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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At 9:22 PM, Blogger Propter Doc said...

Has it occured to you that you may exude too much independence? I wonder if search committees are looking for someone who will fit into the department as a team player on service and teaching issues, and also someone who can foster collaboration with other scientists within the department and between institutions. The institutions may look for someone who 'fits in more than just research interests.
I understand and share many of your current frustrations (many of your recent posts really do hit home with me because of my position as the only chemist in a bio-stuff group), particularly those about independence not being recognised properly by your current PI and advisors. I sometimes wonder what my projects would have been like with proper access to equipment and the help that other postdocs take for granted. All I know is this bit, right here and now, is what will make you the best PI you can be.
Just a thought!

At 7:13 AM, Anonymous Janna said...

I like self-reliant a little better than independent...I think "independent" is sometimes a nice way of saying "She's gonna do whatever the hell she wants, even if it's a bad idea," but the meaning of self-reliant is pretty clear.

Also, with regards to the walking on water PI when I was an undergrad was writing me a letter for summer funding and he said something like, "Janna is only an undergraduate, but she functions at the level of a first-year graduate student." Maybe something like, "MsPhD is already functioning at the faculty level" would be a good walking-on-water phrase. But...I'm not sure how you ask a faculty member to write that you are on their same level without risking insulting them.

At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Faculty members need to get the support of their division/department/school in order to apply for money, too. If you can't handle doing it as a postdoc, you probably shouldn't be a faculty member.

At 7:51 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Faculty write grants together, nowadays. That's completely different from getting some bullshit signature from someone who isn't even going to glance at the cover sheet of what you wrote. I WISH I had colleagues with whom I could apply for money, but it's really just 'not done' at the postdoc level.


I like that suggestion. I DO function at the level of an assistant prof. And yes, I am independent to the point of doing things other people think are crazy. But eventually the data, and time, show that I was right all along.

Propter Doc,

Ugh, yes, I AM seen as being too independent in some regards. But I have lots of collaborations, several of them published. And I foster lots of collaboration, even if I'm not an author on stuff I hook people up for equipment and expertise all the time. "let me introduce you to my friend, X, she can help you, since I can't", I say all the time. And I generally don't get any credit for any of it.

At 7:08 PM, Blogger Abel PharmBoy said...

FWIW, even as a PI, the grant is to your institution, not you the asst/assoc/full professor. Hence, the tremendous number of BS signatures that need to go on everyone's internal grant routing forms. Just imagine the intertia one must overcome to move what were presumably one's own grants from one institution to another. We are all just simply renting lab space by virtue of the indirect costs our grants bring in - and you're sure you want any part of this business???

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

I think that Abel PharmBoy really has summed it up. Forget the catch phrases and everything else. You have said it yourself that the funding is really poor. As for taking the positions in grad school and the postdoc--yes, one has to say that I want a lab-- otherwise the PI won't take you. But, rising to the next level is becoming next to impossible for so many. PharmBoy tells us that the indirect costs allow us to rent out space. But, think about the fact that all of the indirect is also going to pay those people whom are sitting in offices and signing our grants. Where did all of this come from. They don't really take a look at our grants from the scientific point of view, yet indirect goes to pay the signature people. Do you think that the tax payers know this? I think that it would be a nice idea for them to know-- as they purchase their way to pinkness this month. (UGH!) Now, with the e-grants, things are even more difficult, as you have to continually change in word, make a pdf, and submit. Meanwhile, the postdocs are working to keep bread on the table...

At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dont listen to the naysayers. Do what you want how you want it. You are not at fault, and you will not change (because you are not at fault). The two ideas (failure to be accepted and extreme independence) have no correlation in reality. If we show reliance at work, it may be the harbinger of negative gender stereotypes, and not being able to do the work WE want (which is why you got into this industry). So fuck them. And...don't listen to these guys: I think most academics have an altered sense of reality that was made to better suit their line of work. So there. Take care.

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

thanks, Anon. I think you're right re: altered sense of reality among academics. It's probably partly selection, part coping mechanism. I'm just not built for denial.


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