Thursday, February 08, 2007

Was doing okay, until...

Yes, it was a typical day.

I was groggy in the morning, so the annoying stuff kind of went past me in my haze.

That was fine.

Then the coffee kicked in and I was busy.

Got some bad news regarding grants I'm not eligible for from someone who wasn't very nice about it. Got a sad call from a collaborator who sounds frustrated, but who lives in a different time zone so we keep missing each other. Not that I'm sure it's anything I can or want to help with directly, but I should probably say so if that's the case.

That was all taken in stride. Yay, stride. (aka, I am too busy to care much right now what happens in the long run. )

Then I got to work on something I care about with people I like. And that was wonderful. And I was in a great mood. For a few hours.

Then I came back to my lab, where things are disorganized and I have no control and get no credit for anything, and not a day goes by that I'm not reminded of how little appreciation I can expect to get here.

There is one person, bless her heart, who thanks me almost every day and sounds almost desperate at the thought of me leaving. She is wonderful.

But today was the first day this week - pretty good, eh? 3.5 days? - when I thought again about walking away just to make their lives miserable.

You know who the 'they' is. All those people who take it for granted that you aliquot the stock solutions for the lab when they come in because you're the one doing so many experiments that you actually need stuff to come in before you run out. And all the other little things you do.

(aside: By the way, YOU out there, please pat yourselves on the back for me. You deserve it.)

Not that they would beg me to stay, ask what it would take to keep me here, or ask me to come back if I left.

To the commenter who asked if I'm a Barbie doll, that made me laugh.

I resent the commenter who thinks s/he knows me, saying that I should take a job running a core facility. I think that's pretty insulting, although I'm sure it wasn't meant that way. First of all, it would be a royal waste of all the time I've put in getting this far. I could have run a core facility without a PhD, without a postdoc. I know people who do it with no degrees. It has its perks, of course. But I want more autonomy. I want more power. I think women are too often railroaded into support services, instead of being in charge. For shame! I realize they take these jobs because of the regular hours and higher stability. But if I wanted to be in a service industry job, I would have gone a completely different route with my life. I never wanted to work at McDonald's in the summer, though I could have, and I would have made more money than I did working in labs.

I think I've come too far now to take a side road. I have to get off this highway altogether, or follow it to the last lemonade stand. I'm just not good at the in-between. I'm not an in-between person, hard as I try to come up with compromises to reconcile the extremes.

I have much higher aspirations for a reason: I'm pretty sure I'd never be happy running a core facility. Even if I liked it in the short-term (and I always say I could be happy driving a bus, in the short-term), the problem is that it's a dead end job. You can never go back (and correct me if I'm wrong here) to tenure-track once you go that way. Unlike, I think, if I went to industry, for example.

And I resent the commenter who said that complaining about our environment or wanting to change it is 'immature.' I think it's important to hold onto your ideals, your unique point of view, your high expectations. If you lose that, you're just a bitter old burnout who goes along with the crowd.

Are you going to change the world, or aren't you? Are you just going to troll people's blogs and lecture them anonymously?

I published the comment because I think it's a valid opinion, even if I don't exactly agree with it. Perhaps 'immature' is the wrong way to look at it. I agree that it's smart to know what you can and can't change, and when you can and can't change it.

I realize there are things I can't change now, and some of them bug me a little and some bug me a LOT. But I have a blog for a lot of reasons. One of them is to come to terms with what's fixable now and what isn't. One is to alert people - faceless readers, whoever you are - who might not know what it's like in academic science.

You might be considering it as a career. You might be in a position to fix the system, even though I'm not. But maybe people aren't honest with you about what to expect, or what needs fixing. I know I couldn't tell people where I work what I really think. They don't want to hear it from me. But maybe they'll want to hear it from faceless, nameless MsPhD.

So it's fine to say I'll join the system and then fix it, but the problem is that 99.9% of people who make it far enough to change the system don't want to bother anymore by the time they get to the top. And then we're just maintaining the status quo.

Along those lines, I was disgusted to read this article in the New Scientist about how, the higher up you are, the less stressed you'll supposedly be.

Ain't that the truth?

Not that I would know.

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At 9:40 PM, Blogger Irie said...

Um, yeah.. about the Barbie thing... What meant is that I'm kinda pissed off that some people feel that women have to choose between traditional definitions of feminity and having strong careers. It's like an either/or deal that just plain sucks. I've yet to hear that a man was "too masculine" and should seriously consider wearing pink. It makes me wonder if these people had parents that were so hung up on the gender roles that they were never allowed to play with toys that weren't "gender appropriate".

My suggestion about interest surveys was in response to your earlier posts about being frustrated with your job. I've experienced some major employment blues and have considered what I would do outside of the classroom. My co-workers joke that we could be the novelty acts at the local bikini bar as that's all that we're qualified to do. :)

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ms. PhD,

I'm glad to see you back after somewhat of a hiatus. I'm curious, why don't you try the junior faculty/instructor route? It really seems to be almost a necessity these days for those of us who want to become academic PIs. Does your lab have that option? Or, can you go to another lab and be hired in as instructor? I would think that this at least would give you some of the benefits of being a PI (better salary, more control over your work, ability to get recognition in the field). In addition, you'd be avoiding some of the disadvantages of being a PI (managing an entire lab full of people, budgeting and maintaining your own space). Instructors where I work sometimes get promoted to asst. profs as well.

I'm just curious as you never mention this possibility. I'd also like to comment, and no offense is meant by this at all, but you are quite young in the (admittedly skewed) world of science. Your profile says a "not quite 30 postdoc", I can say that I've not seen many, if any, people get promoted to prof before the age of 35 or so (and the average age of first time RO1 grantees is like 41). Not saying that your aren't capable of running your own lab, and doing well, but your (lack of) age may hurt you in the eyes of some academic search committees.

At 7:12 PM, Blogger Breena Ronan said...

That New Scientist article is weirdly social darwinist. You must get a PhD because that gives you higher social status and higher social status leads to longer life. That is very strange reasoning in my book.

At 9:38 PM, Anonymous Zuska said...

I like that the solution to the problem of low-status stress is "change your status". Here we have a problem that is structural and institutionalized, and the solution is individualistic and private. Leave the structural problem as it is, and it's every man/woman for themselves. As long as YOU get out of the low status position, who gives a shit about the other poor blokes left behind?

At 3:20 PM, Blogger CDJ said...


I saw this the other day and thought you might be interested:

One of these may increase your market value, since you've got NIH
funding for three years when you start your job.

Every researcher has "crisis of faith" moments, I'm still having them and I'm almost at a tenure decision. For me, they tend to come and go, so I hope you're feeling better today.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Joolya said...

Also, you should be independently wealthy. Whew! Then you wouldn't mind the shitty pay and could fund yourself!

At 6:59 AM, Blogger Jenny F. Scientist said...

"complaining about our environment or wanting to change it is 'immature.'"

No. It is wrong to roll over and play dead in the face of injustice. We should change it as much as we can, and if all one can do at present is to raise awareness, that's a first step.

I also am sometimes tempted to pour all my reagents down the sink, set my notebooks on fire, and take my plant in a box and go.

At 7:08 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

re: junior faculty/instructor position, I don't know about your field, but in mine an instructor position is a dead-on prospect.

The problem is basically the same old, same old: FUNDING. As an instructor, you get your salary paid, but not your research costs.

I could, in theory, get paid to teach, but I wouldn't be able to continue my research project.

But I don't think I could get an instructor position with little to no formal teaching experience. I am working on improving that part of my resume, but really my focus right now should be on research, and that's already suffering with all of the informal teaching and lab management stuff I'm doing 'on the side'.

re: the social darwinism, that's exactly my point. I think most scientists subscribe to that theory exactly: look out for yourself, no one else will, step on whomever gets in your way. And if you don't come in with that kind of motivation, they'll teach it to you and beat it into your head until you finally give in out of sheer survival instinct. Right??


The pathways to independence awards have a lot of problems. One is that they only gave out something like 35 of them last year- that makes them more competitive than faculty positions, actually.

Another problem is that if you've been a postdoc for 5 years, you're not eligible anymore.

And as for being young- I was 'not quite 30' when I started this blog, and that was 2 years ago. So yeah, I'm probably viewed as being young and I'm sure that hurts me. But I think it hurts science that we're telling people they have to be old and burned out before we'll let them have the resources we need to do our work. I'm effectively getting penalized for starting my research career early and being efficient about it.
I like the visual of dumping all your stuff and burning all your notebooks. I have to say I'm still not so bitter as to want to do that. I guess I have a melodramatic vision of someone someday finishing my work and realizing I was right all along. But in the vision it's always about a century into the future and I'm long dead.

I did work somewhere once that I wanted to burn to the ground, but that had more to do with general frustration about the place than anything else. I liked to fantasize about turning on all the gas lines and just walking out, like something out of a Bruce Willis movie where he tosses the lighter over his shoulder as he's walking away...

At 10:14 PM, Anonymous Reluctant Chemist said...

Oh lord - that 'lab management on the side' - I've been there, too. The difference is that I'm in an environment where if my super sees my eye so much as twitch, he'll ask what needs to be changed so I don't kill the researcher in the next lab. You are not wrong in implying that appreciation of one's efforts makes a lot of difference.

I don't know if this is something you are comfortable doing...but maybe what you have to do is do only what you HAVE to do. Make ONLY the solutions that you REALLY need, repair ONLY the equipment that you REALLY need, etc. It is a bit selfish, certainly, but perhaps you need a bit of "Ms. Ph.D." time to help balance out the madness.

You are likely correct in your concern that running a core facility is not in your interest, being that you are in the pursuit of an academic research career. I myself work in a core facility, in industry. I can honestly say that, given the right lab (and here, one would have to pick and choose very carefully), a core facility job can be awesome. I've been very lucky in that I landed a position with a core facility that needed a lot of building up (i.e., new automated processes had to be put in place, new software had to be developed, new LC/MS methods had to be established, new assay technologies had to be investigated). I've been doubley (sp?) lucky that the job came with a great boss. I'm also lucky that in addition to my interests in science and technology, I'm also interested in running a good business (which is, effectively, what you do when you run a core facility). But, a core facility requires that you spend a decent amount of time troubleshooting (all those toys come with their attendant problems)and listening to a lot of griping (nothing ever gets done fast enough for anyone). And you speak the truth - if you want to be the one working on groundbreaking scientific research, then a core facility job is not the place you should be. A core services lab (at least for automation and high throughput screening) is ultimately the place for those of us who dig the science and love playing with the toys, as well.


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