Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Oh, the irony.

After I wrote that post yesterday I sucked it up, went through the motions of finishing a few minor things that absolutely had to get done*, and left a little earlier than usual.

And amazingly, I felt a lot better.

I went to the gym, I went home, I watched Shaun Johnson finally get a little of the gold she should have won earlier (if it weren't for the fucked up women's gymnastics judging).

This morning I felt okay, not too tired, and came to work knowing I have some Important Experiments To Do.

And then I got some news I really didn't want.

Obviously I can't blog the details here. But PhysioProf left another comment on my last post to the effect of, I wouldn't be in this situation if I had better mentor(s). And it's relevant so I'm going to write about that again here.

Basically, my "mentor" is a great mentor to some people in the lab.

But not others.

My impression is that there are not very many really great mentors out there, because it's all about having the right match. I think I've written this here before, but I'll write it again: nobody is a great mentor to everyone.

And here's another Newsflash: just because someone has had a few people come out of their lab and get jobs, does NOT mean they are a good mentor.

In larger labs, the PI is much too busy to mentor everyone. So the favorites get the mentoring, and the rest get to wait.

Or hang.

If we complain, we're told to be patient.

If the PI should realize later that they dropped the ball, at most we get a mumbled apology.

Yeah, how many years of my life can I get back with a mumbled apology?

I'll tell you: NONE.

How many career chances does a person get in science? Not many. If a cat has 9 lives, I think I'm on my last one.

And then comes the blame. It's all too easy for the busy PI to say, after they've dropped the ball, that we should have complained more (Um, you lectured me on how I have to be patient???).

It really is like battered wife syndrome. In more ways than one.

One of the things that really made me cry yesterday was that in my effort to figure out why the thought of quitting makes me cry, I read an interview with Liz Blackburn where she was saying "because science is worth it".

In that same article, she was saying how she was (like most women of her generation, Nancy Hopkins is a great example of someone who always says this) basically oblivious to sexism when she was younger, and how she thinks that's one of the big reasons she got through.

She said her mentees are very discouraged by it.

No kidding.

She also said the postdoc associations have been very helpful for her mentees, which made me laugh.

While they have been somewhat of a crutch for me at times when I thought that was all I needed, none of that can really solve my fundamental problems.

If anything, I see postdoc associations as a symptom of just how broken the system has become, that the postdocs have to organize ourselves because nobody else really gives a damn what happens to most of us.

And here we are, still trying to be naive and optimistic that we can fix anything by, what, taking care of our training ourselves because our PIs won't do it?

Probably we should be marching in the streets, but that's never going to happen, and even if it did, it's hard to believe anybody would care.

50,000 whiny PhDs? Oh please.

So today I have some Important Things To Do at the bench, but I'm really not in the mood to do anything, because of this overwhelming sense that nothing I do really matters, no matter how good it is, no matter how right I am, I will always be screwed over.

And none of it really matters, as far as I'm concerned I've done the experiments that really tested my hypothesis, and they worked, and I'm right.

So who cares if anybody else ever knows about it?

Who cares, indeed.

Lately one of my big hangups is that if I leave, my PI will probably take my project and claim it as an original idea.

A few people might know that it was mine, but they'll forget.

If I leave, nobody in my field or my family will try to stop me. Nobody will say,

But you have to publish that groundbreaking work!

My friends have been saying it for a while, but I think at this point they realize that, as one friend put it, staying in science is killing me.

She was being hyperbolic of course, I'm eating and sleeping and not any more depressed than I've always been.

I'm just having a hard time remembering what I'm doing this for. At one point, I actually cared about having something to prove, and proving it, because I thought I could convince people.

I think I'm over that fantasy now. You can lead a dead horse to water and beat it as hard as you want, but it still won't drink.

*although I'm pretty sure neither of my experiments worked

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At 2:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there a way to email you? Maybe you'd like to hear from someone who left..

At 3:50 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I know plenty of people who left. As a rule, they all start out happier, but over time they've had a variety of experiences and run into various walls.

But they all left because they didn't really like research or academia to begin with. The choice was very easy for them.

At 3:55 PM, Anonymous biomed_phd said...

I am a female grad student in Biomed Sci about to start what will (hopefully!) be my last year in grad school.

I happened upon your blog from Female Science Professor's blog, and have been hooked ever since.

I cannot believe how much I can relate to your experiences, because I thought all this horror would end after one completed graduate school.

I am beyond miserable (and mystified as to how everyone else is just cruising by!), and the only thing keeping me going is the fact that it will soon be over, I will be out of here and have a job that will allow me to focus on my real passion: the scientific research.

Reading FSPs blog and how happy she is (even with the the odd bizarre encounter) made me hopeful about the future. I thought the relief would start upon graduation. Reading your blog, I can see now that relief and "happiness" probably don't come until after years of post-doc and probably several more years of being a miserable junior prof.

I highly doubt I will be pursuing any post-doc positions upon graduation and will probably go into industry, where things will be.. well, different at least. I am in dire need of a break from academia, uncaring mentors and departmental politics

I know without a doubt I could not take several more years of this. I'm still having doubts over whether I can survive the next year...

I hope - for your sake - that you end up publishing your groundbreaking results, because you *deserve* the recognition. Not only that, but the scientific world also needs to know the results of your research, so that perceptions can be corrected and knowledge can be spread. Wasn't that the whole point of academia?

Good luck!

At 7:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If your research is indeed groundbreaking, then I believe publishing it will likely lead to a faculty position.

There is more than one pathway to faculty positions. For some people, it takes a longer time and/or a greater struggle.

Contrary to the popular web mythos, here a PLENTY of new faculty who do not have first author C/N/S papers. Just browse the websites of new hires in biology and chemistry.

At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, para 1 describes everyone in research, as well. Para 2... sounds a lot like the party line... those us of who left 'weren't serious' and it was 'easy for us'. Not so.

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous lost academic said...

So maybe do you think getting some input from other people who left for other reasons might be valuable? The rule seems a little constrained by the subpopulation that created it.

At 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One trick I have learned from my friends both academic and industrial is that once you have learned what you can from an experience, move on. Repeatedly. Without the possibility of leaving, there is no incentive for anyone to provide for you beyond the bare minimum. I mean, what are the consequences to them if you're just going to hang out indefinitely? I'm not being glib here. Even if you just get an interview somewhere. It doesn't matter where or for what, just make it clear you are going to interview...

The thing is, you have to leave (or at least threaten to leave) over and over in your career in order to be treated the way you want. Do you want that lifestyle? Do you think it is an ethical way to live? One reason some people get preferential treatment is because they are not playing an open-ended game. Read about the iterated prisoners' dilemma and how very different strategies emerge if you are playing an indefinite series compared to a known number.

If you think it's not fair as a postdoc, think ahead to how the game evolves at the faculty level. Some faculty move or threaten to move at every promotion. How much do you think they command in terms of institutional resources compared to the rest of the faculty who contentedly remain at the same institution for 30 years? If you think things are disparate now, you won't believe how the gap widens. So you'd better learn this aspect of the game ASAP, while it is just you that you have to worry about and not students and staff, too.

At 5:46 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I love FSP, but she usually doesn't write much - only hints at - all the struggles she's had to go through to get to where she is now. Sure, she loves her job now. If I have one gripe about her blog, it's that she doesn't write more about the hard parts and how she got through them.

Anon 7:06,

Thanks, but I don't know what you mean. All the recent hires I know had C/N/S papers.

Anon 9:53,

I'm just talking about my ~100 or so friends. Not exactly a scientific sampling. But I don't know anyone who really agonized about leaving. The ones who really love academia stayed on as perma-docs. The ones who really didn't - for whatever reason, not because they thought it was 'too hard' - left after grad school or did an industrial postdoc. I have a couple of friends who have bounced back and forth, but they've been impressively unemotional about it, just wanted a paycheck and didn't like the insecurity of academia; then when something opened up, they went back to academia. Or vice-versa.

I think one of my problems is I have a hard time imagining that going back and forth is going to make me happier. see next response-

Anon 12:15,

Yes, you're right, I guess that is something worth learning. Unfortunately, I haven't had interview offers for anything I'd seriously consider taking, and I was always taught that in order to really negotiate, you have to be willing to walk away. Otherwise it's an empty threat.

I have no problem making threats and ultimatums, but thus far that kind of approach has rarely gotten me anything I wanted. See Women Don't Ask and those sorts of publications to find out why.

At 6:44 AM, Anonymous bsci said...

Everyone agrees that there are some terrible labs and places to work and that it definitely seems is in an institution/department that is full of them. In past posts, she's noted that she's pretty much stuck where she is for now and has no practical way to move to another postdoc. Still, biomed_phd's comment made me realize we don't know how you got where you are.

Perhaps you can write a post on what attracted you to the lab in the first place and what questions you could have asked that would have helped you find a better fitting postdoc lab... Sorry if I didn't read or forgot about a post you already did on this topic.

At 7:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 12:15 again.

If you are only going to interview for the perfect position, you will not get that job. You need practice interviewing. Yes, eventually you will have to be willing to walk away. But trust me, you won't get an offer after your first interview. Or even your first year of interviews. The sea is full of people who have polished themselves over years of interviewing and not getting jobs. If your PI knows what they're doing, they realize this. And the fact that you aren't practicing means that you can't leave any time soon.

At 1:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'm just talking about my ~100 or so friends."

Ohhh... your "100 friends". That's funny because most scientists would be hard-pressed to find 100 people they know personally and on an on-going basis, who left academia. Not to mention, it could be that they are (a) torn up about staying, or (b) torn up about going, and putting a brave face on it to you, especially since I am doubtful you know all of those people to a level where they would be brutally honest with you. I highly doubt they were quite as casual about it as you've projected... I know it was very, very difficult for me but I attempted to voice the positive about it to other people. Your attitude is frankly dismissive. Anyways, I'm not going to lay out my own experience at this point just to have it invalidated, but I will say this: I think even you know that you're rapidly reaching the point of "shit or get off the pot".

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


That's unbloggable. Sorry. If I ever write a book, you'll see why.

anon 12:15 again,

That's an interesting point. I think my problem has been that I've been on a few visits that were sort of like auditions for interviews, but I haven't gotten much feedback to find out what I did right or wrong. How does one polish oneself without feedback?

Got a suggestion on how to find out how I'm doing?

Anon 1:11,

That's funny because most scientists would be hard-pressed to find 100 people they know personally and on an on-going basis, who left academia. Not to mention, it could be that they are (a) torn up about staying, or (b) torn up about going, and putting a brave face on it to you, especially since I am doubtful you know all of those people to a level where they would be brutally honest with you. I highly doubt they were quite as casual about it as you've projected...

I can see why you would doubt this.
Maybe I'm being cavalier about it, but I'm not the sort of person who falls for the 'brave face' act. And believe it or not, I actually have quite a lot of friends in science! I've been doing science for a long time! And everyone I know is pretty open about what they did and why, and how they feel about it... but I've always enjoyed interviewing people. And this is a topic on which I've interviewed many, many people.

Did you think I hadn't done my homework? If there's one thing that suits me for research, it's that I like to get as much information as possible.

Your attitude is frankly dismissive.

I don't mean to be dismissive of you. If YOU want to write about YOUR experience, I'm sure we'd all be interested to read about it.

I know that it's very personal. I also know that most of my friends who really agonized about it went the SuperDoc route rather than leave academia, OR they got such an awesome industry offer that they couldn't pass it up, OR they had a spousal location/childcare cost issue that made the decision practical and obvious, however heartbreaking it might have been, they were just very down to earth about it.

In my case it's not so obvious.


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