Career Myths about Grad School and Postdocs
Today I'm thinking about some things I used to think, and some things I know are still common beliefs about science. All of them can be dangerous assumptions, to differing degrees.
1. Appearances don't matter as much in science.
One of the things that attracted me to science was the false belief that it was more about putting in an honest day's work for a good cause than anything else, and that smart people didn't care what you wear or whether you're a minority or not.
Boy was that wrong!
Looking back, I got this impression based on working in the lab, down in the trenches, as it were. I liked the uniform of jeans and a t-shirt.
It never really occurred to me until relatively recently, but I've blogged about it a lot: to get from the trenches to the office, some people will judge you based on totally irrelevant criteria.
I knew this was true in other jobs. I just didn't think it would matter as much in science.
2. A PhD automatically means people without a PhD will respect your opinion more than they would have before you got the PhD.
When I had already been a postdoc for a while, I found myself in a sticky situation with a technician who just would not listen to anything I said.
Once upon a time, I looked up to the technicians. Many of them had more experience than I did, and some were immeasurably helpful to me.
I've always believed that, in terms of day-to-day things in the lab, a PhD just means you've logged a certain number of years at the bench. And experience, so far as I can tell, reigns supreme at the bench. And you never really know how much experience anyone has until you work with them.
Appearances, even in science, can be deceiving.
I didn't expect him to just take my word for anything, I would patiently try to explain my reasoning, but he just refused to listen.
Looking back, I think things were fine until he found out I had a PhD.
I've run into this a lot. People treat you a certain way when they assume you are a grad student, and they treat you differently from the moment they find out that you are not.
In retrospect, this was a horrible example of exactly the kind of sexism I have always tried to avoid, because I literally could not get my work done.
The PI was unreceptive. On the other hand, I never really spelled it out because I sensed that it would get me in trouble AND do nothing to improve the situation. Maybe I was wrong about that, but there's no way to know. And these things do have a statute of limitations.
I was thinking about this because someone I hadn't seen in a long time was asking me how my work was going since last we met.
I was thinking back over the setbacks I've had this year, large and small.
This last year was crippled with mostly small setbacks, but several of them could be traced to the same couple of sources. But there were at least a couple of large setbacks. In at least one case I lost a lot of time, but there was nothing I could have done differently.
But I'm not sure there was anything I could have done to make things turn out differently with this guy.
The biggest problem was that it took me a while to figure out if this guy was just weird. You know how some people in labs are just argumentative. I know someone who is like this, but it's how he behaves with everyone, no matter if you're young or old or tall or short or male or female or any color of the rainbow. That's just how he is.
And for a while there were no other women around, so I couldn't help wondering if it was really just me, or if it was actually because I was a woman.
The worst kind of woman. A woman with a PhD.
3. Sexism used to be worse, so women who complain about it now are just ungrateful and negative.
Maybe it's actually worse to be aware of sexism. That's certainly the message I've gotten from talking with older women faculty, who were either born with blinders on and apparently never took them off, or cultivated a kind of denial that I just can't muster.
It's like the conversation over at Jenny F. Scientist about whether outright falsification is worse, or not as bad, as cherry-picking from non-robust data.
The argument is that totally false data is much easier to identify than data that has been 'massaged.' By this reasoning, cherry-picking or massaging data is much more insidious, and much more dangerous, because it's a much bigger waste of everyone's time.
So while it might seem intuitive that blatant sexism is worse than subtle sexism, I don't think that's really the case anymore. Everyone agrees that blatant sexism is bad, and most people will speak out against it.
The problem with subtle sexism is that it's not minor. Passive aggression can be just as destructive as overt aggression. But it's much harder to prove.
Seems to me this is like the cherry-picking. Everyone's first inclination, when they can't be sure otherwise, is to blame themselves. And then we end up in situations like the one I just described, where you miss the crucial moment to do anything about it.
4. Faculty have not only personal experience, but also lots of ideas about what you should learn in grad school and as a postdoc.
False, false, and false!
For a while now in science, the gradual creeping increase of time in grad school and postdoc has been widening the generation gap.
But I had the unusual experience recently of hearing someone with an MD talking about what should be taught in grad school.
This same person was telling students to finish their PhD just because it would be useful.
I'm sorry, but what the hell would you know about it???
Similarly, I noticed pretty early in my postdoc that most older PIs have no concept whatsoever of what it's like for us as postdocs now. Most of them did a postdoc that lasted a maximum of two years, and then they got a job.
The end! Ta da! Wouldn't that be nice??
Again, if you haven't ever been through it, how much could you really know?
And yet, these are the people in charge (you know, the ones I'm always ranting about).
Worse than that, I heard a PI recently exhorting grad students to do a postdoc, but when asked about what exactly should be learned in a postdoc position, this PI had no idea how to respond.
(Here's a hint: if you're a PI, you should know the answer to this!)
5. A PhD is a useful jumping-off point for many careers, so it's a degree worth getting, even if you realize early in grad school that you're miserable.
This was probably true when grad school was less than 5 or 6 years. It may still be true in the UK and some European countries where grad school is ~ 3 years max.
But I don't really think it's true anymore, or good advice at all.
I mean, sure, if you're miserable and more than halfway done, you should probably finish. But isn't that true for most endeavors?
But if you know before you take your qualifying exams that you hate it?
And whatever you do, DO NOT go to grad school to figure out what you want to do.
Figure it out first.
Along those lines, I'm starting to wonder if we shouldn't be requiring students to go out and work for a few years before grad school.
I sincerely doubt that graduate programs could get away with the same kinds of abuse if students knew a little more about how much better it could be, and demanded it.
But that's just one theory.
On the flip slide, I've noticed a disturbing trend among my friends who worked before grad school: they tend to want to just put their head down, do their work, and get back out of academia as fast as possible.
I think this is bad because these kinds of students are not invested in giving back as they go along. I don't like the idea of grad school as a purely selfish undertaking to get a degree. I think this really misses the point.
If you just want to pay your dues and get your degree, get an MBA or a JD.
If you can see that things need to be better, but you're not willing to say it, please go away. We already have enough people like you.