Thursday, September 21, 2006

On-the-spot responses

One of the people in charge of our lab space came by this morning and did that thing where he asked me something I should have been prepared for... while I was in the middle of benchwork. So instead of coming back with a really strong answer, I kind of agreed to something I didn't really want to agree to so easily. I'm hoping that seeming easygoing in this particular case will help to alleviate the implied assumption that I'm an impossible bitch postdoc who thinks she deserves to be treated as a faculty member.

After all, as some commenters like to remind me, everyone hires the person they think will be 'easiest to work with.' Not the most qualified person.

On the other hand, if I'm already doing more than the job of a postdoc and at least part of the job of a faculty member, and being an impossible bitch got me what I wanted...

...while being a nice, accomodating little female postdoc sends the message that I'm 'easy to work with' but also gets me stepped on....

Oh, I can't win like this.

I'm learning that this is a skill that, while I may have had it once upon a time, I currently lack: sound bite answers.

We've all been there. You're interviewed for something, say you're seated next to a reporter for a local rag at a fundraising dinner for some fellowship you received because your PI knows somebody and didn't want to pay you off her grants.

The person asks you what you do, and you give a long, thoughtful answer starting from the basics and going through your specialty, as least so much as a layperson could be expected to understand. Let's say you're a postdoc studying the nucleus. Weeks or months later, the quote in the article says you're a grad student working on the biology of DNA. Close, but, career wise and scientifically speaking, not quite right.

Your words somehow get twisted around, probably because all the context was lost in the process of trying to condense an accurate answer, with qualifiers, into a short one that fits in the word limit of the allotted space. You know, what happens all the time when science is discussed by mainstream media.

But in this kind of situation with the hit-and-run question, you only get to blurt out 1 sentence and the rest of the explanation gets cut off because the guy literally disappears before you get to ask him to clarify why he's asking and oh yeah, everything else you wanted to ask him but haven't because he's never around...

How do you get the most out of these non-conversations?

What's the solution? Should I have people drill me with questions so I can rehearse sound bite answers?

Handcuff the guy to a chair and ask him everything I can think of before I answer?

One obvious answer might be to slow down and not feel pressured to answer right away. But I have an unfortunate tendency, I've realized over the years, to mirror the moods of people around me. So if it's obvious the other person is in a rush, I find it difficult to step back, breathe, and think carefully about what they just shoved in my face. Suddenly I'm in a rush, too. For no reason whatsoever, other than that's what they're projecting at me.

Oh, the power game. And now my timer is about to go off.

Beep. Time's up.



At 6:41 AM, Anonymous JF said...

Dear Ms. PhD,

First, much sympathy on all the painful situations and oblivious coworkers and so on. I work in a lab with pirhanas, so my sympathy is deep.

I can only hope to be a Ms. PhD myself someday, so it's all from a humble grad student's point of view. But: as it happens, there are lots of power games 'round here. I have found it useful to be literally drilled by friends, because that's also how our lab meeting goes. Sometimes I have imaginary conversations with myself to explain my research or answer hypothetical questions (because I want to be prepared for the inevitable pirhana attacks). It's helped me a lot.

As for handcuffing, I prefer locking all the doors and guiding them gently to a chair.

All your thoughts on being a 'bitch' with a chip on the shoulder made me laugh painfully. I have had very similar experiences- I had no idea there was so much discrimination! It's 2006! Am I ever pissed! And people do think I'm a total bitch, but how else can one get by? Doormat is not a useful option.

All the best,
Struggling Grad Student


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