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.