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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At 10:27 PM, Blogger GirlPostdoc said...

I know first hand what happens when a PI favours one student at the expense of others. It totally sucks.

At 3:27 PM, Blogger Labness said...

Dear YFS.
You are entirely correct. I have only worked in research labs for the grand ole’ total of 6 semesters over the course of 3 years. I am, however, aware of the things you mention.
1. Undergrads are only interviewed by the PI (for a 2-semester-long placement with a Ph.D. student). Usually, said Ph.D. student does not meet with potential students. PI decides.
2. Non-social is not a problem, and may even help in those late evenings all alone at an instrument.
3. Everyone is in the lab to work and to learn.
I would like to discuss a case that is taking place in our lab right now. Undergrad Student is smart, but not experienced in any techniques (including making agarose gels). Dr. Postdoc directly supervises Undergrad Student while she carries out a small project for him.
Dr. Postdoc is a very outgoing, loud, and funny guy. He makes fun of everything and everyone. When Undergrad Student asks questions, Dr. Postdoc will answer and explain as much as is required. But only after he makes fun of Undergrad Student’s memory/skills/knowledge. Undergrad Student is aware that Dr. Postdoc is just joking, and that it’s just part of Dr. Postdoc’s personality – he treats everyone the same way. After a few puns, he will sit down and explain the answer in a hundred different ways, until it’s understood.
Undergrad Student is not used to such interpersonal relationships, and avoids asking questions. Instead, she asks a Ph.D. student from our lab (who does not joke around in the same way). This affects the entire lab in several ways.
• Undergrad Student will ask fewer questions (and either make mistakes, or have a poor understanding of her project).
• Dr. Postdoc will not know what is unclear to Undergrad Student.
• Ph.D. student will have to answer to both her own student’s and Undergrad Student’s questions. This takes a lot of time.
What may have been helpful in this situation is if the PI had at least let the potential students meet several Ph.D. students who would be supervising them.
Or, should Dr. Postdoc change his style (with which nobody else seems to have a problem)?
Overall, I think that some choice in the matter should be given even to undergrads who are there for a short time.

At 7:58 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

The Boss kept us grad students sort of in the mix during interviews of potential postdocs. We all had to go to the candidate's talk, and then the senior group members were divvied up into meal slots. (tasty) If the postdoc had project interests that matched ours, then we would meet with them for 30 min individually (or so).

It was exhausting! You put forth effort during the interview, only to have them choose another lab. Or, you put forth no effort during their interview, and they come...and they suck. Sometimes I really WISHED The Boss would have left us more out of the process!

At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

totally agree. I also want to say that a lot of the time, aggressiveness is due to insecurity not to confidence.

Aggressive people annoy me because it is so unnecessary. You can be direct and rigorous in challenging other people's work without also being rude. My pet peeve is being openly sneered at when I'm giving a talk. (don't know about your field but in some fields of physics it seems to be pretty common). A colleague of mine left research entirely during our postdoc because she couldn't take this kind of open hostility anymore. I have to admit it still makes me angry when I encounter it and I tend to dish it back on the spot which may make me come across as a b!tch if I'm a presenter.

Recently I gave a poster at a symposium and this one guy was really rude. I was having a very interesting technical discussion with a group of people at my poster when this guy suddenly barged in, interrupted our discussion and started heckling me. When I started to answer his questions, he would cut me off mid-sentence and continue with his loud heckling and jeering. It almost seemed like he was trying to personally harass me, yet I had never met him in my life (nor had I criticized any research group or anyone else's work in my poster or papers so I could not have made enemies that way...) His rudeness began to make me very angry so I raised my voice and started cutting him off in his mid-sentences too, doing the same thing to him that he was doing to me. That shut him up and he slinked away. (meanwhile the other people at my poster looked very uncomfortable)

I took note of his name tag so when I had some free time I googled to see who the hell is this brat who has no manners at poster sessions. Turns out he is some rising star assistant professor at a Big Research U and is doing some work in a competing technology. I can only assume his attempts at bullying was due to insecurity. It looks like are about the same age but he is far more successful and typical overachiever - more awards and grants and recognition, and he seems to be the golden child of his department. But his CV - on his department website - is also padded with the most minute of minutae. this to me speaks volumes. I mean, what does it say if someone still sees fit to list every award they won back in high school when they are now a star assistant professor, or listing every single journal they've ever reviewed a paper for, or listing not only their awards but also that of their students and their collaborators' students...this seems to be one highly successful but very insecure person to me. With such people, the more successful they become the more paranoid they get about protecting their success or image.

At 10:36 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I'm sorry to hear that. Yes, it does suck.


Dr.Postdoc should be aware of how his style is received. Clearly, if Undergrad Student is made so uncomfortable by it, and it sounds downright abusive to me, and he's not noticing or chooses not to modify it in any way, it will likely offend and annoy at least a few of his future colleagues/search committee members when he goes on interviews.

Please tell Undergrad Student this for me: THERE ARE A LOT OF LABS WITH A LOT OF POSTDOCS WHO ARE HAPPY TO TRAIN A STUDENT. There is absolutely no reason to stay in a lab as an undergrad where the person who is supposed to be training you is making fun of you (and it's not funny). Dr.Postdoc sounds like an asshole to me.


Yes, it is disruptive to our own research whenever we have to deal with these interviewees, and we rarely get any kind of thank-you (crappy lunches at the faculty club are not worth it!).


That sounds pleasant. When this has happened to me before and I was totally blindsided, it always turned out to be a competitor of mine or my PIs.

Also funny to note that when some men list endless minutiae on their CV, they're just being enthusiastic and thorough. If women do it, we look desperate and unfocused.


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