Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Response to old comments on "Dear PI, it's your fault I'm depressed"

One of my previous posts is still getting comments, but blogger won't let me write a long reply all at once.

So here are some replies.

I realized this is really late to reply, but why not, I have time.

Daisy Mae,

Yes, of course, ask forgiveness rather than permission is a great way to go, if you don't require funding to do what you need to do without permission. I needed funding. I also needed to submit my papers, and for that I had to have permission.


I have seen plenty of labs change direction because of things that students did as side projects, whether they were undergrads or grad students. Lots of PIs have zero (time for) creativity of their own, so the smart ones rely on students' risky projects as a way to drum up new ideas.

It's too bad so many labs are one-trick pony houses.

Personally, I think it makes more sense to interview students to see how they think. What they worked on before is just a vehicle for discussing that.

I didn't end up working with any of the PIs I met with on my interviews, anyway. I rotated in a different lab, and that ended up being where I did my thesis.


I always had other PIs collaborating with me, they just could not afford to pay me, and could not/would not stand up to my PI on my behalf. This is what happens when you work your way up the chain to try to work for somebody Important Enough to help get you a job, and that person is totally unreasonable and resentful. Basically, he was convinced I was wrong until the very end, when it was too late for anyone to do anything. All the PIs in my field were too busy just barely staying afloat themselves. The last thing they wanted was more competition for funding.

Anon 10:29,

I didn't need help writing the papers. I needed to be allowed to publish them. There's a big difference.

Anon 7:05,

that's what I ended up doing: leaving. Fuck science and trying to be a martyr for women in science. Nobody appreciates it anyway.

Anon 11:59,

1. I worked with someone once who used your "deliberately show the PI disappointing results" approach. She was faking the data. Please don't advocate for people to do that.

My job was made harder when I got stuff working on the first try, and my PI didn't believe me at first, because the previous person had "shown" repeatedly that she couldn't get it to work!

2. Yes, if you can recruit other people, do so. In my field, that was not an option, and for my project, I needed people from other fields. It's just not always that simple.

3. Also, don't tell people to avoid their advisors. That's not good advice.

Definitely reschedule meetings if you think they won't be productive, but mostly, avoiding communication will only make things worse.

I agree that it's often better to avoid showing incomplete work in the hopes of getting useful feedback, because it can really derail your confidence and your thought process. Better to wait and show the most finished product you can, especially if your advisor is like mine was.

4. Absolutely, look for other activities and go ahead and start applying for jobs. I did that. It did help me feel more confident about graduating, although it didn't solve any of my other problems with my advisor.

5. I'm amused that you think I didn't try to pick my battles (?). I fought hard on what journals, maybe I should have fought harder but I was convinced I would get recommendation letters saying I was "too bitchy" if I fought too hard. I'm pretty sure that happened anyway! But it really seemed like there was no way to win. I worked for stubborn jerks, what can I say. The more I argued, the more they dug in, just for the sake of not wanting to let me even try. The thing that baffled me was, what's the big deal with trying? Worst case, you get some mediocre reviews, waste a few weeks, and submit somewhere else?

In one case, I realize now, I think my advisor knew we were about to get scooped. But he couldn't just tell me that (because of how he knew), so instead he just came off seeming like a jerk.


6. I did fight for corresponding author, which was somewhat useful, but ultimately not as much as I would have hoped.

It's nice that you could volunteer to show how "competent" you are.

I don't think anyone ever questioned my competence, intelligence, work ethic, or creativity. If they did, fuck them.

But it's hard to use volunteer work to show what a non-bitchy person you are, if that's all it takes to poison you as a candidate. I did lots of outreach, committee work, etc.

Still ironic that I went into science thinking it wouldn't matter as much whether people liked me, as it would it other professions. Turns out it might be even worse in science than other fields. Little did I know.

Everybody else - thanks, glad you liked the post.

epilogue: I never did take any Rx antidepressants. I'm sure for some people, it helps.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Not good enough.

Is it just me? How come, in some fields, it's perfectly acceptable to put out absolute garbage?

I'm talking about everything from poorly formatted files, complete lack of replicates or error bars, ugly raw excel plots, to absolutely fabricated data visualizations with way too many variables and complicated crap thrown in just to look artistic.

If I brought anything remotely like that to my advisors at any time from grad school through postdoc, I would've been shot on sight.

I keep thinking about how my advisors had no fucking clue what to do with data in unusable file formats. Even if it was the default output from equipment we used all the time. And how come the companies that made that equipment somehow managed to stay in business, in spite of their complete lack of understanding of what their customers actually needed.

And if someone showed up to lab meeting with a graph of n=1 attempt with no replicates, any of my advisors would have just laughed and tell them to do it again in triplicate.

How, if I tried to make a figure with a different kind of graph, as a clever way to represent trends in the data, they would simply refuse to even try to understand what was going on.

But I see people doing this all the time in other fields, and when I point out how uninterpretable and useless it is, everyone looks at me like I'm the one who's being "too demanding".

I don't get why it's good enough for everyone else.

I can only assume that most people don't know any better, which means they don't appreciate that it's worth taking the time to develop tools to convert data into usable formats. Or to do an experiment correctly. Or to figure out how to represent data clearly and simply.

The other thing I keep thinking about is how, when I was struggling to do all of these things at an exceptional level to please my impossible advisors, they were rarely any help. But because of the way most people interpret authorship, they still get all the credit.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Color and size: still controversial topics

This week, a friend asked whether I had an opinion on the infighting among feminists on the internet. I said, what? Which got me thinking about how I'm so tired of controversy. Why can't we all just get along?

For example, I was just reading this surprisingly controversial post by a somewhat clueless writer, and I just wanted to say that I think (?) I can see both sides. I'm not completely sure why it's gotten so much attention. There is so much writing on the internet, I don't really understand why some things attract a lot of traffic and comments and others don't.

Anyway. It's interesting how blogging has made me, if anything, less sensitive to people's clueless use of language. More aware, but less sensitive.

For those who haven't seen it, the original post in question was written by a young woman experiencing a misplaced and kind of condescending Privileged White Guilt. Basically, she writes that she was uncomfortable while witnessing a young, overweight black woman struggling in her yoga class. It attempts to be a thought piece about race, socioeconomic status, and body image.

I thought the post was well-intentioned, especially if we assume the author is new to blogging and the editor of the site, if they saw the piece at all, is white and clueless herself and/or maybe wanted (?) to stir up controversy.

But I can see why black women, for example, this author , were annoyed.

Having said that, I always do the experiment where I swap genders to see how I would feel if it were me. What if some guy wrote a piece about me being the only girl in my martial arts class? If he was trying to exhibit compassion for me, would I be insulted? Probably not, actually.

But maybe it's not like that at all. It's always dangerous to assume what other people intend by their actions or behavior, whether you happen to be correct or not. I should know, because I've often correctly interpreted people's behavior toward me, even when it seemed like I was making unfair assumptions. But in the process of doing that and writing this blog, I've learned two things that I think have improved both my ability to analyze human behavior, and my writing. First, it's important to recognize the possibility of being wrong (the null hypothesis, if you will). Second, it's important to separate your observations into variables.

1. Beginning something new is always hard. The new person in yoga class is a beginner. Maybe that should have been the point of the piece? Compassion for people starting out on a path that you've already been down, knowing how hard it is? But the author didn't write about that.

2. We should try harder to be inclusive of all skin colors.  Personally, I think the piece might have worked just as well if the author had omitted the description of the new student as "black", because part of the problem was the (perhaps inadvertent) insinuation that all black women are overweight (?). Which is ridiculous.

The author could have simply written more about why her studio isn't more diverse, why that matters to her, and what would have to happen for diversity to be a priority.

Or, she could have written a really honest piece about how she knows nothing about black culture, to the point of being scared when she sees black people, and feels guilty about her socioeconomic status and racial privilege. That would have been really brave, if it's the case (and her writing certainly implies that it is). But she didn't manage to actually focus on that.

3. Does size matter? I have personally witnessed overweight beginners (men and women of all races, actually, at my yoga studio), who seemed uncomfortable, or downright miserable. I'm not obese, but I have myself felt like the fat girl in class. It's all relative.

Maybe the author's self-conscious writing about her own "skinny white girl" body image was clumsily conflated with her perhaps subconscious jealousy of black women's curves? She could have written a whole piece on that, and maybe it would have prompted a more honest discussion of why, even in this day and age, women's sense of identity is still so wrapped up in our body image.

If anything, yoga should be about learning to love and respect your body, to work with all your strengths and weaknesses. But the author didn't write about that.

4. Some other reason you can't see. Maybe the new student was ill or hadn't slept well. Maybe she was struggling for reasons that had nothing to do with her size, or being a beginner.

I have been that person who, for whatever reason, cannot keep up with the class. In my case, I was injured, and consequently frustrated at the pain and my body's limitations, but I'm sure the look on my face would be taken as hostile to anyone who saw me and didn't know what was going on.

As one of my friends used to say, "Maybe she's not mad at you. Maybe that's just her face."

Yoga is a journey, not a destination. Perhaps most upsetting to me as a yoga practitioner is that any halfway decent teacher should have gone over to speak to the new student and asked if she was ok. If she needed help. And suggested modified poses to help a beginner get started. But not all yoga styles are the same, and a lot of yoga teachers are clueless, if not downright dangerous. The fact that the author apparently didn't know that just makes me sad.

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever heard given to beginning yogis is this: eyes on your own mat.

In other words, don't worry about what anyone else is doing. This author clearly failed to focus on her own yoga practice. If she was so worried about it, I can't help wondering, why didn't she ask the teacher to intervene?

The other piece of advice I give everyone as they advance in yoga: stop competing with everyone, including yourself. For a lot of people, the combination of meditative and physically challenging aspects of yoga bring up a lot of questions. I applaud people who want to write about their internal debates, but that doesn't mean that every thought piece should be published.

In this case, I think the blame rests with the editor who didn't vet the piece with more sensitivity, and maybe was deliberately trying to be controversial.

I was recently reading about a similar case where the editor ended up apologizing at length for the outing of Dr.V.

As independent bloggers, we have to take all the responsibility. I would hope that Jane Pratt would know better, but the tagline for the site is this:


xoJane.com is where women go when they are being selfish, and where their selfishness is applauded."

In that regard, the author definitely succeeded. 

Monday, December 02, 2013

On publishing

A comment on the previous post asked how much I published.

Let me start by saying, a lot more people have read this blog than ever read the scientific papers I published, if that tells you anything…

I can't give you exact numbers, but I did publish well enough to get fellowships. (for all the good it did me, since I never had sufficient financial support from my PIs...)

"How well" is kind of subjective and depends on how you look at it. When I went to grad school, I had no idea how hard publishing would be. I had no idea how hard it would be to learn how to write scientific papers. I had never done any kind of collaborative writing projects before. I had no idea how much I would detest having my boss "edit" my work (read: re-write = put words in my mouth).

I could have, should have, would have published more if it had been entirely up to me.

My thesis advisor was an obsessive perfectionist who hated my writing and was always loathe to publish. It felt like dragging a kicking, screaming, clawing, biting, rabid horse to water and forcing it to drink.

My postdoc advisors were a mix. One did not want to publish at all; one was consistently hypocritical about impact factors; one completely screwed me over… Those are great stories, but you'll have to wait for the book, since they're each at least a chapter long…

Let's say it was a bit like the movie Gravity, which I finally saw this weekend, except without the triumphant ending. Like Goldilocks who gets eaten at the end. This space station is too smashed. This space station is too on fire. This space station is falling out of the sky...

As I've mentioned repeatedly on this blog, none of my papers are Cell/Science/Nature. I have heard that factor alone is one of the major factors that kept me from getting interviews for faculty positions or at places like Genentech. Of course we know it is inextricably linked with my not having worked for sufficiently famous/well-liked PIs.

In spite of that, some of my papers are cited enough to be considered "high impact". Interestingly, unlike some trendy research that gets cited a lot and then never again, for all of my work there was a lag time where nobody noticed it came out or believed it at all, and then citations have steadily accumulated as years go by.

Which does not help me get a job now, but is somewhat heartening when I feel like nothing I have done (besides this blog) has mattered at all.

On the other hand, I have met some people who said they thought I had a great track record and a lot of publications. Which I always find amusing, because it really is relative.

Did I have a good experience publishing? Not really. I've written about that (see past posts re: rebuttal letters). I got enough of a taste of the worst that publishing has to offer - unreliable, possibly corrupt editors and reviewers, etc. I witnessed the rich and famous PIs who wined and dined the editors and hand-picked their reviewers, and bullied their grad students & postdocs into ghostwriting reviews…

Back at my desk, I was infuriated by the enormous waste of time and effort it takes to reformat references and figure labels to suit each different journal. All the inefficiency of waiting to get reviews back, especially when the editor "forgot" to send the paper out, and my PI refused to inquire…  or the editor left the journal and left my paper sitting in a pile somewhere… And those months of my life when I could not move forward, trying to guess what the reviewers would ask for and do those experiments "just in case".

It's important to note that I had a miserable time addressing reviews, because almost every time I was finally able to submit a paper it occurred at the tail end of my funding/temporary appointment, so I couldn't afford to do the laborious and/or expensive (and often ridiculous) experiments the reviewers (probably my competitors) were requesting. So in some cases where if I had $$$$$$ and a team of lab mates to help me, things would have gone differently. Instead I had to go to a different journal (read: down a tier or two) and start over, the goal being to find a journal and reviewers who would not ask for me to do those things I could not afford to do.

I've also been a reviewer, although not recently, and found it to be a very educational experience. I wrote a post or two about that, too. It was very different to be on the other side of the table.

At this point, I am glad to see that open publishing is gathering momentum. More people are seriously proposing ways to do things we discussed back when I first started blogging, when these ideas were really "out there" and controversial. A lot can change in 5+ years. Who knows where we'll be in 5 more.

I'm of the opinion that a lot needs to change in order for science to be a worthwhile pursuit for anyone with the ability to choose among other, more profitable careers. I think changing the way publishing works is fundamental to fixing a lot of the problems, since so much of hiring and funding feeds on assumptions made about how publishing reflects quality.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Nightmares as flashbacks: perils of mentoring

Greetings, readers. I'm not planning to come back to blogging regularly, but have a few stories to share. Sometimes when they pile up like a traffic jam in my head, I think it's better to get them written.

Lately a few things in real life have got me re-living past nightmares from graduate school and my postdoc. I'm trying to figure out how to help other people avoid unnecessary suffering while not getting dragged down into their situations myself. I'm listing them in chronological order, which is to say if you aren't interested in the first little story, skip down to the next one, they're all self-contained.

1. The bad graduate advisor

I have a friend, we'll call him Jeremy (not his real name). Jeremy is a fantastic student, the kind of student I would have loved to have in my lab. He works hard, he works well with others, and he's an all-around great person.

We'll call his boss Derek (and hopefully I won't confuse myself writing with fictitious names here). Derek is a rich, relatively well-known dude.

Without describing any details here, it's a typical story. Jeremy unknowingly inherited a bullshit (read: unreproducible) project from a prior graduate student, and spent a lot of his time and effort trying to fix a system to make it work as previously claimed. Jeremy has had to reinvent a square wheel into something round, and get it rolling.

Derek has been pushing Jeremy to graduate sooner. He has been accusing Jeremy of not working hard enough.

Meanwhile, Jeremy would rather be doing a different kind of project, so he can publish enough papers to go on to a postdoc, and eventually have a job teaching someday. He's trying to do his actual project on the side, while scrambling to finish the work required to maintain the reputation of the lab, which as of late was based mostly on this highly questionable paper from the previous graduate student.

To keep himself sane and motivated toward his long-term goals, Jeremy has been doing various teaching outreach projects when he can. To his credit, Derek has been pretty supportive (my advisors always said no when I asked them to sign off on that kind of thing, as the university required them to do).

So I think Jeremy is going to be ok, because he's got a supportive thesis committee and a variety of people giving him good advice, but recently I reached the point where I had to tell him he needs to start making up his own mind.

You see, over time Jeremy had tied himself up in knots trying to take everyone's advice, even when it seemed to be conflicting. It's an easy way to get stuck and terrified, when you feel like there are too many choices.

I'm just hoping that Jeremy can get what he needs to move on: publications.

And that he'll choose wisely when it comes to his postdoc. And that in spite of my warnings, he will be one of the few who makes it through to a teaching position, or he will choose to leave his postdoc before he's completely burned out. I'm watching this with my heart in one hand and the other hand over my eyes.

2. The crazy one(s)

I have this friend, we'll call her Melissa. Melissa is doing a postdoc, and recently suffered what seems to have been a psychotic break. She lives about an hour away, and got it into her head that I'm supposed to help her sort out her life and career.

Mutual friends have helped fill in some of what Melissa didn't tell me herself, and are trying to help keep in touch with her family and make sure she takes her medication.

I don't know her family at all, and don't even really know Melissa that well. I'm frankly reluctant to get too involved.

I agreed to help edit some of her writing, but drew the line when she asked me to contribute more substantial ideas or even figures to her publications and grant applications. I said I don't support ghostwriting and won't participate in it.

In the process of helping her with her projects, though, it was very apparent that she's extremely bright and has done a lot of good work. Society needs this kind of science to get published, even if Melissa doesn't go on in this incredibly stressful career path. For now, in spite of struggling to handle the pressure, she seems to think she still can.

Unfortunately, in the process of discussing science with her, it was also apparent that she needs professional help of the mental health variety. Much of what she says is totally reasonable, some of it is outrageous but believable, and some of it sounds like a type of paranoia even I can't relate to.

My current problem is, I don't know how best to help her. Based on what I know of her advisors, I don't think I can intervene by alerting them to the situation. It reminds me of my thesis advisor's breakdown while I was in his lab, and how nobody believed me when I tried to tell them what was going on and ask for help so I could publish my papers and graduate. It wasn't until much later that other people began to witness his behavior and realized what I was talking about.

This situation is upsetting to me because I'm worried about Melissa and her work, but I also don't want to take responsibility for her health or career. It's also upsetting because it brings back these questions about how academia seems to actually foster situations where people can sustain unhealthy behaviors, at enormous risk to themselves, others, and the quality of science, and not get treatment until something catastrophic occurs.

3. The idealist

I have a friend, we'll call her Julie. Julie has been working for several years in a relatively lucrative field, but wants to go to grad school. She's passionate about her topic, which is not something you can do in an industrial capacity at all, and she is frustrated by the lack of resources and access she has as a hobbyist.

Yesterday she started working on her applications. Her husband is very supportive, and seems to think that getting a PhD will get her the access and resources that she currently lacks. He told me how she had tried to contact people in the field and no one would return her calls, but he thought that having a PhD would solve that problem.

I tried to tell him, gently, that even if Julie goes to grad school, it's neither necessary nor sufficient for access. I said you don't need a PhD to do the social engineering required. I said getting responses from strangers is a skill. He seemed kind of baffled by that suggestion.

What I should have said was, have you seen the tv show Castle? The premise is that Castle (Nathan Fillion's character) is an author of mystery books, who insinuates himself into a police department and proceeds to help them solve crimes. It's fictional, but you get the idea, and it's a brilliant one.

Of course it depends on what you want to do.

I asked whether Julie would need to do a postdoc in her field. The answer was a tentative "probably not".

And then I pointed out that even if it's not common right now, by the time she graduates, it might be. I explained the history of the postdoc position and how it began as optional, but over time became lengthier and required and eventually a dead-end holding pattern.

It makes me ill to have to tell people these things and see how, if they're smart enough to process what I'm saying, they realize I am a former idealist myself. I know exactly what they want to believe, and exactly what they're getting themselves into.

I emphasized that getting into graduate school is just the beginning, and doesn't guarantee anything about actually getting to do research long-term, whether you care about making money or not. Thankfully, at least for the foreseeable future, Julie's husband makes enough money that she won't have to worry about making a living doing what she loves.


After talking with Julie and her husband, last night I had a nightmare about the question of whether a PhD is sufficient. It was sort of a flashback to a trip a took during my postdoc years, trying to do some work in the lab of a collaborator, in a distant country. I was jet-lagged, and unprepared for what an alienating experience it would be. I had been focused on the work I wanted to get done on my trip. I hadn't thought about how lonely I would feel, or that I might not be able to finish what I needed to do, for reasons I hadn't foreseen.

In the dream, I ran into a professor whom I didn't know but who seemed to know my work. He proceeded to start drawing on a chalkboard and exclaiming to the students who were around, how great my work was and how he wanted me to publish another paper on it.

I didn't know how to begin explaining, you don't understand what you're asking. You don't seem to understand how much work went into all my other papers. Years of work. Really hard work. And I'm only here for two weeks. 

In the dream, everything in the lab was covered in brown paper towels, and someone walked in with a couple of dogs, and one of the dogs peed on me.

I woke up remembering how much pressure I put on myself. How badly I wanted to do the best work I could do. I thought of all the work I did with almost no resources. I thought about all the political warfare and other setbacks I encountered. And how, in the end, I'm proud of the work I did, but in terms of career trajectory, none of it paid off.

I thought about how you can't do this kind of science as a hobby, and sometimes no matter how hard you try, you can't do it as a professional, either.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I wanted to write a post, because somehow the mood struck me that it was about time.

I was going to write something about how my current boss is one of those closet sexists who probably doesn't even think of himself as sexist and would be offended to have to face that fact about himself. I'm not sure how to gently guide him to understand where his biases are hiding.

And how his boss seems to be terrified of me. Apparently because I'm female. He is friendly, but he never speaks to me directly. I don't think this is because he disrespects me. I think it is because he is shy, and women are especially scary. Also, I couldn't help noticing that he didn't wear his wedding ring when he first started working with us, but now he does. Regardless, this barrier means my colleagues have an easier time bonding with him than I do. I sense his discomfort and it makes me uncomfortable. So I stay away.

And I miss my former boss, who wasn't perfect but at least didn't refer to female peers and colleagues as "that woman" or "the wife of..."

And I miss doing research, and how what I'm doing is not really science at all, but it's a complicated thing to explain what science actually is. But I think some of my non-scientist friends have a better grasp of what science should be than a lot of scientists do.

And that makes me think more than ever, that I should get out of science as a career. I don't see how I'm ever going to get to any kind of leadership position from the traditional routes. I think I'm going to have to write if I want to say anything about how science needs to change, and whether anyone listens or not, at least I can say I tried.

Because in science, critical thinking skills can mean all the difference between success and paranoia. It's the difference between wasting time trying to reproduce results found in a shoddy publication, and doubting why science ever works or understanding how it ever could.

And that's not much different from believing the traditional career paths still exist (in minute quantities) or will lead to any kind of satisfying life (of a debatable kind).

I was thinking about this because I saw a friend recently who seems to have the perfect faculty position (tenured, good school) and life (married, 1 child). But her job is not completely stress-free, and I know that while things look good on the outside, she still has to work hard to stay where she is. And I don't know if I would really have been happy doing that. Maybe I would have gotten claustrophobic, staying at the same university for so long. I probably would have run into the same kinds of problems, just later on.

And I was thinking about how I have maybe two other friends who encounter sexist shit on an almost daily basis like I do, both at work and on the street, getting hit on, etc. (Just today I was walking out of the grocery store and got yelled at "Hey pretty lady, you care about baby tigers, don't you?")

And how it's somewhat mysterious to me that some of us have to constantly be confronted with being judged on our appearance, and other women somehow sail through life never having to really face up to it as a clear disadvantage. And how it baffles me as to whether it's because we're somehow more sexy (seems doubtful?) or just "too sensitive" or just unlucky or what.

Like how did my friend, who is pretty and athletic, manage to choose a field where somehow being in a minority of women was actually good for her career? But in my case it only seems to negate anything intelligent I have to say about anything?

And I'm supposed to accept positions where I'm routinely ignored, and at best I'm supposed to be satisfied when people take my ideas or suggestions but don't give me credit for them?

And I heard something recently about how most people can't tolerate constant failure, but video gamers and research scientists are the exception to that generalization.

I mean, I don't take it personally when my experiments fail. I know that either I will figure it out, or I won't, and either way, it doesn't make me any less of a person.

But I am so tired of the failure of my male colleagues to treat me as an equal. And it makes me so sad when I see the younger women following their lead. Why would they respect me when no one else does?

I know it's not me, because the last place I worked, when some people treated me with respect, everyone else tended to follow their lead. Too bad that job didn't pay enough...

And lately I would love a video game or any activity that was so easy and fun that it involved getting a lot of positive feedback and encouragement. Because I don't get enough of that in my job, and I would like to have more "flow state", which they say is what happy people cultivate. Where you are just absorbed in something so much that you don't notice time passing. Because all I do is notice time passing, and it only seems to pass too quickly evenings/weekends, and too slowly when I am at work.

And how some days I feel old, and some days I get carded when I buy a bottle of wine at the grocery store.

And how I sat at dinner the other night with a bunch of married people talking about their experiences with having kids, and my boyfriend and I looked at each other and held hands and everyone said how cute we are and how it's so obvious we're not married. And how the irony is nobody knows I was upset because I am just about too old to have kids even if I wanted to, and how hard it is to be dealing with that. Or how that happened because I put off deciding about having kids in hopes of having a scientific career. But nobody knows that. I didn't even really know that. But I'll probably have the rest of my life to think about it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ego-depletion, dishonesty and bad career decisions?

Check out this article, which talks about stress in terms of "ego-depletion", and what that does to both decision-making and the tendency to take short-cuts in general.

So first, let's talk about stress. I feel like stress became a popular term sometime in the '80s. I was just a kid then, but it was the days of spandex and step aerobics, shoulder pads and big hair. Everyone was working harder to be thinner, more powerful, more competitive.

Stress morphed into the grunge era and emerged looking like cigarette-smoking, burned-out depression in the early '90s.

By the time I was in "training", the culture of science valued stress above all else. Stress was a hallmark of potential success. If you were more stressed than the next guy, that meant you were working harder. Everyone respected the hardest worker. It didn't matter if you were working smart, or if your science was working at all. It mattered what kind of hours you put in; how much you complained; how tired you looked. Who saw you leaving in the early dawn after spending the night in the lab. It was almost as important to be seen exhibiting signs of stress as it was to complain about it afterwards, when you had gone home, slept a while, and showered.

But I think this article and the idea that we might make poor decisions under stress is worth considering seriously.

For example, are we being dishonest with ourselves when we rationalize why anyone should deserve to suffer in science careers? Are we rationalizing pain as "part of the training process"? As a "learning experience"? Are we telling ourselves we need to toughen ourselves and our students up, because we're too tired to realize that's a stupid way to think about a career that actually demands creativity and a fresh perspective?

Well, yes. I think so.

I also think the idea that stress and poor decision-making might lead to cheating is relevant to science. I think examples like Retraction Watch help document the extent to which not all scientists view it as a noble profession. Or maybe they just are too tired to resist the temptation to fudge the data and hope everyone else is too tired to notice it's a big fat lie.

Meanwhile, the honest people are headed for certain burnout. At the end of the day, is there any amount of hard work that can win out over the cheaters who never get caught? Or who are rationalizing why they should protect each other? How much ego-depletion does it take to fuel protectionist groupthink?