Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mentoring = meaningless buzzword? and, Things I Hate About Industry

Yesterday I had an upsetting encounter with my thesis advisor. I hadn't seen him in a while, but the last few times we talked, he was working on different things than we worked on together. Meanwhile I have kind of moved back to working on things related to what his lab does, although I hadn't planned on it. I also told him I was counseled not to collaborate with him for a few years, just because it's hard to prove you're really independent if you can't cut the apron strings.

Overall, we have had a rocky relationship, but I thought things were going better between us.

So he told me yesterday he just got a grant funded to work on... the same thing I work on. I was too shocked to ask specifics, plus it wasn't really approriate for the time and place. But he said it with a smirk that I know he tends to reserve for people he doesn't like, and I wasn't sure if it was directed at me. I assumed it was.

In retrospect it's possible he was referring to all the other sharks who have, since I started my thesis, moved into our field and started snapping their teeth. And it's not like there isn't enough work to go around- there is. But it really freaked me out.

I realized I'm a terrible person for thinking it was okay for me to come in and start working in his field and then expect him to respectfully fade into the background. But I guess I thought he was sick of the competition and had plenty of other ideas. Personally I would like to transition, gradually, further away from the crowd. I have plenty of ideas myself, but right now it makes sense to continue with the current story before I move on.


Someone suggested to me the other day that perhaps Mentoring is just a frame, and both sides- PIs and postdocs- use it as an excuse.

PIs love to tell you to find a good mentor, but a good mentor is very hard, if not impossible to find. So it's a catch-22, especially for women. They love to say how important it is, but there's a lot of hypocrisy in saying ... and not doing.

Postdocs love to claim they can't succeed for lack of mentoring.

We were talking about this because of my friend (see earlier post) who managed to pull a thesis out of her ass and graduate.

She was frustrated that her mentor didn't give her more training as a graduate student. But the fact of the matter is, she didn't seek it out, either.

She was surrounded by postdocs in her lab, and had a handful of friends who had already gone through graduate school - including me. But she wasn't asking questions along the way, so the whole thing came crashing down at the end. We were supposed to drop whatever we were doing and bail her out. I figured it wasn't too much of an imposition to try to help her out, but I resented the way she expected it to be at her convenience, rather than treating it as a favor. A huge one.

I do find it astounding that her thesis committee apparently had no problems with the final document, which I haven't seen. All I can assume is that she actually put in all the changes I suggested?? I'm not sure how that could be physically possible. But the alternative makes me ill: that her committee didn't notice all the inconsistencies, all the spin her PI orchestrated on the story. Or they did, but they chose not to do anything about it.

So many failures in this system.

But maybe this is the mythical mentoring I never received: how to succeed in science using skills that have nothing to do with science. And I don't blame my mentor: I chose him because he was smart and wants to get the right answer, knowing full-well that he was a bit deficient in the spin category. Although I know it's an important skill, I tend to despise the people who possess it.


Some of you have asked if I would be willing to go to industry. I think yes, if I can find the right situation. I'm tempted by the suggestion that the best situations are like academia, but with more money.

Here are some things I hate about the idea of going to industry, in no particular order:

1. That the high cost of giving people tons of benefits and high salaries, and more importantly, trying to make a profit, gets passed on to patients, when it (usually?) isn't their fault that they're sick.

2. That someone tells you what to work on, how long to work on it, and when to stop working on it.

3. That competition with other companies is the name of the game.


At 8:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. I don't think there is anything wrong with getting paid well and good benefits for all the training and work you do. Think about all those lawyers, business, and MBAs that earn more and do even less for humanity. People get sick.. people have always been getting sick.. today we are able to come up with solutions faster and better... and it's going to come with a high cost. And it should. These people would just die prematurely without these drugs... back in the past.

2. How is this different from the grant funding agencies? They will turn down your grant if it isn't "hot" enough or doesn't fit with what they think is important. No different if you ask me.

3. Competition is just a fierce and even more unforgiving in academia because you can't sue or take action against competitors who move into your field and who steal your ideas.

frankly.. the issues are pretty much the same... the difference.. better hours and better pay... and none of this "academic lifestyle" baloney that everyone is sold on..

I say.. I'm taking the red pill

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Dr J. said...

I also don´t see a problem with getting paid well. Industry want the best people they can get and they want to keep them, so they pay them well. I don´t agree with the idea that to be a scientist you must be a martyr for the cause and live like a student for the rest of your life, poorly paid, overworked, no job security and iffy future prospects. I disagree with the comment that patients suffer BECAUSE of pharma. Patients are sick because of genetics, lifestyle, environment, whatever. Pharma provides medication for diseases that mean they will get their money back - the estimated cost is $800 Million to get a drug to market. Yes it means that numerous diseases don´t get new drug development, but without the system at the moment no disease would get new drugs. One thing that has caused the huge costs involved is FDA approval, and a lot of that is also because Americans like to sue the pants off everyone. Why is the contraceptive pill only worked on by European companies? -because litigation is just too extreme in the US, so women have suffered from a lack of better contraception development there.

Yep, you can´t do what you want. I personally never saw this as a big problem because I´ve changed fields a lot and I just love science, all of it. Reading into ANY subject interests me and gets me hooked. But I know plenty of people who don´t like that and I can see why. And certainly having to drop your project is really tough.

Competition is the name of the game in everything as you´ve just shown with your old boss. The further you go on in academia, the less you will talk to competitors before the paper has been accepted, the more guarded you will be in casual conversations. It´ll happen.

At 8:17 AM, Anonymous Lung Cell Biologist said...

Re: your problem with your thesis advisor. Although it does not excuse your advisor's nastiness, you might find this article of interest -

There's more to science (and life) than scoops. Nature. 2003 426:759.

At 8:57 AM, Blogger alamode said...

1) Most illness is due to lifestyle, genetics a distant second. See Heart disease.

2) 800M to bring a new drug to market? I'll bet you my fancy industry supplied desk pen set that includes ~700M of marketing.

3) Your choices are to A: get a life or B: whine about not having a life. Choose A.

Just my 2 cents.... the two they paid me to work at the U today.

At 1:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I don´t agree with the idea that to be a scientist you must be a martyr for the cause and live like a student for the rest of your life, poorly paid, overworked, no job security and iffy future prospects."

Wow! couldn't have said it any better! This whole concept of "martyrdom" in the sciences - especially biological sciences - is really strange. People are taught early on from gradschool this kind of thinking. Pretty soon they'll be telling us there are 23 virgins waiting for us in heaven if we only sacrifice ourselves to do just one more postdoc.. LOL

Is it the establishment, or is it that scientists are a subset of personalities that enjoy this living out this martyrdom personality complex, and then sharing it with their colleagues..

you know what they say...

misery loves company...

At 1:33 PM, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

hey, thanks so much for coming over to comment - your are very kind and thoughtful. i finally fixed my f'd-up comment moderating problem, so i only just realized that you came over within 12 hours of my launch!

my sense is that you advisor is either communication-challenged and/or a leech. did he use any of your preliminary data to get this grant? did you guys ever talk about what will be 'yours' and what will be 'his'? this is perhaps the biggest problem i see in postdocing in big-name labs (i'm guessing you're in a big-name lab but haven't read enough of your archives to know for sure).

even little ol' me talks with incoming postdocs and again at 6-12 month intervals about projects and reagent-sharing once they leave. i know some huge transcription folks who will give their former post-docs 12 months on their own to work on an exciting idea generated in the mentor's lab, but then all bets are off. frankly, i have enough to work on myself and a small enough lab that i never pose competition for my former trainees or, god forbid, we collaborate and i just ask for an acknowledgment (knowing how important it is for them to have pubs without me.)

industry - one new comment i can add is not to generalize about work environments. even across big pharma, freedom to choose project areas and publish vary quite a bit. the opportunities are even greater if you look at smaller biotechs or smaller conventional small-molecule companies. at the very least, getting interviews in pharma can be very educational, give you great contacts should you stay in academia, and even give you different insights on your projects. moreover, i usually find interviewing elsewhere has always given me a great boost of confidence in my work when the homefolks are getting me down.

freedom to choose projects - with frequent service on grant review panels, i strongly echo the comments of anon that you can get stuck in academia if you aren't doing work deemed hot by review panels. i always try to stand up for junior investigators with novel ideas, but review panels get entrenched in supporting only safe science or projects that don't challenge current dogma or conventional wisdom. that doesn't minimize the likelihood of you jumping from project to project in pharma, often at the whim of mbas or other admin folks, but i wouldn't want to oversell the freedom of choice in academia.

finally, the mentoring thing is equally variable. i know a number of accomplished female P.I.s who are harder on their female trainees than any guy could be. real mentors have to get to a point in their careers where they at least care equally about the reputations of their trainees and themselves and/or view the success of their former trainees as reflections on themselves as scientists.

i promise you that there are some still out there, but concede that they are difficult to find. a former cancer center director i met as a grad student in '86 was one of these people and has always been a great informal mentor. you may just be stuck in a place and/or field that cultivates and rewards selfishness over the advancement of science - there are good mentors and good mentoring out there, but it is often not always at the top-tier research institutions.

At 9:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think attitude is an important component to success in industry. Don't interview there until you make some changes in yours. One of the major differences is that team players go further than lone wolf researchers. Fact of life. Deal with it.
"Anonymous" because I hire scientists for industry

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Wow, well I really got a lot of defensive, knee-jerk reactions from people over the salary point.

Interesting. I guess I'm not surprised.

I'm not saying you don't deserve a good salary. Just think on it a minute- where does that money come from, and where would it go if not into your pocket?

I got into this business because I really do want to help people. I don't believe that cancer is always a lifestyle-induced disease. What about all these poor kids with leukemia? It's not their fault. And I think it's unconscionable how much some of these treatments cost. And there is no reason they have to. I know how companies spend money on toys. I also know how much can be done with a tiny amount of grant money. It's completely excessive.

As for being a 'lone wolf', while that sounds really romantic, I'm neither. I tend to blog about things that bother me, which is to say, usually the annoying people and the assholes. I have several really awesome collaborators and I love that part of my work. But there's not much to say about that besides, wow these people are wonderful- and few. I hope I'll continue to find more of them, but I'm sure that will be a lifetime project.

I like to blog about things that I think need fixing.

Anyway but yes, I hate people who are team-oriented to the extreme that they feel the need to attack people who are capable of being independent. Like it's some kind of sin to prefer to work out your ideas, at least partially, on your own!

I found the correspondence in Nature (see above) interesting this respect- this guy Scott Blystone basically said that consortiums and research institutes are bad because everyone starts to think alike. I think that's really extreme, and I disagree.

But what if he's even partially right- what does it say about these huge companies who don't talk to anyone outside about what they're doing, because they're so terrified of the competition? And their whole business is built on secrecy?

Just more reasons why I wouldn't want to go to industry.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Milo said...

I spent a bit of time in industry before going to grad school, and I have to say, like everything in life, there is the good, the bad and the ugly. One of the things I loved in industry was the feeling that we were expected to be people, not autonomous researchers whose families and emotional health came second. Let's face it, on the road to tenure, no one is going to care if you have an ulcer, get a divorce or burn out. Since a company invests a lot of money in their staff, it is in their best interest to make sure you are reasonably happy and healthy.

That being said, I can see how the prospect of having to "do what the company wants" would put some people off. To offset this, companies often give you the best equipment and labs they can. We all know the types of labs one can get at a university.

I am not saying industry is for you, but being a prof. is certainly not for me :-)

At 12:30 PM, Blogger Dr J. said...

Sorry, but I do want to say that my comment wasn´t a knee-jerk - it was a serious opinion that I have considered and developed over a number of years. I have worked in Uni, private research organisations, government research organisation, biotech and pharma on two continents, so I´ve had a chance to see a lot of different views. Yes, no place is perfect, each have their pluses and minuses. Each individual has to work out what suits them the best and go there. If your ideal is based on experience and knowledge of it all, all the better.

The reason I often respond to statements such as industry is evil (or gentler variations on the theme) is because I see it far too often spouted by junior researchers who haven´t experienced the "other side" and who don´t think to deeply about other career directions because our professors indoctrine us to believe that the only route is the academic route and everything else is failure. And the reason that annoys me so much is because I used to be one and suffered emotionally, physically (and financally) from it.

I don´t disagree with anyones choice to stay in academia- I think it´s great if that´s what you love and where you want to be. Perfect! You´ve found your dream. All I have problems with is the very one sided view of the world that most academics give out, and that´s why I tend to put my hand up and say something.

At 9:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure we've all heard of "the grass is greener on the other side"

well, when it comes to junior researchers, it may not only be the indoctrination of ideas such as "industry is evil", but to justify one's reason for enduring one, two, or three post-docs, with no tenure-track job in sight.

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

sorry, I meant to add that in this case.. it is the idea that "the grass is browner on the other side"

At 1:32 AM, Blogger Kristofer said...

I'm still a PhD student and have to depend even more on my advisor. But I'm working on standing up for my own ideas.

Kristofer's computational biology blog

At 8:44 AM, Blogger Milo said...

I have found that the grass is the same everywhere.

At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Zuska said...

I agree whole-heartedly with Dr. J., both comments. Having been in pharma, university research, and government lab research (also on two continents) I have seen a lot of variation in work cultures. In Germany, people did good science but few or no people stayed late in the labs, or even much past 5 pm. Definitely no working on weekends. And postdocs in Germany are paid excellently, with very good health care insurance. People there were kind and collaborative, especially for having to deal with an American who didn't speak much German. Contrast to my experience in the U.S., where fierce and nasty competition was the norm, and we nearly always worked late into the evening, usually on weekends too, and sometimes coming in in the middle of the night. So there are two completely different ways to do academic research, and I say it's a pity that the U.S. hasn't borrowed from the German model. Especially on the health insurance business.

In pharma, I had work environments that were fast-paced and stressful, but there was always a team of people to rely on for advice and consultation. One company invested a significant amount in training for me over a six-month period, training that took me away from my work responsibilities. The pay was great. I did NOT get to choose what I worked on, but I didn't really get to choose much in my postdocs, either. One thing I did get in pharma was the opportunity to learn about things I never would have otherwise, because of being assigned to particular projects. I thought of myself as a cancer research person but I got to work on diabetes treatments, imaging contrast agents for a variety of medical indications, and even a drug for a particular type of cancer with a very small pool of patients (in a smaller pharma). I learned a lot about how the FDA works and how drugs are brought to market.

I am not an uncritical fan of the drug development process in the U.S., but I also know that people who work in pharma are extremely dedicated to making a difference in people's lives. And I know that one can do satisfying, useful work in pharma, with a very high quality of life. I NEVER worked on a weekend in pharma. And only very, very rarely late in the evening. And I quite often got praised for my contributions.

Of course...when I left academia for pharma...I was seen as a traitor who was wasting all her talents, whoring for industry. That kind of prejudice in academia is what keeps most grad students and postdocs from finding out about satisfying, rewarding career paths outside academia.

One more thing, and then I'll shut up. When I was in academia, I knew there was only one track for me to follow - grad student, postdoc, assistant prof, associate prof, full prof. And every step along the way involved proving myself over and over again. In industry, I was initially bewildered by the number and variety of possible career paths, where lateral moves were seen positively, not just promotion. And the starting assumption was usually that I was well-qualified for the project I'd been assigned to. It was quite liberating.

At 6:59 AM, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

I know that we're beating a dead horse here, but I just wanted to send my hearty endorsement of Zuska's comments. She has an incredible CV and has done almost every job discussed in this comment thread, plus she has provided you with great info without being an inflammatory 'anonymouse' poster.

There are shortcomings in every environment; all things the same, the question is what bullshit you can deal with the best.

Finally, I'm not sure where this academic/pharma antagonism comes from. Perhaps because I trained in pharmacology, we were encouraged to consider pharma as equally as academia since that's how our program prepared us. I then did the same on the faculty of a pharmaceutical sciences department. In both cases, great pride was taken in the fact that students ended up in pharma and both places advertised this point in their grad program promo stuff. Maybe the antagonism is greater with the more basic graduate disciplines like chemistry or molecular biology and I just live in a different academic world.

Either way, the frowning academics tend to lighten up when a former trainee in pharma helps them procure a proprietary compound that gives them a leg up over their academic competition!

Bottom line: you've gotta find out what's best for you.

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Mark said...

interesting article


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