Friday, March 30, 2007

I hate being paranoid.

Lately I am wishing I had rose-coloured glasses when it comes to the people in my field.

For a while I have been trying to ignore the fact that I don't trust the other postdocs in my lab.

We all know we will be competing for jobs the way we are already competing for papers and the PI's attention. And it's hard to pretend it's not happening. It's a source of constant stress for me.

I always try to be up front with people and just assume, well we are all smart enough, or at least I know I am, so why be insecure? There should be enough work to go around, we all have different interests and different strengths, we can try to work together.


But they always play dumb when it suits them. We are supposed to share reagents, but they can't remember where anything is when I need it. Or they give me an aliquot of the wrong thing.

Part of this is the PI's fault. If there were a system in place where we could all access everything independently, they wouldn't be able to do this.

Instead I am left making tough decisions about whether it's worth it to spend what little reagent money I have for my own project duplicating lab reagents, just so I can have a stock that I know is good, and keep it somewhere safe from their greedy little fingers.

It doesn't help that they are almost all men. I recently heard someone refer to the one bay in the lab that has three women and one guy as the "girly bay."

Nobody calls any of the bays with four men the "manly bays."

I mean, give me a break. Apparently it's still so unusual that it bears commenting when there are more than two women working in the same place!

Then yesterday, there was a speaker here who is pretty big in our field. I really enjoyed his talk and found myself thinking maybe I made a mistake not going to do a postdoc with him.

Now I should back up and say that I never applied to his lab, because a friend of mine interviewed there and told me a horrifying story. She said that when she finally had five minutes to use the restroom, the women from the lab cornered her and told her the PI was a misogynistic pig and that she shouldn't go there, because she would definitely regret it.

She said she had no way of knowing if it was true or if this was some kind of competitive, manipulative ploy to scare her off, but it worked either way because she said the atmosphere was decidedly scary.

So she went elsewhere, and I never applied to even go visit.

Maybe a mistake, I don't know.

So I enjoyed this guy's talk enough to have second thoughts. But then I introduced myself afterwards and asked him some questions, and I am still feeling uncomfortable about it.

He was SO dismissive, as happens to me about half the time with visiting speakers, that the encounter is still ringing in my ears. I don't know if I made a mistake talking to him, or if I should send him my paper to review.

Yes, I'm that conflicted about it.

They all say you have to win over your biggest critics, find out what they want to know and then show them why you're right.

But some days I just want to crawl under my desk and hide.

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At 12:27 PM, Anonymous twirly said...

I do actually crawl under my desk and hide - I have a little sleeping pad and a blanket for when I run overnight experiments - but some days I go there when I can't take it anymore!!

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Bill said...

Part of this is the PI's fault.

Honestly, what part of it isn't the PI's fault? It beggars belief that he/she could recruit asshole after asshole, so the behaviour -- withholding reagents, etc -- is born of the lab environment. An environment of teamwork and opennness will not foster such lowlifery, and it's almost entirely the PI's responsibility to set the requisite tone. You should not be competing with your co-workers for anything.

Anecdotes like yours make me want to be a PI, just so I can build an environment where that crap doesn't go on and prove to the "survival of the fittest" idiots that co-operation is a better, more productive way to do science.

At 10:46 PM, Blogger Breena Ronan said...

That sounds horrible!

At 9:45 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Yay, Bill! You're absolutely right. But there's nothing I can do about it from where I sit right now.

At 4:47 PM, Anonymous agprof said...

Well, I am a PI and I do use the teamwork approach, but, while it is certainly much more pleasant for the people working in the lab and for me, it really doesn't win you any prizes. The fellows that get the biggest rewards in my department are definitely the ones that run the most cut-throat operations. In particular, they absolutely don't allow their students or postdocs the "leisure" to pursue their own ideas or career path. This means that all of the time of those personnel is devoted to producing more papers and grant-worthy data for the PI. And having a postdoc take a project with them from the lab? Ha ha ha ha....

Sad, but true. HOWEVER, having said that, I must say that I have a lot of fun in my lab doing my thing, and I've always been able to keep JUST enough funding to keep us going. I'll never be a star, true, but I guess there is more to life than being a star. Viva tenure, which allows the non-stars to survive in academia!

At 6:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never been in a lab where the atmosphere is as you describe, although I know the stories of course. I once sat next to a postdoc during breakfast at a conference who kept going on and on about me making the wrong career choice in NOT going to one of those super-competitive labs where people are on the same project and no-one shares data. According to him, if I wasn't willing to go through hell for a few years, I wasn't cut out for science. I couldn't agree less.
At least I have seen some examples where you can become a succesfull PI without turning into an asshole and since nothing in the world can guarantee a Nature/Cell paper, I am certain that a good atmosphere in the lab is number one for me. Even if my experiments are not going well, a nice environment will make you go to work happy in the morning. At least in that way you can channel your energy into something productive.


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