met some who are also smug and look down on me. In the end, people are people and your education doesn't necessarily determine if you'll treat people well.

2. More and more med students face similar challenges to graduate students: A degree in medicine, especially if you are highly specialized, is no longer a free ride to a high paying job in the city of your choice. See the attached story from October 2013 about such issues in Canada. Although the extent of the problem is not the same, it is headed in the same direction.  Potentially compounding this problem is that more and more med school students have advanced graduate degrees (masters and PhDs) prior to going into medicine. Many of these highly trained scientists will be looking to going into highly specialized medical practices, that may or may not be there for them when they complete their training. They are also older, with considerable student debt and they have been training FOREVER. No wonder they want that dream job.  This is at a time when many people are crying out for a family doctor, there are fewer to be found.  Could this be because being a 'specialist' is considered better than being a 'general practitioner'?  I'm no expert here. I have a family doctor that I respect immensely, and I would not for a second want her job. 

Which leads me to my third and final point:

3. Width vs. depth: I have learned that the biggest difference between an MD and a PhD is the type of knowledge gained. An MD in itself is about learning a wide width of knowledge across the medical discipline. This is refined during a residency to potential specialties.  In specialized fields (such as cardiac transplant surgery, pediatric infectious disease, etc.),  I would argue that the extra training years give you equivalent training in depth to virtually any PhD.  In contrast, the PhD is the depth in a very specific area (i.e. learning more and more about less and less), but in today's interdisciplinary world where to be successful you need to understand complex ideas from many different fields, such as bioinformatics, statistics, clinical trial design, ethics, epidemiology, genetics, molecular biology etc, etc, etc. The PhD is starting off with depth but expects the ability to acquire width. And therein is the essential difference.

Society does not appreciate the knowledge base of the average PhD, mostly because PhDs generally make themselves inaccessible to the general public. I do however, think its better than it was when I wrote my original post. People rarely ask me if I'm a 'real doctor' anymore, especially when they hear what I do. In turn, it's my responsibility to do that outreach, and to explain how my years of training does to benefit society.  In turn, it will be understood that there areas (in medicine, in my case) where I understand things very well, down to the cellular level. That being said, I would never, ever give anyone medical advice - I always say to talk to their MD.  I say this even though I have had about 16 years of experience understanding the complexities of the immune system, whereas their family doctor may have had a couple of modules in med school (or may have a PhD themselves, its very variable).  But our knowledge bases are different - I've not dealt with patients. My 'job' is to help enlighten how science and research (often done by PhDs) has lead to inform and direct medical practice (often done by MDs).

In the end we all have our place.

Moving in a new direction

So since I've decided to revisit the 'Eternal' (now in quotes, as I am no longer officially a) Postdoc, I have to go about this blog a little differently. I hope to focus on the best parts of my old blog, talking about political issues, life issues, science career progression and outreach. To that end, I went through and did a hard edit of my old posts. The ones that are left are ones I think are the most relevant. I hope in the next couple of weeks to revisit some of my more popular posts, the first being, "PhD vs MD" which has by far generated the most discussion. You may be surprised what I have to say now.

I also have decided on some 'new rules'

1. I won't talk about my job: Although I love my company, its science and my position there, this is not the forum in any way to discuss the science we do there. As a company, and due to my position within it, things I say would be construed as being a 'company position'. This is my personal blog, and the opinions expressed are my own only. If you know me and know my company, the best place to get information about it is on its website. Or talk to me.

2. My family: As such a big part of my life, parenting is bound to come up. But I will talk in generalities and attempt not to use personal details. The internet has changed quite a bit since the inception of this blog. My son will have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed by my antics in years to come so a search coming up with a blog about him when he was a toddler shouldn't be one of them. I have to come up with a cool nickname for him - I had the nickname of "Sprout" for him when he was in utero, maybe I'll use that.

Other than those two - all bets are off! I'm known for being blunt, and will continue to be. I may have tempered some opinions with age and experience, but I still have plenty of things to say. A quick stat count indicated almost 62,000 views of the blog so far - small beans I know, but a lot for me. I appreciate that someone is listening to what I have to say!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Resurrecting the blog - time to catch up

So, its about time for an update, don't you think?

A lot has happened in the approximately 3.5 years since my last post. I think I'll give a rousing update, and then in the next couple of months, I hope to return to what I loved about blogging. I have missed it, but sometimes that thing called life gets in the way. I was surprised to see that people are still reading!

1. Postdoc, no more! After my last post, I continued to interview for academic positions. I also looked at my other options. In a long story that it probably suitable for another time, I ended up with two offers at once, one for a tenure-track academic position, and another for a director level position at a small biotech. After much consideration, I took the biotech position and I have been in my new city, in my new job since October 2010. It was the right decision for me. It has, altered my opinion on many of the things I have written in the past, and I hope to 'update' some of my older posts with things I've learned.

2. Auntie, and now.... mommy! The other major life event that occurred just after starting my new job, was equally as exciting - parenthood. Our son was born in 2011. He is everything. He'll probably poke up now and again in my re-vamped blog. Parenting changes your opinion about many things. It also galvanized my belief that science is important. I try to parent based on a combination of brain and gut.

3. Training... still! I haven't done many triathlons since moving east, but I still train, and I still race. Mostly running at the moment. Training for a 10k in May. Most of my complaints around that are my body rejecting continuing exercise!

I still have plenty to write about, and I'm as opinionated as ever. Maybe even more so.

It's good to be back.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Surviving the Academic Interview: Tips and Suggestions

I just returned from my latest academic interview. As the experience is fresh on my mind, I'd thought I would blog about my own perspective in tackling this process - my experiences, and hoping that others will add their comments. I think sometimes the whole process is a black box and although there are some great resources out there, in the end it appears to be a little bit discipline and region specific. So assuming in my case, you are in Canada and applying for a medically related faculty position, here goes my suggestions.

1. Be prepared: The obvious one for sure. But this is really the take home message, and will evident through all my tips. If you aren't prepared, it shows.

2. Be yourself: There is sometimes this belief that you have to put on your 'game face' for these interviews. My suggestions is not to. The people interviewing you are looking to see your fit as a colleague and if you come across as something you are not, it is likely not going to work in your benefit. On the same vein, although you want to play up what you've been able to achieve, there is sometimes a fine line between being honest about your experience, and being arrogant. It is important to find that balance.

3. Research the institution and the department carefully: First, you need to know if this is a place you are willing to go, and more importantly, if you can be successful there. Look for potential collaborators - in my experience this often occurs via technique rather than subject area. Understand the strengths of the department, even if it isn't in your subject area. Look up the courses offered by the department and be prepared to discuss what courses you feel uniquely qualified to instruct.

4. Be enthusiastic. Again, a bit of a fine line. You want the people you are meeting to be excited about your subject area, and the best way is to be excited yourself. But it has to be genuine. Hopefully at this point, you really like what you do and it has to show.

5. Know how you will separate your research from that of your mentors. You should have already had this discussion with your mentor, and it should be clear how you can conduct your research independently and with a unique niche to ensure funding.

6. Be friendly to everyone. One interesting point that was pointed out to me was that often search committees will ask research support staff who arranged the interview about their interactions with the candidates. Usually, this is easy, because the support staff is an important and generally very friendly group, but its important to note that during an interview, its your interactions with everyone that matter.

7. Don't be afraid to ask for feedback. If you've been through another interview, it often doesn't hurt to ask for feedback from that group. They often bring up both strengths and weaknesses that you may not see. Also, give your presentation to colleagues who often give important feedback on positive changes you could make.

8. Ask questions. I had to learn this one myself. I used to be so focused on selling myself I didn't realize that I was also interviewing them. Ask things you really would like to know if you are going to this location i.e. what is the graduate student population made up of, what are the research support services?, what is the teaching/service loads? What do you think constitutes a good research plan?  

Other than that, for my own mental health, I try to keep these things in mind. Every academic interview is unique thus they rarely follow the exact same schedule of events. Be able to roll with the punches. Things may not go smoothly, and how you react to changes and bumps will be assessed. And lastly, there will be likely other candidates coming in, and in the end their qualifications on paper will be as good or better than yours. Thus, do your best, and the rest is really out of your hands.

If this is you, good luck!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Honesty is the best policy: Giving your postdoc a valid judgement

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk at a national conference about postdoctoral fellows in this country, and our lack of academic career progression. Now that I'm doing the final preparations for my academic interview, I am looking for a reason to take a break, and one of the comments during the discussion period keeps nagging away in my grey matter. One of the postdocs who attended my presentation commented that in general, mentors and other academics are unreasonably optimistic about the career opportunities of current postdocs in academia. That no one seems willing or able to say what many postdocs need to hear - your CV isn't strong enough to make the transition to academia, thus you need to be looking elsewhere.

I had never thought of it that way, but in my experience it is true. Are academics too nice? Are they uninformed or delusional about the opportunities within their own field? Are they afraid that being honest with their postdocs will result in their 'leaving them in the lurch' to move into alternate careers? I think all those are in play.

Whatever the reason, the result is the same. A largely uninformed and oblivious senior graduate student and early postdoc population, and a largely disillusioned senior postdoc population. When I quote the (outdated) statistic that less than 20% of graduating PhDs will become academics, I am nearly always met with shock, and then skepticism. I can nearly hear the wheels turning - Well, that might be right, but certainly I will be able to get that position.... Let's be realistic, if you have 10 postdocs in your department, it means that AT BEST, 2 will be successful in securing the academic position. That's a little simplistic, I know because many graduating PhD's do not go into a postdoc phase thus self select themselves out - and no good statistics exists on how many POSTDOCS are able to secure the positions they seek. But its still a minority.

So, how do you know if you don't make the cut? Often you decide that on your own, usually based on lack of success in the academic search. A really awesome mentor would tell you , "Look, you're a solid researcher, but you do not have the CV to make that transition right now. Either you publish X number of first authored pubs, or you need to make other career plans". Sounds harsh, right? No more harsh than X number of academic applications without a single interview, each one chipping away at your self confidence. I have read that the greatest indicator of your potential success in securing an academic position is being short listed for other positions. If you get the interviews, eventually you will likely get a position. If not, you need to look elsewhere. But that process can take YEARS.

Thus, I would advocate for this.... Mentors, you need to be cruel to be kind.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Preparing for an Academic Interview

As a postdoc seeking my first 'real' job, an academic interview is a very nerve-wracking thing. Getting the interview is often the biggest hurdle, because it means you've 'made the cut' from the initial stack of applications (which I've heard can range from 100-400 per position here in Canada), through the 'long-list' where they actually consider what your references think about you to the ultimate 'short list' - the interview. Typically, this means your one of about 3 applicants vying for the job. You would think that this is pretty good odds, but twice I've made it this far, only to have the position go to another (likely more suitable) applicant. Maybe in my case, the third times the charm. In reality it means that the other applicants are as good as you are on paper, and your chance to push the tide in your favor is during this interview process. It means physically going to the place where the position is offered, and meeting multiple members of the department and doing the infamous 'job talk' - a one hour presentation on your previous/current research and where you forsee your own independent research going.

In the past, I've had a couple of things that were working against me. My field of research, although a wonderful and exciting topic, doesn't fit well into one specific department, thus I have found myself trying to sell myself and my research as fitting in. This current position is in the one department where my research clearly 'fits'. Check. Also, inexperience in interviewing has been clearly addressed, and now I know what to expect, and hope that this time I can 'nail' it. I also don't feel the desperation that I have felt in the past - I have consciously made the decision that if I am not successful in securing a position this summer, it will likely mean that I am meant to have a position outside of academia, and several other opportunities have already begun to trickle in.  I think honestly I am in my best position currently to put my best foot forward.

That doesn't mean that my nights from here to then will not be sleepless.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Canada and the Olympics


So the 21st Winter Olympics are done! I must say that I really enjoyed watching the games this year. Of course, being Canadian, and having the games in my home country, it really did fill me with a sense of pride. This is my two cents worth on the games.
  • I think the games went well. The events were fun to watch, and the athletes for the most part participated with respect and dignity. No games are perfect, and we were a perfect example.
  • I feel so sorry about the luge athelete from Georgia. My thoughts are with his family and country and we his name will be ever tied to these games
  • I'm very proud of my country. I guess that might be a surprise to some people in the world, this surge of nationalism, but not to me. We didn't need to 'own the podium', although I think that funding for sport is a good thing for all Canadians. We need to focus on sport and play and getting off our collective butts. And we can do good things. I think the Americans and Germans, who got more medals than we did, also did a fantastic job, so kudos. But we also got more medals than we ever have, and more golds than anyone in history. We need to celebrate that as our victory.
  • Is there anything better than that Gold medal Hockey game?! It was a nail biter and really fun to watch. And I'm not really a big hockey fan. 
  • I will miss watching this every night, but look forward to the paralympics games in a couple of week.
It's been a blast so thanks to the world for coming and to Vancouver for hosting. See ya in 2014 in Russia!

When parents put ignorance ahead of their kids health

This morning I read this story about the level of knowledge that parents have about vaccines and their potential side effects.

These kind of stories make me fume. Let me explain why. As a scientist, I'm trained as an immunologist, and I study how the immune system works. Honestly, besides increased hygiene, vaccines have saved millions from the scourge of infectious disease. Back in 1776 when Edward Jenner was the first reported use of using an attenuated virus to protect against a more serious one, 30% of people were dying from smallpox and those who survived were often horribly disfigured from the pox scars. In the time since then, we have spent time and energy in ways to prevent these infections, primarily in the young, who are susceptible to being killed by these infections. They do a very good job. The infant mortality rate in infants now is significantly lower than it was 250 years ago, and vaccines are a huge part of that.

Then there was the idiot story in the Lancet that stated that vaccines were linked to autism and the anti-vaccine movement started. It doesn't matter that the science is so flawed that 10 of the 13 authors have retracted their support of the paper and after 12 years, the journal FINALLY retracted the paper entirely. But the damage has been done. Celebrities like Jenny McCarthy says vaccines are bad, and she's famous - so she can't be wrong? Gimme a break!

I can understand that autism is a frustrating and devastating disorder and the fact that we cannot pin a cause to it, makes things like vaccines a good target. But it is a false one. It is one where parents, by refusing to vaccinate their children, are potentially putting their lives at risk. Not only those of their children, but the lives of others too. If we want our children to have 'natural' exposure to diseases, we are going to have to accept that children will succumb to those diseases, unnecessarily. No thank you. I have children in my life that I care for, and I will not accept the risk that they will get preventable infections that their bodies cannot handle. All parents looking to jump on the anti-vaccine bandwagon should also consider this, carefully.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Catching cancer: Lessons from the Tasmanian Devil

So, lately I have decided to stay 'up to date' on the latest 'cool science' by listening to the Science magazine podcast. I must admit that I often download these podcasts and rarely get the opportunity to listen to them, but on the plane flying back to Ottawa last night, I picked it up again.

So, this month in Science magazine (abstract found here and Time magazine article found here) there was a manuscript that describes the genetic analysis of a strange tumour found in the marsupial, the Tasmanian Devil. We usually associate this animal with the crazy animated Looney Toon, but in reality, they are an endangered species, partially due to a facial cancer that is passed from animal to animal through biting. These tumours get so large, that the animal ends up dying of starvation. However, what's interesting is that is transmitted from animal to animal. It is also not associated with any virus, such as cancers in humans like HPV and cervical cancer. Also, cancers that are transmitted in this way are relatively rare in nature. There is another cancer in dogs that is sexually transmitted that if you're interested in you can learn more about here.

This Science report demonstrates that this Tasmanian Devil tumour is actually derived from Schwann Cells. For those of you who aren't scientists, these are the cells that produce myelin, a protein that protects the neurons in the brain and spinal cord, and is destroyed in multiple sclerosis. The authors hope that determining this will help the animals by providing a genetic test for the disease. In the wild, they are also trying to protect the devils by producing areas where the cancer containing animals are no longer present, or cancer-free islands.

As a cancer researcher, this is cool stuff. I have heard of the role of viruses in cancer, but a cancer passed from one individual to another just by the cancer itself is unique. And all in a little marsupial. Makes you wonder how much else we can learn from nature if we just open our eyes.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mourning in Ottawa

This week there will be a memorial service to honor a police officer that was killed in the line of duty here in Ottawa. The service is expected to be attended by many police officers from across North America.

I am so saddened by this incident. The last time that a police officer was killed on duty here in Ottawa was in the early 80's. By all accounts, Const. Eric Czapnik was an amazing man who brought great honor to the uniform that he proudly wore. Although I never knew this man, I feel horrible for his family who must be suffering under this great loss. I cannot help but feel sad for them - and for the city.

It also reminds me of a similar memorial service that I attended a couple of years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Juan. During that storm, a paramedic named John Michael Rossiter was killed when a tree pierced his ambulance. A member of the Dalhousie Medical School Choir, we sang at his public memorial service. As it is so unusual for a paramedic to be killed on the job, his memorial was attended by both paramedics and police officers from across North America. I remember the sea of uniforms paying tribute to one of their own. I guess it is yet another connection, considering that here in Ottawa, paramedics fought so valiantly to save the fallen police officer. But more importantly, I remember meeting Mr. Rossiter's family, and their palpable grief. As a fellow Newfoundlander, I got the opportunity to pay my condolences in person. In a weird irony, we knew some of the same people. During that hazy, post-storm time, it remains one of my sharpest memories.

I hope that Constable Czapnik's family can take in the outpouring of support that exists here in Ottawa. May he rest in peace.