Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Leader of the pack?

So far, this has been one of those awful weeks. I can't believe it's only Wednesday.

I have been working my butt off and so far none of it feels like progress. At the end of the day, I try to pat myself on the back just for trying. I put in an honest day's work, I say. That's as much as anyone can ask for.

Today I will pick myself up and try again. One foot in front of the other.

But I am tired of the rivalries and bullshit.

My PI has favorites, and when the old favorites leave, there are new favorites, and I am never one of them. And I have been here too long not to notice the pattern. The favorites get favors, get promoted, and get out.

I would like to move up in the ranks, not as The Teacher's Pet, but as

"Yes, MsPhD deserves to have her outstanding ideas and skills promoted internationally!"

Instead I have to listen to my labmates complain about stupid, fixable problems. But there's no point, I'm learning, in trying to help them. They just want to vent, I guess. In fact, I get the strong impression that my labmates don't want my advice at all, maybe just because it comes from me. Which makes my so-called experience and expertise feel completely futile.

I am Jack's useless PhD.

I wonder if this is what it's like to be a PI. I have worked in labs where the PI made lots of good suggestions, but the lab members ignored them all. To me, this is a nightmare made real. It would completely defeat the purpose.

I have this fear that I am too much like my father. He is in the sort of profession where there are technical experts and there are managers.

The Managers are idiots, in this case, but good salesmen. They have different kinds of skills, which is important, but they don't have the ability to understand the technical aspects. At all.

Anyone smarter is assigned to a technical position.

The problem is that the technical experts are paid less and have less say in what projects get done, they're just stuck trying to make the projects work once they are decided upon.

My father has spent his whole career trying to figure out how to do something that happens only rarely: to get promoted into a Manager-type position from a technical-type position. Finally now, towards the end of his career, he is moving up. And he is much happier than he used to be.

But what if I am just like him? If that's true, it doesn't help me if I'm good at troubleshooting, it actually hurts me from reaching my goal.

I keep envisioning myself as a tiny cog in a giant pharmaceutical company, and trying to imagine what that would be like as a career.

Keeping in mind, I'm in that totally awkward position: PI has said in private that my suggestions, while rarely appreciated by my labmates, are always appreciated by my PI.

But I'm still not receiving any of the favors awarded to the Favorites. So where does that leave me? Technical Expert exploited by Manager?

I'm afraid so, but I don't know what to do about it.

So while it bothers me that I'm clearly an outsider from my peers, the truth is that my labmates will come and go, and probably more than half will not stay in academia (and some will not stay in research or science-related fields at all).

I have learned the hard way that you can put a lot of effort into relationships in science, only to have them never pay off in any useful way.

I have helped people and not gotten even an acknowledgment, and I have befriended people who weren't there when I needed them.

I have a few good friends whom I see only rarely, but I am supposed to be satisfied with that because I can't expect all my professional colleagues to be my buddies.

Postdoc Mantra 1: I am not supposed to care whether my peers respect or like me.

And I am not supposed to care that they don't know what they're doing, no matter how much time and NIH money I witness them wasting.

Postdoc Mantra 2: It is not my job to fix these things, even if I know how.

All I'm supposed to care about is that PI is here to stay, and if I want to be an academic, I have to stay on PI's radar and good graces.

But man, I am sick and tired of it.

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13 Comments:

At 1:57 PM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

Sorry to hear you're having a sucky week. I'm in the same boat with regards to useless, ungrateful labmates and one of my mentors is also seemingly unappreciative when I'm in the general vicinity but apparently has said nice things about me to others.

Maybe now is the perfect time to look at moving on. Next year's jobs will hit the market in the coming months so it might make you feel better to spend some quality time with your cv making yourself look even more amazing than you already are :)

Hang in there.

 
At 3:19 PM, Anonymous Jake said...

PIs have to be good salesmen, how else would they get grants from committees that do not understand the technical challenges?

If intelligence is considered a given, research [on the competitive margin] is mainly a question of time and energy. Hence, the preference for young people with dreams, hopes, and no life ... I mean no other commitments... to handle the technical problems.

 
At 4:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish there were more female college teachers in the sciences, but I'm sick of all the moaning about there being discrimination, etc. Here's a great article to check out: http://www.city-journal.org/2008/eon0728hm.html

 
At 4:59 PM, Blogger jonathan said...

I am Jack's useless PhD.
Best paraphrasing seen recently in the science blogosqaure. YFS FTW! Sorry things are going so craptacular for you...

 
At 5:52 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

PiT,

I'm ambivalent about next year's job ads. Long story. I am trying to get psyched up about working on my CV and wondering how best to go about strategizing re: contacts in various departments, etc. I was somewhat heartened to notice that there were ads coming out last February/March/April in my field, so maybe I can get away with applying in the late/winter and spring, if this fall doesn't work out. Best laid plans and foibles of having a control freak PI. You know how it is.

Jake,

I challenge the notion that intelligence in science is a given.

Some of the things I've witnessed in the daily goings-on of my lab in last two days would say it's anything but.

Anon,

I guess it's good I'm not a mathematician.

Oh right, now I remember. I was really good at math when I was younger. I QUIT because of fuckers like people who believe this shit about boys being better than girls at math.

I assume that includes YOU.

If you're sick of the "moaning", stop reading this blog. Problem solved.

Why do you wish there were more female college teachers in science? You certainly don't seem to think we're smart enough. Why should we bother trying to convince you otherwise?

jonathan,

Thanks. Honestly, it's not much worse than usual in terms of events & catastrophes, I'm just having a hard time maintaining a Positive Attitude In the Face of Imminent Failure... something about next year's job ads coming out that always gets to me in the fall. I'm tired of this yearly cycle of scrambling and disappointment. I would like to get off the not-so-merry-go-round, if I just just figure out which one is my stop.

 
At 8:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I may generalize, I think it's a "female thing" to try to fix everything, including other people's problems. Do I ever get the same favors (troubleshooting) in return? Hardly. Sometimes the paranoid side of me believes that people are withholding information from me (technical details) on purpose so I learn it for myself the hard way.

Re: Favorites, you will never be the favorite in your current PI's lab. I have been in the same position when I was a grad student. I had to fight tooth and nail, and although I am doing well for my level (beginning postdoc), sooo many PI's pets managed to succeed without much effort on their part (thanks to the PI's cronies and friends who are also PIs). It's an ugly system. The only thing that will make your situation better is to GET OUT. As soon as I did that, I realized life can actually be great in the lab. It's bittersweet because while I am proud that I achieved everything on my own, it is sad that I had to spend so much time doing it by myself.

 
At 8:49 PM, Blogger Hermitage said...

That sounds relatively horrendous. Looking back, were there any warning signs that the young dewy-eyed kiddos (like me!) should be on the lookout for? I have low enough self-esteem w/o having a PI decide I am slightly more important than the scum on his shoe...

 
At 12:12 AM, Blogger Dr. J said...

I'm just going to say that I disagree with the statement "Tiny cog in a giant pharmaceutical machine". Yep pharma companies are huge things, but relatively speaking the researcher group within is small and is subdivided into specialists who are involved in large numbers of the projects ongoing at the time.
This means that it's easy to be known, recognised and rewarded for excellence, because you are seen and worked with by a large cross section of the research community within the company. It is actually very easy to make a name for yourself in a big company if you are good.

 
At 2:02 AM, Anonymous (i) said...

Have you ever expressed your wishes to get ahead and be promoted out loud to your superiors?

Just the other day, I read in an article that - generally - women tend to think that others will notice their qualities entirely out of their own and the reward will follow, all they [the women] have to do is be brilliant in silence. Unfortunately, in practice it seems that only the ones that express their wishes in being promoted are actually the ones that get help.

Just express your ambitions... it is easy to take the 'silent troubleshooter' for granted.

 
At 5:34 AM, Blogger female in academia said...

You say:" PI has said in private that my suggestions [...] are always appreciated by my PI. "
So he/she *does* value your work :-D. Why not go ask for a promotion directly? That's what an xy would do, while we xx often silently hope our achievements get acknowledged, or give indirect hints.

I always have a hard time recognizing such situations where I should react as a xy would. However science (at least my field) is a boys (scouts?) club, and because this will not change within the next few years, we've got to play by the rules.

Good luck!

 
At 6:27 PM, Anonymous Kris said...

I am going to grad school this fall. There is school that I can go to and it's mediocre, but its in-state (if I'm going to be going to classes in person it has to be in-state as I have a mortgage and have to work full time at a local job).

That being said, I can attend a more prestigious university but I can only take classes online, because of my situation. What should I do? Opinions? I know that I will get a better experience going in person and that it would be more fun, but, that being said is it worth the sacrifice in prestige? There are no prestigious universities that I can attend locally for my area.

Thanks,

Kris

 
At 1:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sorry it has been one of those weeks. From everything I have read in your blog you have the brains and the stubbornness to make this career work, and please don't let the obvious holes in the meritocracy get you down.

I want to focus on one of the last points you brought up, friendships in science. I don't think manuscripts and friendships mix all that well (I can't comment about the husband-wife writing teams). I love that most of my close friends are also academics, who know what I'm talking about when I call up with a rant... but none of them are in my subfield. Some are also biologists, like those I met in grad school, but my closest friends date back to college, and we've gone into different parts of academe (psychology, chemistry, oceanography). So we can be supportive and objective without having anything personally at stake in any of the matters we each face with asshole personalities and quirks of our fields.

Additionally, they understand that work gets crazy busy and that you aren't going to respond to emails for a couple months sometimes. This may seem like a sad acceptance of the postdoc lifestyle... but it's really nice to not have to constantly make apologies to at least some people in your life.

People I work with... there are complications with getting too close. You can love a person's spontaneous personality and also never, ever want their inconsistent attention to sterility anywhere near your reagents. Or you can have perfectly lovely working relationships with people but know you don't want to be in the middle of their drama, or that they don't engage you outside of science. Or they don't have time between their career in science and (for instance) raising kids for anything more than an office friendship. I think that keeping some personal distance, being friendly but not friends, probably makes labs run more smoothly since emotions will run less high. I mean, it's not morale building to complain to labmate A about labmate B and vice versa all the time... much better to call your chemist friend and bitch about both when you need to get it off your chest.

The problem is in how do you see your real friends, since we're all so busy but we need real relationships to have the energy to keep going. It was a factor -- even a big one -- in where I chose to take a job this year. I'm postdocing in one of the many places in this country where there is a great school and nothing else for miles and miles around. I don't want that isolation from friends and family to continue into the pre-tenure years.

For one thing, I set up a collaboration with a researcher who works 45 min away from my best friend's current institution so I'll have legitimate work-related reasons to spend a month with her this fall (also there are practical advantages: I had to go to one of the 5 labs in the country that have the skill sets I want to acquire... why not approach the one where I won't have to find and pay for a sublet?). I'll round my visit out with a seminar or two at the schools in the area, and my CV won't look like I spent a month hanging out with my friends after work.

Plus it's a one month change of scenery from my current lab environment and that's rarely a bad thing. Can you take a similar sabbatical from your lab? I applied for a travel grant to support this work, and that greased the wheels with my PI.

 
At 11:00 AM, Anonymous CC said...

That being said, I can attend a more prestigious university but I can only take classes online, because of my situation.

Kris, if you're talking about PhD-level work in science (which is what most people here do or did) classes are the least of what grad school is. There's (essentially) no way you can do that online.

If you're talking about an MBA or a masters in bioinformatics or something like that, maybe it might be worth doing the online route, but make 100% sure you get a real diploma, not an extension certificate or something like that. There's an enormous difference between, say, Harvard and Harvard Extension.

If you're not planning to relocate, though, the prestige issue is probably much less of a concern than if you wanted to move to the Bay Area or wheverever and apply for jobs where they've never heard of your local school.

 

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