Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Sigma Whatever: part II

Ugh, Worked 13 solid hours today, and have another day of potentially infinite length tomorrow. I think my hourly wage this week is significantly less than the $14.95 quoted in the report.

Okay, whatever, we're not in it for the money. That's news.

But the part where postdocs can supposedly

focus on research without having to teach or be burdened with administrative responsibilities... freedom from ancillary responsibilities enables these scientists to be tremendously productive

This is in the 2nd paragraph, and it's COMPLETE BULLSHIT. I'm sure there are some postdocs, somewhere- maybe in Howard Hughes land?- who don't have to train graduate students and technicians, do ordering, write their own or their PI's grants, attend meetings about policy and safety....

I'm not sure these spoiled brats really exist in significant numbers as postdocs, but somehow they all magically appear when it's time to snatch up the few available faculty positions. How that does work??

I was surprised that Molecular and Cellular Biology have more postdocs than any other field, and that Developmental Biology, for example, has so few. What's up with that?

I always assumed that the kinds of biology that tend to take longer (say, waiting for mice to grow) might require more years to complete X # required publications to get a job. So it would stand to reason that the 'slower' kinds of biology would have more postdocs, not less. But according to these numbers, that's not true. Does that mean Developmental is just a really un-popular field right now?

More frightening claims made in the report:

Women with children report working almost six fewer hours per week in the lab than their childless peers, whereas for men the reduction associated with parenting is only three hours per week. This difference may explain part of the 10-percent disparity in publication rates between men and women, something observed both in our survey and in previous studies.


I couldn't believe the way they said this. Don't they have any conscience whatsoever?

And, I find it very interesting that already at the postdoc level- does anyone know if this is true in grad school- women have fewer papers than men do.

Since only 1/3 of postdocs have children, this seems to imply that most female postdocs have children-?

Has anyone really done any kind of correlation analysis on whether women with children have fewer papers than women without children? This is all so Larry Summers to me. Somebody should check the actual data for the survey (I don't have time right now!).

In general, what bothers me the most is fundamental contradiction in the way the report is written:

On the one hand, supposedly postdocs are complaining that they need more guidance. I think what we really mean when we say 'guidance' is in terms of how to deal with having a boss and getting our next jobs. I don't think we need more guidance in the lab. Yet postdocs also report that they have very little freedom to set up their own collaborations, terminating failing projects, write papers, or determine authorship on papers. This would imply that postdocs are not, as the report suggests, flailing in the wind with no direction and too much freedom.

On the contrary, the survey results strongly support the notion that far too many postdocs are being treated like SuperTechs far too much of the time.

Finally, and I should get going here because it's late and I'm exhausted (but pissed off!!!), the Hypotheses they list at the end for whether structured oversight, their main proposal, is a solution.

Hypothesis 1: Structured oversight would make postdocs happier.

Huh? The more rational among us realize that in a broken system, instituting more systematic control is NOT the solution. We have to THROW THE WHOLE SYSTEM OUT AND START OVER.

Hypothesis 2: Structured positions attract people who like structure.

Okay, this statement by itself makes sense. Then they go on to say something that I can't interpret, because it's a totally nonsense run-on sentence. Can someone please translate convoluted run-on into English? From what I can make of it, they say Hypothesis 2 makes no sense, and that they 'tested it', but I can't see how they possibly could prove this statement wrong, since it's a very logical statement.

If anything, I think more structure will do exactly that: attract people who like rules and classes and being told what to do. Is this good for science?

I think not.

Hypothesis 3: Structured oversight, satisfaction and productivity are all associated with a common, unobserved, underlying cause.

HELL YEAH. And it would have been OBSERVED if they had analyzed the survey data correctly.

I'm 90% certain that if the responses to every question were analyzed for gender and race, they would find great evidence that satisfaction among young white guys correlates highly with being in well-funded labs, predominantly headed by old white guys.

Satisfaction among everyone else is pretty low.

Oh and I LOVE their suggestion that NSF or NIH "could" require research plans and formal feedback "of a randomly selected subset of fellowship recipients."

NIH already requires progress reports for fellowships, just like for Real Grants. PIs don't read them or make them an occasion for more formal feedback than usual. And random checks? Give me a break.

Either institute some accountability for PIs, or don't bother.

We should build something into R01 review requiring that PIs help place their postdocs in gainful employment of some kind.

I don't think forcing postdocs to attend more classes to make up for their PI's complete lack of mentoring is the solution.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Sigma Why?? Constructive Critique of the Summary Report on National Postdoc Survey

Oddly, although my university at the time was one of those that participated in this survey , I only found out the summary report was released because a friend of a friend forwarded it along (his university did not participate).

Some numbers that caught my eye as potentially useful

Number of postdocs in the US...............>50,000 people

Percent federally funded..........69% (not divided into R01 vs. fellowship)

Percent in life or health sciences.........74%

Percent of all postdocs who are women.........42% (most are married and American)

Percent of life and health sciences postdocs who are women........46%

Percent of respondents who report being 'satisfied overall with their current experience'............70%

Number of postdocs surveyed.........~22,000

Number of respondents............~7,600

Reason cited by authors for quick response.........Disgruntlement

Reason cited by authors for non response..........Postdocs too busy being happy

Main conclusion.................Postdocs need more Formal Training.

My suggestion................. GIVE US ACTUAL TRAINING IN GRAD SCHOOL.


Detailed discussion of these and other fun facts to follow, hopefully tomorrow. Please stay tuned. Or, send rants via comments section.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Another Saturday, and too much to do.

I like the hurry up and wait aspect of research. I always did.

But lately I'm coming off a long wait, and I'm up to my earlobes in hurry, hurry, hurry.

Last night- Friday night- I did laundry, emptied the dishwasher, and went to bed early. I'm exhausted from working 12 hours a day, with almost no breaks, five days a week, for the last several weeks. Weekends I work less, but I try not to count all the time I spend on the computer at home, because it's interspersed with blogging, email, and online shopping.

This morning I scanned in some gels, and I'm thinking about all the stuff I need to do in lab and on my computer today.

It's too much.

I like lab. I really do. Lately the computer stuff is a little much for me, maybe because it requires more thought. The benchwork is easier for me. Much as I love the analysis of stacks and stacks of data (I really do!), benchwork for me is like cooking. It's something I do to relax. Sometimes it's boring, and sometimes I'm so tired that the thought of pipetting makes me think the computer is more appealing, because it doesn't require much movement. But in general, I've always thought benchwork was fun.

I met a couple of young PIs recently who said they miss benchwork terribly. They talked about it like their pet puppy had died. This got me thinking about having my own lab, and whether I'll have any control over how I spend my time.

The problem is, already I'm not getting enough sunlight or fresh air. I've been a bit of a potted plant lately, and that's not a good thing. But there don't seem to be enough hours in the day for me to get enough done and still sleep enough to function.

I used to be one of those people, I had to have everything done wayyyyy ahead of time. I hate working right up to the deadline. I've gotten better about coping with crunch times, but I still have this constant feeling of being behind, and time keeps going faster.

They say as you get older, time flies. They aren't kidding. I can't believe it's almost November. The election mail keeps piling up, and I haven't had time to look at any of it yet.

I can't believe it's almost November. Where the hell did the year go?

The weirdest part of all is, when you're in hurry-up mode, you can always see so clearly, exactly how it's going to get worse before it gets better. There will be a lot more hurry before I get to wait.

I know there will be waiting ahead, eventually, and as tired as I am right now, I hate to wait. Waiting usually means you have no control, there's nothing you can do to make things go your way.

I must be thinking, on some level, that if I just push hard enough in the hurry-up phase, that it will somehow affect the outcome of the waiting phase.

I wish I knew if that were true.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Ugh, I have got to go home, it's late and I'm tired. But I had an interesting day.

Met some potentially useful people and tried to make a good first impression. I think I at least partially succeeded.

Got some bizarre news from afar- fortune cookie anyone?

Good bizarre, the sort of thing where I'm happy for old friends for something I know is important to them but that I don't think I would want for myself.

And something that I had totally given up on ever hearing back about popped up in my inbox out of the blue. No, it wasn't about a job. But it was a pleasant surprise. Every once in a while, someone follows up on something. Amazing!

And I did an experiment, though I don't know yet if it worked. Will try hard to resist the urge to leap out of bed in the morning to find out if it worked, because usually when I do that, I'm disappointed when I come in and find out the gel leaked, or something similarly catastrophic occurred while I was sleeping.

The day just flew by. And now it's over. And tomorrow I have to get up early.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A mostly good day.

Oddly, I was in a good mood tonight when I logged in, despite having had two experiments today that basically failed (in the sense that I couldn't evaluate what I wanted to test).

Oh well. I can do them again. Hooray for non-apocalyptic failures.

Went to a talk, which was interesting, and gave a talk, which was fun.

That makes for a pretty decent day right there. I did some stuff, and most of it didn't suck.

Unfortunately the cold medicine I was on all day made me feel sort of anxious and hyped up. At one point I actually went in the womens' bathroom and jumped up and down for a few minutes in an effort to get rid of nervous energy. It only helped in the short term.

Spent a few minutes feeling sorry for myself for stupid bad luck things of the past, but then decided my new mantra is going to be to not waste any more time doing that. Am going to see if I can stick to it.

But, as often happens to me when I interact with more/different people than usual, or people I haven't seen in a while, my mirror neurons are still vibrating with things that were said.

One person asked "Did you get a job yet?"

Uh, no. I'm still here, aren't I?

That one is still sticking with me. On the one hand, I know she's asking because she thinks I deserve one. On the other hand, doesn't she think I would have told her if I had? Does she think asking is going to, what, guilt me into applying to more places?

Someone else was complaining about having too much pressure to perform. This person has so many resources, it literally makes me ill to hear any complaints from the likes of them at all.

Anyway... then I logged in to Blogger tonight and someone wrote in to say what bad luck s/he's had, and I thought yeah, I feel sorry for you, that's gotta suck.

Actually it kind of made me smile because the person sounded like someone I would get along with, or at least be amused by. Always good to know I am not the only one with crummy luck. This is why I like listening to depressed musicians. To know I am not alone.

But, evidently it's us against them. Some anonymous person, maybe the same one who has written this several times before, maybe someone else, wrote in to say that I sound so bitter and unpleasant and maybe that's why I haven't gotten a job. Isn't that sweet?

Sadly, this particular person sounds like they think they're offering a new suggestion, that I should give up on getting an academic job. I suspect they really think they're helping with this novel idea!

What amused me most about that particular comment, in response to I'm not sure which post, was that they were telling me I seemed unpleasant, while the author him/herself actually came off sounding unbelievably obnoxious.

Pot, meet kettle. Glass houses and stones?

Perhaps I shouldn't take these things so seriously.

I was listening to NPR this afternoon and they were reading excerpts from one of these blogs by a young woman in Iraq (sorry, I missed which one it was, is there more than one?). She was saying she literally dreads going to sleep, because every morning there's so much bad news.

[aside: Very sad that I write a blog but spend so little time reading other blogs that I have to hear about them on NPR. Must make more of an effort to keep up.]

I've never felt quite that much dread, which I assume is some measure of how awful it really must be to live in a war-torn country with limited electricity, stupid American soldiers everywhere and car bombs going off all the time. But I do know what it's like to dread opening your email in-box. I wouldn't want that to happen to moderating the comments for this blog, or it would defeat the whole purpose of blogging.

All of that said, and trying not to be negative, I wish I were better at blowing off other people's negativity. Even when I'm relatively up, it's hard not to let a couple of bad things get to me in my fragile bubble of mostly good stuff.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

It could be worse

I have data, thanks to something actually working today.


I also have a sore throat. I'm hoping it will be vanquished by zinc and soup.

And now, though I have more work to do and would rather blog than do anything else, I'm starving.

Must eat. But experiments and food either have to overlap in very unsafe ways, or they're mutually exclusive.

At least Studio 60 is on tonight. Hooray for Amanda Peet's female executive character!


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Analyze This

Has anyone actually done a study correlating the "1 high impact paper" status of faculty candidates with their subsequent success/failure at achieving funding and tenure?

I'm guessing not.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A glimpse of a possible future

Today was crazy busy, but it was a day where I was fortunate to be mentoring almost all day, almost all women. Astounding!

Helped a grad student with a poster. This was fun because it was more about giving her a pep talk than anything else- but that's important stuff!

Helped another student with a computer problem. This was fun because I don't think of myself as a computer expert, by a long shot (see previous posts on learning LaTeX), so it's always nice to know I've come a long way.

Taught a postdoc how to use a piece of equipment. This was fun because I like teaching, and also interesting because I think I had the impression this person knew more than she did, from talking to her ahead of time, but she's a fast learner so I didn't have to spend a lot of time to catch her up to speed.

Advised another postdoc on how to proceed with her project. I mean, we sat down and looked at her data and gathered some reagents and discussed what experiments she needs to do next. This was my favorite, I think, because it was the most like actually having my own postdoc, even if she's not working on something that was my idea, I'm helping guide the project. She's really sharp, so she asks really good questions, and she works hard, and takes my advice. What more could you want? Oh yeah, and I think at this point I've done enough that I'll be an author on the paper. That would be pure gravy.

Advised a graduating student to apply to attend a meeting. I know enough about her work that I saw a specific meeting and knew which part of her work she should present there. This was fun because this student is one of those people, she has so much potential and works really hard, and I can see that my helping her is preventing her from experiencing the same kind of absolute neglect I experienced when I was at the same point in my career.

Then on my way out the door, I got 2 more science questions, both from women, both of which I was able to answer.


And, just to put a little more sugar on top, I'm already getting something back for all my charity. In exchange for helping them, I'm finding out about other people's research, making useful connections, and gaining access to reagents and equipment I wouldn't otherwise know about.

Sometimes, flaws in the system aside, and despite all the crap, it actually works. And I like the idea of a future where I'm equally likely to be working with all women- at least some days!- as all men.

We are coming up.

-- Ani Difranco

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Fortune Cookie

Success is being able to go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pop Culture Snippets

Saw a few minutes of Meet the Press this morning. I've noticed, and maybe mentioned here before, that when a man is criticizing a female candidate in a debate, particularly an asshole sort of man, he calls her "She. " As in, "She said this, she said that."

When he's criticizing a male candidate, he call him "My opponent."


Played hookey this morning (instead of working) and saw the new Robin Williams movie, Man of the Year. It was funny. I love Laura Linney. Laura and Robin had great on-screen chemistry, it was very believable. I love Lewis Black and Christopher Walken. All around great cast.


But I didn't like the ending. I liked how the computer glitch was found by a woman- they wouldn't have had any women with speaking parts if they hadn't done that. I thought it was a little lame that they turned it into a love story, but again, they wouldn't have had any romance if they hadn't done that. One or two of Robin's jokes were lame (the one about having a cabinet full of lesbians... LAME). But she takes a job as his producer/lover when she's trained as a computer scientist? WTF is that??


Am generally annoyed with how slow my computer is these days, and really eyeing those new Macs. I'm thinking maybe next week I will have to get one. I'm just not convinced it's worth it to wait until my current one completely dies, in the hopes that some big improvements will come before then. It seems unlikely.


Got interrupted by my neighbor being sociable, hence the decision to check in on the rest of the world.

Should be getting back to work.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Laugh out loud

The latest anti Bush sentiment made me laugh.

I'm the only one in my lab today, apparently, so there was no one here to hear me.

I am so very tired. Hopefully more awake people will also find this funny.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Questions of Motivation

Today was a crampy, yucky day. But I managed to get some stuff done anyway. And some of it even worked (yay!).

A little poem. Okay?


Lately I've been asked this bizarre question, and I don't really understand it because I've mostly gotten it from people with whom I've been discussing the issue of how best to go about doing faculty applications.

Here it is (drumroll, please):

But what ARE your career goals?

Um, I don't really get it. What do you mean, isn't getting a faculty position my most immediate career goal? And isn't that obvious? And isn't that enough to keep me busy for a while (assuming I want, you know, tenure in a few years)?

Am I supposed to say, "I want to win a Nobel Prize, and I won't stop until I do!" ???

What are they looking for when they ask this? Why does it feel like a trick question?

And because of the way someone asked me this question today (an older, male faculty member), it suddenly occurred to me that it is a trick question.

Do they ask this of the guys?

I've gotten this kind of crap in the past, but I never made this connection before. For example, I was shocked to find that even at my (relatively prestigious and competitive) college, there were accusations that the women were only there to get an MRS degree. I mean, AAAAGGGHHHHH!!!!!

So anyway, I don't quite know how to answer this question when they put it to me. For years when people asked what I wanted to do, it was sufficient to say, "I want my own lab." This seemed to go over pretty well at my grad school interviews, and with my thesis committee, and when I interviewed for postdoc positions.

So why now, that I'm looking for faculty positions, do I suddenly feel like I have to defend my right to, you know, pursue a career outside the home? Why do they even get to ask?

Is this the glass ceiling?

Is this the cheese dip? But I've gotta have... meaning. -Consolidated

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Declaration of Extreme Independence

Not too long ago, I was going through some old memorabilia (my mom's a total pack rat), and found some ratty little project I did in elementary school. Thanks, Mom. We were learning about American History, of course, and the assignment was to write our own declaration of independence from our parents.

Leaving all the Freudian stuff out of it, the subject on my mind today is, how to communicate my extreme independence to the Powers That Hire New Faculty.

I realized this week from talking with other friends about their labs, just how umbilical cord-free I've been, and for sooooooooo much longer than most of my peers.

I realized this is one of the key things that really sets me apart from most postdocs, and that it's also the most likely thing that no one knows about me. I realized that I previously had no idea what most people assume is typical for a postdoc of my age. (I still really think the ageist bullshit is hurting me, on top of the sexist bias that apparently not just men but also women have toward female scientists).

Now that I have some idea, I gotta say. No wonder they didn't want to hire me. They really had no idea what they were missing out on. How could they?

One friend widens her eyes when I vent about what I think of as the usual stuff. It's irritating, because I frequently feel like I'm the only person who wants all the equipment in lab to work. I go out of my way to find manuals, call companies, get repairs done, etc. I'd like to think the reason I do this is because I appear to be the only person who cares that I need to use it. I never thought of this sort of venting as anything close to shocking, until she told me that the look of horror on her face was because this is the first she's heard of anything like it.

Another friend said something I've heard now and then from the rare, truly empathic souls, and it goes like this:

"God, just imagine how much you could get done if you'd had access to all the resources and help I've had all this time, while I totally took it for granted. Squandered it, even."

Well, yeah. I choose to take it as a compliment, though I'm sure he didn't squander it at all, since this particular friend seems to have his shit together. (Figures that he wants to go to industry).

So, assuming that I've finally homed in on an important missing variable in the application equation, and on the off chance that I take time out to do any faculty applications this year, what's the best way to make sure people know about it?

I'm pretty confident that all my recommenders used the word 'Independent' in their letters for me in the past, which evidently didn't really get the message across. Is there another word or phrase that would carry more weight? Dashboard Thesaurus suggests "self-reliant" and "self-sufficient", which both sound pretty good to me.

Would a better turn of phrase help?

As I think I've mentioned here before, someone told me that my letters were probably missing the "catch phrases" that apparently only PIs "in the know" would... know about. This person said they basically have to make it sound like you can walk on water. I'm pretty sure my recommenders would have said that, and in so many words, if they had known that was what it would take. But they're none of them very experienced at placing postdocs in faculty positions, at least not in the US. So having a list of Required Wording to give each of them might help.

I'm sure having more funding would help, but it's a catch-22, because postdocs aren't allowed to apply for money without letters from their "advisors"... I can't tell you how much this catch infuriates me, because it means I have to hunt down my advisor, and several levels of admins, deans, and business officers, to get signatures, etc. Which is really stupid when it's just at the stage of submitting something, but they don't let you send it in without getting permission first.

Just for comparions, keep in mind that grants are getting funded at something like the 10th percentile. So let's compare that to everyone's favorite risk analyses borrowed from this site chosen at random from google:

Event --- Chance This Year
Car stolen --- 1 in 100
House catch fire --- 1 in 200
Die from Heart Disease--- 1 in 280
Die of Cancer ---1 in 500
Die in Car wreck ---1 in 6,000

Let's say most of the grants I'm applying for expect anywhere from 300 to 3000 applications each round, and some of them do 3-4 rounds a year, while funding keeps going down (thanks, warmongerers). I'm not going to do the math because the comparison stats are based on national averages, but you get the gist of it. Them statistics is pretty grim.

It's so bad, that recently I had to apply for some safety clearance for my own project, as you're required to do periodically. Because the grant is technically to my advisor, my name is not listed anywhere on it! But I did all the paperwork, made all the phone calls, with NO ADVICE WHATSOEVER FROM MY ADVISOR... as usual.

So tell me again, if I have such little chance of getting the money in the first place, why make me jump through hours of university hoops just to be allowed to apply for it?

Argh. Just thinking about these ridiculous restrictions on who can apply for funding gives me a headache. Literally.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Young Scientist Depression, Part II

So, I'm actually in a decent mood right now, I've been hacking away at some stuff I really needed to get done, and it has been relatively enjoyable. And, I'm almost done. That helps, too.

That said, I'm not sure why I was in a good mood at all, because I woke up this morning and turned on the tv, as has been my habit since 9/11, to see if anything catastrophic had happened in the world.

The tv happened to be on a station that was showing Life or Something Like It, starring Angelina Jolie.

Now, I love Angelina, and I had seen this movie before and liked it. They happened to be at the part where Angelina goes to see Monk, who's playing a homeless prophet, and he says "Oh, you're already up to Bargaining?"

He was referring to the Five Stages of Grief, aka:

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

And I realized, I think I've been going through these stages, leading up to accepting the idea that I may not have it in me to put up with the crap long enough to have my own lab.

Denial is what we're all in when we go to grad school.
Anger is where I spent the best years of my life, e.g. most of my 20s.
Bargaining was what I did when I said "I'll do a postdoc, and if it sucks, I'll quit."
Depression is where I've been lately, because it's such a zero-sum game. I don't have anything left to bargain with.

In other pop culture references, last night I watched V for Vendetta on DVD. At first Natalie Portman's posh rendition of a British accent annoyed me, but then I had to appreciate the Phantom of the Opera-esque mask business. And the parts where they reference The Count of Monte Cristo, you can imagine, really appealed to me.

I especially liked the sequence where they keep torturing her, and torturing her, and she keeps saying "I don't know". Finally they say they're going to execute her, and she says "Okay, fine."

I realized in grad school that, as in all negotiations, life is a big negotiation. If you're not willing to walk away at any point, you're never going to get anywhere.

Evey's character in the movie says she's willing to die, and V says: "Now you are truly free."

This is not a new concept. Fearless people really do have the most interesting lives.

I think what's been bugging me lately is admitting what I am afraid of.

I've always subscribed to the saying that brave people are just as afraid as everyone else, they just handle it better.

And I've always been pretty brave, until lately, when I've started to worry that once the denial and the anger wear off, you've lost your two best weapons.

I guess I thought the anger would never go away, or that it would at least last me until I had my own lab. But it does eventually just give in to sadness.

Oddly, though, work can be its own reward, more so than getting credit for it. It's just really hard to remember that every minute of every day.

It matters more that you try, than whether anybody knows about it.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Benchwork Procrastinating

I did benchwork today. It was fun. More fun than writing papers or grants, just now.

I know I should get a student to do this menial stuff for me. I know I should work on fixing up my figures for the paper, the grant, the poster. But doing experiments is a legitimate excuse, right??

I keep saying I'll do it in the morning, but then I have a morning meeting on the day I wanted to do it. Afternoons and evenings are out, I can't think late in the day. I say I'll do it on the weekend, but then I tell myself a day off (!!) is really important or I won't make it through the next week of benchwork and meetings. Right??

Sigh. Time is dragging on, and I'm using the excuse that I still have a couple more experiments I could do, should do, and there's no point in fixing the figures for the paper if these new data have to get put in anyway, I'll just have to remake the figures again...

It's pathetic, I know.

A vacation would be good, to the person who suggested that, but for a bunch of reasons I've discussed in previous posts, it usually backfires on me.

No, I think it would help if I used my one and a half days off on the weekend to do more rejuvenating things, but I usually end up sitting around like a frog on a log, which doesn't actually make me feel any better. I'm usually too tired to come up with fun things to do.

France sounds good. I always wanted to end up in Europe, until I went there to work for a little while. Now I'm not so sure. And I have friends who are desperately competing for jobs there and not getting them. So, kudos to the person who wrote and said she got a faculty position there. They are hard to get.

To the person who said you don't have to work 9 to 5 in industry, and that industry does more to help people than academia does.... give me a break. Where do you think all those ideas for assays come from? You wouldn't know what to measure, or how to measure it, without us. You don't get to try anywhere near the level of crazy things we do. Trust me, we're way more on the cutting edge than you are. It sucks, too, because most of the technology to do what we need to do ends up being custom-made, and thus more expensive. By the time you get to use it, we've already moved on to the next big problem.

And, what's the incentive to have someone tell me what to do, if I still have to work just as much? I'd much rather work long hours on my own ideas. Money doesn't make up the difference.

Speaking of other people's work, lately I'm spending a lot of time in other people's journal clubs. Not by choice, mind you, but to keep up appearances, and all that good networking stuff.

So I'm annoyed because the papers aren't that useful to me. Do I volunteer to do one of my own? Because that will take a lot longer than just catching up on my reading, on my own.

Along those lines, I'm working on a relatively hot topic right now, so I'm torn about whether it would be beneficial or completely naive and stupid to try to start a meeting for a group of people working on similar things. Should I be open and optimistic? Does paranoia really get you anywhere?

See what I mean? I can't think late in the day. Still can't decide whether to get the new laptop, or wait longer. Can't decide whether to go back on the pill or not. Can't decide whether to go visit my parents or not worry about it until next spring.

One thing I can decide: as soon as this gel is finished, I'm outta here. Next question: do I watch tv, and if so, what do I watch on Thursday night? Do I exercise? Yes, probably should. Will feel oh so virtuous if I do.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

Psychology of Young Scientist Depression

Hello all. First, a few (short?) responses to comments that got scattered among various other posts:

To the people who sent compliments: thank you, as always! And to the first time commenters, welcome!

To the person who couldn't understand the long work week: Really depends on the field you're in, whether you're the sort of person who enjoys helping others or avoids it, does their fair share to keep the lab running (vs. doesn't! You know who you are, you fuckers!) vs. works in a lab where there are staff to maintain everything for you. How experienced you were before grad school, whether you switch fields, how well set up your lab is or if you have to run around a lot within the lab or to other labs to get to equipment you need, if you have to schedule to use shared equipment that is always busy, how much of a go-getter you are, how patient you are. If you switched projects or labs in the middle of grad school or postdoc or if you have a habit of dropping projects just as they're about to work, or of not dropping projects that will never work. If you have secret side projects that you only work on when you've finished everything else you're supposed to be doing. If you're the sort of person who would rather stay late just to get the answer before going home, will that save you a whole day, if coming in on the weekend saves you a week every month or so- is it worth it?

And so on. And don't forget, as we get more lab experience, we spend a lot less time at the bench and a lot more time in meetings, seminars, journal clubs, and just general networking which might seem like standing around chatting but usually involves useful gossip like who got what faculty position where and which faculty members are married but we wouldn't have known that, since they have different last names, so you might not want to invite them both out to dinner with the visiting speaker. And so on.

re: happy, not happy, see below.

This weekend I was too depressed to do any really serious thinking work, so I was reading up on this old, famous set of experiments done on dogs. And it kind of makes me laugh to think about these poor doggies, so in a way I guess it helped more than I thought.

We work like dogs, so it seems an apt analogy.

I didn't read about this on the web, but I'm going to use a quote from this site where they've already done a useful paraphrasing of the experiments:

Seligman did some interesting experiments back in the seventies on what he called "learned helplessness." He worked with two sets of dogs. One he put in a cage that they could not get out of. The other he put in a cage that they could jump out of. And then he shocked both of these sets of dogs. The ones that could escape their cages did so, and got away from the shocks. The ones that could do nothing to escape the shock became passive; after a while, they just lay down and took it.

Then, when he took the dogs who could not escape the shock in the first experiment and put them in a cage where they could get away from the shock, they still did nothing. And when he tried to teach them to get out of the cage, he had to spend a lot of time showing them they could escape. To be accurate, there were always some dogs who did hardly anything once they found themselves trapped, and there were some dogs who had been trapped but quickly learned later to escape. But the results I am talking about were averages.

Seligman was fascinated with these results, because he thought the dogs had learned to be helpless, and a sense of helplessness is a key component of depression. So he asked if he could "immunize" dogs from this learned helplessness. He took a group of dogs and let them hear a tone before the shock went off. And he gave these dogs the opportunity to jump out of the cage when they heard the tone. The fascinating result was: these dogs never became passive. When they were put in a cage from which they could not escape, they never stopped trying, and they escaped immediately when they could. Why? They had acquired a sense of efficacy with regard to the shocks.

Seligman thought this was an interesting model to apply to human beings because of the common feeling in depression that there is nothing that can be done that will make a difference. So, he asked: Could humans likewise be immunized against feelings of helplessness and hopelessness? To test this, Seligman put human beings in situations similar to that of the dogs: The subjects would get shocked, but some did not have control over it and some did. Fascinatingly, he found that some people always tried to get control and some did not. Seligman posited that the difference lay in the way the people explained the cause of their failure: whether they blamed it on themselves or on circumstances.

So my theory is that lately, I've been feeling really helpless, and that this is not something wrong with me, it's something I've been taught by the scientific powers that be.

Unlike in grad school, where the goal was obvious (GET PHD AND LEAVE), as a postdoc there is no end in sight (DO THE IMPOSSIBLE: GET FACULTY POSITION???) and lately, I've had no feeling of control.

It's learned helplessness, which isn't really the same as actual helplessness, and I don't think it's really the same as bonified depression, either.

I used to be the sort of dog (bitch, anyone? it's so obvious) who would just keep banging against the wall until it broke (see: great scene in Kill Bill 2). But lately I've been feeling like Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill 2, when her knuckles hurt so much she can barely feed herself after weeks of training by punching her hand into a wall.

Actually lately I've felt more like the part in the first movie, when she first wakes up from her coma, realizes they've been raping her in her sleep, crawls out to the Pussy Wagon on her elbows and has to re-learn how to wiggle her toes so she can drive away.

Wiggle your big toe.

So I'm wondering, how do I get back that feeling of control?

That website I linked you to puts it like this:

Thus, the first key is: You can carefully focus on the facts about your situation and yourself. Is this the way things have to be or is it just the way they happen to be? Is this the way of the world or just the way things are in my immediate surroundings?

The second key is: You can pay attention to your possibilities. Is this something you can change or not? You can take an entrepreneurial attitude towards your life.

We spend a lot of time here talking about whether this is the way things have to be.

Of course not. We're mostly bitter idealists here, or we wouldn't bother talking about how much better it COULD BE.

If only they would let us try it our way.

So clearly I think it's not me, it's the system. I'm pretty confident about that.

What I've been wondering about is whether I can put up with the system long enough to get to a position where I can change it. And lately I'm not so sure about that.

So is it better elsewhere in academia? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Obviously not everybody has the kind of horrific experiences I've been through... certainly not so many in so short a time. I know, I've asked around.

So what can I change?

I think the "Go to Industry" crowd assumes that working 9-5 and having lots of free time makes everyone happy.

I think I would be okay that way for a while, but I don't want to be the narrator from Fight Club, the guy who says after his IKEA furniture goes up in flames, "But I had that couch problem solved!"

I've never been someone who aspired to white picket fence yuppiedom, because that's what I grew up with, and here's the secret: my parents were miserable. You have to work a long time in a boring job to pay for a nice house, nice furniture, and a family with kids. My mom wasn't happy staying home, and my dad wasn't happy coming home to his second job of mowing the lawn, grilling meat, and fixing whatever was wrong with the house that day. What did I learn? Nice furniture doesn't make me happy. Nice things are just that: nice. And they're things.

To quote Tyler Durden, who was quoting someone else, "The things you own own you."

No, I definitely prefer the lifestyle of being too preoccupied with changing the world to notice the little things.

Right now the little things (stupid shit at work) are drowning out what really matters (uh, doing actual science).

Although every scientific doghouse comes with a one-way escape hatch, some lead to other doghouses and some lead to nothing.

On some level, it just helps a lot to know that it's perfectly rational for me to be depressed: Right now, by all objective measures, I'm helpless to help myself alone. It's not because there's anything inherently wrong with me.

Next time: is there any hope for this doghouse?

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