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.

8 Comments:

At 11:49 PM, Blogger ScienceGeek said...

Your advisor sounds like mine. That's too bad that she didn't put in more effort to introduce you.

As for the feeling of not being good enough, that is so common that there is even a name for it - the imposter syndrome. Once you start believing you are good enough so will the people around you.

I hope you find your superhero friends soon!

 
At 2:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where are the good mentors in science? I sure haven't seen any..

 
At 8:27 PM, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

Have any of you looked at the HHMI/Burroughs Wellcome Foundation Lab Management Guide? Some of it might be too early or too late for MsPhD, but anonymous should look at Appendix 2 in Chapter 13 here. A couple of good faculty friends helped with the deliberations and it's really nice for me to see a list of 41 lab directors who are perceived to be good mentors. I'd be interested in your feedback if you know any of these folks.

One other thought for MsPhD - have you looked at any research-based MDs who are looking for a solid PhD jock like you to run their show? Yes, I know that would technically mean having a boss, but I have seen this work for others where I have trained in medical oncology and endocrinology. I've seen some folks run the lab program for a big-name MD who ultimately became president of a major prof society. They still have grant pressure, but there is a much bigger backstop during grant dryspells since the lab would also be supported by various clinical dollars that filter through. The two folks I know who've done it are now full professor and assoc professor, respectively, and have been recruited for tenure-track positions elsewhere. We all considered them as independent as any tenure-track faculty member and I think their basic science grant applications were much improved by their constant interaction with clinician-scientists. NIH is getting more and more pressure to get applicants to show the potential clinical utility of even the most basic research projects.

Anyway, it was something I thought of when having trouble getting a tenure-track position. And don't be so hard on yourself - it's very difficult to be in your position and not be consumed by negativity.

As for finding an up-your-sleeve benefactor, here's a wild suggestion: go talk with the director of your institution's MD/PhD program. Tell her/him your issues and how you can best get some lofty person on your side. These folks are generally quite well-connected locally and nationally and might themselves prove to be the lofty person you're looking for.

You never know who you're going to run into at your own institution who might unexpected take a great liking in you and your interests. You just have to take a little time to get out of your toxic lab situation a couple of times a week to try and network with these folks.

Since this comment has now become larger than most of my blog posts, I'll tell you later of the personal experiences I've had where this approach has worked for me.

 
At 11:54 AM, Blogger Meredtih said...

I'm with the first commentor- your advisor sounds just like mine. The jerk will never introduce me to anyone, not even at meetings. He practically acts like he doesn't know me I wouldn't take it personally, except that he would always introduce the other postdoc in the lab... not sure if it was because he was male. But I digress. You did the right thing by introducing yourself- something I need to learn to do more of.

I too understand the generation gap- "back in the old days", there weren't 300 applications for every faculty job, so just by getting a PhD, practically, you had "earned" the job and worked hard for it, as the good old speaker said.

I agree with you on your research plan- forge ahead with your own ideas, and don't follow every whim of your mentor. If it is really important to her that you work on something, do it on the side, but don't lose sight of your personal goals. You're smart and creative enough to rescue yourself- screw the superpowered buddies. :)

 
At 12:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read quite a few of your posts over the past three months.

I have a very different views on two points you discuss:

1. I expect nothing to be given to me. When an advisor/collegue "introduces" me to that preeminate scientist (however good or bad the introduction was), I feel that I need to take the initiative to bring up an interesting idea/topic to talk with him/her about, mostly so this person will remember me. I feel it is my responsibility to make friends/collegues because I do not have celebrity status.

2. Science is essentially a social endeavour. We have to get along well with others so that we can succeed in science. In the past five years, how many scientific papers have had only one author? I believe that I need good relationships so that I can succeed (manuscript reviews, grants, critical evaluation of my thinking, celebrate my successes, etc.) in the work of science.

Perhaps you are only complaining about the very acute issues in your life. If so, great. I, however, am still coming to terms with these issues.

 
At 3:54 PM, Anonymous Zuska said...

Luck is great when you can get. Being able to seize an opportunity and get the most out of it is making your own luck. At least you introduced yourself to Eminent Scientist, despite your advisor's deplorable behavior. Perhaps she is terminally shy, or clueless, or was never adequately mentored herself, or she doesn't care, or she hates you. You can go nuts trying to figure out the reason. Try to make your own luck out of whatever little opportunity you get.

The bitchy response to those who tell you you are no good - excellent. Keep it up. There are oodles of mediocre male scientists all over the U.S. who have tenured positions and get grants funded. Men are allowed to be mediocre, women have to be excellent to get through in the science world. By virtue of having made it to the postdoc level you can take it as given that you have extraordinary ability and DETERMINISM which is equally important. When you feel down on yourself, try to call to mind the most mediocre scientist you know who nevertheless has had reasonable career success. Then tell yourself "I know I'm at least that good. Hell, I'm 10 times better."

We tend to think, "if I were so great, I'd be a huge success", forgetting that excellence is only a tiny tiny part of how the scientific goodies are handed out. Some things are stacked against you - you're female in a profession that worships males, your advisor is not mentoring you. Some things you have more control of - the quality of the research you do, the amount of schmoozing you do with bigwigs to get yourself promoted.

If you don't like schmoozing - it comes naturally to me, so it's hard for me to remember that not everybody likes doing it - if you don't like schmoozing, nevertheless force yourself to do it and get good at it. Science IS a social enterprise, as Anonymous notes, and it's not just that you need to work with other scientists to get experiments done. It's that you need to figure out how the socialization networks operate, and how best to insert yourself within them.

About avoiding dumb people - who knows what dumb means. We are all dumb in some ways. The people you want to avoid are those who are constantly negative, who see no hope in situations, who don't want to do anything to try to make a change because they'd rather complain. Black hole personalities - they will suck all your energy away for nothing. If you find yourself hanging with a group of postdocs who mostly get together to complain about how awful life is...find some new folks to hang with. Or try to change the conversation.

In the end - do the things you want to do, the things that make you happy. If you succeed by doing what you think you ought to even though you hate it, you'll be miserable anyway. Note: this does not excuse the schmoozing. :) Once you figure out what makes you happy, what you are willing to put up with to achieve your desires, then you still have to do the schmoozing. It's a part of every job I've ever known. Even my dad in the coal mine had to schmooze with his co-workers and the boss in order to be successful and safe.

 
At 4:19 PM, Blogger Milo said...

I have been to many lunches and dinners with my "mentor" and a "famous" scientist. Every single time, I introduced myself and explained who I was and what I was currently doing. And every single time, I was completely ignored for the rest of the meal. I guess it is another example of how postdocs in general are viewed, not quite grad students, not quite faculty.

One of the problems in science is that the really smart folks are the ones who get all the recognition. The folks who are less than 97% as smart don't get any.

BTW: by "smart", I mean the ones who have the breakthroughs (ie: Cell, Science and Nature). You could easilly substitute "lucky-with-an-army-of-sleepless-monkeys" for "smart".

I have also found that scientists are incredibly self conscious. At least I am :-) Nobody wants to be labeled as a bad scientist. Therefore, we bite off more than we can chew and set unrealistically high expectations in the hopes that the pay off will be HUGE, and we will then be free of the "bad scietist" label that may or may not be there. Often times, though, we don't make it and refuse to acknowledge the small, but useful, contributions we did make to the field. Then we end up sick of the field, sick of scientists, and wishing we had majored in accounting rather that science.

Just my 2 cents.

 
At 3:50 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

abel- my training is too basic, I think, for running an MD's lab. agreed that the burroughs wellcome thing is worth a read. at some point, though, all of these 'guidebooks' are about as practical as looking for a protocol in a biology textbook from 10 years ago. there's a connection, but it's too remote, it can't be applied in any direct way to the problems we're actually dealing with day-to-day.

 

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