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Online Chat with Maria Neimark Geffen: How to Advance in Your Academic Career


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On March 30 at 2 p.m. EDT, Maria Neimark Geffen, PhD, will answer your questions about how to advance in your academic career and excel in neuroscience.

An assistant professor of otorhinolaryngology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, Neimark Geffen has built up her first laboratory over the past five years. By learning new skills and approaches, she has managed to balance her professional and personal priorities. She discussed her story at Neuroscience 2015 during the Celebration of Women in Neuroscience luncheon, which you can watch here.

In this Q&A, you’ll have the opportunity to seek advice on what can help you, too, achieve your goals. So get your questions ready and post them here on March 30 at 2 p.m. to take part in this members-only chat! If you can’t join, post your questions now and check back after for an answer.

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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 2 weeks later...

Hello, everyone, and welcome. I am pleased to have you join today’s conversation on career advancement in neuroscience! As I’ve made transitions in academia and grown my first laboratory, I’ve learned skills that have helped me achieve my vision, progress my research, and enjoy my career. Over the course of our discussion here, I will be sharing these tips with you. I look forward to taking your questions, so ask away!

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jasnamarkovac

Hello,
Jasna here from San Diego. Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you.
Could you tell us about your academic career path that led to you where you are today?
Thanks!

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Janet_Clark

Thank you for sharing your experience with us Dr. Geffen.
What do you feel has been the single most important skill that you have learned and used in setting up a managing your own laboratory?

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Definitely. I had a rather “linear” academic career. Already as an undergraduate, I completed a senior thesis in neuroscience. I then did a PhD in biophysics, but in a neuroscience laboratory, studying neuronal processing in the retina. After that, I was a fellow at the Center for Physics and biology at Rockefeller, where I had the opportunity to start building my own laboratory to study the processing of sounds in the rodent brain. And then I started as an assistant professor at Penn.

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mara_dierssen

Hi Maria!
Thanks a lot for sharing your experience with us! Having a family is always complicated and more for a scientists. Children and babysitting are expensive and many women are underpayed (the famous salary gap). So, earn enough money to make it work and negotiate an appropriate salary is very important. So, how would you advise young female researchers to talk to their department chair or other decision-maker and for example negotiate a raise or a promotion?

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jennifer_stripay

Thank you so much for your time and insights this afternoon, Dr. Geffen. I’m curious to know how you think graduate programs might better equip their students for the challenges of launching and running a laboratory. Do you think formal training in management, budgeting, human resources, etc. are topics that should be incorporated into graduate education curriculum?

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There are so many skills. One skill is to focus on the “big picture” while managing a huge number of everyday small tasks. Another skill is to trust yourself, and your instincts. I would worry so much whether I was doing the right thing in the beginning, but realize later on that there are many good decisions, and by trusting my instincts I can make the decision that makes sense for my personality, rather than trying to optimize some global solution. Finally, it was important to learn how to interact with personnel, students and postdocs – pushing them to work hard, but giving them room to grow as intellectuals and as experimentalists.

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I have to admit that I did not consider other options, and was very much committed to an academic career. In hindsight, while I love where I am at this point in my career, it would have been smart to consider other options. I am happy that my students can now find more opportunities to explore alternative careers to academia, although I am still convinced that an academic career can be tremendously fulfilling.

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jasnamarkovac

Interesting. Thank you. I left academia for quite a while and am now back. It is good to have lots of options!

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I do. I think that formal training in management, budgeting, writing grant, dealing with personnel would greatly benefit the graduate students. The question is how to fund such training and how to carve out the time in the students’ already busy schedule. One or two seminars a year can help, but a more regular program would be more fruitful, in my opinion.

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Hi – thank you for sharing your time :slight_smile:
My training is in computational neuroscience (usually focused on auditory system). I am always on the lookout for enjoyable collaborations that motivate interesting modeling & data analysis problems . I don’t do experiments myself and there is not much auditory neurophys happening at my current institution so initiating new projects can be a challenge. Do you have suggestions/strategies for forming new collaborations, particularly when it involves requests for data sharing?

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Hi Mara! This is such an important question. It is so important to think of our families when negotiative our faculty position and promotion. I don’t think that this is a question that is unique for women, as both female and male researchers need money to support their families. However, studies over and over again, show that women do not negotiate as often as men do. So it is important for young researchers to push themselves and to negotiate as strongly as they can for promotion or raise at every opportunity that there is. It is very helpful to arm oneself with data, and, especially when negotiating a start-up package, or a promotion, have the numbers from surveys available. There are numerous resources available online and from specific societies.

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Yes. I believe that the best way to approach a prospective collaborator is by coming to their poster at a conference, or emailing them ahead of time and requesting for a time to meet. It is important to be able to state in the message what a specific project you would have in mind, including a representative publication from your laboratory, and make a reference to their data that you’re interested in modeling. However, keep in mind that researchers are very busy these days, and the much of our research is directly linked to specific grants that we have, so we’re often limited in the number of collaborations that we can start both in terms of time and money to support it. So having a plan for obtaining grant funding, and a good idea of how much time the experimental laboratory would need to commit to the collaboration would be very helpful.

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mara_dierssen

Thanks Maria! You are right, this aplies for both, but somehow the women are already offered less salary, and I think they are less self confident is asking for more :slight_smile: Your advice is really very important! As you said this is also taken by societies and at SfN 2016 one of the professional development courses will be on “Speaking Up and being heard”

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Absolutely, there is a very interesting study I recently read in JAMA that cites striking differences in the start-up packages that women negotiate:

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Janet_Clark

Thanks for your insight Maria. I agree that developing mentoring skills is a critical
part of starting your own laboratory. Do you have any advice for those who have a particularly difficult time delegating the scientific experimentation to trainees without “micromanaging”?

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Hi Maria, When you have competing deadlines and they are equally important (where you cannot push back and still want to be that “rescuer” or know that it just needs to get done) how then do you time manage? Something has to give, but what does?

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Yes. I believe that it is important to give the trainees an opportunity to try to approach the problem themselves and develop their own strategies. It is hard to do when the PIs are pressed for time (e.g. needing preliminary data for a grant deadline), but it is so very important for the trainees. I believe that setting clear tasks and deadlines, and expectations for how the task needs to be managed upfront helps a lot. Also, stating when this issue will be next discussed in a meeting is important. But also having a feel for how much guidance a trainee needs – some trainees need more guidance than others, and yet other trainees could really use more help from the PI, but are unaware of that :slight_smile:

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I write lists of what I want to do. When the deadline is near, I write an hour-by-hour schedule of what specifically I need to do. I spend a bit of time on these lists, because it allows me to scratch out less important items. But also, it helps to plan ahead!

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Thank you for joining me today. I encourage you all to continue connecting with each other in this thread and the broader Neuronline community.

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jasnamarkovac

I left academia as a junior faculty at a NYC Med School to go into science/medical publishing. I stayed in the private sector for some 20 years and then reconnected with my alma mater (Univ Michigan) to do some publishing work freelance. That lead to a senior level staff position at the Med School - I run a curriculum design and publishing team, working with faculty and staff on content design delivery, publications, curriculum planning, etc. It is an interesting mix of functions.

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Hi Dr. Geffen,

I have 2 questions.

  1. Have you ever had a graduate student come to you with a “I’m not sure I should be working in this field/discipline” concern and if so, how did you advise them?
  2. How important were early career awards (e.g., NIH NRSA, K) for you and how much time do you advise your students to spend on applying for these?

Thanks!
-Roberto

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Roberto,

  1. Yes, students ask me this question often. I advise them to take a step back, and imagine a day in their life, 5 years from now, if they stay on this path, or on another. Which of the scenarios appeals to them more? Doing the exercise of coming up with a concrete alternative can be very illuminating.
  2. I think these awards help, but in the end, the most important thing is to do good science. I believe that good science gets recognized, even if not accompanied by awards. However, learning how to write grants is very important, and I work a lot with my students on grant writing.
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Hi Dr. Geffen. My question pertains somewhat to NIH funding but could be applicable to other agencies. I will be starting as an Assistant Professor this fall and hope to acquire NIH funding within my first 2-3 years. I previously submitted both predoc and postdoc proposals that were not funded, and I am wondering what your tips our for “breaking into NIH funding” at the Assistant Professor stage. Thank you!

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My advice is to try over and over again. It is so tough to get grants funded these days, that chance becomes a very strong element. And the only sure way to increase your odds is to submit more grants!

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A.bas.dostov

Hi there!
I am a graduate student and aim to have a postdoctoral position. What do you think is best?To look for a postdoc where the abilities required are those that I already have OR to look for a postdoc in a different area of research where I would like to incorporate but that uptil now I am not completely fully immersed (neither in the theme nor in the techniques).
Thanks!!!
Best:slight_smile:

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  • 1 year later...

Dear Maria, Congratulations for the feat! That is really impressive and inspiring to young prospective aspirants who want to lead their way in academic research.
sincerely,
Saby

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its not only about women, even men are also underpayed. The whole academia is a flux of complexities where deciphering the exactness/close to exactness is an illusion. this has to change and the sooner the better.

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