I have a team

Way back in May 2009, I described how being around a team of fellow grant wranglers from another department made me realise how much I miss being part of a team of peers. In my current job I’m really a team of one, responsible for all of the department’s grants and other tasks with no-one else around to learn from, bounce ideas off, or just provide mutual moral support. I love the work, but the sense of isolation and the obligation to cover every. single. deadline by myself means that the job is not always ideal.

Well, guess what?! As of June 1st I will be joining the team I started to envy so much back in 2009!

It’s been a strange few months. In early February my boss called the department’s lab manager, admin manager, admin assistant, accountant and me into a meeting, in which he told us that he might have to make “quite drastic” cuts to the admin salaries budget, and that all our jobs were in jeopardy. The start-up / industry collaboration funds from which we’d all been paid thus far were running out, and verbal assurances from above that our department (created from scratch for my boss to lead when he was recruited to our institution) would eventually be given an annual admin salaries budget had never actually been realised.

Well, it was all a bit of a panic. We knew that the boss was doing everything he could to guarantee our positions, but it was all very scary and the atmosphere was tense, to say the least. Given that Mr E Man’s salary is highly variable throughout the year and we have a substantial mortgage, I knew I had to have at least a part time permanent position, possibly with some freelance manuscript editing or similar work thrown in to supplement it. I wondered if volunteering to go part time would save my position from being completely abolished, or if that would make me look less than fully committed and thus result in me being axed first. The person I would usually ask about such things was on the chopping block too, so I didn’t really feel like I could talk to them about it. Everyone was on edge, constantly asking the others in our sad little group if they’d heard anything, and everyone thought they themself would be the first one cut (except for the accountant – we all agreed that she was safest, because no-one else in the department would know how to even start taking over her duties, whereas senior postdocs and techs could conceivably have taken over some of mine and the lab manager’s, respectively).

I immediately started to update my CV and LinkedIn contacts list, emailed various people to ask if they would provide a reference (different references would be needed for different types of job, and all options had to be considered at that point), and – most importantly – contacted the person in charge of the project management / grant wrangling team at this other division of our organisation.

I’ve worked with the leader and several members of this team on various grants and other projects, have quite recently started to attend their weekly team meetings (and also some of their lunches / after work drinks), and already knew that applying to join them would be my most likely next career move – although I’d set myself the rather arbitrary target of being in my current job for at least five years before moving on (I’m going to fall five months short of that goal!) Having a large team makes it possible to specialise or otherwise evolve the role, and also to eventually move up the hierarchy – two benefits that just aren’t possible when you’re a team of one. (It also means not having to cover every single deadline for a whole department by myself, giving me much more flexibility in terms of when I can take time off). I knew that there was also a budget and paid time off for members of the team to take work-related courses, as long as they come back and share what they’ve learned with everyone else – something that just isn’t possible in my current job. Combining these advantages with better long-term financial stability than our organisation’s other departments made joining this team my best career development option by far – and the news about my current job not being safe really just accelerated my plans.

I knew from attending the team’s meetings that an 18 month maternity leave cover position was opening up, and so that was what I applied for. A couple of weeks after getting the scary news from my current boss, I met the other team’s leader informally to discuss the process, and we set up a time a few weeks in the future for a formal interview. I told my boss that I’d applied, and he replied that he was glad I was thinking of these things and would be happy to provide a reference. I was still losing sleep worrying about the situation, but not quite as much as in my zombified state of the last few weeks, and I gradually untensed a little bit.

Soon thereafter, I learned that the funding for my current job was “probably” safe for “about a year”. I knew that my boss had worked very hard to secure that position, and felt horribly guilty about the fact that I was still interviewing for the other job. I tried to just keep my head down and focus on my work, but the situation was exceedingly bizarre and awkward. I was still going to the other team’s meetings and social gatherings, attended a workshop led by my potential new boss, and was also going to meetings related to my current job that were attended by the leader and/or other members of the team I was trying to join. I basically felt like the whole few weeks were one extended job interview where everything I said was subject to scrutiny. This was quite possibly all just in my own head, but that didn’t make it any less stressful or weird.

At the interview (for which I’d taken a day off work), I learned that I wasn’t actually being considered for the mat leave cover position, but rather for a new position that had just opened up when a grant got funded. It’s as manager of a huge 5.5 year grant in an field I know something about, having worked on several related projects and grants with my current boss, who collaborates with the PI of the grant I’ll be managing (as does my postdoc supervisor. Post about the Vancouver life science industry’s Two Degrees of Separation coming up soon). 5.5 years is as close as you’re going to get to a permanent job in science, short of getting tenure…

Well, the interview obviously went well, because I soon heard from one of my references that the team leader had contacted him. The next necessary step was to have a very, very awkward conversation with my current boss about the whole process, during which I explained about the 5.5 years and the team and the specialisation and the courses and the chances for promotion, and that I thought he was doing super-awesome-cool research (he really, really is) and hoped that I’d still get to work on some of his projects in the future (he collaborates with various PIs from my new department on almost all of his various projects). He said we could maybe discuss how my situation could be improved in my current post, but we both knew that the advantages of the new role that I’d just described to him were not in his power to offer me if I stayed.

Then, on Thursday, while I was sitting in my new team’s weekly meeting eating the cake one of them had provided to celebrate a difficult task being completed with everyone’s help and wondering when I’d hear back about the job, a letter of offer hit my email inbox! I talked again to my current boss before signing it (although it was never in doubt), and he was so cool about it – he said congratulations and that he knows that people need to think about their own careers and that he thinks it’s a good move for me. We both thanked each other for the last four and a half years, and off I went to officially accept the offer.

Despite all this, however, it was still a bit weird and awkward when I went out with my new team for a celebratory drink last night, and my current boss was sitting two tables over…

I’m so happy and excited. I get to be part of a team again – a team that includes two good friends from my 2005-2007 industry job – and I get to take on a new challenge. I’ve learned a lot – a HELL of a lot – in my current job, and enjoyed it most of the time, but this is a great move for me and a good time to move on: a couple of big projects I’ve been managing are winding down; two papers that have been taking up large parts of many people’s time and efforts for the last two years have just been published; and the only two colleagues I would truly call friends were, sadly, casualties of the budgetary crisis. (I’m in the process of becoming friends with a couple of others, which will hopefully continue – I’m only going a few blocks away* and will still interact with various members of the group).

The new job will be somewhat similar to my current one, but with much more emphasis on project management and much less on writing grants**. Oh, and I get to go to Montreal in July, where I will attend the kick-off meeting for my new big project, and also hopefully take some new photos to replace the ones from my last trip there, which all have my ex-boyfriend in them!

I’m also just enormously relieved to have this stressful period of my life behind me. I’m fine with change – I like change – but I’ve never been very good at dealing with uncertainty; I’m a planner. It hasn’t been fun, but it’s over now and I’m more than ready to move on – after I slash and burn my way through the rather intimidating “to do before I go” list I started writing yesterday!

Before I finally close this rather epic post (as you might be able to tell, it’s been killing me not to be able to blog about any of this!), I’d like to say a massive THANK YOU to all my online friends who’ve provided support, advice, and just listened to me freaking out over the last couple of months. It’s been hard to talk to people at work about this, and Mr E Man and my non-work friends in real life have been lovely but don’t really understand how science careers, funding, and other aspects of the industry works. Having a community of people who understand the industry but don’t know the people involved has been enormously helpful – Eva in particular gave me some wonderful advice about how to approach an interview where you know all the interviewers – but you’re all wonderful! THANK YOU!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*actually, to the same building where I worked from 2005-2007… and right now I work in the same building where I did my postdoc… this’ll be my fourth job in Vancouver and I’ve only ever worked in two buildings about three blocks apart.

**less time spent writing about science at work should mean more time spent writing about science in my free time – the benefits of having a career skill that’s also a hobby! I started this blog during my industry job, when my science writing itch just wasn’t being scratched at work at ALL, and it became much less sciency when I began my current job and started doing a lot of de novo science writing at work. The blog might get a bit more sciency again, but I’m going to try to channel that itch into some other long-term writing-for-fun projects instead… once the initial brain overload caused by starting a new job subsides, of course!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in blog buddies, career, grant wrangling, personal, science, Vancouver. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to I have a team

  1. Nina says:

    Cath, that’s FANTASTIC!!! Congratulations! Now I understand why there was only hockey updates for so long …! Not that I don’t like hockey, but it’s hard to connect when you’re in rugby-land.
    I think you are the most awesome career-planner I’ve ever come across, you seem to have things all so nicely lined up (I know that’s probably just appearance, but still) and you’re so smart about knowing and realizing what you want.
    I’m going to bake apple pie to celebrate your success.

  2. Alyssa says:

    I’m so happy for you, Cath! It sounds like the perfect fit for your next step in your career. I can see how it would have been awkward and strange, and how you’d be anxious about it all (and now I understand your comment on my post a few weeks back about me potentially losing my job).

    Congrats!!

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Congratulations! Sounds like a step up and in today’s cloudy world of science funding that’s no small feat!

    Cheers!

  4. The new job will be somewhat similar to my current one, but with much more emphasis on project management and much less on writing grants**.

    HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :D

    I’ll wait for the 5.5 year retrospective post to see just how much grant writing you *didn’t* get involved in… ;)

    Seriously though, congrats (but you knew that already). I am sure you will really enjoy being involved with these guys (but you knew that already, too). All the best (but I said that before, too).

    [this comment is the new front-runner for “VWXYnot Bragging Rights Central Useless Comment of the Year 2012]

  5. Grant says:

    As an independent computational biologist (i.e. a consultant), I can understand your happiness at being part of a team again. There’s that difference between working for a team, even if possibly being quite closely involved with them, and being part of the team. It’s a small difference in some ways, but a huge difference in others.

    Just out of curiosity: do you feel that in your former role it helps to have a ‘professional barrier’ to carry out that the role (‘grant wrangler’), or do you feel it is it mostly another burden to carry? (By the former, I mean that in some lines or work, you need a professional distance from your clients, so that your contributions have integrity and independence. As I’m writing, I’m thinking that in academic settings, with it’s acceptance of challenging ideas, that it’s less of an issue than in other careers.)

  6. chall says:

    Awesome! Nice to read the post about it al! Sounds so exciting :) Happy thought and good luck with the new and finishing the old.

    and yes, having that drink with old and new close to each other would feel a little odd…

  7. Lisbeth says:

    Glad that I checked in just in time to send you a big congrats!

  8. Thanks all!

    Nina, yeah, when the most important thing happening in my life becomes unbloggable, it tends to reduce my motivation for blogging other stuff, too. Hence the surplus of hockey posts lately. But I’m BACK BABY! (hopefully. Grant deadline next week plus trying to tie up all loose ends before I leave means busy busy times).

    “I think you are the most awesome career-planner I’ve ever come across, you seem to have things all so nicely lined up (I know that’s probably just appearance, but still)

    This is really the first time I’ve known what my next move would be since my undergrad-PhD-postdoc years. Moving into industry after my postdoc turned out to be a mis-step, and when I was working there I just happened to see my current job posted one day and applied without having really looked into that kind of job first. But yes, since you’ve been reading my blog I’ve had a bit more of a plan than in the past!

    Please send pie… or at least a photo of pie…

    Alyssa, that comment was the closest I came to really talking about my situation in public… I hope your situation resolves itself in you favour soon. The uncertainty’s the killer.

    Steve, it’s mostly sideways with maybe a slight upwards move too… but the long-term vertical potential is much better than in my current job! As my boss acknowledged, the best case scenario would be that he might be able to hire one other person in the next five years, to make a team of two… not really what I’m looking for!

    Ricardipus, yeah, I’m sure I’ll still be doing some… just less (and hopefully less often. When I started this job there seemed to be two big peaks of deadline activity, with some troughs in between – but lately it’s been just peaks and bigger peaks. Especially because the wide range of fields in my department – from radiochemistry to engineering infrastructure to imaging to genomics to software development to clinical trials – means that between them the five PIs apply to pretty much every funding agency in the country!)

    It’s definitely a good group of people to be joining. It’s so great that you even know some of them – and maybe we’ll get to meet one day on one of your flying visits!

    BTW I should have a most useless comment award! That’s a great idea :)

    Grant, it definitely makes a difference – I didn’t really realise how much until I’d been here for a couple of years and compared my situation to my new team’s. Yes I work for various teams – lab-based teams, teams of bioinformaticians (I think we decided the collective noun is a pipeline of bioinformaticians?), teams specific to individual projects – but I haven’t been truly a part of any of them. The closest has been a private sector collaboration, in which I’ve been more closely involved than in any of the other projects I manage.

    Your question is very interesting. I think in certain circumstances, having that consultant distance is helpful. We’re writing a grant at the moment that has sections we’re not used to writing, e.g. the economic impact of the proposed research on the healthcare system, and we’ve engaged a consultant with lots of experience in that kind of proposal to help us with that one section, which I think is enormously helpful. However, in most cases I think being a full-time member of the department is better – for example, I can spot linkages between different projects that a consultant might not see if they’re brought in to work on one project at a time, and for instance re-read a previously unsuccessful grant’s reviews when writing the new tangentially related grant. I also know the trainees better and can spot where say an ambitious postdoc who’s not officially on a given grant has expertise that could be helpful, and can gain experience in writing the proposal at the same time.

    What do you think?!

    Chall, it was fine really, just a bit weird at first!

    Lisbeth, thanks – great to see you! How are things?

    • Grant says:

      Finally had a chance to read your thoughts at a slightly easier pace. (Still incredibly all the same!) Just for clarity: I didn’t mean to refer to it in the context of a third-party consultant, but yourself in your previous job working in a ‘consulting’ sense, i.e. at arms-length rather than within the group you’re working for. (But I think you got that!) Part of the reason I asked is that the ‘professional distance’ thing in principle can be clearer if you’re not too close to those who you are offering advice/criticism – and all the (rather obvious) rest of it.

      I agree it’s harder for an outside party to see linkages between groups/people. As you’ve implied, there will be cases where potential linkages are missed because people either have their heads down through a heavy workload or whatever (or past politics – not necessarily directly between the parties involved). Within a department people then to know who doing what, as you say, but perhaps between departments some of these opportunities are still going missing. I have some sympathies here with grant-awarding agencies who must get frustrated at groups not “seeing” opportunities to work together.

      Interesting you mention that a private sector collaboration was your closest working relationship. There’s some parallels with my experience of serving a mix of academic and ‘commercial’ groups.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Ah, I see – sorry, I completely misunderstood at first.

        I don’t really see any other way to do it, to be honest. In my new job I’ll basically have the same relationship to the PIs as I do in my current one, but the difference will be that there will be a team of us who have that same relationship to different groups of PIs.

  9. Bob O'H says:

    Excellent, and well done on conningimpressing your new boss.

    I had been wondering if that’s what your tweet a few days ago was about (well, approximately. As in I suspected you had a job offer. Not that you had been offered this particular job because I obviously didn’t know that this specific position had even been opened, still less that you had been interviewed. Although now I think about it, of course you did ask about interviewing for a job where you knew the panel, so I could have guess it was that job, even if it might also have been your current boss offering you an extension to your position).

  10. Massimo says:

    First of all, congratulations. To me, someone like you is a bit the bellwether of how things are out there. If a person as talented and resourceful as you have proven to be, were one day truly unable to find employment, then we would know that things have gotten really, really bad. Fortunately it is not like that — yet.

    Secondly I do not understand your misgivings and feelings of guilt, really. Where do they come from ? Why is it that it is OK for bosses to tell employees point blank “sorry your position has been/will (likely) be eliminated”, while employees have to walk on egg shells when it comes to firing their own employers ? You are on soft money, being told by your boss that at any moment your job may be no more, and you feel “guilty” about looking for something, anything to stay afloat ? I say you do what you gotta do, and if your boss should resent you (which I am sure he won’t), !@#$ them. Supply and demand must work equally in both directions, it cannot always be the employee to take the shaft.
    Your soon-to-be-former boss may be the greatest person in this world, but if he cannot afford you, he has to settle for less, simple as that. The only chance to go back to a reasonable job market, in which mission critical individuals are hired as they should be (i.e., permanently) and paid as much as they are worth, is precisely by making employers realize that unless they put more on the table, they are not getting the performance.

    So, you have the perfect job now. You know what I say ? Say, hypothetically, you get a phone call tomorrow from someone else — heck, your current boss, telling you that a permanent position may be available for you if you are interested — are you going to “feel guilty” about telling your new employer that you are quitting ? I sure as hell hope not.
    If someone out there is willing to offer you more (either by way of better salary or stability), it means that that is what you are worth in a market economy. So, why should you settle for less ? If you want to do charity, I can name many worthy causes before either your current or past employer, believe me.
    I don’t know, maybe I have gotten disillusioned with unions, but I do feel that unless employers start getting burned by employees leaving, things won’t get better.

    • Stockholm Syndrome has been suggested… as has some residual paranoia from my last job, a rather toxic environment in which people who were interviewing elsewhere had better make damn sure no-one found out about it until they’d accepted the new job, because if they were seen as being anything less than 100% loyal and committed they really would need to be looking for a new job soon… but the most likely reason is just my over-thinking, guilty-about-everything personality. And I’m not even Catholic… although maybe my lapsed-Catholic dad managed to pass some of it on!

      • Massimo says:

        Any employer demanding undivided loyalty of employees should commit 1) never to lay off anyone (unless the employee commits a crime) 2) always to beat any competitive salary offer and/or pay better than prevailing wage.
        If they don’t, they are delusional and/or bullying thugs.

        • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

          I agree. They should.

          Sadly, we do not live in such a world.

          • Massimo says:

            You are right, but while to some extent they are what they are “because they can”, I also think that “because we let them” is part of the equation as well.

  11. Heather says:

    I like Massimo’s comment about the non reciprocity of the power structure. But I think there is nothing to be done except to be so good as to get some practice in asserting your choices. Public congratulations!

    • thanks! Yeah, this was only my second time ever actually resigning from a job, rather than just having a degree or a postdoc contract run out on me. It’s a very different situation, one that academic training doesn’t really prepare you for. It’s something I’ll be glad not to get much more practice in though, to be honest!

  12. bean-mom says:

    Just adding my congrats here, Cath. I was wondering when I would hear about the details =) It sounds like a fabulous position for you–well done, you! And yeah, 5.5 years guaranteed funding? As you said, that’s as close as its gets to “permanent” in science these days!

    • Thanks! Yes, it’s a good fit, at a good time.

      I was already very attracted by a guaranteed 18 months with option to renew, in contrast to a “probably safe for a year” situation in my current job… 5.5 years is almost unheard of!

  13. Pingback: Scooped – why I have a hard time getting on board with Open Science | VWXYNot?

  14. Phil Ashton says:

    Congrats Cath!

    I was just wondering about the advice you were given concerning being interviewed by people you know. I had a bad experience of this a few years ago and potentially have a similar situation coming up soon, could you stick it in a blog post with Eva’s permission?

  15. Pingback: New Bragging Rights Central Post | VWXYNot?

  16. Pingback: UPDATED Linked into Vancouver science | VWXYNot?

  17. Pingback: New job update | VWXYNot?

  18. Pingback: Untangling the wrangling angle | VWXYNot?