Saturday, August 09, 2008

Sheltering our young.

LC wrote this comment in response to 2 posts ago:

I understand that in life, politics seeps into nearly everything else, but in your opinion, are there places/labs in which politics is not so prevalent? Is it something particular to NIH, or just as acute at any other academic institution? I never noticed even the slightest hint of it it at the lab I work at, but maybe that's just because I'm not one of those people worrying about grants and stuff like that. Maybe I'm naive. I'd like to hear your perspective.

Politics does not "seep". Politics IS. It is everywhere. Until you know how to look for it, it's behind the scenes.

In science we have a long, honored tradition of hiding it, particularly from our youngest recruits.

In your opinion, are there places/labs in which politics is not so prevalent?

NO. It's always there. You can't run away from it. I've tried.

Here's the thing. You can find a pollyanna lab, and you might even be able to find a pollyanna department. But Pollyannas don't last. Even if you're lucky enough to be in a good place for a short period of nirvana, it won't stay that way forever.

The bigger the place, the more politics. And by big I don't mean size. I mean money and fame.

I don't think you'll ever find a pollyanna university. Or research institute.

I once worked for a Pollyanna PI. I think I've written about this before, but the take-home message is that those kinds of people lose their ideas, get scooped, lose their funding, and don't get tenure. You can't go around being nice to everybody and assuming they'll all be as nice as you. You're going to get stepped on. And worse than that, the people in your lab are going to get screwed.

I never noticed even the slightest hint of it it at the lab I work at, but maybe that's just because I'm not one of those people worrying about grants and stuff like that. Maybe I'm naive.

I really liked your comment because once upon a time, I was exactly like you. I was completely oblivious to what was going on behind the scenes in the labs where I worked.

We really are very good at sheltering our young. You're not supposed to worry about "grants and stuff like that", goes this thinking, but I think this is stupid.

You should have to write for funding at every stage of your research career, it would be better training and it would prepare you psychologically for what you're getting into.

I now know for a fact that the labs I worked in as a young chickadee deliberately waited until I wasn't there to fight amongst themselves and bitch about the boss.

I'm sure your lab is doing the same for you. The funny thing is, they think they're doing you a favor.

Some people think of the training years as a kind of childhood (this is one of my least favorite things about science, the extended period of arrested development, as it were, and the family metaphor is all too true). They think that at the early stages we should just show you how much fun it is to do experiments.

That's how they suck you in, right?

We've all discussed on various science blogs the pros and cons of giving students, for example, real projects (FSP's posts on this topic come to mind).

Real projects are ones that might have some representative degree of failure associated with them. Because grad school is not like a summer project. There are no guarantees of success. The only guarantee is that you will experience a lot of failure. You will make mistakes. You will get mad. You will have to learn how to forgive yourself for not being perfect, and forgive science for being unpredictable. And forgive your advisor(s) for giving you bad advice. They meant well, they just didn't know any better, right?

But what I find unforgivable is that we lie to you.

There were no science blogs when I was in school (actually the internet was very new and everyone was talking about this crazy thing called the World Wide Web).

What's amazing to me is how long the lies persist. Most people never understand until after they finish grad school. Corruption is not an exception. It is not rare. It is the norm. You just don't know it yet. A little bit can go a long way. And nowhere is immune. All it takes is one bad seed to spoil the bunch.

With perfect timing, I was talking to a friend the other night who worked as a technician for several years (and left science). In a rare example of the best reason to quit, he left science because he just wasn't that excited about it and didn't think it was the best way for him to change the world.

But even more amazingly, he still thought success in science was governed by two things: Luck and Hard Work.

Which I think is completely guileless, but probably pretty typical if you haven't been to grad school +/- postdoc and found out the hard way.

It just doesn't make sense, unless you want to include "politics" under "luck", which could work if you are not a minority (e.g. if you have the good fortune to look and sound exactly like the majority of white male PIs, and you remind them of themselves when they were younger so they want to take you under their powerful wings).

But seriously. Science is not immune to politics. If you're like I was in high school, you probably think it might have been once upon a time, but all you have to do is read some science history to find out that's not true, either (e.g. see the new books about Darwin and That Other Guy who also observed evidence for evolution).

Science has always been political. Always. And the cynical among us will say it always will be. Kind of like how some women think that women will never have equal rights or success in the workplace to what men have now. I hope neither is true. But lately I am not sure that staying in academia is the best way for me to change the world.

So here's what you need to know:

Science is hard. You have to be okay with constant failure.

Politics IS. It just IS. You can't get away from it. If you think science is going to be a haven of objective honesty, honor, and integrity, think again.

Being good at doing experiments, teaching, and thinking is not enough.

You have to be good at politics to make it through.

And if you're a minority, good luck. The system is working against you.

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At 4:14 PM, Blogger JaneB said...

So true.

All human interactions involve politics, it's how we're made.

Science is hard. You have to be okay with constant failure.
But it's also really really cool when it works. Don't forget that either... you just need to be able to slog through roughly nine months of hard for every week of 'wow! amazing! cool!'

Politics IS. It just IS. You can't get away from it. If you think science is going to be a haven of objective honesty, honor, and integrity, think again.
In other words, its full of people who act like... people. And many of the really bright people in science actually are relatively weak at people skills... so sometimes they actually appear worse than other lines of work (I don't believe this is true - just that the problems, politics and prejudices are played out with different superficial covers and different weapons in different environments...)

Being good at doing experiments, teaching, and thinking is not enough.
Not enough for what? To become a t-t faculty member and PI? I'd agree there completely - you need luck, and you need to develop skills in the things that PIs have to do (people management, networking, grants-games-playing, allocating resources, negotiating, having a wider strategic vision). And as YFS points out, it's really hard to develop those skills, or to be recognised as having those skills, until you already are in that position - Catch-22 in action. This is the place where a good mentor/PI makes a difference - by making opportunities for post-docs who want to develop these things, and by pointing out that they've developed them to potential hirers. But to do science, to be a scientist of any kind? not so true. There is a problem with a system where 'success' is defined as a t-t PI post - because for some people it's a miserable cage.

You have to be good at politics to make it through.
True of all walks of life. But its worth remembering that you always have the choice, even if the choice is to act like yourself and not rush up the career ladder, or to work for yourself because you don't play well with others (I know a wonderful scholar in a related scientific area, who has raised a family and been the main breadwinner for about 30 years now by developing writing, media, consultancy, and field skills that mean she has been able to work continually in her field without working 'for' any institution. A tough path, but it absolutely suits her. You can't meet this vibrant, enthusiastic, happy person and ever consider her a failure in any way, but she certainly doesn;t have a 'career' of the type most of us blog about).

And if you're a minority, good luck. The system is working against you.
But I would say that it is better than it was. There are women's toilets in all buildings now as a matter of course, even if you occasionally have to go to another floor! There is the whole bloggy world to get information and support out to isolated individuals. Things are slow to change... but they are, slowly, changing - it's very tough, especially on people like YFS who are in the nastiest part of the process when the gloss has worn off but the security hasn't been acquired, but I do think it's important to acknowledge that there are changes afoot, that there are places where people are well taught and mentored in the realities of the world, that there is good science going on and good scientists who put truth above even their own pride and pet theories... one day places and people like this might be in the majority...

At 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Folks Born Yesterday,
At every major university, there is a campaign drive. For what you might ask? MONEY. MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY. And you might next ask where it comes from? PEOPLE WITH MONEY. AGENCIES WITH MONEY. These moneytrees are businessMEN, politicians, the typical elite white male who wants something (much underwritten) in exchange for his name on a building, or a highway, or a center (as a sense of "accomplishment" of course). Think of the many centers at universities across the US... 99% of them are named after men who gave money. Philanthropy is great and wonderful, it benefits the white males quite nicely. White males typically wouldn't notice how priviledged they are when silver spoons are given out for being white+male in cracker jack boxes. It's the females and minorities who look around and realize inequalities because the shit is always staring us in the face without a spoon to block out the view.

White males scratch the asses of other white males, money exchanges pockets, hands get shook... all white males involved have their influence, power, status go up a notch with someone giving money and someone getting money.
Land grant univs, medical schools, research centers all have direct links to fed funding, many many many earmarks. Even with public govt funding disclosure (there are websites with the lists), the source of funding can still be a mystery via backdoor politics or "anonymous donor" - those are the cases I am HIGHLY suspicious of and consider downright dangerous.

I watched a nearby federally funded lab facility in my field get shut down and everyone scramble for jobs.... I am left wondering where the money came from in the first place and if the people who worked there realized it wasn't sustainable. Guess the politicians didn't see a need for it when they shifted "priorities" to start wars elsewhere and now bail out rich white male bankers. I am involved in a similar fed facility where govt funding got majorly hacked which leaves me to deal with a bunch of arrogant incompetent slacker white male desk-driving "bosses" (I call them leftovers affectionately of course) instead of knowledgeable technicians that got "transferred" or laid off. Politics. sucks. ass.

It's not just academia that's broken. It's rampant shittiness. Women and minorities are doubly screwed because we are the first to get cut because we don't make backdoor deals, we don't scratch politicians asses, and we don't give a crap about having our name on a building. The bulletproof plexiglass ceiling has kept us out of power positions, and decades of "improvement" and "affirmative action" are abstract concepts women have yet to see in action, because, yup... the white males are in charge of implementing them. That's gone REAL well. for them - white+male. not for women and minorities. big shocker there.

I do think the naive young ones have an important role to play... open your peepers, please. Stand up for women and minorities when you see shit happening. And be thoughtful of the nonwhite males ratio/presence in workplaces and academia - we are called minorities for a reason.

The experiences that YFS writes about happen CONSTANTLY to women and minorities. It's awful, it sucks, and leaves people like me feeling helpless to help her and myself.

Go forth and change the world,
JC (another YFS fighting the system dammit)
To YFS: please hang in there. A book would be FANtastic. I would certainly participate/help/read/comment if you wanted feedback. I think it would be incredibly helpful if there was advice and suggestions with real world examples/accts.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

Nicely written. There's ALWAYS politics in every lab/office/workshop/whatever. The longer you are there the more you will become aware of it. One can choose to avoid being an active participant, but that won't make the politics go away.

Also agree that science is difficult and that students, regardless of their level of schooling, need to be made aware of the challenges and pitfalls. PhysioProf also nailed it the other day by saying that a good postdoc (and I will generalize his statement further by saying a good scientist) has to have persistence ... and probably several screws loose for even considering this career in the first place.

At 9:16 AM, Blogger andrea said...

You have been given an award!

let me know if you want a 200-pixel wide graphic for your sidebar,

At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms PhD, you are right. But even if you KNOW there will be (a large deal of) politics involved, it won't really mean anything to you or make an impression unless you are personally dealing with it. Did I know science is not all hard work followed by pay-off? Yes, but it didn't really hit home until I realized luck was definitely not on my side. What it comes down to is persistence (the very same persistence that makes one talented athlete reach the top while equally talented people may not). Depending on where you are and the type of work you do, you will encounter politics sooner or later. Is there a point - somewhere after your first or second postdoc where you realize science sucks and it is next to impossible to get a faculty position? Yes. Does that make you bitch and moan and feel like there is no way out? Yes. Does it make you feel like you have wasted all these years of your life for nothing? Yes. If this brings you down: go do something else. But apparently, (Ms PhD being a lighting example) there is something in doing science on a day to day basis that keeps you going - even if you feel that all you do is bang your head against the wall. It takes so little succes to keep you going again for another week.
IMOH though, politics is everywhere in life - it doesn't matter what profession you are in. At some point, you will run into it. The only way of dealing with it is by being alert and by staying true to your own character. If you are not born an asshole: don't become one. LC, try to see as many labs from the inside as possible. Assholes are everywhere and yes, they do have a loud mouth. But look around and you will see that there are also decent people doing science. At the end of the day, dealing with the politics involved is just another part of the job description (the part in the tiny illegible small print).

At 3:41 PM, Blogger andrea said...

Janeb said,
"And many of the really bright people in science actually are relatively weak at people skills."

This is also true -- there are a lot of scientists with Asperger's or other neurological quirks. It's part of what makes them so good at seeing the patterns, at being self-taught, at hyper-focusing, at thinking outside the box, at persevering, and other qualities that make for good researchers.

But it also makes it difficult to perceive what's really going on in some situations, and to understand and deal with people who play the stupid, subtle, irrational, emotionally-driven social games that get in the way of focused, productive research.

When someone has these quirks or learning difficulties in addition to being female and/or of a minority group, then the outgrouping gets even worse. You would think that various minorities would work together to achieve against The Man and The System, but strangely they don't. Which is a real shame.

I've had bad and good advisors, and the differences were profound. Unfortunately, good advisor got so sick of the departmental climate as to leave, even before I'd finished. I still have to work with people and their less than helpful attitudes; but now I know that the problems are not always about me.


At 9:43 AM, Blogger Perry said...

You can't go around being nice to everybody and assuming they'll all be as nice as you.

True. But you can still go around being nice to people! Be better than the rest.

Egad, I think this means I have to take my own advice. I hate it when that happens!

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous LC said...

Thank you for posting such an elaborate response to my comment. :) Wow, it's pretty disappointing to find this out. I mean, I'm glad that I'm being made aware of it now, but nonetheless it's disappointing. The ideal that I and my peers is being presented by colleges (you know, in the viewbooks, etc. they send in the mail) is that students should genuinely "love learning for the sake of learning," which seemed pretty attractive. Haha. Sighs. But I guess dishonesty/manipulation/politics does exist at every level-- I haven't even applied to college yet, but I can see it in the "honors societies," and science competitions, etc. that my school encourages its students to participate in. I am silly to be so idealistic.

Just to note, I currently work at Cold Spring Harbor, which I think is a pretty famous/well-funded lab... actually there are more women than men in the lab I happen to work at... hmm. I've also been in Cornell Med College and Rockefeller University (both of those labs were run by female PIs).

Again, thanks for your response, I really appreciate it!

At 7:13 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I had to laugh at your comment about students and learning. Of course, that's the fun part of college and the only good thing (so far as I can tell) about science. But surprisingly, after a while most of the people who said they always wanted to keep learning get stuck in their ways and stop learning. They just stop and decide they know enough, and then they focus on other things (control, money, power, ego-stroking, etc.).

I guess I assumed people would grow out of their nastiness, that schoolyard jealousy and gossip, etc. was just that - a feature of immaturity. Turns out it's just typical human nature. That manipulative girl in my class in 3rd grade? Yeah, there has been one every year. The bully? One every year.

And just because you finish high school doesn't mean it's over. You might get away from one bully, and one gossipy sneaky stab-you-in-the-back type, but there's always another one around the corner.

For some reason I always thought Grownups would be more Professional, or something.

They're not! At all!

btw, I think it's cute that you refer to CSH as "famous/well-funded". Clearly, you already have internalized quite a bit of how things work in science. You just have to step back and analyze the data you've already collected.

At 6:01 PM, Blogger convergence said...

"All human activities involve politics" - Nice way to sum up much this discussion.

I've been in research for 20 plus years and the issues you discuss are very relevant to more general issues that have stayed with me as I developed my own career as a basic research scientist.

Every time I go to sites such as your own I know that the audience I've been trying to reach is right there. After 20 years of research I've a wealth of observations and experiences to share and I've put them all down in a fictional account of academia in general and the biomedical sciences in particular. The trouble is I've struggled quite a bit in my attempt to reach this core audience.

Please, this is not a cheap attempt at drumming up interest in my eBook Convergence but reading your article suggests your readers are exactly the people I'm trying to reach. My book represents the collective experiences of grad students and postdocs spanning 20 years, and so it's not just reflecting a narrow window of time.

So, I'd be most grateful if you'd do me the honor of checking the following website out:



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