Archive for March, 2011

Creul. Cruel. Irony.

Posted: March 26, 2011 in Post-Doc

So it seems that the bard of Avon (aka William Shakespeare) has decided to inject some of his drama into my life. Today is one of those days that started out benign enough but turned into one of the few times in my life I will ever experience cruel irony that is more at home on theater stages than in the day to day life of a humble scientist. It’s the kind of shit you see on TV and say “wow, that never happens in real life, who makes this shit up?” Prose is not something I know how to write well, so I’m going to try and communicate my experience via a timeline, 24-hour TV show style:

5:50 am – My wife wakes up early today because she has a 9:15 interview for a job she has applied to. This is the first interview she has been able to land after searching for and applying to many jobs for several months now. The interview is in a town that is about a 45 minute commute from our present residence.  She knows she is one of three candidates being interviewed this week after making it past the first interview screening from the previous week. This is a job that fits her skill set extremely well and would be a nice next step for her in her career path. Both of us are nervous and excited at the prospect of her obtaining employment here in the UK.

7:20 am – My wife leaves the house headed for the bus/train to the job interview. After she leaves I decide to do a little bit of housework, tidying up the place, doing some breakfast dishes, taking out the garbage etc. so that when she returns home she can just relax.

8:30 am – I arrive at the lab after my 30-40 minute walk in which I listened to a recent Science podcast (which kind of suck, but more on that in another post). As soon as I arrive in the lab I drop off my backpack and head to my bench to thaw some samples and get the day started.

9:15 am – My wife begins her interview. I look at the clock and note to myself “my wife is interviewing right now while I’m doing X..good luck my love!.”

9:30 am – I overhear a couple of fellow postdocs mentioning an email and some meeting. After a couple of minutes I ask what they are talking about, and they mention that our PI has sent out an email early this morning asking to meet with several of the postdocs this afternoon. I mention that I haven’t seen the email as I haven’t been to my computer since I got in.

10:00 am – I check my email, and respond to my PI that I can indeed make the meeting this afternoon. I also find out that everyone in the lab has been requested to meet with our PI, some of us in groups, some of us individually at various times late in the afternoon. The rumors start to fly about why our PI wants to meet with us.

11:30 am – I get a call on my cell (mobile) phone from my wife telling me that she thought her interview did not go too well. She had a hard time reading the folks and thought they didn’t like her responses to their questions (more on reading the stoic Brits in another post). Needless to say she was a bit distraught as she really wants this job and we could certainly use the additional income.

1:00 pm – The tension concerning the meetings with my PI have been building for several hours in the lab and it is absolutely palpable. I can’t focus on my work so I stick to doing just menial tasks throughout the day. Many of us have lunch together and can only speculate as to why our PI wants to meet with all of us on such short notice.  Is someone getting fired? Did we do something wrong? Is somebody sick? What the hell is going on? No one knows, and our PI is not letting anything on throughout the day.

2:30 pm – I get a call from my wife who is still a little concerned that her interview did not go as well as it could have. She thought she could have done better, but was thrown off by the stoicism of some of her interviewers. I reassure her that it probably didn’t go as poorly as she thought, as I’ve run into this British stoicism and I’ve found that it does not accurately reflect what the people are thinking. As Americans, we both find it very disconcerting at times that people here do not express any emotion whatsoever, positive or negative, via their facial expressions  (again, more on this in another post).

3:30 pm – The first couple of people from my lab go to meet with our PI. The rest of us hang out in the office area, not knowing what to do and just trying to remain calm. You could cut the tension with a knife.

4:00 pm – The group of people in the lab that includes me goes to meet with our PI. We sit down and s/he explains to us that s/he has an offer from another university in the UK and is strongly considering moving the lab to this new location.

Holy shit.

This is what we were talking about as the most likely reason for these meetings all day, but here it is. Our PI tells us all the wonderful reasons as to why s/he wants to move the lab. Some I agree with, some I don’t, but what the hell do I know about the politics of this stuff. The worst part, the new location is about 3hrs driving time from our current location…not exactly a commutable distance. Most people are upset and angry, but it takes a little while to sink in. I finish up what I need to in the lab, chat with some people about things and head out early around 5:20 pm.

5:30 pm – My wife receives a phone call from the organization in which she interviewed and they offer her the job! She is overwhelmed with joy! With the extra income we can finally start traveling more and have a little better standard of living! Yeehaw!

5:43, 5:46, 5:48, 5:54 & 5:59pm – my wife tries calling me on my cell phone to tell me the good news. I don’t pick up because I don’t hear it ring. I don’t hear ring because I’m listening to the Tical album by Method Man and 36 Chambers by Wu-tang on my walk home. I wasn’t sure what kind of mood I was in after hearing the news from my PI until I left the lab and was choosing some tunes to listen to on the way home. The Roots? No. Tribe Called Quest? No. Turns out I was in an angry mood (Bring da’ ruckus!), and I don’t have The Chronic by Dr. Dre on my ipod (only an old, well worn cassette tape back in the US, but I really do need to get that shiznit on mp3).

6:05 pm – I walk into our flat. Before I can say anything my wife says to me: “I’ve tried calling you five times! Why didn’t you pick up?”…before I can reply she screams: “I got the job! They just called me and offered me the job!” She promptly jumps up into my arms and gives me a big hug and kiss. She then sees the expression on my face, and while I’m shocked and excited for her, I start to break into tears.

If you ever wanted to see the moment a man’s heart breaks, that would be it. It was like a moment out of a sitcom. I couldn’t take it. I told her what my PI told us. I apologized profusely. She was shocked. The blood of our emotions was strewn about the flat. No matter how many times we wash it, we know it will never come clean.

……………………………………………………………………….

Cruel. Cruel. Irony.

What are the fucking chances that within a 1 hour time frame I would find out that my PI is planning on moving the lab and my wife would get an offer for a job of her dreams. While living in a foreign country. With an economy that’s quickly going into the toilet.

12:00 am – Several beers later and after watching a movie with my wife to try and get our mind off things, here I am writing a blog post. Still trying to process things. Considering our options…

WTF…seriously…keep your shit on stage Shakespeare….

It’s not an eraser…

Posted: March 24, 2011 in Life in the UK

So my wife has been volunteering at a nearby elementary school while looking for a job. At the beginning of a math lesson the teacher told all the students to “get out your rubbers”….apparently rubbers are erasers here in the UK.

While my wife was working with one of the children on a math problem, after the student made a mistake she asked the student to “erase” the wrong answer. The student looked at her, baffled, and said “what does that mean”? So another student turned and said “she means, rub it out”.

Oh man, I don’t know how she kept a straight face. I think I would have been on the floor crying from laughter…

Bits and bobs

Posted: March 20, 2011 in Life in the UK

One of the things I initially struggled with a bit upon moving to the UK is what to do about the language differences, something I alluded to in this post. Do I take on British pronunciations? Should I use British terminology? If I use British words will I come off as mocking them since I will say them with an American accent? These are questions I never fathomed I would consider prior to moving here.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I plan on retaining the American pronunciation of various words. Perhaps I’m being obstinate, but I just find it so very odd to say tomato in the way the British do (pronounced tomato, with a short “a”). However, another issue (pronounced iss-oo here in the UK) is whether or not I should use British terminology. Just to give you an idea, here are some examples:

Instead of that’s “great” or “wonderful” it is quite common for people to state that’s “brilliant”

Instead of saying something is “crap” or “garbage” it is commonly referred to as “rubbish”.

Instead of figuring things out, one “sorts” them out.

Instead of stopping by someone’s office, one “pop’s by”.

Instead of trying something, one “gives it a go”.

A list of objects that don’t quite go together aren’t “odds and ends” but are “bits and bobs”.

Finally, something isn’t sketchy or off, but it is “dodgy”.

Some of these different words I quite like and have started to incorporate into my vocabulary. For example, at a recent lab meeting in which I was describing a compound known to have a lot of off target effects, I noted that the drug was a bit dodgy. This comment got a couple of chuckles as I imagine it sounded odd stated with an American accent. I also like sorting things out, giving things a go, and describing poorly constructed lab equipment as “rubbish!”. However, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say “brilliant” the way the British do with a straight face. All I can think of is those ridiculous Guinness commercials from several years back where they advertised Guinness being sold in a bottle….BRILLIANT!

I’m curious to see how many of these new words stick with me when I go back to the states, and if I get any odd looks from my US friends and colleagues when they inevitably slip out. You can take the American out of the UK, but how much of the UK will stick with the American?

I figure one of the unique perspectives I can offer here on the web is job advice for any aspiring graduate student that wants to work in the UK. There are some important differences in how the interview process and job offers work here in the UK as opposed to the US.

At the end of the interview for my current postdoc I was asked “if we offered you the job, would you say yes?”. Needless to say, I was completely taken off guard by this question. What the hell kind of question is that to ask someone?! Well, it’s a British kind of question. Apparently it is standard practice here to ask this question if one is seriously considering making a job offer. In fact, it is essentially a job offer** is as close to being a job offer as one can get without actually being an offer and can apparently be the time to start some negotiations. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time and had to quickly come up with a response of “well I would certainly consider it”. I wasn’t quite prepared to make a commitment right then on the spot and was very surprised. This gets me to the second aspect of hiring in the UK that is very different…

Do not plan on having a whole helluva lot of time to make a decision on whether or not you will take the job. Whereas my fellow graduate student colleagues who were courting jobs in the US had weeks to collect and compare offers, I had about oh, 4 days (and I think even that was pushing it!). My plan was to try and shore up at least two offers so I could decide between them. Well, getting to the UK for two interviews in the time I had to make a decision was simply not happening.

Finally, the other thing I found to be a bit odd is that the overall interview setup was a bit different. Instead of just you being interviewed, expect to be interviewed in close proximity to your competition. After I gave my job talk and chatted with my current PI for a bit, I checked out the lab and talked with various people. At this time interviewee number two was giving their talk. This led to a couple of awkward moments as we were being shuttled around so as not to bump into each other too much. But of course, on the way out I inevitably see the other folks who are waiting for their interview.

Of course, there is always the caveat that some of this is not UK specific but is specific to my PI (although I know for a fact that the “If I offered you a job” bit is UK wide). Any comments from any other UK postdocs? Similar or different experiences?

**Note: I changed the wording here a bit after reading Dorothy’s comment below. I would not want to mislead someone inadvertently. This is not a job offer but, I would say, is very close to a job offer.

No respect for Ped X

Posted: March 9, 2011 in Life in the UK

One of the many things that has surprised both my wife and I upon moving to the UK is the lack of regard in the country for pedestrians. Unlike most places in the states (Boston excluded), pedestrians have the right-of-way at intersections. However, here in the UK, pedestrians rarely have the right-of-way. The only exception I can find to this is at odd places in which blinking bulbs are posted above the street near speed bumps (weird, I know…but you could break dance in the middle of the street there and the cars would stop).

Unfortunately, this is one of the few things I have a very hard time holding my tongue about as cars almost smack me while walking on a SIDEWALK! Yes, that’s right, I’m walking on a sideWALK and the cars pulling into driveways don’t give pedestrians the right of way (and it’s not like these are busy streets mind you). On more than one occasion I’ve had several choice words for these folks as I tempt the drivers by almost walking in front of them. For this reason I consider myself a bit lucky for moving to the UK in the winter because people are not driving with their windows down. If windows had been down no doubt I would have already had the opportunity to get into my first altercation with a Brit in which we would scream profanities at each other but not understand a damn word the other is saying because of our mutually ridiculous accents that inevitably come out when pissed off. So I’m working on holding my tongue in time for spring, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to control my middle finger…

Barbers

Posted: March 5, 2011 in Life in the UK

Finding a good barber can be one of the most difficult and annoying tasks one has to take up when moving to a new place, let alone a new country! Growing up I used to go to an older gentleman, retired navy guy. So I’ve always been most comfortable trusting my hair to older men (hmmm, that sounds kind of creepy….oh well). Of course there have been times when I’ve had to go to others just because I really needed a haircut and was not close enough to home to get to my old barber. Usually this would turn out poorly. No offense to the women out there, but I have rarely had a good haircut from a female (granted its only sample size of 3). So you can imagine how much I dreaded trying to find a barber now that I’ve moved to England. All the assumptions you make about how things work, even the most minute ones, tend to be thrown out the window here.

When I first moved to the UK I was in dire need of a haircut as my wife and I were in a mad rush over the previous few weeks trying to get all our shit together just to move out of the country. So I just went to the first place I found on my local high street that had the word “barber” out front. There was a nice young lady who cut my hair…unfortunately, it was the worst haircut of my life (and I’m really not altogether that picky about how my hair looks as long as it’s essentially non-descript). So I wasn’t altogether pleased that I was stuck with making many first impressions with folks at my new University with an awful looking rat on my head and I dreaded the next time I had to get a haircut (I like to wait awhile between cuts, saves a few bucks/quid).

Recently I came across a place that had a classic barber shop look to it, with old leather chairs, a barber pole, and everything fashioned of wood. This morning I finally got up the gumption to get my haircut there. The barber was male (although much younger than I was anticipating or would have liked) and we had a pleasant conversation while he cut my hair. Apparently the barber shop was 105 years old (nice!) and has been independently owned by various families the whole time.  I just can’t believe I found a decent barber on my second try. In my previous city it took me 2 years to find a decent barber. Next time I go back to this place the barber said he’d give me a list of decent restaurants in the area as he agreed that most of them are quite horrendous (Cha-ching! It’s nice to find out that it’s not just us snobby Americans who think the food here is pretty terrible on average! It is exceedingly difficult to find good restaurants here…but that’s another post…). So while things have been going to crap for me in the lab over the past week, at least something has been working out for the better here in ever-cloudy, UK!

So if anyone is actually out there reading this…how long has it taken you to find a good barber and/or stylist in your most recent move?