Sunday, November 02, 2008

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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At 10:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in the same boat. I hear you. There are no simple answers, only gutwrenchingly difficult ones that leaves the palms sweaty. I kind of feel like this is the whole "do I keep waiting for the bus" scenario. I am waiting but not sure if it's the right move.

At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the first half of your blog, I honestly started searching through the postdocs in my lab trying to figure out if you were one of them. I don't think you are, but it's chilling that this happens all over academia! I've got my fingers crossed for you, keep doing good science and best of luck. ---a third year PhD candidate.

At 11:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That sucks. I've found that sticking to your guns about paper revisions/writing stuff has worked best for me (yeah, I'm male and going to just ignore any POTENTIAL sex-related issues). All of this is incredibly boss-specific, though.

One question:
"Oh and publishing my stealth projects from within advisor's lab? Forget that."

WHa??? You really keep STEALTH projects? Once your "stealth" (side?) projects start really working this is when you TELL YOUR ADVISOR about 'XYZ i've been doing on the side and ABC looks really cool, so.....' (etc.) That's how 1) you convey to your boss that you are a good independent scientist 2) show your excitement about work/science/etc and 3) show you are not just a pair of hands (undergrad/grad/postdoc doesn't matter if you are just "hands" are a different category from "potential PI" material in your boss's mind). Plus, if you have "stealth" projects your boss wouldn't know how hard your are really working (unless the PI reads lab books and MOST do. . .just FYI. . .)

Many of the best results I've had have been form side projects. This goes from "hey what about xyz reagent instead of..." to "bah, this sucks, I'll try blah BLAH today in a related but not directly kind of way". It sounds like your favorite/best work falls into these themes so why WOULDN'T you want to get your boss excited about it? Of course, publishing would be much easier if the boss was along for the ride w/ your side projects from when they started working well. . .

At 11:47 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 10:22,

That's exactly the analogy. I lived in a city where you could walk and end up with blisters, but it might be faster than waiting, and I always found myself in this exact same quandary. Do I walk or do I wait.

I like this a lot better than the "shit or get off the pot" analogy.

Anon 10:57,

Thanks for verifying that it's not just me (although I know it's not). I think a lot of people read my blog and think I'm an exception, but I don't think I am.

At 12:37 PM, Blogger Steph said...

With regards to my previous post, I don't necessarily think that postdocs have it better than undergraduates, I just didn't like that it seemed to me that you thought postdocs should be ranked higher than undergraduates, even in some list. I suppose you are right when you say it depends where you are.

At 12:57 PM, Blogger Diaphoresis said...

Sadly postdoc is a neverland where one is totally dependent on one's PI, evengrad students have more options. Reading your blog I feel you're very intelligent & analytical, life is too precious to be bitter, to be abused & exploited & to waste away hoping for what isn't going to be. Fact is, ther is a glut of scientists, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union & increased immigration from Asian countries, fact is, faculty positions are now completely determined by fundability & drug companies support research that may have real-life impact (ie, lead to drug discovery). You mentioned 'high-impact papers' unfortunately they are just that, many times it is the researcher publishing in specialized papers on some disease who gets the NIH grant (after all it is Natl Inst of Health, not Expansion of Knowledge). In fact I noticed MDs sometimes have an easier time getting funding b/c they have patient access, ie, their research have real health significance even if qualitywise it is less exciting science.
I know it is tough to leave bench research altogether, it becomes not just a job or a livelihood but a mission,but reality is in America nonprofit-making endevor is rewarded only for a few...I initially missed research but now when I see the impact of my work on real people in real time I don't regret the fact I'm not spending 4-5 years figuring how another growth factor activates another kinase...

At 1:22 PM, Blogger Paul said...

That does sound like a very difficult situation you are in.

-Burnout really sucks. I hope you get a chance to take it easy for at least a few days.
-I agree it is really frustrating how it often takes longer to write up and publish than it takes to do the original research.
-I've never experienced the control maniac PI. I can imagine it would be hell. I doubt I'd cope very well at all in your situation.
-I don't really see why you can't publish your stealth projects. I know it is probably frowned upon by PI but you don't always have to keep the PI happy. Can you define stake-burning? Has anyone in the group tried doing this?
-Final, light hearted and glib comment that is not meant to offend: They are looking for people in New Zealand. It's a wonderful country full of lovely and fun non-controlling PIs. NZ does really well on the Gender Gap Index. It is the highest ranked english speaking country (those damned Scandinavians really have their shit together). We could do better tho. ;-)

At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forgive me if I'm just re-opening the "lack of mentor" wounds, but is there someone else in your department, preferentially more senior than your controlling advisor, who you can talk to and whose opinion would carry weight with your advisor? Or someone in an office for "postdoctoral affairs" at your campus you could speak to about this, and see what they can say to your advisor's chair, to help with this? At my PhD institution, there was a full professor who gave up biology research in 1983 and switched full-time to medical ethics, partially because he was a gay man and he wanted to work on the sociological effects of HIV [he was not a molecular biologist, so could not contribute to the virology] and partially because he'd seen so many awful, unethical things as a scientist and chair of the department. He would deliver our NIH-required ethics training and tell us of these terrible situations, which included a postdoc advisor refusing to give his female postdoc any public credit for her work, and when she complained about this, he rescinded his letters of reference to the TT job SHE HAD ALREADY GOTTEN and how they labored to detenure this crazy professor. [Also of a PhD thesis where everyone in the room was forced to admit the data had all been faked, but the students graduated anyway...]

As a chair, everyone in the department knew he would be an advocate for fairness, and be willing to talk to (and have some degree of sway with) the other faculty members. If you have someone like this in your dept, you can consult with them, produce near-final drafts of those should-be-single-author papers and perhaps you can have the other person gently confront your controlling advisor. If the logic is presented with to the advisor, by an equal, that he could have a bunch of good papers (not C/N/S) with very little effort right now, and that the postdoc needs these (said by someone other than the postdoc)... it /might/ shift your advisor's perspective.

I will assume that the answer to the above question is "no," though I somehow keep hoping that the community of scientists who read your blog can stumble upon some magic solution that turns this postdoc around for you...

Paul's advice seems better geared for the tenure-track, when your productivity can directly translate into your published papers (or grant applications). As postdocs, you are too tied to your advisor for his strategies to be sure to lead to success... Diversification with other profs, for instance, could be seen as disloyalty by someone like Ms. PhD's advisor.

At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somehow when you reach the 5-year mark after your PhD and you're still a postdoc or in some other low-paying soft-money rut I think that's when you stop and reassess your life and where you're heading, and many of my friends decided it just wasn't worth it to keep trying because they didn't see that anything was going to change favorably no matter what they did, how good their work was (some had published first-authored papers in Nature and Science, others had brought in large grants under their own name) or even how well they tried to "play the game".

career success - or rather the chance to even have a career to work on - depends too much on your advisor, lab, or the people you work for. Their primary goal is to use you for their benefit, which often means keeping you down so you don't become their competitor. Even if they aren't that conniving, still their whims and idiosyncracies and style can cost you your career. The best thing is to jump ship and find the 'right' advisor. But that can be pretty difficult to do given how specialized we all are, and when it's this late in the game you gotta weigh if it's worth it or even possible to start over from scatch with a new lab and new advisor and hope it somehow turns out right this time (and what if it doesn't?) or just try to make the most of the current situation you're in and not get screwed over too much more.

as for me I've lowered my expectations to where now I'm just trying to not get screwed over too much more.

Good luck.

At 3:35 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I was just annoyed because the order made no sense, and because postdocs were lumped in with staff, which makes no sense. I wasn't trying to say anything about 'ranking', although I'm not sure how you mean that, anyway.


LOL, you're totally right about MDs having it better, at least in the current NIH roadmap I think PhD basic science is being systematically phased out. But I love that, how another growth factor activates another kinase. I'm totally with you there. I wouldn't want to do that, either.


Stake burning = everyone in my field would ostracize me and block my papers from being published.

New Zealand? I'll look into it.

But my impression from reading blogs and visiting over there is that the Scandinavians don't really have it all worked out, either. Those countries look better on paper but I'm not sure how they manage that because most all the women I know trying to work there, get grants there, or get a job back there are getting screwed over just like we do here.

Anon 2:08,

I have been wishing this were the case. We do have an ethics type person (two, actually) but so far as I can tell, there isn't really anybody above my advisor in my department or even on my campus who can/would make anything change for me.

I've been trying to think who else I could get help from of this sort, i.e. my advisor's spouse? If I could figure out a way to finagle that...? Meet other professors at international meetings or something? But it's just really hard to know who can really
a) be objective and see how it's unfair AND b) have a spine and/or enough "power" to help (whatever that means).

The few attempts I've made to ask for help from elsewhere have reinforced for me that you can't really trust anyone to keep their mouths shut with this sort of thing (unless you really know them already).

Even the ones who mean well can be really naive and tell the wrong person and, well, you can imagine what happens then. It all gets back to the PI even when everyone supposedly is just trying to help.

Anon 3:05,

Here's hoping we don't get screwed over too much more-!

At 4:03 PM, Blogger PhizzleDizzle said...

i am feeling your pain - my advisor doesn't need the pubs either, and i didn't think i wanted an academic job until semi-recently, and now i'm stuck holding a crappy CV. the number of times i heard, "well, i don't think you should submit that just yet...." has got me so depressed and upset right now....

At 4:29 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Does your advisor give you suggestions on what else you need to do?

Mine does this thing, says "Okay I'll look at it" and then two weeks go by and I hear nothing. Then we meet and my advisor says "Okay I swear I'll work on this." Then my advisor goes out of town for a week. Then I get some comments back but it's not done yet.

Rinse, repeat. Months go by like this. I don't have months to spare. Advisor pretends to know and care, but does not act like it.

At 4:33 PM, Blogger PhizzleDizzle said...

Not the last year it has become, "I want to submit to X, and if that doens't pan out, Y" and then he says, "ok, that sounds ok to me." finally - because he didn't before.

but when it comes time to submit (in my field it's deadline based, not rolling as in some other fields) he'll tell me he doesn't have any time to help with writing so i have to basically submit blind.

i like my advisor, but times like that, and times like now when i realize i could have had many more pubs if i had only pushed his reluctant butt into them, that i am pissed.


At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My boss says he will write paragraphs on yellow lemmings, pink parrots, and blue moons in my first authored (of course with a few of his token white male co-"author" buddies)... I get him a draft with "insert yellow lemming paragraph here" comments.... no reply. crickets. 3 times in 2 years. No papers submitted with him.

He's a tenured slack of epic proportions and he's said to me before that he only needs 1 paper a year for his CV... which explains why his last 3 grad students took 6, 7, and 7 years to finish and between them have 3 papers in shit journals.

I submitted a solo paper unrelated to his shit a few months ago to a fav journal in my field and got a PNAS paper from some of my dissertation work... now the genius of a boss thinks I will JUST FOR KICKS write up his SHIT (unrelated to my work and I'm teaching new classes this semester and next for extra money because he pays me peanuts). He's all of a sudden in a tizzy that he won't get his required 1 (ONE!!!!) paper next year because he doesn't have anything in the journal hopper. If I could say it to his face what I'm really thinking, it would sound something like "bite me" and look like a smile.

My PhD advisor did a sabbatical in New Zealand.... he's been telling me for years that I would love it there. He considered taking a director position there... his kids were a bit unhappy at the thought. It's been on my mind. And I am checking out every week... tired of waiting for a shitty bus to pick me up. I'm gonna throw someone in front of it one day.

At 8:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As another NZer I don't think it is any better there than anywhere else (sorry Paul). Money is generally very tight, and there may be huge demands on faculty in terms of teaching etc. I would check out any job requirements very carefully.

and I agree Ms PhD, being a female postdoc can really suck. Best wishes.

At 9:24 AM, Anonymous former scientist said...

Here's my advice:

1) Watch Shawshank Redemption, even if you've seen it 10 times.

2) Take Andy's advice: get busy living, or get busy dieing.

I found your blog about 2-3 years ago, I think, and I can see that nothing has changed.

If research is truly the only thing you think will make you happy, then continue to bang away, but realize your efforts may be futile regardless of how good you are. Haven't 10+ years of lab work taught you that?

If there is something else you can think of doing, I would seriously look into it.

I used to think that industry was great, until I worked there for a while. Not only is major pharma a shrinking area, but it is full of people who you will probably despise (i.e. people who did not and do not get ahead on scientific merit).

It only took me a PhD and 5 years in industry to figure out that I didn't care that much about research per se, or about discovering something. So I switched careers to IP law.

Can you imagine any other field, aside from science, where someone has so much advanced technical knowledge and experience, but gets paid $30-$40K? It's a joke.

At 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the author, I am the only female left in the research group (three female left out of frustrations of no guidance and preference of the advisor towards male students) of a very slow to publish advisor, who is never in office and students like me in my final year Phd has to knock on his office to just have the paper to be revised, painful process indeed- its not like am asking him to discuss the experiments, that has been down with collaborators and peers. I work hard to get my degree, I did all the experiments, write the journal paper with our collaborator, but then it ends up sitting in his laptop with no work. What should I do? I am in the exact situation as the female postdoc in this blog, and this is happening across academia. If this is what I got entering USA for a PhD, I might as well remain in my country. At least you get to see your loved ones.


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