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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At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Out of your whole post, the following is the most relevant question:

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

Well, think. Why?

If we accept as true everything you've said about your PI, your lab mates, etc., then one has to wonder why you would continue to put up with such abuse?

This is just like battered spouse syndrome. But you don't love your PI or your colleagues, and you're certainly not married to them.

Are you so desperate for tenure and an academic position?

It just sounds like you don't really care about your own welfare at a fundamental level. If you did, you'd have left a long time ago. If you don't care about yourself, no one else will either.

Have some respect for your own worth. The people you work with are assholes. They will always be assholes. They will shit on you for as long as you remain there. Fuck 'em and leave. I don't know what else to say.

At 8:37 AM, Anonymous figuring-it-out said...

hi YFS,

yep, my supervisor who did his 1st postdoc (biophysics) at the NIH used to say that they eat their young. and another friend at NIH said that her spirit was basically broken after all the intra-lab competition between the postdocs. what would you do to fix the system if you had your own lab? is fixing it even possible... it's like the whole climate change crisis. it seems overwhelming at times.

not that i'm thinking of continuing in academia, but ppl have said that the first thing that one should do going into a postdoc and perhaps intermittently during a postdoc, is to lay the boundaries with the PI on what parts of the projects you can take with you when you leave to start your own lab. did you have this talk with your PI? i'm sorry you're freaking out... your paranoia is obviously not unfounded.

and might i get one thing off my chest... i hate it when academics say that industry is all about money. i think academia is all about money too (course i was too naive to see this when i was a young impressionable grad student). more publications means more grants and more money, which begets more publications etc. they gotta sell their research just like they sell products/technologies in industry. same thing.

anyway, i hope the rest of the week looks up for you. and i'm glad you're letting off some steam and talking things over with a therapist.

At 9:05 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 8:07,

I know why I do it. I might not know what I'm worth, but I know my work is worth a whole lot more attention than it's getting. I've done it to give my findings a fighting chance of making a difference in science. But if nobody knows about it, they can't possibly know what they're missing.

I just wish that more people would realize how bad the postdoc problem is and make it a priority to fix. It can't go on like this.


Yes, I had this talk. As you might know, these sorts of things end up being kind of irrelevant. There is no way to enforce them. As a postdoc, you have very little bargaining power. And when you leave, you have no control over what your former PI works on.

I agree that the competition is one of my least favorite things. In this case I think the postdoc told me because, while he wants to work on similar things to what I've been doing, he feels the same way I do, that competition is destructive both to science and to the people doing the work.

What would I do to change the system? Well I've written about that a lot, but the main thing is, I would encourage work on novel ideas.

I think there are plenty of things to work on so that we don't have to all compete for the same projects, but only creative people are able to see that.

I think we have a lot of me-too scientists right now, and me-too science is rewarded over real novelty.

Mostly I think the hiring system is fucked up, the reward system doesn't work, and what we've ended up with are a lot of people who have tenure, who would NEVER be able to compete in the current job market if they couldn't rest on their reputations and the blood of generations of postdocs who died on their swords.

At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this has little to do with the substance of your post, but the first thing that occurred to me was how poorly it reflects on the scientist-practicioner model American psychologists are supposed to follow that your therapist didn't already know how "science really works." But perhaps she's not a clinical psychologist.

At 2:13 PM, Anonymous 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?

Competition is the bedrock of our system. Sure, there are enough unknowns for everyone to go do their own idiosyncratic thing, but then will we ever learn what we need to? Remember, we mostly live off of public money. And taxpayers deserve a return on their investment.

I'm not talking about bailing out simpering financial sector firms who used deregulation as an excuse to take crazy risks and line the pockets of their executives with platinum until the house of cards crashes around them. I mean real results that translate into tangible improvements in the lives of the taxpayer.

So you have to admit that there isn't enough money to let everyone do what they want. That means that we need the right skill mix in our workforce to accomplish societal goals. But there's an economy at play here, the workforce is really large compared to the number of people we need to manage that workforce. So we need mechanisms to get at least 90% of people off the public teat by the time they're 35 or so. A couple percent go on to become managers of this knowledge-creation enterprise and the remainder who stay in become the institutional memory.

So if you can't compete at the top of your niche, you will never move on to become a PI. You should take your postdoctoral experience as a signal flare, change niches now or pack your bag.

Of course if you are the voice in the wilderness and you are right, eventually they will come around to acknowledge that. How can they not? Truth has a pesky way of winning. But how much are you willing to sacrifice for that role?

How many stories do you need to hear about the lone wolf who was finally credited for their seminal findings. Transposons, danger associated molecular patterns, circadian rhythms, the Golgi apparatus, the importance of washing hands between patients. And you know that these are just a scant few of probably thousands of examples.

At 5:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MsPhD said: "I think there are plenty of things to work on so that we don't have to all compete for the same projects, but only creative people are able to see that.

I think we have a lot of me-too scientists right now, and me-too science is rewarded over real novelty. "

oh my gosh I just had a bitch session with a couple of friends/colleagues about this exact same thing yesterday. In national labs back in my boss' day it used to be you did your postdoc and if you didn't suck you then were offered a permanent technical staff position. If you were really good and had the personality or soft skills for it you would be a PI, if you didn't but were a good at your science you could work for a PI but at least either way you had a hard salary and the ability and resources to keep doing research. But now things have changed just like in academia. Our department has said for years that they are not hiring. which is why many of us are still postdocs. Yet, every now and then the higher-up department bosses will play favorites and go to great lengths to create new positions to convert relatively new and untested postdocs into staff. Even though said new postdocs haven't really done anything significant since they've only been here 2 years or were pretty mediocre, while those of us who have a longer or more solid track record are still being told there's no positions to hire us so we gotta keep being on soft money and lower salaries.

My friends/colleagues and I just realized that those other postdocs in our department who do get converted to staff, are those who do me-too science. Judging from the technical programs that get championed and those that get squashed in department politics, it seems our department is all about playing it safe and doing me-too science so you are guaranteed to churn out a lot of papers and not waste too much money. I understand that there is a place for such projects and that it is important work (and probably makes your postdoc stint a lot less stressful because you are guaranteed to get publications fairly easily), but come on, to staff the entire department with ONLY this type of research and ONLY this type of scientists?? But apparently this type of science/scientist is what gets rewarded over and over again while those of us who have more independent and bolder and riskier projects - even if backed up by concrete results published in high impact journals - get punished or given less credit.

it also surprises me that once these people get their secure hard-salary positions, you would think they would then have more guts to take on more novel creative projects at least to supplement their safe ones. But no, they continue with only more me-too incremental safe projects and go on to recruit new postdocs to carry on the tradition...

At 10:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since the postdoc came to you and told you about this plan of your PI, why don't you take this chance and prevent it? You could make a deal with this postdoc that he can pretend to the PI that he is working on this project, while deliberately not getting any results... I do not know what you could offer him for it, maybe you and him could collaborate on something else together? If someone played this style of politics on me like your PI does, I would play the same on them!

At 2:01 PM, Blogger C4 said...

I'm going to say something that people may not like...

We have FAR too many biologists.

Done. That's your reason and that's really all there is to it. Supply and demand. Post-docs can be treated like dirt because from a PI's perspective there is a never-ending supply of them. You want to be a high-level biologist? Good luck ever making it there because there are 4 times more people who will try to get there than there will be jobs for them. So what do all those "extra" PhD's do? They can get desperate and sell their soul to the system in hopes that things will eventually work out in the end. It might work, chances are it won't. Or they can help themselves and help solve the problem and DO SOMETHING ELSE WITH THEIR LIVES.

One thing those who provide biologists with their education are not particularly good at (but should be) is leading people to find non-research professions. There are plenty out there. I happen to be a bio PhD in a business-related position. If the economy wasn't quite as rough, I'd be earning upwards of 100k or more a year. Never did a postdoc, wouldn't need one, wouldn't care to do one. PhD-MBAs are incredibly valuable, yet there are very, very few out there. Not to say that business is the only outlet for us "extra" PhDs - I mean only to use it as an example - but there is no reason that anyone should feel compelled to sell your souls to the system just because your grad school advisors trained you to believe that it's your destiny.

PhDs - liberate yourselves!


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