Scientists Behaving Badly
I'm writing this offline because Blogger is misbehaving. That's the second time in a week that I've had problems with the website.
I've gotten so many responses to a previous post ( Well-meaning bureaucrats ) that I want to discuss some of the righteous indignation over, as one person put it, the farce that science has become.
First of all, one of the goals of this blog is to dispel naive misconceptions most people have about how science actually works. So if it's news to you that these things go on, then I'm doing my (self-described) job.
Second, I'm just being honest. There are only so many battles one person can fight. Criticizing me for accepting my PI's sometimes questionable policies is not going to change my behavior. Obviously I'm aware that it's questionable, or I wouldn't be writing about it. I feel I'm doing some service to the world by documenting the fact. But overall, I'm just grateful to have an advisor who likes me and is willing to look over the letters, make minor changes, and sign her name. My previous advisor flatly refused, and that's why I left his lab, and it's also why I have a gap in my CV. It's not like I'm spineless, people!
Third, arguing about the best way to get recommendation letters is extremely naive. Clearly you don't understand that looking a gift horse in the mouth- especially a PhD horse with a PhD mouth- would be ridiculous. Jobs are so very scarce these days. An immense amount of anxiety goes into collecting these letters and sending out applications. For example, a few of the schools I'm applying to want 4 letters, not 3. Now I'm faced with the additional anxiety of trying to find a fourth person who knows enough about my current work, and likes me enough, and has time and is responsible enough, to fill that role. I don't have time for that! So I have to decide if there's any point in trying to apply to these places.
I talked to a friend yesterday who, for personal reasons (translation: wife can't relocate yet, she's still in grad school) turned down a couple of really awesome job offers last year. Instead he took a postdoc position, which is relatively unusual in his field, just so he could put off relocating for another year or two. So this year he'd like to apply for jobs again, with the aim of moving next year, but now he's really gotten himself into a bind. While he was a stellar grad student and had job offers even with no postdoc experience on his CV, now he's concerned because he thinks his postdoc advisor isn't too happy with him, and he's worried the guy won't write him a good letter. To me, this is an incredibly depressing story. But it's true: depending on how you're perceived at a personal level, getting more experience can actually hurt your career.
Fourth, and here is where I have to say that fundamentally I agree with the righteous indignation: why do we get jobs based on recommendation letters at all? On the one hand, we pride ourselves as being oh-so-objective as scientists. But the fact of the matter is, science is done by people. There is really no getting around it, at least until the protein folding problem is completely solved and predictable. Until every last base pair of every last genome is sequenced, until cancer and alzheimer's and parkinson's are all cured, science will be done by people, not robots. And working together is something scientists traditionally suck at. Collaboration has only recently become "the" buzzword of the job search.
So in my view, hopefully the recommendation letters are there to give some indication about how you are to work with, as a person, and maybe something about your independence and creative thinking abilities, which is to say, that your work was your own idea and not the PI's. But I don't think letters should be making any kind of subjective statements about the quality of your actual work. Your publication record should be the best statement about that. But I see all kinds of abuses in the system when it comes to letters. For example, I've seen people claim that their postdoc is on the verge of getting a Cell paper, when they were really nowhere near any such thing.
That said, anyone who hires someone for a faculty position based solely on their letters is a moron. Have you seen the statistics on the failure rates for young professors in getting and maintaining their first NIH grants? It's shockingly high. And it's hard to know if that's because young people are writing crappy grants, because nobody ever taught them how, or if it's because the system is biased in favor of the more established folks. It's probably some of both.
But based solely on the success rate of young professors at getting grants, one could hypothesize that these people suck, and they were hired for the wrong reasons. So then one must conclude that the hiring system is supremely flawed (she says, but if she gets a job, she will claim that it's working just fine!). I'd like to think that my friends who have jobs will mostly figure out what they're doing and manage to succeed, whether they're really prepared for what they've gotten themselves into, or not. But maybe some of my friends- and I can think of one, particularly whiny and arrogant one in particular- are exactly among those who will not get their second or third NIH grant, and won't get tenure. Only time, or majors changes in the system, will tell.