Friday, March 31, 2006

The World Against Us

Was reading rather disturbing post at Alternet about girls bonding together to cope with the ultimate paradox: huge achievement coupled with very low self-confidence.

The article talks about girls in high school and college, and refers to a recent article in the NY Times by someone whose job it is to reject girls for college. Yes, that's right: there are too many qualified girls and not enough qualified boys applying. And they can only take so many students each year.

And here's where I want to vomit: having a female majority apparently makes a school undesirable, as colleges go.
So they're all struggling valiantly to make sure they don't have that!

I get it, teenagers (college-age) are hormone-driven, and everyone is shopping for Mr/Mrs. Future Spouse in college. And yes, diversity is good.

But. Something is seriously screwed up here. Isn't it our turn to be the majority???

I don't have a solution for the current problem, but my solution for the future is simple: USE BIRTH CONTROL. Clearly, these problems all stem from overpopulation, do they not?

In other news about overpopulation and where do we put all these talented people, someone brought this week's immigration uproar to my attention.

So here's the hypothesis:

The Bush administration wants a large nonvoting population. They always win elections when only 20% of the eligible voters actually go to the polls.

Having more illegal-but-guest immigrant workers is perfect for this, because they generate income, but aren't allowed to vote.

This has interesting implications, since most of middle America seems to believe that the majority of immigrant workers are uneducated avocado pickers in California. Au contraire, mes amis, what about all the immigrants who come here for the science? The last numbers I saw still showed the majority of postdocs in this country as non-American citizens.

Could it be working against the scientific community to have so many people here doing science but not caring or having the time to learn about our political system? Are we missing opportunities to educate and lobby Congress to fix all the problems with NIH and NASA because the majority of highly trained scientists are either

a) not from here, so don't know
b) not planning to stay, so don't care beyond what affects them immediately?

I've witnessed both the cluelessness and the unwillingness to plan ahead from postdocs in general, not just foreign postdocs. But if we're supposed to be the future of science in America, and the majority of us aren't Americans, why are we all doing it here?

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Friday, March 24, 2006

For My Amusement: Excerpts From Rejection Letters

"The Search Committee has reviewed an exceptional number of applications for this position and we were very impressed with the quality of many of the applicants. Upon careful review of your application, the committee felt that your accomplishments to date are truly commendable; however, we are unable to offer you a position at this time. We trust that you will be able to find a position that is compatible with your research interests and accomplishments and we offer our best wishes in your future endeavors."

"Thank you for the interest that you expressed in the faculty position. The Recruitment Committee has given serious consideration to your application. Yours was one of a number of excellent applications that we received. However, the Committee has decided to focus on other applicants."

>Dear Colleague:
>Thank you for responding to the advertisement for our faculty position. Although you did not make the short list for an >interview, we truly appreciate your interest and the opportunity to review >your resume. The decision was made particularly difficult because of the >large number of outstanding applicants. Although we have not reached a >final decision yet, we want to let you know the status of our search at >this time.

"After reviewing all of the application materials, we have selected to interview those whose skills, knowledge and
experience more closely meet the needs of the hiring department."

"Thank you very much for your application for a position.The search committee has now met, and I am sorry to say that we have decided not to pursue your application further. Both the number and the quality of the applicants have been very high, and we can interview only a limited number of people.

I am sorry that we cannot respond more positively, and I wish you success in your future work."

"Thank you for your interest in a faculty position in our department. Our recruiting committee has met several times over the past two months and has completed the review of your file. Over 250 total applications were received. We have decided to limit our interviews to 4 assistant candidates whose research focuses most closely complement and extend our current faculty in the department and across the institution. Unfortunately, we are not currently able to offer you an interview. I hope that your job search will be successful."

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Shorter Postdocs Would Be Better for Scientific Progress

I've been going to a lot of seminars lately. Since the trend of scientific training these days is:

grad school 5-7 years
postdoc 5-9 years

I've noticed this has a severe effect on the way we think.

We need new blood.

For a while, there was a lot of emphasis on making sure that graduate students switched fields for postdoc, to 'get exposure' and 'broaden their training.'

In reality, these people take longer to get jobs, because they either

a) have to spend the time to get a footing in the new field
b) have to spend time at the end of their postdoc going back to their original field.

So here's a thought. In the 'old days', postdoc 'training' was only 1-3 years long. This had some interesting consequences.

First, let's think about how labs are structured.

1.You have the lifers: lab managers, technicians, and PIs.
2. You have the long-termers: grad students.
3. You have the fast-moving component: postdocs.

Oops, except now the last two catgeories have kind of blended into one long, slogging pile of people who are in no hurry to go anywhere, and who get entrenched in thinking, more and more like the lifers.

I've noticed that many advisors thrive on having new people in the lab: it's like a new toy. Everyone I've worked for was excited about me at the beginning, but after a while they lose interest. And it's not just me, I've seen this happen to everyone.

So here's an idea. Maybe if we went back to shorter postdocs, it would help invigorate science more. Speed up the mixing process and encourage more cross-discipline collaboration.

Let's just leave the job thing out of it for a minute.

Okay, minute's over. I still have no solution for that.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

help writing papers.

So here's a question for everyone out there:

In my field, papers are supposed to Be the Best They Can Be. Which is to say, if you haven't done all the experiments anyone could conceivably think of, no matter how technically difficult, it is extremely difficult to publish.

The reviewers always ask the question we all groan over: "Why didn't you do THIS (obvious but technically impossible experiment)?"

So I am trying to write a paper now, and because of personal problems, I switched labs in the middle of doing some of these experiments, and did some experiments in other people's labs, and so on. So the continuity is not ideal, and there are some experiments that, in the perfect world, I would go back and redo a little differently if I could, but it would be a huge time suck to do it now, and I don't think it would change the final result, it would just make the story a tiny bit tighter, and only for the more discerning readers.

I may still have to go back and redo stuff anyway, but I'd rather wait and see what the reviewers demand, since they always ask for both experiments I would expect, as well as some more than I'd expect.

I'd rather do the ones they want if it will get it published, than do the ones that might help slightly but I'm not sure if anyone will notice that I went the distance.

Nobody ever seems to have any idea how much work went into the papers I've published, anyway.

So I'm trying to figure out how to write this paper. One way is to try to discreetly say, "uh, we know this isn't perfect, but it is what it is." This approach will most likely severely limit the options for journals to publish it in, but I prefer it because it's more honest... and also a lot easier to write.

The other way is to try to hide the flaws by the order in which I present the data, so it's not necessarily obvious that I could (probably should) go back and redo the experiments at the beginning because the paper appears to build... you know, that thing everyone does where we act like we KNEW ALL ALONG that this is how it would turn out.

Instead of just telling a narrative, chronological story of how it actually happened. Like all the 'classic' papers are written.

I'm curious to hear what people think. Which is better? Got any great advice? Is it absolutely always better and worth it to go back and redo the experiments first? Am I wasting my time even trying to write it up now?

Friday, March 17, 2006

the things people say.

So today I was talking to this guy and he doesn't know that much about me, but he knows I've been a postdoc for X number of years and that I'm looking for a faculty position, what field I'm in, what I'm working on. He initially assumed that I was single, so then I told him well yeah I have a boyfriend and it makes it a little bit more stressful looking for a job.

So he started asking me what does your boyfriend do, and I told him, and he said:

"Oh well then it sounds like your boyfriend is on a faster track than you."


Apparently it is easier to get a job in that field than in mine. Okay, fine. But I guess I am feeling hypersensitive today because I felt like the wording he chose implied your boyfriend must be much better than you.

Now, I'm sure my boyfriend would argue vehemently against that, since if anything he's got a dose of impostor syndrome himself. I'm just shocked at how it made me feel: tremendously insulted, not to mention extremely discouraged.

My boyfriend is an amazing, talented and smart person, and I would be happy enough to get a job by following him somewhere. But we just thought it was unlikely since I've been a postdoc longer than he has. Now I'm wondering if we should go back to the plan where he gets a job and I get hired only because they want him.

After all, most of the women faculty I know got their jobs that way.

Not exactly a vote for feminism, but at this point I'd rather do that, I think, and just have that be the way it is, than sit around wondering how it is that the one thing I'm actually pretty good at is really not something I can get a job doing.


In other news, talked to a friend today who got an industry job at Big Drug Company. She's a star chemist and said she's surprised at how much she's loving this new job, that it's much more like academia than she thought.

!That sounds great! I'm sooooo happy for her.

Well then the caveats are all that she's in the best department, at the best location, with the best people. She said I should really consider industry because it's so much fun and everyone is so great, but I'm sure I wouldn't be so lucky since I'm neither a star of her caliber, nor a chemist.

Nor, apparently, do I have very good karma. This whole week felt like payback for last week, which was actually really good.

The math seems to go something like this:

Ms.PhD has 1 good week ---> therefore she deserves 8 bad weeks in payment.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Drama! Among other things.

So the roommate's, ahem, I mean, neighbor's laundry thing was kind of an emergency: she had a wet pet disaster. And thought I was awake because my light was on (uh, hello, have to have a light on to read but am planning to go to sleep in about 10 minutes...???). Anyway she was very apologetic about completely screwing up my sleep schedule.

My solution? Get rid of the damn dog!.


Today was one of those days when sharing an office is worse than not having one at all. Phone ringing, people coming in and out all day, it was just awful because I was having a hard enough time focusing.

Now I'm home and trying to force myself to work in between bouts of wondering whether I should install the lastest software updates, but no, I should back everything up first, but I'm too lazy to do that right now so I should just wait on all of it and try to get a tiny bit of work done...

Had to laugh today at a very queenie email altercation over the degree of informality of a party one friend is throwing for another friend.

I mean, puhleeze. I have much bigger things to worry about.

Found out that the main thing I'm getting burned on in all of my applications is my advisor's recommendation letter. So I've been kind of seething over that and wondering if there's anything I can do to get out of the situation without getting totally screwed. For example, when I leave, do I ask her for a letter and then just not send it? Not ask at all? She loves to blame everything on sexism but the fact of the matter is, she doesn't go out of her way to help other women, so why does she think she deserves any help from anyone?

Meanwhile, keep coming back to thinking about how my advisor actually told me to commit what I'm pretty sure is an unethical act of withholding data that don't fit with my model.

I didn't say anything, I just looked at her, wishing I had a tape recorder.

Needless to say, I have no intention of following her advice on this matter, despite knowing it will likely make her respect me even less. She already complains about how much she resents that no one ever does what she suggests, which isn't actually true. But I can sympathize because I get annoyed when people ask my opinion and then don't follow my advice.

But I would never tell someone to do something scientifically unethical.

Now I'm wondering when is the first politically safe time for me to report her for this sort of thing. When I leave? After I leave? When I have my own lab? I'm thinking doing it next week would be too obvious.

Rewind a little: I think she started losing respect for me when I told her I thought one of the things I was working on was an artifact. Turned out that it was, but I hadn't lost that much time and it was fixable. When I got the right reagents, I was that much happier when my hypothesis appeared to be correct, because I was pretty sure I had ruled out all the really insidious artifacts.

Here I thought I was being brave and honest to admit that it was my mistake and I didn't want to pursue something I wasn't convinced was real, even though it was something she was excited about and it meant I'd have to redo a lot of experiments that looked like they had worked as expected.

A friend of mine got kicked out of grad school over a similar incident with a female professor... really fucking scary, when it comes right down to it. Would hate to think that women are more likely than men to fudge data or withhold information deliberately. I remember there was a little blurb a while back in the news about how men were more likely to refuse to share data or reagents, but I think that was different from unethical publishing conduct.

Yuck. Science is hard enough without people trying every possible angle to sabotage your efforts at having both integrity and a successful career.

Are the two things really mutually exclusive? I'm beginning to think they are.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Everyone else's PMS... or is this some of my own?

My neighbor is majorly passive aggressive.

I also have reason to believe she is moving away soon, and therefore she might think she can get away with more crap since she's leaving anyway???

Hence the starting laundry at 11:30 PM on a Monday night. Nevermind that it's actually OUR WASHING MACHINE AND DRYER, and we're just nice enough to let her pay us a nominal fee to cover the gas & electric bill and use it, within reason, at her convenience.

I've asked her, oh, a few times, not to do laundry after, say, 11 PM. Usually she only does this when she thinks I'm out of town, since I'm a really light sleeper.

She claims she can sleep through anything, but lately she's been extremely stressed out and I think she might be sleeping more like the rest of us mere mortals. But she would never admit that, or just say simply "Hey, I'm having a laundry emergency, I promise I'll be done by midnight." For example, in this part of the world, it's not uncommon to come home late at night only to discover an infestation of rodents or bugs requiring IMMEDIATE hot water and ideally, bleach. I would totally understand if that were the case.

I'm guessing that since she apparently started the laundry and then STARTED HIDING, or worse, WENT OUT FOR THE EVENING, that it's nothing that reasonable.

I tried knocking on her door, no answer. I tried calling her cell phone, same thing. I could send an email right now, but I doubt it would do any good.

Meanwhile, the chick in my office - also wayyyyy up there on the passive aggressivity scale, and I know I've mentioned how pathologically insecure she is- is also PMSing. So I had already had enough of that crap for one day. You know the game, where everything you say is taken as being aimed at them, when it's actually not, but before you know it they're attacking you with defensive sarcastic one-liners... but you can't completely avoid talking to them, because they take that personally too and start asking why you're not talking to them...!

I didn't think I was PMSing until I realized how angry this is all making me...

There are few things that annoy me so regularly as being a girl.

And I'm finding this all particularly amusing, since over the weekend I hung out with a couple of girls, one of whom was ranting, and I mean, RANTING about how her upstairs neighbor takes a bath every night and it keeps her awake and it always sounds like the water is running forever... and I was listening to all of this and wondering why this person doesn't move, or wear earplugs, or something. I mean, she's not a dirt-poor graduate student, or a relatively poor postdoc. She's got a real job. Industry, actually, so we're talking about even more money.

In my world, real job = stop living in a ghetto. I'm not saying everyone should buy a house or get a penthouse condo or something, but when you have a real job, you can stop eating Ramen, start collecting nice dishes, and maybe have a little more choice about your neighbors. And if you're a light sleeper, like me, you'd probably pay attention to things like how noisy the building is.

Wouldn't you?

So I'm probably getting what I deserve for not being more sympathetic... but my old place was like that, with the noisy upstairs neighbors. I should have moved sooner, and my current place is, in general, a whole lot quieter. Lately. If this neighbor leaves, who knows. Could be better, could be worse.

And now I'm going to go shut off the dryer. This is getting ridiculous. After midnight, I think I'm well within my rights to just shut it off...

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Followup to affirmative action post last week

Wow, some interesting comments from people, so I wanted to continue this discussion and respond to a few points that people raised.

First, what is a risky hire? Here's my thinking on this.

A 'good' hire is someone who fits the formula, which goes something like this:

Oustanding pubs + outstanding letters from famous people + named grants/fellowships (Burroughs Wellcome, Damon Runyan, Helen Hay Whitney, etc) + pedigree from famous schools = future success

A 'risky' hire looks more like this, but nobody knows it because they don't qualify for the 'bin 1' pile to be looked at more closely:

solid pubs + good letters from people no one has heard of + government postdoc fellowship + teaching experience + leadership experience in the scientific community - Harvard = future success

I think the whole point of affirmative action is, this person might not 'look' as qualified on paper, because the wrong qualifications are being measured, and the important qualities are being missed.

Notice that none of these things have to do directly with race or gender, but many of them were probably affected by slight disadvantages throughout a career, possibly due to economics, or discrimination, or both.

I've had many interactions with both teachers and students who benefited from affirmative action. In no case did I find the teachers to be in any way lacking. In a couple of cases, the students lacked some of the skills that their non-AA peers had, but in most cases they made up the difference by working hard.

I've never been one of the people who thought I should get a job only based on my abilities, because nearly every year I have an encounter that could qualify as discrimination or harrassment. So if somebody wanted to use me to fill a quota, I'd jump at the chance.

However, one of the drawbacks is, you can't get the job for the wrong reasons and not be expected to work extra hard to prove that you deserve it.

But you reach a point where nobody has been willing to really give you a chance, and you're willing to work extra hard if that's what it takes. I'm willing to play that card if I have to, because I've never used it thus far, but it has been used against me.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Yes, you need a high-impact paper

Finally got some honest feedback on my job apps.

Got in touch with a professor at another university, who works in another area altogether, through a random acquaintance. She basically said the following:

You need a high impact paper.

You have to explicitly say what your contibutions were to middle-author papers that are submitted but not yet in press.

You have to say very explicitly how you'd fit into a department, e.g. you work on flies (I don't, but just as an example) and they need a fly person.

Oh yeah, and you need a high impact paper.

Really wishing someone- anyone?- had been honest enough to just tell me that a year or two ago, when I was struggling to figure out whether to continue to battle to get my 'big' paper into a top journal, or just get it published somewhere and get it over with. I went with option 2, and I guess now that would have made all the difference.

Too late now.

Oddly enough, even just a couple months ago, I was ready to quit science. But my stuff is getting very interesting again, so there is another chance to get a big paper, if I can finish this project. It will be a while yet, and I think it won't be in my current lab. But it is so strange how these things happen. I guess you have to quit when nothing is working, or you're really stuck.

And always the same carrot.