NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

S4E9: Demystifying the Mid-Career Faculty Stage

October 20, 2023 NINDS Season 4 Episode 9
S4E9: Demystifying the Mid-Career Faculty Stage
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
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NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
S4E9: Demystifying the Mid-Career Faculty Stage
Oct 20, 2023 Season 4 Episode 9

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 9, we talk about succeeding as mid-career faculty, including challenges mid-career faculty face such as maintaining funding, advancing in your career, and balancing internal service expectations.

Featuring Rebecca Shansky, PhD, Professor, Northeastern University; Kafui Dzirasa, MD, PhD, Professor, Chief Vision and Values Scientist, Duke University; and Francisco Barrera, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Tennessee-Knoxville.


Transcript available at

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 9, we talk about succeeding as mid-career faculty, including challenges mid-career faculty face such as maintaining funding, advancing in your career, and balancing internal service expectations.

Featuring Rebecca Shansky, PhD, Professor, Northeastern University; Kafui Dzirasa, MD, PhD, Professor, Chief Vision and Values Scientist, Duke University; and Francisco Barrera, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Tennessee-Knoxville.


Transcript available at

[00:00:00] Lauren Ullrich: [intro music] Welcome to Season 4 of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke's Building Up the Nerve, where we discuss the unwritten rules or "hidden curriculum" of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help. It's our job. [music fades]

[00:00:21] Marguerite Matthews: Hello, I'm Marguerite Matthews, a Program Director at NINDS. 

[00:00:25] Lauren Ullrich: And I'm Lauren Ullrich, also a Program Director at NINDS, and we're your hosts today. 

[00:00:30] Marguerite Matthews: In our last episode, we discussed succeeding as junior faculty. Today, we're going to talk about succeeding as mid career faculty, including challenges mid career faculty face, such as maintaining funding, advancing in your career, and balancing internal service expectations.[music]

[00:00:47] Lauren Ullrich: Joining us for this episode are Dr. Becca Shansky, Dr. Kafui Dzirasa, and Dr. Fran Barrera. Let's start with introductions. 

[00:01:02] Becca Shansky: Hi, I am Becca Shansky at Northeastern University in the psychology department. And I am a newly minted full professor. 

[00:01:12] Lauren Ullrich: Congrats! 

[00:01:13] Becca Shansky: Woo! 

Thanks, guys. Um, so my lab studies sex differences in the way that animals learn associations between, um, neutral cues and aversive cues and essentially how we form memories about aversive events. Uh, one of the things we are especially interested in is behavioral diversity in the way that we can know that the animals are learning. Um, and we see some really interesting sex differences there.

One of my hobbies, which is kind of a new hobby, is I am learning to play the drums, um, which has been extremely fun and rewarding and definitely challenging.

[00:01:54] Kafui Dzirasa: Hey, how you doing? I am Kaf Dzirasa I'm newly minted 

the A. Eugene and Marie Presidential Distinguished Chair, uh, and I'm in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, neurobiology, and biomedical engineering at Duke University. I'm also an investigator, uh, with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

And I'm just really interested in how brains use electricity, um, across multiple locations in the brain to encode emotions. And so we do that by recording electrical activity from many sites simultaneously, uh, first in preclinical model organisms like mice. And then we use tools, uh, based in artificial intelligence or machine learning to figure out what those patterns are.

And the idea is if you can figure out what those patterns are, you'll ultimately have biologically grounded measurements of emotions that are useful for thinking about when emotions are working correctly and when they're working incorrectly, like in psychiatric disorders. So by understanding this architecture, we'll ultimately have new diagnostics for psychiatric disorders, uh, and ultimately, uh, come up with new ways of intervening on electricity to basically help people restore normal feeling states, things like getting rid of anxiety and depression. 

Um, my hobbies, I love to travel. I've never met a plane that I don't like. I try to do a lot of good in the world for science and society. Uh, and I offset that by my horrible carbon footprint, which I'm working to correct. Um, but it's super exciting to be here. Uh, it's a fantastic to spend time with y'all. Thanks for having me. 

[00:03:27] Fran Barrera: Hi, everyone. I am Fran Barrera. I am associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Tennessee, and I am fascinated about lipid membranes. They define the end and the beginning of our cells.

And in my group, I think that we are fascinated about pretty much everything dealing with membranes. We want to understand how the proteins that form part of it and the lipids work, how they work together, how lipids regulate proteins and how proteins regulate lipids. We are also interested in understanding the mechanism of different membrane receptors of different types.

In terms of hobbies, like Kaf, I love traveling and recently, following the advice from my father who started doing it, I combine traveling and reading, which is another of my passions. So before going to a travel, I try to find one or two books about the place where I'm going to go and I think that makes the reading more exciting and then the traveling more, more interesting. [music]

[00:04:34] Marguerite Matthews: Can you each tell us a little bit about your lab? How big is it? How is it structured? And has sort of the size and structure of your lab changed over time since you were a junior faculty to now being very successful mid career faculty?

[00:04:52] Becca Shansky: So my lab is, I guess you would call it small to medium size right now. We have two techs, a postdoc, two grad students, and then, uh, a sort of rotating cast of undergrads who are absolutely integral, um, to the lab. This is bigger than we have been in the past. I mean, the number of people you can have in the lab is completely dependent on how much money you have to pay them.

So my lab is currently growing. Um, we're bringing in a new grad student, a new, um, postdoc, uh, in anticipation of it shrinking again next year, because I think my postdoc is gonna be ready to fly.

She's already gotten some faculty interviews. So, um, I want there to make sure there's enough overlap as possible so that the knowledge is not lost. I have experienced that in the past and that was just due to funding. And it really is painful to have to try and start again, almost from scratch with respect to just, um, skill sets and, and things like that and protocols.

I don't really think of my group as a lab. I think early on we did, right?

[00:06:08] Kafui Dzirasa: And so early on, you know, we had like, two or three postdocs, two or three graduate students, and the technicians. And what we sort of came to appreciate over time is that like the brain really doesn't care about any of our PhD disciplines [laughs] or like areas of study, like at all, right? So the brain is like equal parts chemistry, biology, and if you are not convinced of that, there's biochemistry in between that, there's a little bit of physics, there's computer science, there's behavior, there's psychology, right?

 I just found that thinking about understanding emotions and psychiatric disease, like the brain is just, like, it just has a good laugh on our behalf when we think about our disciplines and how we use them to understand the brain. So with that in mind, you know, I took a lot of effort to shift what I called my lab into what I now call a collective, right? 

And so the collective, the boundaries of what you would call a lab are quite different. It's just an area full of a bunch of creative people who live in different disciplines. Um, I'm not the only PI in the collective. Um, and so there is me. There's another, uh, faculty member in my group whose background is sort of like a neuropsychopharmacology and behavior. There's somebody else whose background is like machine learning, electrical engineering, and he actually is a civil engineer also, so he's weather patterns and weather systems. 

And then we hire trainees, um, that sort of sit under all of these different leaders, right? And they bring their own skill sets and their own disciplines and backgrounds and understanding and then we all sit around and try to tackle this challenge of what is the brain and what could go wrong. Right? 

And so the number of people in this collective some days can like span 30, but it's not that they're all in my lab. And, and I'd say we'd sort of have held that number still since the pandemic, but now we're entering into what we call our growth phase because we need to bring in more staff and more ideas, um, to really fill out the structure of the collective.

But it's not, I wouldn't think of it at all as having the classical boundaries of a lab. Now we do have to train people, move them onto their positions of interest, right? But I mean, we've had folks who are, you know, data scientists come in the lab, they work really hard for two years and then, you know, they're off to either start a company or Google or somewhere else. And all of that can work in the space of moving everybody towards their goals. 

[00:08:33] Marguerite Matthews: I love the term collective for something like this. Um, I think that's a really great way to describe the group of people that you're working with, um, cause it really does feel like there's overlap, but there's also opportunities for people to sort of do their thing and shine in the areas that they're shining in, so to speak.

[00:08:52] Kafui Dzirasa: Becca really hit it off with this idea of like, you know, putting on the headphones and playing some drums, right? So it's this idea of just a bunch of like artists coming together, [laughs] right? Each on their instruments or some painters or whatever. And let's just all move to a space and like create something where the sum is more than the individual pieces. And so it's literally a collective of artists who are interested in brain and society art. [laughter]

[00:09:21] Fran Barrera: So in my group, uh, we are four grad students and one technician and myself, and I find this to be a right size in case you find good people and I have to say that I am blessed to have a terrific set of young scientists in my group. And I think that with this size, I'm able to help and mentor them in the right way, the way I like., And maybe the group could grow a little bit, but I think that if I overdid it then probably mentally will will suffer. I really think it's worth it. I think that we are all focused and we are in very frequent contact and with larger groups that becomes naturally more challenging. 

[00:10:06] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, I like this. We have like, pretty different, um, approaches presented here. And it's not that there's like, one right way, but you have to find the right way that works for you as a scientist.

So kind of speaking of, um, finding your way, what do you all feel like have been the biggest challenges for you when it comes to the mid career phase and sort of advancing your career? Um, and was there anything that surprised you during this phase of your career?

[00:10:35] Becca Shansky: I mean, the hardest part is definitely, you know, you get your faculty position and you're like, I'm going to run a lab and my job is to get grants and publish and train, you know, people. And then suddenly you're mid career and there are so many other responsibilities on top of all that because you take on leadership positions, organizing conferences. I'm currently organizing two conferences for next summer; it is not something I recommend! And, as you become more comfortable, I think, in who you are as an independent scientist, you get more ambitious and you want to sort of like initiate more, um, more things and be bolder once you've got the, um, you know, security of tenure.

And so there, there becomes a lot more to do just across the board. Um, and so that's definitely been, been challenging. 

[00:11:30] Kafui Dzirasa: Yeah, I mean, I, I totally agree with that, right? I mean, you're sort of, um, starting your lab and it might just be, for me, it was like me and my best friends the mice, right? [laughs] Spending a lot of nights and weekends together. 

And then as you progress, you just go to a scientific meeting one day and then it's like, grad students know who you are that aren't at your university. And it's like the weirdest experience where, "I've read your work" and you're like, "who's work?" They're like, "your work!" And, um, and then, you know, they might want to get advice or mentoring. And then as you progress in your career, the number of people who want advice or mentoring, or for you to come give a talk suddenly like become saturating. Right. 

So, I mean, I found at some point in time. I calculated the amount of time I was spending declining talks. So nothing comes out of declining a talk, right? You're like literally just saying no. And I calculated the amount of time I was spending, like, basically not achieving anything. In other words, declining talks. And I was like, oh my gosh, I'm spending like a ton of time writing really thoughtful notes of I really appreciate the invitation super cool, but sorry, I'm scheduling 12 months out right now. Please get back in touch with me next year, all right? And so you just find that the, the external demands of the roles that people need you to take on just can become saturating in a way that really impacts your ability to be creative and do science and to mentor the people in your own group.

So that for me was the biggest challenge of figuring out how to navigate that. 

[00:13:02] Fran Barrera: So in my case, I found that not being assistant professor anymore, it's like you, you lose maybe those little advantages that uh, you have. Maybe now NIH is going to treat you like anyone else. Now you're no longer an early stage investigator and you have to fend for yourself. If you are lucky enough to have had good mentoring in your department, that naturally dissipates. People let you fend for yourself, but I think that's, that's life. 

And I guess you have to do is to start advocating a little bit more for yourself and be more proactive moving behind the scenes, trying to not only make more contacts, but be more strategic about what you can get out of these contacts, these personal connections for advancing your career. And, uh, I think that that's part of the natural evolution of your career. 

[00:14:03] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. I often say when I don't know something like, "I'm just the baby program person," like "I don't know anything." [laugh] And then after a while, it's like, well, now that I have this title, I can't use that anymore. Like I don't have the advantages of being sort of newer navigating the system. Whether it's true or not, it definitely feels like I don't have that newness to fall back on. So I imagine it's very much the same way with faculty, not just funding, right? But people know who you are now, like you've got, you've got people in the world who have been trained by you. You've made, you know, your mark on your faculty, um, group. And so you are now seen as like a person who's really, truly contributing and not just someone kind of new, um, the new kid on the block, still figuring it all out. 

[00:14:48] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, for real. 

[00:14:49] Becca Shansky: Yeah, I feel like I had the opposite experience, though, Fran, because I felt like I did not do well with like funding until I had tenure and I don't know if it's like a little bit of a gender thing, potentially, where I had to like earn it in order to, you know, I had to get to that level of career before I was taken seriously, but, um, definitely things have gone better for me post tenure in kind of like all aspects of my career than they were pre tenure, like that was a, a struggle. Um, so it's interesting to hear that being like an early career person is seen as a advantage to some people, [laughs] cuz it definitely wasn't for me. 

[00:15:37] Kafui Dzirasa: So the things that I do that I now hear described as being really innovative, that if you sort of track my papers, I was doing them like 12 years ago, right? [laughs] And I mean, I had a really hard time selling some of these ideas, um, early on. And so I do think part of the thing that happens over time, like we forget that science, and especially neuroscience, has a huge social component to it. Right? And as your sort of reputation grows, there are ideas you're able to introduce into the field that are just sometimes really hard early on because they're like, "who is this person saying something that's really different than is consistent with precedent," right? And, you know, certainly I'll say that, um, navigating the sort of social framework, um, that comes along with science is something that I didn't really, like, the idea that there was like bias in science and that like,

[00:16:33] Lauren Ullrich: mmhmm

[00:16:33] Kafui Dzirasa: like all of these social aspects was something that I didn't really appreciate, um, early on in my career because I just thought like science was so pure, right? Like it is right because it has been published and because three people agreed, it is like science law and all of these things that I just took it like pure fact, right? And the first time, you know, you sort of go to SfN, Society for Neuroscience, and see two posters that are saying different things, and you're totally confused because you're like, how can two different things be right?

And so there are all of these initial, you know, things in science that, the human social components of it that I didn't, um, really appreciate. And that there was additional challenge to that that is way easier to navigate now in my career of just like looking really different [laughs] from a lot of the scientists around me. Uh, a lot of that has just gotten easier over time, but it was a huge challenge up front. 

[00:17:24] Lauren Ullrich: Um and so kind of on the on the funding realm, how do you decide what funding to apply for? Like, there's the NIH opportunities, but then there's all these different foundations and nonprofits and, and you could spend your whole time just putting in grant applications, right? So how do you figure out, um, what is worth your time to pursue and then how do you keep that maintenance of sort of consistent funding when these grants are constantly ending at different times, you have to renew and it just seems like a lot to juggle, even if that was your only job.

[00:18:00] Becca Shansky: It is a lot to juggle. It's a lot of work. For me, mostly, I've done just sort of straight NIH funding at this point. Like, sometimes it really is just path of least resistance and you're like, well, I know how to put in an NIH grant and, you know, even if it's not going to get funded, you've got the, the structure there.

The foundations, who knows? I mean, A, a lot of them are only for people within 10 years of their Ph.D. So I'm like way too old for a lot of the opportunities there. Um, and some of the bigger ones are, very specific in terms of what disease they want you to tackle, for example. And so you really, I think, have to do your homework and figure out if your work is a, is a good fit, um, for those because those, you know, usually it's one application and that's it. You're not going to get feedback at the end. So, you know, in terms of, you know, if it's worth your time, you need to think about how much money is it versus could I just write another R01? So, you just kind of keep going. You just keep going and you think about the timing when your grants are going to end. If you have a new idea, throw it in. If you've got a new collaboration, um, so you just kind of keep going. I don't know. 

[00:19:17] Kafui Dzirasa: So, you know, one of my favorite artists, uh, Nas said, "if I ruled the world," so, [laughs] 

[00:19:24] Marguerite Matthews: Classic. 

[00:19:25] Kafui Dzirasa: But yeah, grant funding is a funny thing, right. Um, and I don't know. I think there are a lot of challenges posed uh, by the current system of how grants are funded and evaluated and the timescales around them that could be extraordinarily challenging, right? 

So, for me, you know, my funding portfolio of my lab has changed remarkably over the last, like, 3, 4 years, right? So, I got funded, um, pretty early, uh, in my independence, I got an R01, and it was to understand how emotions are sort of captured and encoded in depression models, um, you know, looking at two or three brain areas over time. And the grant went fairly well, published like two or three papers. And I was like, oh, so, you know, you do a good job, and published relatively high profile, and you know, they give you five more years to keep going with the work. So I put in my renewal, uh, and it got a score of like, you know, 47 or something like that, which to all the newbies out there, that ain't good. [laughs] But at least I got a score, so I felt confident about this. I took the comments. I rewrote the thing, put it in, and then the score went down.

[00:20:42] Lauren Ullrich: got worse. 

[00:20:43] Kafui Dzirasa: It got worse. Yeah. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Yeah. It moved farther away from the point in which anybody was likely to pay it. So my grant, like literally didn't get renewed. Right. And I was sort of distraught by this; the, the main paper that we published, um, out of this grant ultimately won me the Young Investigator Award. So I felt like we were doing a really good job, right, in advancing the science, but the grant didn't get funded. And I'm like, how in the world is there such a disconnect between what we're doing and how it's being perceived and received by the field and how it's being received, you know, by the grant funding agency. And I have no idea what's going on. Right. 

So this was like the year going into the pandemic. It's like, oh, my gosh, like, "I'm going to have to shut my lab down." Just to give you an indication of, like, how quickly the world has changed, right? I'm gonna have to shut my lab down. I'm out of money, you know, I start having conversations with people we've got about a year and a half of runway, so let's think about what we're gonna do, you know, I put in another R01. I rewrote this one um, and then like, right before the pandemic, like the grant gets funded. And then like a month in, another grant gets funded, and then I apply for Howard Hughes, and I have Howard Hughes, and suddenly my budget is like eight times higher than it was, like, a year and a half earlier, and I have no idea what's going on in the world. 

And I still haven't figured out what's going on in the world, because I think there's a lot about the grant review process that we take, like, we like internalize it, right? We put our best ideas on paper, um, and we think everybody's going to get it, but some of it is just noisy. Right. Right. And so I do think there's an incredible utility to, you know, my, my, uh, my graduate advisor loves football, as they call it, soccer here in the United States. But he's like, you got to get more shots on goal, right? And I do think there's a lot about learning how to take more shots on goal, knowing that the system could be a little bit noisy, but the more shots you take, the more likely you're to get some of them in. 

So I don't really have, you know, how I would reconstruct the world. I just know that my science didn't get remarkably better in like eight months between when I had nothing and I think my lab was going to like potentially close down and where it ultimately is now. 

[00:22:52] Fran Barrera: Yes. I think that grants are maybe 50% an art and 50% a mystery, but generally, you get better as you go. So, as Kaf was saying, you have to keep putting grants and, uh, you get better and the grants get more interesting and you, you learn how to play the game.

In my particular case, I find very useful to serve as NIH, uh, reviewer. I think that serving in panels, which I do frequently, it narrows my focus and keeps teaching me how to play the grand game better. And, uh, if I was not a reviewer, I think that I would do much worse writing grants. 

[00:23:35] Marguerite Matthews: So, Kaf, you mentioned that, you know, a lot of times getting the next grant or maybe even getting your first grant is showing productivity. Like, look what I've already accomplished. The money that you've given me, look how I've utilized that to advance the science. How do you balance being a productive scientist with all of your other obligations, the service obligations that you have, your obligation to your trainees and other folks who are working in your lab?

I don't know. I'm assuming you've all managed it pretty well, but like, how are you managing it now compared to even before when you were kind of just maybe getting your feet wet and figuring out how to balance, um, everything?

[00:24:15] Kafui Dzirasa: Oh, it's a hot mess. Uh, yeah, yeah. [laughter] No,

[00:24:19] Marguerite Matthews: Let's put that on a t shirt. It's a hot mess. 

[00:24:22] Kafui Dzirasa: Yeah, we just make it look reasonable. So I was just talking to another junior faculty member right before this call, just trying to explain like how chaotic it is, like the surface, like so smooth and calm, but it is like totally chaotic underneath, right? And I think I just came to appreciate, and I think all of us have been there in the last few years that we sort of like talk about like, you know, the, the tax and the service obligations, making university better and grants and all of that, but there's like, we are all people, right? And if, if we sort of didn't know that before, you know, being locked in our houses by ourselves in 2020, like we should all be extremely aware of this now, right?

And, and so there's a certain need to also take care of ourselves and our humanity in this. And, you know, while I found the exercise of training and guiding and mentoring people like sort of mostly manageable before 2020, it's an entirely group of different people who have like shown up after 2020 with an entirely different work life balance. Um, some navigating things like anxiety and depression that you can see in real time. And it's not like one out of 30 grad students or postdocs, it's something more like numbers that are higher. And if they're okay, their children are not okay, right? And so it's all of this stuff that's, that's, that's come into play now.

And so, for me, I've just found like executive coaching has been the most transformative thing, um, I've gotten. One that really gives me additional skills in leadership and management and guiding people, but that also helps me to figure out how to like integrate myself, being a human into that process and the importance of like self care and going for a run and going to travel and like eating good food and all of that that like builds me as a human and into that process. So that that's um, what the real sort of learning exercise has been for me. 

[00:26:17] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, I'm doing a leadership program right now and it comes with some career coaching and it's like very transformative. It's like therapy, but for your work life. And, and it's like the accountability and, you know, having to articulate your goals and work towards them. And yeah, I really like it. 

[00:26:34] Becca Shansky: Maybe I should sign up for some coaching too. That sounds amazing. Yeah. I mean, I think just to like echo everything Kaf said, it really, I think the pandemic has made everybody kind of rethink what their boundaries are and what they're willing to do for their job, uh, you know, including, faculty and everyone.

And so I think, like Kaf was mentioning earlier, you figure out what you can say no to, and those things have probably expanded, um, which is why it's so hard for people to find reviewers these days. Um, because I think generally that's at the bottom rung of priorities of all the things that are not technically part of our job, but that we do as part of being academic scientists. 

And, you know, my main thing that I think about most is the people in my lab and, um, making sure that they understand that they can have boundaries. They are allowed to have lives. We not in my lab have a culture where they're expected to be here late at night or on the weekends. You know, they're, they come in, they get their work done and they go home and like do all the other things that they, um, that they love to do. And I think that that's worked really well for, um, you know, for the people in my lab and same for me, um, so I can practice my drums and, um, you know, really just figuring out how to organize your time a little bit, which-- I am really, you can ask anyone in my lab, not an organized person. Um,

[00:28:09] Marguerite Matthews: I can relate. 

[00:28:11] Becca Shansky: [laughs] Phew! Um, cause and you do look around and you're like, oh, everyone has their act together so much more than me, but I think probably at some level, everyone is like, "I'm just squeaking by here."

[00:28:24] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, we're all just making it up as we go along, I think. 

[00:28:27] Becca Shansky: For the most part. Yeah. 

[00:28:29] Fran Barrera: Yes. I find that you have to be or try to be strategic, have a plan on the occasions where you say no, but also probably when you say yes. So what I tend to do, or I try to do particularly with service, is volunteer to things that motivate me, that drive me, that I find interesting.

Because otherwise you might find something that you don't really like falling on your lap. And, uh, I think that just volunteering, being proactive, going for what you want, gives you the tool of saying, "Well, I would love to do that, but I happen to be so busy doing all these things," which you like and you find interesting and you find a meaningful part of your life that, uh, that lets you choose more of how you use your time and fill your life, your career with things that you like.

[00:29:22] Lauren Ullrich: Um, but Kaf, I feel like what Fran just said kind of echoes something, I think it was you that said like, there are some of these service activities that fill your cup. And kind of trying to focus on, on those as opposed to things that might drain you. 

[00:29:37] Kafui Dzirasa: Yeah, no, I, um, I had a, a good, uh, mentor who's the chair of neurobiology at Duke. And, you know, he, he pulls me aside a few years ago, and he was like, wow, you're just like doing the most. Everybody who knows me knows I have a tendency to do the most. 

[00:29:53] Lauren Ullrich: Team too much. 

[00:29:55] Marguerite Matthews: Team too much. 

[00:29:56] Kafui Dzirasa: Yeah. It's like, we need some rules, right? And we're going to have a set of rules around what you say yes to and what you don't, right? And so the rule was, um, two of these three things had to be true.

Number one was: will it have impact? If you say yes, is it going to actually do something or are you just like doing it to show up so they can say you were there? Secondly, is there someone else who can do it? Right? And so, like, look around. Is there somebody else that could do it? If If there is, recommend that person, right? Then third, is this something like you really, really care about, right? 

So two of those things have to be true every time, um, before I said yes. And he's like, if two of those things are not true, call me. And I will call the people and say, I'm not going to let Kaf do it. [laughter] so he said, just basically blame me as part of your "no" process. 

And I think what's happened over time is now all of those three things have to be true. Because at some point in time, I started getting saturated with things where two of them were true. Like two were always true. Right. As you move on your career, you suddenly do become the only person who can do a lot of things, right? And so that one tended to be true more and more. 

And so I made the threshold all three of those things had to be true. Um, and then I still found that I was getting pretty saturated as academia started wrestling with more questions about like equity and inclusion and everything else. And so then my executive coach added on a fourth one, which is, will it improve my happiness and well being? And so now it has to cross all of those. If I get invited to a talk, do I have friends at that university? Am I going to get my sunshine? Like, there are all of these additional things that come into play in thinking about how to say yes and no. 

[00:31:39] Marguerite Matthews: That's why I think a lot of this career progression is more of an equilibrium.

It's not really like, it doesn't necessarily get easier because you're always having to re-figure out what is best for me right now, not what was best for me, even 10 minutes ago, right? Like things change in the circumstances. 

And it sounds like coaching also helps with this, but I've recognized that things that you think it's supposed to get easier as you progress in your career. It's just the wrong frame of thinking. Some things may be easier. Like I can do this task that I've been doing for however many years, it's much easier for me to do, but now the level of difficulty is a little different because now I have to also manage this thing while doing this task that I've been doing really well. Or I get too disorganized and something falls off the cracks, so I like this idea of constantly thinking, how do I improve my wellness, but also like my workspace? Are the people around me happy? Am I able to like, address these things? Um, new responsibilities? Like, you know, to keep quoting hip hop greats, "mo' money, mo' problems." [laughter] um, so more funding can be great, but then that means you have more responsibility, right? 

[00:32:50] Fran Barrera: And Marguerite, adding to that another dimension to that discussion that at least happens to me is that to my utter surprise, I'm finding that some of the things that I really liked doing, now I find boring. 

[00:33:03] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah

[00:33:03] Fran Barrera: So I'm surprised that I'm leaning towards new things like maybe participating in this podcast that I would've never done five years ago. So I feel that it's just, I don't know if it's my, my brain forcing me to new areas just to find the excitement of learning something new and then getting into a new area, but that has a challenge, of course, that you're new and then you have to learn more. But I think it's part of being a scientist, being curious about things. 

[00:33:36] Marguerite Matthews: Absolutely. 

[00:33:37] Lauren Ullrich: Mm hmm. 

[00:33:38] Becca Shansky: Yeah, I mean, I feel like one of the things that attracted me to this whole career is that it is never the same. That you know, you're constantly learning, you're constantly changing what you're doing, you're constantly becoming a new person because of the, of all of those things and the way that, you know, your career just develops.

I think, um, that's part of what I like about it um, and so that I don't get bored. Um, but definitely there are things that were hard and now are easy and maybe a little bit boring. I agree. I agree with that. But that's also, you know, the benefit of what comes with moving forward in your career is you do get new opportunities, especially the travel has gotten cooler and cooler. So I think that's, to me, one of the biggest rewards of this, of this job. 

[00:34:32] Lauren Ullrich: So I guess switching gears a little bit, or maybe going back to kind of the, things that you were talking about earlier, Kaf, in terms of the equity issues like we know that one of the places where, um, inequities can really surface is in access to resources. I mean, we know that there are salary differences. We know that there are, you know, um, space differences is a big one. Um, how do you, um, gain access to resources from your institution or your university and how do you think about these, um, these equity issues? Is that something that you have encountered personally? Um, or how do you recommend others navigate that space? 

[00:35:19] Fran Barrera: Well, I think that. You will never, you'll never get what you deserve if you don't ask for it. And then you have to just go to the person that makes the decisions and rationally explain why those resources are needed or fair and present that request.

So again, you have to advocate for yourself. It may be that you have people that advocate for yourself, but I don't think that's for everyone. I think that it has to be you who leads the charge. And you have to look around and look at your value and really see your worth and just be mindful about that and maybe factor that into the discussion.

[00:36:04] Kafui Dzirasa: So I tell my mentees this story. So a few years back, um, I got an invitation to go, uh, watch NASCAR 

and I'm sitting there, um, in the audience. This was my first time at a NASCAR event, but like they drive, uh, 500 miles, you know, going like 200 miles an hour. And the difference between first place and second place was, like, seven seconds. Right? Like, after all of that. 

And as I'm, like, staring, it occurred to me that, like, the difference was because one had a better pit crew than the other. That totally accounted for the seven seconds, right? And when I say pit crew, I mean there is a person whose job it is to remove the back right tire, right?

 And, and as I was sort of observing this, um, it, it made me appreciate that it's not that all outputs just are solely a function of the inputs, but more input generally allows you to be in a better position to generate output. So you need stuff. Right. 

Secondly, there's like not that much in this world that is like high performance that is not high maintenance and just being able to accept, you know, sometimes you don't want to bother people and you don't want to ask for things, but like high performance things are high maintenance and that's like totally fine.

And so I used to use that analogy all the time, until about like two months ago, and I was on a plane, um, and um, I sat on the plane for about an hour, and then the pilot said that they couldn't take off, because there was a light on, So it was a warning light to the warning light to the original thing that was a problem. And they said, the original thing is probably fine, but if something happens with the original thing and the warning light comes on, and then the next one, we don't know that the thing three steps up works okay.

And so I'm sitting on the plane and I was like, "Oh my gosh, I'm not a NASCAR, I'm an airplane." Because a whole lot of things fall apart if I fall apart, right? And so thinking about, like, it's dangerous, to not maintain me, right? Because like I will fall apart and people's careers will fall apart and science will fall apart. And so it's okay to communicate to people that like, I need stuff and that stuff is important and people's careers depend on it. 

And finally I'll end up by saying, look, I've been in the same university for a long time. And being at the same university for a long time, 22 years, there's a lot of things I've appreciated, which is like, I'm on my like third or fourth dean, third or fourth chancellor, fourth or fifth department chair, right, across multiple departments.

People leave institutions for the resources they need, right? So I know this is sort of like a taboo thing that people aren't supposed to say, but I think once you just appreciate that you need stuff, you need to be in an emotionally supported place where there's well being in order to thrive, um, one not need to think about themselves as the current environment is always being the solution to that, so. That's what I'll say. 

[00:38:51] Lauren Ullrich: Um, well that does kind of speak to something that we wanted to discuss, um, as part of this hidden curriculum piece, of the retention offer um, and of moving institutions. So I think all of you are still at the institution you started at, right? Um, but we know that people do change institutions after tenure. 

Can any of you speak about, um, sort of how that process works? Have you seen colleagues, um, you know, sort of go through that? Um, What if you're recruited away? How do you navigate whether to leave or, or to try and get some kind of retention offer? What, what is that? What does it mean? Like, that feels like a really black box to me.

[00:39:38] Becca Shansky: I think it's going to be different at every university. And I think if your university understands what your value is, they shouldn't make you go get another offer from another university. They should just give you what it takes to keep you without making you jump through a bunch of hoops.

But that is not currently the culture at a lot of places and they want to see an offer letter, um, but again, it, you know, it depends on who the, uh, the upper administration, uh, are and. What they I know I guess like how much they value their, their people. So it just depends. 

[00:40:22] Kafui Dzirasa: I'll say it's a very hidden thing, right? Like, and some institutions want to see the offer letter from other places, right?

I mean the way I try to communicate it to people is that If you think about what tenure is, tenure is a longer term commitment, um, that your university wants you, and until it's made a longer term commitment, you shouldn't make a longer term commitment, right? So these things are short term. Um, we can make that commitment together, but like, you know, until you said you wanted me, right, it's hard for me to say, I want you, right?

Um, secondly, what tenure actually is, is an institution asking people you would enter into a relationship with, if they would want you. [laughs] They literally reach out to faculty at other institutions that they consider their peer institutions, and they say, would you want this person? Right? So there's, um, so even in the process of getting tenure, there is an evaluation that universities are constantly doing, which is to say, what is your value to other places?

So the biggest advice that I always give my mentees is constantly stay appraised of your value. And then have discussions around your value, right? Because that's, that is how the structure that we live in has set this up. 

[00:41:37] Fran Barrera: Yes, people do move. And as Becca was mentioning, having a offer from somewhere else is in most cases, pretty much theonly way of you getting a significant, uh, chunk of resources that you really need.

And it's also institution dependent. Some institutions really expect you to get other, other offers to value you, to, to give you, uh, tenure. And if you ask me, I don't think this is very, this is very healthy or even a great idea, but this is the state of the world we live in. 

[00:42:16] Marguerite Matthews: And even along those lines about knowing your value and, you know, that goes even beyond like really having a secure position or someone who's, you know, willing to promote you, how do you all feel about other forms of recognition, whether it's awards from your institution, maybe professional societies you're in, like, does that matter to you, both in terms of your own personal value, your career development, like, is that a sign that you're on the right track? Um, do you feel like you need some of that validation to, to also feel valued as a scientist and as someone who's, you know, fairly established in your field? 

[00:42:53] Becca Shansky: For better or for worse, academic science is a culture that creates competition, creates, um, ambition among the people that do the work. Um, and that can have, you know, positive outcomes if it means people work really hard and are creative and discover something new. And I think that kind of work deserves to be recognized. I don't think it matters a whole lot in a concrete sense in terms of whether people think you have value. I think the reward is people saying you have value.

So I just went through the full professor evaluation. They care about money and papers like, and maybe some, you know, international recognition, but it's not a secret what universities value. It's not. It's not rocket science.

It's brain surgery. [laughter] 

So, so we, as the, um, you know, university workers can take that and create whatever kind of life you want for yourself based on that information.

[00:44:09] Kafui Dzirasa: Yeah. I mean, I'm, I always say I'm not a huge fan of my own smoke and mirrors. I really don't buy into it. Doesn't do much for my internal validation, but I will certainly cash a prize check real quick. [laughter]

[00:44:23] Marguerite Matthews: Money in the bank. 

[00:44:25] Kafui Dzirasa: Yeah, absolutely. Right. There's no doubt that we are an ecosystem, um, that values those things, right? And so, I do think that the social ecosystem, um, things get easier when you have certain prizes and awards. There's no doubt about that. That it can change, um, that the letter of recommendation, um, undoubtedly can be influenced by the letterhead that it's on. Which, you know, I find to be a strange thing. But it's true, right? Um, and so these things influence how, um, the science and the papers are sort of digested and how your trainees can progress through a field, right? So I agree, it's worth being mindful of how these, these things impact the ecosystem around you.

Whether or not, you know, you sort of buy your own smoke and mirrors and hype and you draw internal value out of them is something secondary to that. 

[00:45:23] Fran Barrera: I would mention in case this is useful to someone listening that awards is also part of those things that you have to work for. I think that even though it might feel weird, you have to be aware that for some awards you can self nominate.

And I've known people that self nominated and got those awards. Also, you have to prepare in advance, maybe what you can do is you can approach some people that you think have a good, uh, opinion of your work and of your worth, and maybe uh suggest very casually, it would be fine for them to nominate you for an award.

Maybe they would love it. Maybe they are thinking about that, but they didn't do it because they thought someone else was nominating you. So awards is one of those things that are, I think, part of the social ecosystem of science. 

[00:46:21] Lauren Ullrich: And in our office, we often will ask people how they like to be recognized, and like, you know, "I want to nominate you for an award. Is there something that you're particularly proud of that we can nominate you for to sort of recognize you?" So it doesn't have to be like a taboo conversation. It can be just part of, um, you know, just part of the work and part of how we, we show people that they're valued.

[00:46:47] Marguerite Matthews: I think it also signals to a larger group, right, that you are doing work that other people think should be recognized. So it's not always internal facing. Like I like to be validated, which is great. And I think, um, even what you were saying Becca, sometimes it's nice to just be told, like, "hey, the work you're doing is really valuable. I really appreciate, like, how hard you work" or, you know, "you're doing really great science" or whatever the case is. But it's also, I think, really important for others outside of your, your ecosystem to be able to see that you are doing work worthy of sort of a formal recognition, right? Because that also signals to other people that, hey, you're a great person to work for, you're a great person to give talks, um, or whatever the case is. I think it's, it's also really important to the advancement of science sort of more broadly is making sure that other folks are recognized for the work that they're doing. 

[00:47:38] Kafui Dzirasa: Yeah, I'll also add that, like, I do realize that it's important, um, in terms of value signaling and helping people to understand that there is space for them in the field, um, when people who look like me and have my experiences have been historically excluded, right? So I do think that that's another important statement um, that the awards and the recognition of my work makes. Now, I will also celebrate a mentee's award. Like, like, I'm like, "Oh, my goodness. The greatest in the world, right?" So that is a sort of circumstances in which I am like all about that award. And I'm way more likely to like champion and parade it around everywhere. I am that kind of PI. [laughs] 

[00:48:21] Marguerite Matthews: Oh, we know [laughter] if anyone follows you on social media, they've seen the, they've seen the champion belt. They've been privy to the celebration.

[00:48:31] Fran Barrera: So in terms of hidden curriculum, something that frankly surprised me quite a bit is that being inside an award committee, I was really shocked to see how few people get nominated. 

[00:48:43] Lauren Ullrich: Mmm 

[00:48:45] Fran Barrera: For some quite important awards, you only have a handful of people nominated. So that means that if you apply, then you have a chance. So awards are like a raffle. If you don't put your name there, you'll never get it. So just do it. 

[00:48:59] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, no, that's a good point. 

[00:49:01] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, if you can self nominate, you should. And if you can't self nominate, and you want to be nominated, you should not have any ego about asking someone, especially someone who you, who, you know, knows your work or believes in you 

[00:49:13] Fran Barrera: and maybe you're surprised by how many people want to nominate you. 

[00:49:18] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah.

[00:49:18] Fran Barrera: There are many people around that are really motivated about nominating scientists from underrepresented groups. 

[00:49:27] Lauren Ullrich: mmhmm 

[00:49:27] Fran Barrera: So societies, there are committees that actively work on that, so you might be surprised by how many people are interested in nominating you and taking it very seriously and taking it at heart.

[00:49:43] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, that's an important point. 

[00:49:44] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, and I used to work at Society for Neuroscience, so I saw the nominations, and you would expect a 30,000, you know, membership society would have like thousands of people nominated for these awards. Nope. It would be 10, maybe 15, like, it really was not that many people, so if you think you fit the award, like, throw your hat in the ring, for sure.

Um, okay, so what's next? Um, you know, some people, they feel like the best fit for them is to kind of just stay in that, um, full professor lane. You're sort of, you're doing your thing, but some people decide to take on additional leadership or administrative positions.

So there's like the graduate program director, the chair of the department, a dean, president of a university. Like how do you, um, decide which route to take? Um, and a lot of these, you sort of have to balance the additional duties with the research. So the juggling act just becomes harder. How, how are you all thinking about your future or how would you advise others sort of at those crossroads?

[00:50:51] Becca Shansky: Um, I have no interest in upper level administration roles. I mean, I might be a little bit of a unique case because I feel like I'm a little behind. I didn't get my 1st R01 until 2020. My lab was kind of just chugging along on whatever we could scrape together for, you know, 5 years after my startup ran out. And now, I got an R01 and I got like three R21s kind of all within the course of, um, a couple of years. And so now I feel like my lab is finally, I'm like, "oh, this is what it's like to have money and be able to actually really push the research forward." 

So I am not feeling like, "Oh, I would like to do something else." I'm really excited about everything that's going on in my lab now and I really want to put as much of my, uh, full attention on, uh, my, my people and on their work. So I'm not going anywhere. [laughs] 

[00:51:52] Fran Barrera: I think that some people love leadership and administration and some people hate those. So I think that first of all, you have to know who you are. So I wouldn't recommend anyone jumping into a role that they don't fully understand.

They should contact people in similar roles and ask them frankly about what roles are going to be. Because if you ask the person, um, maybe suggesting you to get this role, maybe this person is only going to give you one part of the job description. These things can be quite distracting from your research and from your well being even, and from your general direction.

So if you take them, you'd better know what you are getting yourself into and hopefully you are not just doing it for the money and the prestige that just because you think it's important or you just enjoy it.

[00:52:50] Kafui Dzirasa: Yeah, I love leadership, and I hate leadership roles. [laughter] Like I avoid it like the plague. But I love to lead, right? And I love to have impact. And so, how that has evolved over my career, for example, at the NIH, I'm on the BRAIN Initiative Multicouncil Working Group. I'm on the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director. But I'm, you know, not a director of an institute or an associate director or anything else, right?

Um, because I just want to operate in the spaces that, you know, I, for better or worse, feel like operating in, right? So I have no idea how this is going to evolve over time. I mean, my goal in my scientific and, like, broader career is I just want to be an artist. And I just want to create art that causes people to think about things differently and see and experience the world in a different way.

And hopefully, um, transform the trajectory of people's lives who've been impacted by mental illness, but like what my next song or track or like piece of art is gonna look like I just have no idea. I just know it'll be, you know, my fullest expression and the expression of the people working in my group. 

[00:54:01] Lauren Ullrich: I love that. [music]

 All right. Well, thank you all for sharing your wisdom today. And can I ask each of you for one last piece of party advice for our audience? 

[00:54:15] Becca Shansky: I guess my advice is take care of yourself, right? The whole put on your own oxygen mask before, uh, helping others. I think you can't be a good leader or PI if you personally are not satisfied with yourself and how things are going. And I think making choices that might seem, uh, politically like not the right choices, but are the right choices for you, are going to be the right choices in the long term. 

[00:54:47] Fran Barrera: I would just say again, just advocate for yourself and have confidence in yourself again. And why not enjoy what you're doing. And do something that you feel passionate about. This is one of the great things about science, that you can do such interesting things. Just go for it. Now is your time. Don't wait. We have gotten tenure, now it's the time where you can experiment and maybe be a little bit riskier. 

[00:55:13] Kafui Dzirasa: Yeah. And I'll, I'll simply just say science and society needs you, right? And not just like the experimentalist you, but the full you in every way, shape or form. And this could mean what you're doing in the lab, but what you're doing in society as well, communicating about science, mentoring and leading people. It just, it needs you to be fully present and bring your whole self to the table.

[00:55:33] Lauren Ullrich: And Marguerite, what's your advice? 

[00:55:34] Marguerite Matthews: I would say from what I've heard from our guests that progression, um, also includes like an evolution and that's not a bad thing. You may put some things to rest, uh, or retire some interests, some, um, skills and pick up new ones or reinforce a different set of skills that maybe were a little bit more dormant before. And I think that's the beauty of career advancement is getting to, um, take risks, but also be flexible to change. Um, things may become easier, may become more challenging, but it's not a mark of how well you're doing, it just seems that that is what comes along with being at a different point in your career and that's something to embrace and not be afraid of.

What about you, Lauren?

[00:56:24] Lauren Ullrich: I guess when I was younger, I kind of thought like, "Oh, once I'm older, I'll have it all figured out." [laughs] And it, it's just, I don't think anyone ever has it figured out, but you can make it easier, um, on yourself and I think part of that is like having these sort of harder conversations or asking the taboo questions. Um, you know, this, the salary discussion. We all keep our salaries private. Not Marguerite and I, cause we're public service employees. [laughs] So you know exactly how much we get paid. Um, but you know, once you ask those questions and you, you uncover these disparities that you don't know, because nobody talks about it. Same with the retention offer, you know,there's like all these different things that you don't know unless you ask.

So I think, um, being brave and figuring out ways to, um, to find out that information, building your support system, um, and finding people who will tell you the truth is just so important because you're, you're navigating this landscape that you can't see, then you, you can't make good decisions for yourself and your career. [outro music]


That's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve. So thank you to our guests this week for sharing their expertise. Thank you to Ana Ebrahimi for production help, and thank you to Bob Riddle for our theme song and music. We'll see you next time when we tackle the broader universe of scientific careers, including outside of academia. You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more resources on the web at

[00:58:03] Marguerite Matthews: Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NINDSDiversity and @NINDSFunding. You can email us with questions at Make sure you subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast app so you won't miss an episode. We'll see you next time.