Saturday, April 12, 2008

You know you're doing pretty well when

All those people who ignored or snubbed you are suddenly asking what you're up to these days, what your plans are, and how things are going.

Those people in this case, are PIs who previously wouldn't give me the time of day. People whom I was content to think had forgotten who I was, or just didn't care.

I'm very amused because from these kinds of encounters, I get the impression that my scientific reputation is improving.

Sometimes I even get mentored on these little run-ins. Suddenly now everyone wants to give me advice.

I think it's funny because I think they are realizing that, rather than quitting like everyone seems to have expected me to, they might actually have to deal with having me as a colleague someday.

Maybe, just maybe, I might be worth the effort of mentoring.

So I'm laughing. Because although I will always need it, and I need it now, they were not there for me in the past when I really needed it.


Oh and to the people who think I always blame other people for all my problems? Maybe you're right. I'm with Sartre on the whole population issue: Hell is other people.

At the end of the day, I'm pretty sure I'd be perfectly happy if people would just leave me alone to do my job.

Most of my complaints with work and with my parents have to do with people who think they know what's good for me but who never stopped to even ask me what I want.

A lot of the crap I went through in grad school also falls into this category, where the 'adults' (PIs) were constantly trying to block me from finding my own way. Which in my opinion is a lot of what grad school should be for.


As a postdoc, when I ask for help, it's not because I'm lazy but because I know it would be faster to have someone teach me and/or I've exhausted all the other resources.

But what I've learned is that most faculty aren't really aware of how they got where they are. They've never been forced to articulate what matters in choosing what journal to publish in, how to write a cover letter, or how to write a good grant and make sure it gets funded. They just do it.

A lot of times they're not even sure what they did. Or they might even suspect it was partly political, but they don't want to admit they've had these advantages handed to them, and all they did to deserve it was to be appropriately agreeable.

You know, how to do these things (publish, get funded, get a job) is what we should have learned in grad school, but nobody taught us systematically. And I'll agree that it's hard to articulate and hard to teach. But not impossible. I've met some PIs who can teach it. And I think these things should be required of any PIs that universities hire.

And right now they're not.

In fact, I think I've learned a lot more about the job market, for example, from blogging and reading blogs than I ever have from real PIs in real life.


I had a funny/depressing conversation with a young faculty member the other day, who said that although he knows he had a great advisor in grad school and a stellar experience (which is fast becoming a stellar career), he doesn't remember being mentored. He's not sure what his mentor did that made everything always seem easy and turn out all right.

I know this guy's advisor and he was definitely a good mentor. But I think people who've always had good mentors take it for granted.

Even though they're surrounded by stories of how bad it can be, the natural reaction is to deny it, and to blame the victim. It's hard to believe it until you've experienced it yourself.

Worst case scenario, these people end up being terrible mentors themselves, just because they don't have a clue about what they should or shouldn't do.

And they might not even realize that being a good mentor is an active process.

To his credit, this guy is at least aware that he needs to figure out how to mentor his grad students, and fast. And I think he will, because he knows how important it is.

I personally have not had the stellar mentoring experience in science, but I know what it can be like because I've had other mentors in other areas of my life, and it's a wonderful thing. But in science, I've kind of given up on having that kind of relationship with anyone anytime soon, and I'm not sure if I ever will. My goal is to be the stellar mentor myself.


When finally given the chance, I found my own way and it mostly works for me when I have the courage to stick to it. Which isn't always easy. At all. And when I chicken out or feel pressured by 'advice' from people who 'know better', I have no one to blame but myself.

(See that, trolls? I blame myself. I don't blame anyone else!)

When I'm brave enough to do it, it works for me and I'm really glad I got the chance to find that out.

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At 3:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have also had the experience of having a bad mentor, and I am still looking for someone (other than some very helpful bloggers like yourself) to fill this void. This lack of mentorship has taught me one very valuable thing - what not to do. I have become hyper-aware of what constitutes good and bad mentorship and know that if I am ever lucky enough to have my own lab, I, like you, will certainly place the role of a mentor as one my top priorities.

At 10:10 AM, Anonymous JaneB said...

Sounds like you must be doing something right! It can be disconcerting when you start to make that shift to being someone other people notice and ask after - sadly, I don't think anyone's ever tried to mentor me except by telling me what I did wrong - the first time my former PhD supervisor sent me a (rather querulous sounding) email saying " I was at this conference in the US and BigFigure and ImportantProf asked after you - what have you been doing?" was a definite milestone. My supervisor wasn't a bad mentor per se, he tried hard, he just wasn't a particularly great mentor for _me_ at that point in my development - I had enough critical adult male voices in my head from earlier in my life, I didn't need someone else pointing out what I hadn't done, read or thought of. But he taught me a lot and could have been SO MUCH WORSE.

That experience helped me to realise that supervising/mentoring isn't just about what _I_ do, it's about the relationship with the student. With my undergrad project students, who join the group for 6-9 months part time, it's clearest - even with three equally able students, I'll need to behave differently. Student A I need to meet with every week to agree goals for the next week or they'll either do nothing or paint all the samples purple instead of putting them in the purple machine; student B I check up on in passing regularly, but we only meet when B has reached some choice point and wants specific advice or to be pointed to some readings; student C I meet with regularly to confirm with them that they're doing OK and are perfectly capable of doing a great job - student C doesn't need _telling_ things, they just need support whilst they figure them out for themselves.

And you very clearly come across as someone who NEEDS to work things out for themselves - can be an irritating quality in a student, is an essential quality in a good scientist, and is a useful quality in a faculty member (note - not essential - we can all see examples of people who've developed stellar careers in terms of prestige without ever letting go of the coattails of (or escaping the gravity field of, to mix metaphors) the first BigProf who swept them up at some early stage).

At 2:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just started my 2nd postdoc. I miss my old mentor. My best hope for the current one is that he will simply let me do what I want to do. I fear the worst however, because so far so far he has only vetoed everyting I have started (even though we had agreed on these prior to me starting). At this point in my career I don't need someone to hold my hand but I surely do not need anyone preventing me from carrying out my ideas!

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

First Anon- Amen! Here's hoping we both make it.

JaneB- Thanks for the kind words, as usual.

I'm not so sure if I need to work things out for myself always, but I prefer to be treated as a colleague whose opinion/intuition matters. I don't do well with being told "This is how it is, just because."

Especially since most of the time I've found that kind of logic to be wrong.


Get OUT, get out NOW!

Did you exchange plans in writing before you started? Are there legitimate reasons for now changing the plans (e.g. lack of funding; some of it was published by someone else)?

If not, this person is starting off by jerking you around. That won't ever end if they're that sort of person.

Don't sign up for several years of this. Did you apply elsewhere? Can you contact the other labs again, even if you previously turned them down?

I'm serious about this. It's not worth it if they're going to block you from day 1.

At 10:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi - it's Anon2 again.
Before joining the lab i applied for fellowships - i got my own funding so my boss doesn't have to worry about that. It seems that now it has come to the point where i am actually going to do the stuff i proposed (which isn't impossible so i am actually getting to it), he just doesn't like it (anymore? never read the proposal?). "Too expensive" or "possibly overlapping with others" were the "reasons" so far. I'm not gonna quit - I'll just make it clear to him that I am not some pushover who'll go down without a fight.

At 5:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

how were you able to be a postdoc for so long? i am struggling to find someone (myself included) to pay my salary after 1 year of postdoccing. i'm also not the only postdoc in our lab who fears they will be tossed onto the street.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Facetious Student said...

I'm an undergrad and lucky enough to have two great mentors. The PI and grad student I work under push me pretty hard and I love it... the pressure they're putting upon me will lead me to take further strides to become a successful scientist. I've always thanked them for critiques and corrections because without it, my professional maturity as a younger researcher wouldn't propel as fast.

On that note, I'm youngster, but any advice to identify PIs who will not hold up as good mentors?

At 5:05 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Facetious Student,

I think I've blogged about this before. I'll try to check my archives since I started tagging, but it's not complete. Always a topic I can blog over again. A constantly evolving hypothesis, I would say.

At 5:07 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 5:44 AM,

I got a fellowship. I wrote a lot of applications, got one and withdrew from the last one before I found out if I would have gotten it.

Key thing for getting fellowships: you have to have publications from your thesis lab.

That is all there is to it. Either that or become slave labor. Most PIs will pay forever for someone who is obediently bashing through the Aims in their pet R01, but they don't want to pay you if you want to work on your own project that doesn't relate to their stuff.

Good luck.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon2 again,

Sounds like this person is threatened by you.

'overlapping with others' sounds to me like code for:

'overlapping with my research'
'overlapping with other postdocs'
'forcing me into competitions that might ruin alliances/peace treaties in my field'

'Too expensive' might be code for 'will take too long/I think it's risky/I don't know anything about this technique.'

The good news is, 'too expensive' is usually fixable. Get other PIs/collaborators to pay for some experiments. Apply for small grants to cover parts of it.

Or better yet, find someone who is willing to mentor you and help you apply for career development grants. You sound like the type of person who should.

But get out of there if it's going to be a big fight to do your science.

Trust me, if you can't earn their respect and support, you're going to have a miserable time moving up to the next level. You really need your advisor to be someone who can appreciate you, and will go to bat for you, not just once but repeatedly as you get things published, apply for funding and jobs.

If there's one thing I know for sure, it's not worth settling for a mediocre situation where your advisor is lukewarm about you and your project. Ever hear the phrase 'damning with faint praise'? That's the kind of rec letter you'll get if you stay where you are and things don't improve.

Whatever you do, don't abandon your project if you believe in it and it excites you. But I think it might be easier to move than to rub this guy the wrong way.

At 11:25 PM, Anonymous Filipina said...

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