Sunday, November 30, 2008

How close are you really.

Last time I saw my therapist she was asking me how much more am I willing to do to try to get a faculty position.

Q: Would I be willing to go door-to-door to find a way (funding, job title of some sort) to stay another year?

A: Um, no. I don't think I would. I don't think I can take another year of this. I don't enjoy it enough to put up with the toxic people and uncertainty for that much longer.

Q: Would you feel better if you just decided you won't be applying for faculty positions at all this year? Does that relieve some of the pressure?

A: Um, no. Not really. And it makes me feel defeated.

And I had sort of a horrible realization, that the way things are going, I'm much more behind schedule than I thought. My advisor's various excuses ultimately delayed everything by about a year.

And yes, there were some setbacks that were not my advisor's fault, including time out for me to feel sorry for myself.

But even including all the other problems, ultimately the biggest problem was my advisor's unwillingness to step up (or get out of the way and let me do it myself).

And the irony is that everyone's best advice was to tell me if I could just get this one person to, you know, mentor me or whatever, everything would be OK.

And my telling myself that if I just tried hard enough, I could make that happen.

So anyway I guess it's nice to have some validation... my therapist said that just because you think you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not actually after you.

I can haz career sabotage?

And she said it's pretty clear that where I am now is toxic (no kidding) and that I need to get out of there (yes, clearly).

I guess the part I'm not sure about is, well, let me use a metaphor. I sort of feel like I've been jumping from rock to rock trying to get across an ocean. And there's kind of a haze so I can't see the other shore. So I think I'm maybe one or two rocks from the end, but maybe I'm totally wrong about that. Maybe there are no more rocks and the trail just ends? Maybe that's why I feel like I'm stranded in the middle of the ocean and I don't really want to go back where I came from, but I don't really have another choice?

And to try another take on that ocean metaphor, I feel like I've already missed the boat. So I was running to the dock and the boat is pulling out and it's not moving that fast so I think okay I can swim. So I try to swim but I can't catch up, so then I find someone with a rowboat and ask if I can get in. But we still can't catch up and even though we're taking turns rowing, eventually the person who was helping me says I should just give up.

And I can't get across the ocean in a rowboat anyway. So my options are to what, try to call the coast guard? This is getting ridiculous.

Especially since there is no coast guard in the ocean of science.

I guess if I had to do it over again, and someone had told me I'd have teach myself how to build my own boat, I would have said no, thanks, I don't know how and the thought of doing it just makes me tired.

But they didn't really tell me that was what I'd have to do, did they?

So I guess that's the point of this blog for today. I'm telling you, now, so you don't have to make all the same mistakes. If you're not willing to be a castaway, don't bother. And even if you thought you were. Just ask Tom Hanks.

In a way I'm really glad I'm finally doing this therapy thing, and I kind of have to laugh that I'm doing it now, when my health insurance is bound to run out and I'm not sure what I'll do then. And I'm impatient to make more progress faster, even though I know that's not how these things are supposed to work.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Barriers to publication = barriers to getting hired.

I commented on this post over at Drugmonkey regarding the Research Plan part of job applications.

I can understand why, in a job application, you should have publications to demonstrate your experience, contributions, etc.

However, the most interesting part of this post to me was the mention that if your future research plans are not already supported by PUBLICATIONS, no one will look at you seriously.

I find this kind of bizarre for two major reasons, so I figured hey, that's why I have a blog. To continue to ask WHY?????

1. The Research Plan is supposed to be sort of like your first grant application.

  • Rationale: In an actual grant application, you get to show preliminary data, much of which is not published.
  • Results: True or false? I think this is true, but only for first-time applications. For renewals, yes, your "progress and preliminary results" should be (almost all) published already.
  • Possible pitfalls: Does it make sense, then, to require that all the preliminary data for a job application be published? Isn't this more of the same hypocrazy we see throughout science? The complete lack of consistency and transparency?

2. As Comrade PhysioProf wrote (and I'm paraphrasing here), if you can't publish as a postdoc, you can't publish as a PI.

This is false logic.

So this got me thinking, maybe I need to spell out why it's so much harder to publish as a postdoc.

1. Sucky reviews.

There are lots of variables that go into this issue. Which journal you choose is a major one.

I think a lot of us can agree that the quality of reviews depends somewhat on the journal, and you can be ridiculously demanding if the paper was submitted to a Top Tier Journal.

Therefore, some people will tell you that the quality of the reviews goes DOWN as the reputation of the journal goes UP.

Addressing sucky reviews? You've got two choices. a) Do the ridiculous things they ask or b) go somewhere else. If you're lucky and you have an argumentative PI, you might argue your way out of some of the ridiculous things, but nobody can argue their way out of all of them.

2. The insistence on Top Tier papers to get a job

If we think that #1 is worse for top tier journals, and there's more pressure to publish in a top tier journal as a postdoc, then you're setting yourself up for a world of hurt.

I know plenty of PIs who NEVER AGAIN published in a top tier journal after they got hired as faculty, and yet they continue to receive RO1s.

So the top tier publication rule is really more important, I think (?), for getting a job than for getting funding. Publishing early and often is more important for funding.

Publishing early and often in anything other than a top-tier journal? Is much, much easier.

3. Your PI is the corresponding author, not you.

Yeah, you know, and I know it. This person is supposed to be your biggest help, but not always. And they're often my biggest hurdle.

My PI is busy. Is traveling. Is sexist. Is procrastinating. Expects me to be a mind-reader. Is not all that invested in seeing my succeed. Might actually prefer not to have me as a future competitor (!).

And so on and so forth.

Will you EVER have someone like this standing in your way again, once you are a faculty member?

Not really, not for publishing, not this directly.

So I can't really see how dealing with a PI as a postdoc really translates directly into your future publication prospects.

4. Your competitors (aka our corrupt anonymous "peer review" system).

Okay, so this will be a problem again and always, so long as we have this "system."

It isn't any better as a postdoc than as a PI, but it might actually be worse.

Case in point: I know for a fact that there are lots of people who hate, and/or compete with, my PI.

Most of these people don't know who I am, and they don't care.

Whose name do you think draws more fire when we submit a paper together?

Will I have this problem later, when I'm no longer directly associated with this PI? Probably not. At least, not for a while (until I've built up my own well-earned hatred).


So, kids, what did we learn today? That getting a job depends on illogical bullshit spouted by review committees?

Oh wait, we knew that already.

Friday, November 28, 2008

I'm bored.

Don't want to go to lab, don't want to stay home. Don't want to go shopping.

Waiting for a few bits of entertainment to come in the mail in another week or two.

Until then, I don't know. It's good to have things to look forward to, but in the meantime, I don't particularly feel like doing chores. Really, I should be cleaning my house.

And I tried being social... as happens sometimes, my attempt to organize a group to help me deal with my own feeling of general crappiness got co-opted by another friend's crisis, which left me feeling ignored and really not any better than before (maybe worse).

I was thinking about this friend and how she tends to assume the attention is always meant for her, and so she grabs it.

I tend to assume the role of watcher, which means nobody watches what I'm doing. Kind of like Xander's character in Buffy.

The problem with being the watcher is, if you're not writing what you see, you're just being passive.

I was trying to think what to write about today, to try to entertain myself, but at the moment the one or two things I was saving to blog about are escaping me. I just can't remember what they were.

So I'm back to wondering if I shouldn't just go to lab, just for a little while. Even if it's boring, I have a few things that need to get done, and it's likely to be empty, so I can play my iTunes without worrying that I might be bothering somebody. And given the choice of lab or chores, I'll still almost always choose lab.

Trying not to wonder how I'll deal with life when I don't have lab to fall back on. It's still kind of hard to imagine. But it's a real possibility that I won't be able to count on lab being there for me forever.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Postdoc Unionizing: what a strike would do

Someone wrote in to say she didn't want to have to go on strike if the UAW negotiations with UC should break down.

I have to agree that if it were me, I already resent any interruption to my experiments, and I could see why it would suck.

It would likely be, at best, very inconvenient, and wouldn't help current postdocs very much.

However. Look at what the UAW did for auto workers. Did you know that the average auto worker pay is $28 an hour? That's about $60,000/year plus benefits, quite a bit more than a first-year postdoc makes WITH A PhD (NIH minimum is $37,000).

Think about that for a minute.

Why is a science PhD given so little value in the US? It's equivalent to 5-6 (or more) years of on-the-job training. Engineers without a PhD but with equivalent years of work experience straight out of college make ~$80,000/year (or more).

Why? You can say it's about products and sales and limiting the number of engineers creates demand, etc.

But since science departments refuse to limit numbers of degrees awarded, here we are with too many PhDs and nowhere to put them. Or, lots of people qualified to do all the wrong kinds of things.

Okay, you say, so what, who cares how we got here. It's not about the money.

What about job security? That's what really makes me angry. You can go all the way down the pipeline and end up.... in the sewer.

The real problem with science is that it's a pyramid scheme. You buy in, but there's no guarantee of any payoff or moving up.

So you end up with a pile of stuff you can't sell, and no money. Goody.

Doesn't that piss you off? If it doesn't now, it will in a few years when you're looking at what I'm looking at: the realization that I might have wasted the best years of my life putting up with something that I KNEW was fucked up because I really believed it would eventually pay off if I just tried hard enough.

And I did, I really tried. But guess what? That's not enough.

So let's imagine for a minute what would happen if all the postdocs in California went on strike next week.

In this imaginary scenario, it would be impossible to hire any postdoc from anywhere, so you couldn't bring in foreign postdocs willing to work for less money or off the books (for example).

In the current climate, it seems to me that this would be a fatal blow for science in California. Accordingly, UC would be forced to negotiate. However, UC doesn't want to spend any money on postdocs. So it's hard to see how this would turn out, especially since CA is already in debt and Schwarzenegger has been trying to cut education funding.

However, if it somehow went on long enough, here's what would happen.

Some PIs would turn to grad students and technicians to pick up the slack.

And some PIs would be, eventually, screwed. With no preliminary data for their grants, and no papers coming out, they might lose funding. But that would take a couple of years to have much of an effect.

They would try to ask NIH for a bailout. Get it? Bailout! HAHAHHAHA.

Meanwhile, in the current climate, most postdocs (especially those with visas) would be begging someone to hire them on as anything just to pay the bills (and stay in the country). Even if they had to become technicians. If only UC would let them do that (there are some rules against hiring PhDs into certain staff positions, but there are loopholes).

Granted, the technician title would actually be a better deal for the average postdoc, since the salary is equivalent (or better) but the benefits are MUCH better. Technicians also have automatic union membership, so once you outlast the 6-month probationary period, you're officially a staff member. AND you get retirement, among other things.

But you probably would lose some of the privileges of publishing, and it's hard to see how universities could afford to hire faculty if they're going to have to pay postdocs more reasonable salaries.

Now let's scale up this little thought experiment. What if, just for the purposes of discussion, we imagined that ALL the postdocs in the US went on strike. Indefinitely.

First, if you've ever had an NIH fellowship, you could get in trouble for this. They have a payback clause, kind of like the military. You have to contribute to science somehow in order to fulfill this payback clause. I've never heard of it being enforced, mind you, but a nationwide strike might precipitate such a backlash.

However, assuming you don't have this particular complication (and only something like 1/10th of all postdocs do), what would happen to science in the US?

I'd like to think that NIH and Congress would quit pointing fingers at each other over whose job it is to deal with rewriting science policy in this country.

Maybe Obama would have his scientific advisory board step in (ha ha ha). Maybe NIH would get a bailout! HAHAHAHA.

In the ideal scenario, it would prompt a long, slow rewrite of ALL science policy in this country. Grants, tenure, all of it.

That would, I think, take years. In the meantime, all the current postdocs would probably have to go find something else to do.

Current PIs might be okay, probably the ones with tenure could last until retirement (retirement, get it? ha ha ha).

Young PIs, I don't know. It might depend on whether the grant reviewing continued. It probably would go on just as it has, for a while anyway.

But it's hard to see how any of this would make much of a difference.

Ideally, I'd like to see the entire concept of 'postdoc' go away. Other countries can keep it if they want, I don't care.

But I think the US needs to wake up and realize that a scientific slave class, even with the Stockholm Syndrome most current postdocs embrace, is eventually going to be the death of science in this country.

But it's going to require a lot of pissed off postdocs to grow some spine if we actually want to see a change. And I somehow doubt that's going to happen anytime soon.

If UAW drags postdocs into a strike, that's going to be even more interesting. Some postdocs will think nothing of it, but those are the ones most likely to be affected by visa issues (e.g. postdocs from countries where striking is an everyday occurrence).

American postdocs are more likely to be pissed off. We mostly already agreed to making a certain amount of sacrifice, making a lot less money than our peers who chose other careers.

When UAW initially tried to unionize postdocs, a group at Berkeley got together and contested it. Finally UAW realized they could unionize the foreign postdocs (now over half the postdocs in UC are foreign) and thus circumvent protests from American postdocs who were concerned about exactly what this commenter pointed out: it's going to disrupt our work at best, and at worst, end our careers.

But I think we might be screwed anyway. I had lunch with some postdocs in my department earlier this week, and I looked around the table. There were about 8 of us there, and I was the only American.

This is the face of science in the US: outsourcing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Optimism is for suckers.

So this week, as you'll recall, I had that moment of thinking, well I should really give it another try, being more positive.

It was sort of nice to talk to my therapist again and have her say,


Validation is usually kind of reassuring. I thought yeah, it's not just me. It's my environment. It's these wackos I work with.

So I decided to try, as I mentioned in my last post, thinking maybe this is the darkest before the dawn. Or whatever.

So that lasted like, 2 days.

Today I'm trying to remember if anything good happened. I guess it's good that I'm only mildly annoyed that my experiments are not working as well as I hoped.

And I sort of pretended like today was Friday. So I'll go in tomorrow like it's Saturday.

Get it? Saturday. Hahahaha.

So I actually had a couple of days this week when I was kind of excited to get up and see if something worked. And I thought "oohh, maybe I'll get some data!"

And I had an idea in the shower one morning for a cool twist on an experiment that might yield more information than the way I was originally planning to do it... I love those moments. The aha moments.

And I'm kind of glad that I did manage to reproduce (convincingly!) one of the interesting results I got a little while back.

So that's good I guess... I should probably be more excited about it.

Um, yay. (How was that? Yay?)

But lately I have this feeling that I'm just amassing a ton of data that will never be published and therefore, none of it really exists or contributes anything to the progress of science.

Yeah, you know the feeling, don't you?

Mostly I'm annoyed because a positive pilot result I got a week or two ago has not held up to further testing. There are lots of variables, I'm still testing, but when the best case scenario is that your system is ultra-sensitive to lots of variables? That's a bad scenario.

And while in my "okay, I am troubleshooting and trying to be optimistic" mode, I had just about convinced myself I could deal with a career issue that I can't blog about.

I had come to accept how to try to be optimistic about it even though I wasn't feeling very optimistic. Or at least, I figured, I could be realistic and just take it in stride and keep going.

And then I found out why I shouldn't have bothered trying to have a good attitude.

Here's the ugly secret that is the main purpose of this blog:

There is always, always ALWAYS something else going on behind the scenes in science.

Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

Your worst paranoias can't even begin to cover it.

That feeling you get that people are talking about you or your work behind your back?

Well, they are. What's really sickening is, nobody tells you this until you've been doing it long enough to feel well and trapped:

They're allowed to. It's built right in. It's part of the way the system works.

This is the kind of shit that makes me want to quit science and just be done with it. Somehow I just can't stand it being so fucked up.

I don't care what you say, I don't think I can get used to it or accept it or whatever you call "growing up." Somehow I'd rather go work on something I don't care about. I think that would be easier than watching something I actually really do value turn out to be, you know, completely false and evil.

Oh, which reminds me, one small light of sanity in my week: I got home in time to watch the Rachel Maddow show today. I love Rachel Maddow. And I find it absolutely hilarious when they show those group shots of her with the other 5 white guys, er I mean, all of them with their short hair and she's as close to a woman as they could bring themselves to allow. I mean, sheesh. But she's so darn cute!

And in other angry, depressing news, I had to give up on mentoring at one of our new postdocs. I say "at" because she asked me for advice repeatedly, and I tried to be honest and really did enjoy talking with her, but she apparently took none of my advice.

This was confirmed for me today and I realized I was really kind of disgusted. Why do I waste my fucking time on these people? Should I just assume it's all an act? Why do they bother ASKING? I don't have time for this shit. But I hate assuming that. Some of them are genuinely grateful and I'm glad to help. But not this one.

It's really fucking hard to try to be upbeat about things when on the one hand, some people are saying your work is great and everything is going to be okay if you'll just cheer up, and on the other hand, some snothead in your lab is clearly sending the message that she thinks you're an idiot-loser.

Oh, I know she's an arrogant little twit and she'll find out the hard way (hopefully).

But something about watching the cycle repeat itself just makes me sick. I've really only known one or two grad students who were this bad, but not postdocs.

I guess I thought that if grad school had one thing going for it, it's kicking the living daylights out of most of the arrogant twits who think they know more than anyone.

I know that's not really true, but you know what I mean. If you can get through grad school with your arrogance fully intact, that's pretty impressive (or pathological).

Oh and in other news, one of my best friends on campus here got a job and is leaving soon. I might have mentioned this in a past blog post. I'm kind of depressed about it, for purely selfish reasons. Somehow he figured out how to get what he wanted to move his life along, and I'm still stuck here. And it definitely sucks losing one of my closest allies.

Meanwhile, my still-unemployed friend had what seemed like an almost-offer to do what she's actually really trained to do... after what she described as an awesome interview...

But it turned out that the company had also interviewed a guy who was a friend of someone in the company... and guess who they had already offered it to before they invited my friend to interview?

So it didn't matter what she did, the job was already his. Only she didn't know that.

In other words, if it were a level playing field, we wouldn't mind if we lost fair and square. But it's not level, and it's not fair.

And one of the things that pisses me off the most about that is having to work with a bunch of snot-nosed kids who still think it is.

Or maybe I'm just in a really fucking bad mood today?

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Monday, November 24, 2008

You're closer than you think.

Yesterday I had this thought, how sometimes you feel like you're miles from getting something to work and then BANG! You're there. It's done.

And you think, wow, I almost gave up before I got here! Good thing I didn't quit!

I think this should be my new mantra for the whole job thing.

Maybe it's not impossible. Maybe this is just the part where you're falling, and you think you're going to be smashed on the sidewalk but you're actually only an inch away.

Either way, hitting bottom would be better than free fall, I think.

I was also thinking about this because I've been watching some of my grad student friends and how they manage their priorities.

One does everything way in advance. She's always asking for help, but not before doing her homework and figuring out as much as she can on her own first. And she asks good questions.

Another has been procrastinating this week about her qualifying exam, all the while saying she's going to be destroyed by one of her committee members who always gives her a hard time. And yet, she's not asking for help.

A third sent me a thesis chapter to edit last week... the day before it was due to his committee. Two weeks before his defense.

I mean, come on. It's not like you didn't know you were going to have to write a thesis, let's see .... at least 5 years ago!

So while I'm watching the CNN headline "Bottom line of hopelessness", I'm thinking, yeah, I've been trying to plan ahead. I've been getting closer. I still feel like I'm a million miles away from where I want to be with my career.

But maybe I'm closer than I thought. Maybe a few more months, in the rear view mirror, won't seem like much at all?

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Slouching toward Bethlehem.

Well, maybe the stock market continuing to crash is a good thing for science.

I'm feeling more and more these days that, in my narcissistic state, I'd be a lot happier if science just went away for a while. Maybe a decade. I really do think the only way to fix it is to start with a clean slate.

I keep thinking it's so ironic how everyone in academia had been saying,

"Oh, we just need a new President, just hang in there [for four more years], funding is going to get better after that."

But look around, folks, it's getting worse, and, Obama or no Obama, it will very likely stay that way for a while.

Senior PIs are tightening their belts. They're making less effort (at least around here) to pretend like it's all hunky-dory and "training." They're telling postdocs we should consider ourselves lucky to be employed at all.

I really think the only way this is going to change is if NIH goes away, or if we have a national postdoc union that goes on strike. My guess is it will take about ten years to happen.

I'm watching what's happening with the UC unionization and I kind of have to laugh. I really do wonder if, given a little more time and bad enough job morale, scientists are finally going to grow some spine and say enough is enough?

On the one hand, I'm pretty happy with my actual day-to-day right now. It's frustrating in a lot of ways, but this week I did some things I think helped a few people:

I edited a thesis chapter for one PI's student (1 hour)
I reviewed a paper for a major journal (1 hour)
I helped another student with his thesis presentation (1 hour)
I helped a postdoc in my own lab with a fellowship application (1 hour)
I continued training my undergrad (4 hours)

And oh yeah, a few things that helped me directly:

I did some experiments.

I met a senior FSP who might be helpful as a mentor. I'm not sure yet, but she said I should come see her sometime and I thought, okay. What have I got to lose? 2 hours for another anti-pep talk?

I also had a few problems.

I spent some time hunting for reagents I need to buy and trying to negotiate a quote I could live with (2 hours total during the week) but couldn't find what I wanted at a price I was happy with, and will probably go to a different company.

I got an anti-pep talk from my advisor (2 hours) when I tried to steer the conversation to getting some actual help with my career. So much for that idea. Not going to get any help there, that much has been confirmed. Repeatedly.

I spent some time hunting for equipment (1 hour) which was broken when I finally found it.

I spent some time talking to a junior faculty friend who mentioned the hiring freezes, her own horrific departmental politics, and how her former postdoc PI is still fucking her over (2 hours).

I spent some time talking to a friend who got screwed over after writing yet another grant for his PI (2 hours).

I found out my advisor is royally screwing a former grad student on authorship of a paper. This is above and beyond what I've seen my advisor do before, it's just petty and stupid and I'm completely disgusted at how incredibly selfish Advisor is being about this.

And yet, today I am in lab for a few hours, and still feeing pretty good about reaching a few goals I have set for myself and reaching a few more in the (hopefully near) future.

After that, I don't know. I feel better when I don't worry so far ahead or care too much about all the shit going on around me. "Not my problem" is definitely a useful attitude. Or as a friend was saying this week:

What do we want?


When do we want it?

....Eh, Whenever.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008


At 2:13 PM, Anonymous said:

Novel ideas are great when you've established yourself. But there are a lot of places to do novel work within existing paradigms and honestly, that is the time-honored way to find the limits of existing paradigms anyhow. Besides, how do I know whether I should trust you until you have a body of work that demonstrates that you know what you are doing and is consistent with intuition?


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

LIttle Girls Can be Secretary of State Someday

I'm happy that Hillary might have a position in Obama's cabinet. I think she sets a great example of a woman who banged her head against the glass ceiling and didn't even stop to say ouch.

But I couldn't sleep this morning so I turned on CNN and saw this:


and the voiceover said something like

"This was very awkward, so they did what guys do. They talked about football."

Yeeaarrrggggghhhhhh. I'm sure I have at least one girlfriend who really loves football, but I still hate it.

And then they cut to a clip of Henry Kissinger saying that Hillary would be an outstanding Secretary of State.

I couldn't help wondering if that was in the usual vein of "Of course you can do this, little lady."

It really does bother me that this seems to be viewed as the highest that women or minorities are allowed to go in US government.

Is it really a coincidence? If faced with a choice, to have a Team of Rivals (and frankly, I'm pretty tired of Doris Kearns Goodwin), was SoS really the only job they could think of for her?

And yes, I think it's funny that probably the best reason she's qualified for the job is... her time as First Lady. Everyone remembers those pictures of Hillary and Chelsea trotting the globe, getting off planes and sitting on top of camels.

In the early days, lots of SoSes went on to become President. But nobody suggested Hillary for the slot until she said there was basically no chance that she would ever run for President again.

(Oh, phew. Can't have that, can we. Especially not if she were, you know, even more qualified than before. )

I guess I should be happy that Hillary already broke the record of running at all and getting so close. When I was a kid, I thought Geraldine Ferraro was breaking barriers. Apparently not really, because no woman has made it up as high in all the years since she ran until this year.

More recently I heard some pundit say Geraldine Ferraro was never a serious candidate anyway, and compared her to Sarah Palin. I thought that was a bit unfair, but looking back, I really wouldn't know. I was just an idealistic kid.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Your work is not your own.

Anthony Bourdain is riding a horse in a fox hunt on tv in the background as I write this, and it seems very appropriate for this post. Anthony basically says that the idea of an old-fashioned fox hunt is to chase the fox around until it's cornered into a hole, and then leave it completely freaked out.


So today I went to see my new therapist.

I gave her the short (less than 1 hour) version of some of the things that have happened leading up to my current crisis of wondering just how much soul I have to sell to get a job around here.

In short: some of the things I told her made her look like the back of her head was going to blow off.

As in, if forced to deal with some of the things I've dealt with, her head would literally explode.

At the end of our session, she said she learned a few things from me about how science really works.

Really? I guess if I leave science having educated a few people about the reality of scientific research, that's a contribution to society... of some sort.

[Still thinking about writing that tell-all book, when all else fails. It would include edited versions of blog posts. If nothing else, I might get some, I don't know, revenge?

Damn that would be a fun way to burn bridges. ]

Interestingly, she said that much of what I've experienced from my "colleagues" both in my own lab and when trying to publish my work "could be considered hazing".

Hazing. Well yeah that does describe it pretty well. Good to have a word for it, I guess, and some validation of my perception that it was, you know, unnecessary and brutal.

It calls to mind that quote from someone about how senior scientists are "eating their young."

You biologists out there know that this happens. Rats and mice eat their offspring quite often in the lab; frogs eat their own fertilized eggs, etc. So you might not think about how fucked up it is.

Just think about that analogy in all its grisly glory for a moment. Parents picking their children's cartilage out of their teeth.

That's what PIs do to their postdocs.

Just think, why do we let them do this to us?

That's your cartilage. Those are my bones they're using to pick their teeth.

Speaking of young, my new therapist was also surprised to hear about this concept that postdocs nowadays are usually accused of not having our own ideas or enough independence from their advisors, but especially women postdocs.

She was trying to suggest that I should try to be my advisor's best collaborator, instead of viewing it as a soon-to-be competitive relationship. I was explaining that I still don't trust my advisor, that I really think my advisor would like nothing more than for me to quit science, because then my project ... is no longer my project.

Then I explained that, even if that weren't a major concern, if I did get a job I wouldn't want to collaborate with my manipulative, dishonest boss... also because continuing to publish with one's former advisor doesn't really count towards helping you get tenure since it makes you look anything but independent.

But I was thinking again about this idea of owning your work.

My project was my idea. My advisor not only did not come up with it, my advisor did not support it. Did not believe it. Has fought me every step of the way... until now. Now my advisor believes me.

Know what that means? Say it with me, kids:

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you...
... then they say it was their idea."

The idea of other people working on it, and of my advisor getting credit for it, makes me want to shoot myself in the head.

(I'm in favor of gun laws, because if I had a gun I would have shot myself a long time ago.)

Today I also happened to get confirmation that my paranoias are, so far as I've been able to learn, right on target. Totally unprompted, one of the postdocs volunteered to me that our advisor basically planned to have him work on ... aspects of my project when I leave.

Yep. I knew that. But I was kind of hoping I was just being paranoid.

So I'm feeling like the whole "crazy like a fox" thing is really not a good state of mind to be in. Or else I'm doing it wrong. Is there a better way to hide in a hole and freak out than I'm doing right now?

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Response to Comments on last post: No.


Great literary reference, I actually still haven't read that book. I should put it on my list.

I counter your reference with one from the musical Chorus Line.

One of the characters sings a song about her first acting teacher, who tells her she's Nothing, and the other kids in her class yell that she's Nothing.

So she goes and prays for guidance (I can only get behind this part because she prays to Santa Maria, hail Mary full of grace!).

And she hears a voice that tells her

This man is Nothing! This course is Nothing! Go find a better class!
And when you find it, you'll be an actress!

And the lyrics after that are where she sings:

"And I assure you that's what finally came to pass."

Yes, I play this song a lot.

In other words: Just because some grumpy head instructor tells you "no" does NOT mean you don't have "it."

I've met a lot of different kinds of "it", although I know what you mean about some postdocs really standing out more than others.

But this is why I think science needs to smarten up or lose out.

"It" is not a scientific way to decide who has a unique and important insight to contribute, and who does not.

And being "more aggressive, etc"? Still a LOT easier for guys, and a lot of guys still don't get that.

Aggressiveness is not a sign of being a good scientist. It's a sign of confidence, which is not necessarily indicative of anything scientific.

I know plenty of fantastic scientists who are also fantastically insecure.

Most of the SUCCESSFUL scientists I know pretend to be confident, but it's often just an act. They have a lot of moments of self-doubt.

Most of the aggressive scientists I know? Buncha stupid jerks, just like in every other walk of life where you find aggressive people.

Or did you mean "assertive", the version that's supposed to be okay? As in, having a backbone?

Yeah, still easier if you're a guy. You might have to read more of this blog to find out why.


I wish it were that simple. I think it varies from lab to lab, and person to person. I've seen people in my lab get taken under the wing, as it were, by my advisor. Pats on the head, pats on the back, all kinds of great mentoring going on there. I've seen other people get... Nothing.

There can be only one favorite in every lab, with the sorts of PIs who choose favorites and probably don't even realize it. I can't say this enough: Having a favorite will always affect how everyone else gets mentored.


You sound like you're not used to working with scientists.

NO, most labs do NOT have all the undergrads meet with everyone. Many do not even introduce prospective grad students or postdocs to the other lab members before they are hired. The PI decides.

I'm not saying I agree with this, but I understand why. Interviewing people takes time. And a lot of undergrads drop out of lab work before too long. One semester might seem like a long time to you, but it's the blink of an eye in the course of research.

And it doesn't matter if you or they can't, or don't want to, "hang out."

You're in lab to work, and maybe learn a few things if you keep your eyes and ears open and ask good questions.

That is ALL you are there for.

If you happen to be pals with your labmates, that's great, you'll all have more fun.

If not, you better figure out how to grow up and work together like adults.

If you or they don't fit in? GET USED TO IT.

You're not going to "fit in" everywhere you go in life. Nobody does.

It's really unusual that people are downright disruptive to the work, but in those cases usually a few words with the PI, from a few concerned lab members, will do the trick.

Not being very sociable? That's not disruptive unless the person is so nonfunctional as to refuse to talk to other people in ways that interfere with the work. For example, if the person refuses to answer the phone, sign for packages, or ask questions if it means talking to anyone. That sort of thing. I have seen this kind of debilitating shyness before, but usually people get over it with a little bit of encouragement.

If I were the PI, I would be concerned that the antisocial lab member is depressed. I might try to do some lab social activities to find out more about how serious the problem is, and go from there.

Lab social dynamics are often irritating, but unfortunately in most fields you have to spend time working in or near a group you have no control over choosing.

Personally, my undergrads have all been surprised at how much time scientists in my field spend working ALONE. My work involves long stretches alone with a piece of equipment, or alone at the bench at odd hours when everyone else has gone home.

Oh wait, I only do that by choice. Because I am not Nothing. I have "it." And I have a lot of it.

[I just don't have my own lab (yet?).]

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Interviewing my replacement

No, I haven't quit.

But while my lab is, in my opinion, plenty big enough already, my advisor is always interviewing more postdocs.

Sometimes they are very good, but don't end up coming.

Sometimes they are mediocre or not so great, but do end up coming. Sometimes they get better after they arrive, sometimes not so much.

Sometimes they are awful, and don't get an offer.

And sometimes we get people who are clearly very smart, very accomplished, very nice, and yet they come here, to our lab.

Sometimes they love it when they arrive.

And sometimes they have that look on their faces of "What the hell was I thinking?"

A couple of our star postdocs have that look lately, and I am kind of laughing at them because I can see them cultivating the denial. You know, that little speech you give yourself that goes like this:

I just moved here from far away... I don't want to move again... I have a fellowship... I made my spouse move here with me... It's a nice place to live.... the lab is not so bad... And all that crap going on with the senior postdocs trying to leave??? That's their own fault, it won't happen to me... I will learn from their mistakes... Besides, I am way smarter than they are...

But it is especially weird for the senior postdocs, watching these new people come in and interview. It makes me feel old. It really hit me hard this year, the generation gap. I feel like I shouldn't be working with people this much younger than me unless they're working FOR me. Maybe that's a really bad attitude, but on some level I feel like I've been left back several grades in school.

And I resent it, since, like most postdocs, I have a set expiration date whether I want one or not. So in a way, no matter what happens, I know I am interviewing people who will be here after I leave.

And I do realize that some of them might end up being my competitors if Advisor puts them on whatever is left of my project, whether or not I manage to get a job somewhere I can continuing working on it. Advisor has a long history of competing with former postdocs after they leave.

And I'm watching CNN and they're talking about tens of thousands of people being laid off from various companies like Citigroup, and I'm thinking, This is not good. My parents, children of people who grew up in the Great Depression, are already saying this is going to be another time like that. My mom was telling me about how my grandfather took all kinds of odd jobs, worked in a cardboard box factory for a while because he couldn't get a job doing what he was trained to do.

Yeah. That's encouraging.

So against this background, I have to pretend like everything is normal and peachy-keen and meet with these postdoc candidates and try not to growl at them too much.

We usually meet with them at least briefly. I always ask the same questions in the same order:

1. What do you want to do after your postdoc?

usual answers:

a) Academia
b) I don't know

2. What do you want to do here?

usual answers:

a) listing a few specific techniques
b) spouting some vague buzzwords

3. Why did you pick this lab?

usual answers:

a) something about Advisor (met at a meeting, connection through their graduate advisor)
b) something about location
c) something about their spouse getting a job here

4. Do you have a project in mind?

usual answers:

a) no
b) names something a senior postdoc started and took with them
c) Advisor mentioned something about....(buzzwords associated with a specific project)
d) names something they worked on as a graduate student that they want to continue working on

(Note that I have yet to meet one who proposes something totally new that is neither a continuation of their thesis work nor something already going on in our lab or a former postdoc's lab)

After the visit, we are asked what we think about a candidate, but negative evaluations have to be pretty serious and widely held by several people in the group to change Advisor's mind. Which is to say, it doesn't matter if we think the person is mediocre and potentially sexist but it's hard to tell for sure ... several of us would have to say in no uncertain terms THIS ONE SUCKS/SEEMS LIKE A TOTAL JERK/WE CAN DO BETTER.

So obviously I'm questioning whether I can really be objective about new postdocs at this point. Probably not. But that's okay, because I think Advisor knows that, and my opinion on this subject won't be taken into account from here on out, anyway.

Meanwhile, I can see some of the youngest postdocs in my department looking at me, and thinking:

I'm not any smarter than YFS is, and she clearly works hard enough so... Holy shit, I better hope that doesn't happen to me.

We were talking about the rollercoaster feeling, how when things are going well we don't want to face the possibility of having to give up our projects, which we love and are totally invested in, to go... work at a company.

My friends who aren't so in love with their projects, or don't know what to do next, don't seem to care as much.

They think it would be fine to leave whenever, and they don't really worry about publishing papers because they hate to write. They're fine with the day-to-day. They're okay with the labs they're in, and aren't ready for a big change. So for now they'll stay where they are.

I love these people, but I wouldn't want such apathetic postdocs working for me if I were the PI. I would not want people who are so uninvested in their projects in my lab. Maybe it's futile to think about, because it might never happen that I'm ever a PI.

But I say to myself that if I were the PI, I hope I would notice this kind of thing and try to get each postdoc working on a project they really liked. To help them find that thing that gets them excited. To me, that's the whole point of science. Science is hard enough without working on something you find boring or pointless!

But when the experiments are going really badly or the administration is being bitchy, we all think

"Anything would be better than this! Cardboard box factory, here I come!"

I guess we're all going to feel these various stages of rollercoaster or apathy until something about postdoctoral positions changes drastically. Or at least until our expiration dates.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Evolution of a project.

1. Pilot experiments

Expectations: none

Interpretation: Oh my god, did it actually work?

2. Repetition

Expectations: I hope it works

Interpretation: Was the result of the pilot just an artifact? Maybe I just fucked it up. I should try it again.

3. Reproducibility

Expectations: This better fucking work, and it better be publication-quality

Interpretation: This would have fucking worked if someone else in the lab hadn't used up something I needed, and I didn't know until the last step on a Friday night and I can't order more until next week. FUCK. Well that's another week of my life I'll never get back.

4. Drafting the paper

Expectations: This is fucking cool! Everyone will love it!

Interpretation: Wait until they see my amazing contribution. It was totally worth all the hard work.

5. Waiting for advisor to read the draft

Expectations: Can't be much longer now. I'm next in line after only 2 other manuscripts.

Interpretation: Everyone has to wait, I should just be patient. I am so far ahead with this work, I don't even need to worry about getting scooped.

6. Waiting for advisor to read the draft part 2

Expectations: This is taking longer than I hoped.

Interpretation: I should revise a little more while I'm waiting. And add those other experiments I did while I was waiting. It's getting better so it's just as well that nobody read the first five drafts I gave them.

7. Writing with advisor.

Expectations: Give and take, right? A meeting of the minds?

Interpretation: Advisors always think they are great writers, but they rarely are. And yet, I will have to pick my battles. And this is taking longer than I hoped.

8. Submitting the paper.

Expectations: It might get rejected right away. Then we'll know in a week. It might get reviewed and then rejected. Then we'll know in a month. If it takes longer than that, it's buried on someone's desk and they forgot about it. We'll call if we don't hear anything in a month.

Interpretation: Who the fuck knows what will happen. This is the part where we pray, even if we don't believe in God.

9. Waiting to hear back.

Expectations: It will probably get rejected one way or another. Will probably have to do more experiments.

Interpretations: Quick! Do all those personal errands you put off while you were writing, before it gets rejected!

10. Getting the reviews.

Expectations: This is going to suck. Nobody likes being criticized.

Interpretation: Have low expectations, and you'll always be pleasantly surprised.

11. Revise.

Expectations: I'm going to get this done quick, before I'm sick of this project.

Interpretation: This is par for the course, but the end is in sight.

12. Resubmit.

Expectations: I will be sick of this project before we finish revising.

Interpretation: I need a vacation when this paper is accepted.

13. Repeat steps 5-12 at least once, maybe twice.

Expectations: None. I am already sick of this project. I might get scooped.

Interpretation: I'm not getting that vacation anytime soon. Everyone is wondering why it's not published yet. I must be a total loser. And I am so fucking mad at my advisor.

14. Accepted for publication.

Expectations: I was thoroughly sick of this project months ago. It's old news.

Interpretation: This is totally anticlimactic. I thought it would get into a better journal, or at least get into this journal a whole lot easier. Why did I think I'd be excited when it finally got published? Maybe I'll be excited when I see it in print.

15. Print copies arrive.

Expectations: This will mean nothing to me. I am dead inside.

Interpretation: Huh. My name looks pretty good there up at the top. And the figures look nice. I guess we did a pretty good job. I hope somebody reads it. Maybe I should go look myself up on Pubmed again.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Still against Larry Summers

Dear Fareed Zakaria, George Stephanopoulos and Cynthia Tucker,

A lot of us blogged about Larry Summers when he blamed women for our lack of success in science. He said it was because we didn't want to work as hard as men, implying first that all women have children, and second that all women who have children work fewer hours than men.

Which implies that choosing childcare over career success is a free choice. This is false logic.

Furthermore, he said it could be because women just start out dumber, citing studies that claim women don't do as well on exams and others that claim socialization can't explain all the differences in women's competitiveness.

We women scientists were outraged and offended at the time, but more importantly we knew what this meant: like cockroaches, when you see one, that just means there are plenty more where it came from.

We knew that, if the President of Harvard was saying things like this, here was yet another example of why we weren't making more progress. We might not expect the public to know how hard we work or how smart we are, but we hope our supervisors do. And yet, we know that even our supervisors don't know how hard we work or how smart we are.

We know we are perpetually underestimated. We know that this, more than any other factor, is what holds us back. Second on the list is the underestimation of the pervasiveness of sexism, in all its subtle forms.

Now, we're back to sexism's best friend: the argument about "picking the best candidate for the job." You argue that Larry is "brilliant" and that Obama needs people who are "smart." Allow me to argue with that argument.

How smart can Larry Summers be? He's not a scientist, yet he offended women scientists everywhere by referencing research on genetics vs. socialization and claims that girls don't do as well on math and science exams as boys.

As it turns out, one of the things that made this most offensive was that Larry didn't have a complete grasp of the literature, had chosen to cite only the studies that supported his point, and hadn't considered the effect of his words.

Perhaps most offensive to me, he used an anecdote about his daughter's choice of toys in support of his argument. This is classic sexism in science.

Let me reiterate (since I have blogged about it before): What toys we played with as little girls has NO EFFECT on whether we become successful scientists later in life. This anecdote was cited as if it has predictive value, but it simply doesn't.

Fareed Zakaria said anyone who has followed Larry's career knows that he has never done anything to hurt women's careers? I couldn't find anything on Google about the great and wonderful Larry Summers helping women's careers. Interestingly, though, there also seems to have been sufficient good press about him since he said these negative things that it doesn't even come up associated with his name unless you add "women in science" to the search criteria.

And I think it's more than fair to say that most people have not followed his career.

By offering him a slot as Treasury Secretary, Barack Obama would be condoning an attitude that doesn't go away with an apology.

If you still can't see what I mean, look at it this way: Harvard did the right thing firing him. People like this should not be in positions of power and high visibility. What's to keep him from saying something stupid in a press conference and embarrassing Barack Obama?

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

How to start collaborations.

Someone asked about this in a comment, implying it was something that should be taught in grad school.

Here's how I think I learned:

1. Panhandling from a poor lab.

This was out of necessity. I used to be the kind of kid who was shy about answering the phone at home, so you can imagine I had to get over a lot of shyness to go door-to-door in my department asking for reagents and equipment (and sometimes for someone to show me how to use the equipment).

I met a lot of people this way and found out what was going on in all the labs.

Step 1: Know who's doing what.

2. Trial and error.

I did a couple of collaborations in grad school, set up by my advisor. One went pretty well; the other ended prematurely at my request. I've blogged about that one before.

Step 2: Know who knows what they're doing, and who is going to treat you like dirt.

3. The kindness of strangers

I set up collaborations as a postdoc primarily by asking for things, just like in grad school, only this time I did it by email. My best collaboration of all time was done almost exclusively via email and Fedex.

Step 3: Pick people who respond promptly, who communicate clearly, and who genuinely want their stuff to work for you.

4. Talk about publications up front.

If it's going to be your paper, say what you're doing, what your goals are, what your vision is, and what you need them to do for you. Make it clear what it's in it for them, and don't be afraid to make the boundaries clear, too. If you're going to be first author and you absolutely will not accept a co-first* author* scenario, make that clear, but also be aware of what kinds of expectation that sets up.

Most people will appreciate constant communication on this subect, with some wiggle room. Experiments are added during revision, which often means adding authors or changing the order. Most people will be okay with this provided everyone is kept in the loop and has a chance to voice their opinion (and maybe even influence the final decision).

Some people will turn down authorship and then avoid giving you information you need to finalize publication. Other people will be offended at the suggestion of discussing authorship before the project even begins. With those people you can talk about doing pilot experiments first, but nail them down on meeting to discuss nuts and bolts at a set time after that.

If you're trying to get on other people's papers, offer to do an experiment but make it clear that you're sticking to the standard rule: if you contribute a figure or a part of a figure, you deserve to be an author, too. This can help your CV, particularly when you're a junior grad student or postdoc (for example), but don't let yourself get too distracted with doing these kinds of favors unless you get something in return. For example, I did a couple of these kinds of figures as a way to get unpublished reagents that were being used in the course of the work. Everybody knew that was the arrangement, and I think it was win-win for everyone.

If your potential co-authors keep ducking the authorship issue in the beginning, they're likely to put up a fight about it later on. Avoid these types. They're usually insecure, bad communicators who have an agenda of their own, and they know that open communication makes it hard to sneak around. You can try to pin them down, but keep in mind they can always change their story later, when it's too late for you to argue (i.e. they can take your name off the paper without your permission) or find someone else (i.e. when they did critical experiments for you, and you can't publish the work without their permission).

Yes, as a postdoc there are some special pitfalls. In my opinion, it's not worth it to try to lodge a formal complaint if all you did was 1 figure and got left off the author list. Do what we all do, and most of us have had this happen once. But once is enough. Choose carefully who you want to help out.


5. Publish the damn work already.

I have several papers pending right now, and they're all collaborations. In some cases, it's my fault and/or my PI's fault. In the other cases, it's my collaborator's fault. There's only so much I can do about papers where I'm a middle author, but I resent knowing I did work for these people and it's just sitting around. I'm sure my co-authors feel the same way about my papers.

The key thing here is to keep people informed when it's your responsibility to get the thing published.

And if you're the middle author, don't be afraid to send an email every 6 months or so asking how it's going and whatever happened with that manuscript. It probably won't make much difference, but in one case I found out after the fact that the paper had been revised drastically and accepted at a different journal, and my collaborators never sent me the manuscript. So I would not have known to add it to my CV unless I had, for some narcissistic or competitive reason, Pubmedded myself. Totally inappropriate, but sometimes it's good to check in and make sure they're not (inadvertently or otherwise) screwing you over.

And that, my friends, or more or less all there is to it. Questions on this subject are welcome.


Thursday, November 06, 2008

Updates from the trenches: Dr. Babysitter.

I often find myself the repository for random bits of information, some of which are crises I can really do nothing about. Sometimes I can help.

The blog helps me cope with both.

1. The friend-of-a-friend grad student.

Her 2nd-ish year qualifying exam is coming up. She did the right thing and met with each of her committee members before the actual exam. But it kind of backfired. One of her committee members called her advisor and said he doesn't think she has what he called "sufficient logical thinking ability."

Point here: Nobody does this kind of thing to male grad students. Ever.

Silver lining: Her advisor disagrees with the guy. (At least for now.)

If I hear any more about the outcome, I will blog it.

2. A grad student friend.

The first chapter of her thesis completed, her advisor is coming up for tenure soon, he decided to send it to Two-Name Journal.

She has never written a paper before, never published before. Still keeps getting the journal name wrong because she doesn't really care that much.

Over a month later, paper comes back un-reviewed. She's thinking, fine, we'll send it to 2nd tier two-name journal.

Advisor instead wants her to do the same experiment 10 times more with different samples and resubmit to the journal that wouldn't review it in the first place.

So this is already fucked up, right? Especially since it's not really what she and her committee agreed would be her thesis project.

But it gets better. When she said look, this is going to take forever and there's still no guarantee it will get published, he said "Look, I'm the PI here, I get to decide."

She says she feels like her spirit is broken.

3. Unemployed friend.

You'll all be glad to hear I offered to teach her everything I know. She has a lot of time on her hands and is going a bit stir-crazy. I think she's going to take me up on the offer.

Point here: I realized I do have time to help her, and there is something in it for me, so I don't feel like I'm being a martyr.

4. Postdoc friend who wants a job in industry.

Has been asking what he can do for me in exchange for me teaching him one of my more unusual, yet coveted skills. We're still negotiating what he can do for me and when I can teach him.

But I think it will be very funny if he and #3 both get jobs in industry while I'm still struggling. Although honestly, the economy looking the way it is, I doubt they're going to get jobs all that soon anyway.

5. Me.

Looking into getting a therapist. Yeah, it's time. I burst into tears at another unsuspecting coworker yesterday. I can't go on like this. I don't know if it will help, but damn if I'm not going to spend all my benefits while I have them.

I also made a dental appointment. So there.

6. My PI.

PI is apparently feeling a bit defeated.

Here I thought, I picked this person with all the experience, I thought by the time you reach that level you're more weathered and better able to deal with setbacks. Maybe even view them as just a small part of the job, you pick yourself back up again and keep going.

Right? Because it's part of your job? You can't wallow in self-pity and anger for more than, I don't know, a month each time something gets rejected?

As it turns out, we are going to have to take turns being each other's cheerleaders.

I dislike this part of my job, aka Leading Up, but I think I can do it now that I understand that's what I have to do.

Apparently it is my turn to keep my advisor going, because I DO believe in my work, I have to be the Obama here and keep chanting Yes We Can.

But I have to say here, something is seriously wrong with this system where EVERY PI I have ever worked with required me to SIT with them and make them read my manuscripts. Because otherwise they will not do the job.

And before you say it must be because I'm a terrible writer (blog popularity notwithstanding!), everyone in the lab does this babysitting nonsense.

It not matter if you are a postdoc or if you have published several papers already.

I did it as a grad student because I believed that, like most grad students, I would learn something in the process.

But as a senior postdoc? It's not only an enormous waste of time, it's degrading, stupid, and makes me wonder how any of them ever got to where they are now.

Who made them do their work when they were younger? Their PI? Their mother?


Yes, I am laughing at this ridiculous situation. I can't help it. It's just so unbelievably stupid.

It makes me think about those ultra-mature little kids who take care of their alcoholic parents and call 911 when mommy passes out on the kitchen floor and hits her head. I seriously can't think of a better analogy.

The good news? Advisor likes to work on manuscripts to avoid other more onerous tasks (yes, this is mature time management at its best!).

So the bad budget news? Other irritating chores? Working in my favor.

Helping me is a day at the beach compared to that. Especially when I'm chanting Yes We Can. Yes We Can. Yes We Can.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

If only, part 2.

So here's the funny part.

Felt like crying all day but did not. As usual, after our last meeting, instead of letting me do everything, Advisor insisted on doing something... and did not do it. I was pissed about this happening again. Among other things.

Finally sucked it up and went to see Advisor, promising self I would not cry. And I didn't. Go, self. (minor victory)

I think I do better when I'm angry.

After all the talk about mentoring, Advisor's big advice?

I don't know what you should do. It's really up to you.

Something must have changed since last time we talked, because every. single. time. before when I said "I want to do X" the answer was always Very Anti.

Now? Advisor seems worn down.

It reminds me of how my parents were:

with me (very Anti)
with my little sister ("whatever you want, go ahead").

So actually, despite the total lack of, ha ha, mentoring, I think I'm calling it a minor victory.

And despite the unbelievably bad timing of, well, everything in my career, this might actually be an example where I can take advantage of the timing. Advisor could have stayed Very Anti for another year, and that would be worse than this.

Now I will try to fail my way, maybe?

Except with Advisor's name on the paper, that's supposed to help?

I've been at "I don't know" for a while now. I think now I'm back at "Ask around again". We'll see if anyone will get back to me, or if, since the people I need to ask are all faculty, they'll also just ignore me.

And still funny to me, in the process of getting to where I wanted to be, I've been so worn down for so long, I'm not sure I have anything left to drag across the finish line.

It's like those commercials for the Olympics this year when they showed that one guy who had an injury and two people ran down to the track to help him limp to the end. I don't really have anybody like that, but I'll try to ask.

And if that doesn't work, maybe I'll just lay on the ground and laugh.

The person who commented that nothing seems to have changed in 2-3 years is mostly right. Except for one thing: I'm wayyyyy more burned out than I ever thought a person could possibly be. I thought I was completely burned out already back then! Boy was I wrong. There are so many levels to down.

So I guess my goal is that between me and Advisor, if I get to drive, and Advisor is willing to keep me company but basically be a passenger, we might get farther than when I'm bound and gagged in the trunk?

Or maybe instead of me being the puppet, I can write the script and Advisor will read it like a newscaster?

Oh, if only it were going to be that easy.

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Evil scheme from Seed to stop me from procrastinating?

Okay, so I have other things to do today, but I've been trying to catch up on reading blogs.

I know, I've been absent for a while.

So I was eagerly reading and commenting on various blogs over at Seed when I got this error:

Comment Submission Error

Your comment submission failed for the following reasons:

Too many comments have been submitted from you in a short period of time. Please try again in a short while.

I mean, seriously. I'm sure this was instituted as some kind of troll-control, otherwise it's gotta be some kind of joke. Is it my fault that I read fast and type fast? WTF.

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If only it were so simple.

In a comment on the last post, Paul said:

The way it seems to go is that you postdoc until you can't stand it anymore then you start applying like crazy for jobs. In academia and/or industry.

I think it helps to have a few published articles on your CV at this stage. The best way to get those is
1. work like a crazy woman
2. diversify.
3. minimize working on everything that wont result in an article. Give anyone hell that asks you to teach that course/lab for a semester. You may be lucky and get a job offer from these favours or you may just be being used.
4. Try not to work with people that piss you off, are stupid, are unfocussed, etc. They will just slow you down.

Regarding 2. Your boss usually has a few pet projects which you probably should work on. Or at least make an appearance of working on. I guess funding for these projects are paying your postdoc? But you should also have a few other pet stealth projects that you're fairly certain will result in papers.

I think this is great advice. Especially since I did most of it. However, Paul is missing a few key points.

1. Did that. Still doing it. See dictionary under "burnout."

2. Did that, but see below.

3. Did that, but see below.

4. Impossible. Don't always know until it's much too late; plus people can have personal problems that appear, unpredictably, out of nowhere. If you have bad timing, you're S.O.L. That was my bad luck. But it's not that unusual, either, which is why I think this advice is on the right track. Definitely necessary, but not sufficient.

Regarding 2. Here's the thing re: pet projects. My advisor helped me come up with a project and apply for fellowships when I arrived. After I got the money, I was on my own. Advisor did not want to publish papers with me. Advisor is prolific but slow to publish.

This has basically been the major problem of my career. My thesis advisor was a foot-dragger on publishing, but his papers are all really solid when they come out, and I was able to browbeat him into publishing my work because he needed papers too.

My postdoc advisor does not need the papers. I need the papers. So the only papers my advisor finds appealing are: you guessed it, only the (very) High Impact Papers. Which take a long time, as I'm sure some of you know.

So far I've spent longer trying to get my papers accepted than I spent doing the original experiments, plus I've been doing more experiments to try to address reviewers' comments.

When I offer to help on pet projects, advisor either turns me down, or the grad students/postdocs who already work on it either tell me they've got it covered (i.e. back off, they want all the credit) or they don't really want to do it either, and my involvement makes it harder for them to blow it off. Either way, I have thus far ended up dropping the issue every time.

And now it's awfully late in the game to be trying to pick up more projects. I need to be FINISHING projects, not starting new ones.

Oh and publishing my stealth projects from within advisor's lab? Forget that. I would be burned at the stake if I tried to secretly submit first-author papers without my advisor, and I can't put advisor's name on anything and get away with it... see where I'm going with this? So that's not really practical advice. And I can't afford to wait until I get a faculty position, because, see above: need more publications in order to get a job.

And that would require publishing what I have. But my one biggest problem, and the one that I think has affected most of my friends' careers, is that publishing with a control maniac PI requires some kind of outside intervention, or a lot of trial and error.

Here's what I can tell you about trial and error:

1. It's very slow.
2. It's very frustrating.
3. It's doomed, because you only get so many tries before you run out of time.

Oh and did I mention that with a lack of feedback, it's totally unscientific? It's like doing experiments and not having an assay to tell if the experiments are working.

So I'm caught in a particularly awful situation now, largely because my project is interdisciplinary and I have been very much on my own, but the other PIs involved can't really stand up to my PI and say what for. First, because it's interdisciplinary work and they don't want to presume they know enough about the project in its entirety to comment on anything other than the part they helped with directly. Get it?

And, they just won't. They're smart people, but they are, as another commenter wrote, covering their own asses with both hands.

So my advisor would like to let me take the lead, but on the other hand, my project has not yet convinced my advisor to begin giving up a lifetime of control mania.

So we've had these kinds of scenarios where I say, "Well I think this is going to piss some people off, we shouldn't write it that way"

and advisor says "No, trust me, I have a lot of experience with publishing, this is how we'll write it."

And then the reviews come back, and guess who was right?

MsPhD was right. But does advisor say "Look, you were right, I was wrong, I'm sorry I got in your way"?

No, advisor gets MORE pissed off at me. Clearly, this is my fault for not making a stronger case for why I was right all along.

I mean, talk about a mindfuck. When I argue? I'm being a bitch, and the paper doesn't get submitted for months or years because advisor is sitting on it as my punishment.

Hello, being a female postdoc. Isn't this great?

But when I don't argue, I get punished by the reviews and advisor is disappointed that I apparently lack the confidence in my scientific knowledge to stand up for what I think is the right thing to do.

Did I mention mindfuck? Fucking mindfuck.

So I lose either way.

My favorite part of all this is when I present this work at meetings, and people say they like it, and ask what's going on with the publishing. Or they might even ask for a copy of the paper, assuming that if it's not out yet, it will be soon.

What's soon? We're wayyy past soon.

When I tell them I'm trying to figure out how to handle my advisor, they blame me for not knowing.

So I have to ask, how could I possibly know?

The other people in the lab who worked on similar projects were all men, and they did everything they could to shut me out. I am still here after all these years because I had to do the good daughter thing and wait my turn.

Nobody seems to get that.

So I've been trying to come up with a strategy to handle my advisor, but I'm using trial and error because I don't have any other insight. There are no women to ask. And I can't do what the men did (whatever that was, I've had to guess about that too).

And it is very slow. And very frustrating.

Anyway I think that's all I'm going to write about being a postdoc for today, because I'm really tired for no good reason. I took yesterday off and only did a tiny amount of work. Will probably take today off too.


To the person who seems to think postdocs have it better than undergrads: that was my assumption when I was your age, too. I thought it got better as you moved up, but trust me: undergrad is the best time.

Your only job is to learn as much as you can, figure out who you are and what you want and how to get there. At least where I went to school, all I had to do was go to class, do my homework, and I chose to volunteer in a lab and work there in the summers. There was no "facetime" outside of class, and I was never bored.

Grad school is basically slave labor. A lot of it is boring. There's a lot of emphasis on facetime. And even if you think you know what you want, you can't have it unless you're lucky enough to stumble into a lab that's the perfect match for both your scientific interests and personality. What are the chances of that?

And postdoc is the same as grad school on balance, better in some ways but much worse in others.

There is the appearance of more independence after undergrad, but in practice you're even more trapped when you move into a lab and you're entirely dependent on the PI to live or die in your career.

It's a horrible mess that doesn't really function as a 'system', and everybody tells you you're just whining if you want to fix it.

Good luck to you.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Not just science.

Lots of random marbles rolling around in my head that I haven't had time to write about. This might be another grab-bag post.

One of the highlights of my week was talking with my very best friend, which I don't get to do nearly often enough.

We were surprised to find we both feel the same way about our very different careers: like we're in free-fall.

We both feel our bosses don't really know what they're doing, and we're very nervous having our fate in their hands.

We're trying to figure out where else to get the information we need, but when we follow the standard procedures for advice-getting, we keep getting the same empty suggestions like "You need to find a mentor."

We had a long chat about how hollow this advice is. We decided we think it's a myth. A total cop-out. A pass-the-buck from whomever you're talking to.

I've spent the last several years trying to find the Mr. Miyagi of my career, with no real success. I've sought out people and introduced myself, and I've found the same thing over and over.

The people with whom I hear an audible click, aren't very familiar with the eccentricities of my field. And they're wise, so they decline to give a biased opinion along the lines of what they would do if they were me.

The faculty in my field are

a) almost all men (mostly clueless about what it's like to be female in science, if not outright sexist)

b) mostly jerks (or insane, or both)

c) my age, and consider me competition


d) very old, and can't relate to me at all ("What are YOU doing here, little girl? Can't you find a husband?")

So I can't find mentors among these, and believe me I've tried.

Instead I've tried the approach of getting different kinds of advice from different kinds of people in other fields, to try to cobble some mentoring together like a patchwork quilt.

The problem is that nobody really wants to voice an opinion, but when forced to say something honestly, nobody really agrees on what I should do, so when I get conflicting advice it makes me feel even more conflicted than when I get no advice at all.

So I've kind of stopped asking for advice from scientists and career counselors... I'm still trying to figure out what I want, given that I'm pretty sure what I really want does not exist, at least not for someone like me.

I also learned that it can be very psychologically draining to feel undecided for a long period of time.

This was a major lightbulb for me, since I have felt a lot of doubt about my career choice lately, and I think it has been contributing to my feeling burned out.

And that is somewhat unintuitive. I always equated feeling burned out with working too hard for too long.

It turns out that it's more important how you feel about working hard, than how much working hard you actually do.

Oddly, when I heard this, it made a lot of sense. So it gave me about a week and a half of psychic freedom. I decided, okay, if that's part of my problem, I will decide to just go with this, at least for now. That is the healthiest thing to do.

But couple of weeks later, that wore off. My experiments haven't been working, and my advisor is doing the passive-aggressive dance again, and I'm back to feeling overwhelmed with doubt about whether I'm wasting my life and making myself miserable for no good reason.

According to one of the books I'm reading, you have to let go of your desire (check), anger (check), and fear.

Maybe it's about having a balance of these, because while I've learned to get some distance from my desire for something that I can't have, and anger about not having it, my fear seems to be rising in some kind of weird psychological compensation.

It's as much about fear for the future as fear that I've been wasting my time. Fear that I've already missed the one good chance I had, and if I knew that, I would stop torturing myself.

It sounds really stupid to write it that way, because basically what I'm saying is that I'm afraid of future regret. Which would imply, in a sane world, that there's still time to affect the future and avoid the regret, right?

I guess the problem is I still feel like I can't get control over the things that matter most to me. So despite all this struggling, I still feel like I'm bound and gagged and watching the train come to run me over, and I can't expect anyone to swoop in and save me.

Somebody hand me a blindfold. I can't watch this part.

Next stop: cultivating denial. I can't think of anything else to do.


In job search news: I found out that a co-worker had a faculty interview, only to learn that the school lost the funding for the position, so regardless of how the interview went, they won't be doing any hiring.

I suspect, from reading the Chronicle this week, that this scenario will repeat itself a lot this year.

I do think it's pretty ironic that, of all years for me to decide to go back on the job market, it had to be this year. I mean, that's pretty fucking funny when you think about it. And in a way it does justify my hysteria a few years ago. I felt like it was my best chance on the market, because it probably was! By that calculation, I've wasted the last 3 years as a postdoc being a miserable wreck and I should have quit then.

I have that thought a lot, actually. I think about all the chances I had to quit, and didn't. And I wonder why not, because lately the desire to just give up is overwhelming. What did my past self know that my current self forgot?


Political updates: Less than a week until the election, and I have to wonder if it's going to be the amazing panacea as some of my friends are assuming. It is definitely time for a few changes around here. I just doubt that many of them are going to affect my life directly.


Random movie recommendation of the week: Sister Kenny

About the nurse who developed what became western physical therapy while treating patients with polio. The doctors didn't believe her methods helped at all, preferring instead the opposite (immobilization). They even went so far as to say the patients she was able to make walk again had never been sick in the first place. One of my favorite parts: in the movie they use the terms "doctors" and "men" interchangeably.


Major blogging disappointment of the week: FSP listed different categories of university folks in a poll on her website, and wrote it like this:

•grad students
•undergraduate students
•staff (incl postdocs)

Please, go over there and tell her how wrong this is. And here I hadn't even noticed the way she lists us BELOW undergraduate students and in parentheses. That's another nice touch. Probably unintentional? But still, somewhat revealing how we rank on people's radar. As an afterthought.

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