Monday, December 26, 2005

Post-traumatic thesis stress

So, I went to lab for a few hours today, and it was actually not all bad. In fact, I seem to have a reproducible result, which is a huge relief. Of course I can't be sure it's linked to the thing I'm studying, but it is proof that I'm not completely incapable of repeating an experiment.


Unfortunately, I'm curled up with a shot of Jack Daniels and a box of chocolates, because I stupidly agreed to help a friend revise her thesis. Actually the chocolates were a Christmas present that I've been trying to avoid opening for several days, but this seemed like a good occasion to give in to temptation.

Now, I may have mentioned previously that I was my thesis advisor's only student, and that my advisor was not around when I was writing my thesis. I spent several months trying to figure out what to write, and how to write it. It was really traumatic and definitely character-building.

I had the advantage, however, of having published a few papers already. So it could have been a lot worse. I also had unlimited time, since my committee obviously couldn't let me schedule my defense until we figured out where my advisor had gone! Ha ha! It's almost funny now!


My friend is not so lucky. She is using the thesis as an excuse to write up all of her unpublished data, but she has no experience with this. It's a hard time to learn about organization, references, and oh yeah, questioning assumptions.

And did I mention that she's a world-class procrastinator, so she has only a week left?

I'm kind of horrified to have to say this, because my friend is bright and hard working. But. This girl would have fried in the wok of hell that I went through.

I'm worried she's going to find out the hard way when she sends her paper out for review. I'm equally worried that the paper will just sail through review, which it really shouldn't if peer review actually works.

She'll find out the hard way, eventually. But she's not there yet. Whatever her advisor or former postdocs in her lab say or do, she takes it as the gospel. And I suspect her thesis committee will, too. It's disgusting and unscientific, but it's true.

Her advisor is respected in his field, which is to say, he would not survive if he tried to make it in mine- if he were a postdoc starting out now. Controls that would be considered absolutely necessary in my field are apparently optional in theirs. I was told that the thesis is the one document that should be written in first person, but her advisor refuses to let her write in anything but the most convoluted, passive voice. And so on. Our fields are close enough, however, that all the missing experiments are glaringly obvious to me, and it's very upsetting to see this going on right under my nose and know that there's very little I can do about it beyond make some feeble suggestions about how she should, um, consider discussing some of her results and the potential limitations of how they could be interpreted. I can't see how I can do much else without further compromising my own career.

Hence the Jack Daniels. Jack got me through all the miserable, political, degrading subjective crap I experienced in grad school, and I'm vicariously reliving the unfairness of it all by helping my friend out, but from the opposite angle: my friend is the enemy. She's one of the ones who gets to slip through the system, unquestioned. She doesn't have to work as hard as I did, or know her stuff inside and out and backwards. And it makes me angry.

But I feel guilty about being, well, a little bit disgusted, because I really do like her and I think she has a lot of potential. And I'm not sure it's a good thing that I had my potential, shall we say, galvanized, by what I went through. I'm not saying everyone should have to go through that! But they shouldn't get to float through on a bed of cotton candy, either.

In a way it's nice to reconfirm everything I've learned along the way. But this is the perfect example of a lab that runs precisely the wrong way: the complete lack of training, the royal oblivion of the well-named PI and the field that obediently follows in the footsteps of years of untested assumptions.

Goody. And a stack of thesis pages left to go.

I guess I'm thinking about it even more because I read an interesting essay this morning about how to do meaningful research. One of the things this guy said that really pissed me off is that it's more important to be a great scientist than to get involved in fixing the system. I think this is precisely the kind of shortsightedness that has led to the mess American science is in now. So I guess if I were really worried only about my science, I wouldn't have agreed to read this thing for my friend, and I wouldn't be in the emotional and philosophical angst that I am now.

One of my best friends still has thesis nightmares, years later. She gets a phone call from the administrative head of our program, saying that they need more data or another paper and until they get it, she can't graduate. She wakes up sweating and breathless every time. She definitely has impostor syndrome. She still feels like she escaped out a back door at midnight with a stolen, blank diploma and just wrote her name in the slot.

I'm happy to say I don't actually have that kind of nightmare. There is no question in my mind - especially today - that I more than earned my diploma.

Say it with me now, postdocs: I already have my PhD. I made it through. You may have to go and look at your diploma, or your bound copy of the final, signed document, to prove it to yourself. YOU ARE DONE.

And now, onto the next challenge.


At 10:04 PM, Blogger david said...

Things have changed much in three decades. It wasn't that long ago that your friend might have had subtle (or not so subtle) hints that various extracurricular activities might be necessary to finish her doctorate. Disgusting, but true, unfortunately.

At 2:11 AM, Blogger Dr J. said...

The word thesis is enough to make me start twitching nervously.

I had a similar experience with a roommate who was doing research in medicine (personally, I feel that medical doctors should be banned from research until they´ve done a real science degree). She was working on atherosclerosis and was writing her doctorate thesis on data they´d published in one of the top journals in the field. She came in to my room one day and said "My test group has an average age of 62 and my control group an average age of 27 - do you think that´s a problem?"

I kid thee not.

At 8:56 PM, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

jack is a friend, but i prefer a good shiraz or old vine zin since it lasts longer and isn't a combustion hazard.

i know the drill and have 16-20 years perspective on those who i thought slipped through vs. those of us i thought earned it. the sticklers and head cases like me (who never thought we were working hard enough) are in academic and/or other non-profit positions.

the ones who eeked through now have $25 million/yr medical consulting companies, coordinate clinical trials for pharma, are fda advisors, or even nih grants administrators.

thankfully, i tried to be nice to them all, because you never know when you might need a friend in the future.

but, man-oh-man, it gets my goat to see people slip through because examiing committees don't have what it takes to stop an unqualified candidate. my view is that we need to make better use of the terminal master's degree - then, at least, the qualified PhDs among us would have less competition!

here's to your own expts continuing to work!

At 8:50 AM, Blogger Jane said...

I recently found out that a colleague never wrote his own papers in grad school---conference or journal. His advisor wrote them all, yet still listed my colleague as first author. And this is at a supposedly top-tier school. It made me wonder if my experience (writing my own damn papers, thankyouverymuch) was the exception rather than the rule. It also made me wonder how much of his thesis was actually written by his advisor....sigh.

At 9:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exactly Jane!

The same can be said about finding out that some postdocs wrote their own recommendation letters for job applications. Conflict of interest to say the least!

At 9:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just curious Jane,

was he a foreign student by any chance?

At 5:26 PM, Blogger NeuroChick said...

One of the things I've been most surprised by in grad school (I'm a 4th year neuroscience PhD student) is how people seem to be able to graduate "just because they've been here long enough," or they're an MD/PhD student who has to finish the PhD to get back to do their MD rotations, etc. Some people of course, produce outstanding dissertations, and then other people just barely eek out a first author paper and graduate. Or give public defenses where the first 30 min are spent on background and 10 min are spent on data that they themselves actually generated.

Jane, the story about your colleague doesn't suprise me at all. There's a research assistant professor in my lab who does wonderful experiments, but doesn't write his papers. He might put an outline together, but that's it. Our PI writes the papers, and even does the full interpretation of the data, from what I can tell. I guess it all depends on how independent you want to eventually become. If you're fine doing research for someone else for the rest of your life then I guess it doesn't really matter, but if you'd like to entertain the possibility of maybe having your own lab at some point you might want to learn how to write a paper along the way.

Ms.PhD, I love this blog. Thanks so much for doing it. Hope you made it through your friend's thesis ok.

At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a scientist (ivy league PhD, '01) and was one of the lucky few to land a steady job in research science within a few years of getting my PhD. I'm not a professor, but a staff scientist at a government lab. Anyway, the majority of those in my graduate school class (probably around 70 %) either quit the field entirely or are still in post-doc purgatory. Note that the ones who quit with a masters degree are, by far, the best off financially... despite the fact that those of us in the program were arrogant enough to consider leaving with a masters as a "failure."

You can read up on the post-doc trap if you like, just google it. Whatever you do, make sure you don't end up on that treadmill for too long. A post-doc can be a great opportunity to try new science and, in certain cases, work in interesting places. However, it's usually true that the "post-doc" experience doesn't live up to its promise. It's advertised as "post-doctoral training" but the word "training" is inserted, more often than not, so that those who apply can be paid far less than they're worth… specifically because their employers know how difficult it can be to get a job doing research.

Ask yourself this... what kind of "training" position requires, as a prerequisite, the highest degree in the land? Okay... you might say... "but MD's go through a residency period too." Sure, but MDs enter a residency program in order to specialize in a particular subfield of medicine. In contrast, profs are looking to hire post-docs with backgrounds and specific skill sets to implement/augment their research programs. You can have a phd in a related subject and still be rejected because your training wasn't extensive enough in the right subfield. If you're hired for your specific expertise in the first place, does it make sense to call the position a "training" period? I suppose it's an open issue for debate, but I see a certain level of unfairness here... particularly given that exactly what the post-docs are "training" for is not always terribly clear. The likelihood that any given post-doc (particularly at lower-end institutions) will get the kind of academic job in which they will actually use their "training" is comparatively low. In contrast, a radiology resident who successfully completes the program is nearly guaranteed a job as a radiology specialist.

I'm a bit disgusted, frankly, with how little we pay our post-docs and how we treat them. It's endemic to the system - science is structured to eat its young. We string people along for years on the mere, faint hope that they'll someday get a permanent position. Yet, the longer they remain in the "training" program, the more valuable their skills become to the principal scientist... thus the lower the incentive for that principal scientist to fulfill his part of the "training" bargain and help the post-doc find real work. I’ve seen this kind of abuse first-hand while collaborating with a well-known academic group. It can be especially egregious and flagrant in the case of foreign-citizens whose visa status is tied to the post-doctoral “advisor.” I recall one instance in which a PhD chemist from Asia (who was in this country because her husband had found a job) worked for the better part of a year without pay because her “advisor” promised to help her obtain a work visa. This is technically illegal and probably atypical, but the point is that these positions are so ill-defined and policing so infrequent that the system is rife with abuse.

Beware of excessive post-docing. It can kill your spirit and rob you of your youth. That being said, I understand and sympathize with all who want to make research a career. It's a path that has many, many rewards... both intellectual and personal. I'm not recommending against trying it... I'm just saying that if you're on your second or third post-doc, it's time to look elsewhere even if your advisor tells you that work is just around the corner. It probably isn't... there are far more people with PhD's in the sciences than there are permanent positions.

At 6:47 PM, Blogger John said...

I agree with many of the points raised, but think other points has analysis in unwarranted detail. Grad students need to have (1) the PhD, (2) papers that garner respect, (3) elders who will personally vouch for the work and argue that it is central to hot issues, and (4) the personality to show during the interviews they will be contributors to a dept and continue to conduct stellar research once they leave the mentorship of their advisors.

So the PhD alone buys little, and need not have a sacred threshold to stop pretenders from finishing and moving on. Without papers and a good interview, it is no mystery why graduates would fail to find a good job. If one does a thesis solo without a real advisor, generally a bad idea, point (3) can be a serious problem, as advisors who thought of the problem are usually the most enthusiastic references when it is solved.

Finally, there are only a limited number of jobs. If each faculty member produced one successor, we would be in steady state. To the extent that advisors have more than one student, that fraction cannot will not attain the same level of seniority as the advisor.

I just re-read my application to grad school from 20 years ago, and was surprised to see that it mentioned a range of professional aspirations, from faculty to secondary education and industry technician, as possible goals, and think others should be as realistic.

Just trying to inject some realism, although I expect these views are unpopular.

At 8:25 PM, Blogger NeuroChick said...


I agree that grad students and postdocs should be realistic and realize that an academic position is not the be all and end all of a scientific existence. I wouldn't say that your views are unpopular. But when an academic position is your goal, it's quite frustrating to hear of the "glut" of PhDs entering a workforce that can't fully accomodate them, while seeing that some of those PhDs are people who just plainly don't deserve it.

Maybe it's because I'm still in grad school, but I do have faith that, in the end, the system figures it out at some level and the people who did excellent PhD and postdoc work will be rewarded eventually. At least that's the only hope I have at this point.

I completely agree that a PhD isn't the only thing required for a successful scientific career. But it's a large part, and some people end up riding on their advisor's coattails just far enough to get where they need to be, and for others to think that they were the ones driving the research when they may have just been following directions from their PI.

At 11:47 PM, Blogger John said...

I think I agree, although the quality of the work is just one factor, glibness, perceived helpfulness, and networking are also helpful.

My opinion is that many don't realize the serendipitous part of academic hiring, either. Despite the careful process, there's a stochastic element to hiring decisions, and quirks of history that applicants almost never decipher. Any one hiring decision should not be taken personally.

In my experience, search committees know the candidates better than the candidates think, although their judgment could often be questioned.

At 11:31 AM, Blogger Meredtih said...

I'm a postdoc in the biophysical sciences currently interviewing for academic jobs. Thanks so much for posting the link to Hamming's talk- I very much enjoyed his perspective. I agree with you, though, that it was unsettling how much he discouraged sticking your neck out and trying to change things- although he was realistic that it would take too much focus away from your scientific tasks at hand. I wonder if he discouraged this, though, because he favors a system in which he was very succesful and navigated very well himself. I do agree that it takes someone in a fairly influential position to make changes to the scientific system, as a newcomer doesn't have much clout. But at the same time, an established person usually doesn't want to change the landscape of the mountain they just climbed atop of- they don't want to make it easier for others- much in the same way you didn't want your friend to be handed a Ph.D. that she didn't work as hard for as you did. I think change requires humility on everyone's part, and regarding the greater good of the scientific community in higher regard than your own personal ambition- and since the system is currently very hierarchical and ego-driven, I think that this change in thinking will take quite a while. But it can be done.

Best of luck with your research, and may we both find faculty jobs!!!

At 12:59 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

This raised a lot of interesting points, thanks for all your contributions.

I just wanted to address what Meredith said at the end. I think it's a great point that they don't want to change a system that worked for them.

It's not that I don't want to make it easier for my friend, I do.

If anything I just think it's really sad that nobody taught her anything along the way, at the very least, what to ask, who to ask and when to ask for help. And when to take advice. I've been telling her for the last 2 years to start writing her papers, even if she felt like she didn't have all the data yet. She didn't understand and I didn't take the time to explain why this is absolutely necessary, and waiting until the last minute is the worst thing you can do. Oh well, it's too late now.

Again, it's not that I think she doesn't work hard, she does, for the most part. She just doesn't always work smart.

And, I think there's a sense of entitlement that I never had- she actually had the nerve to ask for my original files for one of the sections of her thesis, because she figured it would be similar and save her the time of typing most of it from scratch. I said I couldn't find them, because I didn't want to be bothered looking, and because I thought it was an outrageous request. If she had asked a month ago, that would be one thing, but when the thing is due in a week, it's clear she's just being lazy.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger Meredtih said...

Yes, I definitely think you are right- your friend absolutley sounds like she doesn't have her shit together, and you are a very good friend to have helped her as much as you have. I didn't mean to imply that you didn't want her to succeed- my analogy was poorly chosen.

I see the same thing which you describe- a sense of entitlement among some of the grad students I come across. I'm not sure whether it stems from being naive about what is expected of them, or if they have unrealistic ideas about the amount of work takes to succeed, or if they are just lazy, or if they are simply arrogant and think that everything will be handed to them- I don't know. But I think this way of thinking is more prevalent now than it was when I was in grad school- maybe it was that the prevailing attitude at the school I attended was so different than the one I'm at now- or maybe I was just clueless.

It sounds like your friend has been given enough rope to hang herself with by her advisor. Is it her advisor's intention that she learn the hard way, or is he/she just oblivious to what's going on?

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Honestly, I think her advisor only cares about publishing papers, and doesn't give two fig newtons whether she gets a PhD or writes a good thesis or learns anything along the way.

In fact, I think it is his typical policy that he writes all the papers in the lab, so he's having to stretch a bit to merely edit what she gives him. Let's put it this way: she's a pretty good writer, and naturally pretty skeptical. But he took all her sentences and turned them into the most convoluted, passive "the experiments did themselves and proved we're always right" type grammar. I'll try to give you an example of what I mean:

"One hypothesis is that... In order to test this hypothesis, we used ABC technique... The results are consistent with--- and suggest that... "

becomes something like:

"The Theory defined as Blah after which something happens without this that and the other, was tested using ABC technique. The results confirm our Totally Bogus Theory is absolutely correct."

Ugh. Basically this guy shouldn't be allowed to have students at all. I just hope they let her graduate, because I'm not sure she's got the stuff to deal with rejection of this kind, where it's not really her fault, the advisor she still kind of idolizes not only abandons her but basically sets her up to fail... but I could be wrong. I dealt with something equally awful and moved on, so maybe she can, too.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Meredtih said...

Ugggh- I hope your friend learns enough to overcome a bad advisor.

I hope as future faculty we are not doomed to repeat the same mistakes of our mentors- I hope that what we endure equips us with at least a repetoire of things NOT to do, and that we come out better for it in the end...


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