Thursday, January 25, 2007

Women: Be More Professional Than Men.

I've been busy of late. Some of it is good busy. Much of it is overwhelmed exhausted thankless busy.

One theme I've been hearing is with regards to the job market, which I'm not really on, but I am still taking notes for future reference. I gather little tidbits and write them here, since I think it's ridiculous that we're all expected to rediscover the wheel.

Today I learned: men can have cute websites, women can't.

Similarly, men can have cute CVs that show their enthusiasm and personality: women can't.

I've always hated this mentality, that we have to Sound Professional in order to be, you know, good at what we do.

We have to pretend like the research was done by a robot instead of a person.

Or perhaps it should be said, there is the perception that research must be done by a man or a sexless robot, but god help us all, not by a living breathing woman.

Women, says the Voice of Authority, you don't have The Unwritten Rule Book, so you better adhere strictly to all the rules.

I get this advice from both women and men, but I think the truly un-sexist men are most likely to steer me wrong. They don't realize that what men can and do get away with, or even benefit from (e.g. showing personality), in my case won't fly, and will only get me in trouble.

I'm sure it's no help that I have such a troublesome personality.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More coming soon.

Sorry folks, have been rather busy lately. Will try to post more soon...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Is science a free country?

It's a spectrum. The anti-scientists, those who don't know or care, and the science worshipers.

We all start out not knowing.

The we split into worshipers or anti-scientists.

The anti-scientists become more spiritual, if they weren't already, when they realize they are against scientific progress. They find support in various groups that praise God's word or the purity of not meddling with Nature.

Science worshipers are students and laypeople who like to read Nobel Laureates' autobiographies. They have a rose-coloured view of science on a pedestal, having only heard the good parts, they are mostly unaware of all the blood, sweat and tears that go into every great advance.

But where are the scientists on the spectrum?

Most non-scientists assume we are all science worshipers.

While most of us have a profound respect for good science, this is often accompanied by a profound disgust for many of our fellow scientists, and much of the scientific system as it now stands.

Does that make us bad scientists? No. It has no correlation with the quality of our work.

Yet I've noticed a disturbing trend, much like the preference of our President to surround himself with yes-men.

It seems that those who criticize the scientific system are assumed to be bad scientists.

Surely, goes the assumption, they are not successful, and that has made them bitter. Their concerns are irrelevant.

I've realized of late that science worshipers can do a lot of damage. When I was a YoungFemaleStudent, I too followed the science worshiper commandments. They went something like this:

1. Thou Shalt have no other gods than Nobel Laureates.
2. Thou Shalt speak no ill of science or scientists.
3. Honor thy teacher.
4. Thou Shalt Love Science Homework.
5. Thou Shalt set as your only goal to be a professor.

While Commandment #2 makes sense in terms of not siding with the anti-scientists, if you can't criticize your own country, it's not a free country.

Even if it's not strictly true for the U.S., scientists should strive for more separation of church and state.

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I had a weird thing happen today.

Everything was pretty normal at first. I was sitting in my office working, minding my own business.

A friend came bursting into my office in tears, and proceeded to tell me a story that I can't tell here.

It's not like this never happens, but for some reason today I was really caught off-guard.

I tried to comfort her the best I could and promised I would try to help as much as I can.

But in the course of her story, I found out something someone else said about me.

Suffice it to say, it's not so much what was said - I don't really care what people say about me - but that it was said by someone with whom I thought I had a warm and mutually respectful relationship. Someone whom I thought was pretty straightforward and would actually give me useful feedback, even negative feedback if they had any.

I would like to confront this person, but I don't want to let on that I know what was said or who told me.

So I'm tossing around options. I'd rather get no information than have it blow up into a huge fight, of course, but I'm also tempted to just get everything out in the open.

Either way, I don't want to spend a lot of time building up to my point - I've got too many other things to do.

Do I say

a) "Do you have something you want to say to me?"

The idea being that if this person has as much spine as I thought, what was said will be repeated.

b) "What do you think about (thing related to what was said about me)?"

The idea being that this would give a more casual segue and maybe give me more context for what was said, to interpret whether it was really meant the way I heard it.

c) "If someone held a gun to your head and said you had to describe all my good and bad professional qualities, what would you say? And said you had to give specific examples. "

Again just to see if this person takes the bait. This would also provide more context. Or maybe I just had the wrong impression about our relationship.

Meanwhile I think my New Year's resolution (arrived at just this moment) is to not care if people at work like me, so long as they don't get in my way.

I've been pretty lucky thus far. Where I went to grad school, rumors were the currency of the day. I was able to ignore it because I heard as much dirt on everyone else as I could possibly ever need, where leverage was an issue.

I do not, by the way, recommend this. I hate gossip. Somehow, perhaps because I enjoy and am good at listening to other people's problems, I became the unwilling recipient of far too much information. People who are upset tend not to filter. At all.

But as a postdoc, although I've heard lots of other people's troubles, I haven't heard much gossip about me. I've either been unaware, or able to ignore it (gossip from people I never liked or respected doesn't bother me one bit).

I would rather not be aware, but there you have it.

Is it ever possible to work with people who actually just mind their own business and do their job? I have to assume that this is a problem everywhere, so I should just get used to it.

I still wish I could work alone most of the time.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Creative Solutions.

Argh, someone just sent a really clever comment, and as usual I can't figure out which post it was in response to or find it easily until Google visits my page again.

I am too tired to be clever about this right now.

Basically the take-home point was that yes, postdocs are all deluded in thinking they're in the top 25% (we can't all be equally good) and most just aren't creative enough to come up with something better to do.

I do think, based on empirical evidence like comparing how many papers people have published, how much experience I have, etc, that I'm in the top 25%, but so what? In my field we're talking about the top 1% who get Research 1 faculty positions.

So, okay. I know I am not in the top 1%. I don't have the High Impact Publication Record. I might be in the top 10% of eligible postdocs in my field, or I might not.

But who knows. A fellow scientist said something funny to me recently about how people who argue or care about statistics are making decisions based on all the wrong things (sorry I can't remember the pithy phrasing). I thought it was hilarious since as scientists, we really should know enough about statistics to evaluate when and if they are relevant and useful... but anyway. I do think it's a good point. Should we allow ourselves to be discouraged by the odds against us?

Hasn't stopped me so far.

However, I like the way this commenter put it, the gist of which was that if you're staying only because you're not creative enough to come up with something better, that's just pathetic.

I hereby challenge myself and my readers to come up with creative career solutions for a) me and b) everyone in a similar quandary.

I'm drawing a blank though, so if you have some great suggestions, do send them!

I'm not feeling very creative today. I am feeling like I work with a bunch of people, most of whom I do not

a) like
b) respect
c) trust
d) admire.

But mostly I'm thinking about (c) and (d) today.

I always prefer to be around people who have at least some qualities I admire. I try to practice compassion of the Eastern sort, and count my blessings and open my heart and all that good stuff... I did a meditation specifically for this yesterday.

But lately I am really having a hard time scrounging up reasons to admire most of my colleagues.

I guess staying in a field because you think you can do better than the people who are currently doing it... means you're choosing to surround yourself with people you believe to be fundamentally lacking.

Ultimately this is why one of my very best friends left research. She looked at these people and said:

"Not only are they all sexist assholes who treat me like dirt, but they're also morons."

And that was the end of that.

I wish I could feel as certain about quitting as she did when she left. I don't think she's ever given it a second thought.

I swear I'm good at making big decisions, I really am. But only when I'm sure how I feel, and have obvious, finite, options that are clear to me.

In fact, I am getting sick of hearing myself hem and haw about what to do with my career.

Get a life already, sheesh!

The big problem and sticking point for me personally is that I still really like coming up with things I want to test.

And these are not- before people write in to lecture me again!- anything anyone wants to test in industry.

So that option is really not in the running if I want to do the one part of science I really like, which is actually the most creative part for me.

It could be argued that figuring out how to best present your work and persuade your audience of even controversial points also requires a lot of creativity, but thus far I still struggle with that and have not learned to love it.

Sometimes I really do wish there were think tanks in my field, where people could sit around identifying longstanding problems, or old problems that need to be revisited with new technology. Then these people would write up what they think the salient questions are and publish reports other people (with fewer ideas, more patience for tedium, and better political connections in academia) would refer to for research guidance.

The people in the think tank could do it in groups, or they could each have their own private tank, or do some of both. But I think I have most of my best ideas when I'm alone.

But doesn't that sound like fun? It's the ultimate ivory tower!

(I'll let down my hair so they can send up baskets of protein bars and energy drinks. It'll be great, I promise.)

Anyway my point is, I'm still devoted to Sartre. Science, by itself, would be great if I could do it in my kitchen. But research science is expensive, so it's corrupt and we have to share everything with everybody.

Hell is still, as we already knew, other people.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

My Life In Science.

So among all the reading I've been doing, are hints of things that I always suspected must be true.

I wanted to work on these things ten years ago, but my thesis advisor thought I was nuts (okay, so what's your point?).

Now it seems like these things are bubbling up to the surface where more people are thinking about them.

And I'm jealous. There are labs out there working on things I have always wanted to do, but never had the resources (read: money, equipment, technicians) to do on my own.

And I think I was hoping these things were far enough out on the fringe that they'd still be undone when I got to the point where I had the resources to tackle them.

And I'm kind of sad. I want to be in there doing this stuff, and I can't: not where I am right now, and maybe not ever, or maybe they'll just be done already by the time I get out of my current soul-sucking situation.

I realized my existential angst (see last post) is mostly about My Life In Science. I don't really worry about not being able to picture my life per se. I'm pretty convinced I could work something out if all scientific inquiry was suddenly vaporized from the planet.

But I really do fear for the What if this is it, and I (figuratively speaking) die when my money runs out?

When I first started blogging, reading GrrrlScientist during her early blogging days really put this fear into me. I didn't know (here we go with the naivete and the 'would I do it all over again' cluelessness) there were people out there who love science so much and were literally living on pennies and donations from friends, just trying to figure out how to Stay In The Game.

Much as I talk about wanting to leave, I'd still rather leave on my own two legs than because somebody or something kneecapped me.

It's a hard thing to admit, but like I said, I haven't reached my endpoint yet. I just hope I realize where it is when I see the shotgun pointed at my patellas.

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Riding the wave of chaos.

Today I read a stack of papers (most of them interesting) and some grocery shopping.

That probably doesn't sound very chaotic, but I promise you, the grocery store was really crowded.

Tonight I am going to a party, which I'm sure will be chaotic.

I am going to cook dinner shortly (will take an hour to incubate on stove) and then do some more reading before I leave.

We tried to watch the pilot of The L word on DVD from Netflix... ugh. Too much like a gay, humorless version Desperate Housewives, with no substantial writing or characters we could much care about. Maybe it's just the wrong time in my life, but the straight character is too young and the dysfunctional couple is too baby-aholic.

Not particularly looking forward to the party, but hopefully it will be good for me to get out and be social.


Or something.

I hate winter because it is so cold. Makes me want to do as little as possible, under as many blankets and sweaters as possible.

And all the other stuff I want to blog about, I can't.

Suffice it to say that things are changing at work, and I think it will consist mostly of continually escalating chaos.

I am trying to be the calm little center of peace while it all swirls around me, but some days it's tough to put up walls and say emphatically,


or, my personal favorite:


And, I'm feeling continuing pressure to do things I'm not interested in doing, on a schedule I hate, which is screwing up my schedule not just at work but also at home. So it's putting pressure on my personal life, which is not helping anything.

Lots of yelling at home = using up energy and patience I don't have because of work, or for work. It's a vicious cycle.

We don't mean to be stressed out at each other, we just are.

I would so very much like to get out of this cycle, but right now I don't know what's going to happen so I'm just kind of clinging onto the rollercoaster by my fingernails. I guess I will know soon enough if I'll be screaming with excitement (not likely) or if it's going to make me throw up (probably) or if I'll just fall out of my seat and crack my head open on the way down (always a possibility).

Had an interesting chat with a friend last week about something that I now realize is commonly referred to as 'existential anxiety.'

She was saying that she can't picture her life in the future, so she has this irrational fear that what she's seeing is a prophesy of her death happening sometime soon. She realizes this is silly, but I knew what she meant. I told her I never pictured myself doing what I'm doing now, and I still can't picture where I'll be next year.

I have another friend who said this to me, how the thing that bothers him most about being 30ish and in academia is that lack of knowing where he'll be next year, much less 5 years from now.

What I find most astounding is that most scientists don't seem to realize that this constant feeling of free-floating anxiety is actually bad for creativity and analytical thought (or so is my impression).

Wouldn't fixing the system improve all our productivity and cure, you know, lots of human diseases a whole lot faster?

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Fraud: institutional or individual disease?

I found this article on fraud extremely interesting. There's also an editorial in the same issue, saying the only way to fight fraud is for individuals to take charge.

I think this raises interesting questions about whether scientists are unusually naive or delusional about human nature, and whether this mindset that people are generally good and well-intentioned is required or selected for in academia.

All of my advisors, save one, have been of the opinion that people are generally honest.

The one who believes most people will get away with as much as they can... is the most successful out of all of them.

So, tell us what you think. I tend to agree with the article's conclusion- that fraud arises due to institutional and system-wide sickness. I do believe that when a system puts too much pressure on people, they get desperate and do things they wouldn't do otherwise.

Witness today's episode: yet another MsPhD Counsels Young Female about PI taking out his bad mood on everyone around him. This particular PI is basically a good guy, but like every other human being on the planet, gets grouchy sometimes.

If stress can take a perfectly nice person and make them growl, what can continued unrealistic pressure do to a middlingly nice person? You do the math.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Would I do it all over again?

So asks a reader in a comment on my last, rather morose, post.

It's funny, lately I think I would enjoy cooking as a career, but back when I was thinking about job choices I didn't like food or have any idea how to cook anything. So that particular route never would have occurred to me.

Research: I was really naive about how abusive it would be and how LONG it would take to get to my goal.

I looked at my first PI and said simply, "I want to be like that."

I thought I understood the formula: go to school, work in a lab, work your way up. I must have thought it was mathematical, or chemical, or at least objective.

I also thought I had found this amazing, secret career that none of the premeds knew about.

I thought, "Those suckers, worrying about getting straight A's. Thank god I found something I like that isn't so competitive as getting into med school."

I thought it was, you know, original. Only one other person from my major went to grad school, so I just assumed it was this weird thing that only a few people did. That suited me just fine.

When I got to grad school, I cut out a comic strip with a cartoon of a horde of rock climbers plastered across a huge wall, and the caption is

"Oh, for the solitude I suppose."

(It always made me laugh.)

It makes sense that I wouldn't have known, because at the time there were no statistics whatsoever on postdocs in this country. It wasn't like I could look it up and find out that there were already ten or a hundred times more postdocs than there are faculty positions for them, and that they would continue to stay and apply for the same jobs year after year after year until they got something.

It makes me laugh now. Little did I know, as I do now, that anything worth doing is worth doing well. I didn't know there are always other people who, if they didn't get there before you, are going to get to the same place at the same time.

In retrospect, beforehand I knew plenty of grad students and postdocs, and knew vaguely that they weren't all happy, but two things never occurred to me.

1. That their crappy PIs were the rule, not the exception. I learned that lesson the hard way.

2. That the job market would be in flux all the time, so much so that while jobs were plentiful when I started grad school, there's now such an excess of postdocs, and they stay for so long, that universities are having to start postdoc associations.

Oh boo hoo. Poor universities.

I blame those grad students and postdocs a little for not warning me. I think they thought they were doing me a favor and sheltering me, or something, from how bad it really is. Maybe they themselves didn't realize they weren't alone, that hundreds or maybe even thousands of grad students and postdocs were, at that same moment, just as lonely and depressed and demoralized, if not more so, than they were. Maybe they just assumed it would be better for me.

It's also really funny - lots of laughter here - to look back and realize that the one person I looked up to the most as an example of what I wanted to be and do was actually a really unusual, outstanding person who has since been extremely successful. It never occurred to me that it wasn't like that for everyone- publishing lots of papers, great relationship with the thesis advisor, serving on hiring committees even as a grad student, loved teaching, and so on. Kind of ridiculous that out of all the people I would choose to admire, I would pick someone who's the exception and not the rule.

I guess the way I look at it is, no I probably wouldn't do it again if I had it to go back and do over from, you know, senior year of high school. Up until then I knew what I wanted to do, and it wasn't science.

I took heart from newspaper clippings my mother sent me, almost like some kind of twisted apology, about people who managed to be stars at both science and an artistic hobby of some sort. The professor who was a pianist; the nobel prize winner who also sang opera. Or whatever. This was some small comfort, because I thought (as I always do in lab) well, if other people have done it, there must be a way.

Lately I've felt like the people who can do that are people who make me tired. Just watching them dart around, hyper little energy balls, makes me tired. I'm not one of those high energy people anymore. I'm getting too old for this.

So anyway, once I had picked this as my career path, I decided that I would do my best. I'm not an overzealous overachiever, I don't think, but I know I'm not good at doing things halfway. And I have done my best (so much as you can about something that you enjoy but never felt, as some people are, born to do). I've tried to make contributions that I think are important and that I'm proud of, and most of all I've tried to help other people avoid or at least cope with the pitfalls I fell into because nobody warned me they were coming or told me how to get out when they swallowed me whole.

I've thought about quitting and being some kind of career counselor or write about science culture or something. But you can only write what you know. You don't know if you're not in it. And similarly I hate the idea of getting career counseling from someone who failed at theirs. It's ridiculous. The counselors at my high school, for example, were worthless.

I actually visited a career coach a few years ago (for too much money). After talking with her, I realized that not only did she know nothing useful about science as a culture (despite claiming to), but she was actually so stupid, both intellectually and emotionally, that I realized I had already figured out more on my own just from reading books and asking people than she would learn in ten or twenty years of counseling people (for too much money).

I could do this job better than she does, I found myself thinking. But I wouldn't want to.

Actually one of the only things that reminds me why I've stuck with it is that I look at people who are Higher Up than me and say,
I could do that job, and I would enjoy most of the stuff they're complaining about, because they're doing it all wrong and making themselves and everyone else miserable in the process.

Would it really make me happy to have their job(s)? I don't know. But I feel like I've come this far, I should at least try it before I decide I should drop it.

I have no problem walking away from something I know is the wrong thing. I know how and when to drop a project that's not working. I'm just not sure if I've taken timepoints out far enough yet to know about this career thing of mine.

I hate these kinds of experiments, where you don't really have an assay, and it's kind of all or nothing. That's not to say that even if I quit now, I didn't learn or do anything useful, so it wouldn't be a total waste. But you have to have an assay with a defined endpoint.

There's gotta be something better than, I guess I'll stick with it until I completely lose my mind.

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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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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A reader asks: Are all PIs assholes?

Dear Reader,

This is a fundamental question. And should make for a good discussion if people are back from vacation and ready to rant.

Are you rrrrrrrrrready to rrrummmmmmmmbuuuuuuuulllllllllllllll???

And the corollary to it: is science a black pit of despair because most of the people doing it are jerks, or just because it is a system that has outgrown its usefulness and needs to be massively overhauled?

I can tell you what I know, but I, too, look forward to seeing what other people want to contribute to this discussion.

I think my answer has (at least) two parts.

1) From your comment (see previous post), I can tell that you need to work on having a thick skin and standing up for yourself.

It's hard for me to gauge, from a distance, whether your PI is unusually assholish, or if you're unusually sensitive, or neither, or both.

However, I can tell you with great certainty that it doesn't matter, because having a thick skin and being able to take criticism (using it is another matter) will always be a useful skill, whether you stay in science, or in your current lab, or not.

2) Not wanting to make any assumptions, I can tell you my general feeling:

Yes, MOST PIs are assholes.

But this also depends on whether you believe that most people in general are

a) inherently good
b) inherently not good
c) inherently stupid

And whether you believe that stupidity leads inevitably to nastiness. I do believe that stupid people tend to be mean, and mean people tend to be stupid, after the poet Nikki Giovanni who was so astute as to say it that way.

Whether scientists are actually less stupid (not to be confused with the opposite of smart or intelligent) than most people in general... is another issue we can discuss later if people want to talk about it again, but I think I have older posts on this issue if you want to browse the archive.

I guess I think that scientists are just as stupid as everyone else, and since most people are stupid and mean at least some of the time... well you get what we've got.

As you yourself pointed out, your advisor isn't always a jerk. Taking that into account:

Nobody is nice all the time and able to keep their jobs. Sometimes you have to say "No more mister nice guy" or people will walk all over you.

Similarly, nobody is an asshole all the time. This may seem hard to believe, but I've had good experiences with some people who have terrible reputations. I don't love and admire them in every way, and I have certainly seen them treat other people like dirt and wanted to yell at them to get a clue. But I have had valuable discussions and gotten useful feedback, and even encouragement, from some PIs described as 'tough' or 'makes even the coffee nervous' or just 'totally unapproachable.'

I've also had bad experiences with people who had good reputations. What can I say, I bring out the best in everyone(?).

One thing to keep in mind is, nobody treats everybody the same. I always think of labs as little nuclear families. Much as we try to pretend it's not the case, everyone has a favorite, and everyone has one kid who is the 'trouble child.' Which one you are really depends on whether you click with your advisor, or if you get along okay but not amazingly, or if it's just a bad fit. (Or if your advisor is a sexist/racist/antisemitic/misogynistic jerk.)

Personally, I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I can be brutally straightforward sometimes if I need to, and sometimes if I'm in a bad mood and don't mean to.

It's important to remember that PIs are human, and they generally don't mean to treat you like crap. Many of them never consider the effect their words have on you, or that the phrases they choose are not always the best ones. Others realize later that they were being nasty, and feel terrible, but don't have the spine to tell you (can't lose face by doing so). I worked with one woman who would tell stories about how crazy she used to be, and laugh about how she's learned her lesson, but I never thought to ask her if she ever apologized to any of her former victims.

One thing that drives me crazy about PIs is when they Expect You To Know Things. No one has ever told you; it's not written anywhere that you could read about it, and yet they get mad when you can't Read Their Minds or you don't Just Know. I think this is a frequent source of friction between PIs and lab members, and it often goes unrecognized. It's one of the great failings of the old system in the modern world, I think, because apprenticeship doesn't cover everything we apprentices need to Know.

(Communication is a good thing, people!)

I guess my point is, there are different ways for you to take charge and deal with the way they treat you.

1. Stand up for yourself. Argue back. There's no reason to just stand there and take it, especially if they're wrong and you know it. This is America, and most people (scientists especially) will respect you more for defending your ideas than for being a doormat.

2. Resolve to stay in science and be a better, nicer PI than the world has ever seen before (this is one of my personal goals). I figure the system is not going to change from the outside, we have to change it from within. Plus, when they treat you like crap, you can look at it as, "I'm never gonna be like that!" And analyzing it as a learning experience always helps take the sting out. Just add it to your list as One More Thing To Not Do As a PI.

3. Try asking your PI to be more aware that language matters. There are books on this. Lots of them. Good managers and ambitious people usually make a point of reading these books when they realize something is holding them back. In lieu of your PI getting a clue on their own (we don't want to hypocritically expect them to read Your mind, do we?), have an adult conversation about how you value feedback, and that you would prefer that it be constructive, that the tone not be condescending because it's not necessary to get the point across. And that you can't read anyone's mind.

I'm sure Ms.Mentor has things to say about this, too, but I have to confess I can't remember (see other earlier post on my terrible memory).

Anyone else want to add to this?

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Monday, January 01, 2007

I intellectualize, therefore I am.

Enforced relaxation time this weekend. Tried to make the most of it by focusing on relieving stress via busywork intellectualizing.

One of the career/confidence/self-help books I read included a little bonus: a Neuroticism Test!

For me??!! You shouldn't have!

I had no idea what neurotic meant. The official definition of neurosis is suffering from anxiety out of proportion to real threat.

Yes, MsPhD is officially neurotic about the whole faculty position thing.

So then, since I thought I had found something potentially insightful, I got another book. The take home message being, of course, "I'm neurotic, you're neurotic, and we're both ok!"

I'm not sure this revelation is going to help me in major life-changing ways, but I'm learning a little bit of psychology theory, which helps to pass the time.

I am trying to get away from this habit of blowing things out of proportion, which is apparently common in neurotic people, and feeds the negativity monkey on my back.

I also read some scientific journal articles, which was oddly comforting. And it was comforting that I enjoyed it the way I used to: it was both relaxing (easy) and stimulating (fun).

Maybe it's too soon to retire after all.

I know getting a job is highly competitive, and that staying funded in science is extremely difficult. But am I panicking out of proportion to a real threat? What's the real source of the problem: them or me?

(aside: I'm having deja blogging vu. I think I've written about this before.)

I'm trying to liken it to something a teacher told me when I was a kid. I was in a competition, and I was watching the other kids go before me. I thought they were better than I was.

She said I was better than they were, but I didn't know whether to believe her. I thought maybe she was just saying that to be nice, trying to build my confidence.

Objectively, I was trying my hardest to observe these other kids, and I really thought they were much better than me!

Objectively speaking, I have a similarly hard time figuring out where I fit into the whole job competition scene. My CV is really not that bad, I think. What I don't know is how worried I should be. Okay, that's neurotic, worrying about how much to worry!

One thing I can say for sure is this: if I'm neurotic, then working with, around and for highly neurotic people has certainly made me more paranoid, and more neurotic, then I would have been otherwise.

That's definitely them, and not me.

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