Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Hard not to notice several of my male peers getting away with, or even kudos for, stuff that is considered immature or unprofessional if I do it.

Example: a friend who is working on a manuscript and about to submit to a C/N/S journal.

Got the green light to submit, but hasn't yet even formatted the figures and has been working from a draft with everything as Powerpoint slides.

My advisor won't even discuss figures with me, much less a draft of a paper, until it looks like a paper.

I've tried before to get feedback on Powerpoint slides, so as to avoid re-making figures over and over and over, but it's always treated like I'm showing preliminary data instead of something I've actually reproduced several times.

If I reformat and label everything, I might be lucky enough to schedule a meeting.

This has been true for the last several types of things like this I've done, including grant applications, etc. with different advisors.

Interesting to me that appearance seems to matter maybe even more than substance sometimes, but it depends on whose substance we're talking about.


Meanwhile I am trying to forget that I know about two other male postdocs who are getting or about to get their papers published in C/N/S journals.

In one case, the postdoc was born in another country and has been in the US about 10 years. His English skills are weak, so the PI wrote all the text and had a huge influence on how the paper came together (what went in the figures, designing the model to interpret the data, etc.).

In the other case, the postdoc did everything himself. The PI is making phone calls on his behalf to make sure that when they address the reviews on the paper, the editor will accept it.

I've never had anyone do either of those things for me. I'm pretty sure I won't ever.


It's also hard not to notice that one of my other female postdoc friends has had a draft of a manuscript ready for a year, and her advisor keeps changing the plans.

I can't help thinking this is all the damned-if-you-do-or-don't scenario as usual.

I've noticed that many PIs seem to exploit their female postdocs more, want to get as much out of us as possible, but always with their own gain in mind and not our career success.

If we try to tell them what we think we need in order to succeed, we're being bitchy, confrontational, disagreeable, or 'hard to work with.'

And if we don't, we're screwed. Our papers get delayed, sometimes by years, and when they're finally published it's in 2nd-tier (or lower) journals.

Meanwhile the male postdocs get patted on the head, promoted, and encouraged when they're not performing to the same level. They aren't asked to perform at a higher level, and they aren't even sure they want careers in academia.


I have another friend who is reluctantly trying to get a paper accepted at a C/N/S journal because the PI wants him to.

This same PI is constantly complaining that her female postdocs aren't motivated enough, or are lazy, or aren't sure what they want to do with their careers.

But she has willfully and continually ignored my friend telling her he's not sure he wants to stay in academic science. When he says this, she says "Oh you don't mean that."

She did the same thing to a previous male postdoc who ended up going to industry.
Despite all the warning signs, she was shocked when she found out, and still hasn't bothered to process what it meant.


Hypothesis 1: If you're a male postdoc and you aren't sure you want a career in academia, or the PI thinks you're somehow deficient, you get more help and promotion.

Hypothesis 2: If you're a female postdoc, chances are good that your PI will delay submitting your papers longer, and when they're published they'll be in a slightly lower tier journal.

And all the studies on pipelines are asking why women don't seem to publish as much or as high impact as men do?

Anybody notice that at the postdoc level, this is determined more by the PI than by the postdoc?


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At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is really hard to deal with certain advisors to get what you need because you come off as sounding "pushy" I wonder if time in lab relates to anything. I've observed that the people who have been in the group longest generally are able to work with the PI when it seems like something is preliminary.

At 1:28 PM, Anonymous CC said...

Got the green light to submit, but hasn't yet even formatted the figures and has been working from a draft with everything as Powerpoint slides.

I'm not seeing any problem here, as long as the content is not going to meaningfully change.

She did the same thing to a previous male postdoc who ended up going to industry. Despite all the warning signs, she was shocked when she found out, and still hasn't bothered to process what it meant.

Umm, what *does* it mean? And why would someone be reluctant to publish in a top journal regardless of where he is planning on going next?

At 4:57 PM, Blogger El said...

I've been reading you for months and haven't gotten around to commenting, but I just figured I'd tell you that your blog is the second link to come up when one googles "female graduate biology student blog", as I did just now on a whim. Congratulations?

At 5:40 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Haven't observed a correlation there, except in cases where the PI is eager to get rid of the ones who have been hanging around the longest.

Doesn't apply in this case. This guy is very un-pushy. Tries to be, anyway.


No, see, my point is that it should be fine for everyone. But it's not fine when I do it. The reaction I get is that it's equivalent to showing up with figures drawn using crayons. Seriously.

"It" means she's totally out of touch with what her postdocs want to do with their lives, not for lack of them trying to tell her. She just refuses to listen.

He doesn't want to go through the struggle of the political crap to publish in a Tabloid. He knows it will take a long time.

Of course I've also noticed a tendency with him to disbelieve his own data. So maybe it's a bit of impostor syndrome, too. The bigger the Tabloid, the harder the fall?

Or maybe he is cooking his data? I don't know, I haven't seen any of it recently. Anything is possible, you never really know anyone's standards until you work with them directly.


That's funny. Yes, I'm your one-stop-shop for all things afflicting female graduate biology students. Or something like that.

At 6:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm in the same boat. even with all my repeated follow-up emails, my grad advisor still hasn't read the manuscript i sent to him almost a year ago.

the males in the lab i am currently in are ALWAYS discussing their ideas and coming up with collaborative projects. i am never included in these chats because i am at the bench WORKING. i always feel left out. i am one of the few female postdocs in the lab but the other females are not into collaborating (wholly different research topics) and are not even friendly.

if only i were a GUY and things would be friendlier, people would be more helpful, and things would go faster.

At 6:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused whether you're comparing behavior from the same PI (yours) or several different PIs who have different styles. As a male scientist, I have seen different behaviors from different PIs--it just depends on the style of the PI.

And, my PhD supervisor didn't care whether you were a man or a woman, a manuscript with figures and text in crayon was a perfectly good draft for C/S/N. The more crayon the better.

Because the stakes were less, lower tier manuscripts generally were expected to be more finished during the draft phase because less was going to happen in the back and forth. My current supervisor wants only finished, polished ready to go before he looks at it.

Since I'm the same, I blame the advisors, not the postdocs.

At 7:20 AM, Anonymous JaneB said...

I've been lucky in not having PIs who have different expectations of different post-docs as a general rule but I've only post-docced in labs with small numbers of post-docs and always with near-equal male-female ratios. But I've run into a lot of unexpectedly-gendered expectations - for example that I should be good at poster design or at creating attractive conceptual model type figures because I'm female and therefore 'more artistic', so I get assigned those tasks more often (I can just ABOUT manage to match socks, shoes and the rest of an outfit and my art teacher actually thanked me when I opted to take extra music at school - design and art are NOT my things). I also tended to be assigned to 'caring' type roles when it comes to the junior admin type roles new academics get, like pastoral and advisorly responsibilities for students rather than being on a faculty or university committee. Particularly ironic as the guy who got the faculty job was very keen to have the supprot role for disabled students because of his own experience with disability - he was told that he was to be eased in gently to such a challenging role, yet I was assigned much against my wishes to looking after the (nearly all female) mature student cohort (I should add that I went straight through the most conventional qualifying route you could imagine and am single and childless with healthy parents, so am very poorly placed to empathise with or advise them). Can't help but feel gender bias was present there!

And yes, being called aggressive, pushy, demanding, neurotic and over-dramatic for the exact same behaviours that get male colleagues labelled dedicated or brilliant is very frustrating. And very hard to deal with - drawing attention to it simply SHOWS that we're overly PC, neurotic, anxious, sensitive and unsuited to the job. Ever get 'if you can't stand the heat...' thrown at you as a serious piece of advice?

I wish someone would devise a way to do a study into what goes on in the PI-post doc relationship as well as on the products of the post-docs as it could be really interesting. I would argue that no one can be the perfect PI for every post-doc, but given the relative lack of diversity of PIs, it follows that some post-docs will find it harder to find a compatible, supportive PI who will enable them to develop and succeed (and this need not be purely about gender - the same issues apply if we consider working style, support and training needs, the balance of doing your own thing and being part of a team...) as long as there's a broadly monolithic system, which rewards 'competitive' rather than purely scientifically-productive behaviour, the selection process for PI positions is going to tend to select people with the qualities and attitudes which the highly aggressive, competitice system rewards, and therefore those who will tend to perpetuate that system onto their post-docs and PhDs... especially given that having postdocs and PhDs requires success in the funding game which is the prime arena in which this aggressive/competitive rather than collegial behaviour is rewarded, so the labs where there are most post-doc posts are even more likely to be the ones led by faculty members from this part of the spectrum - competitive, not self-reflective, and often with some very self-replicating biases which shape their behaviour and expectations unconciously if not conciously.

It's frustrating. And I don't have any answers - but blogs like this where these ideas can be aired can at least provide solidarity and a resource for those PIs who want to learn what to avoid... maybe the next generation will have a different experience? That's all we can hope for. Now, back to yet another attemtp to get a funding package large enough to get a couple of post-docs into my lab so I can try to do some of this stuff for real!

At 9:56 AM, Blogger science cog said...

I was sorry to read your post. It is harder for equally talented women than men at every step of the way - little things, big things whatever. It can be draining and exhausting and there is really nothing you can do about it. I hope you keep trying to publish despite setbacks.

At 1:37 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 6:45 pm,

Right now I know at least one guy in the same boat re: grad school publications. But I can name about 5 women who have that problem. Two of them had female PIs as thesis advisors. I guess it didn't help.

re: feeling left out, I have been there a lot. In some cases I've found that one of the guys would talk to me, and once he decided I was okay then the others did too.

But in other cases I was never able to break in, or I just had to wait until the guys all left. It delayed my career and still does.

I just wish advisors would realize how hard it is for women to break into these groups, even if it's a group of 2 or 3 buddy-buddy guys, that can present an obstacle to sharing data and reagents.

I also wish that the women in the lab would join together more. Maybe you should make that one of your projects?

Anon 6:51 pm,

My point is that most PIs in the current system have similar styles, or there are only a few kinds.

The idea of diversity would be to have more than a few kinds.


Your point about being expected to be more artistic made me want to shout EXACTLY!!! That is exactly it. I hadn't realized it but I think this is part of why my thesis advisor always seemed surprised at my poor art skills. Now I wonder if it was partly because he had biased expectations? That hadn't occurred to me until just now.

And someone just used funding as an excuse the other day, that we have to be competitive in publishing so that we can get funding.

So on the one hand, they won't let you move up if you don't come in having these skills. On the other hand, some of them seem to know that some of us have to learn it, and they view publishing as evidence that you know.

Either way it seems unavoidable that you learn to toughen up a bit, no matter how tough you were coming in.

I haven't heard the 'if you can't stand the heat' in real life, though I'm sure you've heard it here on the blog. Someone just said 'que cera cera' the other day, which makes me want to do something violent.

The one I just heard again the other day, which always pisses me off is, "Well life isn't fair, so..."

As if science shouldn't be held to a higher standard than, what? The Superdelegates? Give me a break.

If anyone should have the utmost standards for fairness, it should be us.

Science cog,

True. And thanks. Still trying.

At 2:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I just wish advisors would realize how hard it is for women to break into these groups, even if it's a group of 2 or 3 buddy-buddy guys, that can present an obstacle to sharing data and reagents."

And just what would the advisor do, force the group of 3 friends to start buddying around with you? Yeah, that would work out well. A lab is like any other work/school experience, there inevitably are cliques, and nothing an advisor does will change that.

At 7:59 AM, Anonymous labbrat said...

Is it uncommon for postdocs to decide themselves where to submit their papers and to do the submitting? I'm still in grad school and recently had my first paper accepted - but I wasn't getting any help from my advisers, even during the research stage. So when it came time to submit the paper, I picked the journal, formatted it, and then sent everyone an email saying "I'm submitting it here in a week - if you want to make comments, send them before then." Is that so very different from what the "typical" student or postdoc does? It may have to do with the fact that I put myself as corresponding author (on the advice of my adviser), so I was able to manage the publishing process myself. Is that the main reason why PIs have to be involved to the extent that they are?

Also, about being "pushy" that really such a problem? I mean, if you have the choice to submit to a 2nd tier journal vs. C/N/S and you push for C/N/S and win, I think that would more than make up for some adviser labeling you as "pushy."

At 1:13 PM, Anonymous Chemlibrn said...

Zuska just posted a blog link to a paper that gives conclusive proof that in at least one case, female postdocs did have to work 3 times as hard to achieve the same career results!

At 4:44 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

What would the advisor do?
1. Hire a balanced group to begin with.
2. Manage the group so that reagents are accessible to EVERYONE.
3. Advise their "trainees" so that they are less dependent on the cliques for support and feedback.
4. Get a clue. Buddiness is supportive and can be harmless or even constructive, but exclusive cliques are destructive and divisive.

At 7:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What would the advisor do?
1. Hire a balanced group to begin with.
2. Manage the group so that reagents are accessible to EVERYONE.
3. Advise their "trainees" so that they are less dependent on the cliques for support and feedback.
4. Get a clue. Buddiness is supportive and can be harmless or even constructive, but exclusive cliques are destructive and divisive."

Are you really that clueless? Your idealism is without bounds.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Speak up against bullying in universities said...


I agree with you. I do not know why these PIs like Chinese graduate students and post docs. They hate female grad students. I do not know whether some researchers cooking data. After 2 years in the accademia, I gave up my grad studies. Now, I don't beleive any research data published.

My advisor (foreing born) told me because I am female therefore I have to work three times more than others in the lab.

Now, I hate grad school. I do not know why I spent time on my studies instead of doing something that could have made me happy.

At 12:46 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

anon, first of all, what the hell kind of lame comeback is that? I may be clueless and idealistic, but at least I have something interesting to say!

But yeah, this is what I would do if I were the ok. I think if you're going to have people in your lab, you should take care of them. If you don't like them, if they're lazy or, god forbid, inarticulate like your comment was, then you should help them find another career.

I think some advisors genuinely care, and some just have a twisted idea of "tough love", but many are too self-centered/misguided to realize the people in their own lab are miserable and that should weigh on their conscience all day, every day.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

oops, I mean if I were the PI. If it were my lab.

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous JaneB said...

Anon, why is it a bad thing to have ideals? Without ideals, how can you possibly plan for the future or assess how you're doing? Or do you think that papers published/money earned are the only measures of success?

There are so many things in this world which are wrong, or could be better, and it's the people with ideals, with a vision of what a fair world might look like, who say 'what can I do differently, how can I change this to help others' - and who get told 'that's just how it is, it's naive to think you might change something'. Ensuring your employees are happy - gosh how idealistic. But might it lead to all round productivity, loyalty, innovation?

Science needs idealists, not just careerists. Dreamers make discoveries!

At 11:50 AM, Blogger Mr. Procastination said...

Could someone tell me what is meant with "C/N/S journal" ? It makes me think about Cell/Nature/Science but this probably not correct, is it?


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