Monday, November 05, 2007

Monday Inertia.

I have plans for things to do today.

I mean, I had plans. So far I'm not doing them.

Lately I notice that when I run into a friend and they ask me how I'm doing, it depresses me more to stop and talk to them than to just mumble something about being busy, give the fake sucking-it-up smile, nod in a friendly way, and keep going wherever I'm going.

This doesn't mean I don't wish I had more friends or that I didn't get to talk to them more. But talking about how work is going, especially while I'm at work, seems to be de-motivating.

I'm really feeling a lot of "damned if I do and damned if I don't" lately. I'm doing a lot of things for show that I know are a waste of time, scientifically, because they're supposed to help me politically. But there's no guarantee that they will.

I was talking to a grad student this weekend who is depressed by the lack of guarantees. She said if things were more finite, if her advisor were capable of devising a project that had a practical chance of working and of helping her when she got stuck, she would be more likely to want to stay. But the lack of job prospects afterwards makes her think it's not worth it.

Amusingly, there is a seminar series here designed to raise awareness of 'alternative careers.' This sounds like a great idea in theory, but she said every single speaker seemed miserable in their job. The patent lawyers, the people from industry, the science journalists, all of them. So none of the alternative uses for a PhD makes it seem useful to finish getting a PhD.

So she wants to quit. She's already been here long enough that she should have a paper, if not at least a good start on one, and she has nothing. She's been frustrated for a long time, and things haven't been getting better.

Her advisor is one of those, you know the type.

Gradstudent: "My ___ isn't working."

MsPhD: "How are you doing it?"

Gradstudent:"I'm using the A-B."

MsPhD:"Why are you doing it that way? That will never work."

Gradstudent:"I know. It wasn't working using the X-Y, so I told my advisor, and he said I should use the A-B. But I know the A-B won't work, and I tried to tell him why, but he doesn't believe me. So now I have to do it just to show him it won't work."

MsPhD:"Well, here's my protocol. Do it this way, I promise it will work. Then it's up to you whether you want to tell your advisor what you ended up doing. You can still pretend you're doing it his way if you have to."

Gradstudent:"Thanks, yeah, I think I will."

MsPhD:"Will what?"

Gradstudent:"Do it your way, but pretend I did it using his."

So at this point her options are to a) switch labs, b) suffer through, c) quit. Sad to say but she's so miserable, I told her that if she wants to quit now, she should quit.

I couldn't honestly tell her that it gets better. I told her that it doesn't, and that the reasons for it sucking won't change anytime soon.

The irony of all this is that one of the most important things to me is to be a role model, to boost up my female colleagues when they're down, and set a good example. However, as I've mentioned here before, on at least one occasion I was rebuked for being 'too honest' with some of the younger women about how hard it is and how you shouldn't do it if you're not sure you love research. It was a male professor who told me that I shouldn't discourage these poor girls, but I found out later that his behavior toward me is more discouraging toward the women around here than anything I've said about my frustrations.

As much as my failures depress me because I'm not meeting my goals and because much of it is out of my control, it's even more depressing to see these younger women quitting because they're watching what is happening to me. I'm a negative example without wanting to be. But I don't really see any alternatives.

All I can do is a) fight back (tried that, it doesn't work), b) quit, c) try to rise above it all.

Unfortunately both (b )and (c) end up being bad examples, and (a) is a trap that will end up getting me forced out of here.

Hmm. Happy thoughts for a Monday.

Time to go redo the experiments that didn't work over the weekend.

1. Place forehead against brick wall.
2. Push.

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At 3:16 PM, Anonymous mrswhatsit said...

Boy do know how that grad student feels. That was me in my 5th year. I'd like to say it got better but it didn't, really. As an 8th year grad student, I'm a pretty glaring negative example as well. However, it seems that most of the people I meet think the same thing can't happen to them. I just shrug. There's not much you can do with unfounded optimism.

I can understand that it can be depressing to be a negative example, but at the same time as a student I appreciate seeing the realities of a career path. Better to make an informed decision to leave now than to stick it out with the unrealistic hope that it will somehow magically be faculty positions and NIH grants falling from the sky.

P.S. When people ask me how it's going, I say, "You know how it is," then laugh. Or I say something completely ridiculous like, "I aiming to be the department's first 12-year student ever!" That usually heads off further questions.

At 5:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you are so f***ing miserable than why don't you just quit too? i know where you are, and i know that it isn't easy and for awhile i bitched and complained all the time too. i thought of every alternative career that i could and i contemplated them and i still have my back door plan lined up... but, one day i realized that all the energy i spent being miserable was retarded. so, i decided i either leave or i just suck it up. i'm sick of listening to people like you. just leave if you think it sucks so bad okay. people like you suck as much as the people who make science suck the way it does.

At 7:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can't deny, though, how satisfying it can be to have someone come up to you kind of asking for advice, but more interested in complaining. Then you diagnose their problem in ten seconds. And then they come back to you and say thank you, your suggestions worked wonderfully. Such good can be done in those little moments.

At 8:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to comment on the part regarding "everyone seems miserable, the patent lawyer, people in industry..etc" (I'm paraphrasing). I don't know exactly why the grad student got this particular impression, maybe they sucked at getting the right folks for the particular seminar series? On the contrary, I took a special seminar class during grad school and the speakers were all from industrial labs, talking about the different aspects of pharmaceutical research (process vs. med. chem, etc.; i'm in chemistry). I thought it was the coolest and most useful class that I took in grad. school. I think one problem of the apparent "there's no alternative career path in science" is the lack of information provided to us during grad. school. I mean, all our PIs went through the whole academic path, how the hell are they supposed to know anything about working in industry, let alone informing us of what it's like? However, I have to say that I am glad I took that class, and have now secured my first industrial job with a big pharma company, with a fairly short (<2 yr) postdoc. So there's light at the end of the tunnel, if that's what you choose to believe - and that doesn't have to be a top academic job. Many of my former labmates from grad school have gone on to "alternative career paths in science" (patent law, consulting, science policy). It's all possible, you just have to want to do it and believe it can be done. There's nothing wrong with not becoming a professor, even though that's such a stigma in academia - it's like, if you say you don't want to become a prof, it's automatically assumed that you're just not good enough to be a prof.
On the other hand, its very admirable of you to have the desire to be a role model for younger female scientists. Good luck for your search for academic positions! We need more profs. like you.

At 4:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gradstudent: "My ___ isn't working."

MsPhD: "How are you doing it?"

Gradstudent:"I'm using the A-B."

MsPhD:"Why are you doing it that way? That will never work."

And precisely how is this setting a good example? Even the most stubborn PI must be able to be convinced by something that works. Pretending to be doing something you're really not sounds like bad advice to me, although I appreciate the horrible ordeal of dealing with the mentioned advisor

At 8:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for quite awhile now and am amazed at your insight. While I was a grad student and a postdoc, I was too deeply involved in the whole suckiness of the situations that I couldn't coherently tell people how horrible you can feel as a young female scientist trying to make it in a male dominated world.

Honestly though, I've recently gotten out of academia and I love it. I get up in the morning and actually like going to work...what a shock! On top of that, I truly love my job and feel like I am making a difference in the world.

Of course this isn't how I thought things would turn out when I started down this road several years ago. I thought I'd be the awesome/cool/excited/hip young female professor in the department that had scores of people knocking on the door trying to join my lab. But I realized that I would rather be happy instead of constantly second guessing myself or simply doing nonsensical experiments to cover my ass and placate my stick in the mud grumpy old men bosses.

There IS a light at the end of the tunnel. It DOES get better. I didn't think it would, but I am amazed at the level of happiness in my life. Good luck and keep prodding will get better some day soon. Trust me on that one!

At 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a female scientist with a PhD, there is something I would really like to know:

Is anyone in science happy? Especially women?

I don't see it. And it worries the crap out of me. Except for the dedicated sub-percent of people who found a supportive tenure-track position, is anyone at all out there ok? Not to mention happy?? Even scarier, the women seem especially miserable and ambiguous. Are we all just going to hell in a handbasket??

At 9:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life is hard. Full of uncertainties.
Besides, there are too many people getting handed their Ph.D's anyway. But at the end of the day, only the strong survive. And once you get a life outside the lab, this pretty much becomes like another job. It has its ups and downs, things you love, things you hate. It pays the bills, pretty well, actually, and it's not like they take your kids away if you fail.

I was listening to the radio this morning and they told the story of an Egyptian man who was on a business trip to London. When he arrived, he was taken into custody and handed over to the CIA and placed on one of these "rendition" flights to god knows where, held in a dark room and tortured for 13 months, and released without charges four years later. Oops, turns out they had the wrong guy. Sorry, dude. No hard feelings.

Now, there's someone whose life sucks. There's someone with problems. There's someone who faced an unfair system with no recourse.

At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I love working in industry, as does pretty much everyone I work with. You couldn't pay me enough to rejoin the sort of people who think it's an "alternative career". And I still publish in better journals than 85% of them do.

The patent lawyers, on the other hand...

At 12:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 8:33
No, not everyone in science is unhappy. Not even all the women.

Just remember the inverse correlation between expectations and happiness.

Look at what you can realistically accomplish, and hold yourself to the standard of accomplishing that. Remember that life isn't fair most of the time, except for upper middle class overeducated white people in the western hemisphere. Remember that it i a job, and that there is a clear path to the door.

At 3:58 PM, Anonymous JR said...

My heart goes out to the first commentor to this post. There is something seriously wrong with a graduate program that has an 8th year graduate student. All your "mentors" should just go fuck themselves.

At 8:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am a young female postdoc and i am lovin' it! i have no complaints about work. my projects are working, funding is available, and i get along great with everyone in the lab with the exception of another female postdoc. i don't know why your situation is so vastly different. do you need a change of the environment? is there a better lab in which you could really thrive?


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