Daycares...

Well, we're about seven weeks out from 'B-day' and one of our major outstanding pre-baby tasks is complete: we have successfully secured daycare for the baby for when we go back to work.

Finding daycare is the part of becoming a parent that we most dreaded, mostly because of testimonials from friends and colleagues. Living near San Francisco is brutally expensive - the median price of a one bedroom apartment in the suburbs is ~$2,200/mo, which still pales in comparison to the city's price tag of ~$3,400/mo. This pretty much guarantees that both parents have to be working full-time to have any reasonable standard of living. Consequently, there's extremely high demand for childcare, and most facilities, whether home daycares or otherwise, have lengthy waiting lists. A common approach seems to be to tour a number of facilities[1] and put yourself on their lists, hoping that at least one of them will come through by the time you need their services. On top of  of the stress of leaving leaving this stuff  to chance, each of these centers charges a minimum $100 'administrative fee' just to be put on their list, with no guarantee that a spot will become available.

This being said, a one-time $1,000 fee to reserve a potential spot at ~10 facilities is small potatoes compared to the actual 'tuition'[2] fees that some of these places charge. One of the nicer centers that we visited costs $2,100 per month to take care of infants, which does not include food or diapers. Most places appeared to be in the ~$1,700/mo range, which, from the state of some of the facilities, made it unclear where that money was going. 

While debating the pros and cons of the locations we visited, a thought crossed my mind: do we really want to 'bargain-hunt' for someone to take care of our baby? Shouldn't we just look for the most highly-regarded spot and eat whatever cost comes our way? After mulling it over, I came to the conclusion that bargain-hunting was exactly what we should do. See, infants don't really need anything other than the bear necessities: as long as the facility has a good record of cleanliness and the people appear caring, that's about it. Paying extra because a particular daycare will start your baby on an intensive multicultural[3], liberal arts-plus-science-based curriculum is a waste of time. Babies will learn all of the skills that they need by sticking their fingers into their noses. In the end, we decided to go with a well-reviewed, lower cost home daycare that's conveniently located near where we work.  


I'll leave you with a quick rule of thumb: if you can't afford to start paying the rent of the tenants next door, don't have a baby in the Bay Area.


[1] Daycare centers generally open quite early to receive children before their parents begin work. However, our experience suggests that they only give tours during the most inconvenient times of the day. Visiting 10 daycares means showing up at 10-11 am on 10 weekdays. Hope you've got a flexible work schedule or a lot of vacation days saved up. 

[2] They're the ones that call it 'tuition'. Is that supposed to make us feel like our baby is going to be a 'genius'. Sounds more like word inflation to me.

[3] It's important to us that our son learns Spanish so that he can communicate with his family in Spain. Thankfully, it's rather trivial to find bilingual daycare in this area. 

A fond farewell and new beginnings...

Last week, I finally bid farewell to my lab at Stanford, thus ending my five-and-a-half years of being a postdoc. As excited as I am to move on, it was a bit bitter-sweet: I'm leaving friends and a location where I've become quite comfortable. (To be fair, I'm moving to a job ~20 miles away, so it's not like I'll never see my friends again or anything.) I'm also leaving some projects 'hanging', though I hope to be involved in seeing them through to completion when folks in the lab are able to finish up the required bench-work.

In order to start my new job (see below), I've had to renew my American work visa, so my significant other and I took a brief 'baby-moon'[1] to Vancouver, BC. I did my M.Sc. at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, and I hadn't been back in 10 years. I remember Vancouver as the most beautiful city in Canada, and I wasn't disappointed: the downtown core remains amazingly clean and welcoming compared to other cities where I've lived. 

It's interesting to think that both Vancouver and San Francisco suffer from the common problem of being located on peninsulas, preventing the sort of suburban sprawl associated with less expensive locales. However, it looks like Van is handling this better by encouraging the construction of modern high-rises to meet housing demand. San Fran appears very apprehensive about construction in general, but it's difficult to see how anyone could consider these buildings 'ugly'. Also, it's not as though their presence is changing the charm of the traditional neighborhoods like Gastown or Davie Village - at least from the tourist perspective. I'm not expert on the causes of the exorbitant cost of living in the SF Bay Area, but it does strike me as obvious that improving public transit while allowing higher-density housing would help a lot[2].

Now that the visa situation is taken care of, I can talk about my new job: I'm going to be working as a computational research scientist at Counsyl, a South San Francisco-based genomics company that specializes in non-invasive genetic screening, such as is used for family-planning, checking fetal health (something our 'family' did recently), and cancer risk assessment. Non-invasive screening of cell-free DNA in the blood is a relatively new field that offers amazing opportunities for detection and monitoring of diseases that previously required surgeries and biopsies. It's a brand-new field for me, so I've been doing a lot of background reading to get myself up to speed. I have to admit that I'm somewhat excited about being able to tell people that I work on human health related problems, rather than trying to explain how studying yeast regulatory evolution will unlock the mysteries of the phenotype[3].

So there you have it. Unlike in academia, I'm certain that I won't be at liberty to discuss the specifics of my work here, but I'll try to post about the the field and the generalities of switching to industry science when I can.

[1] I was only made aware of the concept of this 'pre-baby' trip last week, so it's fortuitous that we'd already planned one.

[2] Vancouver is also an expensive city, but a quick Craigslist search reveals that it's nowhere near as bad as SF. I recently read a book, The Gated City, that spends a lot of time explaining that the entrenched interests of the Bay Area benefit greatly from the high-price of housing, and have fought mightily to institute NIMBY laws allowing them to resist any type of change. It also strikes me that fewer people drive in Van as compared to SF as the downtown streets are far less congested. Don't even get me started about all the misguided 'environmentalists' around here who don't understand that urban areas are actually good for the macro-environment.

[3] By no means have I lost my interest in evolution, nor in how phenotypic mysteries will ultimately be unlocked.

Crossing the Rubicon...

The past six months have been pretty tumultuous: I worked hard to get a number of interesting projects going, found out that I was soon going to become a dad, and decided to leave academia. I'm a bit ashamed to admit it, but it's the last one that's given me the most angst.

I know that I'm far from unique in never having seriously considered alternatives to applying for professorships: from the moment you begin grad school, you're socialized to believe that being a professor at a research university is the true measure of success in the basic sciences. I suppose that I had such a great time as a student that I never really questioned this. However, my postdocing experiences, coupled to the general negativity surrounding the state and future of the academic job market, have changed my feelings.

See, as a grad student I frequently observed postdocs scrambling to get things done as quickly as possible. This involved a lot of 'doing' without much thinking about how to do it well. It seemed obvious to me that taking the time to read the literature, writing detailed and commented scripts, and trying multiple approaches paid off in the end. 

Once I became a postdoc, I realized that I was falling into the exact same traps. With multiple projects going, time became extremely precious. Putting effort into improving my skills with this-or-that analysis language/software/statistical method was time that could be spent doing more analyses. And I always had multiple datasets sitting on my desk. Furthermore, keeping up with the literature in my fast-moving field became challenging, meaning that reading about things outside of the direct scope of my many projects was out of the question. Finally, I began skipping more and more seminars in order to have more time to get through the endless pile of work. 

Sure, I could have put in more time than the six days a week that I was averaging. Similarly, I could've read more papers at home. But I also realized pretty quickly that having 'hobbies' and spending time with my significant other were also important to me.

Regardless, all of this work paid off: I got three great papers in three years, and set the foundations for more down the road. It was time to 'strike while the iron was hot' and apply for jobs. So I began putting together faculty applications, writing research and teaching statements, and looking into available positions. But as I started contemplating what I'd be doing for the next five years, I began to think more and more about the pros and cons of the academic life.  

If you take a step back and look at careers in academia, it's difficult not to notice that things appear to have been getting worse for years. Competition for a very limited number of positions is now extremely fierce, and most aspiring academics don't get to choose where they'd like to work. Rather, they take whatever is available. Even after getting a job, securing funding has also become more competitive than ever. Most assistant professors that I know work an unbelievable number of hours, writing endless grants in the hope of securing a coveted 'R01' as soon as possible.  

I'm hardly the first person whose been in the situation of beginning a family in the midst of big career changes, but I realize that I never want to be in the position where I feel torn between having to work vs. spending time with my son. Sure, I could look for a position at a less-competitive institution, but then I'd likely have to move to a place where I wouldn't want to live and settle for a salary that's insulting given the number of years that I've put into 'training'.

Then there's the so-called 'two-body problem'. My girlfriend is also a postdoc, and she'd like to pursue a career in the biotech industry. Relatively few places in the country have many job opportunities for someone of her qualifications (or mine, for that matter). Luckily, the San Francisco Bay Area is one of them and we both really like it here. Yes, the cost of living is astronomical, but there are many great amenities, including the fabulous weather. 

So, after a long, hard bout of self-reflection, I realized that while I love doing research, the grim reality of academia just isn't exciting to me anymore [1]. In fact, I realize that the only reason I've been so dead set on pursuing this track is because so many of my friends, colleagues, and mentors keep telling me that I should. With this in mind, I decided to explore alternatives and researched a number of industry positions. 

It's funny that I say 'alternatives' since the majority of PhDs do not go into academia. Nevertheless, I, like others, had no idea what to expect [2]. After sending out applications and speaking to a few hiring managers, I accepted a job with a company that's doing exciting stuff [3]. I'm going to be breaking totally new ground, both for myself and my employer, and while it's a bit daunting, I'm pretty excited. Actually, I'm excited about staying in a place that I enjoy as I've now spent a decade-and-a-half feeling like everything around me is temporary. Plus, I'll be making enough money to enjoy it - this is important as there's a baby on the way.

With all of this said, I was thinking of converting my previously 'semi0professional' website into more of a blog, and chronicling my experiences leaving the ivory tower and starting a family. I miss the days of blogging regularly as I did in grad school, and with any luck, I'll now have more time to do it! Stay tuned for more as it develops.   


[1] I wonder if most academics realize how negative the atmosphere in the field can be. It's become the norm now to post grim and dire statistics about the state of funding/hiring/believability-of-results on social media on a daily basis. Given how much academics complain about their jobs, it's amazing that competition for said jobs is so fierce. But then again, maybe I'm just one of those 'disgruntledocs' who's 'getting what I deserve', whatever that means. 

[2] I've come to the conclusion that universities, and especially grad-schools, are overly focused on producing future academics. I doubt that I'm an outlier in saying that I received very little advice about what companies are looking for, or even 'do' for that matter. This could be the subject of a future post.

[3] Obviously I won't be able to talk about my work, but I'll talk about the company when I get there.