Thursday, January 04, 2007

I feel like I'm gonna rain.

The weather is crappy.
I got no voicemail.
I got no email.
I'm feeling more isolated than ever, which is stupid because everyone is back from vacation and it's a virtual hullaballoo of hustle and bustle on campus.
But I'm doing all I can not to curl up in a ball under my desk.

Have generally felt lately like I've gotten nothing but criticism from above, while junior people gush about how much I know. I tell them it doesn't matter what I know if I don't know what I need to know (how to get a job I like instead of being stuck here).

Had a weird flash today that if somebody told me today that I wouldn't make it and they were firing me or stopping my funding, I could easily picture myself walking out, crying, and that would be the end of it.

But so far it didn't happen, so I had to think about why I feel like the axe is poised just above my head, all the time (aside from the obvious that my funding is finite and will run out before I get a job, and I don't know whether there's really a safety net to get me from here to there).

But here's what I came up with. My whole life, people have always said I had lots of potential and that's why they're so tough on me, tougher than they are on anyone else.

It seems unfair, somehow, to assume that their being tough on me always makes me stronger. It doesn't. Sure, we try to have a thick skin. But at some point, it plateaus and it's just negative.

It really just makes me wonder why, as our previous post discussed, we put up with people who are never nice, never encouraging, never consider that maybe they aren't always doing me a favor by pointing out everything from my biggest problems to my tiniest flaws.

And I have to wonder why, how they're so clueless as to not notice they're being nasty. Or if they assume that, because I don't always burst into tears when they say things, that I'm tough enough or I don't notice.

I know that I already know way more and have done way more, under some really awful working conditions, than some of my peers who have had everything handed to them, (including a job). I think it would bother anyone who had eyes in their head to see how things are handed to some people while others feel like life is a giant game of keep-away (or a game of Charlie Brown football).

But I guess I'm not competitive enough or something, because I've gotten past the jealousy part and I just get depressed. I don't blame the people who get what they want (what I want). I know they work hard. Maybe they've had it easier, but I can't fault them for making better choices about who to work with, by luck or by wisdom. I don't blame them for not sharing their secrets, conscious or unconscious, for success. I am the competition after all. Just because I'd rather have an equal playing ground doesn't mean things will ever be fair.

No, I blame the community that goes along with a system that doesn't work. Nobody seems to even consider or care that I'm just one, lonely example of someone who thinks every single day about quitting, because it just feels so pointlessly unfair sometimes. And that we lose and are losing and will continue to lose lots of otherwise potentially great scientists because they realize how unfair it all is, and when they do the calculations to figure out if it's worth all the crap, they come to the conclusion that they don't want to put up with it.

It just makes me sad.

I'm also still trying to remember that they might not be downright nasty (points our previous reader raised) except that
a) they don't realize they are / don't mean to be and
b) they think I can take it.

Perhaps some well-timed meltdowns would help improve the way they treat me? I have some friends who are good at that, but my meltdowns are always at the wrong times, in the wrong places, to be useful. And I always feel like, while it works for some (usually the beautiful) women to show vulnerability, for me it just makes me look weak. If she can't handle this, they say, she'll never make it. Which is ridiculous, because I know for a fact they're harder on me than they are on my male peers. I've sat in the journal clubs and the presentations. I know they're harder on the women, and for no good reason whatsoever. I think that's part of why I'm feeling so flattened lately.

I get screwed either way. If I give a good talk, they say, If she's so great, why doesn't she have a job already? I must be missing something that's wrong with her. I'll ask all the tough questions I can come up with and see if I can't ferret it out.

But just writing this makes me feel a little better, which is weird when you think about it. I still don't really understand the psychology of needing to write, I just know that I always have. I guess it helps me organize my thoughts and figure out which ones are semi-rational, and which ones are not...

Some days I really feel like blogging is the only thing that is going 'well.' The only reason I feel that way, I realize, is because it's the only area where I do something semi-creative, and get feedback regularly. So, thanks for commenting here, and sending questions I feel like I can (sort of) answer. I guess I like that it's regular, and relatively finite, to write a post and get some comments back. Unlike everything else in my life.

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11 Comments:

At 11:53 AM, Blogger Jenny F. Scientist said...

D'you suppose melting down via anger would help? Yelling and/or rudeness might stave off the desire to burst into tears. (I say this because some of my labmates are mean little people and I find myself wanting to either bite them or cry.)

What you say about wanting to quit: I couldn't agree more. I'm one of the scientists who's decided it's not worth the nonsense. I want to quit every day too, and I don't even have a PhD.

Strengthening thoughts and hot toddies for you, I say.

 
At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Postdoctoral Experience

Ahh, so you’ve spent months and thousands of dollars and endless time completing your first postdoctoral project, an inhibitor screen. It’s now come down to this: you must demonstrate activity of a compound in mice. Sounds simple enough: implant cells subcutaneously, then divide mice into two groups: control, and drug. Dose and measure. Since you don’t know which drug will work, you need a lot of mice to cover multiple drug cohorts.

However, you have no idea which drug (if any) will work. Nor do you know the solubility, pharmacodynamics, or toxicity of each. And you have 20 mg of each cpd- too little to assess these values. And, even though you made every effort to implant the same number of cells, the tumors appear to grow at different rates before the cpd is even added.
The first set of randomly chosen doses kills several mice.

But wait, the fun has only just begun. You’re asked by the PI to give the department talk. And you have group mtg to prepare. And your PI asked you to mentor two students for 10 weeks over the summer. Your ACS grant has been politely rejected. And it will take more than 3 months to hear back from a mediocre journal concerning whether or not your crappy first manuscript has been accepted or rejected. The outcome could mean the difference for your first critical NIH grant application. But the editors there could care less. The reviewers probably give your manuscript a “thorough”, 15 minute reading, in between emails and watching videos on the web. That’s what I do.

Even more fun is how you have no idea what the fuck is going on with your project. Experiments simply do not work (60% of time) or do work and give completely uninterpretable, inconsistent, or meaningless data (35% of time).

And there is no discourse or interchange with coworkers to speak of. They are here primarily to earn permanent residency in the U.S., and to support families.

Awesome. Great. Woohoo!

 
At 5:37 PM, Blogger Ψ*Ψ said...

Here's a comment: feel better? :)
I hate the way the world works most of the time too. It is far from easy to get where you want to be in life if you have the "wrong" background.

 
At 6:20 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

jf,

I do try not to take crap from anybody, but then they pull the oh she's so defensive.... You're such a smartass, MsPhD you really need to work on that, it's what's holding you back card. They've actually told me as much (more than one PI). So then I feel like I can't yell back at them even when they're doing it to me and clearly deserve it.

Anonymous,
I have four words for you:GET A NEW PROJECT.

At least somebody cares enough to put you up to do a departmental seminar.

As the icing on the cake today, I heard who they're interviewing here for faculty positions... GRRRRRR....

 
At 6:35 PM, Anonymous microrocks said...

I'm not sure this will make you feel better, but you aren't the only one who felt like rain today. Massive cram before a conference (why didn't I do this months ago), am running on four hours sleep, and a 'dear' friend of mine wouldn't shut up and let me work.
I do understand your frustrations about jobs and funding (am in the same position). That said, I also love cranking the music and doing science. Still, if I had to do it all over again, I might be a chef. Would you do it all over again?

 
At 8:43 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

If I knew what I know now, no I don't think I would do it all over again. But it depends on how far back I could go.

Some days I would like to be reincarnated and start from scratch, please. Preferably as a cute fuzzy animal kept by owners who feed it and love it and pet it constantly and let it go outside to play in the woods.

The rest of this answer is too long, I'll make it into a post.

 
At 7:29 AM, Anonymous C said...

My whole life, people have always said I had lots of potential and that's why they're so tough on me, tougher than they are on anyone else.

It seems unfair, somehow, to assume that their being tough on me always makes me stronger. It doesn't. Sure, we try to have a thick skin. But at some point, it plateaus and it's just negative.

It really just makes me wonder why, as our previous post discussed, we put up with people who are never nice, never encouraging, never consider that maybe they aren't always doing me a favor by pointing out everything from my biggest problems to my tiniest flaws.

And I have to wonder why, how they're so clueless as to not notice they're being nasty. Or if they assume that, because I don't always burst into tears when they say things, that I'm tough enough or I don't notice.


I'm a woman scientist too. This reminds me about an issue that came up recently for me, about men giving me unsolicited advice. The particular incident was triggered by one man being completely clueless as to why his unsolicited advice might not be well-received. He thought he was being helpful and constructive by pointing out (what he thought was) a problem in the way I did something, and he couldn't imagine why I might not welcome his unsolicited advice for a quicker way of doing the task. He could only think of one reason why I might not like the advice: that I didn't care about improving the way I did things.
This is immensely incendiary for me: I do care about getting things right and doing things efficiently, and that is an entirely separate issue from my dislike of men coming over and giving unsolicited advice with the accompanying patronising vibes of "I know better than you do here" and "I respect your competence so little that I'm not even going to consider that I might be wrong and so I'm wasting your time by offering such advice" and "Your wish to not be irritated by unsolicited advice is outweighed by the wonderfulness of the advice I'm going to give you".

GrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We rowed about it for quite a while (he's my boyfriend). I don't think I got through to him very much, although I think I did strengthen the idea that I don't like unsolicited advice, although I suspect he's going to interpret it as refraining from giving advice, rather than improve the way he goes about it. He can't quite get the idea of content versus delivery. Usually, I don't object to the content, but the delivery, I do. What is so flippin' hard about realising that as well as a potential benefit to giving advice, there is also a potential downside, and actually considering whether the benefit outweighs the cost before barging in giving the unsolicited advice? What's the harm in asking whether the receiver would like some advice? What's the harm in saying nothing if you realise that the benefit of your advice is going to be much less than the irritation caused? What's the harm in not assuming that your way of doing it MUST be better than hers, and behaving like you realise you could be wrong, rather than Man The Infallible?

And what's so hard about a man realising that for a competent woman who has had a long history of being patronised by advice that they don't want, she gets VERY IRRITATED BY UNSOLICITED ADVICE, and he should just shut up already?

Oops, sorry, ranted a bit off the subject, but the point was to say that I wonder when people are giving you criticism, whether they are thinking the same kind of thing: that their criticism is intended to be helpful and so they think you should be grateful for it.

Of course, this puts us in a heads-I-lose-tails-you-win situation. If we say "hey don't criticise" then they get to charge us with not caring about improvement.

I think this is one of these accidentally-sexist issues, where (generalising) a man will say "Hey I'm not being sexist" because he treats men the same way. But the men are all operating by the man rule of "deliver the criticism to be constructively helpful" so they aren't offended when a man does it to them, so they can't see the problem if they treat women like that. Whereas the women, when they are trying to be constructive, deliver criticism a bit more sensitively. So when you get man criticising woman communication, man thinks he's being helpful and is cross if the woman doesn't appreciate it, so he blames the woman and accuses her of not caring. Meanwhile she blames him for his poor delivery, but is sensitive about delivering such a criticism and so doesn't say it.

And it gets even worse if you toss a little sexism into the mix. Make it a little more likely that 1. men have a lower opinion of women's capabilities, 2. men will criticise women more than they do men, 3. men make themselves feel good if they chivalrously "help" a woman (usually in a patronising way), 4. men will feel more aggrieved when criticised by a woman than a man because of their egos, and .......... BOOM, it exaggerates all the above. Not to mention women being more sensitive to the issue because of all the men in the past that have busy criticising them.

The "I'm being harder on you to try and make you tougher, because you have potential" sounds like another heads-I-lose-tails-you-win situation.

What's the best way to deal with these things? Call them on it? I can do that with a boyfriend, but I can't exactly do that with a work colleague. And if I call them on it, then I'm just criticising them, and unless I do it so gently that they don't register this is an issue that matters to me, they will get offended because I'm criticising them! But they won't know they are being nasty unless they are called on it.

 
At 5:18 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Hmm. What is the best way to deal with these things?

I think you can call them on it in the same way we call them on it when they give us crap when we're giving presentations (see one of my recent posts on this). The way you do this is you ask for specific constructive recommendations on exactly how to toughen up . I did this once not so long ago and actually got an interesting confession out of the guy who was, up until that point, hammering on me.

It's interesting because I think, now that I read your post, that it has only been men who have given me this advice.

The women generally seem more observant, so they tend to catch on that my eyes are getting bright before I actually start crying, and they either change their tack or tone it down or stop and give me a little pep talk to make the criticism go down a little sweeter.

The boyfriend, on the other hand, sounds like he needs some work. ;-)

 
At 5:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is my personal observation, and this is how I interpret those kinds of situations when they occur. Shrug.

Most men and women communicate differently. If you mention a problem to a male, he will take it to mean, "Oh, you have a problem and you are telling me because I can come up with a solution." A woman may mention a problem just to get it off her chest (stating a fact: "Here is a problem."), but not for the sake of getting advice.

Isn't it just a communication/behavioral issue? Whoever said, "Viva la difference," may have known how big the differences among people can get.

-AFGS

 
At 3:56 AM, Anonymous C said...

I think you can call them on it in the same way we call them on it when they give us crap when we're giving presentations (see one of my recent posts on this). The way you do this is you ask for specific constructive recommendations on exactly how to toughen up .

I'd be interested in knowing how this can work, I am suspicious that it just confirms their own idea of toughening being a universally desirable/attainable proprety.

Also, I don't like their idea that repeated criticism is going to help with toughening up. I can think of a situation in my own life where repeated criticism from certain people on a certain area had exactly the opposite effect: it made that area extremely sensitive, to the point where just talking to one of these people, if they brought up this area, my throat would choke up and I'd have great difficulty speaking. I wasn't born sensitive to that topic. All those people who went on and on about it created that sensitivity.

Just why do these would-be tougheners think they have a justifiable reason for thinking they'd have a toughening effect (assuming that's desirable?!) rather than the opposite? Going hiking can have both toughening and wounding effects on feet... Whilst toughening can be useful, what's wrong with the equivalent of wearing comfy socks and using blister gels if it gets the job done? And more to the point, what's so wrong with these would-be tougheners learning a little sensitivity? Now *that* would be useful!

I did this once not so long ago and actually got an interesting confession out of the guy who was, up until that point, hammering on me.

Sounds like an interesting story. Is it anonymisable and bloggable?

It's interesting because I think, now that I read your post, that it has only been men who have given me this advice.

Ah-HA.

I think a lot of men have no idea how irritating it is sometimes not having the ability to guarantee not crying in a particular situation.

The women generally seem more observant, so they tend to catch on that my eyes are getting bright before I actually start crying, and they either change their tack or tone it down or stop and give me a little pep talk to make the criticism go down a little sweeter.

Now if everyone could manage to do that, the world would go round a lot smoother.

The boyfriend, on the other hand, sounds like he needs some work. ;-)

Yeah. He's actually very good in many respects, a real sweetie, but he has had very little contact with women in his professional work. So when he treats women the same way he'd treat men, it can be a big surprise to him that women might consider this sexist - after all he's treating them the same, how can it be sexist? - when they get different treatment from men than they get from women. (That's what I mean by "accidentally sexist".) Add to that the fact that his emotions operate very differently from a typical man/person, with a distinct lack of instinctive empathy for what the average person might feel in a situation. To understand an emotional situation, he uses a lot of observation and reasoning. So to try and explain why a particular situation is upsetting to me, I have to use a lot of detailed reasoning. I can do this, but it's a lot of effort, and that's why I am suspicious he hasn't "got it" yet. He's getting there slowly - he's already grasped the "C's not going like it if I say this" (from observation), he just doesn't yet fully understand what's so objectionable.

 
At 5:23 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I'd be interested in knowing how this can work, I am suspicious that it just confirms their own idea of toughening being a univerally desirable/attainable property.

Okay, two things.

1. I said you should ask them for specific recommendations. I didn't say you had to take them.

2. I think being tough is a good thing, on the outside, so long as you keep your gooey middle. People who are tough on the inside are the ones that treat others like shit.

Also, I don't like their idea that repeated criticism is going to help with toughening up.

It won't. And the fact that they're (evidently) repeating themselves suggests that you're

a) a little bit stubborn,

or

b) not even trying to make it seem like you appreciate their feedback.

The goal is to get them to shut up, is it not?

Lots of people just want to be heard. Then whether you choose to take all, part or none of their advice, they will respect that your choice was an educated one (in their view) and that you're not just ignoring or tuning out their "helpful" suggestions. This doesn't always work, but if you haven't tried it, give it a shot.

And re: boyfriends having instinctive empathy... most don't. But they are, at least in my experience, trainable. ;-) Sometimes you get lucky and find one who learned from a previous girlfriend, wife, or mother. If you're not so lucky, you should take the time to explain why you feel the way you do. It's worth the investment of effort, I think, and generally makes not just your boyfriend but the world a better place!

 

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