Sunday, August 24, 2008

Response to comment.

Two posts ago, Dr. Feelg00d writes:

Actually, I mean smarter than you as it relates to the technical aspects of getting your experiment to work. Not the actual idea. I am plenty smart for that, and I am sure you are too. But I hate re-inventing the wheel for technical hurdles. Often when you find someone who doesnt help, you just need to find someone better. Its tough, but its worth the legwork. Of course, you have to know enough to know what you dont know (that make sense?).


Yes, that's what I mean when I say I can sometimes get useful information from other people for technical aspects.

But usually it's a bit of a stretch, e.g. something they use for a totally different application.

It often takes explaining from me, for them to understand why I want to try what they're doing, because they can't see how I'm going to apply it.

It's pretty tiring. But I try to be patient about it.

The truth is, they don't need to know, and I don't really care if they understand. But sometimes they have a little extra insight that they wouldn't share unless I share what I'm doing...

But yes, I think the trick is to figure out where your weak spots are, figure out whose strength that is, and then get them to help you.

I'm reasonably good at that, but one of my biggest problems lately is taking no for an answer when I shouldn't.

This is a bit of a tangent but I swear it's relevant.

I have run into some problems where our lab has published things that I need. (That was part of why I joined the lab, natch.)

But when I ask for these things, I'm told someone has to help me find them (in the freezer, or the basement, or wherever).

And when I find that person who supposedly knows, they say

yeah, it doesn't really exist anymore

or worse (and never on the record): yeah, that never really worked the way we said it did.

It's not clear to me whether PI really knows this and wants to remain in denial, or just thinks I'm making it up, or both...

PI doesn't want to know.

I've tried confrontation, I've tried hinting and reminding, but mostly I just get disapproving looks from PI and the world, when I'm not doing the obvious experiments that our lab has published before.

Am I supposed to reinvent that particular wheel? (What if it can't ever exist and I already know that?)

So when the answer is some kind of hand-waving, I don't want to know, because PI doesn't want to know.

My strategy of late has been to avoid, wherever possible, wasting my time on these kinds of things.

For better or worse, I've also adopted this strategy with other people (outside our lab). If they don't respond, or send me something that doesn't work and THEN don't respond, I don't want to know.

Because the obvious corollary is, they've done all their experiments this way, and don't see anything wrong with it.

Oh, god. I really didn't want to know that!

I never used to think this way, so I'm trying to get over it and go back to my Innocent Hopeful act: ask dumb questions when things don't work (e.g. pretend I'm screwing it up even when I'm pretty sure I'm not).

This is a double-edged sword for everyone, but especially for women. But it often works (at least in the short term).

But one of the most popular methods (maybe even the Official University Policy?) is to just avoid answering questions, or blame someone above you for making equipment or facilities inaccessible because of security concerns, or whatever.

Yeah, we can't give you a key, because then we'd have to give everyone a key, so even though it's sitting unused all weekend and you know how to use it, we can't let you use it so you'll have to wait until during the week, when it's booked solid for months, because someone has to be here when you're here and everyone has to wait and make an appointment...

Yeah, I love this. Science at its fastest and most efficient!

Let's cure cancer and HIV and Alzheimer's and MS! But not yet. Maybe next week.

Other times they don't tell you this up front, they just stall by not returning email or phone calls.


I don't remember having this problem when I was a grad student. Maybe I was just more intrepid and wouldn't take no for an answer? I was pretty good at getting keys back then.

I think what sets the Successful (note that I didn't say "the best") apart from The Rest is the ability to get anyone and everyone to help you and be happy about it.

Where I did my PhD, most people were reasonably helpful when that was their job (and often, even when it wasn't).

I think it's fair to say I wasn't any cuter or nicer than I am now. So I doubt that's the main difference in why I got so much help then and have so much trouble getting help now.

Admittedly, my project now is a lot harder, so maybe I need more than I did then? Maybe not, since I also know a lot more now-?

Where I've been doing my postdoc, most people are resentful when I ask them, no matter how nicely, to do their jobs.

I often find myself getting told nastily

you're the only one who wants that


EVERYONE ELSE is content with the [inferior product, service or equipment].

I am SO tired of this.

I'm as cheap as the next person, but I've tried the cheapest thing and found it didn't work, and I've worked my way up the quality ladder until I found something that works consistently. I'd rather not waste my time.

Oddly, very few people seem to know this.

There is nothing for which I'd say "Let's just get the most expensive thing just because it's expensive!"

But I'd also NEVER say "Let's get the cheapest thing even though we know it only works half the time!"


I am so tired of getting punished for having high standards.

One of my biggest fears lately is that I'm just working in a place that is not good enough in that regard.

I'd prefer to be the dumbest one in the room and just soak up information constantly.

Lately I feel like maybe I've gotten all I can out of my current situation, and at this point I'm just sucking air.

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At 11:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you know TOO much (if you know what I mean). And I don't think you need to graduate kindergarten for the 10th time at the hole you are sucking air out of. They are obviously satisfied with mediocrity, but they especially don't want any smartypants (untenured and FEMALE! - double whammy) pointing out (correctly) how unethical or incompetent or cheap or what assholes they are.

Here's a suggestion - Go stealth. Don't talk to them. Nod, shake your head, pretend you are thinking everytime they ask you something (uh, like a man who isn't pretending :)).... be a complete mystery to them. They will surely notice the tide go out, but how they will react if you keep this up long term may be a tossup. You can't change them or the system... be the uncaring "checked out to lunch" nonreactor know-nothing just for a bit. LA LA LA.

I'm sure you've tried everything - it may be time to dust off the subterfuge tactics again to keep your sanity. sigh.

At 8:02 PM, Anonymous Social Scientist said...

I feel your pain. Sincerely.

I don't know if this will make you feel better (you're not alone) or worse (the problem endures), but, I'm 15 years post-PhD and I still get stuck at this very problem.

Let there be no mistake: sexism pervades. You're a legitimate authority to expect certain work from certain people and yet, and yet, and yet! when you expect them to do their jobs they frame you as the evil stepmother. Prepare not to be backed up by your supervising PI, nor department chair, nor dean. Prepare to watch them say about male colleagues, "Oh, that one knows what he wants, I admire that in a scientist."

It is wrong. It is really, really wrong.

Which is why I am writing. I really appreciate your comment, "I think what sets the Successful. . . apart from The Rest is the ability to get anyone and everyone to help you and be happy about it." Yes. I might print that out in big letters for myself.

At 8:57 AM, Blogger Perry said...

"We're all sitting in the dugout,
thinking we should pitch.
But how're you going to pitch a shutout
when all you do is bitch?"
-Todd Snider

The system is broken because the people with the power to do anything about it are spending all their time whining about how the system is so broken.

I've been reading your blog for a month and I haven't seen a single idea about how to improve - just complaints. I see the same thing from American doctors who lament the state of our health care system. I see it from politicians. I see it from average, ordinary, everyday people who are too helpless to help themselves. I even see it from myself sometimes (egad!), but that doesn't mean I cultivate that side of myself.

News Flash: It'll never be perfect. Never.

Maybe you justify your whining by claiming, "Oh, I'm bringing attention to the inequities in the system!"

I don't buy it. Anybody can hand wave.

Do you normally hang out around people who complain all the time? Thanks, but no thanks.

At 9:50 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 11:59,

Yeah. I do... but the setbacks are the sort that don't go away from being ignored. Wherever possible, I go AROUND people who get in my way. They never see it coming. But sometimes they get pissed anyway. It shows that I know they're completely irrelevant.

Social Scientist,

Prepare not to be backed up by your supervising PI, nor department chair, nor dean.

Sigh. So much to look forward to! And you wonder why more than half of female postdocs quit!


Oh, it's you again Perry. I probably won't post any more of your comments, since you just say the same things over and over again.

In response to your point about the people with the power to do anything about it are spending all their time whining about how the system is so broken:


Oh yeah, and read the archive. Or I could organize it for you to make it easier to find the posts with all of my suggestions for what we should do differently, but then what would you be doing to help yourself?

Okay thanks! Bye now!

At 12:52 PM, Anonymous pipetwoman said...

I tried to post it yesterday but I assume you did not get in the end because comment window had behaved funny. If you got this comment in the end but did not publish it, I beg your pardon for spamming you with that. So:

You said:

"Lately I feel like maybe I've gotten all I can out of my current situation, and at this point I'm just sucking air."

Maybe this is you problem. Maybe you just feel that you are better than your coworkers and that you deserve something more than the place you are working in at the moment.

And I would not consider such a feeling particularly blameworthy. If you know your standards and surrounding world cannot reach them, you start to suffocate. And the only solution is to leave the place and get some fresh air. Go there where people are reasonable.

You sound very depressive. I've stopped reading you blog recently because you crossed this tiny border between criticism and whining. Now it is only whining.

You are mature woman that is aware of whats happening around. So decide on something. If you are really SO miserable just change the place. You do not have to leave science. You can just change your lab. There are plenty of them in surrounding world. Or accept the game, play with the rules and stay. It is easier to suspend your pride than you think. Just do “something”. This is better than doing nothing and complain.

Or maybe you are just kinda grouch and this blog is a vent?

I wish you will solve your problems. I really suggest trying because the longer your situation lasts the harder is to get out from it and the higher probability of becoming a grumpy and miserable. And this is the state of mind that no one should get into.

I wish you plenty of luck!

At 3:12 PM, Blogger JaneB said...

Lately I feel like maybe I've gotten all I can out of my current situation, and at this point I'm just sucking air.

I think you've hit the nail on the head. What are you doing to move on?? It clearly isn;t a healthy place to work, whether considered for you personally, in terms of achieving your science goals or achieving your career goals.


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