Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Alternate lives abound.

Lately I've been having all too real visions of how my life would have been had I stayed with one of my ex-boyfriends.

One friend is married to a guy whose parents are very racist and sexist. Really glad I didn't fall into that trap.

Another friend is married with children to a guy who is smart, funny, and self-centered. He has his dream job; she doesn't. He puts her down, in only thinly-veiled ways, in front of other people.

These things make me feel sorry for my friends, although I know they chose these men and love them, and are, in general, very happy.

A few other friends are in various stages of freaking out about still being single. Very sitcom-esque.

These things also make me think a lot about my alternate lives, and how the one I have is pretty darn good, at least for me, by comparison.

My boyfriend for the last several years deserves a better name: life-partner, best friend, my hero.

For a while when I started this blog I really felt like I was on the wrong path, and instead had ended up fighting all the wrong battles for something I wasn't at all sure I wanted.

Lately I've been feeling like I took a shortcut back to where I was supposed to be. I'm still not sure whether I'll get where I think I want to be anytime soon, but I do feel a little more sure of what I want and why I want it.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Clockwork red.

Every year, there is a Big Annual Meeting for everyone in my field. The first one I went to was really euphoric, because it was the first big meeting I had been to of any kind. I got tons of great feedback and attention, for the first time, for my work. Great fun! Almost glamorous!

Since then, it has been, on the whole, a lot less fun. For a variety of reasons.

I swear the science gets worse every year (or am I just getting smarter?).
I swear the politics get worse every year (or am I just getting a clue?).
I swear they keep adding more sessions and starting earlier and ending later, every year.
I know I'm getting older every year. I can feel it.
The weather is ALWAYS bad. Make that awful. AWFUL.
Since it's really expensive, I usually stay far from the meeting and commute.

All of that means I don't get to do a lot of socially-important drinking, which I don't really enjoy anyway, because I'm too tired and have to worry about driving or missing a train. I'm also exhausted from the already long days combined with having to get up earlier and travel, sometimes for up to an hour, in freezing weather, cursing the whole time, both ways.

But today I was looking at my calendar, thinking how I'm dreading this meeting but how I really have to go and network network network...!

...and then I realized yet another reason why I always hate this meeting. I don't know why I never made this connection before. Maybe it just hadn't been enough years yet for me to see the pattern.

Yup, you guessed it. I ALWAYS have my period the week of this meeting. Or at the very least, extremely severe pms. You know, the kind of pms that comes with pre-cramp cramps. The kind I never had until the last few years.

New study: Scientists used to believe that reading too much decreased women's fertility. Could it be that becoming a scientist makes your periods worse? News at 11.

Nevermind that the meeting isn't always exactly the same days. Though, I don't actually know which gods of science decide which days it will be. For all I know, they're using a moon chart to pick the schedule! Somehow, when this meeting rolls around, I am always in the same part of my cycle.

The sucky part.

I know I can take Midol + vicadin or whatever it is they sell these days.
I also know can drink special tea, wear a bulky-though-mood-saving thermo heating pad thing under my already uncomfortable business casual attire.
I know I can schedule my day to make bathroom trips at the right times, and wear dark skirts or pants so I won't care if I'm leaking blood onto dry-clean-only.
I know I can skip more sessions than I used to as a grad student, and drink in the afternoon if I want to, since I actually have been going long enough now to actually know some people who would be happy to join me for prolonged postdoc kvetching sessions.

I know all of this, but I can already imagine the cramps just thinking about it. The back pain, the headaches, the fatigue that never fades.

It's really hard to smile, give your spiel, and network network network when all you want is to go home, curl up in a ball and wonder what you did in a past life to deserve being born a primate female.

If it weren't career suicide to do so, I'd wear a Carl's Jr. shirt with a picture of a big cheeseburger, fries and a coke that said:

Leave me alone, I'm menstruating.

And I'd dance everywhere I went, singing maniacally....I'm singing in the rain...

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More things you didn't learn in postdoc school.

I'm still in the jaw-on-floor stage of processing this new information right now.


So today I was looking at something I downloaded once upon a time on my search for grant writing & grant getting advice.

Although it's not where I would apply for funding, I somehow happened upon (I really don't remember how) this little booklet called:

How to Plan a Grant Application
from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' All About Grants Series (updated July 16, 2002).

It has a cute cartoon scientist guy on the front. With a name like All About Grants, I'm thinking this is the I Am Jack's Colon type of Dick & Jane level book. "What is a grant? How do I get one?" Etc.

Page 2. Table of Contents. Okay. Looks like what you'd expect. Here I was thinking this would be a helpful little checklist for things I already knew from grant writing classes and workshops I've attended.

Aside: Before I go on, let me tell you what they told us in grant writing class. It went something like this:

0. We assume you have an IDEA, or you wouldn't be here.

1. Have some Specific Aims that connect but aren't all dependent on Aim 1 working.

2. Make sure the Aims are really doable. Have preliminary data figures. Put in lots of methods details. Come up with some plausible justification for how this project is connected to human disease (and therefore worth funding with taxpayer money).

3. Writing mechanics- what goes in which section of the grant.

4. Get someone else to read it.

5. Oh yeah and don't forget you have to get some stuff signed before you send it off. That will be a huge pain in the ass, and nobody seems to know how postdocs actually do it.

But on Page 3 of this booklet, the following list:

Develop a Strategy for Planning an NIH Grant

1. Assess your field. Find out the opportunities for collaborating with a known (read: famous) laboratory or a more experienced grantee (read: very famous person).

2. Check out the competition. See which other projects in your field are being funded. Search the NIH database. (translation: make sure somebody's not already doing what you want to do, since we already get tons of applications where people are proposing to do THE EXACT SAME THING)

3. Evaluate yourself: How do your strengths match up with the topics you uncovered in Step 1? Can you capitalize on your expertise and fill in any gaps with mentors, collaborators, or consultants? (translation: we'll only fund you to do something you can prove you already know how to do, and if you're in a herd of people applying to do THE EXACT SAME THING, you're more likely to win if you get Step 1 and this step right)

4. Figure out what resources and support your organization has and what other support you'll need. (translation: make sure you'll get the right letters from your university, and that you have friends who have friends on the committee that will review your grant)

5. Brainstorm ideas with colleagues and mentors. (translation: we assume you don't have any ideas of your own, because we didn't hire you to be creative, and older folks know what kind of boring ideas get funded)

6. Call an NIAID program officer for an opinion of your idea. (translation: don't bother writing on what you want to do unless we say it's okay first)

7. Write the hypothesis for your proposal. (good thing you didn't do that sooner!)

8. See if your idea matches any NIAID initiatives reflecting your high-priority ideas. (although Step 6 should have alerted you if they did)

9. Give yourself plenty of time to write the application, probably three to six months. (too bad if you're doing this the month before, but take comfort in knowing that no amount of preparation could possibly get you the political connections you'll need to get funded)

10. Start thinking about your next application! As long as the topics are different you can apply for as many as you like. (translation: you won't get it on the first try, it's a new rule that everyone has to apply at least twice)

What I'm still processing is how you're not supposed to have an idea FIRST, you're supposed to have it at STEP 5, after you've spent sufficient time worrying about what EVERYONE ELSE is doing.

Then you call your bookie, oops I mean the program officer, and get him/her to give you the odds on this particular race.

Place your bets. What kind of science are we funding here? I'm betting it's anything but creative.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Moral compass.

I've been busy the last few weeks. I've been witnessing a lot of things that make me uncomfortable, not to mention feeling pressured to do things that deviate from my own personal moral North.

But in what order should I list them?

The person who seems to be massaging data, desperate to compete despite lacking the skills.

Right now it's only a suspicion, there's no way to prove it. Do I just wait and hope that the peer review system will catch it (not likely)? Sometimes I wish there were
an anonymous hotline for these things, like they have for sexual harrassment at some schools.

The person who admits to having published something a few years ago that now seems to be wrong. No intentions of correcting the mistake through retraction, corrigendum or future publication.

This happens so much I'm not even sure it's worth commenting on. But how much time has been wasted by groups who have tried to reproduce the erroneous results? Do we have any obligation to report these things when we find or know about them?

The person who sacrifices creativity to get funding. And then works on things totally unrelated to the grant.

Is this really a habit we want to continue? Pressuring imaginative scientists to shut off their imaginations, or sneak around to do what really seems interesting or important?

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Sorry this is late- blame Blogger.

Blogger's been intermittently down and very slow this week, so I apologize for the delay on this one.

I agree with the person who posted and said don't try to cram in too much studying, but working hard for a specific goal can be empowering, too, some some studying can be good.

As you'll see from my original response, I also agree with that person because they said they wouldn't do grad school over again if they had another chance to choose. Every hurdle you face in grad school is a chance to say to yourself, "Leaving now is not quitting, but right now I can make a choice whether to stay or to go." I still say if you're having a lot of doubts about whether this is the lifestyle for you, getting out sooner is a lot easier than getting out later.


Hello- I have been following your blog for some time now and I just wanted to thank you for sharing your experiences. I am currently a phd student in biomedical science. I often wonder how i ended up here as my undergrad degree was in psychology. I don't go to a very well known university but it's in the midwest. I am weeks away from taking my PhD qualifying exam. Do you have any recommendations? Or would you be willing to share your own experience? I am really scared that I will fail being from a psychology background my basics aren't very strong and I've really just done ok in my classes while I have been here.


You sound terrified. The best medicine for exam fear is preparation.

1. Since this is not your first language, as it were, it might help to Study. Get some textbooks and some friends who know this stuff and review the basics. Don't be shy about asking for help from other grad students, older grad students, or postdocs.

2. It doesn't matter how you do as long they don't kick you out. Even if they fail you, most schools will let you try again (at least once).

I say you should study because I think knowing the 'basics' affects everything we do - what is DNA, what is RNA, and how they are made, what are the amino acids, why does it matter that there are 20 and they're different, etc. There's no area of biomedical science where you don't need to know chemistry- pH, for example, influences everything we do in the lab, but sometimes a small pH difference doesn't matter, and sometimes it's the only things that matters. Even if you're doing nothing at the bench and you're injecting mice with a drug, you need to know basic physiology and pharmacology. Or maybe you're growing plants, then you need to know the anatomy of a plant.

Knowledge is power, in more ways than one. With that in mind:

Find out what your school's policy is. How well do you have to do? Can you get an extension and take it later? If you do poorly, can you take it again?

Do you do an oral exam component in front of a committee? Who's on your committee? Go talk to each of them in person, one on one. Try to get them to tell you what sorts of things they want you to know. And make a good impression, if you haven't met with them before. If they like you, they'll go easier on you. But don't let them know you're scared, just say you want to be thorough in your preparation. Ask for clarifications, but don't expect them to be sympathetic. Most scientists are not!

Having said all that, remember that it's not the end of the world if you fail.

But if you're this stressed out now, are you sure this is what you want to do?

If the answer is yes and you fail anyway, you can always go to the Chair or Dean in your department/program and try to work out some kind of probation. You're not the first, nor will you be the last, scientist who doesn't enjoy or excel at taking tests.

It's a stupid hurdle and doesn't measure much of relevance, if you ask me, but it does serve the purpose of being a filter. For example:

If you're this stressed out now, how well will you handle the other stressful things we do professionally? Public speaking? Grant deadlines? Grant rejections? Nasty paper reviews?

It's a stressful profession pretty much all the time, and people will always be looking at you to see how much you know, whether it's in a formal sense of being in the audience when you give a talk, or just from afar when they read your papers. Will it drive you crazy to worry what people are thinking about you and your work? Having studied psychology, I'm sure you've thought about this.

To be more positive, I can tell you from experience that everyone's confidence rises as you go through grad school and postdoc. At first you're asking all the dumb questions, and after a few years, everyone is asking you the same questions you asked a few years before. And then you have to say, hey! I must be making progress here!

Set your sights on what you want. Can you envision your future lab? What you want to study when it's up to you to do something no one's ever done before? Treat the exams as a stepping stone on the way to getting what you want. Sure, it's probably not all that related to what you're going to do later, but look at it this way: after you finish grad school, you'll never have to take another test, ever again.


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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Letter: What should I do? --Anonymous

Yet another Anonymous commenter sent this question:

I think I've reached the point where I really hate coming to work every day. I've been a postdoc for about 1.5 years, in the biomedical sciences.

I work at a very prestigious institution, for a PI who is a major player in his field.

His lab is set up in that it is basically a junior faculty-run operation. Postdocs are assigned to work with one or more junior faculty.

In some ways this is a good thing, in that early on you get a lot of individual attention and hands on training, and you get to feel like you are in more of a team environment than is found in many labs.

On the other hand, you never feel like a project is truly yours. In lab meetings our PI often directs questions about our projects to the junior faculty (which makes one feel like a technician).

Apparently there have been issues in the past with authorship, as our PI doesn't often let the jr faculty take last author, so it ends up being a co-first author with the postdoc.

The junior faculty don't hang over our shoulders much, but there are definitely a lot of "how's everything going" conversations which end up turning into meetings going over data, getting suggestions, etc. In other words, things that should be done by the PI.

Anyway, since starting in the lab I've been moved around to several different projects, most of which were small portions of someone elses' work.

I wrote and was awarded a fellowship by a nonprofit society, so I'm funded for the next few years at a salary that is actually a little better than the NIH guidelines. The fellowship, however, was based on a project that my PI never intended for me to continue (I did a small portion of it, but the rest was subsequently done by one of the aforementioned junior faculty, leading to a submitted first author paper for him). So I feel like we deceived the funding agency. When I expressed my reservations about this to a couple of the junior faculty, their response was "it doesn't matter, once you get funded you can do whatever you want with the money."

All in all, a potentially crappy situation. A conundrum for me, because the benefits of finishing my postdoc here could be high (high profile papers, name recognition, having the fellowship). But I'm not sure its worth the stress I'm going through on a day to day basis.

I'm thinking of bringing these issues up directly with my PI, and asking that I be allowed to do my own, independent work without supervision from junior faculty. Or, I may just jump ship, if I can find another alternative (probably industry at this point).

Dear Anonymous,

That sounds awful. Are you by any chance located outside the US? Is your PI an MD or perhaps in something more related to chemistry?

The story about writing for funding on one thing and working on something else is quite common. I have to wonder to what extent funding agencies realize this happens.

I have heard of these kinds of situations with junior faculty before, but this may fall into the category of Researching The Place Before You Go There.

Did you interview there? Did you have different expectations based on the interview visit than what you found when you actually arrived?

I have a few friends who are in similar (though maybe not so extreme) situations, and in those cases they all had reservations about going to that lab, but went anyway, and then regretted the decision. They viewed it as a trade-off at the time, but then found it was not at all as advertised. E.g. the expected equation goes something like this:

famous PI + crappy lab situation = good papers, good job

but the real balance is something like:

asshole PI + really unhappy lab situation = no papers, want to quit before getting job

I suspect that asking for an independent project wouldn't fly in a lab like that.

Jumping ship to industry sounds great, but it would be more like the lab you're in now (teamwork!) and less like what you say you want (independence). So I'm not sure, from what you've written, which of these is more important to you.

Sadly, sometimes the best and worst way to find out what you want to is to do the experiment. This is one of the things that's so scary about postdoc vs. grad school. At least in grad school, you could do a rotation and hopefully get an idea of the lab atmosphere.

To me, this lab just sounds like a bad fit for you. There are plenty of labs that run more traditionally in academia, particularly smaller ones with less famous PIs.

The irony is that the best labs are often the ones you never hear about, because they publish many solid papers but none in high impact journals. Unfortunately, with all the pressure on postdocs to get papers in certain journals - as some kind of proof that you deserve a faculty position? - the trend is for more postdocs to go to labs like yours, and the smaller labs end up hiring elsewhere (students, technicians, or recruit from overseas).

Sigh. And as you can see, labs like yours don't emphasize honesty and independence, so we can imagine what kind of researchers they churn out.

I'm not sure from your comment what the source of the stress is on a daily basis for you. Is everyone else happy, or are they cut-throat? Are you the black sheep of the lab (wanting to have your own ideas and work on them, for shame!)? Are you just worried that everyone is dishonest and that your best ideas will get stolen (sounds like everyone is stealing from everyone else there)?

I would suggest you look around at other labs. You may find that the grass only looks greener. Or you may find one that suits your personality and ambitions better than the one you're in now.

I can't emphasize enough that funding sucks right now, and you have to really do your homework on the new place before you go there.

In the meantime I would suggest that you try to find some allies in your current lab. Is there anyone who feels like you do (to commiserate)? Or anyone you'd want to work with? Could you have a small group of postdocs who work together, each on their own part of a larger project, instead of each being paired with a grabby junior faculty person? Are you just paired with the wrong junior faculty person? Perhaps you could take your project in a different direction (find some new cool thing) that could help you switch to working with someone you trust and admire rather than whomever is causing your current stress. It sounds from your comment that switching around is pretty common in this lab, so the question is whether you want more or less of that.

Best of luck, please write back if you want to discuss more, and hang in there.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Being a mentor is tiring.

Today I did a lot of mentoring. A little peer mentoring, but mostly student mentoring.

Maybe I'm just feeling the cumulative lack of sleep lately, but part of the time I found myself thinking on some level,

This person just needs to vent

I know exactly what to say to make her feel better

....but I have other stuff I need to do

God, I can't get a word in edgewise! (see venting, above)

If I listen a while longer then she'll feel better

....and I can still get some work done today

Oh good, I think she gets it now

She certainly seems to feel better, so that's good

....At some point I'm going to have to get out of here and go home

People have stayed late and talked to me a few times when I really needed it, and it's only fair to pass it on, so I shouldn't mind doing this now...

But it also makes me feel old. Being tired, hearing them say the same things I said when I was going though similar things, hearing myself say what I finally figured out but wish someone had told me at the time. Somehow it's a little too much of reliving everything I've been through, and it makes me tired to think anyone else should have to go through it.

Why does history keep repeating itself? Isn't this the whole point of the mentoring system?

I'm sure some of this goes in the category of "I should write a book someday" so everyone can stop reinventing the same wheel.

Want to contribute candidate titles for the future YFS book?

The peer mentoring made me feel even more old and tired, maybe because I expect my peers to ask for my advice the way my students do, but they don't. So it's the same thing but with a past-tense twist.

Fellow postdocs who, instead of coming and asking me ahead of time, are now figuring out things I already learned the hard way. Then when they vent to me about it, I can tell them what I knew already and how I found out (and what never occurred to them I would know).

That just makes me feel underestimated.


The strangest thing about all of this is that I feel, more than ever, like the girl in Sliding Doors (the Gwyneth Paltrow character with the two haircuts). Both lives seem equally plausible from this point forward.

In some ways, I feel more than ever that I'm already doing most of what I would do in a real faculty appointment, without most of the resources that come with one, so there's no question I would like it and that I could definitely handle it.

(aside: Does anyone realize that as postdocs today, most of us are the same age, and have the same experience, as our current PIs did when they got their first jobs? And yet we're expected to stay in postdoc positions and not complain.

Why not complain? It's about as fair as if we suddenly decided to raise the driving age to 25, or the drinking age to 27. There would be all kinds of rationalizations, but none of them would make up for the fact that we know what we could have had if only we had been born earlier!)

But in other ways, I feel like I can't picture it. The way I visualized my life at this point wasn't completely inaccurate, but I really had no idea where I would be now when I started on this path. And I keep feeling that the Job On A Cloud is not likely to happen.

Ironically, two people this week said they really want me to make it, or really think I will (if I play the game the right way or just have enough luck). I guess on some level I know that, if I left now and never came back, this is as close to being a professor as I'm ever going to get.

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Monday, November 13, 2006


Hope and Motivation.

Dear Internet, I know I had these around here somewhere, but I can't find them this morning. Profgrrrl has found her iPod in the past by asking you, and various other missing computer parts.

Do you work for moods, too?

I'm supposed to go to work, and I know I'm not going to get out of the house without them.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006


Looks like Ms Mentor answered my last question.

But this presents yet another catch-22. If you can't do it by yourself, but you're not allowed to ask for help, what are you supposed to do? Pray?

Like that's gonna work.

Career Goals and Statement of Purpose

Someone sent a note today asking for advice on how to write these stupid essays for fellowship applications.

I still think it's bizarre that they ask you to do this, since someone who writes a great essay might have a ridiculous research plan, but it seems unlikely.

More often I think it's the other way around- the advisor helps with the research plan, but doesn't even want to discuss career goals with the student, so the essay on career goals is horrible.

It's rare that anyone really excels at both, and it's equally rare that the essay being bad is going to keep you from getting the fellowship.

Most people just write the same bullshit anyway. So basically you just want to sound like a real person, but it's okay if you don't say anything too original, because most people are only going to give the essay the most cursory read.

Here's my advice: Think hard about what you want to do, and why you want to do it. Be honest. And get someone else to read it.


It's funny because I was just thinking about this again today. One of my role models is having a rough time right now, and I'm feeling abandoned because she's worried about her own career and doesn't feel qualified/doesn't have time to help me with mine.

So I was thinking again how, while there are things I admire about her, I hope I've learned how to avoid making some of her mistakes.

But part of me just thinks, well here she is, quite a bit farther along with her career, and she doesn't feel any more secure or satisfied, really, than I do now.

Is this really what I'm signing up for? Lots more years of battling other people's malformed expectations, passive aggressive crap, and a constant feeling of uncertainty?

Last week was so good. Was that my one good week for a while? Lately it seems like I can't have more than one in a row.

Maybe I should hire Nancy Pelosi's astrologer.


So as an example, I've posted my career goals here before, but it never hurts to think about them again.

I want my own lab, and I want to run it my way.
I want to work on my ideas, not someone else's.
I want a team of people to work with me on my ideas. I want to do the hiring and firing.
I want students who have their own ideas.

My top career goal right now is to get a faculty position and funding. That's all. I can't think much farther ahead than that.

The purpose of my research is to ask good questions and figure out the most direct, practical ways to ask them.

The purpose of my research is to keep me from getting bored.

The purpose of my research is that it's a non-boring way to pay the rent.


Lately I'm hearing more and more that the way to get a good job is to find the job you want and target it as you would an all-out attack. Do lots of research on 2-3 places that you think would be good for you, and put all your effort into making contacts, and making your application suit the slot that's open.

My problem right now is, I'm afraid the job I want doesn't exist. And I'm afraid that, the more I research the possibilities, the less certain I'll be that there is a place out there that I would ever fit.

If you keep squishing me between a rock and a hard place, can you make me fit a mold that wasn't made for someone my shape?


It's funny because here I tend to vent my fears and frustrations, and here it's probably evenly split between people telling me to quit and people telling me not to give up. Though admittedly, I've never really run a poll and counted.

But in real life, people who know me, or even people who barely know me, say they feel certain I'll succeed in achieving my goals, that they're not worried about me, that I seem to be on top of my game.

You do? I will? You're not? I am?

My question now is, how much help is it reasonable to ask for when people think you shouldn't or don't need it? And how do you convince them you do need it, when you're in a culture where showing signs of weakness just means the sharks will smell blood and come out to eat you?

If I didn't really need any help, would I still feel like I do now?

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Very quick post- more later

Went to a fabulous talk today by a young female PI.

Hooray! Don't get to see nearly enough of this kind of thing. Another role model! They are so hard to find.

Also, a note to stubborn students:

I don't know what to tell you besides this. If you ask for my advice, and don't take it, I will be annoyed. Similarly if you complain all the time but don't ask for my advice, or ignore it, I will be annoyed (You are annoyed already).

However, please DO retain that attitude of thinking you know better than me (and everyone else). In some ways, you do.

Put it in a lockbox, because you will need it again someday soon enough when you have to ask yourself,

"Do I have the balls to a) send my paper to a High Impact Journal? b) apply for faculty positions?"

You will ask yourself, What happened to my Know-It-All Attitude? How do I get it back? So make sure you write down the combination to your lock box in a safe place.

In the meantime, I will try to remember not to beat it completely out of you.


Your Mentor

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Detailed Response to Reviewer Comments

Dear Reviewers,

These comments are great. I'm glad to hear dissenting opinions re: the average postdoc experiences, and what other lab members witness or perceive as the way postdocs are treated.

1. All I can do here is write about my experience and the experience of the many (hundreds?) of postdocs I've met or heard from. Some of you will stick your heads in the sand and blame my mentors, but mine are not the only ones who have treated postdocs in ways many of you consider unacceptable, nor will they be the last.

2. I strongly disagree that postdocs should be given defined little chunks of someone else's R01 to work on. And someone said their PI doesn't give them time to sit around and read and think??? That's unconscionable. What are we doing here, if we don't have permission to THINK?

I think that grad students and postdocs should be given a general direction to head in, and as far as I'm concerned, they shouldn't even have to continue that way if they find something off the beaten path that looks interesting and useful.

We could talk at length about why this is a problem with the funding system, but we'll leave that for a future post.

You blindfold them, spin them around, and send them into the forest with a pen-knife. The ones that make it out the other side get a degree or a job. This may not be the best way, but it's how I think most of the best scientists got where they are now, and it describes my experience thus far pretty accurately.

I think it's terrible to claim we want independent scientists and then hand them pre-baked projects. We already have too many scientists who have no original ideas, that's part of why everyone is so competitive and always stealing from each other. A friend told me recently she went to a meeting where no less than four talks from four different labs were addressing the same question. If the majority of scientists were truly creative, original thinkers, everyone would be working on their own thing, their own way, and there would be no reason for anyone to ever worry about being scooped.

That's my fantasy, anyway.

3. In response to the person who suggested it, I do think 1-2 years to identify good questions is reasonable for switching fields, but not longer than that.

And I think mentors usually DO try to keep postdocs and grad students on the Usual Path- which I don't think is always a good thing. Otherwise how do we ever branch out into new areas, ask new questions? It seems to me that most science these days is "me too" science. To mix metaphors, of course it's easier to do a variation on a theme than to go hacking into the jungle. But what are we here for? Are we pioneers or aren't we?

I would rather be a pioneer.

I would also always choose someone young and fresh over someone old and established, but that's assuming they have similar management skills, which is very unusual. I think the main difference between young and old labs is that younger people tend to be extreme, whether they mean to or not: either completely hands-off, or expect everyone to do everything their way. Older labs are somewhere in the middle, where they've figured out which things can be flexible, and have established protocols for things that can't.

It's the really horrible lab that has been established for years and has never established a collection of lab protocols. But those labs still exist, too.

Perhaps the decrease in funding will weed some of those labs out.

4. MANY PIs have postdocs write grants and review papers, whether other PIs and postdocs realize that or not. NIH especially seems completely oblivious to the fact. I find it especially funny that postdocs are not allowed to write R01s officially, since many of us have already written R01s and had them funded- for our PIs!

You might think your lab is different. But consider this:if you don't know for sure, it's quite possible that your PI's current R01 may have been written, in small or large part, by a former postdoc or grad student.

Your next paper may be reviewed by a grad student or postdoc in your competitor's lab. Your last paper probably was.

This is just the reality of things nowadays. Nobody checks up on these things, and unless people "out" their PIs for unethically delegating their work, nobody will know how widespread these practices really are. It's quite common at all the schools where I've worked, and from asking around, I know this is not unique to my experience.

5. "No one in my current lab writes grants after their fellowships run out (if they got them). The PI thinks that it just distracts you from getting research done and [getting] papers out. The PI (an older white guy) has had very good luck getting his people hired, so everyone leaves eventually to something good or good enough. Our postdocs just stick around on the lab R01 until they can find a job. I have a feeling that most of the PIS of the high-end labs have sufficient funding to make sure the people don't write a grant until after they get their own lab. "

Congratulations. You're in one of the few, privileged labs run by older white guys. Your PI is probably very famous.

Most of us are not in your situation, and we can't all be- there simply isn't enough space & money to go around, and not all PIs are as good as yours sounds.

Even labs that used to run that way can't sustain that kind of situation anymore, because their R01s aren't getting renewed every cycle, even when they get high scores in review. And most labs that used to run that way have no plan for what to do now that they can't sustain their usual privileged lifestyle.

That said, I think that's terrible training. The postdocs coming out of your lab are exactly the sort who are going to struggle with writing their first grants and having to figure out how to subsist on a budget, because they haven't had any experience relevant to knowing how to do it. What kind of training is that?

6. To the very observant technician, yes I've seen PIs who regularly blow a fuse at poorly trained students and postdocs who present poorly controlled data at every lab meeting. Shouldn't they? Of course there are good and bad ways to do it.

This is probably why these postdocs are hesitant to offer suggestions to the boss regarding their projects, because he sounds like the type who wants everything done his way and expects everyone to read his mind, and is probably verbally abusive to boot.

You have to ask yourself, if he's such a 'big man' in his field, then why is he hiring so many poorly trained postdocs? Can't he figure out how to hire good people? Or does no one good want to apply there, because they've all heard he's a royal jerk?

Perhaps this isn't such a good lab.

7. Re: the person who complains bitterly about the older white guys thing.

It's a generalization. Obviously there are fabulously nice, liberated, genuinely mentoring, older white guys out there. I've met some.

But the fact is even the good ones got where they are now without facing many of the problems that their female peers faced, not to mention what racial minorities or people with physical handicaps or cultural/language barriers have to put up with on a daily basis.

Add to that the fact that, historically, the only people who could afford to do science were those who came from rich families. Here you have a rather spoiled, homogeneous population who either choose to ignore, or are ignorant of the fact, that the playing field is not level. These guys may not be the majority, but they're certainly the most powerful minority, and they're still around.

So to sum up, not all older white guys are the extreme stereotype I mean when I use that term. But there are lots of advantages to physically resembling the group of people who are currently in power.

When they walk a mile in my bra, they -and you- might have a better idea what I'm talking about here. I will never be able to walk even one step in their very privileged shoes.

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