Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How would you fare if science were a meritocracy?

First, in answer to the summer student who wants to submit a co-first author paper:

Use asterisks. You'll see examples of this all over the literature, and it will look like this (sorry I won't do it in LaTeX here!):

Name, Yours*, Name, Friend's*, Name, Supervisor, Name, Figurehead PI.

Name of University.

*These authors contributed equally to this work.


Anon asked in a comment:

What would be your opinion on a scenario in which all PhDs/postdocs were qualified individuals who actually wrote their own papers and grants? Surely, of all the people who actually make it to the coveted tenured positions, some people actually deserved it. My question is basically if the system only allows a chosen few to ascend, what do the rest of us hardworking, decent scientists do? Clearly, there are biases that prevent this from happening in reality. I'm just saying if these egregious offenses weren't happening, would you feel any different? Like, ok, I gave it my best shot but it just wasn't meant to be. Or maybe something else?

Honestly I haven't thought about this in a long time.

I would have quit before/during grad school if I thought that, objectively speaking, everyone else was better than me and therefore I had no shot at a job in this business.

In fact, I had no expectation of a job when I started my postdoc. I was kind of figuring I would hate it, the way I hated grad school.

But you know how YFS is, she had to do the experiment.

Instead I had this bizarre realization: I am good at what I do. (Maybe even really good!)

It took me a while to figure this out.

Not many people have ever given me compliments on my work, until very recently.

But during my postdoc, I've gotten lots of little clues that I'm doing things the right way.

1. Lots of people cite one of my papers from grad school. In fact, it is my thesis advisor's most-cited publication of all time (so far!). This was a weird little ego boost, since to this day, when I go to meetings, most people have not heard of me or my advisor. But the ones who have, know of us because of that paper.

The whole idea of that paper was my idea, not my advisor's. Nobody knows that from looking at my CV (!), but it is nice for me to know that I have good ideas and I know how to test them.

2. After I left my thesis lab, the senior postdoc who had never really been friendly admitted to me that nothing got done after I left. She hadn't realized, until I was gone, that I was the one ordering anything when we ran out, refilling the tip boxes, autoclaving everything, taking out the biohazard trash, making all the buffers, etc.

Needless to say, I had to laugh at that. Minor victories! Not only did I keep my work going, I kept everyone else's going, too. Not to underestimate the amount of work it takes to set up and fund a lab and hire people (a lot), but there's no question that I could run a lab, if I had one of my own.

3. A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to do an experiment that would test one of the main hypotheses of my thesis more directly than had been possible at the time. Hooray for technological advances!

And, yes you guessed it. It worked! Hooray for confirmation! That was very satisfying.

Even if it's not the sort of thing I could publish on its own, it was very nice to get that result.

(I'll admit though, one thought that crossed my mind was, "Okay, that's my contribution, I can quit now!")

4. More minor victories: friends who come to me to help troubleshoot their experiments. I have one friend, a couple years ahead of me, who needed to learn some basic molecular biology (not her field). So she came to me. And we got her stuff going.

My proudest moment of that whole story: when she told me she was helping other people do their molecular biology now, using my protocols.

Another random example, I have a grad student friend right now who swears her project would not be working if I hadn't given her a couple of little suggestions along the way (and she actually followed them!).

This got me thinking that yes, I do have the expertise, I could be a good advisor. I like that part of the job.

5. This is the last one, because my timer is about to beep. I think I've mentioned it before on this blog, when someone told me they never believed my data before, because they could never get a certain (critical) technique to work that well.

I was totally baffled by this, since it was sort of a backhanded compliment. (Because it was brought up in the context of, now they believe me....!)

It had never occurred to me that not everyone's data looked that good. I mean, sure, I've read lots of papers with crappy looking data and wondered why it looked so bad. But it took a long time for me to realize I'm good at that technique, and it's actually a useful skill.

It is one of my (last remaining?) missions in science to get everyone to learn how to do it the way I do, and get great results like I do.

So I guess my point is, I think if science were a meritocracy, I would be one of the chosen few. Otherwise I would have quit by now. Any rational person would!

But since science is not a meritocracy, I might quit any day now. As any rational person would.

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At 4:20 PM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

YFS - are you sure you and I aren't the same person!!??? The things you discussed in this post are EXACTLY the same as my own experiences. Hmmm ... pretty frightening to think that there could be two of us on this planet :)

At 5:28 PM, Anonymous Raysa ValĂ©ria said...

It's interesting how the things working in academia: you have to do a lot of work (even mistakes)to get the self recognize that you are good. Just after it people recognize it too!
Congratulations for the minor victories!

At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Gingerale said...

This is beautiful. Thanks for this!

At 12:02 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I'm sure. You already HAVE a faculty position, right??

That makes all the difference in the world.

At 5:07 PM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

I may have a faculty position NOW but my grad school and postdoc lives weren't smooth sailing at all ... I'm only in the position I am now due to (1) a lot of luck, (2) being in the right place at the right time and (3) knowing and making the most of my strengths. I could rant for hours about people who were awarded scholarships over me (their advisors wrote the applications) even though my GPA and experience were far superior, the ton of work I've done for students and postdocs that has gone without being acknowledged and how many times I've had to listen to my Clueless Mentor rave about various dumbfucks who can't tie their own shoelaces.

In all seriousness, there's been a LOT of very, very dark times along the way and I've had to deal with a lot of anger and depression issues that some of this crap caused.

I know it seems easy for me to say, but something will come along that will be perfect for your needs and will take you out of your current hellhole (I NEVER thought it would actually happen for me either). Just keep your eyes and ears open for possibilities as they can come from any direction.

In the meantime, try not to kill anyone ...


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