Friday, December 29, 2006

Top ten reasons why I like my kitchen better than my advisor's lab

1. I decide what equipment there is.

2. The equipment is always available.

3. I can go almost any time of the year, with my own money, and get any supplies or additional equipment I want or need.

4. There is a dishwasher.

5. I don't have to repeat experiments. Whether they worked or not. Unless I feel like it. And even then, only when I feel like it, and not because they didn't turn out looking pretty enough.

6. I decide who is there with me.

7. If there is something I want to do that I've never done before, there are probably instructions somewhere on the internet.

8. It is not a competition.

9. If I bring my experiments to other places for people to evaluate, nobody asks, "Whose kitchen did you make this in?" before they decide whether or not they like what I've done.

10. I can cook if I feel like it, and if I don't feel like it, that's okay. We can always eat out.

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Yesterday was better. Today: self-tests.

Yesterday I took myself shopping and got some books, and some new clothes.

On the bright side, I'm feeling skinny, so shopping was actually kind of fun.

I had dinner with a friend and it felt good to just chill out. I really do think I need a long vacation, but I can't afford to take off as much time as I would need to really feel refreshed and rejuvenated- a month or more. Taking short breaks tends to add to my stress, rather than reduce it, so then I never take any time off.

But yesterday was good.
Mental note: Must remember to chill out once in a while.

Anyway I'm laughing because one of the books I bought is one of those "Get Your Career On Track" kind of workbook things full of questionnaires.

This morning I filled out one about Procrastinating.

What I found most amusing was that I could have answered the whole survey if they had just asked the right question:

Are you procrastinating right now by doing this instead of work?


Needless to say, the book also extols the values of thinking positive (duh), but much to my shock and horror, in so many words actually tells you to repress your stress.


I was really surprised by that. I didn't think anyone thought being repressed, or deliberately repressing emotions rather than dealing with them, was a good prescription for success.

I think my main problem with repression is that I suck at it. Like right now, I should repress or other absolve myself from feeling guilty about not working every minute of every day this week, and give myself permission- nay, the assignment to chill out this weekend and try to gather my energy for 2007.

But the guilt always wins.
The fear of regretting that I didn't make better use of my time.
If only I knew what was the best use of my time right now.
I don't.

Blogging helps keep me from a total paralysis based on sheer negativity, and thanks to those who sent supportive comments.

But lately I've been blogging a lot, and probably shouldn't depend on it so much as my main hobby. My other non-science activities have been neglected, which is probably worse for my personal growth & happiness & all that crap. Problem is, blogging for me is an easy outlet, and requires less activation energy than the other things I used to enjoy.

Is blogging bad for me? Should I make it a New Year's Resolution to do it less often?

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Am I alone? I think holidays suck.

Holidays suck.

There. I said it.

I'm bored. And depressed. My family is giving me guilt trips.

What else is new.

I have very few people to share this with, since most people around me, and even in blog-land, seem to be saying "Happy holidays! Cheers!" and that kind of crap.

I just want this week to be over, which is stupid because from what I can tell, January has the potential to be really, really bad.

Seriously, I'm looking at what's on my calendar, and it does not look good.

So I'm trying to figure out how to get out of this funk. I'm thinking about trying to get some errands done, pretend I'm a Real Person, with a Life, even if I'm not and don't particularly want to be.

I want to be in lab, doing fun experiments and having them work, but I don't have the stuff I need to do the experiments I'd like to try. The ones where I Want The Answer. The rest are things I should do, but they'll be tedious so I'm procrastinating. One thing nobody tells you about being a postdoc is that stuff that used to be fun for its own sake becomes tedious when you've done it hundreds or thousands of times.

The thought of what it would take, what I would need to do, to get what I need to do the interesting experiments just makes me want to stay in bed all day. Or give up altogether on this science thing. It just feels really pointless right now.

I've been over at AcademicSecret reading about how much it sucks to be a professor, and wondering what would I want to do that for? Is it really just more of the same?

And reading about how some fields have rumor mill blogs where people post the actual names of people who were invited for interviews. This just blows my mind. As much for the way it's done as for realizing that I'm not sure which is worse: knowing or not knowing how it really works. Is denial better, even if you know on some level just how fucked up it is?

And reading ScienceProfessor's post about all the stuff she got done this year made me cry. Literally.

2006 sucked. I didn't get anything done that I wanted, and mostly didn't have any fun, either.

And I have no reason to believe 2007 will be any different.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Lifelong senility.

Lately, perhaps because of stress, my poor memory is getting worse than ever.

It's incredibly frustrating to go through my files, like I did today, and look at hundreds, maybe a thousand papers I've already read. And forgotten.

They've all got my handwritten notes on them, so I know I read them. But for many of them, even the titles don't look familiar.

Oddly, I recognize some of the names of the authors, even though I've never met them. But that's about it.

I'm trying to tell myself it has a silver lining, that I usually have new ideas when I re-read stuff. My perspective always changes so I notice different things. And even only reading something once makes some kind of impression and changes the way I think.


I have a book sitting at home that I keep meaning to read, on how to improve your memory. It has exercises and other tools that supposedly help.

I can't remember the name of the authors.

Anyway I made it through the first chapter, and it's a bit ridiculous.

Their first and apparently most versatile and fundamental tool is to imagine everything as huge, cartoonish, and yes, ridiculous, and then to link them together. I don't remember the name for the cartoony tool, but the second one is called Link. That I can recall.

So I tried this trick and it works, sort of, but only temporarily. For example, right now I can't remember the list of objects they promised we'd be able to remember forever if we used their foolproof methods.


Meanwhile, I have a giant stack of papers I need to re-read, on top of the ones I was planning to read for the first time.

Fuck, now I can't remember what I was going to say next. Oh yeah. I usually like to read several related papers at the same time, so I can make connections between them and compare them, etc. before I forget what I read. But a really big pile is kind of intimidating, even to yours truly (who loves to read, particularly when the weather is crappy and cold).

I haven't gotten to the chapter in the memory book (or whatever it's called) on how to remember everything you read. I have to admit I'm not too enthused about bothering.

But it only adds to my stress, this constant feeling like I'm doing something stupid and should know better because I've probably done this before and then forgot. You know that stomach-dropping-out feeling when you realize you locked yourself out of your house or your car? I get those a lot.

Needless to say, my biggest fear is that someone told me, at some point in time, EXACTLY how to get a faculty position, and I forgot what they said.

I'm kidding of course, but in theory it's possible.

Couple that with an almost constant sense of deja vu, and you have some idea how bad I am about this. I've either been reincarnated, A LOT, or I'm stuck in some kind of Groundhog Day loop.

So I have a pretty elaborate system of note-taking and calendars and reminders that mostly gets me through daily life, but sometimes I feel like the main character in Memento. I might wake up one day and find a maze of tattoos on my body telling me things I knew I would forget. Right now I know I have a list of things to get from the grocery store after work. I just have to remember where I put it.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Faith and civilized disagreements.

It's strange to wake up and watch Tim Russert talk about religion on Meet the Press. Just weird.

All the talk about atheism got me thinking about my lack of faith.

My lack of faith is based on personal experience. When I think about it, it's something I know deep down, but it's easy to see where it comes from. So we'll start at once upon a time.

Upon arriving at high school, I began an after-school activity that shall remain nameless.

I worked my way up, got a letter jacket and pins and eventually some responsibility (leading practice, that sort of thing) and a little recognition (won some stuff), because I was very good at that after-school activity.

But the seniors got all the glory. So I couldn't wait to be a senior and get my chance to really compete, not just for the fun of it but just to see if I could. To get more recognition, maybe make my parents see that I was good and that all the hours I was at (activity school activity) weren't a complete waste of time.

When I was a senior and it it was finally my turn, I got screwed.

Our faculty sponsor said that since my parents wanted me to go to a certain kind of college and would not let me be a professional (after school activity), her time was better spent promoting my peers, who had a shot at making it big.

So halfway through my senior year, I quit. And in a lot of ways, it was good for me to quit, since it was the only time I really hung out with people my own age instead of going to my after school activity practice. For example, I was surprised to learn how much sex everyone was having. That sort of thing. It was like having a paper bag taken off my head and suddenly I could see what everyone else had been doing after school!

My father yelled at me about quitting. I was surprised by the violence of his reaction, since my father is generally a very quiet dude. In contrast, my mother was relieved. She thought I'd have more time to spend on homework and therefore be more of an Outstanding Student (note to mom who isn't reading this: there was no way studying more would have gotten me straight A's).

Fast forward to college, where I got some responsibility and recognition, not because I was The Most Outstanding Student (I never did have straight A's), but probably because, by sheer dumb luck, I was politically positioned.

By sheer dumb luck, I worked for the Right Person during the summers, and this got me some attention where nothing else would have. (Right Person, it should be mentioned, isn't connected enough outside my college to have been useful to me after that, so any benefit from that one good dumb-luck choice was short-lived.)

In grad school, I made the mistake of following my scientific interests, which meant I worked for the Wrong People. Since I was never an Outstanding Student, and didn't have a named fellowship or any other accolades, I had nothing going for me.

I did the same thing as a postdoc, not for lack of trying to find the right person who might share my scientific interests and help me be outstanding and get a named fellowship.

Despite all this, my work is pretty outstanding. But because of the way the politics get mixed up with the work part of the work, it's hard for anyone to see that. They think they shouldn't have any faith in my work because it isn't backed by enough of the Right People.

Maybe I've said some of this before. I probably have, but I'll say it again:

The problem with politics in science is that it's our equivalent of the Church.

The benefit of organized religion is that it saves you from reinventing the wheel. It's great for lazy people because it's basically a protocol for getting to happiness/heaven (depending on which religion you follow). If everyone had to find their own way... the world would be a very difference place.

It's the same thing in science. Most people are followers, and despite our claims to be pioneers, most scientists don't want to always be inventing new wheels.

There's too many confusing things out there, and it's only getting more confusing day by day. So instead of taking the trouble to decide for ourselves, we want a filter.

We should have a filter to look at the science, but instead we have filters for the people doing it.

So instead of the following:

1. Is it a good question?
2. Is it the right approach?
3. Did they find anything interesting?
4. Did they follow up on what they found?
5. Am I convinced by the evidence?

The criteria applied are:

1. Who is senior author?
2. Have I heard of them?
3. What school are they from?

The guys on Meet the Press this morning also talked about civility and how it's so important to work with people. I loved the way the one guy said that there is not even one person on earth who will agree with you on everything.

And while I violently disagree with much of what that guy believes in, I agree with him on that. Amazing!

So my other bone to pick today is how scientists have of late agreed to agree on everything. The only time it's safe to disagree is when you're the first person to put your flag down on new territory.

Case in point: Finding something new is so highly prized, people rush to have it even if it turns out later to be wrong. This whole business about the retraction of several papers based on a flawed crystal structure is sad, but not for the reason you might think. Okay, so these guys were wrong, sloppy, whatever you want to call it (I'd put a link but my internet proxy isn't working right now). That's bad and we can huff and puff over the flaws in the peer review system (oh my GOD how did they miss that??) but we've done that elsewhere before and I'm sure we'll do it again.

No, this is sad because nobody else was allowed to publish anything that conflicted with the existing crystal structure. Nobody. And if you read the article in Science, there's maybe 1 sentence devoted (better than none?) to all the people whose grants and papers got rejected because they conflicted with the published data. How many young scientists quit over this one example? How many labs shut down? How far does the impact spread? That would make for a very interesting study.

So I have to ask, when did we agree to always agree? I don't remember signing anything where I promised never to get any results that conflict with what's already been found.

What happened to publishing the data, whatever they are, and arguing about the interpretation afterwards?

This is the single most depressing thing to me about where science is going. I can't tell if it's just because of politics or if it would have happened regardless.

Maybe it's the filter again: it's simpler to cross things off the list as 'solved' than to admit that everything is still an open question.

But that is one area where I agree with Tim Russert's religious guests. Working together with civility, and agreeing to disagree some of the time, is far preferable to suppressing new evidence in favor of pretending we already know it all.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Speaker/audience fencing match: victory for MsPhD.

First, an aside to a commenter:

I read lots of blogs where people write about their friends and co-workers using made-up names. Profgrrrl does this all the time. I guess the fact that someone wrote in to complain about me doing this says something about the readership of this blog vs. others that are more personal-journal in style.

Anyway, the topic for today is a combination of personal and professional, like most of what I write about here.

Wait, another random aside:

Anyone else being tortured by all the holiday goodies? Right now I hear cookies calling my name...

Okay I'm really starting now. I swear.

A few years ago I gave a talk and there were a couple of people in the audience who were really trying to skewer me. And I was totally unprepared for anyone to do that, because at the time I hadn't given a talk in a while.

Because I was totally unprepared for this kind of hostile reception, I got defensive and upset and generally didn't take it as an opportunity to show off how much I know, because I was too flustered.

But I was prepared this time.

And it went SO much better.

In fact, since then I've had the opportunity to observe these people, and I have learned a few things:

1- They treat EVERYONE this way, not just me.

2- They are frequently wrong. And since they're so opinionated and so stubborn, they often dig themselves in pretty deep. So then we're not talking about slightly wrong, because by the time they're done elaborating, they are very wrong.

3- They actually know less than I do, but they try to sound like they already know more than anyone ever could.

So when the 'questions' (this is a euphemism) came from that corner of the room, I was prepared.

I was SO prepared.

I took the questions very seriously. I took a deep breath. I fixed this person with a quizzical look, and.... asked a few questions about the 'question'.

I'll call it Return Questioning (cross-examining might be too confusing). So here's the line of return questioning that works the best with these people, perhaps because they tend to be somewhat book-smart but not very practical:

"If your alternative explanation is correct, how would we test that? How much would it cost? How long would it take?"

In one case, as often happens with this type of person, it would require a risky and technically very complicated approach, not to mention an inhuman amount of work and money, all to test a far-fetched, dead-end hypothesis.

And everybody knew it.

AHA! Skewered you right back, didn't I?

So I hope I will remember this lesson, or at least remember to review this post. You never know who will be in the audience, but you have to assume somebody will always ask you something that you haven't thought of.

And of course you haven't thought of it, because it makes no sense!

The key is to


b) Give yourself time to think

c) Ask them clarifying questions to stall and/or reveal the inconsistencies in what they're asking.

And with that, I am going to give myself (and my cookie) a tiny pat on the back. Mmm, cookie.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Use your anger.

Inspiration comes in strange packages sometimes.

All this week I've been frustrated, depressed, and generally feeling pretty hopeless. Things at work are going slowly, and I have been away from the bench doing what feels like thankless, unproductive paper pushing and networking that may lead to just a lot of loose ends.

But my boyfriend has been my unfailing support, who will take me out for a beer and a steak sandwich and venting when I really need it.

And last night I got inspired from a strange source.

I have this friend. We will call her Bizzy. Bizzy is a little bit older than I am, and not doing the traditional science route anymore.

And I always feel Bizzy is trying to push me to quit. She's almost evangelical about it.

Part of me wonders if I shouldn't get rid of people like this in my life. I have one friend who cuts off all ties to anyone she deems Too Negative. That's a bit extreme, I think, though I understand why she does it.

Part of me thinks, well if I can't hack it, at least I know that Bizzy will never judge me if I leave academia, she'll congratulate me!

But what annoys me sometimes is that Bizzy is not a great listener. Bizzy has never once asked me what I work on, and I have never been able to get her to listen to even the 30 second version of my One Big Idea, much less What Cool Research I'm Doing. I'm not sure I've ever gotten a full, uninterrupted 30 seconds of speech into one of our so-called 'conversations.'

I figure it's good practice to learn how to get people like this to listen, or at least hear the 3 second point I'm trying to get across. And in general, I like her. Better to practice on someone I generally like.

aside: (I have another friend, we'll call her Missy, whose lectures I'm finding harder and harder to take, since in addition to being a bad listener, she's incredibly insensitive and clueless.

Missy's latest news was bragging, and not in a cute way, about her boyfriend. Who is such an Amazing Postdoc and Gifted Scientist that we should all be impressed, or something, at what a catch he must be. Stupid bitch! What on earth makes her think we want to hear her assessment, based on not having any clue whatsoever, that he is somehow a better or more deserving scientist than, for example, yours truly or anyone else who was present when she was saying this?)


So Anyway. Yesterday when Bizzy asked how work was going, I said "I'm feeling frustrated." Just that. I couldn't have gotten more than that out before she picked up her usual lecture at the usual starting point.

As usual, she ran with it. Bizzy has plenty of suggestions for other things I could do and how much I would like these other things better than research.

I don't think she means to insinuate that I can't hack it, but my knee-jerk response is that she must think I'm an idiot. I know it's not personal: Bizzy thinks that anyone who would stay in academic research with no job security or faculty position in sight... is crazy.

Well I must be crazy, because it pissed me off. And that was just what I needed, at least yesterday. And it got me through today. It's stupid, but it works. I will definitely take anger any day over depression.

And then I laughed, because on a whim I looked up my horrorscope online, and it said I should be more ambitious right now.

Me? More ambitious? Really? I should?

So for now I am fueling on my favorite sustenance:

I'll show YOU (motherfuckers).

To quote our President, they just better not misunderestimate me.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Stem Cells as a Woman's Issue.

I have thus far stayed out of the fray, I think. But this morning I was reading an article- a very inaccurate article- about stem cells and it got me pretty pissed off.

For me, there are really two sticky issues.

First, it's an abortion rights issue. Yes, it is. Why (you ask and scratch your head, puzzled)?

Here's the logic used by the Bush administration:

sperm + egg = person. Immediately. Do not pass go, do not develop into an embryo and then incubate IN A WOMAN. Do not admit that we don't have any other way, to date, of growing people.

So they are refusing to allow researchers to 'destroy embryos' by studying what some states (like the one I was reading about this morning) consider 'fetuses' from the moment of conception.

The WOMAN never enters into the equation.

Nevermind the reality that, without women both willing and able to be implanted with someone else's embryo, the embryos are worthless, anyway.

Have I said this before? I say it again.

Second, it's a Your Body Is Your Own Business issue.

I have a friend who went through a really hellish set of infertility treatments before finally having children (not without complications). Having done that, she's so bitter she doesn't want to donate her leftover eggs or frozen embryos to research. I get that. Why help fertility doctors, or other doctors, or PhD doctors, if they're a bunch of jerks?

And she has a point. What scares me the most about embryonic stem cell research is the need for human eggs. From women, of course. And lots of 'em.

I've heard a little about the consent forms and issues with whether it's better or worse to pay women to donate for research, and so on. But the whole concept makes me squirm. Money aside, what we're really talking about are women's body parts.

This is not breast milk, which pregnant women mostly generate whether they want to or not, and may or may not use. This is something that requires lengthy, expensive and painful injections of hormones at doses with mostly unknown side-effects.

If we were talking about men donating not just sperm, but their actual testicles, would that ever be legal? Would men ever say about that, "hey if they want to, that's their business"?

I'm thinking probably not.

What do you think? Are we being asked to sign petitions for things we're not sure we agree with, or is it just me? Would legalizing stem cell research at the federal level actually lead to fewer women's reproductive and healthcare rights?

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Office chair psychology?

The last couple of weeks I've encountered a new incarnation of something I despised in grad school:

Administrative assistants who act like petulant moms babysitting someone else's children (postdocs and grad students).

I actually had to bite my tongue in one instance. This particular woman didn't want the burden of cleaning up after people she clearly deemed as completely immature. In this case, she was making the assumption that she'd have to scoop the poop of her irresponsible child's pet dog (in this case, arrange for speakers for a meeting that was supposed to be organized by a group of postdocs). Before the dates had even been set, she was leaping to the conclusion that the postdocs couldn't handle it (which wasn't true- this same group had done this successfully long before this woman was assigned to 'help').


In another case, I witnessed an admin who refused to forward a speaker schedule to the people attending a regular in-house seminar series. That one I really don't understand.

The version I experienced in grad school was much more extreme. We were routinely chastised for going out of town to do things like visiting our sick relatives ("vacations"). That one has some seriously bad karma coming to her.

Anyone got any
a) funny horror stories about this type of behavior
b) deeper explanations for why they're like this?
c) funny/helpful ways to deal with this type of person?


Sunday, December 17, 2006

This made me laugh.

from the irony mine.


Saturday, December 16, 2006


I have found a new pet peeve.

I hate scientists who hear about work second- or third-hand, and dismiss it without having seen it.

The ones I particularly hate are good at coming up with realistic-sounding technical arguments for why it must be wrong.

Without considering that, not having seen the work, they don't know which controls have been done and which haven't. It somehow never occurs to them that those issues might have already been addressed.

I also hate the ones who, when asking questions of any kind, always manage to make them sound like royalty addressing the lowest, slave. It's like they wear a neon sign that says, My IQ is bigger than yours!

When, from the content of their questions, it clearly isn't.

Oddly, I don't know any women who do this. This isn't to say they don't exist. But even the women I know who ask withering, incisive questions don't do it in this type of condescending tone.

In fact, I never met anyone who did this until relatively recently, and the two I'm thinking of right now are a grad student and an unrelated young PI.

I wish I knew a fitting way to get back at them for things they've said to my friends or about my friends' work. It just infuriates me that they would be so arrogant, and that they don't realize that unless you've done similar experiments yourself, you probably don't know what you're talking about.


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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Advisor horror stories, continued.

Someone who wrote before writes again, this time elaborating on her horrific situation. I edited this comment only for typographical errors to make it more readable.

You're completely right. The key is to stay positive and sometimes things do happen for a reason...which may never be apparent until much down the road. (At least that's what I hope). I wrote to you a few weeks back about e-advice for my qualifying exam. The good news is that I submitted the written portion. The oral exam is coming up in 10 days. My advisor has been giving me a hard time about the days I have taken off to prepare.

She's giving me shit when I have 10 days left for the oral exam. Most other students have gotten between 4-12 weeks to prepare and study! I got exactly 15 days off for the written which is pretty scary since I have never written a grant before and my undergrad degree is in psychology.

Anyways what's sad is that my prof tries to run her lab like a company and she feels we are all her employees. She is constantly threatening me about taking these days out of my vacation time and about even not paying me. As a graduate sstudent I FEEL that she is being very unreasonable. When I try to reason with her and give her examples of more senior profs and their students her response is always I don't care.

It's sad because I am her first student ever. Is it legal for her to be doing this? Moreover she has been giving my experiments to other students to do while I am not in th lab and wants me to redo those experiments. I don't think this is ethical..and I also have my doubts about it being legal. I know in companies they have employees do the same experiments to see who gets the better results etc..but in a graduate school is this allowed?
I appreciate all your help. Thanks a lot.

Aside to the audience:

Ack! Can you believe this is actually going on in universities???

To the author:

Since when do graduate students have any vacation time?? That sounds like an empty threat to me.

But I don't know that there are any laws against her threatening you or even punishing you. The graduate program probably does not mandate that students be given any time off lab work to prepare for exams, nor does it mandate in any way that PIs be nice to their students.

In terms of how professors are supposed to mentor/advise/train students in your program, that is something you would have to look up in your university bylaws, graduate student handbook, etc.

You should see if there is an ombudsperson or other mediator service at your school.

Your attitude, however, could use some adjusting. Complaining that she's 'giving you shit' is not a very mature or diplomatic way to look at it.

I understand that it may be inpossible to have a reasoned, adult conversation with her about your obligations to her, to the program, and to your own career, but I'd strongly encourage you to try to do that if you haven't already. Since you are her first student, she may not realize that her behavior is only going to lead to you no longer being in her lab, if you fail your exams or if she's so unbearable that you leave or quit.

Does she realize that if you fail out, you'll either be gone and then she really won't be able to get you to do her experiments, or you'll need even more time to study the second time around? While most schools do give you a second chance, most don't give you a third.

And don't even get me started on what a crappy lab that must be for students. What kind of training is that, giving your experiments to someone else to do when you're gone for only a week or two?? Are your samples time-sensitive??

She doesn't sound like the kind of PI who is actually equipped to handle a university environment. Universities are slow. It's one of the things I don't love about them, but I've come to understand better why they are that way, so it doesn't bother me so much anymore and I know how long things take, so I can plan accordingly. Is she coming from industry or from years of maternity leave or something? Is she really young?

Sounds to me like a young, first-time grad student and a young, first-time PI are not a good match. It's the blindly ambitious leading the blindly terrified.

My advice:

If you can't talk sense into her, get out of that lab, and do it as soon as you possibly can. Ideally you need to pass your exams first, but then you should find out what you'd need to do to switch labs.

Good luck.

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A conversation with an anonymous commenter

Anonymous said...

Wait, science actually works like this? I've been through this end of the job search process twice now, once when I was looking for a faculty position, and once when my spouse was. I don't think that other than criteria 1, we had anything going in my favour. Yet here we are, both with faculty positions in great departments.

What's a great department? I'm not being sarcastic. What should we look for? And is your university generally good, or is it someplace we might not have heard of but that's great for your field?

My impressions

1) Get that high impact paper (easier said than done!)
2) Make sure it is in the right field at the right time

First of all, I still think it's very hard to get a high impact paper if you work for/with people that no one at the high impact journals already knows. I think there's a lot of bias in that system, which prevents us nobodies from getting past that step (see other posts on related topics).

And to that end, am I supposed to switch fields? How does one guess the right time a year or more in advance, in order to set up the experiments?

I worry that I've already had my once-in-a-lifetime chance at working on something just before it got big, and in that case my advisor blocked me from even trying to publish in a high enough impact journal (this was a while ago). My current advisor isn't like that, but the other part of the equation (the great idea, at the right time) has to be there, too.

The rest I don't think actually matters. I had never met a single person in my current department before and what I do is so alien that I am still shocked that they hired anyone doing this kind of work. Ergo, right place, right time.

That's actually really heartening. Did you apply to an advertised slot? How was it advertised? Did you call the department first or just mail your package? How many applications did they get? Do you think your cover letter mattered, or was it just the high impact paper? HOW DID YOU GET THEM TO INVITE YOU FOR AN INTERVIEW?

In fact, while some of my colleagues who were hired at the same time worked for famous people, the only common thing that links all of them is the quality of their work (criteria 1).

My point is partly that there are a LOT more quality workers out there than can get hired.

So which ones get hired, of the ones who don't get screwed out of their jobs by bullshit politics where some well-connected moron gets the job?

Answer: The well-connected quality workers, who have high impact papers BECAUSE they're well-connected.

Networking, alchohol or any such quality played no role in their hiring.

a) Are you sure? It took some digging to find out the real, indirect, and very powerful connections people at my university used/took deliberate or inadvertent advantage of to get their current faculty positions.

b) I don't know a SINGLE person who didn't get their job through a connection, +/- alcohol.

I know a LOT of people who think/tell themselves/pretend it was not because of their connections.

That's the weird thing about being connected- you can't get rid of it, so even if you don't exploit it yourself, it still helps you. Unless you change your name, everyone will know who matters will already know who you are or associate you with something that triggers a 'good' signal in their brains.

The difference is, if you don't have the good connections, or if you have the misfortune to be associated (or mis-associated) with not-so-good connections, there's not much you can do about that either, and it works silently against you in the background.

But my impressions are based on a small sample, so take it for what it is worth. Don't lose hope!

Thanks. I'll try.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Money matters, Nerdiness is never good, Alcoholics excel in academia, and networking de novo never happens

These are the new rules.

Allow me to elaborate (or stop reading, up to you).

1. Money matters.

In order to get a faculty position, you will need several High Impact Papers.
In order to get High Impact Papers, you will need the following:

In vitro studies (purified proteins)
In vivo studies (cell culture model or something equivalent)
Structural studies (crystal structure, mass spec)
Dynamic studies (something with movies)
A screen, preferably RNAi
Microarray data of some kind
A specific drug that inhibits your pathway and can cure the nearest relevant human disease
An irrelevant animal model (not a mammal)
A mouse model
Patient samples

In order to have all of these things, you need a lab with either a ton of money, or a ton of rich, famous collaborators (preferably both).

I realized today, much to my horror, that I can't remember the last time I knew of someone who got a good faculty position at a Research 1 university for doing solid, low-budget but elegant work in a lab that didn't have a lot of money for direct costs.

I'm so screwed.

2. Nerdiness is never good.

I'm a well-rounded geek. I do lots of things besides science, and while I strive to be social, I suck at being phony and I hate schmoozing.

I've finally decided that ultimately it's just like in elementary school. Despite my hopes that science would be different, nerds are still excluded. You have to be Sufficiently Cool to hang with the Cool Kids, and I'm not.

For example, in my field, many of the Cool Kids and their advisors congregate at a couple of summer programs. Since neither my advisor nor I have ever attended this summer program, I'm simply not in the same job pool as they are.

2. Alcoholics excel in academia.

I don't particularly like drinking to get drunk. That's not to say I never do it, but I don't like being hung over. To me, feeling that awful is a message that I'm ingesting something poisonous and shouldn't do it (thank you, mother nature).

However. I'm coming to the inevitable conclusion, from looking around at the faculty and the postdocs who are getting jobs, and they all LOVE to drink. To excess or near that point.

Someone actually told me that to get a job, I should buy a bottle of expensive liquor, target the chair of a search committee or department chair, and spend the evening getting them drunk.

I think in this scenario I'd have to be able to drink them under the table for this to work, otherwise I'd be passed out and they would take my expensive bottle and leave. However, since this method has apparently worked in the past, while applying to ads alone does not work, it seems safe to say that the whole "apply to ads you see in ScienceCareers and Nature magazine" is not a good protocol.

3. Networking de novo never happens.

So I'm trying hard to meet people at conferences and get them excited about my work. But I ran into yet another friend today who is slated to begin a faculty position next year, and he said the same thing everyone else says: your advisor has to know someone on the search committee.

So here's the mechanism:

Head of search committee calls your advisor or runs into them at a meeting.
If you're there, your advisor introduces you and tells them a little about your exciting work and how wonderful it has been having you in the lab, but that you're clearly ready for the next step.

Alternatively, if you're not there, your advisor tells them you (and not some other guy in your lab) are better than sliced bread.

Assuming you get to this step, it's a foregone conclusion:

Your advisor tells you to apply.
You apply.
Head of search committee tells the committee you're getting the job.
You interview, along with three other poor schmucks who aren't getting the job.
You get the job.
(Bully for you.)

Here's what does not work:

You introduce yourself to strangers at cocktail parties where no one is wearing a nametag.
They haven't heard of your advisor, but they nod politely.
They try to look you up in pubmed and spell your name wrong, and find 2 papers instead of 12.
When your faculty application shows up, they have no idea that they ever met you.

Thus, I am forced to conclude that useful networking at the postdoc level requires a nucleation event, namely an aggregation of your advisor and several department chairs/search committee heads, in the presence of vast amounts of alcohol.

Copyright YFS Current Protocols.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Staying Positive.

This week I heard from seven female friends who are all in various stages of their careers, and none of them are happy.

One is most of the way through grad school, and already knows she doesn't want to stay in academia. To her credit, she's starting to look into what kinds of careers might make her happy.

One is about to graduate, and in addition to her fears about finishing (the same fears everyone has), she has no first-author papers and no job prospects. She wants to find a postdoc position, preferably locally since she has a family, and continue to work on something related to her thesis work.

One just graduated, and despite her fears about finishing, has no first-author papers and no job prospects. She's not sure she wants to stay in science at all. She's too depressed to function.

One graduated recently, has no first-author papers and although she has been on several interviews, both academic and industry, has no firm job offers yet for postdocs or positions. She knows what she wants to work on and where she wants to live, but she may have to give one or both of those up in order to stay in academia. The denial is starting to wear off, and she's starting to get really worried.

One did two years of postdoc and has now decided to quit. When asked, why quit now? She said I don't think I can... I mean, I don't think I want to... have my own lab.

This phrase, "I don't think I can" is something I hear all the time from women, but not so often from men.

That's not to say the men don't feel the same way. But more often what I hear from men who leave academia is that they think the system sucks, not that they wouldn't be good enough, if they wanted to be a professor.

One has her own lab, but hasn't enjoyed it at all. She misses the bench (sound familiar? I've heard this from young PIs before). And for complicated political reasons, she feels certain that she can't continue to have her own lab. She's already starting to look for an industry position, and is willing to move to a foreign country, if that's what it takes, to find something enjoyable to do in science.

One is a tenured senior professor who is losing funding and talking seriously about shutting her lab down. She has a few more months to publish some papers and apply for more grants, but it's crunch time now and she's struggling to deal with the pressure, and her anger.

I'm trying hard to stay positive, for myself and for them, but it's hard.

I don't have it in me to tell the grad students with no papers that it's all going to be okay. They all have papers in the pipeline, but as we all know, once you've left the lab, or your advisor's grant gets triaged, it just gets harder and harder to publish old stuff. Even if those papers eventually come out, I can't tell them that it's going to get easier.

It doesn't.

I had a miserable time in grad school. Although I've had one good year here and there as a postdoc, and the bad things are different bad things, many of the bad things are the same old story. But I was one of those people who thought getting my degree would change everything.

News flash: a PhD degree by itself doesn't have magical powers.

To the friend who decided to quit now, I can only give respect. If I had known years ago what I know now about my chances of getting the kind of job I want, any sane person would have quit!

She's getting out before she's completely depressed and demoralized. She knows she's more than the sum of her scientific skills, and she knows no one is going to appreciate that if she stays where she is.

But the "I don't think I can" thing makes me sad. I don't know enough about her project or her expertise to make any objective assessments about whether she could, if she wanted to, have her own lab.

But if you don't want it, you're definitely not going to get it. That much I know.

My friend who misses the bench, makes me sad but also angry. I watch these young PIs who squander their big chance, and I know I would do things differently. I also know I would love most of the things they say they hate, and that these things would be easier for me because I've had such an "unconventional" experience.

I'm sad because she's one of my role models, and to see her not only say that it wasn't fun, but that she's quitting, is really hard for me.

And part of me says, Move over sister, soon it will be my turn!

I hate that I feel that way, but some tiny competitive voice deep down says, "I'm fine with these people leaving, because the more people that leave, the more room there will be for me."

It's terrible, but it's true.

So I am trying to stay positive. The silver lining is that everyone will, we hope anyway, find something we're happy doing, eventually. I don't believe in a master plan. I don't think any of the crap I've been through was "meant to be."

But I do think there is something in the saying about how you don't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

There's some small comfort in admitting that, on a long enough time scale, every crappy thing that has happened to me eventually gave me some insight or skill that actually came in handy.

So to my friends who are suffering right now, I wish I could magically create enough great jobs and funding for everyone. But since I can't, I hope we all find something to do that is fun, that we love.

And I still hope my something is having my own lab, even if your something happens to be something else.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

If students cheat this often, do scientists do it too?

from this site, which I found randomly here,

Here is a quote that should chill you to your bones:

In the US a study of 50,000 undergraduates from 60 campuses, conducted last year by the Centre for Academic Integrity at Duke University, found 40 per cent admitted to cut-and-paste internet plagiarism; 77 per cent believed such cheating was not a very serious issue."

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Does your lab e-share?

I'd put a fancy poll on here, but I'm too lazy.

I have this pet peeve about people who read email, but don't respond, and then later mention the subject of the original email to you in person (sometimes months later).

What is up with that?

I've worked with some people who always respond to email, immediately, and some people who never respond.

Is this a lab culture thing? Does it all depend on whether the PI uses and requires everyone else to use email a lot, or is it just a personal choice that can't be influenced by culture?

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How old school are you?

I had one of those Mondays where the usual high-tech solutions kept breaking. For example, the lovely $300 bag-sealer I use for western blots stopped sealing. Heating element died, or some such.

I hunted around for a while to find something the right shape and size so I could still get away with using less antibody...

Stupid problem to have, but antibody is expensive!

And don't even get me started on the computers. Tell me why it's easier to take pictures on a digital camera, then transfer them to a computer, then print them out, then walk to the printer?
HOW is that easier than just using film and then walking away, film in hand, all finished in one step??

I'm one of those people, I'll run columns with gravity on the benchtop, because I don't have one of those fancy-schmancy FPLC machines. Takes longer, sure.

If postdoc time is 'free', tell that to my gray hair.

Even when I run a multiplex PCR, I still pipette them one at a time, by hand. One of these days I swear I'll get an undergrad to use a multipipettor and do them in octuplicate, or whatever... but not yet.

How old school are you? I'm looking for ridiculous but kick-ass, and preferably ghetto solutions to everyday lab problems.

Do you boil your protein samples with a bunsen burner and a marshmallow fork?
Do you seal your agarose gel trays with lab tape?
Do you clamp your glass plates with big rusty binder clips? Are they caked with years of buffer drippings? Hmmm? Are they????

And please, no mouth-pipetting stories. That's just gross.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

I am Spider-super-man-girl

Your results:
You are Spider-Man

Wonder Woman
Green Lantern
The Flash
Iron Man
You are intelligent, witty,
a bit geeky and have great
power and responsibility.

Click here to take the "Which Superhero are you?" quiz...


Haunting wide-open spaces.

I like being a ghost. I've been in lab a lot this weekend, when no one else was here.

I'm trying to save up on quiet, no-people time. I've got a lot of seasonal socializing and meetings coming up when I know I won't have a single moment alone.

I'm dreading it.

I have so much work I would rather be doing. Even the schmoozing- which usually comes with free food & booze, and technically counts towards work, right?- seems hugely onerous.

My only regrets for the moment:

1- Not getting enough sunshine.
I notice this particularly in the winter.

2- Not getting more done earlier in the year.
I have several deadlines coming up.

My natural tendency is to give up before I've even started. I do this especially if I feel like something is at all optional and I won't have time to do it well without being tremendously stressed out.

3- I worked this weekend on something that appears to have been a waste of time. Argh.
I try to rationalize this by saying well, it still would have been a waste in the middle of the week, and then I would be several days behind where I am now, but it's small consolation.

4- Not being able to blog the most interesting things at work.

Being a ghost is an enviable position. Lately I find myself daydreaming about all the stuff I'll do if my funding runs out:

Crazy, risky science that has nothing to do with what I work on now. Will I contact strangers and ask to haunt their labs for free just to do experiments?

Learning various languages- romance and computer languages.

Blogging about all sorts of things without having to worry that it could potentially jeopardize My Future Career.

I keep looking at the space on the calendar when my grant ends. And the space between now and the grant deadline I'm still debating about.

Even though the grant deadline is looming, and for the moment I'm still thinking I might not even try to make it, the space and time after I'm out of money is much, much bigger.

When it's just space and time, it has so much potential. When it's far off in the future, I still have potential. There's still a chance I'll get a job (okay, fat chance) or more funding between now and then.

I went through this planning-ahead panic attack already last year. This year I promised myself I would face the fear, admit what I want- a job- and that the only way to get there is to not give up. I know panicking leads to depression... which just wastes a lot of time. Too bad I couldn't save up the time and space last year when I couldn't do anything but wait, and use it now, when I have so much to do and really need it.

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