Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Humpety Hump Hump Day

Halfway through the week, and it's a mediocre day.

My friend who's had 2 interviews already got rejected from one of those places, so he's understandably bummed. I was feeling pretty good thinking I hadn't gotten any rejection letters so far this week, but then I got one after lunch. Meanwhile, at least 6 people in my lab asked me questions today about techniques, and I was able to feel confident about my answers to them. So that felt good. So it kinda balances out.

But yesterday kinda sucked. My advisor was in one of her moods. First she was complaining that nobody in her lab likes science enough and that's why they're not productive. She's stressing about grants, hence worrying that she doesn't have enough data (she doesn't). There's no point in trying to tell her they actually all really like science, and that it's her incredible negativity that makes them less productive, and that students and postdocs are much more motivated if they think their stuff will get published, than that it will go into a grant they won't be around to enjoy....

I made a comment about how perhaps getting people to be productive was the same in science as in any other field, and she responded by saying she can make her technicians and her administrative assistant do lots of work, but that you can't manage grad students and postdocs.


I wouldn't know how to begin to explain to her why I think that's ridiculous.

So to try to cheer her up, while simultaneously demonstrating that I had done an experiment she had suggested, I asked her about something I had done this week (that didn't work) and whether she had any other ideas for how to get at the question. But, she was in one of her condescending moods, and proceeded to claim that I needed to do more reading, specifically citing an observation I still can't find in the literature. At all. I think she was mis-remembering, but I will have to keep looking since it would actually be really helpful to me if she's right.

Anyway in the course of the discussion, I realized something. Maybe I'm just getting better at reading people, but I had the strong impression that there were two conversations going on there. One was the words coming out of her mouth, which sounded more or less like advice. The other was something I could hear, a little voice in my head, that was much more negative. I had the impression I could tell how she really felt about my project and my progress, and it wasn't good.

There is a saying in this lab that our advisor likes everyone who is new. She's nice to you for the first year, they say, but after that, beware. Well my year has been up for a few months now, and I think I see why they say that.


At 3:27 PM, Blogger virus cowgirl said...

Are you in my lab?!! I have been experiencing very similar issues with my female PI. I fortunately have another PI to fall back on, but he may be considered only the lesser of two evils.

I am slightly relieved, as well as dissapointed that PI refuse to acknowledge the wealth of information regarding managing your employees, that have proved very successful for most business. Hope things improve.

At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tell her to read "Don't Shoot the Dog!" by Karen Pryor and/or go to Karen's website, to see how the positive reinforcement quadrant of operant conditioning can work on humans.

At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, like you and virus cowgirl, have the same problem with my female PI. Actually, far worse. I could go into specifics, but it's not worth the effort right now (I'm really tired).

Anyway, I found your website when I was looking around for stuff about mentoring. I also found a really cool article about mentoring (for fellows, but it definitely applies to the rest of us in biomedical sciences... and even elsewhere in academia). Check it out at:

All I want for Christmas is a good mentor... : ) Thanks for blogging about these things. It really helps to hear someone else's story

-a soon-to-be post-doc

At 11:39 AM, Blogger wildvineyard said...

I, too, had a psychotic female PhD advisor. I survived, got a great post-doc, and am now on the tenure track. (see After five years with that woman I learned to accept that I could not change her or even make my situation more bearable. all I could do was survive and graduate and get as far away from her as possible. Find mentors elsewhere, wherever you can. Find fellow students to give you a pep talk when you get depressed and other professors (male or female) to help you get through. Just because she is your advisor doesn't mean you have to listen to her or spend time with her or even do what she says. Make yourself as independant of her as possible. Don't let her stand between you and your PhD or you and a normal, happy, productive life.

Oddly, now I am the PhD advisor. I'm trying really hard not to be like my advisor. This is the hope we have for the future, that we will all graduate and become professors and destroy the mindset that says we have to be monsters to succeed. As Krushchev said, we will bury you.

At 4:45 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Did I make her sound like a psycho? And here I thought she wasn't that bad after the two male psychos (bonified) that I worked for previously.

I don't feel like I need a mentor right now so much as a PR specialist. I get the feeling my applications aren't even being looked at, and that most people haven't heard of me before and therefore don't bother to look any further.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger ScienceWoman said...

I don't think you made her sound like a psycho, just a typical over-worked, under stress female scientist who didn't get the training she needed in how to mentor/manage her students.

As far as your applications go, have you shown your CV/research interests/cover letters to others? I just got back from a conference and I made a point of asking all of the junior faculty that I knew there about tips for cover letters etc. The things I heard from them made me want to withdraw a few of my applications and start over.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Joolya said...

Ugh -PIs, all crazy in their own special ways. Hang in there, and good luck with your applications!

At 9:20 AM, Blogger Joolya said...

(PS: not to imply that students and post-docs aren't also crazy ... but our craziness doesn't affect other people quite so much!)

At 6:55 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Yes, I showed my CV/research plan/cover letters to no less than 5 PIs, plus my boyfriend who has seen and written several of those himself. I made several changes, some more drastic than others, and it is still evolving as my research progresses and I whittle down exactly what it is that I'm doing and planning to do. So not all the schools are getting the same version, and not just because of page limits.

My feeling really is just that nobody's bothering to look at what I sent, or think much about what I'm doing, because they haven't heard of me. And none of my advisors (former and current) are the type to get on the phone and start haranguing everyone they know to invite me for an interview.

So I'm trying to email everyone I know, in the hopes that some of them might know someone on a committee.

One of my friends who got a few job offers- with many fewer publications than I have now- just happened to know the chairs of the committees at the places where she applied. Go figure.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger Bill Hooker said...

Are you in my lab?!

Alternatively, are you in the lab I left a few months ago?

I had very much the same experience with my PI there: complaining that no one in the lab liked science enough, and how she can't "get good help" (always with a comparison to her own dedication); misremembered quotes from the literature and misremembered results from earlier work; giving a strong negative impression without actually saying anything negative; the "likes everyone new" thing. All this was the same for me in the last lab I worked in.

Is this more common in female PIs? I cannot think of a reason why that would be, but everyone in this thread is chiming in about a female PI. What age ranges are we talking about? My monster (no, she isn't really!) is in her 50s and a full professor. I wonder if the behaviours we describe are somehow to do with having made it that far up the food chain in a field that is pretty sexist even now, and was only worse when the PIs in question were starting out.


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