Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Starving affirmative action in times of famine?

So I had a horrible realization: if jobs and funding are scarce, affirmative action is the first thing that's going to go out the window.

Here's my logic:

1. Jobs and funding are scarce right now.

I blame
a) overenrollment of graduate schools creates too many applicants (selfish universities want TAs)
b) tax money going overseas to pay for bombs instead of biology
c) the scarce funding makes schools wary about hiring new faculty, since they want people who will make it to tenture (i.e. be able to secure funding consistently)

2. Affirmative action works in times of plenty, because the good, privileged people still get jobs first, and then the good, underprivileged/minority people get the jobs that are leftover.

If there are plenty of jobs to go around, it doesn't pain search committees too much to take a chance on somebody who might be otherwise seen as 'risky'. Plus there are bonus points for diversity.

Alternatively, in times of plenty, if one search committee has to pass on someone who is obviously good, they can always reassure themselves by knowing this person is likely to get hired somewhere, as opposed to not at all.

3. Affirmative action won't work in times of famine, because nobody's going to pass over someone who seems to have all the advantages and take someone who might be risky. They want a sure thing: the surest thing they can find. The bonus points for diversity won't make up for that.


Monday, February 20, 2006

Who bitches more: men or women?

You know, at first I was stunned by avianflu's comment that I complain too much and that women tend to do that.


First off, I have to say I haven't written because I got some awesome, kick-ass data last week.

So who has time for blogging? Data = much better than blogger. Sorry, but it's true. As I've said before, this blog tends to be more of an outlet for bad things than a place to extoll the wonders of the universe.

Can't be everything to everybody.

And my anger is getting nicely polished, I actually really needed to see that paper last week because it triggered a really useful survival response. Some smart person commented on here a while back that I should think of the most mediocre scientist I know, and say, if they can get a job, so can I! Well that is always a good sentiment to come back to. What makes me mad is that I ever let myself get so beaten down as to think I didn't deserve one. But it's really hard not to slide into that kind of thinking with some of the nasty things people post on here. I figure it's just a tiny representation of what people in general are actually like... let's hope your numbers are tiny.

Second, I can't honestly say that I agree that women complain more. I think women complain differently, and usually require less alcohol to do so.

The men in my lab complain- in their native languages, over lunch, or at the bar. The women complain while we're still working. One will say "Oh, and this was so annoying" as she's pipetting, cheerily going about her experiments despite the irritation. It's like we just have to vent. But I guess lots of other people have said that women like to vent, and men like advice.

I think the scientific culture has contaminated me that way. I like advice, provided that it's something more constructive than the "quit bitching and get back to work"- although sometimes that's actually constructive in its own way.

I made the mistake of trying to 'help' this girl who was complaining to me last week about her lab. Finally she said she just wanted to vent and really didn't want any advice on it. Next time I guess I'll just tell her to quit bitching since if she hates her lab so much she should leave, since frankly I'm tired of hearing it.

Somehow I think that attitude would be worse for my job prospects than my current one.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Asshole postdoc who started around the same time as me got a High Impact Paper, I noticed today as I was catching up on my reading.

We work on totally different things, he hated his advisor, and he's quite the opinionated, pushy jerk.

I also note that he went gray/bald during his time here as a postdoc. I'm focusing on that as the silver (pun intended) lining.

He's also a foreigner, much as I hate to use that word (I always hear "furriner" in my head, it sounds so redneck to me). I don't know if he plans to return to his home country to get a job, or if he'll be yet another person competing with the likes of me.

Although I really can't compete with people who publish in Those Journals, can I?

In theory, this should light a fire under me to get my own paper(s) written up and finished, but I feel they have such a long way to go, and my chances of publishing them in This Particular Journal are next to nothing.

Working on polishing up the anger into something useful.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Recommended reading, from Science January 27th

Michael Shermer's review of Daniel Dennett's book on God as a false positive of our hyperactive brains

Article on suicide rates in China

Article on a program to train mentors

How to exploit this concept?

Comments, please? This story made me smile yesterday.

Smart and Lazy .

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Getting there too early

So I'm catching up on reading papers this weekend, and it is really starting to piss me off.

According to the various citation trackers, one of my papers has been cited a respectable number of times.


But the only reason I checked that is because I'm finding handfuls of papers where people seem not to have read my paper, or they would probably have cited it. Should have cited it.

The reviewers should have known and told them to cite it.

Fuck. Nobody even knows what they're missing.

It's especiallly frustrating because I had some really novel ideas at the time, but since we didn't know how to 'prove' them, they didn't all make it into the paper.

Now, just a few years later, other people seem to be proposing, with no more evidence than I had at the time, the same things I was thinking all along. But I don't understand how they're able to get away with it, since it's still essentially just speculation.


People say that if you want to 'claim' an idea, you should write a review, at least in some fields. In my field, reviews are only invited, and the only people who get invited are... you guessed it, already PIs.

It's quite possible somebody did invite my advisor to write one at one point, but maybe it fell through the cracks.

Possibly more annoying, I was one of the first people to publish on this thing, but it wasn't hot yet, so my paper is in a good but not Top journal, and all the subsequent ones- less novel if you ask me!!- are in the Top Journals because NOW IT'S TIMELY.


It's one thing to be mildly irritated by this situation, since there's nothing I can do about the past. But I'm worried I will be plagued with this sort of non-recognition for whatever might be left of my 'career'.

I'm thinking of adding, along with my career-letter-writing campaign, a blanket reprint attack on ignorance.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Attempts at improvements

Two topics today, that have only the one thing in common: improvements.

Topic #1: my eye doctor tells me I should seriously consider getting Lasik. My parents have been after me for years to do this, since I always hated wearing glasses (when you start wearing them in 3rd grade, you have a lot of years to hate them). So I was hunting around for a surgeon and found this disturbing site, which made me think, uh, I'm either going to put it off a while longer, or make damn sure I don't see any of the doctors listed on this page.

Topic #2: After some discussion with my advisor, who is feeling down on herself due to grant stress and my lack of interviews, we've decided to work on revising her recommendation letter since it's a little out of date now, and there are still a few more ads coming out. Then I was talking to a young prof who just started here, and I realized probably my problem is that the people writing my letters, while they think I'm good, are not prone to hyperbole. The story goes that they have to be effusive to the extreme, that the letter literally has to be over the top emphasizing how great you are. And that you have to SELL SELL SELL! your system.

I'm writing this blog as much because I think the unwritten rules of how to get a faculty positions should be written down somewhere, as because I find them all so baffling.

So, here goes:

Dear Search Committee,

I am great. I am the greatest thing ever, I walk on water. You will never have the chance to hire someone else like me, because there is no one else like me, so if you miss this chance, like those people who passed over Barbara Streisand when she was just starting out, YOU WILL BE SORRY.

Not only do I have better-than-perfect vision, thanks to my successful Lasik surgery, but I use my eyes to see things no one else has seen (see Albert Szent-Györgyi quote). I then use my incredible mind to think what no one else has thought. I'm thinking it right now. But I won't tell you what it is unless you ACT NOW and HIRE ME.

I can turn your department's garbage into gold. Most importantly, all the experts in my field, all over the world, agree that I am the best at what I do. Experts outside my field know who I am, I am that good.

The reason you didn't know who I was until now is either because a) you live under a rock or b) I chose to remain in the shadows until the timing was right to reveal my great abilities to you. Now you can thank your lucky stars I chose you, and your department, to apply to. This is your big chance to have a future Nobelist in your midst.

Ready, set, HIRE ME!!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Who's a hikikomori?

Maybe me, a little bit.

Was reading about this phenomenon in the New York Times Magazine, but you can look it up in wikipedia.

Basically it tends to start with teenagers, but because of the way Japanese society is set up, these kids stay at home, sometimes for a couple of decades. They lock themselves in their rooms and don't interact with anyone, although it sounds like most of them spend a lot of time on the internet.

It's funny because it's more common with boys, but I completely understand the urge. When I'm particularly lost, I just want to spend a lot of time alone, at home. Apparently, the psychologists surmise, it has something to do with the feeling that there's nothing to contribute, that there are no good career paths, and that there has been too much pressure to perform.

Sound familiar, anyone? It does to me.

Again, this kind of fits with my last post- the people who end up 'recovering' do so by being rescued. There are groups that provide, essentially, friends for a fee- the parents pay to have someone of a similar age come and visit, try to get their kid out of the house and back into daily life. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Anyway this really struck a chord with me. Little did I know, there are others out there who, like me, just feel like the system isn't working for us.

I find it very interesting that nobody seems to accuse them of being depressed. Instead, it sounds like choosing to withdraw, to be a 'shut-in', is just a different kind of lifestyle. Very different from the attitudes in this country.

I've often said I would have been quite happy as a scientist hundreds of years ago, puttering away in isolation. I'm with Sartre, and the hikikomori: Hell is other people.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Have someone up your sleeve

I'm at home now, watching Stargate SG-1. Sci-fi Friday is a good thing. I wish I'd had cable when I was in grad school and was single, and home every Friday night.

I watch mostly sci-fi now, things like Buffy, Angel, Charmed, Serenity, and both Stargates, among other things.

On these shows, even if the main characters have superpowers, they sometimes get into a tight spot. When this happens, usually their friends come and save them.

I have some great friends, but none of them are in a position to help me, beyond the occasional pep talk.

So tonight I was thinking about the first principles of doing science. Jim Watson, much as he was a sexist schmuck, had a few rules that I've always found to be true. They've been reprinted all over the place, so i'm mostly paraphrasing here.

First, he said you need some luck.

Then he said, “To succeed in science, you have to avoid dumb people.”

Then, “To make a huge success, a scientist has to be prepared to get into deep trouble. This means even when your superiors tell you that you are not adequately prepared or qualified to do something, you need to ignore these assessments, regardless of how traumatic that might be. "

Finally, “Be sure you always have someone up your sleeve who will save you when you find yourself in deep s___.”

I find myself thinking on these things a lot lately.

I've had some luck. I'm not sure if bad luck counts, but I've had a little of both. Ok, I don't really believe in luck, which is to say, I don't believe I will ever qualify for having any, so it's really a moot point...

I'm not sure if I've really succeeded in avoiding dumb people, I guess it depends on how you define dumb: intelligence-wise, or wisdom-wise (how redundant is that? nevermind, I'm too tired to be eloquent). I've avoided the low-IQ type, but even if it's easy to surround oneself with high IQs in science, I think most scientists are lacking in wisdom. We're too focused on the trees to see the forest.

And I have been prepared, and gotten into, deep trouble. I seem to have no problem doing that! Where I get stuck is the part where I'm not supposed to let it get to me when they think I'm not good enough. But I'll get back to that.

And the thing I was thinking about specifically tonight, which is the title of this post.

One of the reasons science appealed to me, as an incredibly naive teenager, was because, I reasoned, even if I was antisocial, and people mostly hated me, it wouldn't matter if I did good work. There were plenty of examples of successful, eccentric assholes (note: I failed to realize that they were ALL MEN) who were nevertheless well-respected because they did good science.

I already knew that I'm physically incapable of kissing anyone's ass, and that this would be a major handicap in most professions.

I also knew that my entire family has suffered under-recognition of their talents because of their fundamental unlikeability: we tend to call things as we see them, for better or worse. Obviously I'm a bit more aware of this than some, since I chose to move far away from my family. I think (hope?) I've made some progress at overcoming my early training in hypocritical, sarcastic negativity (read: bitchiness). In short, getting away from them seems to have helped. (aside: Of course one of my biggest fears is that I'll never overcome my inherent bitchiness enough to function in any kind of actual job.)

But. Where all these conscious decisions break down is, if I'm not good enough at what I do.

And, my absolute aversion to having a boss of any kind. I've tried to choose people I like and respect scientifically, but invariably it breaks down over time. I let me down; they let me down. I'm never sure whether to blame myself for choosing someone who treats me badly (domestic abuse syndrome?), whether to believe what they say... because the bitchy reflex is to say, fuck them, I'm good and they're idiots.

But what if they're not wrong? When you hear you're not good enough over and over, you start to believe it.

I'm noticing the same signs in my current advisor. Unrealistic expectations were set, and probably because I was feeling confident at the begining, I went along with them. But when I don't reach them, instead of being recognized for tackling a hard problem and making any progress at all, I'm just a failure. Which is why I'm thinking I'll have to confront her on the topic of my going back to working exclusively on my own ideas, and nevermind what great spurts of fantasizing might overtake her enthusiasm, I'm not following any more of her tangents!

So today we went to a talk by an older, premiere scientist in my field. He said something about how "young scientists today are always complaining about the job market, but they just expect things to be given to them, they don't want to work hard enough, they don't deserve jobs because they don't earn them."

Needless to say, I was disgusted by this- generation gaps are something I'll never understand. Because they happen over and over, you'd think we'd all realize it's a trap that's easy to fall into as we get older... But it's like intelligent design or the people who believe stem cell research is murder. Once they're over the hill, you can't argue with them. We just have totally different viewpoints at a fundamental level.

Please shoot me if I get like that.

Anyway, my advisor wanted me to meet this guy because she thinks he'll help me get a job. But instead of introducing me, like any normal, halfway-polite person would do, and instead of making a point of showing me off, the way any good MENTOR would do, she did this weird awkward thing where she kind of stepped aside and whispered at me, so I had to introduce myself. And then the guy basically said two sentences, neither of which gave me any confidence that he cared who I was, and then he walked away.

I have to get out of this lab.

In the meantime, I feel trapped, as usual, between a rock, a hard place, and a chasm. There seems to be no obvious direction to go from here... and I can't think of anyone who might be up my sleeve, just waiting to jump out and save me. Where are those superhero friends when I need them.

Minor triumph! and, What I learned in grad school

Ooh, had fun fixing a piece of equipment today. It's basic maintenance, but it's my job to do this stuff, and I had never done it since the last person in charge of it left.

If nothing else, it was really gratifying to realize that

a) I'm not intimidated about taking things apart
b) I've learned how to read and make use of (even cryptic) equipment manuals
c) it worked on the first try.

When I was a grad student, I had that girlie handicap that I was terrified of breaking things. I had gotten yelled at as a child for breaking a ceramic sugar bowl and just assumed everything else in life would be like that- better to stay away than to get yelled at.

Somewhere along the line I realized something about research in general: nobody really knows what they're doing. They're just kind of figuring it out as they go along.

I think this is fundamental to the reason I like research: despite the hierarchical crap, the principle that anybody at any level could potentially make a huge discovery is really important to me. I like the idea that everyone be treated as equally as possible and have the same opportunities.

When I started grad school, I think I thought they were going to 'teach' me something. In fact, I mostly taught myself, and I think this is the whole point of grad school: learning how you learn best, and gaining the confidence to do it on your own, so you can go beyond the boundaries of what's already known.

When I say "taught myself", I mean, I learned how to ask questions, who to ask about what, when something could be looked up, when to work hard, and when to move on.

So, I didn't do much today, but I'm happy with what I did. It's a stupid little thing to be happy about, but I'll take what I can get.

And, should get to do some fun stuff this weekend looking at a ton of slides I've been making this week. I'm going to work during the Super Bowl... I love lab when everyone is on holiday. It's not that I'm totally antisocial- if anything, I enjoy the banter in our lab. I just like knowing I can hoard the toys.

Mua ha ha ha ha! THEY'RE ALL MINE!!!

for a coupla hours, anyway.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Searching for inspiration

Was reading this cool post and trying to remember why I like science.

I also thought this looked interesting. And potentially fulfills an important role right now. I especially liked the post on Awards for World-Changing Ideas, although I really can't relate to author Maggie Wittlin's chagrin at not having come up with these inventions herself. I gave up on being an amazing inventor as a child, when we had to invent things for school projects. I hated doing that stuff: I didn't know how to make any of the things I wanted to invent, and the things I could make were lame. I guess that's why I'm not an engineer. But I thought the little factoid that the guy who invented Wikipedia hasn't made any money was depressing. A little dose of harsh reality: many good things go unrewarded in the world.

I also liked the idea that darkness could cure my metabolism. Although in general, I find myself wondering why the people in my building with windows ever keep the shades down. I'm a sun-worshiper, just not of the beach-going sort.

Nothing good to report: got another rejection letter today (albeit a relatively nice one), and my experiments are at a standstill for the time being, since once again, nothing is working. But I am seriously considering confronting my advisor about giving up on this thing I've been trying to do and working on something else I think might be more productive. I'm concerned she's going to be reluctant to give up on this project, though, and she'll just give me another pep talk and get me all excited about it again before I realize what's happening.

I keep thinking about how Meredith commented that if science weren't hard, everybody would do it. I guess the thing that's been bugging me is, this is exactly where I got screwed: everybody is doing it. If there weren't 300 people applying for every faculty position, I would have a job already.

5 things meme from Botanicalgirl

1. Seeking Solace
2. StatGirl
3. ScienceWoman
4. BotanicalGirl
5. Youngfemalescientist

actually I'll refrain from tagging anyone, but feel free to post yours in the comments here if you want...

What were you doing ten years ago?
Working my ass off in college. That would have been junior year, the hardest year. Physical Chemistry was pretty tough, but I made a good friend in that class. I was probably not very happy that year... I didn't really like where I went to school very much. The school itself was ok, but I didn't have a great social life, aside from the guy I was dating, and I was too young to go out and do anything really interesting (read: bars, clubs).

What were you doing one year ago?
Well, you can read my archive and see, but I was in a pretty awful place, trying to get my paper published. At least in that sense, I've made a smidgeon of progress.

Five snacks
Ooh, this is making me hungry.
1. wheat thins
2. clementines
3. apples
4. cookies, all kinds (bad!)
5. see above.

Five songs...
Like BotanicalGirl, I sing, so this is sort of pointless. I know the lyrics to more than 500 songs. I stopped counting a long time ago.

Five things I'd do if I were a millionaire
Since a million dollars doesn't actually go very far, I'd prefer bazillionaire if I'm going to have money at all.
1. buy a house, with lots of space between me and any neighbors
2. fund my own research
3. buy a real piano
4. pay for my dad to retire
5. start my own research foundation and give out fellowships for young scientists to work on their own ideas

Five bad habits
1. Complaining
2. Putting off taking care of myself (doctors, haircuts, taking my car in)
3. Blaming the system for my problems
4. Getting stressed out about things I have no control over
5. Second-guessing myself

Five favorite toys (in no particular order)
1. the microscope
2. iPod
3. blogger
4. books
5. my car